sredneaziatskoi emigratsii xx veka [From Xinjiang to Khurasan: From
the History of the Twentieth-Century Central Asian Emigration], Dushanbe:
Irfon, 2009, 571 p.
This ponderous book, which brings together in a single volume some previous studies by the same author, is clearly meant to become a work of reference for the history of population movement within and from Central Asia in the interwar years, as well as for the post-revolutionary season of violence. Indeed, K. N. Abdullaev’s work probably contains the most lucid and thorough analysis of the basmachi movement to have appeared in any Central Asian country since independence, and covers a large span of time and space. Nonetheless, the book pays a price for this attempt at comprehensiveness.
K. N. Abdullaev has explored a variety of archives, scattered between Tajikistan, Moscow and London. Documents from the India Office Library, in particular, allow him to shed some light on the relations between British agents and the former Bukharan Emir in exile, as well as with the basmachi and the Afghan governments. A single source — the file on Ibrahim Bek’s prosecution in 1931-2 — is particularly problematic, as we shall see. K. N. Abdullaev also makes extensive use of interviews and a more thorough discussion of the risks and necessary precautions when using oral sources would have been desirable. As far as historiography is concerned, the author explicitly depicts himself as a conveyor not only of the results, but also of the ‘best practices’ of foreign, in particular Anglophone, historiography. He also duly recognises his debts towards the recent works of Ahat Andican and Timur Kocaoğlu. Yet some relevant historiography in Russian (most notably the large majority of Iskhakov’s works on Chokaev) is ignored, and only a few Western works published after the beginning of the 1990s have been taken into account. Still, the extent of Abdullaev’s bibliography is above what one would expect.
The first two chapters of this book are the less original ones, and concern respectively the ‘great game’ in Central Asia, and the revolutionary period up to 1920. Chapter 2, in particular, covers the history of the fall of the Kokand Autonomy and the subsequent basmachi season in Fergana. The narrative is quite conventional, essentially based on well-known published materials (including Fraser, Yamauchi, and the Uzbek Turkestan v nachale xx veka), but excluding some important recent contributions (Buttino). The most original element in these pages is to be found in K. N. Abdullaev’s consistent attention to the international context and diplomacy. Although only a few hints are made regarding the phenomenon of human mobility, and the preliminary discussion about the ethno-genesis of the ‘nationalities’ involved could have been cut down, those who are familiar with the dire state of recent Central Asian historiography on the basmachi will be pleasantly surprised by some trenchant statements. (“Neither the jadids, nor the autonomists [of Kokand, BP] had any relation with the insurgence movement known as the basmachi,” p. 115: “It is likely that the idea of autonomy did not raise any sympathy among the insurgents. In general, rural areas, which served as the main power-bases for the basmachi, remained closed and impermeable for the Muslim intellectual élite,” p. 117). On the other hand, one would have expected a more thorough discussion of the qualification of ‘fundamentalist’ to designate the large spectrum of pro-Emir Bukharan ‘ulama (p. 121) and insurgents (p. 261-2), as well as a more solid foundation for the supposed pro-Turkestani faith of Bukharan jadids (p. 123). Finally, the author is wrong (pp. 105, 136) in retro-dating the constitution of the Turkistan National Union (TNO in Russian, or Turkiston Milli Birligi) to April 1917, for the embryo of the to-be émigré organisation was constituted only in 1921, and such a claim is not even to be found in Chokaev’s and Velidi’s writings (the former only mentions a ‘Turkestan committee’, set up in 1919).
K. N. Abdullaev is quite right to insist on the tensions and cleavages between basmachi leaders, starting with Irgash and Madamin Bek, and those who later would decide to migrate to Afghanistan, such as Ibrahim Bek, Kurshirmat and others. The involvement of Enver Pasha in the vicissitudes of Eastern Bukhara that lies at the core of chapter 3 is correctly identified as a moment of krisis. K. N. Abdullaev argues convincingly (p. 231) that, besides the emergence of cleavages among the insurgents themselves, his appeal fostered a split amongst the jadid groups leading the Bukharan People’s Republic: some of them, such as Osman Khojaev, supported Enver’s bid; others, like Faizulla Khojaev himself, sided with Moscow, and allowed the latter to gain a stronger grasp on the republic itself. Indirectly, thus, Enver Pasha’s call for revolt favoured Moscow’s attempt to bring the republic under more strict military and political control.
