Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

The revolution and after

By Paul Bergne, The Birth of Tajikistan

The revolutionary period had been a miserable time for the Central Asians. The local population had been decimated by a series of catastrophes. In 1916, the imperial government, desperate to free Russian soldiers from auxiliary service to strengthen the combat units fighting against Germany, issued a decree mobilising the Central Asians, who until then had been exempt from military service.
Although the mobilisation was not for enlistment in fighting units, the move was interpreted locally as both a betrayal and a threat. Particularly in Semirechye, Russian encroachment on Kazakh and Kyrgyz land had anyway raised resentment there to fever-pitch.

Disturbances in Khojand and Jizzakh developed into a full-scale uprising which then spread to Semirechye. Russian and local officials of the imperial government, as well as Russian settlers, were attacked and killed. Russian troops were dispatched to bring the situation under control, while Russian settlers organised themselves into self-protection vigilante groups. By the time order was restored, some 3000 Russians had been killed. The Central Asian, especially Kyrgyz, losses were far higher. Exact figures are not available but according to some estimates the population of Turkestan fell by 275,000 during this period, while another 300,000 are thought to have fled to China.

Hard on the heels of the 1916 uprising and its consequences came the Bolshevik revolution, misguided Soviet agricultural policies and the civil war, aggravated by the Basmachestvo. By the winter of 1919, Turar Ryskulov,1 the Kazakh Bolshevik, reckoned that half the population of Turkestan was starving. The imperial Russian government's emphasis on cotton cultivation had made the region fatefully dependent on Russia for grain, which could not be delivered once communications with Central Asia were cut off by the White Armies. In Bukhara, the Amir's boycott of trade with the new TASSR devastated his country's rural economy. The civil war had also decimated the livestock population. Throughout the first half of the 1920s, famine continued to plague the region, along with typhus and malaria. Even in the winter of 1923, Soviet investigators estimated that in the Ferghana Valley 400,000 people were starving.

The disruption in communications that had interrupted grain deliveries had also prevented Moscow exercising strict control over political developments. Initially, in 1917, the local Soviet regime, dominated as it was by Russians, seemed determined to exclude the locals  from government and behaved towards them with intolerance and even brutality. In his report to the Presidium of the All-Russian  Central Executive Committee, about the situation in Turkestan, I.A. Alkin was later to write:

In the early days, as a result of a distortion of Party policy in Turkestan, the local population was not permitted to enter the organs of Soviet power or the Red Army . . . this forced them to the conclusion that they were regarded as untrustworthy and that the European population, in the accustomed fashion, intended as before to lord it over them".

By mid-1919, P.A. Kobozev, the Chairman of the TASSR, which had been set up in April 1918 to replace the Governorate-General of the same name, decided with Moscow's agreement to open up the Communist Party to locals. The result was a flood of new Central Asian members who swiftly began to exert a profound influence on the direction of party policy. At the 5th Regional Congress of the Party held in January 1920, the locals secured a majority in the Party's so-called Muslim Bureau and, in conjunction with the Third Conference of Turkic Communists, voted to turn the TASSR into an Autonomous Turkic Republic. Parallel with this decision, they created a new Turkic Communist Party whose aim was the unification of all the Turkic peoples of Central Asia in a new communist but Turkic state.

This tendency was mainly led by Turkic Communist Party members who had been close to the Jadid movement and had been influenced by the same pan-Turkic ideals - people such as Turar Ryskulov, Tursun Khojaev and the Bashkir Zaki Validi Togan. There was no room in these leaders' thinking for Tajik national aims. This was the situation when a so-called "Turkkommissiya" (Turkestan Commission) was dispatched by Moscow to the Turkestan ASSR in late 1919 to tackle the problem of Russian chauvinist attitudes, which had been reported as prevalent in the Communist Party. On arrival, however, the Commission discovered that Russian chauvinism was not the only problem with which they had to deal.

