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The Basmachi were anti-Soviet rebels in Turkestan between the Russian Revolution and the early 1930s. The term, derived from the Turkic word basmak (to attack or raid), connotes banditry and was originally a pejorative term used by Russians. Soviet scholarship characterized the Basmachi as mere brigands and counterrevolutionaries in the pay of British imperialists. Émigré memoirs and many scholarly works characterize the movement as a struggle for national liberation against a colonial power, although the extent to which participants overcame localism and factionalism is unclear. The Russian war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and subsequent events have renewed interest in the Basmachi rebels and given their struggle broader resonance.

The military humiliation and massacres that accompanied Russian conquest and occupation of Central Asia from the 1860s to the 1880s were still living memories in the region as Russia moved toward the revolution. Tsarist policies enforced cotton cultivation at the expense of food crops, permitted Russians to settle on nomadic grazing land, and encouraged the building of railroads and textile mills. All this contributed to dissatisfaction and fueled several major revolts, most notably at Andijan in 1898.

Some scholars date the Basmachi revolt to 1916, when rebellion broke out in Tashkent and elsewhere in Central Asia in opposition to the first nonvoluntary conscription of Central Asians into the Russian army. Despite the imposition of martial law, summary executions, and arming of Russian settlers, this revolt still simmered when the Bolshevik revolution broke out in 1917. Russian settlers completely dominated the Tashkent Soviet and other local soviets, so that Soviet power was largely identified as Russian power and fueled continued intercommunal violence. The Soviet destruction of the Muslim-led autonomous government in Kokand (February 1918) and of the Emirate of Bukhara (September 1920) also encouraged recruitment for the Basmachi movement. At their height in 1920 through 1922, some sources claim that the rebels had twenty to thirty thousand men under arms, controlled the Ferghana valley and most of Tajikistan, and enjoyed widespread popularity among the indigenous non-Russian population.

The Basmachi rebellion was never a unified movement. Lack of organization, conflicting agendas, and internal divisions complicated efforts to coordinate military operations against Soviet forces. Some secular intellectuals joined the movement (Jadid reformers, Young Bukharans, populist socialists), though Mustafa Chokay and other prominent figures kept their distance. Islamic ulama and traditional rulers such as the Emir of Bukhara played significant roles. However, the backbone of the movement seems to have been local village and clan leaders and in many cases actual brigands who terrorized Russians and Muslims alike. The most famous participant was the mercurial Enver Pasha, former Ottoman minister of war, who joined the Basmachis in October 1921 and tried to direct it toward a pan-Turkic and pan Islamic vision before his death in a skirmish with Russian forces in July 1922.

The Soviet campaign against the Basmachi was largely successful by 1924, although some groups remained active in mountainous border regions near Afghanistan until the early 1930s. The Soviets benefited from a better armed and more disciplined military force; they also learned to deploy Tatar and Central Asian soldiers so the army would not appear solely Russian. Concessions encouraged defections from Basmachi ranks: The Soviets coopted Central Asians into state institutions, reopened closed markets, promised land reform, granted food and tax relief, relaxed anti-Islamic measures, and generally promoted the return of stability and prosperity under the New Economic Policy reforms. Eventually, Russian cultivation of good relations with Afghanistan denied the Basmachis a cross-border refuge.

See also: afghanstan, relations with; central asia; ferghana valley; islam; nationalism in the soviet union


Fraser, Glenda. (1987). "Basmachi." Central Asian Survey 6(1):1-73 and 6(2):742.

Lorenz, Richard. (1994). "Economic Bases of the Basmachi Movement in the Farghana Valley." In Muslim Communities Reemerge: Historical Perspectives on Nationality, Politics, and Opposition in the Former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, ed. Edward Allworth. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Marwat, Fazal-ur-Rahim Khan. (1985). The Basmachi Movement in Soviet Central Asia: A Study in Political Development. Peshawar: Emjay Books International.

Olcott, Martha. (1981). "The Basmachi or Freeman's Revolt in Turkestan, 191824." Soviet Studies 33: 352369.

Paksoy, H. B. (1991). "'Basmachi': Turkistan National Liberation Movement, 1916-1930s." In Modern Encyclopedia of Religions in Russia and the Soviet Union 4: 520. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press.

Daniel E. Schafer