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The 1916 Uprising in Turkestan: A Collection of Primary Sources

Introduction by Tatiana Kotyukova

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In the summer of 1916 a number of uprisings by Muslims roiled the Russian Empire's Central Asian possessions. Central Asians were rising up against Nicholas II's order to mobilize the area's indigenous males to work on defensive fortifications and otherwise contribute to the war effort behind the front lines. Soviet historiography has treated these rebellions as key events in the history of Soviet Central Asian republics and Kazakhstan in the lead-up to the October Revolution. The uprisings were seen as part of "the fight by the region's toilers against the exploitative tsarist colonial regime and local feudal lords" and as a regional prologue to the revolution itself. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1916 uprisings attracted renewed interest in the now independent states of Central Asia and were subjected to a fresh wave of politicization and mythmaking. In some of these new states, the uprising of 1916 served as the starting point in constructing a contemporary historical and national identity befitting the attainment of independence in 1991.

Geographically, the documents being made available on this portal, relate to the territory now occupied by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and southern and southeastern Kazakhstan, which together composed the Russian Empire's Turkestan General Governorship or Turkestan Krai. Russian prerevolutionary historiography referred to the entire nomadic population of Turkestan, today's Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, as "Kirgiz." The term sart was used for the region's settled, agrarian population, today's Uzbeks and Tajiks.

What was it that happened in Russian Turkestan during the summer of 1916?

After Turkestan became a part of the empire, Russia promised the indigenous Muslim population that it would not be conscripted into the military. On one hand, this represented the granting of a privilege, an imperial indulgence, but on the other it was politically justified, since the population of this vast, recently annexed territory could not be considered reliable, or, most important, ready to effectively serve in the emperor's army. The regional administration occasionally reminded Turkestan's Muslims of this privilege, especially when they were asking for "voluntary" contributions to support the war effort. On 1 January 1915, a new law can into effect On Establishing a Military Tax for the Muslim Kirgiz, Sart, and Turkmen Population of Turkestan Not Serving in the Military.

The question of conscripting Turkestan's Muslims for active military service had been under discussion for several decades within the military, the government, and the State Duma. A law to enact such conscription had been drafted, but it was shelved when war broke out in 1914. Meanwhile, the War Ministry, specifically the Asian Section of the General Staff, continued to study this question.[1]  A year into the war, the ministry remembered the draft law. On 14 June 1915 a meeting of the Council of Ministers, chaired by the emperor himself, took place at military headquarters and ended with a decision to begin selectively conscripting previously exempt categories of the population.[2] In August 1915, the State Duma and State Council called for the immediate conscription of the empire's indigenous populations outside Russia proper. In November, a finalized draft law--On Conscripting Certain Population Segments Previously Exempt from Military Service--was put before the State Duma. The War Ministry felt it was unfair that the population of Russia proper should carry the burden of military service for outlying areas. Military threats arising along the empire's southern border dictated the need to have a trained military reserve there that included members of the indigenous population. However, on 22 December 1915 the law was withdrawn by the chief of the General Staff.

The protracted World War forced the Russian Empire to mobilize ever greater resources--both human and financial. The factories of Central Russia were critically short of workers. In the summer of 1916, a meeting was held at military headquarters concerning the building of fortifications along the front. It was calculated that 1 million people would be needed. A plan was devised to create labor battalions using 550,000 people from ethnic groups not serving in the military. In 1916, conscripting people from Asian Russia to meet the army's needs seemed to be the safest and easiest solution to the problem.

On 25 June 1916, Nicholas II signed an order: On Conscripting the Empire's Male Inorodcheskoe [of other nationality] Population to Build Fortifications and Military Communications near the Active Army and Perform Any Other Defensive Work Needed by the State. The order did not specify the age range of those who would be conscripted into the labor battalions; this detail--ages 19 to 43 inclusive--was left to the internal affairs ministry and the military. According to imperial law, this order would not go into legal effect until it was published. Officials in Turkestan learned of it before publication, on 28-29 June 1916, when they received an abbreviated version by telegraph. They immediately began implementing it. The order was not published until 6 July 1916.[3] We do not know why local officials rushed to implement the order eleven days before it went into effect.

