TURKMENISTAN UNDER RUSSIA AND THE SOVIET UNION

RUSSIANS ENTER TURKMEN TERRITORY

Russian forces began occupying Turkmen territory late in the nineteenth century. From their Caspian Sea base at Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi), the Russians eventually overcame the Uzbek khanates. In 1881 the last significant resistance in Turkmen territory was crushed at the Battle of Gokdepe, and shortly thereafter Turkmenistan was annexed, together with adjoining Uzbek territory, into the Russian Empire. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

After a 10-year war in the early 19th century, Persia lost Baku, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan and other territories to Russia, which managed to hold on to them. Later they became part of the Soviet Union. After another war Persia lost territory in what is now Turkmenistan.

For many years the Russians feared traveling into Turkmen territory, which they called Trans Caspia, out of fear of being captured and enslaved. When the did enter they were often captured and sold at the slave markets in Khiva and Bukhara. At one time in the mid 19th century there were believed to be 3,000 Russians slaves in Bukhara alone.

Finally, the Russians concluded something had to be done. They began by launching a series of attacks from Caspian port of Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi) in 1877, after the slave markets in Khiva and Bukhara had been closed down.

Turkmen Versus Russians

Turkmen were last of the Central Asia people to be absorbed into the Russian empire and are considered among the least Russified. Although they were eventually subdued they put up a much tougher fight than the other Central Asia groups. The Tekke, the largest Turkmen tribe, held out longer against the Russians than the Uzbeks, Kazakhs or Kyrgyz.

Russian attempts to encroach upon Turkmen territory began in earnest in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In 1869 the Russian Empire established a foothold in present-day Turkmenistan with the foundation of the Caspian Sea port of Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashy). From there and other points, they marched on and subdued the Khiva Khanate in 1873. Because Turkmen tribes, most notably the Yomud, were in the military service of the Khivan khan, Russian forces undertook punitive raids against the Turkmen of Khorazm, in the process slaughtering hundreds and destroying their settlements.

Russians battled Turkmen tribes for four years between 1877 and 1881. The Tekke, were defeated by the Russians at Kyzyl-Arvat (Gyzylarbat) but managed to massacre a Russian force that attacked at the fortress at Geok-Tepe, near Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, in 1879

Geok-Tepe

In 1881 the Russians under General Mikhail Skobelev besieged and captured Gokdepe, one of the last Turkmen strongholds, northwest of Ashgabat. With the Turkmen defeat (which is now marked by the Turkmen as a national day of mourning and a symbol of national pride), the annexation of what is present-day Turkmenistan met with only weak resistance. Later the same year, the Russians signed an agreement with the Persians and established what essentially remains the current border between Turkmenistan and Iran. In 1897 a similar agreement was signed between the Russians and Afghans.

Between 1871 and 1879, the Russians launched a series of harassing attacks on the Turcomen from their base on the Caspian Sea. The largest, a considerable operation in 1877, might have spelled doom for the Teke if not for the sudden recall of the Russian troops to fight in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Teke, despite their losses, were encouraged to see the Russians retreat after each skirmish, and came to consider them a cowardly foe. Nonetheless, the Teke people were cleared from the 130-mile long swath of desert between the Caspian and Geok-Tepe, site of their great fortress. [Source: turkmen.traveler.uz]

Geok-Tepe, which means "green hill" or "green fortress" in the Turkmen language, was a fortified city of about 30-40,000. Next to the reinforced-mud houses of the town sat a huge fortress made of mud-brick, enclosed in two rings of walls. Several streams ran down from the nearby Kopet Dag Mountains and through the area, a boon on the southern fringe of the scorching Kara Kum (Black Sands) Desert. This was the Teke's great stronghold.

The Russian troops returned to Turcomen lands in 1878, flush with their triumph over the Ottoman Empire. Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania had all been pried loose from the Ottomans, and the Russians felt more than capable of handling the riffraff Teke cavalry.

On September 9, 1879, a force of 4,000 cavalry and infantry under General Lomakin marched across the desert to attack the Teke at Geok-Tepe. The Russians had small stocks of food and water, and not enough horses to carry a lot of artillery or supplies. They were opposed by nearly twice as many Turcoman defenders within the fortress; the Teke, however, had few guns and no artillery. The Russians had brought four light field-pieces, and bombarded the mud-built walls. Eager for victory, though, the Russians called off the artillery-fire too soon, and made a frontal assault with their infantry.

