Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Window on Eurasia: ‘Basmachi’ Better Term for Those who Occupied Central Asia than for Those who Defended It, Uzbek Historian Says

Paul Goble

Baku, March 27 – “Basmachi,” a derogative term that derives from the Turkish verb “to strike out suddenly” and one that Moscow ideologists used to denigrate those in Central Asia who resisted the imposition of Soviet power there, could be more appropriately applied to the occupiers, according to a leading Uzbek historian
In what is slated to be a chapter in a joint Russian-Uzbek volume on relations between the two peoples in the 20th century, Tashkent historian Kakhramon Radzhabov offers one of the most interesting reassessments in recent years of that long ago national liberation movement (
Pointing out that those who struggled against tsarist and Soviet power never called themselves “basmachi” and that the Soviets employed the term only to blacken the reputation of those who did, Radzhabov argues that “it would be more logical to call ‘basmachis’ those who conquered a region other than their own.”
At the same time, he says that it is more “correct and objective” to call the popular struggle against the Red Army and its policy of conquest between 1918 and 1935 “an armed movement against the Soviet regime” “or “the struggle of the national opposition” than to continue to employ the derogatory term, “basmachi.”
Indeed, Radzhabov continues, “the anti-colonialism shared by all social groups and strata of the population of the region gave the armed struggle against Soviet power an popular and massive character and defined its place in the [broader] national liberation movement of the Turkestanis for freedom and independence.”
The fact that this movement which arose spontaneously across Turkestan in response to Soviet efforts to impose Russian control exhibited “a common set of goals, social bases, ideology and organizational forms” demonstrates that point, the Tashkent historian suggests.
On the basis of a careful study of archival sources and materials published inside the Soviet Union and by Turkestani émigrés abroad, Radzhabov offers five conclusions about this national liberation movement that are likely to inform both the work of other Central Asian historians and the views of politicians and populations in that region.
First, he suggests, “the armed movement in Turkestan kray against the Bolshevik regime was born as a struggle of the peoples of that region for the independence and freedom of their Motherland” and was in no way simply the actions of Muslim leaders or wealthy traders.
Second, he notes, the ideological tensions within the movement reflected the three ideological trends within the broader Turkic world of the time: an interest in uniting all Turkic peoples, a concern with forming a common Islamic state, and a desire to institutionalize a democratic form of government.
Third, he continues, despite the movement’s common goals and broad support, it was never able to create a single directing center, something that allowed it to fight for many years but ultimately prevented it from defeating the highly centralized and disciplined Russian Red Army.
Fourth, Radzhabov argues, Lenin’s decision to shift from War Communism to the more liberal NEP may have had a greater impact on the demise of the national liberation movement than any actions undertaken by Soviet armed forces because it allowed those who were tired of the struggle to reintegrate into their societies.
And fifth – and this observation may prove even more controversial in Central Asia than any of the others – Radzhabov says that the movement “ needed stronger ideological support than that which was provided by progressive groups there, the national intelligentsia and the Muslim religious leadership.”
Despite that, armed resistance to Soviet power lasted far longer in Central Asia than in any other part of the USSR, well into the 1930s and according to some reports even into the years of World War II. But lacking internal organization and external backing, the movement finally faded away.
“Not the least role [in this endgame] was played by armed bands of genuine “bandits, who are present in any war. Exploiting the instability [of the time,] they stole, killed and raped the peaceful population regardless of its ethnic or religious membership, political convictions or social status.”
The Bolsheviks and their local supporters, the historian notes, “without any justification” equated “these bands of criminals, on the one hand, with those [who were part of the national liberation struggle,] on the other, labeling “all of them without exception ‘basmachis’” – a practice Radzhabov clearly hopes will now end.

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