The mobilization began on 29 June 1916.

Dissatisfaction that had been simmering for years exploded within a matter of days. The uprisings threatened both the sociopolitical calm and the economic stability of the empire's Asian borderlands, which were vitally important to Russia in this time of war. Turkestan's Muslims saw the mobilization as the Russian government reneging on its earlier promise of exemption from military service and a violation of their legal rights. The population equated being mobilized to work behind the lines with conscription into the army. To make matters worse, the signing and announcement of the imperial order coincided with Ramadan, which contributed to the hostile reaction of Turkestan's deeply religious population. Turkestan's spiritual leaders always had a large number of disciples (murids).

The first wave of mobilizations targeted men aged 19 to 31. This deprived rural populations of the backbone of their workforce just when cotton crops were ready for harvest. Russian manufacturers warned of economic catastrophe. They demanded that the mobilization be delayed until after the harvest, which was critical to the war effort (cotton products were used in making explosives and bandages). Turkestan was supposed to contribute approximately 250,000 men. By 2 July 1916, however, at a meeting held in the offices of M.R. Erofeev, Turkestan's acting governor general, the region's administrators arrived at a unanimous decision: the number of men to be immediately mobilized had to be reduced, at least to 200,000.

Violations and abuses perpetrated by lower level officials, who were members of the indigenous ethnic groups, became immediately evident. Some used the mobilization for personal gain. As a result, wealthy families paid for exemptions, while the poor were deprived of their sole breadwinners. It should be noted that the workers being conscripted into labor battalions were supposed to receive monetary compensation and have all their expenses covered by the state.

Turkestan's settled agrarian (Sart) population was the first to react to the order. On 3 July 1916, the city of Khodzhent [Khujand] became the first to experience unrest, expressed in violence against local officials. On 7 July Tashkent, the capital of Turkestan Krai, was also among the first to see uprisings. The largest uprising occurred during 13-21 July in Dzhizak [Jizzakh] and involved several thousand people, including many women. For traditional societies living under Sharia Law, which prohibited women from engaging in socioeconomic life, depriving a family of its male breadwinner doomed it to particular hardship in wartime. Indeed, the largest uprisings, the ones in which religious leaders played the most significant organizing roles, took place in Khodzhent and Dzhizak. Among the Sart populations of Turkestan Krai's oblasts (Fergana, Samarkand, and Syr Darya) a similar situation developed: in rural areas (volosts), enraged locals seized conscription lists and took vengeance on indigenous government representatives.[4]

The authorities began to take extreme measures to suppress hotbeds of rebellion, including the use of troops. Researchers studying correspondence between Petrograd and Tashkent from the first half of July 1916 will encounter surprising statements, given the growing strength of the rebellion, by acting governor general Erofeev, such as: "All is calm throughout the krai."[5]

Martial law was declared in Turkestan on 18 July 1916. The growing unrest forced a delay in implementing the mobilization until 15 September. Ruling circles even considered simply canceling the Turkestan mobilization, as had been done for the Muslim peoples of the Northern Caucasus and Transcaucasia. However Petrograd feared that this "would be seen by the natives as a sign of the Russian government's weakness."[6]

On 8 August 1916 a new governor general arrived in Turkestan, Adjutant General Aleksei Kuropatkin. He was given vast authority and used it to devise a new system to manage the mobilization. Under this system, the number of mobilized workers from each oblast, volost, and uezd was approved by elected members of the local population. On 23 August 1916 the following categories were exempted from the mobilization: officials, police officers, clerics (imams, mullahs, and mudaris [madrasah teachers]), employees of small lending institutions, students in secondary and post-secondary schools and universities, those holding certain (klassnye) ranks in government institutions, those possessing the rights of the nobility, and non-nobles granted hereditary or personal (non-hereditary) honorary citizenship based on merit.

The uprising by settled populations living in the cities and kishlaks of Turkestan was relatively short-lived and soon disintegrated into episodic outbursts of violence. However, "calm" was not restored. In early August 1916 the authorities were met with a violent uprising by the Kazakh and Kirgiz nomads of Syr Darya and Semirechie oblasts.

