Evelyn Roy

The Revolution in Central Asia—The Struggle for Power in Holy Bokhara, pt. II

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 6, September 1924, No. 9, pp. 557-565.
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

[The opening section of this article appeared in the July number of THE LABOUR MONTHLY]

The first reaction to the Russian Revolution of March, 1917, in Central Asia was the publication in April of a Manifesto by the Mlada Bukharsi,1 in which a programme of reforms was laid down, including, among other things, the limitation of the authority of the Amir and a decrease in the power of his officials, as well as the granting of civil rights to the population. These demands amounted to something less than the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, but they proved too much for the Amir. When the masses turned out to celebrate this proclamation by a peaceful demonstration, the soldiers and hired hooligans of the state provoked some violence, whereupon hundreds of the demonstrators were arrested and thrown into jail, there to be beaten and tortured to death, and one of the leaders was shot. This was the beginning of a reign of terror in Bokhara. All those suspected of sympathising with the Mlada Bukharsi were arrested and executed; thousands were forced to languish in prison without trial. In one demonstration alone, six hundred revolutionaries were shot or hanged, and three thousand sympathisers arrested. The entire population turned against the Amir, even those who had formerly been Moderates. The revolutionary party gained in strength, though forced to go underground. Part of Mlada Bukharsi emigrated to Turkesthan, which, being directly under the Kerensky regime, offered them some protection. The property of all those belonging to revolutionary organisations was confiscated and their lives declared forfeit. Such was the effect of the first revolution of 1917 upon Bokhara el Sharif, whose ruler trembled for his hitherto undisputed power over the destinies of his unfortunate vassals. How much greater was his alarm and indignation when the Kerensky regime was overthrown, and there was proclaimed a Soviet Republic of Workers and Peasants, not only in European Russia, but in the very heart of Central Asia as well—in the neighbouring district of Turkesthan.

The years 1918-1919, marked by a desperate struggle on the part of the new-born Russian state against invasion from abroad and counter-revolution at home, saw the rise of an equally deadly and determined struggle for power in Central Asia, between the forces of revolution—represented by the various nationalist movements of Young Sards, Young Kirghiz, Young Turcomans and Young Bokharans aided by the Red Army on one side—and the forces of counter-revolution on the other, including Russian White Guards, native aristocracy and clergy, openly aided and encouraged by foreign gold, munitions and troops, in which the most conspicuous to figure were the British. These years saw the recrudescence on a wide scale of peasant riots and rebellions in Bokhara, provoked by the increasing economic misery due to the high taxes and currency inflation of the Amir’s government. Metal coins had all been confiscated by the latter after the events of 1917; worthless paper money was issued in its stead, which the people were commanded to accept in return for their grain and goods. The export of foodstuffs was forbidden, and trade with Russia, which had formerly been the mainstay of the population, was destroyed since the revolution—white guards and British troops having cut off all connection between the two. Trade depression and civil war ruined the Bokhara peasantry no less surely than it did those of the neighbouring Khanates, while governmental exactions and oppression drove then ever onward to the brink of open rebellion. But for an impoverished and disarmed people to make a successful rebellion arms and money are required, no less surely than it is required by their oppressors who seek to prevent them from rising in revolt. Mlada Bukharsi, with its headquarters in revolutionary Turkesthan, entered into relations with the Soviet Government there, which was itself engaged in a life and death struggle for existence. On one side were the forces of Koltchak and Dutoffat Orenburg, who, by seizing the only line of communication, had cut off all connections with Moscow; on the other side was Denikin, and the British in Trans-Caspia, whose headquarters were in Ashkabad. In addition to these main fighting fronts, there were hostile bands in all the surrounding districts, financed and fed by the same source which fed the main stream of counter-revolution. The very centre of intrigue and conspiracy against the Soviet power was none other than Holy Bokhara, whose nominal independence and neutrality rendered it a most convenient hotbed of counter-revolution.

Already in March of 1918, one attempt to ensure constitutional rights to the Bokharan people had been drowned in blood, when Kolesov, Chief of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Government of Turkesthan, presented an ultimatum to the Amir to grant the demands of the Young Bokharans on twenty-four hours’ notice. The reply of the Amir was a secret order to his army for a general massacre of the Bolshevik emissaries and Young Bokharans. Kolesav barely escaped with his life and a part of his following. Subsequent events prevented the Soviet Republic from immediately avenging this dastardly act on the part of the Bokharan Amir.

