Staunton, October 21 – Almost every news report provides lessons in geography and history as people focus on places they had not done so before and precedents they had not considered. The former may simply be a “collateral” result of where things are, but the latter often reflects efforts by those responsible for new developments to consider the past.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, for example, Russian scholars and military analysts produced a flood of articles and books about the Soviet struggle against the basmachis in Central Asia in the 1920s and 1930s, as Soviet commanders tried to derive lessons from that earlier conflict.
Now, as Russia is getting involved in Syria, some analysts close to the regime are doing the same thing, looking into the past to get ideas about how to deal with the present crisis; and their articles provide as did those of their predecessors about the basmachi indications of what Moscow may do next.
One of the most interesting and instructive of these new articles is one by Konstantin Kokaryev, an analyst at the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI), about the Soviet intervention in Eastern Turkestan in 1933-1934 to crush the Turkestan Islamic Republic.
The situation in Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s was every bit as unsettled and confused as that in Syria today. The local population was increasingly impoverished and oppressed by higher taxes and the arrival of demobilized Chinese soldiers who were being settled there, Kokaryev writes.
In April 1931, things came to a head and there were spontaneous popular risings, led by local elites who proclaimed the establishment of an independent Turkestan Islamic Republic, a formation that threatened Chinese sovereignty, Moscow’s dominance in Central Asia, and non-Muslims there, including Russian Cossacks and other White Russian emigres.
In January 1933, the forces of the Turkestan Islamic Republic moved on Urumchi. They laid siege to it. Power there passed to Shen Shipao, a Chinese official whose power base consisted of a force of former White Russian troops under the command of a Colonel Papengut. But by late 1934, the Islamic Republic forces were near to overrunning that group as well.
Consequently, Shen Shipao called on Moscow to intervene. In November 1933, Moscow did so. “Soviet forces dressed in tsarist and White Guard uniforms began an intervention in Xinjiang,” Kokaryev writes; and after serious battles, they prevented the Islamic Republic’s forces from taking power.
In 1934, Soviet forces intervened openly. Two brigades of NKVD troops, numbering some 7,000 officers and men attacked the forces of the Turkestan Islamic Republic and defeated them. They were assisted in this by White Russian units, whose commanders recalled that in some cases “half of the forces were whites and half reds.”
But that was not the end of the story. Meanwhile, 800 Chinese Muslims attacked pro-Soviet Uygurs who were forced to flee to Kasgar. The Chinese Muslims gained strength, but they were pursued and attacked by White Russians, Mongolians, and Chinese forces, as well as by Soviet ones until they left in April 1934.
Even after the formal withdrawal, some Soviet units remained there, Kokaryev says, including a cavalry regiment of approximately 1,000 men with tanks and artillery as well as several dozen military advisors who continued to work with White Russian emigres against the forces of the rapidly crumbling Islamic Republic.