In Semirechie, the uprising engulfed vast stretches of Pishpek and Przhevalsk uezds (modern Kyrgyzstan). Near the village of Rybachie (today's Balykchi) the rebels captured an arms shipment. Six volosts of Pishpek Uezd rebelled, cutting off telegraph communication with Przhevalsk. Along the upper reaches of the Talas River, groups of rebels regularly raided the villages of Russian peasant settlers.

The uprising in Przhevalsk Uezd began 9 August with an attack on the village of Grigorievka before spreading eastward. On 11 August Dugans joined the Kirgiz. The rebels destroyed several villages of Russian settlers. Communication with Przhevalsk was not restored until 20 August. A German spy was detained in Przhevalsk Uezd.[7] According to testimony by captured rebels, the uprising in Przhevalsk Uezd was being led by a Turkish general and two Europeans. In some parts of Semirechie it was being led by "young Kirgiz" dressed in the uniforms of Russia's educational institutions. In mountainous areas, the indigenous population set up forges to make daggers and other bladed weapons.[8]

In Aulie-Ata Uezd (now part of Kazakhstan) German colonists helped the Kirgiz rebels (whose ranks included a Turkish mullah) with provisions. The intensity of hostilities in Semirechie were related to the methods and results of policies designed to encourage settlement by Russian peasants.

Opposition to the ill-fated imperial order deteriorated into bloody conflict between Russian peasant settlers from the empire's European provinces and the native population, especially in areas where relations had already been tense. Furthermore, since the Russian men had been sent to the front when war broke out, these villages were left defenseless against the rebels.

Fear of punishment for plundering and murder, as well as the responses of tsarist troops, led some rebels, along with their entire village, and sometimes entire volost, to leave for China, losing almost all their livestock and property at the border. For many decades, the nomadic migration or even settlement of Kazakh and Kirgiz subjects of the Russian Empire in Xinjiang was a common phenomenon, but the flood of refugees in August 1916 took the Chinese authorities by surprise. This attempt to find safety did not turn out well for those fleeing: most of them suffered terrible privation and many died of hunger.

The Turkmens of Turkestan's Transcaspia Oblast also became involved in the uprising. Most of the oblast's population was made up of two large tribal unions: the Yomud and Teke (Tekin). Unlike the Yomud, the Teke submitted to the imperial order.

The center of the rebellion in Transcaspia was Krasnovodsk Uezd. There is documentary evidence pointing to links between the rebels and Persia (which supplied arms and gave refuge to a number of the rebelling Yomuds). The rebels attacked military units and Cossack pickets, burned Russian villages, and raided fisheries. Russians living near where the Turkmens were rebelling had to evacuate (having learned from Semirechie's experience).[9] The Yomuds were well armed and attacked in large groups. On 27 September 1916 tsarist troops battled Yomuds for control of the Ak-Kala fortress on the Gurgen River. Eyewitnesses remarked on the stubborn nature of the Turkmen rebellion and the strong fight they put up against regular troops. The uprising in Transcaspia continued until the end of January 1917.

In different areas of Turkestan people clearly had different reasons for going out onto the streets of cities, kishlaks, and auls to express their anger at the decision made by the tsar and the government. Areas with predominantly settled populations--the Sarts--were angry that the authorities had gone back on the promise of military exemptions and the fact that family breadwinners were being taken away. For the nomads of Semirechie, the seeds of social discord had been planted long ago and primarily had to do with settlement policies. Although nomads took some of the same steps as the settled population (destroying conscription lists and violently attacking local officials), in Semirechie the anger was directed more at Russian peasant settlers than government officials. Meanwhile, some tribal leaders (manaps) organized active resistance against the authorities while others consented to fulfill the imperial order. Transcaspia had its own tangle of issues and reasons for resisting the imperial authorities and was influenced by a Yomud uprising that had begun in the Khanate of Khiva back in 1912.

But there was one factor that united all the peoples of Turkestan: religion.

