In the summer of 1918, the Russian Empire completely collapsed under the overwhelming pressure of anti-Bolshevik forces and Soviet Russia shrank to the territory before Ivan the Terrible’s seizure of the Kazan Khanate in the middle of the sixteenth century. How did the Bolsheviks manage to regather a fractured empire and bring about a new imperial order? If non-Russians in the borderlands saw the Red Army as foreign colonial forces, how could the Red Army build alliances with them? In his 2014 book Imperial Apocalypse, Joshua Sanborn asks these questions, and his answer is “korenizatsiia,” that is, creating a large cadre of indigenous Bolsheviks. I would agree with Sanborn, adding only that together with “korenizatsiia” we should also closely examine the role of intermediaries who operated between alien Russian Bolsheviks and indigenous peoples during the Civil War. Here I address the role of the Volga Tatars in the Bolsheviks’ re-conquest of Turkestan and Bukhara, focusing on the most distinct participant among them: the First Volga-Tatar Infantry Brigade.
This Brigade was assembled mainly in Kazan based on the order of 24 March 1919 by the Revolutionary-Military Council of the Russian Republic in the face of Admiral Kolchak’s formidable offensive approaching from beyond the Urals in Siberia. The commander of the Brigade was Iusuf Ibragimov, originally from Przheval’sk (now Karakol, Kyrgyzstan), who had fought on the Northern Front (in the territory of today’s Latvia) during the Great War; in 1918, a year before his appointment as the Brigade’s commander, Ibragimov had worked in Tashkent as Narkomnats’s mission to assist the creation of the Turkestan Soviet Republic and its Red Army. In July 1919, the Brigade joined the First Army of the Eastern Front under the command of Mikhail Vasil’evich Frunze to engage Kolchak’s army and the Cossacks in the south of Orenburg. With a separate Turkestan Front (Turkfront) marshaled in the middle of August, the Tatar Brigade was also deployed there and further involved in the expedition to Turkestan.
What can we learn from the story of the Tatar Brigade? Why is it important? First, it usefully complicates our understanding of the forces marshaled against one another in the Civil War. True, Soviet historians of revolutionary Central Asian did not fail to mention the Tatar Brigade’s praiseworthy role in the battles against the Basmachi, anti-Soviet insurgents, and the political enlightenment of the local population in the Ferghana Valley. Yet their pivotal concern was to prioritize native titular peoples’ alliance and collision with the Soviets. Marco Buttino’s fundamental book has little to say about Tatar units of the Red Army aside from a few incidental episodes; a similar tendency is to be found in the work of Adeeb Khalid and Hisao Komatsu, too. Tatar Red soldiers’ role in founding the Soviet states in Central Asia should be clarified in its own right so as to gain an intricate picture of the natives’ early encounter with Bolshevism.
Second, the Bolsheviks’ practice of employing Tatars and Bashkirs as their interlocutors to the Muslim world was comparable to that of the tsarist administration. Scholars of other European empires have also addressed the non-native mobile intermediaries who buttressed the imperial unity or otherwise fell into plight between the ruling patrons and native clients. Danielle Ross forcefully demonstrates how Tatars created their own empire by incorporating close-knit networks of scholars and traders into Russia’s expansion. In revolutionary Central Asia, Tatar intermediaries worked for both the Bolsheviks from the center and their native collaborators to seek a locally compromised modification of Soviet power. But their robustness was contingent on changing military requisites and native activists’ magnitude of defiance.
Third, Tatars and Bashkirs served in the tsar’s regular army in contrast to their coreligionists in Central Asia. Like the Tatar Brigade’s commander Ibragimov, many soldiers transferred from the European war to Russia’s civil wars. In addition, Tatars already had a rich experience of voluntary civil activities before 1917. The political workers in the Tatar Brigade, many of whom were former madrasa students, carried over prerevolutionary enlightenment tools, such as Tatar-language print media, literacy schools, public meetings, and other spectacles, into the Red Army. And they effectively employed these devices to imbue the soldiers with a new sense of mission and duty and to shape proletarian consciousness among the local population. Peter Holquist argues that surveillance of popular moods and transformative action upon mass psyche belonged to general European patterns of mobilization that had sprung from the Great War. The study of the Tatar intermediaries in the Red Army tells us about the way in which the pan-European practice of surveillance and political enlightenment reached and worked on the Muslim borderlands of the former Russian Empire.
Here I use three episodes from Andijan, Tashkent, and Bukhara to reveal the Tatar interlocutors’ predicaments and thereby the early Soviets’ strength and vulnerability in transmitting power to the fractured empire’s borderlands. The Tatar Brigade arrived in Andijan in the middle of January 1920 to support the Second Turkestan Infantry Division handling the Ferghana Valley. Tatars not only fought fiercely with the Basmachi but also invested substantial energies in conducting political agitation among the “benighted native masses (temnye tuzemnye massy),” closely collaborating with the local authorities. They organized labor campaigns (subbotnik and nedelia fronta), meetings and spectacles for women and children, Red Tea Houses (krasnye chaikhane), and even Saban Tui, the spring festival of plowing traditional among the Volga-Urals Tatars. The Brigade even engaged with Muslim migrant workers from Kashghar. All these activities were featured in the Kazan newspapers Qızıl Armiya and Eshche as well as the Tashkent Ishtirakiyun, the press organ of the Communist Party of Turkestan.
