On October 26, Almazbek Atambaev, the outgoing President of Kyrgyzstan, signed a decree replacing the November 7 celebrations of the October revolution with a “Day of History and Remembrance.”
The “history” and “remembrance” in question refers to the Urkun, the Kyrgyz name for their 1916 revolt against Tsarist Russia.
Here is an extract from the decree:
The development of history in the past few years and its de-ideologization has allowed researchers to work out new approaches to studying Kyrgyz history… Our people, with their 3,000 year history, having created the Kyrgyz Khanate in the 9th century, has maintained the idea of statehood for many centuries… Generation to generation, the dream of independence moved on. …
The will of the people towards freedom and independence was the main driving force of the events of 1916. The harsh suppression of the uprising by Tsarist punitive batallions, multiple incidences of bloodthirsty reprisals against civilizations, and their forced exile into foreign lands put the Kyrgyz people on the brink of extinction. According to the archives, the most dramatic events and the highest numbers of human casualties during the Urkun took place in autumn 1916.
So what’s left unmentioned in this story?
Source: Sputnik i Pogrom. Map of Turkestan – epicenter of the rebellion is in the red square.
First, and most important, it was a bit more than just an ordinary uprising. What began as a campaign of assassination against local officials soon escalated to full-scale ethnic cleansing, with thousand-strong bands of Kyrgyz horsemen despoiling defenseless Russian villages which had been largely stripped of their fighting age men by conscription for World War I. All told, around 3,000 Russians were murdered, the vast majority of them women and children, as well as the monks of Przhevalsk Cathedral and the Holy Trinity Monastery of Issyk-Kul.
Writes Father Evstafi Malakhovsky, the abbot of Pokrovsky Church, located 35 versts from Przhevalsk (now Karakol):
On August 11, [the Kyrgyz] attacked the settlements, started to beat the residents and burn houses… No mercy was shown to the Russians: They were cut up and beaten, sparing neither women nor children. There were beheadings, impalements, noses and ears were cut off, children were cut in half, women were raped, maidens and young girls were taken prisoner.
There are many even grislier accounts compiled by the local clergy.
As the ethnic cleansing wore on, Russians started to congregate in larger villages, such as Preobrazhensky. There, a 200-strong militia with rifles, shotguns, and a jerry-rigged cannon held off a 10,000-strong Kyrgyz horde for a month before Army reinforcements arrived and drove them away. Observing the scenes of devastation, the local militias and soldiers were not particularly inclined to show mercy as they pursued the bands into the mountains.
The Kyrgyz historian Shairgul Batyrbaev in a 2013 interview:
The suppression was indeed brutal. But one has to keep the context in mind. When the punitive batallions arrived to pacify the rebellion, they saw the heads of Russian women and children mounted on pikes, and their reaction was understandable.
Officially, 347 people in Semirechie were executed in summary military trials. The direct victims of the pacification campaign numbered 4,000 according to Batyrbaev’s calculations.
The official Kyrgyz narrative, as affirmed by a 2016 commision, is that the Tsarist suppression of the revolt was genocide. RFERL helpfully notes that it is “believed that between 100,000 and 270,000 ethnic Kyrgyz were killed by Tsarist Russia’s punitive battalions.” However, these estimates seem most unlikely, considering that the Kyrgyz population in the territories affected by the rebellion increased from 278,900 in 1897 to 324,000 by 1917. Based on natality and mortality trends, Batyrbaev estinmates there “should have been” 357,600 Kyrgyz by that time, implying total demographic losses of around 35,000.
That includes emigration. For the Kyrgyz, the most tragic episode of the Urkun was the flight of 30,000 Kyrgyz into China. Many thousands died in the high passes, and many of the rest were enslaved by the Uyghurs in China – a traditional practice in Central Asia, before the Russian Empire illegalized it in Russian Turkestan in 1861 and stamped it out over the next few decades.
Now this is not to unequivocally condemn the Kyrgyz, or justify the policies of the Russian Empire.
Source: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1911). Photograph of Russian settlers on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul.
The Kyrgyz had real grievances. The influx of landless Russian settlers (one such family is shown in the photograph above) in the wake of Stolypin’s agrarian reforms impinged on the traditional land use patterns of the nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, who needed vast tracts of land for grazing their cattle. The Russian colonists formed growing islands of European civilization that didn’t mix with the locals, stoking resentment amongsts the natives (this is, of course, a familiar pattern the world over). The influence of the mullahs, who occupied a privileged position in Kyrgyz society, was reduced – they lost administrative power to state bureaucrats, and the traditional madrassas had to compete with growing numbers of secular schools. Finally, the local bureaucrats that staffed the lower administrative rungs were fantastically corrupt – there are accounts of them continuing to sell exemptions from mobilization to young Kyrgyz men even as more and more of their fellows were lynched by the enraged mobs of the metastasizing rebellion.
This brings us to the fuse that set off the entire thing – an edict from Interior Minister Boris Stürmer calling for the mobilization of 80,000 men from the steppe region of Turkestan. This was a drop in the bucket relative to the more than 12 million men mobilized by the Russian Empire during World War I, and in any case, the Central Asians were only going to be used for non-military duties. (In the end, only slightly more than 100,000 Central Asians ended up being mobilized during the war). But the scope of these plans grew rapidly in the telling, in what was still a predominantly illiterate society; the call for 80,000 labor conscripts soon turned into an evil Russian plot to kill off the entire Kyrgyz male population in the fields and trenches in a place far away and in a war that few of them understood. This was helped along not just by the usual suspects – German and Turkish intelligence helped fan the rumors – but also by venal Kyrgyz bureaucrats, who saw the horror stories as a good way to increase their earnings from selling exemptions. Finally, the linguistic and cultural gap between the lower Kyrgyz and upper Russian administrative rungs hampered attempts to stiffle the rebellion in its cradle, and delayed a serious response from the central authorities.
