Reform, Revolution, and Russian Relations in the Bukharan Emirate, 1868-1920

At the time of the Russian Revolution, Central Asia lay at a crossroads between its past and its future.  Most of its land remained sparsely inhabited by the nomadic heirs of the Turkic and Mongol invaders who had poured down from the steppe in centuries past.  Its oasis cities – Kashgar, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva – drifted along on the memory of their more glorious past as key waypoints along the Silk Road and one-time centers of artistic and scientific achievement.  The cities still appeared much the same as they had during their golden age, back when Central Asia had existed at another kind of crossroads, at the intersection between East and West.  By 1917, Russian encroachment had eaten far south into Central Asia.  The ancient Emirate of Bukhara lingered on as a Russian protectorate under the despot Emir Sayyid Muhammed Alim Khan, who carried on the autocratic rule of his ancestors into the twentieth century.  The Emir stood at a unique position between the medieval world of his subjects and the modern advancements of Russian culture and technology, but rather than work to modernize and strengthen his state, Alim concentrated his energies on enriching himself and perpetuating his control.[1] Instead it was left to a small group of Bukharan reformers to attempt to reconcile tradition with progress.

The overthrow of Emir Alim Khan – the last descendant of Genghis Khan to rule a state – in 1920 marked the end of an era and represented the culmination of long-simmering tensions between local traditionalists and reformers and between colonial metropole and periphery.  As history tells it Alim’s defeat was caused by a two-pronged assault, from reformist Jadids within his Emirate and from the intervention of the new Communist regime in Petrograd.  This paper will describe the origins of the Jadid movement in Central Asia within the geopolitical context in which it arose, and then trace the history of Russian and Bukharan attitudes towards reform attempts in Bukhara, from the beginning of the Russian protectorate until the abolishment of the Emirate in 1920.  It will argue that widespread native opposition to reform restricted the potency of the Bukharan reformers, and that the successes and failures of the reformers hinged on Russian policy rather than local developments.

I. Setting the Stage

Bukhara was a fertile oasis town, surrounded by gardens of melons, poppies, grapevines, and fruit trees, and the most important center of trade in Central Asia.[2] Surrounded by eight miles of crenellated stone walls, with eleven gates and 181 watchtowers, lay a seven mile honeycomb of bazaars, the largest book market in the region, 360 mosques, and a vast library of rare manuscripts. The city had been inhabited for five millennia and had once been one of the largest cities in the world, famed as the hub of religion and learning in Central Asia.  When Fitzroy Maclean, a young representative of the British diplomatic service in Moscow, snuck into Bukhara in the 1930s, he wrote of it as an “enchanted city, [whose buildings rivaled] the finest architecture of the Italian Renaissance.”[3]

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Emirate of Bukhara covered 85,000 square miles on the right bank of the Oxus River,[4] with Russian Turkestan to the north, and Afghanistan and China across the mountainous borders to the south and east.  Within these borders lived around two and a half million people.[5] The Manghit Dynasty, scions of the Golden Horde, had ruled the Emirate since 1785.  The Manghits gained their legitimacy, like every Central Asian ruler since the 13th century, through their descent from Chinggis Khan.[6]

In 1867 the new Governor-General of Russian Turkestan, fresh from annexing the Khanate of Kokand to the north, launched a campaign to capture Bukhara as well.  By the next year, after a series of defeats, the Emir Muzaffar offered his surrender and resignation to the Russians.  Already feeling overstretched by its new conquests however, Russia decided it had neither the willpower nor the resources to extend direct control over the Emirate, and instead allowed Muzaffar to keep his throne and established Bukhara as a Russian protectorate with de jure independence.[7] Muzaffar’s defeat at the hands of the Russians actually turned out to his benefit.  With his new Russian patronage, backed up by military support, the Emir no longer had to conciliate and compromise with domestic opposition groups[8] and was for the first time able to exercise absolute authority over all his lands, particularly in the restive vilayets to the east.[9] Russia’s interest in the protectorate was as a Great Game[10] bulwark against British attack on the empire’s southern flank.  With the frontier secure, Russia left the Emir to rule how he saw fit.

