Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

The Russian Revolution Reaches Central Asia

100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution: research, collections and events at IISH. 

For the Bolsheviks, prior to seizing power, the Tsarist Empire was nothing but a prison house of nations. Just a year before the revolution and in the midst of the First World War, when the Russian army was facing a severe scarcity of manpower, the Empire had launched a mass conscription campaign in Central Asia, calling up recruits for unarmed service at the front. The 1916 conscription decree resulted in a catastrophic page in the history of Tsarist colonial rule in Central Asia. It provoked a popular uprising, which engulfed the southern territories of the Empire, from the Turkmen desert to the Kyrgyz highland and ended with hundreds of thousands of Central Asian peasants being slaughtered or fleeing the Empire.

Congress of the People of the East, Baku 1920. B. v.d. Muijzenberg-Willemse. IISH collection BG A58/121

A year later, in the wake of the February Revolution of 1917, when Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg, one of the central theses he delivered there, focused on the question of nationalities in the falling Empire. According to Lenin all nations forming the Empire should have the right to freely secede and form independent states. Furthermore, according to Lenin, denying nations this right de facto amounted to a policy of annexation. But how could nations practise this right? According to Lenin only a nation’s proletariat could exercise this right on behalf of a nation, and the vanguard of this proletariat was the communist party. Only the party embodied the interests of social development and class struggle and only the party was therefore authorised to decide on behalf of the nation. Even if this nation did not exist yet.

On the eve of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Central Asia had a largely embryonic industry and a very limited number of industrial workers. Most of them were Russians, who had either migrated to Central Asia in search of good fortune, or had been exiled to these southern margins of the Empire for political activism. These workers became the main base of support for the revolution and the Bolsheviks.

At the same time local reformists in Central Asia, commonly referred as the Jadidists, launched their own campaigns for independence in Kokand, Khiva and Bukhara, which had been the capitals of three Central Asian Khanates, prior to the Tsarist conquest and annexation of the region.

The years 1917-1920 in Central Asia were a period of rivalry between two camps: that of native reformist-nationalists and Bolshevik supporters on the one hand and the local conservative establishment of the Khanate of Bukhara, a protectorate of the Russian Empire, on the other hand.

In 1918 the Bolsheviks established the Turkestan Autonomous Republic and a year later the Khwarazm People’s Republic. In both cases the Bolsheviks successfully called upon the native reformist-nationalists to support them against the remnants of the ancien regime and its protégées, such as the Amir of Bukhara.

However, the Bolsheviks were not always able to persuade the local reformist-nationalists to rally to their cause. After the revolution, for example, the local Kazakh-Kyrgyz political elite formed a party, the Alash Orda, which sustained its rule on a platform of regional autonomy until August 1920.

By 1920 the Bolshevik presence had been firmly established in Central Asia In September 1920, the Communist international (the Comintern) called the first, and indeed the last, Congress of the People of the East in Baku. It was headed by Grigori Zinoviev, then the Chairman of the Comintern. The Congress was attended by some 1,900 delegates, many of them representing the nationalities of Central Asia. The main aim of the Congress was to persuade the British to recognize Bolshevik rule in the territories of the former Tsarist Empire, by challenging its interests in Asia. For the people of Central Asia, though, the Congress of the People of the East coincided with another episode.

At the very same time that in Baku Zinoviev recalled the Bolshevik credo of the right of the nations to self-determination, on the other side of the Caspian Sea, in Bukhara, the military airplanes of Mikhail Frunze, the Bolshevik Commander of the Eastern Front bombarded the Ark ‘Aali (the Grand Palace) of Amir Alim Khan, the last Amir of Bukhara.

Although for some years to come, the rebellions of the Basmachis against Soviet rule continued, the fall of Bukhara became an icon of the consolidation of Soviet rule in Central Asia.

Article written by Touraj Atabaki

Touraj Atabaki is honorary fellow at the International Institute of Social History (IISH). He joined the IISH in 1995 and held the position of head Collection and Research Middle East and Central Asia.

More information?

Conference Tehran, May 2003

Oral History Azerbaijan

Social History of Turkmenistan, conference October 2011

First Persian-language newspaper in Central Asia

Oral History of the Caucasus Project Collection



17 December 2017