Amir-al-Khan, Amir of Bokhara, Commander of the Faithful and Shadow of God on Earth, had been approached by the British General Mallison, representative of His Most Gracious Majesty King George V, with an offer to increase the influence of the Amir in Bokhara, Samarcand and Tashkent, and with that end in view, to take British (Indian) troops into the territories of Turkesthan. His Majesty at first refused this valuable offer of assistance because the Mussulmans of his own state were against accepting any British help so long as the Treaty of Sèvres remained unaltered. This was a bit of Islamic solidarity which the Commander of the Faithful very soon regretted, and by 1918 he found a way to reconcile his Mussulman conscience to the acceptance of British munitions and weapons of war from this same General Mallison, who became his joint ally, together with the Russian White Guards, Generals Koltchak and Dutoff, and the so-called “Trans-Caspian Government.” The captured records of certain Russian counter-revolutionaries show that at this period a British major (name unknown) came to Tashkent from Meshed and offered the Russian White Guards:—

1. Money, munitions and British troops.
2. To make Turkesthan an autonomous (White) Republic.
3. In return for which Great Britain was to receive concessions in railways and mines for ninety-nine years.

Money, munitions and troops were freely given, but the rest of the agreement remained unfulfilled, despite the most indefatigable efforts. The repeated defeats of the Russian white generals (at Ossipov and Khokand in1918-1919) caused the removal of the centre of counter-revolution to Kashgar, in Chinese Turkesthan. Relations had previously been opened with the British Consul there, by name Mr. Esterton. A treaty was actually made between the counter-revolutionaries and the English to clear the Osh corridor, that through this passage munitions might be sent from India to Ferghana (headquarters of the counter-revolution in Eastern Turkesthan). The corridor was cleared, but the munitions failed to arrive in time to save the Whites from ignominious defeat. The failure of the White Guard movement led to the organisation of the Basmatchis (bandits) of Turkesthan in an effort to crush the Soviet power. False letters, telegrams and brochures were printed and distributed among the ignorant population, repeating the lies about the nationalisation and violation of women by the Bolsheviks and their alleged persecution of religion. No means was too low to stoop to for the defeat of the great revolution which threatened to sweep onward in its triumphant course to the very gates of India.

But by the end of 1919 communications between Moscow and Turkesthan were re-established, and the “Centroviki,” or troops and responsible workers from the Centre, began to arrive, who quickly organised the campaign against the Basmatchis and remaining bands of Whites. Efforts were made on the part of the British Consul in Kashgar to bring about a rising of the Kirghiz, the nomadic peoples of the Asiatic steppes, but these proved unsuccessful. The real check to British intrigue in Central Asia came from the victory of the Red Army over the Whites; the removal of the Trans-Caspian front and the capture of Resht; the evacuation of Northern Persia by the British, and the successful revolution in Bokhara, resulting in the banishment of the Amir and the establishment of a People’s Soviet Republic.

Renewed efforts of the struggle for power in Central Asia came about a year later, in the revolt of Enver Pasha, who sought British help in his realisation of a dream to establish a Pan-Islamic kingdom there, with he himself as ruler.

But let us return to the revolution in Bokhara. With the beginning of the year 1920 a new situation arose. The Soviet Republic had beaten back most of its foes. Foreign intervention had ceased to manifest itself openly in the form of invading armies from abroad, and confined itself to secret subventions of the Whites and other counter-revolutionaries, who for the moment had been driven back on all fronts. It was the first breathing-space for the young Republic, giving it a chance to survey the situation in all the far-flung regions of the former Russian Empire. The first to claim attention was the party of Young Bokharans, who for two years had been preparing the moment, already long overdue, for revolution in their own country. The necessity for some kind of action was made all the more pressing by the fact that Bokhara had become the stronghold for all the defeated forces of counter-revolution and intrigue, which took shelter there under cover of the Amir’s hospitality.