When the railroad was extended to Bukhara in 1885 the modern world came into contact, and conflict, with the old order in Central Asia.  The advent of the railroad ended Bukhara’s long period of physical isolation, which had lasted since the waning of the Silk Road’s importance five centuries earlier. The railroad opened the Pandora’s box of modernity in Bukhara.  With the Russians came the Emirate’s first printing press, and the material produce of Western culture – everything from sewing machines to phonographs and kerosene lamps – soon began to appear in Bukhara’s bazaars.[11] The small number of educated Bukharans, confronted with both this disparity in cultural achievement, and the degrading fact of their new political subordination to Russia, were forced to reevaluate their own culture and its position in the new world order.

II. The Roots of Reform

Bukhara’s crisis – the challenge of reconciling its religion and traditions with an aggressive and technologically superior new world order dominated by foreign infidels – occurred in similar fashion across the Islamic world.  In Egypt, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire, intellectuals like Muhammad Abdu, Qasim Amin, and Jamal-al-Din Afghani advocated cultural and institutional reform borrowing from Western models in order to maintain religious and political autonomy in the face of Western imperialism and cultural encroachment.  In Central Asia the intellectuals who began thinking about these issues were known as the Jadids.  Their “unease about the present lay in a sense that traditions of the past were not only incapable of meeting new needs but were also failing to transmit the values of the past. A thoroughgoing reform of culture and society was needed if Central Asians were to survive the unprecedented challenges of the modern world.”[12]

The most famous of the early Central Asian advocates for reform was Ahmad Mahdum Donish, a scholar, poet, and astrologer to the court of Emir Muzaffar.[13] Donish accompanied three Bukharan embassies to St. Petersburg, and so was exposed to Western culture before most of his countrymen.[14][15] Donish viewed Russia not as a model to be imitated, but as a source of knowledge useful in reforming Bukharan society along more viable lines.[16] Donish hoped that by completing reforms that were consistent with Bukharan values his culture could protect itself against being wholly replaced by Western civilization.[17] The Jadids rejected the notion of there being a clash of civilizations.  They viewed progress as a fact of nature and history, which was thus equally accessible to all given the right conditions.   The key word in the Jadid lexicon was taraqqiy, which encompasses the concepts of progress, growth, upward rise and development.[18] Donish brought elements of Western political thought back to Bukhara.  He wrote about how the Emir was a servant of his people, and should be entitled to wealth and power only if he met the needs of his citizens, and advocated reforms such as the secularization of education.

This approach closely resembled the approach of Islamic reformers in other parts of the Muslim world, as they focused their attention, initially at least, on institutional rather than political reform.  The Jadids concentrated their early efforts on advocating for the expansion and reform of education.  Jadidism has been described as being “premised on a cult of knowledge.”[19] They saw Central Asian cultural backwardness as the cause of their subjugation at the hands of the Russians.[20] Their solution was to combat illiteracy and ignorance by replacing traditional religious maktab schools with the teaching of more practical subjects.[21] These calls brought on robust opposition from the established clerical elites, who saw their position threatened by the Jadids’ calls for reform.[22]

III. Bukhara and Its Discontents

A coherent native reform movement did not coalesce in Bukhara until 1905 when the attempted revolution in Russia inspired some revolutionary activity among Bukhara’s Russian residents.[23] Russian railroad workers took part in the general strike, but though some Bukharan cotton mills workers participated, their interest was more economic than political.[24] In 1909 Bukharan exiles in Constantinople founded the Bukharan Society for the Dissemination of Knowledge (Bukhara Tamim-i Maarif).  The next year, a Society for the Education of Children (Gamiyati Tarbiye-i Aftal) was formed in Bukhara itself.  The society’s anodyne name masked a political agenda that focused on fomenting anti-government agitation, disseminating literature, and educating the population about government abuses.[25] “New members were carefully screened, sworn to secrecy, moral purity, abstention from alcohol, and devotion to enlightenment and reform, and only gradually initiated into the society’s secrets. The organization’s existence was kept secret even from the Bukharans from whom money was solicited to further its purposes.”[26] Their most notable achievement was the foundation of the Emirate’s first two newspapers, a Persian-daily and Uzbek-semi-weekly, printed on a private Russian-owned press in New Bukhara.  These newspapers operated from mid-1912 until the emir forced them closed on January 2, 1913.  In 1914 the group opened a bookstore as a front for circulating political propaganda.[27]

