The Cycle of Violence: The Uprising of 1916 in Semirechye
Updated: May 7, 2018
In August 1916, the native nomads  of Semirechye rose in a popular rebellion that for weeks reduced the colonial presence in the region to several beleaguered towns and settlements. Colonial authority was restored by September 1916, but the uprising proved to be a formative experience for the region and its multi-ethnic population. Beginning initially as popular resistance to the labour draft conscripting the native men for labour in the rear in WWI, the uprising grew increasingly violent, ushering in the period of turmoil and civil war as destructive in the peripheries of the collapsing empire as in its centre.
The roots of the uprising lay in the agricultural colonization of Semirechye in the decades before the war, but the dynamics of the uprising remain less clear. The first mass protests against the labour draft took place in the sedentary areas of Turkestan before spreading further to Semirechye and further still to the Steppe. It is in Semirechye, however, that the uprising claimed most victims, both among the settlers, who lost over 3,000 men, women and children, and in the native communities, which by 1920-21 declined by approximately 150,000 persons. But what explains the lethality of the uprising in Semirechye?
My research suggests that both the rebels and the colonists were driven in their actions by fear. In the course of increasingly violent interactions, the two groups came to see each other as a threat to their wellbeing and survival. Furthermore, archival data, including telegrams, letters, and numerous depositions by witnesses and participants demonstrates that the resistance to the draft first took peaceful forms and it was the repression with which the colonial administration responded to peaceful protests that escalated the violence and led to the uprising proper.
The official announcement of the draft was made in Verny, Pishpek, and Przhevalsk uezds in the first half of July. The initial response to the draft was panicky flight across the border. The first crossings into China began immediately after the announcement of the draft in Przhevalsk uezd on 13 July. The majority of those fleeing were young unmarried men of draft age. By the end of the month, the exodus of the nomads to China took on a more organized form; families and entire clans crossed the border. Some observers noted the sudden rush of Kyrgyz buyers at the local markets and the steep rise in prices on horses and staple foods.
Not everyone was willing or able to flee. Soon, mass crossings gave way to mass protests led by popular leaders who opposed the draft and called on their communities to resist it. Wary of potential disruptions to the draft, the administration targeted these “agitators” and their supporters for arrest. In the second half of July, the authorities seized dozens of people suspected of agitation against the conscription. On July 17 alone, 34 “agitators” were arrested in 3 volosts of the Vernyuezd. According to native depositions, many of the arrested were executed. The wave of arrests failed to quell the discontent and angered the native society. The deployment of armed police, Cossacks, and soldiers to arrest the native leaders and break peaceful protests mobilized the nomadic communities and galvanized resistance to the authorities and the colonial society at large.
As the resolve to resist hardened in the native society, Kyrgyz and Kazakhs routinely threatened and warned native administrators and Russian scribes that “they did not wish to implement the draft” and “would rather die here, at home, than on foreign soil. Even if all of them were executed, they did not wish to work and would not give a single man.”Instances of resistance to the draft were reported in all volosts of the oblast and across the Muslim communities. On 7 July,the Dungans of the Dzharkent uezd told a Russian scribe that they “would rather die” than become labourers at the front.
The festering discontent of the nomads reached a point of no return in early August. The first violent clashes between the authorities and the nomads happened in the Lepsinsk uezd of Semirechye between 24 July and 1 August, when a border patrol attempted to detain families crossing the border. The fleeing families opened fire in response. Two incidents that followed in the wake of the events in Lepsinsk mark the beginning of the rebellion proper with attendant violence and targeted assaults on European settlements.
Between 3 and 6 August, the Kazakhs of the Verny uezd clashed with the local police who arrived in the area to collect – by force if necessary – the lists of new recruits. In both instances, the police fired into the crowd in an attempt to disperse the crowd of increasingly agitated nomads. Although it is ultimately unclear who fired the first shot, it is clear that both groups feared each other. Nomads were intimidated by soldiers’ guns, but so did soldiers fear large crowds.
The dispatch of a punitive expedition consisting of a Cossack sotnia, one infantry company, and a settler militia terrified the nomads of the Verny uezd and further convinced them that the authorities were intent on destroying them. The flight of panicky Kazakhs to the neighbouring Pishpek uezd between 6 and 7 August spread further panic among the Kyrgyz of the Pishpek uezd. From there, the rebellion spread and became increasingly violent, escalating into a self-perpetuating cycle of violence where the violent suppression of protests by the authorities led to further disturbances thereby triggering a new wave of repressions.