The Party was being infiltrated by an ideological tendency amongst local members, which, preaching as it did the need for an alliance with the (Turkic) nationalist bourgeoisie ran directly contrary to Lenin's ideas. Such had been the ignorance in Moscow of the true situation developing in Turkestan that the centre had failed to grasp this danger.

It was not until 1920, when the civil war was all but won and the position of the Soviet government throughout the whole former Russian empire had stabilised, that Lenin was able to devote more time to Central Asia. A re-staffed Turkestan Commission headed this time by the senior Bolshevik M.V. Kaganovich and with Georgyi Safarov and the Latvian Communist Yakov Peters5 as members, was dispatched to purge the local party of Turkic nationalist elements.

In theory at least, the TASSR undertook to protect the rights of ethnic minorities through a People's Commissariat for nationalities (Narkomnats). A statute issued on 16 January 1918 entitled "On the Regional Commissariat for National Affairs", declared that all the nationalities of the Turkestan ASSR had the right to appoint representatives to departments dealing with national affairs and to the above-mentioned People's Commissariat. In accordance with this statute, national departments were indeed established in this People's Commissariat, departments for the Uzbek, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Azerbaijani, Armenian, Tatar, Persian, Ukrainian, Jewish and Bukhara Jewish communities.6 No mention was made of the Tajiks, despite their well-known presence as one of the two or three leading elements in Central Asian society. Even the new TASSR constitution, approved in September 1920, seemed skewed against the Tajiks.

As Bartol'd put it "When the Constitution of the Turkestan Republic was confirmed in 1920, only the Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Turkmen were recognised as indigenous peoples. The most ancient of the inhabitants of the region, the Tajiks, were forgotten."

The question arises as to whether the Turkestan government intended that the cultural interests of the Tajik community should be taken care of under the provisions made for the "Persian" community whose existence was mentioned in the statute. Some modern Tajik historians are inclined to treat such a suggestion with derision, pointing out that, by the "Persian" community, Tashkent meant the small group of Persian-speaking Shi'is, most of whom had migrated to Turkestan from Merv in 1785. In that year, the Bukharan Mangit general Ma'sum Khan had attacked the Persian Qajar governor there and laid waste the city by destroying the famous Sultan Band dam on the Murghab river on which the city's agricultural prosperity depended.

A closer examination of the situation suggests that, while exclusive pan-Turkic nationalism may have been the "leitmotif" of social and ethnic politics in the Turkestan ASSR, the exclusion of the Central Asian Sunni Tajiks may have had as much to do with the Sunni Tajiks' own reluctance to associate with the "Persian" or "Ironi" community described above, as with any official desire to sideline the Tajiks. As immigrants and religious outsiders, indeed heretics, the Shi'i "Ironi" community was at the bottom of the social pile and thus a natural recruit to the Bolshevik cause. It was not surprising that it was an Ironi, Sayyid Reza Alizodeh (1887-1938), from the Ironi district of Bogh e Shemol in Samarkand, who started the first Persian language newspaper Sho'leh ye Enqelob (Flame of the Revolution) in the TASSR on 10 April 1919.

When an instruction arrived from the Communist Party centre in Tashkent in May 1919 ordering the formation of a "Persian Section" of the party, Sho'leh ye Enqelob carried a notice on 15 May with the following text:

The Persian section [shu'beh ye fars], i.e. Ironi, Afghon, Tojik, which has been opened in our centre Tashkent in the Commissariat for National Affairs, has just sent a telegram to the Samarkand Commissariat and proposed the opening of such a section in our government office. Moreover, it recommends the opening of schools, clubs, reading rooms as well as the printing and publishing of literature for the "Fors" and in the Forsi language. In the name of all our Forsi-speaking brothers we  express our gratitude from the bottom of our hearts. The Persian Section was duly founded in July 1919 and its head was Alizodeh.

