1917 - The National Movement in Central Asia

Mustafa Chokaev

[Translator's note: Mustafa Chokaev (Chokay-ogly) (1890-1941) was born into an aristocratic family near Kyzyl-orda, now in Kazakhstan. He was educated at the Tashkent gimnazium, before studying law at St Petersburg University, where he was a first-class student. From 1913 to 1917 worked as secretary to the Moslem faction at the 4th State Duma. After February 1917 he was one of the founders of the Shura-i-Islamiya (Moslem Council) party. His political and journalistic work was directed towards self-government for Turkestan (the name then used to describe much of Central Asia). After the Bolsheviks took power, he was involved in anti-Bolshevik politics in Ufa in 1918 and in Georgia in 1919. He emigrated in 1920, and lived in Turkey, France and Germany. He died in unexplained circumstances in Berlin. This memoir of the events of the end of 1917 was written in November 1926.]

...Immediately after the soviets took power, members of the Regional Moslem Council travelled round the main towns of the Samarkand and Fergana oblasts. This journey clearly revealed that it was impossible to get popular support for a struggle under the banner of the old government. Any actions for the restoration of the Provisional Government, if they were to take place at all, could not be organised and had to be "on their own responsibility". In Samarkand, Kokand, Namangan, New and Old Margelan, and Andizhan they were given to understand that "the time has come for Moslems to come out openly with their own national demands". In Kokand, Andizhan and Samarkand in particular there was an insistence on the immediate convocation of a regional Moslem congress in order to work out a "unified line of national behaviour".

The clerics (who were socially conservative) in Tashkent proposed a compromise. At an emergency meeting they worked out a resolution with the following demands and presented it to the Turkestan Soviet Government.

The government known as the "Turkestan Executive Committee" should consist of three representatives of the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies, three from the city administrations, and six from the regional Moslem congress. The organ controlling the government, the "Turkestan Regional Soviet", according to the clerics' resolution and conference, should be composed of five representatives from the regional congress of soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies, five from the congress of city administrations and 10 from the Moslem congress.

In other words, the Turkestan clerics also recognised the new Soviet authorities in the centre, and only demanded an organ of local power for Turkestan "in keeping with the particular nature of the Moslem way of life".

It goes without saying that the Bolsheviks did not accept this proposal, not because it came from reactionary elements of the Moslem population, but because for those "adventurists and simply criminal elements"1 which had received indulgences from the Soviet centre, "the inclusion of Moslems in the highest organs of regional power was unacceptable" in principle.

Moreover, the "Appeal of the Council of People's Commissars to all Moslem Workers of Russia and the East" had been issued in Petersburg. ...

A bizarre situation came about: on the one hand power over the people of Turkestan had been given to the very worst local elements - "plunderers and oppresors" to use the official Soviet term. On the other hand - here was a call to overthrow that very same power.

Where was the way out? How could one overthrow a power based on masses of alien elements armed to the teeth? At the same time, how could one bring oneself to recognise a "typically colonialist power" of "criminal elements"?

The meeting of the Regional Moslem Council, with representatives of oblast and uezd organisations, which had been called in New Margelan (then called Skobelev, now called Fergana) resolved to convene an extraordinary regional Moslem congress, at which further lines of action could be finally decided.

The city of Kokand, the industrial centre of the Fergana oblast, was chosen as the venue for the congress.

The notice sent out to the organisations declared:

"The Provisional Government has fallen. It did not make it to the Constituent Assembly. Power over the people of Turkestan has fallen into the hands of the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies. The exceptional peculiarities of the psychology of Russian soldiers, workers and immigrant peasants in Turkestan constitute a threat to the peaceful development of the region and the fraternal coexistence of the peoples which inhabit it. The Tashkent Bolsheviks have openly and decisively declared against allowing Moslem representatives into the central organs of state power. The Regional Moslem Council, true to the Russian revolution's watchwords of liberation, calls on our Moslem brothers to take these events seriously and to send their representatives to the extraordinary congress in Kokand on 25 November, at which we, the Moslems, should have our decisive word..."