Aminat Chokobaeva is completing her PhD at the Australian National University. Her dissertation examines the late Tsarist and early Soviet state-building in southern Semirechye, the borderland colony with the largely nomadic native population. Her previous publications include a chapter “Krasnye kyrgyzy: sovetskaia istoriografiia vosstaniia 1916 goda” in Poniatiia o sovetskom v Tsentral’noi Azii, published in 2016; and an article, “Socialist Promises, Ethnography and the Building of a Kyrgyz Soviet Nation”, published in September 2015 in issue 3, volume 69 of Asiatiche Studies – Études Asiatiques.
 It would be more correct to say that the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, whom I call nomads, in fact practiced transhumance – short-distance seasonal migrations while maintaining permanent winter camps and engaging to a limited extent in agriculture. I use the term “nomads” or “pastoralists” to stay true to the original sources describing Kyrgyz and Kazakhs as “nomads”.  Thanks to the records kept by the colonial administration we know the exact number of the Russian victims. How many Kyrgyz were killed remains, however unknown; although some of the punitive expeditions reported on the number of “rebels” – including the non-combatant population – they killed, the information is patchy at best. It is possible to come to a rough estimate of the decline in the nomadic population by comparing the population statistics of the 1897 and 1925 censuses. The resulting number of 100,000-150,000 Kyrgyz (excluding Kazakhs) is an aggregate inclusive of the victims of violence and related starvation and disease. See G. Krongardt, "Demograficheskie aspekty istorii vosstaniia 1916 goda v Kyrgyzstane " in Vosstanie 1916 goda v Kyrgyzstane (sbornik materialov nauchnoi konferentsii, posviashchennoi 75-letiiu vosstaniia), ed. V. Ploskikh and J. Junushaliev (Bishkek: Ilim, 1993), 49-53.  “Protokol doprosa svidetelia Tulembaia Diusebaeva o polozhenii v Przheval’skom uezde Semirechenskoi oblasti v iiule 1916 g. – posle ob”iavleniia tsarskogo ukaza o mobilizatsii, 21 sentiabria 1916 g.” in Piaskovskii, A. V., ed. Vosstanie 1916 Goda V Srednei Azii i Kazakhstane: Sbornik Dokumentov (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1960), 354.  “Protokol doprosa mirovym sud’ei 4-go uchastka Przheval’skogo uezda svidetelei – zhitelei sel Semenovki i Grigor’evka o nachale vosstaniia i rassprave vosstavshikh s zhiteliami etikh sel, 11 noiabria” in E. S. Kaptagaev, ed. Vosstanie 1916 goda v Kyrgyzstane. Sbornik dokumentov (Bishkek: Tsentral'nyi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv KR, 2011), 149-50.  Edward D. Sokol, The Revolt of 1916 in Russian Central Asia (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1954), 118.  “Spravka, sostavlennaia iz rassprosov zhitelei Aulieatinskogo uezda dlia voennogo gubernatora Syrdar’inskoi oblasti A. S. Galkina, 30 sentiabria” in Kotiukova, T. V., ed. Vosstanie 1916 Goda v Turkestane: Dokumental’nye Svidetel’stva Obshchei tragedii (Moscow: Marjani, 2016), 228-29.  “Raport pisaria Al’dzhanskoi volosti Dzharkentskogo uezda Komarova nachal’niku Narynkol’skogo uchastka A. Podvarkovu o nevozmozhnosti sostavleniia mobilizatsionnyh spiskov, 11 iiulia” in Piaskovskii, A. V., ed. Vosstanie 1916 Goda V Srednei Azii i Kazakhstane: Sbornik Dokumentov (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1960), 324-25.  Raport i. d. nachal’nika Dzharkentskogo uezda N. N. Stupina voennomu gubernatoru Semirechenskoi oblasti M. A. Fol’baumu o vystupleniiakh kazakhov, uigur i dungan protiv mobilizatsii na tylovye raboty” in ibid, 329.  “Doklad i.d. voennogo gubernatora Semirechenskoi oblasti A. I. Alekseeva general-gubernatoru Turkestanskogo kraia A. N Kuropatkinu o prichinah i khode vosstaniia v oblasti” in ibid, 371.  “Iz protokola doprosa mirovym sud’ei 4-go uchastka Cherniaevskogo u. inzhenera M. Tynyshpaeva ob istorii vzaimootnoshenii rossiiskoi vlasti s kazakhami, st. Cherniaevo, 5-25 fevralia 1917 g,” in Koigeldiev, M. K., ed. Kazak Ult Azattyk Kozgalysy (Almaty: Otkytaia biblioteka Kazakhstana, 2011), 107-110.