On the eve of the First World War and throughout its duration, the mood of Turkestan's Muslim population was a source of great concern to the Russian government, which worried about the effect of the 1908-1909 Young Turk Revolution and growing pro-Turkish sentiment in the region. After the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the German side, the government began to suspect Russia's Muslims of sympathy for their coreligionists on the other side, raising fears of pan-Islamism and the separatist aspirations associated with it. On 11 November 1914 the Turkish sultan, who was considered the head of the entire Muslim world, declared "holy war" against Great Britain, France, and Russia. Turkestan's Muslims were faced with a dilemma: as subjects of the Russian Empire, should they take its side in the conflict or support Turkey, whose head was considered their religious leader.

As war approached, German diplomats and spies were already hard at work in Persia and Afghanistan paving the way toward possible incursions into Central Asia. The Russian Empire's borders with these countries appeared calm, but war with Russia was considered inevitable.[10] Evidence was turning up of Turkish and German instructors in China, Afghanistan, and Persia.[11] The conscription order was an unexpected gift to Turkish and German counterintelligence, and they tried to make the most of it. On the eve of war, the Ottomans and Germany were paying close attention to Russia's growing political tensions, including the opportunities presented by aggrieved ethnic and religious minorities.

There were, however, signs of cooperation between the government and Muslims in the order's aftermath. Members of Turkestan's ethnic intelligentsia and bourgeoisie set up committees to assist in its implementation. Among other contributions, they urged and achieved the inclusion of mullahs and cooks in the call-up and made certain that the conscripted workers were provided with warm clothing.[12]

The Tashkent committee was headed by Ubaidulla Khodzhaev, one of the area's most influential leaders. In July 1916 Khodzhaev visited Petrograd, accompanied by A.A. Chaikin, the editor of The Voice of Turkestan newspaper, and Mustafa Chokaev, a prominent jadid (reformer) and future leader of autonomous Turkestan. On behalf of all Andijan, they asked members of the State Duma to come see for themselves how the conscription effort was going, and, if possible, have the order canceled.[13] Information gathered by the tsarist secret police (the okhranka) shows that the local population had raised a considerable sum to finance this trip.[14]

On 21 July 1916, at the height of the uprising in Turkestan, members of the State Duma asked that the mobilization be suspended until the criteria for conscription could be refined.[15] The Duma voted to send a commission to the region made up of the chair of the body's Muslim contingent, Colonel K.B. Tevkelev, and the chair of the Labor (Trudovik) contingent, Alexander Kerensky. Kerensky had spent his childhood and adolescence in Turkestan, where his father served as chief inspector of the public schools. The commission's work was well documented by a special office of the tsarist secret police set up in Turkestan. In Andijan and Kokand, the Duma members were "surrounded by crowds of natives, and gave speeches to the natives while police officers who approached the gathering were asked to leave."[16]

One report by the head of the Turkestan secret police, M.N. Volkov, concluded that "State Duma member Kerensky, chair of the Labor contingent, could thus promote ideas among the natives that are contrary to the objectives of the government and instill among the natives hopes that their aspirations of a nationalistic nature could be realized."[17] While in Andijan, Kerensky announced that he would try to "get the Sarts everything they were asking for." He urged faith that there were Russians in Turkestan and Russia who truly cared about the native population and did not consider the Sarts a mob against whom "anything goes." Kerensky assured the people of Turkestan that he was prepared to work on their behalf just as hard as he would for his own people.[18]

In late September 1916 the State Duma's military-naval commission discussed the situation in Turkestan. In response to an accusation that he had been too hasty in implementing the order, the war minister, D.S. Shuvaev angrily exclaimed: "Perhaps I overstepped my authority, but I will continue to do so if I consider it necessary."[19] In a secret order issued 3 December 1916, Shuvaev later wrote Kuropatkin that he insisted on the urgent conscription of "inorodtsy" [non-Slavs].[20]

Finally, events in Turkestan became the focus of the fifth session of the Fourth State Duma. Four closed meetings were held on 13 and 15 December 1916. A statement made by Kerensky on 13 December amounted to calling the "imperial order" illegal, since it had been issued without consulting local governors. Other Duma members also described the action as poorly conceived.[21] Debate in the Duma reflected serious concern about Russian interests in Turkestan. Most members seemed to feel that, instead of helping the war effort, the order had created a new battleground--"the Turkestan front."

