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BASMACHIS. The term “Basmachi” was applied by Russians to opponents of the Bolsheviks who were active in Central Asia between the Russian Revolution and the early 1930s. This name-as the character of the movement-parallels the case of the Mujahidin forces opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, whom the Russians referred to by the Persian word dushman, meaning “enemy”; “Basmachi” is similarly a pejorative term, meaning “bandit.” Like the Afghan “Dushmany,” those whom the Bolsheviks called “Basmachi” included a great variety of people who did not call themselves by this name, nor did they operate as a unified movement. The Soviet government was able to exploit internal divisions within the Basmachi movement to quell it fairly rapidly, once the Red Army had consolidated power elsewhere in Russia and Central Asia.

The roots of the Basmachi movement extend to the Russian conquest of Central Asia. Most of the region now comprised by the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan came under Russian domination between the 1830s and the 1880s. The native, overwhelmingly Muslim population strongly opposed the “infidel” conquest, but the Russians exploited military superiority and rivalries within the region to subjugate all opposition. Sporadic outbreaks during the tsarist period, such as the Andijan Uprising of 1898 under the leadership of a Naqsh bandi Sufi Ishan, were quickly suppressed. A more significant uprising occurred in 1916 when, hard pressed by the war with Germany, the tsarist government instituted military conscription of Central Asians. This, combined with a range of humiliating and impoverishing policies of the colonial administration, was decisive in mobilizing Central Asian opposition to rule from Moscow.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in Saint Peters burg in 1917, their counterparts from among the very narrow Russian immigrant proletariat established a “Soviet” government in Tashkent in Russian Central Asia. In spite of the Bolsheviks’ affirmed support for “national self-determination,” this self-declared regional government included only Russians. Some Central Asian intellectuals and reformers had considered alliance with the Communists in hopes that this would lead to autonomy within the new Soviet framework; however, the Qoqand government established in December 1917 by such Central Asians was quickly crushed by Tashkent Communists with support from Moscow. The Russian Bolsheviks in Central Asia entered on a campaign of seizing lands, looting the native population, and generally affirming their intention of maintaining Russian domination.

The leadership of the Basmachi movement, which derived its widespread popular support from the resulting hostility toward the Russians, was composed of the most diverse elements: reformists, including Jadidists and “Young Bukharans”; the traditional Islamic leadership, whose authority had been severely undermined by the colonial government; Central Asian rulers such as Said Alim Khan, emir of Bukhara; and even brigand-leaders of outlaw groups that had preyed on the Russian colonists and Central Asians alike. In 1921 Enver Pasha, leader of the deposed Young Turk government in Turkey, appeared in Central Asia, seeking to unify the opposition under his opportunistic leadership; however, the movement remained divided by leadership rivalries, and Enver Pasha was killed in a skirmish in 1922. [See Jadidism; and the biography of Enver Pasha.]

At its height (1920-1922), the Basmachi movement was in control of the entire Ferghana Valley, aside from Russian railroad and military installations, as well as most of what is now Tajikistan and some other areas. During this same period, however, the Moscow government established control over the Central Asian Bolsheviks and began to conduct a policy in the region that was friendlier to the Muslim population, reopening markets, returning seized lands, and encouraging native participation in state institutions. Support for the opposition was thus undermined, and military action was intensified now that other regions such as Bukhara and Khiva were under Red Army control. By 1924 the movement was largely crushed. The Soviet government was successful in encouraging substantial defections from Basmachi ranks and in winning over the populace simply by promoting stability and allowing prosperity under the reforms of the New Economic Policy of the 1920s. Basmachi resistance persisted only in the mountains of the southeasternmost region of Central Asia bordering on Afghanistan until the early 1930s.

The legacy of the Basmachis is the legacy of opposition to foreign rule in Central Asia generally: it has always been highly disorganized, deeply divided, and readily susceptible to manipulation by outside forces. The call for unity under Islam has not proven to be sufficiently attractive to a population that, when pressed by economic hardship, can rise up against the perceived oppressor, but that ultimately prefers compromised stability and prosperity.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus.]


Fraser, Glenda. “Basmachi.” Central Asian Survey 6.1 (1987): 1-73, and 6.2 (1987): 7-42.

Olcott, Martha. “The Basmachi or Freeman’s Revolt in Turkestan, 1918-24.” Soviet Studies 33 (July 1981): 352-369.

Park, Alexander G. Bolshevism in Turkestan, 1917-1927. New York, 1957

Pipes, Richard. The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1964.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/basmachis/

  • writerPosted On: November 2, 2012
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