Central Asian revolt of 1916

Central Asian revolt of 1916

Monument dedicated to the memory of the Urkun massacre in Victoria park, Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Date4 July 1916 – February 1917
LocationCentral Asia
Status Revolt suppressed
Russian Empire Rebels
supported by
Republic of China
Commanders and leaders
Alexei Kuropatkin
Nikolay Sukhomlinov
Mikhail Folbaum
Alibi Dzhangildin
Amankeldi Imanov
30,000 100,000
Casualties and losses
97 killed
86 injured
76 missing
Thousands to hundreds of thousands See deaths

The Central Asian revolt of 1916, known as Urkun in Kyrgyzstan, was an anti-Russian uprising by the Muslim inhabitants of Russian Turkestan. Its direct cause was the conscription of Muslims who were formally exempted into a military service on the Eastern Front of World War I. Underlying issues also included tensions between different ethnic groups under Russian rule.[1] The revolt led to the exodus of thousands of Kyrgyz and Kazakhs into China, while the suppression of the revolt by the Russian army led to thousands of deaths. However, the Russian state was not able to restore complete order until the outbreak of the October Revolution. Russian liberals like Alexander Kerensky and some Russian historians were the first to bring an international attention to these events.[2]


By 1916, the Turkestan and Governor-Generalship of the Steppes had accumulated many social, land and inter-ethnic contradictions caused by the resettlement of Russian settlers, which began in the second half of the 19th century, after the Emancipation reform of 1861 which abolished serfdom. A wave of resettlement was introduced by a number of lands and legislative reforms.

On June 2, 1886, and March 25, 1891, several acts were adopted which were "Regulations on the management of the Turkestan Krai" and "Regulations on the management of Akmola, Semipalatinsk, Semirechye, Ural and Turgai regions" that allowed most of the lands of these regions to be transferred to the ownership of the Russian Empire. Each family from the local population were allowed to own a plot of land of 15 acres for a perpetual use.[3]

From 1906 to 1912, as a result of Stolypin reform's in Kazakhstan and the rest Central Asia, up to 500,000 peasant households were transported from central regions of Russia,[4] which divided about 17 tithes of developed lands.

The Revolt

Institution of Conscription

After Emperor Nicholas II adopted on the "requisition of foreigners" at the age of 19 to 43 years inclusive, for rear work in the front-line areas of the First World War. The discontent of people fueled the unfair distribution of land, as well as the calls of Muslim leaders for a holy war against the Russian gaoura.

Shortly before the rebellion, Tsar Nicholas II adopted a draft of conscripting Central Asian men from the age of 19 to 43 into labor battalions for the service on the Eastern Front during World War I. The cause of the uprising was also due to the transfer of lands by the Tsarist Government to Russian settlers, Cossack's, and poor settlers. Political and religious extremism played a role too.

Beginning of the uprising

The revolt began on July 4, 1916 in Khujand, present-day Tajikistan. However, not all 10 million people living in Turkestan were willing to participate. Such as the Tekeans living in the Transcaspian region, who were willing themselves to be conscripted. On July 17, 1916, a martial law was declared over Turkestan Military District. The insurrection began spontaneously, but it was unorganized without a single leadership; nevertheless, the rebellion took a long time to suppress.

By August 11, a cavalry force of the Kyrgyz rebels disrupted a telegraph line between Verniy, Bishkek, Tashkent and European Russia. A wave of inter-ethnic violence also swept through Semirechye. Dungan detachments destroyed several Russian settlements of Ivanitskoe and Koltsovka in the region of Przhevalsk.

Massacres by the rebels

Other villages full of Russian immigrants, Cossacks, and workers were burnt down by the insurgents. Because the majority of men got drafted and were at the home front, the settlers could not organize a resistance. At the beginning of the uprising, the majority of the relocated population who were mostly women, old people, and children died. In a telegram to the Minister of War August 16, Turkestan Governor-General and Commander of the Turkestan Military District Alexei Kuropatkin reported: "In one Przewalski Uyezd 6024 families of Russian settlers suffered from property damage, of which the majority lost all movable property. 3478 people lost and died.

In some places, especially in the Ferghana Valley, the uprising was led by dervish preachers who were calling for a jihad. One of the first people who announced the beginning of a "holy war" against the "infidels" was Kasim-Khoja, an Imam in the main mosque of Zaamin village. He proclaimed Zaaminsky Bek and organized the murder of A local police officer Sobolev, in which after that he then appointed his own ministers and announced a military campaign to capture the railway stations of Obruchevo and Ursatievskaya. Along the way, his force killed any Russian person that was encountered.

The Governor-General of the Steppe Region Nikolai Sukhomlinov postponed the draft service until September 15, 1916; however, it had no effect onto stopping the uprising in the province. Even the requests by Alikhan Bukeikhanov and Akhmet Baitursynov who were the leaders of a Kazakh nationalist movement which later became known as the Alash Party did not calm the population in an attempt to prevent brutal repressions towards unarmed civilians. The leaders repeatedly tried to convince the administration not to hurry with mobilization, conduct preparatory measures, and they also as well demanded a freedom of conscience, improving the environment of academic work, organizing the training of Kyrgyz and Kazakh children in their native language by establishing boarding schools for them and allowing local press.

Suppression of the revolt

As a response, around 30,000 soldiers armed with machine guns and artillery were sent in to crush the rebels. Local Cossacks and settler militias played an additional role too. By the end of the summer, the insurrection was put down in the Samarkand, Syrdarya, Fergana and in the other number of regions as well. In September and early October, the revolt was suppressed in Semirechye and the last remnants of resistance were crushed in late January 1917 at the Transcaspian region.

As the uprising was being put down, there were often instances of executions including the ones committed by the settlers, which suffered brutally from the insurgents. For the murder of their parents, wives, and children; militiamen sometimes took revenge on innocent civilians or imprisoned people in those atrocities.

By order of the Turkestan governor-general, military courts were established in district cities and imposed death sentences towards all the rebels who took part in the uprising.

Massacres of Kryrgz


Arnold Toynbee alleges 500,000 Central Asian Turks perished under the Russian Empire though he admits this is speculative. [5] Rudolph Rummel citing Encyclopedia Britannica states 10,000 perished within the revolt.[6] Kryrgz sources put the death toll between 100,000 and 270,000. Russian sources put the figure at 3,000.[7]


During the Soviet Union, leaders of the rebellion such as Amangeldy Imanov and Alibi Jangildin were seen as revolutionary heroes against the Tsarist regime, by having many streets and settlements in Kazakhstan named after them.

Urkun was not covered by Soviet textbooks, and monographs on the subject were removed from Soviet printing houses. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating in 1991, interest in Urkun grew. Some survivors have begun to label the events a "massacre" or "genocide."[8] In August 2016, a public commission in Kyrgyzstan concluded that the 1916 mass crackdown was labelled as "genocide."[9]


  • Noack, Christian: Muslimischer Nationalismus im Russischen Reich. Nationsbildung und Nationalbewegung bei Tataren und Baschkiren 1861–1917, Stuttgart 2000.
  • Pierce, Richard A.: Russian Central Asia 1867–1917. A Study in Colonial Rule, Berkeley 1960.
  • Zürcher, Erik J.: Arming the State. Military Conscription in the Middle East and Central Asia, 1775-1925, London 1999.


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