Muzaffar’s son and successor Emir Abd al-Ahad died at the end of 1910 and was replaced by his thirty-year-old son, Muhammad Alim.  At the outset of his reign Alim was careful to steer his policies between the demands of the conservative clergy and advocates for reform.[28] To this end, he issued a manifesto that called for limited reforms of the educational and political systems, but he did not follow through on them.  The fact that the Emir was making nods towards reform has been interpreted as a sign of the Jadids’ growing influence, but while arguments for reform were reaching the Emir’s ear, they were not those of his Bukharan detractors.[29] Rather, the Emir was responding to Russian critics, whose pleasure and goodwill were much more important to the continuation of his rule than that of his native subjects.

Likewise, the greatest threat to the Emir’s rule before 1917 came not from native reformers but from Russian opponents to his rule. [30] These critics began to advocate against Russia’s policy of nonintervention in its protectorates’ internal affairs.  In the early years of the twentieth century several Russians published books decrying the depravity and despotism of the Emir.  One of these authors, Colonel D. N. Logofet, a former border guard on the Amu-Darya frontier, condemned Russia for its part in perpetuating in Bukhara a system of “savage despotism [and] complete lawlessness [that kept millions of people in a position] incomparably worse than serfdom.”[31] The concern was humanitarian, but also colored by anxiety that Russia’s association with the Emir, and his increasingly well-publicized excesses, was damaging the empire’s prestige and reputation abroad.

After the breakout of the First World War in 1914, the Emir found himself in an awkward position as the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph Mehmed V called on all Muslims to rise against the Entente Powers, of which Russia was one.  As an orthodox Muslim state under Russian tutelage, Bukhara was under pressure to demonstrate its loyalty to Russia, and so the Emir donated “several million rubles” to the Russian war effort, as well as forbidding the reading of newspapers and the discussion of current events.[32] On the bright side for the Emir, a Russia preoccupied with war on its western front was unable to devote much attention to answering calls for reform in its remote protectorates.

Despite Russia’s history of imperialism in Central Asia, many Jadids spoke favorably of Russia and had close relationships with Russians.[33] Russian officials were often guests of honor at graduation ceremonies in Jadid schools.[34] Jadid literature’s often positive portrayal of the West is typified in the book Tales of an Indian Traveler by the Bukharan Jadid Abdurrauf Fitrat.  The book is the fictional travelogue of an Indian Muslim who visits Bukhara and is appalled by the lack of education and hygiene he finds.  The traveler compares Bukharan society scathingly to the standards of Western culture, and even claims that the Russians came closer to fulfilling Qur’anic commandments on cleanliness and justice than Bukhara’s Muslims.[35]

IV. Revolution Begets Revolution

The February 1917 revolution overthrew the centuries-old rule of the autocracy in Russia, and shook up the existing state of affairs across the empire.  The intellectual liberals and socialists who had seized power in Petrograd[36] viewed themselves as bearers of the gift of progress to the citizens of the empire’s old colonies and protectorates.[37] They intended to maintain the old relationship between metropole and colony, but also to leverage their position to bring civilization and democracy to Russia’s subject peoples.[38]

The Bukharan reformers saw the Russian revolution as their windfall.  Previously when the Emir had ignored his promises to institute reforms, there had been no one for the Jadids to turn to.  The reformers thought they had finally found the ally they needed to help them achieve their goals.[39] Petrograd obliged, telling the Emir that Bukharans were “a people without rights,” and that the perpetuation of the current situation was incompatible with the new world order.[40] Alim rejected the demand that he begin to promulgate reforms, replying that he would have to move cautiously and that all reforms would have to be based on Sharia due to the “extreme backwardness and fanaticism” of his people.[41] Events would prove Alim’s cynicism to be correct.