In response, Teke warriors leapt down from the fort and soon routed the Russian troops, who began the long retreat to the sea as fast as their legs could carry them. Armed with captured weapons, the Teke jumped onto their horses and chased the fugitive Russians. A New York Times article from September 24, 1879 states that at least 700 were killed outright. Others were made captive. The proud Russian Imperial Army had been humiliated by the Teke; it was their most disastrous Central Asian campaign since the crushing defeat at Khiva in 1717. The European media called it "The Lomakin Massacre", and the Russian general soon was recalled to St. Petersburg in disgrace.

See Separate Article RUSSIANS MOVE INTO CENTRAL ASIA Under Central Asia

Revenge for Geok-Tepe

After the slaughter of Russians at Geok-Tepe, the tsar vowed to get revenge and subdue the Turkmen once and for all. He recruited the infamously brutal General Mikhail Dmitrievich Skobelev to do the job. Skobelev had a lot blood on his hands from other campaigns for the tsars. He was also it turns out was a homosexual who lived apart from his wife after a single day of marriage and died of a heart attack in a male brothel.

In December of 1880, just over a year after "The Lomakin Massacre," Russian soldiers set out once more for Geok-Tepe. The Teke were better prepared for this assault, having redesigned the fortress defenses at Geok-Tepe to their advantage. In addition, the Turcomen now had 10,000 troops armed with 2,000 breech-loading rifles captured from the Russians. (The civilian population of Geok-Tepe was about 40,000 by this time.) The Russians under the command of Skobelev were far stronger now, as well. Skobelev had 7,000 cavalry and infantry troops at his disposal, along with 60 big guns. [Source: turkmen.traveler.uz]

In 1881, a large Russian force was assembled outside Geok-Tepe. Russian soldiers used gunpowder to blast holes in the fortress walls and charged: slaughtering 7,000 Tekke-Turkmen inside and another 8,000 as they attempted to flee across the desert. Some say as many as 150,000 Turkmen were killed.

Russian Rule in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan became part of Russian Turkestan. Following annexation to Russia, the area was administered as the Trans-Caspian District by corrupt and malfeasant military officers and officials appointed by the Guberniya (Governorate General) of Turkestan. At first the Turkmen were little affected by czarist rule until construction of the Transcaspain Rail began and oil production on the Caspian Sea was exapnded and large numbers of Russian settlers began moving into Turkmen areas.

In the 1880s, a railroad line was built from Krasnovodsk to Ashgabat and later extended to Tashkent. Urban areas began to develop along the railway. Although the Trans-Caspian region essentially was a colony of Russia, it remained a backwater, except for Russian concerns with British colonialist intentions in the region and with possible uprisings by the Turkmen.

Work began on the Trans-Caspian railway in 1881. The objective of it was to provide supply lines for Russia troops crossing the harsh Kara-kum Desert. The section between Caspian Sea and the Amu-Darya via Ashgabat and Merv was completed in 1886. Two years later the section to Bukhara and Samarkand was complete. Tashkent was added not long after that.

The Transcaspian region was established, with Turkmen oases of Maru and Tedjen being annexed in 1884. The czarist government encouraged the cultivation of cotton as a cash crop on a large scale. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, western China and Afghanistan were more important in the Great Game than Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan because they formed the buffer zone between the Russian Empire and the tge British-Indian Empire.

Soviets Take Over Turkmenistan

In 1916 the Russian Empire’s participation in World War I resonated in Turkmenistan, as an anticonscription revolt swept most of Russian Central Asia. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had little direct impact on Turkmenistan. Afterwards, in 1917, a small group of counter-revolutionaries seized control of Ashgabat. They in turn were attacked by Bolsheviks based in Tashkent.

A small British force, based in Persia, came to the support of the government in Ashgabat (the British and tsarist Russia were allies in World War I). There was small skirmish between Bolsheviks and British troops at the village of Dushakh. When World War I ended the British withdrew and the Bolsheviks claimed Ashgabat.

