Centenary of 1916 Central Asian Revolt Likely to Worsen Region’s Relations With Russia

By Paul Goble
One hundred years ago next month, the tsarist administration—which had heretofore excluded Central Asians from the military draft because of its contempt for their abilities as soldiers—was forced by the exigencies of war to announce a draft in the most recently occupied portion of the empire for positions in the Russian military’s rear. That policy reversal sparked a four-month-long popular uprising in which tens of thousands of Central Asians died. But as a result, their sense of national and regional identity grew at the expense of any remaining loyalty to the Russian state. As such, the June 1916 revolt set the stage not only for the Basmachi resistance movement in the 1920s and 1930s but also for the independence of the countries in the region.
Not surprisingly given the centrality of that long-ago event for contemporary Central Asians and the Muslims of the former Soviet space more generally, scholars, commentators and political activists are beginning to put out stories about it. Such stories will inevitably have the effect of reminding Central Asians of the attitudes of Russians toward them and hence exacerbate feelings between the two civilizations. One of the most important of these to have appeared thus far is a study by Tajik historian Kamol Abdullayev, which focuses less on the conflict than on its meaning for today (Fergananews.com, May 12).
While Russia succeeded in crushing the 1916 revolt, he says, it did so only at the cost of enormous political losses. The suppression of the revolt did not strengthen the tsarist officials. Instead, it undermined the authority of those like the jadids (modernist Muslims), who had hoped to work with the Russians and be integrated into Russia on par with European minorities. Furthermore, Petrograd’s crackdown strengthened the influence of those who argued that the only possible Central Asian reaction to Russian rule was militant opposition.
The destruction of a role for the jadids was, in Abdullayev’s opinion, among the most serious consequences of the revolt and its suppression. It meant not only the intensification of national identities and separateness from a broader society but also undermined the prospects for a more peaceful and democratic development of the region’s societies. And that, along with the violence of Russia’s reactions to the revolt, highlighted not the strength of the Russian empire but rather its weakness and its fears.

But the very most important meaning of 1916—one that Central Asians will be focusing on now—he suggests, is that those century-old events represented the moment when the region began to escape its “subordinate colonial position” and become an actor with its own desires and goals that others had to take into account. Unfortunately, Abdullayev says, the divisions that existed among Central Asians in 1916 limited its development in that direction, just as the continued existence of such splits does today.