The composition of the congress was not restricted to Moslems. Notices were also sent out to non-Moslem organisations.

At preliminary meetings it was established:

1. That there was no chance of calling on Moslems to struggle for the restoration of the Provisional Government;

2. That it was impossible to reach agreement with the Tashkent Bolsheviks, as the personnel involved precluded any possibility of associating with them;

3. That it was impossible to form a common front with the clerics on the platform of their programme.

And finally, it turned out that the participants in the organisational meeting stood ("each in his personal capacity") for recognising Soviet power. However, it was decided not to put this question on the agenda at the congress, in order not to give the Tashkent Bolsheviks any grounds for claiming that Moslems recognised their, the local Bolsheviks' power.

After that the preparatory meetings considered the question of the political status of Turkestan in the new circumstances. Of the nine participants, one continually refused to express his opinions, one (the author of these lines) spoke in favour of creating an all-regional Moslem central organisation with the authority to enter into immediate negotiations with the central Soviet government on the question of organising an autonomous administration for Turkestan. Additionally I considered, that power in Turkestan should be based not on soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies, but on soviets of peasants' and workers' deputies. The exclusion of soldiers' (or Red Army) deputies was motivated by the fact that the soldiers in the Turkestan garrisons were not natives of the region and had no interest in civilian life in Turkestan; they could easily be swayed by propaganda inimical to the interests of the population. The experience of the preceding period2 had given us plenty of grounds for distrusting the "revolutionary fraternity" of the Russian soldiers. They had terrorised the Moslem population of the region to such an extent that many places sent in requests to "restore the power of the former police officers and volost administrations".

The other seven participants in the organisational meetings spoke in favour of proclaiming an independent Turkestan republic, basing this on the Council of People's Commissars' decrees "On Peace" and the "Appeal to the Moslems"...

At that moment the standpoint of the local Russian bourgeois circles on the situation in Turkestan also changed. The same Tashkent paper, which in September had been keen and happy to see the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies fulfil the same role as the "Russian field guns under the old regime"3 was now, in November, demanding sharply that in accordance with "the exact meaning of the Decree on Peace, Russian troops should be withdrawn from Turkestan, and the peoples of Turkestan be given the right and opportunity to decide, without the slightest external pressure or compulsion, the question of the form of their state existence..."

On the other hand, the settler-peasants had also been reconsidering their position. At the same time as their representatives in the Bolshevik-Left SR Turkestan Executive Committee were supporting a colonialist soviet power which had been cobbled together somehow, local delegates, concerned about the possbility that the Bolsheviks might be serious about their promises to liberate the Moslems from "those who had seized their land" and to allow them "self-determination in their own image", entered into "fraternal negotiations on peaceful coexistence and cooperation" with us.

The peasant settlers in the Semirech'e oblast began to favour unification with Siberia. That way "at least" they would avoid the danger of being submerged in a Moslem majority, if the Soviet government really were to decide to give Turkestan to the Turkestanis.

It was in these conditions of general vacillation that the "Extraordinary All-regional Congress" opened in Kokand on 25 November. Naturally, Moslems made up the majority of delegates.

It was only on the eve of the opening of the congress that I manages, not without great difficulty, to convince my comrades to remove the proclamation of an "independent Turkestan republic" from the congress agenda.

It was an immensely difficult and thankless task to speak against the independence of one's own country, to speak against your blood brothers being masters in their own home and masters of their own fates. It was doubly hard and difficult to speak against the independence of Turkestan at the very moment when a "typically colonial power" had taken over, when our fate was in the hands of "adventurists and purely criminal elements". But it would have been a most heinous crime to summon a completely unarmed people to fight against an enemy armed to the teeth.

Yes, we called the soviet power then established in Tashkent the "enemy of our people". I have not changed my view on the matter in the last ten years.

To enter into battle without the slightest chance of success, with no help of assistance from without would have been to push the people into suicide. This would not have been "insane courage" but an insane crime...

The comrades agreed.

The "independent Turkestan republic" was removed from the agenda.