But the language of the recent Kyrgyz decree – with its language of “Russian colonizers,” “Russia’s orbit,” “uprising of national liberation,” “cruel suppression by Tsarist punitive batallions,” the “millennial history” through which the Kyrgyz people carried its “idea of “statehood” – has nothing to do with history and everything to do with politics.
And there’s nothing better than genocide myths for nation-building, historical details and nuance be damned.
There are a couple of further factors that underline the significance of this event.
First, Almazbek Atambaev belongs to the ruling Social Democrats, whose candidate won the recent Presidential elections. This is a moderate, comparatively pro-Russian party that supports keeping Russian as an official language. Deputies from the main opposition party, Respublika-Ata Zhurt (an alliance of pro-Western liberals and nationalists; not an uncommon combination in the post-Soviet space), have taken a much harder line; in 2012, they called for financial documentation, technical documents, and parliamentary debates to all happen in Kyrgyz. Further to the right, Nurlan Motuev, leader of the People’s Patriotic Movement of Kyrgyzstan and of the True Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, demanded that Russia recognize the Urkun as a genocide and pay them $100 billion in compensation. To be fair, Motuev is a marginal figure whose projects only ever got tiny single digit shares of the vote, and the man himself has since been sentenced to 7 years in jail for praising Islamic State in the media.
However, less hardcore versions of these anti-Russian sentiments are increasingly prevalent amongst Kyrgyz youth and the Kyrgyz intelligentsia.
(All too predictably, the US is also involved. The National Democratic Institute, amongst its other projects in Kyrgyzstan, financed the TV show “New Trends” (Zhana Bashat), which regularly features all sorts of eccentric guests, such as Dastan Sapygulov, a Tengriist and a supporter of Kyrgyz as the dominant language. The Turks are also busy projecting their pan-Turkic vision, financing the University of Manas, where education is exclusively in the Turkish and Kyrgyz languages.)
Not only are the Social Democrats the main pro-Russian party in Kyrgyzstan, but the country itself is probably Russia’s closest “friend” in Central Asia. They are members of both the CSTO security alliance and the Eurasian Economic Community. Consequently, there are fewer barriers for a Kyrgyz seeking work in Russia than for a humanitarian refugee from the Donbass. Kyrgyz driving licenses are recognized in Russia, and Russia recently forgave a $240 million debt to the impoverished Central Asian nation. Remittances from Kyrgyz Gasterbeiters – most of them of them in Russia – constitute 30.4% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, which is the second highest indicator in the world after Nepal.
And yet despite all that, its authorities feel entitled to spit in Russia’s face.
All in all, it is hard to think of a single development that best represents the retreat of Russian influence from Central Asia.
This is, of course, hardly a singular affair. Kazakhstan is moving to the Latin alphabet by 2025. Tajikistan banned this year’s Immortal Regiments march on the grounds that it is non-Islamic (though it was not enforced). Uzbekistan has been particularly hostile, removing Europeans from important state positions, dismantling World War II monuments, and leaving both the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Community around 2010. Russia’s response? Mayor Sergey Sobyanin is going to use city funds to install a monument to the late Uzbek President for Life Islam Karimov in the center of Moscow.
And there are no signs that this is going to come to a stop anytime soon. As a rule, the Central Asians are ruled by Soviet relicts with strong cultural ties to (if not exactly sympathy for) Eurasia’s other post-Soviet elites. These are people whom the likes of Putin understand and are comfortable with. But as they age and die off, these countries are going to drift farther and farther away from Russia as the ethnic draw of Turkey, the religious draw of the Islamic ummah, the economic preponderance of China, and the cultural preponderance of America make themselves fully felt on the youngest generations and on the intelligentsia. This is already happening and there is no absolutely no reason to expect that Russia’s alternative, the Great Patriotic War victory cult – in which Central Asians played a marginal role anyway – is going to be a competitive one.
The future of Central Asia is nationalist and Islamic – probably, more of the former in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and more of the latter in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
This shouldn’t translate into any feelings of blame or bitterness. For all the Eurasianists’ efforts to argue otherwise, Russia and Turkestan are separate civilizations that don’t have much more in common than France and its African colonies. As such, it is pointless for Russians to begrudge them their efforts to establish their own “identity”; that it comes at Russia’s expense is only to be expected. It does, however, means that a rational and hard-headed Russian government should start dealing with them as the truly independent, nezalezhnye entities that they so earnestly appear to want to be.
At a minimum, this would mean an immediate end to Central Asian autocrats offloading their surplus labor and drugs onto Russia via open borders, an end to Russian taxpayer-subsidized loans and their inevitable write-offs, and certainly an end to even any discussions about statues to their Great Leaders in the Russian capital.
But it is hard to imagine Putin ceasing to support and subsidize the Soviet fossils with whom he so strongly identifies with. Besides, the cheap labor is good for business, the bodies are good for bolstering attendance at pro-regime demonstrations, and the drugs help keep masses of venal siloviks employed. And so in all likelihood this will continue until the next round of color revolutions drives what remains of Russia’s influence out of Central Asia.