Banditry, Terrorism & Revolution in Late Imperial Russia

A review of Bandits, Terrorists, and Revolutionaries: The Breakdown of Civil Authority in the Imperial Fergana Valley, 1905-1914, by Yulia Uryadova.

In the ongoing historiographical revisions following the breakup of the USSR, Russia’s tsarist empire also continues to be revisited, and with it histories of resistance and of the Russian revolutions themselves. Yulia Uryadova’s Bandits, Terrorists, and Revolutionaries forms part of this trend, contributing to our revised understanding of what revolution was and how revolutionary activity functioned in the empire. Her dissertation has several main thrusts. First, it creates a typology of several distinct illegal phenomena in the Fergana Valley administrative region of Russia’s Turkestan governorate in the years following Russia’s “first” revolution. Using primarily the local Russian-language press and archival sources from the Central Asian section of the Russian Ministry of War (responsible for administering the territory at the time) and from the Ministry of Internal Affairs police, Uryadova reconstructs these complementary but diverse phenomena opposing imperial order: theft, revolutionary activism and revolutionary terrorism. She distinguishes between primarily economic and primarily political crime; between crimes merely criminal and crimes purposely revolutionary. She also devotes a chapter to legal opposition to the regime in the form of Fergana’s elections to the Russian State Dumas of 1906 and 1907. Within the typology she sets up in the beginning of the dissertation, Uryadova’s main theoretical undertaking is to test the applicability to Russian-ruled Fergana of Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of the Robin Hood-style noble thief (Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. New York: W.W. Norton, 1959, pp. 1-17). Most simply, her surprising conclusion seems to be that the primitive rebel was an applicable category for Russians, while for Central Asians this was so only occasionally or indirectly. Beginning with the question of the primitive rebel, Uryadova delves into the primary-source details to make a historiographical contribution that causes us to rethink the commonplace of Fergana as “quiet” in these years, as well as the Soviet consensus that Russian revolutionaries played a tutelary and stimulating role in Central Asian unrest. As Uryadova’s introduction points out, much previous work on the region’s history has underestimated political activism by residents of Fergana during Russia’s 1905 revolution, and instead skipped directly from nineteenth-century revolts to the mass anti-Russian actions of 1916. Finally, this dissertation examines the means adopted by rebellion-wary imperial authorities to control and parent the indigenous population, as Uryadova analyzes the anxieties driving state measures against intra-imperial mobility and inter-national radicalization, and shows how almost all such measures backfired.

Uryadova’s introduction gives a lightning tour of the cultural background of the Fergana region, and positions the dissertation among works by scholars such as Salavat Iskhakov (Pervaia Russkaia Revoliutsiia i musul’mane Rossiiskoi imperii. Moscow: Sotsial’na-politcheskaia Mysl’, 2007), Jeff Sahadeo (Russian Colonial Society in Tashkent, 1865-1923. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 2010), and Adeeb Khalid (The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). Adding more background for the typology of Chapters 2 through 5, the first chapter sketches the Russian conquest of what had been the Kokand Khanate and the area’s ensuing economic and political tensions as the new Fergana Valley section of Russia’s Turkestan military governorate. The chapter describes the Russians’ classic mercantilist development of cotton as Fergana’s dominant crop and raw-goods export, and details how this, combined with the introduction of new taxes, led to increasing indebtedness and discontent of peasants. Further, it shows how Central Asia’s cotton industry in the 1890s made building a railroad to the region an economic necessity, and the railroad remains one of the dissertation’s major villains in following chapters. Locals also resented the drastic reduction of awqāf (Islamic pious endowments) and concomitant Russification and secularization of schools (pp. 71-74) that came with imperial rule. As an example of that resentment, the chapter reviews the 1898 Andijan revolt against the Russians and their anti-Islamic legislation (p. 54). It also treats the resultant imperial paranoia, augmented by the concurrent anti-imperial movement in the Ottoman Empire, the repressions and the pre-emptive Russian peasant settlement of the area. That settlement, often on nomads’ grazing lands (p. 63), led, in turn, to multiple types of violent oppositions.

