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Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha had risen from humble origins (his father a railway worker, his mother an undertaker's drudge) to become a leading architect of the Young Turk revolution in 1908 and head of the triumvirate which ruled Turkey during the First World War. Proud, glamorous, ruthless, he was a master of conspiracy and an erratically ambitious general. No one could predict him. An avowed republican, he married an Ottoman princess. He was rumoured the finest swordsman in the empire. But by 1918 he was in flight from his country, and under sentence of death. Lenin welcomed him in Moscow as a revolutionary tool, and in 1921 despatched him to Central Asia, where the basmachi guerrillas had been tormenting the Bolsheviks for three years. Lenin seems to have hoped that the reputation of the charismatic Turk would entice rebels into the Communist fold.

But Enver was dreaming something different: a jihad which would rouse the Turkic regions of Asia and weld them into a Pan-Turanian empire from Constantinople to Mongolia. The moment he reached Bukhara he escaped the city, went over to the basmachi, and proclaimed a full-scale holy war against the Russians. Messengers rode out to every guerrilla leader, urging their unity. He secured the support of the exiled emir of Bukhara, and arms and personnel from King Amanullah of Afghanistan. Thousands of recruits poured in. A shock of early victories, and the capture of Dushanbe, swept him to a brief glory. He declared himself 'Supreme Commander of all the Armies of Islam' and kinsman of the Caliph (through his wife), the legate of the Prophet on earth.

But now the battle-tempered Bolshevik war-machine steamrollered east against him. The ill-armed and disunited basmachi could not halt it. One by one their strongholds were overrun, and they melted away, while Enver's little army fell back on the Pamir foothills. His position was hopeless. He might have fled into Afghanistan, but flight was not his nature. Ten days before the end he wrote a farewell letter to his wife, saying that his men were being mercilessly pursued and could not adapt to defensive warfare. With it he sent a twig from an elm tree on which he had carved her name.

On 4 August 1922, while the Bolsheviks closed in, he celebrated Bairam with a handful of his closest followers in the village of Abiderya. Soon afterwards, as his outposts opened fire on the advancing enemy, he leapt into the saddle, drew his sabre and charged the Red machine-guns head on, followed by twenty-five companions. They drowned in a rain of bullets.

The Russians did not know whom they had killed. One of the dead, spattered by seven bullet-holes but still dapper in a Turkic jacket and German field-boots, was carrying papers and a small Koran. These they sent to Tashkent for identification, and left the bodies where they had fallen. Two days later a passing mullah recognised the corpse of Enver Pasha. The news spread. The villagers of Abiderya streamed out to bring his body back, and thousands of mourners appeared like magic out of the hills. He was buried in a nameless grave under a walnut tree by the river. He was just forty. Even now, it is said, on the anniversary of his death, the descendants of his comrades-in-arms come from as far away as Turkey to pay homage at his grave.

But confusion surrounded this story. Three years after his death an Austrian carpet-dealer, Gustav Krist, claimed to have spoken with the commander of the Red attacking force, who told him that Enver and his adjutant had escaped to a nearby spring, where Russian agents murdered them.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron


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