Trouble began in August, when, taking advantage of one of the innumerable mass-revolts which had become a commonplace since 1917, a group of young Bokharans put themselves at the head of the movement in Charjui, arrested the ruling Begs and declared the establishment of a People’s Government. Within two days, the revolutionary movement had spread throughout the country. The rising in Charjui was reinforced by open rebellion in Emirabbad and other vital points. Encouraged by this popular support, the Revolutionary Committee of Young Bokharans in Charjui declared the abolition of the Emirate, and passed the first decrees on land, taxation and the establishment of a Republic. They followed by appealing to the Soviet Republics of Turkesthan and Russia for help in putting down the counter-revolution.

Help was not slow in coming, for a revolutionary army of Young Bokharans had been organising themselves in Tashkent in anticipation of this moment. They marched at once, helped by the Soviet Government of Turkesthan and the Red Army. The Amir stood not upon the order of his going, but fled in all haste, incognito, to Eastern Bokhara, lest he fall into the hands of the irate populace whom he had so abused throughout his reign. In Eastern Bokhara he paused, hoping to organise a counter-revolutionary army with the help of the Whites and their British supporters, among the Basmatchis of that region. There he lingered, sending agents to India and to Meshed to ask for help in putting down the infidels who had deposed him. The son of the former Prime Minister of Bokhara was sent to Meshed, and there drew up a treaty in the name of the Amir with the War Attaché of the British Consulate. The terms of this Treaty2 include the following provisions: That the British will restore the Amir to his throne, and unite Samarcand with Bokhara; in return for this service, His Majesty’s Government would receive mining and other concessions in Bokhara, and British officers would control the government institutions of that country, including finances and the re-organisation of the Bokharan army.

But the British, not for the first time in history, had espoused a lost cause. The popular movement against the Amir and his corrupt government was so strong that, by the close of 1920, that dignitary was forced to flee from Eastern Bokhara and seek refuge in the court of his brother-monarch, Amanulla Khan, the Emir of Afghanisthan. In the course of his flight, the ex-Amir and his bands performed their last act of wanton destruction against the unfortunate population over which they had so long ruled. In revenge for the successful revolution they burned millions of poods of grain, killing the cattle and devastating the land in a final effort to ruin the peasantry and reduce them to utter starvation. Having performed this last act of patriotism, the Commander of the Faithful and his suite took up their residence and continued their intrigues from the neighbouring court of Afghanisthan. But as Amanulla Khan concluded, early in 1921, a Treaty of Friendship and Recognition with the Russian Soviet Government, little material help was given from this quarter to the deposed Shadow of God upon Earth, who found no worthy collaborator in his plans for revenge and restitution until there appeared on the scene as an ally the figure of Enver Pasha, who took up his stand in Eastern Bokhara against the Soviet Power and endeavoured, with British help, to establish himself as the head of a Pan-Islamic kingdom in Central Asia. This was the last adventure of Enver Pasha—an adventure which ended with his own death on the field of battle in Hoveling, in the summer of 1922.

It was also the end of the Armir’s hopes of regaining his lost throne by force of arms. He has now taken refuge in Appeals to Public Opinion, to rescue himself from obscurity and oblivion into which the world has permitted him to sink. But, oddly enough, Public Opinion, though a variable quantity, seems loath to bestir itself in his behalf (though he is alleged to have good friends among the British), and the Bokharan People’s Republic continues to exist and to prosper, firm in its friendship and alliance with the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.

The old taxation-system of the former Amir, which claimed one-half the peasants’ income, has been abolished; the land formerly monopolised by the Commander of the Faithful and his Begs has been confiscated and distributed among the peasants. Wide reforms have been introduced, granting full civil rights to the entire population without exception, making education free and compulsory, and for the first time in the history of Bokhara stabilising and balancing the budget. A national Bokharan army has been organised, to defend the People’s Government against counter-revolution, banditry and intrigue. The government is Soviet in form, the representatives elected by the people. In the last All-Bokharan Congress of Soviets, out of eighty-five delegates, sixty-three were peasants and ten handicraft-workers, the rest being drawn from the revolutionary intellectuals and middle class who support the nationalist cause. The President of the Republic is a young Bokharan by the name of Faizulla Khajaieff, son of a rich Bokharan merchant. The Nazirate of Foreign Affairs is filled by a peasant, that of Finance by a former shoemaker. Thus it may be seen that democracy has made great strides in a country which but yesterday was a synonym for mediaeval oppression, corruption and greed. For the first time in its history, the peasantry receives help from the government in the shape of credit, seed and cattle to cultivate their land. Economic rehabilitation would have been faster but for the depredations of the Basmatchis under the leadership of Enver Pasha and his band of Turkish officers, who laid waste the land and terrorised the people till the close of 1922. But means have been found to lay down new railway lines, map out new routes across the sandy deserts, erect caravanserais and re-open economic trade centres for commerce with Russia and the outer world. The workers of Bokhara are mainly peasants and handicraftsmen; the bulk of these have been organised into strong co-operative unions for the improvement of their economic condition.