The Tatar Brigade played a significant role in drawing the Basmachi to the Soviet side and turning them into the Red Army’s cavalry regiments. The Tatar Brigade’s close contact with surrendered Basmachi was precarious, however, and not always compatible with a broader Soviet policy in the region. Nigmat Enikeev, head of the Tatar Brigade’s Political Section, believed that the struggle with the Basmachi must be done through rapprochement by means of political enlightenment and thereby the cultivation of political self-consciousness (politicheskoe samosoznanie), as the arms left their subjugation only temporary. In contrast, the Second Infantry Division, the Brigade’s upper command, was against any negotiations with the Basmachi. On 18 March 1920, the Tatar Brigade’s Second Regiment in Osh was ordered to attack and disarm Khal-Khoja’s band who had switched to the Soviet side, which was followed by the Tatar Regiment’s looting of neighboring peaceful inhabitants. Nigmat Enikeev deplored this incident, arguing that it would fundamentally undermine the Tatar Brigade’s authority and bring its political activities among the locals to nothing.
In Tashkent, Karim Khakimov, a former deputy of the Tatar Brigade’s commissar, worked as an assistant to Valerian Vladimirovich Kuibyshev, chief of the Turkfront’s Political Directorate (Politicheskoe upravlenie). Kuibyshev was so trustful of Khakimov as to regard him as “our ears and tongue (nashimi ushami i iazykom)” in communicating with the native masses. Well informed by his comrades from Andijan, Khakimov became known as the most influential theorist in creating Red Army Muslim units from the indigenous population. The most dramatic events for Karim Khakimov in Tashkent were the dissolution of the Turkestan Committee (Kraikom) of the Russian Party and the emergence of the Provisional Central Committee of the Turkestan Party on 19 July 1920. The leader of the Kraikom had been Turar Ryskulov, a Kazakh who attempted to transform the Turkestan Party into the Party of Turkic Peoples and the Turkestan Republic into the Turkic Soviet Republic. By this time Lenin began to think of creating national republics in Central Asia, which precipitated Ryskulov’s ideas into rejection by the Central Committee of the Russian Party. The Turkestan Party’s Provisional Central Committee included Karim Khakimov and Iusuf Ibragimov, the Tatar Brigade’s former commander and an acting member of the Turkfront’s Revolutionary-Military Council. Peter Holquist underlines that a salient feature of the Soviet state consists in its application of the wartime mobilization practice to peacetime governance. Karim Khakimov and Iusuf Ibragimov were the epitomes of this transition.
The Red Army’s conquest of the Bukharan Emirate at the beginning of September resulted in the establishment of the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic on 8 October 1920. In the first six months of the new state building, former soldiers from the First Volga-Tatar Infantry Brigade occupied distinct positions. Former commander Iusuf Ibragimov became War Nazir (minister); Nigmat Enikeev, former head of the Brigade’s Political Section, led the Political Directorate of the War Ministry; and Karim Khakimov became secretary of the Central Committee of the Bukharan Communist Party and later plenipotentiary of Soviet Russia to Bukhara after Kuibyshev.
One of the public demonstrations of the establishment of the new Soviet power was the public execution of the Bukharan Amir’s officials. The Chair of the Bukharan Revolutionary Tribunal was Galimjan Akchurin, again a Tatar originally from Penza Province, who had worked at a cotton refining factory along the Trans-Caspian Railway before 1917. He was one of the earliest members of the Bukharan Party since 1918. Nigmat Enikeev was an eyewitness of Akchurin’s new democratic court:
This did not stop chaos in the Bukharan Republic, however, as the most serious challenge sprang from the Red Army itself engaged in incendiarism, looting, rape, black marketing, and the exploitation of mosques as barracks. In addition, according to an Ottoman officer’s observation, the War Nizarat, with “half of its staff being Russians and the other half being Russified Tatars (Ruslaşmış Nogay),” was an insulated agency which allowed the currency of Russian, despite the endorsement of Turkic as an administrative language of Bukhara. As a result, Iusuf Ibragimov and Nigmat Enikeev were dismissed from their posts. In April 1921 Bukharan colleagues condemned Ibragimov for his “Russification policy (russifikatorskaia politika),” lack of competence, bourgeois propensity, and plunder of the Amir’s property. Ibragimov simply acknowledged with thanks these reprimands, promising that he would never repeat these transgressions in the future.
As plenipotentiary of Soviet Russia to Bukhara, Karim Khakimov analyzed the difficulties that the Tatar intermediaries confronted:
Although the Tatars may have been uninvited guests in the eyes of many native revolutionaries, their activities were by no means merely accidental episodes, but they played a significant role in shaping the establishment of the Soviet power in Turkestan with their own dynamics underpinned by personal connections traversing Andijan, Tashkent, and Bukhara. The role played by prominent individuals from the First Volga-Tatar Infantry Brigade such as Ibragimov, Enikeev, and Khakimov, as troubleshooters at the most critical moments in the party-state building testifies to the significant degree of trust that the Tatars enjoyed in the eyes of Moscow and its envoys to Tashkent. Yet, as the Tatars’ adversities in the alien Muslim lands painfully show, Soviet Russia’s growing centralization and native elites’ reactive invigoration compressed a long-standing bargaining space of intermediaries between an empire and its indigenous collaborators.