Friday, March 23, 2018

Centenary of Russian Civil War May Create More Problems for Moscow than Did That of 1917

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 23 – Many people assume the Kremlin dodged a bullet by getting through last year, the centenary of the two 1917 revolutions, without that historical event opening too many old wounds and deepening the divides about that event which still exist within Russian society. 

            But in doing so, they generally forgot that Moscow must now cope with the centenary of the Russian Civil War, an event that in many parts of the empire revealed even deeper splits than did the revolutions themselves and on that lasted one year but three or far more depending on which part of the country one is talking about.

            Articles and books about the Russian Civil War are beginning to appear, and yesterday the Fergana News Agency published a discussion of one aspect of that conflict: the Basmachi movement in Central Asia, the anti-Soviet and anti-Russian movement that challenged Russian control of that region throughout the 1920s and in some places into the 1930s and 1940s as well.

            In an article entitled “One – Basmach, Two – Basmach. In Kyrgyzstan, the Local Heroes of the Civil War are Again Being Recalled,” Abdumomun Mamaraimov says that scholars in that republic are beginning to prepare papers and host conferences on a group that in the past Moscow invariably denounced as reactionary (

            According to Mamaraimov, “the Basmachi in Kyrgyzstan have sparked a public discussion in which many are challenging the still dominant Soviet view of the Basmachi.  Far from everyone has a negative attitude about the Basmachi. “Some see in the participants of the Basmachi movement patriots and defenders who gave their lives for their native land.”

            Some Basmachi fought for religious reasons – many initially called themselves muhajidin – and some for ethnic reasons – they fought for those of the region against the Russians. They came from all classes of the local population, and they fought well, enjoying for many years enormous local support. Had it been otherwise, they would have been easily defeated.

            The Basmachi came into existence in response to Soviet excesses, including the brutal suppression of the Kokand autonomy, the Fergana News journalist says; and their resistance forced the Soviets to change their policies and ultimately offer the local people national republics and a less repressive environment at least initially.

            The Basmachi movement was very complex as was the military situation it found itself in. One longtime student of the movement, Almas Turdumamatov, says that people fought “from despair. Each then had his own war,” something that is obscured by a class approach to what happened.

            Another scholar, Zukhra Altymyshova, says that “the war of the local population against Soviet power was provoked by the colonizing policy of Russia,” an assessment very much at odds with what Moscow and many in Bishkek would prefer.  More such judgments are likely to emerge in the coming months and years.

            According to Kyrgyz historian Muratbek Imankulov, “our goal is not to condemn oe site but to present an objective assessment of the events and their participants. We must draw lessons from this in order not to allow mistakes in the future.”  That reasonable attitude may frighten Moscow more than almost any other.

 (For a brief introduction to the subject of the Basmachi in English, see Martha B. Olcott’s “The Basmachi or Freemen's Revolt in Turkestan 1918-24,” Soviet Studies, vol. 33, no. 3 (1981), pp. 352-369.)

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