Because the Turkmen generally were indifferent to the advent of Soviet rule in 1917, little revolutionary activity occurred in the region in the years that followed. However, the years immediately preceding the revolution had been marked by sporadic Turkmen uprisings against Russian rule, most prominently the anti-tsarist revolt of 1916 that swept through the whole of Turkestan. Their armed resistance to Soviet rule was part of the larger Basmachi Rebellion throughout Central Asia from the 1920s into the early 1930s. Although Soviet sources describe this struggle as a minor chapter in the republic's history, it is clear that opposition was fierce and resulted in the death of large numbers of Turkmen. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 1920 the Red Army occupied what is now Turkmenistan. In the 1920s Turkmen forces joined Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks in the so-called Basmachi Rebellion against the rule of the newly formed Soviet Union. Many Turkmen participated in Basmachi Revolt. After the Soviet victory, many Turkmen fled to Iran and Afghanistan.

In 1924 the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was formed from the tsarist province of Transcaspia. By the late 1930s, Soviet reorganization of agriculture had destroyed what remained of the nomadic lifestyle in Turkmenistan, and Moscow controlled political life.

Soviet Rule in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan was initially an oblast of the Turkestan Autonomous Republic. The Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was officially proclaimed and added the Soviet Union in October 1924, when Central Asia was divided into distinct political entities: the Trans-Caspian District and Turkmen Oblast of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic became the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.

During much of the Soviet era it was a neglected republic that drew few industries or infrastructure development. Turkmenistan played its designated economic role within the Soviet Union and remained outside the course of major world events. Even the major liberalization movement that shook Russia in the late 1980s had little impact. Modest industrial capabilities were developed, and limited exploitation of Turkmenistan's natural resources was initiated. Turkmenistan’s most important roles in the Soviet system were to supply natural gas and cotton.

The Soviets tried to break the power of the Turkmen tribes. They confiscating tribally-held lands in the 1920s, introduced forced collectivization in the 1930s, and forced the Turkmen to give up their nomadic ways and settle down and grow cotton for Russian mills on farms in the Kara-kum Desert irrigated by waters from the Amu Darya and the 700-mile-long Karakum Canal. Russian immigrants moved into oversee the engineering projects, to run the collective farms and take leadership and managerial jobs in the government.

Even so the Turkmen remained fiercely nationalistic and independent. Some guerrillas fought until 1936 and many ordinary Turkmen chose to move into northern Iran and Afghanistan than give up their nomadic ways. When Stalin cracked down ruthlessly on the Turkmen in the 1930s, more fled to Iran and Afghanistan.

Moscow initiated nearly all political activity in the republic, and, except for a corruption scandal in the mid-1980s, Turkmenistan remained a quiet Soviet republic. Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika did not have a significant impact on Turkmenistan. In the late 1950s, some Turkmen leaders called for perference to be given to Turkmen in filling top positions in the republic. Moscow responded by purging the Turkmen Communist Party (TCP). In 1969, the conservative Muhamednazar Gapurov became the TCP leader. He remained in power until 1985, when he was ousted from his position as part of Gorbachev’s purge of Central Asian leaders, he was replaced by Saparmurad Niyazov.

Life in Soviet Turkmenistan

Beginning in the 1930s, Moscow kept the republic under firm control. The nationalities policy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) fostered the development of a Turkmen political elite and promoted Russification. Slavs, both in Moscow and Turkmenistan, closely supervised the national cadre of government officials and bureaucrats; generally, the Turkmen leadership staunchly supported Soviet policies. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

During the forced collectivization and other extreme socioeconomic changes of the first decades of Soviet rule, pastoral nomadism ceased to be an economic alternative in Turkmenistan, and by the late 1930s the majority of Turkmen had become sedentary. Efforts by the Soviet state to undermine the traditional Turkmen way of life resulted in significant changes in familial and political relationships, religious and cultural observances, and intellectual developments. Significant numbers of Russians and other Slavs, as well as groups from various nationalities mainly from the Caucasus, migrated to urban areas.

A small but influential educated urban elite emerged. But the for the most part the Communists took power with an iron fist and showed little inclination to reliquish it. There was also religious persecution. Of the 441 mosques counted in 1911 only five remained by 1941. Turkmenistan was stronghold of conservatism. Perestroika had little impact here.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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