As the Jadids’ position improved, dissension rose within their ranks.  A split grew between the moderate reformers who hoped to negotiate and cooperate with the Emir, and the radicals who distrusted Alim and advocated continued political opposition.[42] Emboldened by the new support from Petrograd, the radicals coordinated a march on the capital on April 8.  Over a thousand demonstrators took part, but they were overshadowed by a significantly larger counterdemonstration organized by the clerical opponents of reform.[43] The Jadids disbanded their march and instead sent a three-man delegation to discuss their demands and stress their peaceful intentions with the Emir.  Alim had the delegation arrested and subjected to the traditional punishment of seventy-five lashes.[44]

In the wake of this debacle, with the Jadid leadership widely discredited, many reformers fled to the Russian enclave of Kagan, outside Bukhara.[45] The events of April 8 radicalized the Jadids, who learned the extent to which the population was opposed to or ambivalent about their project of reform.  They blamed their defeat on the ignorance and lack of education of their countrymen.[46] During this period the Jadids began to be referred to more and more frequently as the Young Bukharans, an allusion to the Young Turks, who had taken control of the Ottoman government in 1908 and pursued an agenda of political reform and Westernization.

In Petrograd discussions began in mid-April about the possibility of military intervention in Bukhara, but it was determined that native support was limited to only about two hundred supporters of the Young Bukharans, and that an intercession would require a significant commitment of Russian troops.  Since the army was already stretched thin against the Germans and Austrians in the west, intervention was decided against.[47] The Young Bukharans, still internally divided, and seeing no action on the part of an indecisive Petrograd, grew disillusioned and ceased to play any significant role within Bukharan politics.[48]

The Provisional Government in Petrograd was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in October 1917, further confounding any sense of political order in the former Russian Empire. To Alim, who had found the Romanovs to be benevolent and helpful patrons and the Provisional Government easy to ignore, the Bolsheviks represented a real threat.[49] The October revolution again redefined the geopolitical situation in Central Asia.  The power of the Emir was strengthened dramatically by the breakdown of order in Russia.  In the chaos and civil war that ensued, the vestiges of the Russian protectorate crumbled away.  The Soviet leadership of Russian Turkestan in Tashkent even recognized Bukhara’s de facto independence.[50] The Emir answered by reasserting his autocratic powers.  He brought the twelfth-century Kalyan Minaret, formerly known as the Tower of Death, back into use as a site of public execution where condemned criminals were flung 150 feet down to their deaths.[51]

The disenchanted Young Bukharans at first took a suspicious view of the new revolution, but the Bolsheviks soon reached out to them, claiming that they had a common enemy in the Emir.[52] Joseph Stalin, a Georgian Bolshevik serving as People’s Commissar for Nationalities Affairs, wrote that the Soviets’ mission in Central Asia was to:

“[R]aise the cultural level of the backward peoples…to enlist the toiling masses…in the building of the Soviet state, [and] to do away with all disabilities…that prevent the people of the East from…emancipating themselves from the survivals of medievalism and national oppression.”[53]

These remarks seem tailor-made to appeal to the Jadids.  The reference to medievalism especially might allude to Emir Khan and his flagrantly regressive policies. The Bukharan reformers found that the new regime in Petrograd spoke the same language of reform, empowerment and national renewal as they did.  The goals of the Soviets in Central Asia were now consonant with the Jadids’ own agenda.   Fitrat wrote enthusiastically but cautiously:

Comrade Lenin, the leader of Soviet Russia, is a great man, who has already begun the attempt at awakening and uniting the East, [but] in order to gain the trust of the Orientals, it was necessary to not paint the East in the colors of Communism by force, but to take account of the point of view of the East, and its own intuition.[54]