As for the proclamation of Turkestan's autonomy, the congress was supposed to come out in favour of autonomy in principle only, leaving its actual implementation to a National Council to be elected by the congress. But just before the congress opened this last point was changed to grant the congress the full right to decide. ...

Having declared autonomy and formed a government, we were supposed to act accordingly. The people were expecting this of us.

But we had neither one soldier, nor a single kopek of funds.

We could not exist on voluntary contributions...

Without soldiers or funds our only source of strength was the moral support of the population of Turkestan. Not only the Moslems, but also other elements were on our side. Even if we had no activists among the Russians, there were very many sympathisers. Some Russians came to help us in our work, which we designated wanted to make not narrowly Moslem, but to embrace the whole Turkestani nation...

During the first days of December I was sent to Orenburg to the Bashkirs and the Kirghiz,4 which at that time were also setting about organising autonomous administrations from themselves.

I was also authorised to become more closely acquainted with the political physionomy of the so-called "South-Eastern Union of Cossack Voiska, Caucasian Mountain-Dwellers and Free Peoples of the Steppe". The reason was that this union had approached us, through the Orenburg Voisko, with a suggestion that we join them This suggestion had been discussed at the Extraordinary congress, which took note of it, and resolved to remit the question of Turkestan joining that union and similar groupings to the Turkestan Constitutent Assembly.

The interventions of the Orenburg Cossack circle at the Kirghiz congress5 and my short discussion with ataman Dutov exhausted any need for further investigations. On my return to Kokand (some time between 20 and 29 December) the Kokand government (the so-called Provisional Government of Autonomous Turkestan) resolved, having heard my report, that the question of the South-Eastern Union was finally closed and that it should not be brought to the Turkestan Constituent Assembly for consideration as the congress had proposed.

At that same meeting of the government it was decided to send the central Soviet government a detailed account of the situation in Turkestan and, if necessary, to send two or three people to Petersburg for face-to-face discussions.

Around the same time a congress of Moslem peasant farmers and poor landworkers opened in Kokand.6

The Tashkent Bolsheviks gave this congress such great significance that they sent one of the commissars7 to speak to the "Moslem proletariat" to explain and set out the national programme of the "Turkestan Soviet Government".

The arguments of the representative of Soviet power, which only one month before had regarded the participation of Moslems in the organs of state administration as unacceptable, could not change the attitude of the native land-tillers to the Turkestan Bolsheviks. They decided to appeal to Petersburg, to the Soviet government, proposing the abolition of the so-called "Council of People's Commissars of Turkestan", which was incapable of expressing the will of the majority population of Turkestan, especially its Moslem part.

The telegram sent to the central Soviet government, amongst other things, declared:

"The only legitimate authority on the territory of Turkestan is the Provisional Government of Autonomous Turkestan.

"It should be out of the question," the telegram continued, "that the troops introduced by the Tsarist government for the persecution and oppression of the Moslem population should continue the previous policy of hegemony and violence in Turkestan..."

The reply received from Stalin, the Commissar for Nationalities Affairs, was literally as follows:

"The Soviet are autonomous in their internal affairs and act on the basis of their own real forces. Consequently, the native proletarians of Turkestan should not address themselves to the central Soviet power with requests for the dissolution of the Turkestan Council of People's Commissars, which they consider to be based on non-native troops, but should dissolve it themselves, if the native proletarians and peasants have the forces to do so."8

... Stalin's answer compelled the Moslem masses to begin to doubt the sincerity of the slogans of liberation of the October revolution. Stalin's reply strengthened the "typically colonial power" of "adventurers, careerists and criminal elements" in Turkestan.

Stalin's reponse inflamed still further the rapacious appetites of the unruly soldiers, and granted freedom to the settler-peasants, who were already "lording it over us, as if they owned us".

A clash between the Moslems and the Russian Bolsheviks became inevitable.

Both sides began openly to prepare for the coming struggle.

On one side there were all the technical means of fighting, and the support of the central state authorities.

On the other side there was simply a hope that national spontaneity would prove internally cohesive.

They had the psychology of a victorious force, which had already ruled over us for half a century.

We had merely a national consciousness which was only just awakening, and the psychology of the oppressed which we had still not overcome.