Chapter 4 opens a long parenthesis on the involvement of Russian settlers in Central Asia (Cossacks in particular) in the civil war, and examines in detail, with the help of some new archival evidence, the deeds and destiny of those who fought under the command of Dutov and Annenkov. K. N. Abdullaev shows how these ‘White’ Russian did not manage to adapt to peaceful life, and were ultimately recruited by the different factions fighting for influence over Chinese Turkistan and the neighbouring provinces. Russian migrants were also different from their Muslim equivalents who migrated to China, Afghanistan etc., in that they did not integrate with local society, and their presence remained transitory, because they moved on eastwards, or went back. Once again, K. N. Abdullaev’s achievement consists in highlighting the international implications of human mobility from Central Asia; on the other hand, comparatively little attention is paid to the Kazakh and Kyrgyz people who migrated to China, or to the episode of the Turko-Islamic Republic of eastern Turkestan, for which the author relies upon a very limited, and sometimes outdated, range of secondary works.
The following chapter is probably the most original one, because it is largely based on the above- mentioned “Ibrahim Bek delo” from the largely inaccessible Uzbek KGB Archive, somewhat complemented by documents from Dushanbe and Moscow repositories and memoirs on the Afghan civil war (Agabekov, Faiz Muhammad, Halili). Curiously, references to secondary literature are limited to a few authors (Shalinsky, Adamec, Shahrani, Nawid, etc.); Boyko is relegated in the bibliography, whilst Ritter and Genis’ valuable articles on the ‘incidents’ of Urta Tugai, Primakov and Mel’kumov are ignored. The author points out how Ibrahim Bek’s armed men acted as a ‘dummy variable’ not only in the civil war, but also in the ‘war within the war’ that accompanied the takeover of northern Afghanistan by pro-Nadir forces in 1930; he offers interesting insights on the religious and social life of the refugees (or muhajirun, as they described themselves) and on the Turkmen leadership of Ishan Khalifa in Andkhoi. The focus on the muhajirun, though, leaves some other aspects less clear, namely the entanglement of Ibrahim Bek’s activities with the high diplomacy between Moscow and Kabul in the second half of the 1920s and the role of the Hazaras during Nadir Khan’s ‘peace enforcing’; finally, one can doubt that the local population reacted against Fuzayl Makhsum’s expedition to Gharm (pp. 413-4). Beside these minor criticisms, the weakest point of this chapter lies in the usage of the “Ibrahim Bek file” (see below).
K. N. Abdullaev’s accepts the periodisation that sees in Ibrahim Bek’s capture a turning point and starts his final chapter with the vicissitudes of the muhajirun in Afghanistan from this date on. He devotes particular attention to individuals (the former Emir and his family, Kurshirmat, Mahmud Aikarli, Usman Khojaev, etc.), who often left Afghanistan and moved westwards, as well as to the collective destinies of Turkestani and Bukharan migrants, who were forcibly moved from border areas towards central Afghanistan: measures that took the form of Soviet-style deportations in 1944 (pp. 465-6). Again, the chapter is largely based upon secondary sources (Shahrani, Andican, Kocaoglu, etc.), whilst the author’s desire to show the bonds between the muhajirun and more recent phenomena (from the Turkish ‘grey wolves’ to the Taliban) leads sometimes to hasty conclusions and would require a more thorough examination.
In general, this valuable effort to sew together different, self-contained research topics and to provide a general outlook on the galaxy of diaspora and émigré activities has two visible limits: first, entire paragraphs are founded on one or a few secondary works; second, the references to primary (and sometimes secondary) sources are sometimes problematic. This is particularly true for the file on the prosecution of Ibrahim Bek and some of his comrades. Unfortunately for all those specifically interested in this episode, the way this source is handled is inadequate. This file is central to K. N. Abdullaev’s narrative, and yet its reliability is not discussed either in the introduction, where a specific paragraph is devoted to the sources, or elsewhere. The nature of Ibrahim Bek’s interrogation is sketched out quite late (p. 448), and many essential details are not provided. In what sense did Ibrahim Bek change his statements when questioning was resumed in October 1931? Why did the enquiry last two years, and produce a more than 300-page file? What were the implications of Ibrahim Bek’s ‘confession’ for other people, and for Soviet relations with Afghanistan? Not only are these legitimate questions not answered: they are not even raised. K. N. Abdullaev has not sought to verify his testimony by reference to other documents — indeed, we know that a thorough reading of OGPU and SAVO documents held at RGASPI would have confirmed much of what Ibrahim Bek confessed, but the author has not looked at this additional evidence himself. All this is symptomatic, in our view, of some naivety: A preliminary micro-historical study (or even a document edition) was advisable, before K. N. Abdullaev could ‘capitalise’ on those pieces of evidence by inserting them into a wider narrative.
All this said, Abdullaev’s work constitutes a valuable response to some recent works by Central Asian historians dealing with the same period. Moreover, it could represent a good starting point for more thorough studies on single segments of the Central Asian diaspora since the revolution.