Meanwhile, Russian revolutionary activism (strikes, demonstrations and propaganda) also spread in Fergana, and in Chapter 2 Uryadova takes up the relation of this activity to St. Petersburg’s 1905 revolution. Though she does cite support for labor demands among Central Asians in the service and oil industries, cotton gins, and among office workers (p. 119), Uryadova reports that Central Asians stopped short of political demands and that their participation in strikes was low. Instead, most such activism in Fergana was by Russians and looked much like protests elsewhere in the empire: soldiers protested living conditions, poor food and corporal punishment by superiors, while railroad and oil industry workers protested economic conditions and lack of political rights. As Uryadova notes, this may have been largely because literate and politically educated Russian activists such as railroad workers, seeing themselves as a uniquely qualified vanguard of revolution, did not actually reach out to Central Asians, and would have encountered linguistic barriers if they had. Central Asian peasants did, however, sometimes beat tax collectors and refuse to pay taxes. Analyzing that phenomenon, Uryadova refers to the classic history of the 1905 revolution (Abraham Ascher, The Revolution of 1905. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988), with which she seems to agree in some parts and not in others. Ascher argued that primarily economic, local, anti-landlord actions were more typical of Russia proper, while in other non-Russian parts of the empire (the Caucasus and Baltics) unrest began earlier and was anti-autocratic as well. Uryadova suggests that the Central Asian peasants’ choice of targets (local tax enforcers), while representing authority, also proves that Central Asian unrest was primarily economic. Moreover, she says, because Central Asians did not demand change via more explicitly political revolutionary activism, they must not have been significantly influenced by the Russian revolution of 1905. Still, here as elsewhere, Uryadova finds an imperial administration fearful of “foreign” agitation of locals perceived as “otherwise loyal,” such as Azeri oil workers (p. 97).

Chapter 3 treats the Duma elections and campaigns of 1905-07 in Fergana specifically, supplementing Sahadeo’s work on elections to the Russian State Duma and Khalid’s on the relations of jadids (Muslim progressives) with the Duma. Uryadova details the origins of the three Russian parties in Fergana—Kadets, Social Democrats (SDs), and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs)—and gives a considered review of local press coverage of the elections. Since the Russian parties’ newspapers were in Russian, they were inaccessible to most of the Central Asian population, though Uryadova mentions several others published in Turkic, Persian, and Arabic that were accessible to literate but non-Russophone Central Asians. Partly for that reason, she says, Central Asians did not run on (Russian) party lines or platforms, electing to the second State Duma a worldly merchant with a madrasa education. Russian paternalism toward Central Asians seems to emerge here as well: Russian press, as well as central and local officials debated whether to include Central Asians in the representation of Central Asia at all, and if so, who should be eligible to vote? Could nomads understand concepts such as citizenship and representation? The officials seem to have decided in the negative on this point (p. 142). Uryadova, however, balances this picture by showing that those same debates took place with respect to “politically unreliable” Russian groups, including Turkestan’s railroad workers (p. 143). In the end, the two groups participated in separate elections, each for their own representatives, with Russians and Central Asians getting an equal number of deputies, resulting in the proportional overrepresentation of Slavs (p. 144). Also aiming to mute Central Asians’ political activity, Uryadova argues, the government delayed the first local election so long that by the time Central Asia’s deputies were sent, the first State Duma had dispersed. For the second State Duma, elections were again held late, had incorrect ballots, and were indirect for Russians and even more indirect for Central Asians. Those oddities, Uryadova claims, ultimately just pushed locals into illegal forms of political expression instead (p. 137).

One such illegal act was banditry, and in Chapter 4, Uryadova voices arguments for and against ordinary theft as heroic and political. One argument against, she claims, is that Soviet interpretations of some banditry as political were designed to prove that Central Asians had desired a Bolshevik-style revolution as opposed, for example, to an anti-Russian one. In fact, Uryadova writes, unlike the socialists’ and Hobsbawm’s archetypal robber heroes, Fergana bandits robbed the poor as well as the rich (p. 172). An argument for local thefts as political acts, Uryadova suggests, is that even simple theft undermined the Russian officials’ authority in the eyes of the population. In their turn, the local press and officials, repeating the paternalism and anxiety about mobility and outsiders that Uryadova noted in response to the labor movement, blamed the 1905 rise in banditry in the region on outsiders, primarily “Persians” and Caucasians. The intricate and provocative web of causality woven by commentators also linked that perpetual villain, the newly-arrived railroad, with “immorality” such as alcohol-consumption and prostitution (both apparently perceived as impairing Central Asians’ loyalty more than Russians’). Counter to the official xenophobic rhetoric, however, Uryadova’s archival journey reveals names of bandits suggesting a diverse group of perpetrators, including gangs of Russians robbing Central Asians (p. 185). Whoever the bandits were, official measures to control banditry, as with attempts to limit Central Asians’ political participation, not only failed but may even have fed local dissatisfaction, as these measures frequently entailed removing aksakals (empire-appointed elders) (p. 192). Local dissatisfaction was evident in instances in which ordinary people sheltered bandits, hid their plunder, refused to bear witness against them, and even looked on in large crowds as robber-gangs evaded police. In other cases, however, locals helped the authorities capture bandits or lynched bandits themselves. Uryadova thus concludes that, even while the local view of bandits was distinct from that of the authorities and sometimes sympathetic to bandits, Fergana had no indigenous “Robin Hood” during the first Russian revolution (pp. 204-5). She argues in accord with Joan Neuberger’s conclusion on crime in the capital (Hooliganism: Crime, Culture, and Power in St. Petersburg, 1900-1914. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993) that crime in Fergana in this period, though perhaps not all consciously revolutionary, could all be seen as aimed against existing imperial authority (p. 215). Thus, identifying indirect politicism in Central Asians’ banditry, Uryadova resolves her dilemma about whether Hobsbawm’s model of the primitive rebel is applicable to Russian imperial Central Asia: it is applicable to the extent that all Fergana crime challenged imperial authority; yet, she argues, much of this crime was not consciously revolutionary.