Sensing a new window of opportunity, the Young Bukharans sent a delegation to Tashkent to request Russian support for an armed uprising against the Emir.  The appeal was granted, but the Russian authorities bungled the operation, underestimating the strength of the Emir’s army and political support, and ignoring the plans already laid by the Young Bukharans.  On March 16, 1918, the Bolsheviks issued Alim with a twenty-four hour ultimatum that he dismiss his government, disarm his troops, and hand authority over to a council of Jadids.[55] The Bolsheviks misunderstood the domestic situation in Bukhara, assuming Alim to be just another reactionary aristocrat holding sway over a vulnerable working class.  The Russians did not appreciate the fact that Alim, even if he had wanted to comply with their ultimatum, would have sparked a civil war if he had.[56] Bukhara’s population of orthodox Muslims, closely followed the clergy and accepted their proclamations that the Jadids were enemies of Islam.[57] The Emir used his twenty-four hours to blow up the railroad and cut off the Russians’ supplies.  When the small Russian force attacked the city the next day they quickly found they had neither the numbers nor the ammunition necessary to take on the Emir’s army of 11,000.[58] The clerical establishment proclaimed that the Russians’ poor marksmanship was an indication of divine intervention on the city’s behalf.[59]

In the wake of the attack, Alim cracked down even harder on opposition, persecuting even those who possessed a Western education or read newspapers.[60] The main political opposition remaining in Bukhara was the new Bukharan Communist Party, formed after the October revolution, and drawing its membership entirely from within the Russian enclaves.[61] The Emir cut off all trade with Russia, crippling Bukhara’s large cotton industry.  Fearful of another Russian invasion, he levied extortionate taxes in order to increase the size of his army.  This led to widespread discontent, with large riots occurring in July 1919.  The Emir crushed them, executing sixty of the participants.[62] By the summer of 1920 the capital city was unable to feed itself.[63]

The Bolsheviks meanwhile kept regime change in Bukhara on their agenda, but recognized that this time the appearance would have to be of a native revolt. In August Petrograd approved the invasion plans of commander Mikhail Frunze, but insisted that he make every effort to avoid the appearance of blatant foreign intervention.[64] The Young Bukharans and the Bukharan Communists were sent arms from Tashkent and instructed to begin their revolt on August 28.  Frunze waited five days to come to their aid so as to lend credence to the appearance of a spontaneous native revolt.[65] The Red Army bombarded Bukhara as the Young Bukharans mounted an uprising from within the city.  On September 2, Russian tanks and planes moved in.  The library, home to what has been described as the “greatest collection of Muslim manuscripts in the world,” went up in flames.[66] Alim, forewarned of the Russian advance by a telephone call to the palace, fled toward the Afghan border with his harems and wagons full of gold and precious stones.[67] The Emirate was formally abolished on October 6, 1920, with a Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic established in its place and full independence recognized by Petrograd.[68]

V. Conclusion

The Bukharan reformers are a group that has often been misunderstood, and not surprisingly so, for they occupied a tricky intersection between the ascendant ideologies of, Islam, nationalism, communism and modernization.  They arose as an independent indigenous movement, inspired by, but not reliant on the West for ideological guidance.  However, they never possessed the popular support or political wherewithal to overcome the opposition of clerical and political elites in Bukhara without outside Russian support.  Though historiography routinely likens the Young Bukharans to their Turkish namesakes, the two groups differ in significant ways.  While the Young Turks enjoyed sufficient support for their reform project within Constantinople to actually take control of the Ottoman government, the Young Bukharans never found an ample base within the Emirate to overcome the strong opposition of the clergy and their broad backing among the populace.  Hence, Bukharan Jadids always found themselves dependent on the Russians to help them advance their goals.

