Skip to Content

The Central Asian Holocaust of the First World War

Way back in the Socialist Standard of August 1918 we referred to a 'Mr. Price from Russia itself, in his article in the Manchester Guardian for November 28th , 1917, where he describes the cold-blooded slaughter of 500,000 Khirgiz Tartars by the Czar’s Government in 1916. And he caustically remarks: “While Western Europe has heard about Armenian massacres, the massacre of the Central Asian Moslems by the Tsar’s agents has been studiously hidden.”'

Under Tsarist Russian rule, Turkestan was converted to a major cotton-growing region. Cotton cultivation was imposed to compensate for the loss of the US cotton supply in the 1860s due to the American Civil War. The resulting economic development brought some small-scale industry to the region, but the native people of Turkestan were worse off than their Russian counterparts, and the new wealth from cotton was spread very unevenly. On the whole, living standards did not improve, and many farmers became indebted. Cotton price fixing during the First World War made matters worse, a large, landless rural proletariat soon developed, gambling and alcoholism became commonplace, and crime rose considerably. Historian Togan wrote 'after the proliferation of cotton planting in Ferghana [imposed by the Tsarist state at the expense of cereal cultivation] the economic conditions deteriorated'.

On 25 June 1916 the Russian Imperial Decree ordered the compulsory conscription to military service of Muslims in the Central Asian region of Turkestan. This was the beginning of the 'Basmachi' movement or the Turkestan National Liberation movement which was documented by historian and participant Zeki Velidi Togan (1890-1970) who wrote: 'Basmachi is derived from “baskinji” meaning attacker, which was first applied to bands of brigands. During Tsarist times, these bands existed after Turkestan independence was lost and Russian domination began'.

On 11 July 1916, the first mass protest meeting took place in Tashkent and Russian police fired into the crowd. Arrests and summary executions followed. The Russian settlers, who had been brought  into Tashkent some thirty to forty years earlier, began looting, apparently at the instigation of the Russian police. Protest meetings spread to Marghilan, Andijan and Hojend; attacks on Tsarist officials took place in Akkurgan, Akmesjid and Kanjagali. The people of Jizzakh destroyed the railroad at several points. In the middle of August the resistance spread to Ashkhabad, Mervto Akmola, Turgay, Yedisu, Karakul and Chu basin.

The Imperial Russian state declared martial law in Turkestan, and as a concession announced a lower quota of workers to be conscripted under the 25 June decree. Russian generals Kuropotkin and Kalbovo armed the Russian settlers in Central Asia to act as additional military units to reinforce their existing and well-armed regular forces. Russian generals Ivanov and Rynov moved all their forces against Jizzakh. Fully equipped Russian regiments under General Madridov attacked the people of Khiva region, and according to eyewitnesses, massacred even babies in the cradle. Those who were not killed were stripped of their all possessions. Contemporary reports estimated that between 25 June 1916 and October 1917, some 1.5 million Turkic peoples were killed by the Russian forces and settlers. At least half of the Central Asian livestock was destroyed and an inestimable amount of personal property was looted by the Russian military forces and settlers.

Amadeo Bordiga once pointed out that extermination of peoples 'occurred not at a random moment, but in the middle of a crisis and an imperialist war. It is thus from within this gigantic enterprise of destruction.' This can be seen in the midst of the First World War with the Ottoman Empire's genocide of 1.5 million Armenian people but also the 'Central Asian Holocaust of the Turkic Peoples'.

STEVE CLAYTON