Neither this section nor the various Ironi institutions that were set up in Samarkand in those years enjoyed much success. There was the "Anjoman e muovenat e ironion" (Society for Assistance to Iranians) and the "Anjoman e donesh e Forsiyon" (Society for the Persians' Knowledge). Neither got off the ground. In "Sho'leh ye Enqelob" for 20 August 1919, Alizodeh complained that his efforts to establish a "Persian nation" on the basis of language had been fruitless. By October of that year, the local Samarkand Party Committee could no longer afford to support the newspaper Sho'leh ye Enqelob and it was obliged to close. It had never reached the circulation of 1000 readers required to break even. However, barely had it ceased to appear when it received a new lease of life. In the very same month of November 1919, the Turkommissiya set up by Lenin arrived in Tashkent. As part of their programme to put some life into the revolutionary movement and attract more members to the Party, the Turkkommissiya revived the newspaper.

In its first incarnation, the paper had had very few writers and Alizodeh was obliged to write most of the articles under different names. The second time around, the leading Persian-language writers of the day, who were later to become lynch-pins in the development of the new Tajik linguistic identity, Hoji Mu'in9 and Sadruddin Ayni both took a very active part. Their work was encouraged by the Turkommmissya that visited the region in 1919/1920 and encouraged bi-lingualism as part of a plan to frustrate the pan-Turkic tendencies that the commission thought it had detected behind the local party's desire to co-opt the local bourgeoisie. However, in true Jadid tradition, these writers were active not only in the Persian but also in the Turki/Chagatai language press of the TASSR. Ayni wrote in both languages for the bi-lingual journal Kutulush (Liberation). The revived Sho'leh ye Enqelob continued to describe its language as Persian, but, unlike Alizodeh, both Mu'in and Ayni avoided appealing to any imagined "Persian nation" and repeatedly referred to themselves and their readers as "mo Turkestanion" ("we Turkestanis"). Despite this new initiative, the paper's popularity hardly increased. There were, at this time, numerous Turki-language newspapers in comparison with the single Sho'leh ye Enqelob in the Persian language. Ayni himself, like Alizodeh before him, complained of lack of interest in the paper and compared this unfavourably with the reaction of the Uzbeks to their papers.

Various reasons have been proposed to explain the indifference of the local Samarkandi Tajik population to the main newspaper in their language. The most likely seems to be that the local Sunni Tajiks simply did not wish to follow the lead given by a despised group of Shi'i Ironi immigrants. It may also be that, as Lutz Rzehak has argued in his excellent study of the phenomenon, the Tajiks did not yet see language as an important part of their identity and were content to regard themselves as "Turkestanis" even if that meant preferring the Turki language which most of their literate members understood as well as Persian. Turkestani nationalism had as much appeal for the Persian speakers in the state as for the Turkic speakers. Ayni even wrote the words for a patriotic "Turan March". Some modern Tajik historians such as Rakhim Masov see the exclusion of Tajiks from the political process as part of an intentional policy developed by pan-Turkic members of the political elite in the TASSR, an expression of the Turkic ascendancy described above. In their view, this elite was determined, with the help of Tatar, Bashkir and other Turkic representatives of the new Soviet regime, and with co-opted Turkish prisoners of war still stuck in the region after the end of the First World War, to create a new Soviet but Turkic state in Central Asia on the ruins of the pre-communist structures. In his classic work on Soviet Turkestan, G. Safarov mentions the leader of the Turkish officers in captivity in the region, Effendiev, who became People's Commissar for Education in the TASSR and had a profound influence on the reforms in that field during his incumbency. Pan-Turkic designs certainly existed in the TASSR. Moscow had belatedly recognised this danger and the dispatch of the newly staffed Turkestan Commission was the Central Committee's answer to it. However, the failure of the policy of bi-lingualism was also due to the lack of solidarity amongst Persian speakers (Sunni Tajiks feeling antagonistic to Shi'i Ironis and Bukhara Jews) and the indifference of the Tajik community to the fact that the new message of Marxism was being propagated in their own language. As long as the Emirate of Bukhara existed, the Persian language retained a stronghold. But that reactionary bastion was soon to be overthrown.