Officials in Turkestan saw matters differently. V.N. Efremov, deputy to Turkestan's governor general, reported that: "As a result of their investigation, which was very rushed and impeded by the members' lack of familiarity with native customs and language, a picture emerged…a one-sided picture that was often distorted by information that had been incorrectly interpreted or that in reality had nothing to do with the disorders or that was simply not true, and all that created a picture that had little to do with reality."[22]

Andreas Kappeler estimates that during the uprising in Semirechie more than 3,000 Russians were killed, more than 10,000 peasant farms were looted and burned, more than 100,000 Kazakhs and Kirgiz died, and more than 200,000 people fled to the mountains and to neighboring China.[23]

In Turkestan, trials of those who took part in the uprising began in August 1916 and continued through late February 1917. On 8 March 1917, Turkestan's governor general asked the Provisional Government to bring an end to a large number of the legal proceedings in the name of "eliminating discord among individual population segments and promoting cooperation for the good of the state."[24]

On 10 March 1917, General Kuropatkin reported that the cases tried in Turkestan in connection with the uprising had resulted in 347 death sentences, 32 of which had been upheld.[25] On 13 March, Alexander Kerensky, who was then serving as the Provisional Government's justice minister, sent a telegram to Tashkent ordering an immediate halt to the executions of death sentences issued by Turkestan's military courts.[26] On 14 March another telegram arrived from Petrograd ordering the termination of all criminal cases against rebels in accordance with the 6 March 1917 Amnesty Decree.[27]

Members of the region's Russian population had also been arrested and tried in association with the uprising. Those convicted or being prosecuted submitted countless amnesty petitions to the Turkestan governor general: "We're just peasants…some of whom committed crimes out of hot-headedness, others out of youth and ignorance, after all our property was taken by the Kirgiz, and we're now wasting away in prisons."[28]

In early 1917 a committee was established in the Vernyi District of Semirechie to identify and compensate losses incurred by the peaceful population during the 1916 uprising. Anyone who had suffered losses, regardless of ethnicity or class, could submit an application to the committee so long as they had witnesses and irrefutable evidence that the damages claimed were genuine. Some cases were still being decided as late as 1919.

In 1917, the first refugees began to return to Russia. This process was complicated by a number of economic and political circumstances. The situation only began to fundamentally change in early 1920, when the new Soviet government began to actively assist refugees returning to the newly formed Soviet republics from China. On 2 February 1920 the presidium of the Turkestan Central Executive Committee voted to create a special commission to settled Kirgiz refugees. The commission allocated 100 million rubles and the agricultural inventory, food, and clothing that the returning refugees needed to reestablish themselves.[29] By April 1920, according to the commission's records, 300,000 Kirgiz and Kazakhs had returned to Semirechie. The CEC issued special instructions stating that all citizens who had used lands and property belonging to the refugees anytime beginning in 1916, whether on their own or having been permitted to do so by the authorities, had one month to relinquish them.[30]

On 19 November 1921 at a meeting of officials from the Soviet central government and Kirgiz refugees in Qulja, Kazansky, an authorized representative of Russia's NKVD in Western China, made the following statement: "Soviet Russia is striving to correct the injustices committed against the Kirgiz by the tsarist government and has adopted and continues to adopt a number of reforms to eliminate the calamitous consequences suffered by the Kirgiz from the previous colonizing policy of this government."[31] On 15 September 1921 another authorized representative of the Soviet NKVD, K. Kulikov, sent a letter to the governor of Ili Province concerning the harsh treatment being given Kirgiz refugees: "I must say that the refugees are being terribly mistreated."[32]

The Chinese authorities in Xinjiang did not want to part with the refugees for a simple reason: economics. They provided cheap, if not free, labor that could be used to bring huge dividends to the region's economy, as historical documents vividly illustrate. In the second half of 1926 a special commission was sent to Chinese Turkestan to visit the main areas where refugees were concentrated and conduct meetings with Soviet consuls in Kashgaria, Urumchi, and Qulja. The commission determined that, as of late 1926, the number of refugees still in China totaled approximately 1,900 yurts or 11,500 people.[33]

On 18 October 1926, to accelerate the return of refugees, the Presidium of the Central Asian Economic Council discussed offering additional subsidies to those returning from China.[34] Aid provided by the Soviet government, which was trying, among other goals, to involve indigenous peoples in the country's socialist project, enabled the refugees to return to their native land and start a new life. The returnees enjoyed all the rights of citizenship in the new Soviet state.