Twenty-five per cent. of the Budget of 1923 was devoted to the Nazirate of Education. For the first time, schools are accessible for the education of the rich and the poor. In addition to regular elementary and high schools, there are eleven professional schools for training teachers, doctors, engineers, &c., and special categories of schools for the education of women, for music, art and drama, &c, There are Bokharan students in Russia, Germany and Turkey being trained for expert service to their country—among them are twenty-five young Bokharan women, emancipated from their life of semi-slavery by the experiences of the revolution. There are social centres, libraries, clubs and theatres, created for the cultural uplift and improvement of the population. A campaign for the abolition of illiteracy is being waged. Translation on a wide scale has been undertaken of foreign literature and scientific works in cheap editions published by the State. At the same time, native Bokharan art is protected and fostered, and the people’s own culture preserved. There are, for the first time in the history of Holy Bokhara, medical clinics, hospitals, rest-houses, crèches and veterinary centres; a struggle has been inaugurated against the spread of malaria and of venereal disease. In short, new life and a new future has dawned over Bokhara el Sharif with the dawn of the Social Revolution.

Religion has been separated from politics and the life of the state, but is permitted free and unrestricted expression, so long as it keeps clear of all subversive political action against the State. The relations between the Bokharan People’s Soviet Republic and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, to which it is federated, are of the closest co-operation, friendship and confidence. It is fully realised by the leaders of Young Bokhara, as well as by the masses, that had it not been for the great Russian Revolution of November, 1917, their own revolution would have remained a distant and impossible dream; while had it not been for the help and sympathy extended to them in the trying days of 1920-22, when the counter-revolutionary forces were at their height, the young Republic must have succumbed to its foes, and the People’s Government overthrown to make way for the Amir, propped up by the soldiers and machine-guns of Imperial Britain, the successor to the defunct imperialism of the Tsar.

The struggle for power in Central Asia is destined to continue, for the interests at stake are too vast to surrender with ease. But in that struggle, the forces of autocracy and imperialism are on one side, pitted against the ever-increasing army of freedom and emancipation on the other. Who can doubt which will conquer in the end?


The following are extracts translated from a letter from the Emir of Bokhara to Ishan-Sultan and Daulat Min Bey:


After greetings and our prayers, Glory to Allah, here is everything well under the protection of the Just Amir of Gaza (High) Afghanisthan . . . .

It appears from the letter of Khizinachi that Khodji-Mira Khur-Bashi and Mirza Mushgaph have come to complete agreement with the British Government and have arranged for armies, aeroplanes and batteries, which are to arrive through Shugney, Chitran and Darvaz by spring.

His Highness himself, with armies and batteries, will operate from Kabul and through Mazari-i-Sharif they want to come to Sharabad.

As it was done before, appoint men and send letters to the elders of the tribes of Manghit, Kangara, Altiruch and Kukhisthan. Let them collect as much as they can of cereals and products.

You yourself also act in every respect. Allah grant that the Government be well. We shall never yield our crown and throne to the Djadids.

If some of the Tribes did not hear, let them know of the High and Supreme Order. Take measures to that end . . . .

As many five-cartridge rifles and Berdanka rifles as will be necessary shall be delivered to you thence, rest assured.

In the name of God and the Prophet, pray never forget the hospitality of His Highness, and as long as you are alive, do not sit inactive. When His Majesty will come to power, Khisar and all this government will be yours.

Dear Friend, fight as much as is in you. Allah grant that the Almighty give you strength.

Alaa Maleikum,
(Signature) AMIR ALI KHAN.
(Signatures of translators, &c.)



1.  Central organisation uniting all the revolutionary parties and factions in Bokhara, which was formed after the Russian Revolution of 1905.

2. For the full text see Appendix I, published at the conclusion of July’s instalment.