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The 1916 Uprising

The economy of the Steppe was fast deteriorating in the years prior to the First World War. Land seizures were increasing. War led to the breakdown of the empire - wide market. Kazakhs and Russians alike were forced to trade their goods almost exclusively locally. This meant a sharp drop in the price of livestock and a variety of shortages. Kazakhs were 'requested' to make 'donations' of meat and hides and to provide horses to the imperial cavalry; in 1914 and 1915 alone some 260,000 head of livestock were taken with no payment. Taxes went up. Already by June 1916 the Tsar had called for conscription into labour brigades of the indigenous population, aged 18 to 43, to prevent the front against the Germans from collapsing. In Kazakh regions 87000 men were to be drafted from Jeti-Su, 60,000 from Syrdarya, 50,000 from Uralsk, 40,000 from Akmolinsk, 60,000 from Turgai, and 8,500 from Semipalatinsk. Mobilisation began with the dissemination of the ukase, and so too did violent resistance. It took some time for word of the conscription order to spread throughout the Steppe.

Organised open resistance began first among the southern Turkestani population. The uprising quickly spread, first engulfing Samarkand then Tashkent and Fergana. By early August the uprising had spread throughout the Syrdarya Oblast, and detachments of between 5,000 and occasionally even 8,000 armed Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks attacked Russian troops along the Tashkent-Orenburg railroad. Russian troops battled the insurgents throughout September in Jeni-Su.

Kazakh resistance was even more widespread and better organised. On July 10, Kazakh representatives from eleven volosts gathered near the ancient city of Otrar to organise their plans for concerted attacks on Russian forces. At this same meeting the Kazakhs also decided to send thousands of draft-age men into exile along lake Balkhash. Russian forces retaliated. Cossacks gathered from Perm, Kazan, and Saratov. The troops treated the native population of Jeti-Su harshly. Throughout September and October punitive detachments were sent from aul to aul to hunt out participants of the uprising and arrest draft resisters. In many cases whole villages were judged collaborators and all the yurts burned. The Kazakhs of the northern oblasts of the Steppe also offered substantial resistance to the Tsar's ukase. By mid-July disturbances had been reported across the eastern and the northern parts of the country. By September Kazakh resistance was fully organised: colonial officials in Omsk reported that nearly 30,000 Kazakh fighters were camped in the Akmolinsk region alone.

The Kazakhs made a major assault on the city of Akmolinsk on September 26-27, again on October 3-4, and a final attack on October 6. These attacks were repulsed by General Lavrentiev's expeditionary forces. Meanwhile the Kazakhs of the western Steppe had risen: in Turgai, Irgiz, Aktyubinsk and Kostanai. Beside the tribal figures of Abdulghaffar Khan, the key leader of the revolt in the area was Amangeldy Imanov (1873-1919), later to become the first Soviet Kazakh hero because he commanded pro-Bolshevik Adigei troops during the Civil War.

By October 1916 the rebel army numbered some 20,000 men, of which 5,000 were under Amangeldy's personal command and the rest under a group of allied commanders. He was responsible for the greatest Kazakh victory of the uprising; on October 23 some 15,000 Kazakh fighters surrounded the city of Turgai, cutting off telegraph and railroad connections. The siege did not end completely until mid-November, when Lavrentiev's troops arrived. The Russian army regulars launched a three-pronged attack on the Kazakhs and inflicted heavy casualties; by November 30 only about 6,000 Kazakh fighters were left.

The revolt proved to be very costly to the Kazakhs. For example, the population of the Jarkent uezd declined by 73 per cent in the period between the onset of World War One and January 1, 1917, in Przhevalsk by 70 per cent, in Lepsink by 47 per cent, in Verny by 45 per cent, and in Pishpek by 42 per cent.

Ultimately, the 1916 uprising accomplished little except, perhaps, that it signed in blood the Kazakhs' will to survive as themselves.