In October 1993, an ethnographic expedition to Kyrgyzstan was conducted by O.I. Brusina to study tsarist-era Russian peasants settlements. In conversations with the children and grandchildren of the original settlers, as well as the elderly Kyrgyz who now occupy these villages, Brusina raised the question of the 1916 uprising and relations between the settlers and the native population during the first decades of the twentieth century. As her research showed, memories the events of 1916 have been passed down from generation to generation.[35]


This collection of documents from the archives of the Russian Federation and the republics of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan sheds light on the events that unfolded in Syr Darya, Samarkand, Ferghana, Transcaspia and Semirechie oblasts of the Turkestan General Governorship.

In addition to archival documents, the picture of what happened one hundred years ago is further enhanced by periodical publications. For example, newspaper articles about the 1916 uprising have been compiled by Shafika Gasprinskaia, the daughter of Ismail Gasprinskii, the outstanding thinker and educator of Russian Muslims. Some published documents are held in her personal archive. For example, a copy of the Baku newspaper Kaspii provides a full transcript of the first closed meeting of the State Duma on 13 December 1916, which includes reports by Duma members Alexander Kerensky and Mammad Yusif Jafarov on their visits to Turkestan and the Caucasus.

Very little information is available about those conscripted to work behind the front lines during the First World War or what they experienced in European Russia. This gap is filled only by a few accounts passed down through oral poetic traditions.[36]

[2] AVPRI, f. 147, op. 486, d. 340, l. 5.

[4] RGIA, f. 1292, op. 1, d. 1933, l. 10.

[5] Ibid., l. 105 and others.

[6] Istoriia Uzbekskoi SSR, vol. 2, Tashkent: 1968, p. 554.

[7] RGIA, f. 1292, op. 1, d. 1933, l. 283.

[8] Ibid.

[9] RGIA, f. 1292, op. 1, d. 1933, l. 331.

[10] TsGA RUz, f. I–461, op. 1, d. 2144, l. 101.

[11] RGVIA, f. 1396, op. 2, dd. 1891, 1892, 1894 and others.

[12] Turkestanskii golos, 23 July 1916.

[13] TsGA RUz, f. I–1, op. 31, d. 1144, l. 23.

[14] Ibid., f. I–461, op. 1, d. 1968, l. 6.

[15] Ibid., l. 51.

[16] TsGA RUz, f. I–1, op. 31, d. 1144, l. 23.

[17] TsGA RUz, f. I–461, op. 1, d. 1968, l. 27ob.

[18] Ibid., f. I–1, op. 31, d. 1139, l. 15.

[19] P.A. Kovalev, "Vosstanie 1916 goda v Sredneĭ Azii i russkaia burzhuaziia." Trudy SAGU. Tashkent: 1953, p. 43.

[21] P.G. Galuzo, ed. Vosstanie 1916 g. v Srednei Azii. Tashkent: 1932, p. 146.

[22] TsGA RUz, f. I–1, op. 31, d. 1100, l. 20.

[23] Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History. Harlow: Routledge: 2001, p. 352.

[25] RGIA, f. 1405, op. 530, d. 1068, l. 23.

[26] RGIA, f. 1405, op. 530, d. 1068, l. 22.

[27] RGIA, f. 1405, op. 530, d. 1068, l. 25.

[29] TsGA KR, f. I-75, op. 1, d. 44, l. 22.

[30] Ibid., f. I-89, op. 1, d. 133, l. 127.

[32] AVP RF, f. 0100V, op. 4, p. 102, d. 7, l. 2.

[34] D.M. Budianskii, Istoriia bezhentsev-kirgizov (1916–1927 gg.), Bishkek: 2007, p. 187.