Independent Turkestan? Notes on the colonial policy of Lenin and Bolshevism
When I listen to all kinds of discussions about the USSR, I notice that their participants usually ignore the question of the colonial nature of the USSR regime. This nature was especially evident in the Central Asian republics (Turkestan). We are talking about a region of colossal size, with a predominantly Muslim Turkic-speaking population. This region was controlled by Tsarist Russia and later by the Bolshevik regime.
This region was conquered by Lenin by force of arms after the destruction of the local movement for the independence of Turkic peoples – the Kokand autonomy (1918) and the Basmachi movement. Interestingly, local Bolshevism was initially associated almost exclusively with the Russian-speaking minority and relied on an alliance with Armenian nationalist Dashnakzutun.
It was this alliance that helped defeat the movement for an independent Turkestan, the Kokand Autonomy. The documents testify to the extreme cruelty with which this alliance destroyed the local population, slaughtering entire villages suspected of supporting the local guerrillas.
The Basmachi, the local national liberation movement that fought the Bolsheviks, were portrayed exclusively as bandits and Islamists in Soviet cinema. This is a half-truth, although some were indeed Islamists, some were gangs of robbers. But there were also the Jadids (democratic movement), and Turkic socialists from the Erk party associated with Zahi Walidi. Some groups cooperated with the Russian socialist revolutionaries.
(Personally, I have no sympathy for these parties. But a fact is a fact, a local national liberation movement existed, divided into many currents, including those who called or considered themselves socialists, and was suppressed by the Soviet Union.)
That said, at least at the beginning of events, the Bolshevik regime relied on the Russian-speaking population and Armenians, a total of about 750,000 of the roughly 7.5 million population of Turkestan in the early 1920s. Even some Bolshevik leaders, such as Broido, have written about the Russian chauvinism that underpinned the local Bolshevik regime in the 1918s and early 1920s.
What is even more curious, as historian Boris Kolonitsky notes, is that it was in this region that the Russian revolution (in the sense that it took place on the territory of the Russian empire) and civil war began – the Great Central Asian Uprising of 1916. Local peoples and tribes rebelled against the forced mobilization to work for the government during World War I. In addition, the local population was angered by the Russian colonists’ occupation of some of their lands. This rebellion was suppressed by the tsarist forces, but it was this rebellion that rocked the region.
And it was in this region that the civil war ended – the Turkestan Front was officially liquidated in 1926 (however, battles between the Bolshevik Red Army and the Basmachi continued after that).
Supporters of the Soviet Union and the Western leftists pretend that none of this happened, or just do not know about it. Or don’t want to know. It is Eurocentrism that ignores the very existence of the Muslim Turkic and Persian-speaking population of Central Asia, where the revolution began, and their national movements suppressed by the Soviet Union.
The Bolshevik regime initially had almost no foothold here among the majority Muslim population and was imposed by force of arms. The region was conquered by the Red Army, what was this but an element of colonization?
The later management of the region also showed signs of colonization, including the physical destruction of local intellectuals in the late 1930s and the planting of a monoculture of cotton (a typical colonial policy).
True, along with this there was industrial modernization and the development of secular education and health systems. But it is worth remembering that the British in India were doing the same (including the rapid development of the British military-industrial complex in India and the construction of railroads). Even if the Soviet regime’s policy was not purely colonial, it certainly included colonial elements.
An important element of Soviet colonial policy was “residency”. The capital, Moscow, with its population of 10 million, received a special privileged supply, which was determined by decisions of the Central Committee of the Party and the central government agencies that ran the USSR economy. Residents of the regions, for the most part, had no right to live in Moscow – obtaining a Moscow residence permit was not easy, and for most it was impossible.
The very division of Turkestan into Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, etc. was largely artificial, as local national-communists believed. The reason was that Moscow was afraid of the emergence of a single Muslim-Turkic republic with a huge territory and population that would inevitably gain a certain independence from the Kremlin simply because of its size and resources.
This was the classic colonial principle of “divide and conquer”. Of course, it was possible to find some reason for this division in all cases – differences in local languages and customs – but it might as well have been possible to create a single Turkestan based on the similarities between them. The reasons why this was not done are quite obvious.
In the 1920s, the Turkic-speaking National Communists tried to act. As supporters of the Bolshevik party-state model, nationalization and one-party dictatorship (things I deeply disliked), as well as scientific and industrial modernization, they were also ardent supporters of local autonomy and language.
The central question was from where and who governed the region, in whose hands the economy, the party and official apparatus and the power resource (the army). Historically, all this was concentrated in the Kremlin, after which the talk about the union of the republics in the USSR lost all meaning and remained an empty formality.
The “Muslim Communist Party” and the “Muslim Red Army”, according to a prominent Bolshevik who belonged to this trend, Mirsaid Sultangaliyev, would be a natural continuation of the struggle for the independence of the Turkic-speaking peoples. None of them objected to an equal alliance with the Kremlin. The national secular intelligentsia was also actively developing at the time. Of course, the national communists were killed by the USSR regime.
All of this did not save the Soviet Union from collapse. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the local party and economic elites privatized both the territory and industry of the USSR. They did so with the help of local nationalisms, driven by feelings of anger and dissatisfaction with inequality in the USSR.
The working class of these regions had no tradition of autonomy and were seized by national feeling. Moreover, it was divided along national lines. And this too was, to some extent, the result of colonialism.