How can battle be waged under such circumstances?

What were the chances of successfully defending our national rights to an equal existence?

All our attempts to avoid armed clashes in Turkestan had evidently been in vain.

We had rejected the idea of joining the South Eastern Union, which had promised us arms and forces.

Granted, it now appears chimerical, as indeed the South Eastern Union turned out to be, but at the time it appeared to be something real and serious.

We had turned down numerous offers of help from individuals and groups, as we did not want to find ourselves in the company of White Guards and counterrevolutionaries, who might have used us and our autonomous government for purposes which lay outside the revolution.

We considered ourselves obliged to the revolution for our very existence as a national reality.

Granted, we did not see the real face of the revolution we had imagined.

Granted, we saw only the grimaces of the revolution.

Granted, we had to drink from the cloudy and not always pure spring of the so-called Turkestan "revolutionary democracy"...

Nonetheless, to turn back to reaction, to the counterrevolution, would have been to return to the waterless desert, to that dark regime that had nurtured those soldiers who were robbing our brothers and those settler peasants who were lording it over our villages and auls as if they owned them.

Our political religion at that time was national reconciliation, fraternity between peoples. We knew and understood perfectly well that the so-called civil war, the war between social classes, would in the conditions of Turkestan become a war between nationalities, an unequal war between Moslems and Russians.

We were prepared so sacrifice to this god, idol and fetish of national reconciliation not only national maximalism and particularism, but sometimes even the elementary right openly to discuss the national question itself and to put it to the Russian democratic forces before the convocation of the Russian Constituent Assembly.

We went so far as to recognise Soviet power without qualification.

The only thing we could not accept was the power of adventurists and criminals. We could not silently bow our heads to the "typically colonial power" organised in Tashkent.

This would have meant voluntarily and openly putting ourselves in the position of slaves, and becoming objects for the gratification of the rapacious appetites of unruly soldiers.

And when the Soviet centre demanded that of us, there was no doubt in our minds. We resolved to oppose the plunderers with all our strength.

The whole sense of our political existence then, in January 1918, was to organise our national spontaneity and strengthen its internal cohesion. We had to prepare to resist not only passively, but also actively.

Our discussions with the Semirech'e Cossacks who had returned from the Caucasian front, which had initially augured so well, concluded in a completely natural fashion: having yielded to Bolshevik agitation about the "pan-Islamist danger" and a "holy war", the Cossacks put their arms at the disposal of the Tashkent government.

All we could do was play for time, but the provoked attack on the Kokand fortress accelerated the dénouement: during the night of 29 and 30 January clashes began between the "Kokand autonomists" and the Turkestan Soviet Government.

Who could have any doubts about the outcome of such an unequal struggle?

Within a week the city of Kokand lay in ruins. Around ten thousand Moslem corpses testified to our awakening and to the intensified measures of Bolshevik national policy in Turkestan...

The Kokand government fell.

November 1926


1. Here and elsewhere Chokaev uses quotations from the Bolshevik G. Safarov's pamphlet Colonial Revolution. The Experience of Turkestan. Moscow 1921.

2. The February revolution.

3. Chokaev is referring to an article in the Tashkent Courier of 5 September 1917.

4. Chokaev is referring here to the Kazakhs. In pre-Soviet times Kazakhs were routinely, and inaccurately, called "Kirghiz".

5. This refers to the Second All-Kazakh Congress, which took place in Orenburg on 5 - 13 December 1917.

6. This refers to the Extraordinary Congress of Moslem Workers, Soldiers and Peasants, held at the end of December 1917.

7. This was the Bolshevik P G Poltoratskiy, People's Commissar of Labour

8. Chokaev is quoting from V Chaikin's book On the History of the Russian Revolution (Moscow, 1922, p. 133).

[source: S V Tyutyukin et al., Oktyabr'skaya revolyutsiya - ot novykh istochnikov k novomu osmysleniyu, Institut rossiyskoy istorii RAN, Moscow, 1998, pp. 429-435. Endnote commentaries are adapted from those provided in the book by S M Iskhakov and V L Telitsyn. - Francis King, translator]