Early twentieth-century Fergana experienced more obviously socio-political crimes than theft, such as assassinations of village authorities and industrial officials. Tellingly, officials characterized even these violent acts as banditry. Assassinations were largely conducted by SRs, SDs, and anarchists, often in exile in Fergana for just such activities in the Russian heartland (pp. 219-20). Chapter 5 is devoted to this kind of terrorism. Unlike thefts by criminal gangs, the SRs saw their thefts as noble because they planned to use the moneys raised for exclusively revolutionary activities like freeing imprisoned associates, acquiring arms, compensating fallen fighters’ families, and so on (p. 229). Returning to her theme of official anxiety about outsiders, Uryadova suggests that many of the perpetrators of such explicitly political violence seem to have been Russians, Armenians, and Georgians, though Central Asians again contributed to the phenomenon by sheltering perpetrators. Central Asians’ own “terrorism” in this time, the dissertation suggests, was more often directed at local indigenous officials such as qazis (judges) and aksakals than at city industrialists or higher imperial authorities (p. 244). As an alternative to Hobsbawm and Ascher, then, Uryadova refers to the work of Anna Geifman (especially Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia, Santa Barbara: Praeger Security International, 2010) and of Neuberger (cited above) to make her argument about the difficulty of distinguishing clearly between criminal/economically-motivated vs. revolutionary/politically-motivated actions, for her distinction between political activism (mostly Kadets and SDs) and political terrorism (mostly SRs).

Uryadova’s conclusion glances forward to the much better-known 1916 Central Asian unrest, prompted immediately by mobilization of Muslims for the First World War, and to the basmachi (bandit) movement following the 1917 revolutions, which Uryadova sees as continuing the struggles described here.

In addition to the scholarly contributions already discussed in this review, this dissertation adds to new literature on mobility and boundaries in the Russian Empire and to a growing body of work on revolution among non-Russians. Moreover, it brings new evidence to bear on old debates on whether the empire was under-policed and on the role of late nineteenth-century industrialization in the revolutions. Finally, Uryadova’s work contributes to comparative studies of banditry in the Muslim regions of the Russian Empire (e.g. Vladimir Bobrovnikov’s work on the North Caucasian variant in Musul’mane severnogo Kavkaza. Moscow: Vostochnaia literatura RAN, 2002), and to work on trans-ethnic, transnational labor relations, making an interesting contrast to recent work on these topics in Middle Eastern history. Finally, by considering both the Russian and the Central Asian populations of Fergana, this dissertation supports ongoing non-national history, a genre sometimes endangered in the successor states of the Soviet Union.

Megan Leone Musgrave
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
Indiana University
mmusgrav[at]indiana[dot]edu

Primary Sources

Russian State Military-Historical Archive (RGVIA) fond 400, Headquarters of the Ministry of War, Asian section
State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) fond 102, Department of the Police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs
Fergana and its successor Novaia Fergana, newspapers of the liberal Russian Kadet party published in Novyi Marghilan
Turkestanskie vedomosti, official imperial newspaper of Turkestan governorate published in Tashkent
Russkii Turkestan, published in Tashkent

Dissertation Information

University of Arkansas. 2012. 313 pp. Primary Advisors: Joel Gordon and Tricia Starks.

Image: “Native police—jigits of the Ferghana Valley together with a volost ruler and kurbashi [a chief police officer].” M. V. Lavrov, Turkestan. Geographia i istoriia kraia (Moscow: Izdanie torgovogo doma “Dumnov, Klochkov, Lukovnikov i K,” 1914), 146.

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