The Jadids received aid and inspiration along the way from Russian inhabitants of Bukhara, who gave them access to printing presses early on.  After their defeat in April 1917, the Young Bukharans could not have survived as a political force if they had not been protected within the Russian enclaves. The Czar’s government was unwilling to undermine the Emir’s position, but Russian press and public opinion helped moderate the Emir’s policies.  The Provisional Government of the February revolution did not possess the resolve or resources to intervene on the reformers’ behalf.  The Bolsheviks saw the Jadids’ struggle against Emir Alim as part of their own class struggle, and finally proved to be the patron the Young Bukharans had been searching for.  However, the price of Russian assistance would be the disintegration of Bukhara as a sovereign political unit.

The Soviet government in Petrograd seems to have never intended to provide the new Bukharan People’s Republic with any more than the pretense of independence.[69] In the end, the Bolsheviks’ rhetoric of self-determination gave way to a consolidation of Russian political control over Central Asia.  Bukhara soon went from being a subordinate ally to a politically neutered satellite state.[70] In 1924 Bukhara was dissolved altogether in favor of the Soviet-conceived nation-states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  As from the beginning of its relationship with the Bukharan Emirate, Russian policy continued to prescribe the direction of Central Asian development.

Works Cited

Becker, Seymour. Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva, 1865-1924. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.

Carrere D’Encausse, Helene. Islam and the Russian Empire: Reform and Revolution in Central Asia. Trans. Quintin Hoare. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 1988.

Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989.

Khalid, Adeeb. “Nationalizing the Revolution in Central Asia: The Transformation of Jadidism, 1917-1920.” A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin. Ed. Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 145-162.

Khalid, Adeeb. Islam After Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Khalid, Adeeb. “Representations of Russia in Central Asian Jadid Discourse.” Russia’s Orient: Imperial borderlands and peoples, 1700-1917. Ed. Daniel R. Brower and Edward J. Lazzerini. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1997. 188-202.

MacLean, Fitzroy. Eastern Approaches. London: Penguin, 1991.

[footnotes after the jump]

[1] Becker, Seymour. Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva, 1865-

1924. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Page 199.

[2] Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989. Page 486.

[3] MacLean, Fitzroy. Eastern Approaches. London: Penguin, 1991.

[4] The river is known more commonly in the modern age by its Persian name: the Amu Darya. It was called the Oxus in Greek and Latin.

[5] Fromkin 485.

[7] Becker 42-3.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Carrère D’Encausse 47.

[10] The “game” played between the Russian and British empires for strategic and military control over Central Asia, roughly between 1813-1907.

[11] Becker 194.

[12] Khalid, Adeeb. Islam After Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Page 1.

[13] Becker 202.

[14] Becker 202.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Khalid Islam. 41.

[19] Khalid Russia 195.

[20] Khalid, Adeeb. “Representations of Russia in Central Asian Jadid Discourse.” Russia’s Orient: Imperial borderlands and peoples, 1700-1917. Ed. Daniel R. Brower and Edward J. Lazzerini. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1997. Page 192.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Khalid Islam 1.

[23] Becker 204.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid 205-6.

[26] Becker 206.

[27] Ibid 207.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid 211

[31] As quoted in Becker 212.

[32] Becker 208.

[33] Khalid Russia 201.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid 191.

[36] The new name of the Russian capital since the outbreak of the war in 1914, when St. Petersburg was deemed to sound too Germanic.

[37] Becker 240.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid 242.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid 242-3.

[42] Ibid 246.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Khalid Revolution 155.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Becker 250-251.

[48] Ibid 253.

[49] Ibid 263.

[50] Khalid Revolution 147.

[51] Fromkin 486.

[52] Becker 265.

[53] As quoted in Khalid Revolution 153.

[54] As quoted in Ibid 151.

[55] Becker 266.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Fromkin 486.

[59] Becker 267.

[60] Ibid 281.

[61] Ibid 280.

[62] Ibid 283.

[63] Fromkin 485.

[64] Becker 292.

[65] Ibid 294.

[66] Fromkin 485.

[67] Ibid 486.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Becker 298.

[70] Ibid.