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The Basmachi

As part of the Russian empire’s thrust southwards, St Petersburg made the emirate of Bukhara a vassal state in 1868, which gave Russia effective control over what now passes for northern and western Tajikistan. But the Pamirs, which account for the whole of modern-day eastern Tajikistan, remained a no-man’s-land, falling outside the established borders of the Bukhara emirate and unclaimed by neighbouring Afghanistan and China. Russia was eager to exploit this anomaly in its push to open up possible routes into British India. The Pamirs became the arena for the strategic duel between Britain and Russia that British poet and author Rudyard Kipling was to immortalise as the ‘Great Game’, a game in which Russia’s players eventually prevailed, securing the region for the tsar. It was in the eastern Pamirs, after visiting Murgab, Alichur and Rang-Kul, that Francis Young husband was thrown out of the upper Wakhan by his Tsarist counterpart, sparking an international crisis. Russia backed up its claims by building a string of forts across the Pamirs, including at Murgab.

The Anglo-Russian border treaty of 1895 finally defined Tajikistan’s current borders with Afghanistan and China, marking the region’s closure to the outside world for the next 100 years.

The roots of the Basmachi lay in the forced conscription of central Asian Muslims by the Russian army towards the end of World War I. Treated like animals, the potential conscripts resisted, attacking Russian civilians as well as militias. The Russian response was brutal: whole villages were massacred and their property burned to prevent any survivors' return. Many more families died fleeing across the mountains to China.

The Basmachi developed largely as a Muslim resistance force against the 'godless' Bolsheviks. In Tajikistan they were led by Ibrahim Bek, a peasant who bore the mighty moniker Commander in Chief of the Armies of Islam. They were supported by White Russians and even British agents keen to stem the rise of Russian influence in central Asia. Bek's Basmachi ambushed Red Army troops with a large but unsophisticated guerrilla force. Every violent reprisal served only to swell his ranks with yet more disgruntled Tajiks, ordinary people who realised their lifestyle and livelihoods were under threat.

Following the Russian revolution of 1917, new provisional governments were established in Central Asia and the Tajiks found themselves part of first the Turkestan (1918–24), then the Uzbekistan (1924–29) Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs), despite pushing for an autonomous Islamic-oriented republic.

The next year Muslim basmachi guerrillas (literally ‘rebels’) under the leadership of Enver Pasha began a campaign to free the region from Bolshevik rule.  They overpowered the Russian garrison at Dushanbe and seemed a genuine force to be reckoned with.

Infighting and poor communication broke the Basmachi. The Red Army retook their garrison and began an effective propaganda campaign that suggested the Basmachi were Islamic extremists and backward. Running out of money and swiftly losing support, Bek fled with 50 followers across the river to Afghanistan in June 1926. When he returned to Tajikistan five years later, Bek lasted just two months: he was captured by local police, found guilty of armed rebellion and summarily executed. The Basmachi movement in Tajikistan died with him.