Blood and Cotton in Turkestan

By Nick Rackers

In the midst of the Great War, a rebellion in the Russian colony of Turkestan broke out in 1916. Between World War I and the Russian Revolutions, the Turkestan revolt is often overlooked, but it changed the region forever. To tell the story of the Turkestan revolt of 1916, Professor Matthew Payne from Emory University in Atlanta gave an eye-opening lecture at Miami University on September 25. Entitled “The Other Bloodlands: Central Asia in War in Revolution,” the lecture was part of a series sponsored by the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies.

The rebellion did not happen in a vacuum, and to tell its story Professor Payne had to start a half-century earlier. In the late 19th century, the ever-expanding Russian Empire conquered the region of Turkestan in Central Asia. Encompassing an area that today consists of the post-Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kygyrzstan, Tajikistan, and southern Kazakhstan, Turkestan was home to some of the most ancient civilizations in the world. Located between India, China, and Persia, towns such as Bukhara and Samarqand prospered from Silk Road trade.

When the Russians began their conquest of Turkestan, they easily crushed resistance from the native population. What followed the Russian conquest was a policy of colonization. Like other European colonizing powers, the Russians ruled through local elites, such as nomadic elders or the qazis of the cities. With the exception of the protectorates of Khiva and Bukhara, as Payne explained, Turkestan was under direct Russian military rule.

The Muslim population of Turkestan was considered an inferior race, and Tsarist policy reflected this mindset. Indeed, the Russians considered the inorodtsy, or “aliens,” as the native populations were labeled, to be so backward that they were exempt from serving in the Imperial Russian military. While the Russian government was attempting to create an idea of Russian citizenship for minorities such as Poles, no such attempts were made to create loyal citizens out of the so-called inorodtsy, for they were viewed as irredeemable.

Not only were the Central Asian natives considered internal aliens, Payne noted, they were largely deprived of property rights. In the Kazakh steppe, where natives lived a nomadic lifestyle, their land was owned by the state, clearly endangering traditional life. Payne argued that two policies would have a lasting impact on Turkestan. First, following practices from other European empires, the imperial government encouraged Russian settlement of Turkestan. In segregated cities, Russians, Ukrainians, and Germans lived separately from the native Muslims. In the countryside, settlers dispossessed nomads of their land, and used native slave labor to build their homesteads and villages. By 1916, Russians comprised 25% of the population of Turkestan, transforming it into a colony.

Second, the imperial government encouraged the cultivation of cotton. In Turkestan, the local economy relied on it as a cash crop, leading to what Payne termed the “Mississippiazation” of the region. The majority of the Russian Empire’s cotton came from Turkestan, and little of the region’s arable land was used to grow food crops such as corn. As a result, Turkestan exported cotton while remaining dependent on corn grown in other parts of the empire. Owing to the segregated nature of colonial society, the majority of corn was consumed by the settlers.

These policies, as Payne explained, created a tinderbox.  In 1914, World War I broke out. As more grain was sent to the front to feed the Tsar’s soldiers, less was sent to Central Asia. What grain did arrive went primarily to the European population, further deepening tensions between settlers and natives. In 1916, faced with a manpower shortage and suffering from repeated defeats at the hands of the Austrians and Germans, the Russian military decided to begin conscripting the hitherto exempt inorodtsy of Turkestan.

The decision to conscript Central Asians led to a massive rebellion. Payne revealed how the Semirechye region of present-day east Kazakhstan and north Kyrgyzstan was hit hardest by the violence. The imperial administration distributed 14,000 rifles to European settlers, who massacred natives with near-impunity. Kazakh and Kyrgyz natives armed mostly with spears and swords massacred settlers, as well as destroyed railroad and telegram infrastructure.

The Imperial authorities and settlers crushed the 1916 rebellion with violence not yet seen in the Russian Empire. In July of 1916, Kyrgyz nomads attempted to flee through the Bedel Pass into Qing China. In what the Kyrgyz call the urkun or exodus, tens of thousands of Kyrgyz perished in the Tian Shan mountain range while trying to escape to China. Some estimates place the death toll of the urkun at more than 100,000.

After the Russian Revolutions in 1917, Payne concluded, the Tashkent Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies took control. Excluding local Muslims of Tashkent, the Tashkent Soviet consisted of the same European settlers and soldiers who had put down the rebellion only a year before. As a result, the Tashkent Soviet merely continued brutal colonial policies, only with the language of class struggle. The majority of workers in Tashkent were of Russian rather than of Muslim background, and thus the Muslim population was repressed as non-proletarian “class enemies.” The worst abuses of the Tashkent Soviet ended after the arrival of Soviet general Mikhail Frunze, himself a descendent of settlers born in Semirechye.

By the end of the Russian Civil War, massacres, famine, and warfare had killed 1.5 million natives out of a population of 7 million. During the early Soviet era, Turkestan was effectively decolonized. The vast territory of Turkestan was divided into several Soviet Socialist Republics, and publication of newspapers and journals in local languages was encouraged. After the death of Vladimir Lenin and the rise of Joseph Stalin, more lenient early Soviet policies were reversed. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union have Central Asians begun to discuss and commemorate the suffering they endured during colonial rule.

Nick Rackers is a Junior majoring in Political Science with a minor in Russian Studies.

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