In Bukhara, the question of ethnic identity did not exert much influence on the thinking of the Amir Sayyid Alim Khan, who was struggling to defend his country's independence against what he suspected was an unholy alliance between the Jadid-dominated pan-Turkic movement of Young Bukharans and the Bolsheviks in the TASSR. His fears were well founded. He had witnessed events in neighbouring Khiva. By February 1920, effective power in Khiva had passed from the Khan Sayyid Abdullah to a Turkmen warlord  Junaid Khan. Junaid's arbitrary rule had alienated the progressive element in society, led by the reformist Jadid-orientated Young Khivan group. By the end of 1919, the Young Khivans asked the TASSR to intervene. On 22 December, General Frunze, the regional commander of the Red Army, launched a successful attack and drove out Junaid.

Sayyid Abdullah Khan abdicated and the People's Republic of Khwarezm was proclaimed. The Amir of Bukhara will also have remembered that, in March 1918, the Tashkent Soviet had attempted to conquer Bukhara using a military force backed by members of the reformist Young Bukharan movement. That attempt had been defeated by the Amir, and the Soviets had been obliged to sign a humiliating treaty recognising the independence of Bukhara and even promising to return to the Emirate territories taken from it by the Tsarist government in the 19th century. This did not mean, however, that the Soviets had abandoned their plans to dispose of him.

Intrigues continued with the aim of radicalising Young Bukharans and undermining his government. In September 1920, the Red Army under Frunze invaded. Bukhara fell on 2 September 1920 and the Amir fled into exile in Afghanistan (in the imaginative description of the diplomat and historian Fitzroy Maclean, dropping favourite dancing boy after favourite dancing boy in the hope of distracting his pursuers). As in Khiva, a Bukharan People's Soviet Republic (BNSR) was declared within the old frontiers of the Emirate. These included the mountainous region of East Bukhara, later to form a substantial part of the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

In the new Bukhara, established on 20 October 1920, the Tajiks fared if anything worse than in the TASSR, although they constituted the majority of its population. As far as language was concerned, on 2 September 1920, the new government of the People's Republic, led by Faizulla Khojaev, declared Uzbek to be the official language of the state and instituted a conscious campaign to downgrade the Persian language. There was no provision for describing one's self as Tajik in Communist Party or Komsomol (Communist Youth Organisation) documentation. In the People's Commissariat for Education, headed now by Abdulrauf Fitrat, use of the Tajik language was punished by a fine. Paradoxically, Fitrat had been educated in the "Sart" tradition and his knowledge of Persian was at least as good as his Uzbek. Indeed, he was later to find himself one of the scholars chosen to adapt the new Latin alphabet for Tajik. His anti-Tajik policies during this early Soviet period would prejudice Tajik nationalists against his proposals.

Under this sort of pressure, combined with the influence of Jadid reformists, many Tajiks fell into line and went along with the programme of Turkicisation. In order to be able more easily to enter political life, many registered as Uzbeks. Those who did so  included leading figures like Ahmadbek Mavlanbekov and Abdulkadyr Muhieddinov, of whom the latter in particular was, as already described, to play a leading role in building Tajikistan - although much later. According to the Tajik historian Rakhim Masov, Stalin himself, in a conversation after the Second World War with B.G. Gafurov, the First Secretary of the Tajik CP, recalled that, in 1924, it had been the Tajiks themselves who had done most to prevent the formation of a separate Tajik union republic. Stalin regarded  Abdullah Rahimbaev, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkestan, as the most guilty in this regard. In 1924, at the joint congress of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkestan and the Presidium of the Turkestan Central Executive Committee (TsIK), this same Abdullah Rahimbaev, a Tajik, had described the population of Central Asia as Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Turkmen and "various insignificant nationalities". With the Tajiks' potential leaders in thrall to pan-Turkism, there were no voices to speak for a Tajik nation when Moscow took the step that was to determine the shape of Central Asia for the rest of the century and beyond. However, before addressing this step, it may be worth briefly reviewing the uprising which for a while formed the main threat to the survival of Soviet rule in the region.