Thursday, October 7, 2021

‘Basmachi’ Now a Taboo Term in Central Asia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Oct. 3 – Russian and pro-Moscow Central Asian commentators are describing Uzbekistan’s decision to rehabilitate the anti-Soviet and anti-Russian movement in Central Asia after the Bolshevik revolution as inherently anti-Russian and have described these militants as “the Taliban of their times” (

            But such attacks on people whom those viewing the situation from Moscow’s perspective insist on continuing to call the disparaging term “Basmachi” miss two important developments. On the one hand, the word “Basmachi” has become almost taboo in Central Asia; and on the other, even broader rehabilitations are taking place and in prospect.  

            As Azat Akhundov, a Kazan orientalist, points out, “the very word ‘basmachi’; became taboo a long time ago. In its place is used the original self-designation of these people, kurbashi (‘senior commander’).” As Uzbek scholars say, “how can one call someone who fought for and defended his country” by the insult carried in the term Basmachi?

            Indeed, Akhundov continues, “in the majority of historical works published in the post-Soviet period, the Basmachi movement is treated as a national liberation movement … Its leaders were a kind of Robin Hood who defended the poor dekhkans from attacks by the bays and Russian administration” (

            More than that, these works blame Russians for using the word Basmachi and call for Russians to recognize that for Central Asians, those who took part in this movement identified themselves “as fighters for freedom, liberators of their Motherland from conquerors, and defenders of their land, faith and people,” the Kazan scholar says.

            In announcing the rehabilitation of the 115 “basmachis,” Uzbekistan President Shavkat Miziyoyev said that this represented a triumph of justice because these are “our ancestors who struggled for our national independence and were not rehabilitated. How many more of them are there? We must continue the noble work of restoring the honor and dignity of these patriots.”

            This wasn’t possible in Soviet times, he continued. “The totalitarian regime did not need smar people who would open the eyes of the nation and strengthen its self-consciousness.” But now, 30 years after gaining independence, Uzbekistan is ready to do more and honor those who fought for it.

            At the same time, Akhundov continues, what is taking place not just in Uzbekistan but across Central Asia is something much larger, a wholesale revision of how peoples there have been told to view their ancestors. The Turkestani jadids, Islamic modernists, for example, are no longer “enemies of the people” but instead “national heroes and leaders of the nation.”

            This trend will only continue and expand, and because Tatarstan was so closely intertwined with developments in Central Asia, it will affect them as well, forcing a revision of many Soviet-era understanding and allowing the peoples of both regions to gain a more accurate picture of their pasts, separate and together.  

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