Conflicts between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks were one of the main reasons the Kyrgyz decided to ally themselves with the Russians. In the early 1800s the Russians began moving into Kyrgyz territory in the Tien Shan. Some Kyrgyz tribes formed alliances with the Russians. Others formed alliances with the Uzbeks. The divisions within the Kyrgyz people were an expression of clan divisions and were also a ploy to keep either the Uzbeks or the Russians from completely controlling them.

The defeat of the Khokand Uzbeks at the hands of the Russians at Bishkek in 1862 and Tashkent in 1865 paved the way for Russian domination of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan was gradually absorbed by imperial Russia in the 1860s and 70s and formally annexed in 1876 and made part of Russian Turkestan. Not long after that Russian settlers began moving in and occupying land formally occupied Kyrgyz. The settlers often took the best land.

In 1876, after defeating the Khokand Khanatem Russian troops occupied northern Kyrgyzstan. Within five years, all Kyrgyzstan had become part of the Russian Empire, and the Kyrgyz slowly began to integrate themselves into the economic and political life of Russia. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of Russian and Ukrainian settlers moved into the northern part of present-day Kyrgyzstan. Russian specialists began large-scale housing, mining, and road construction projects and the construction of schools. In the first years of the twentieth century, the presence of the Russians made possible the publication of the first books in the Kyrgyz language; the first Kyrgyz reader was published in Russia in 1911. Nevertheless, Russian policy did not aim at educating the population; most Kyrgyz remained illiterate, and in most regions traditional life continued largely as it had before 1870. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

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 the British-Indian Empire.

Kyrgyz Revolt in 1916 Leaves Thousands Dead

The arrival of Russia settlers and efforts to conscript Kyrgyz into the Russian military triggered revolts by the Kyrgyz. In summer 1916, a local uprising against Russian Tsarist forces centered at Tokmak was brutally put down. Entire villages were burned and many people were killed. About a third of all Kyrgyz fled to Turkestan (present-day Xinjiang, western China). Accounts of the Kyrgyz death toll vary. According to some estimates, 120,000 of the 768,000 Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, a sixth of the Kyrgyz population, were killed and another 220,000 fled to China, the Pamirs and Afghanistan. Some claim that nearly half the Kyrgyz from the northern part of the country died during Urkun. Russian sources admit that the revolt claimed the lives of up to 3,000 people.

The Kyrgyz name for a 1916 revolt is Urkun (in English: "Exodus"). It began in Uzbekistan, then spread into Kyrgyzstan and other parts of Central Asia. Kazaks, Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz participated. An estimated 2,000 Slavic settlers and even more local people were killed. Many died fleeing the violence through Tien Shan mountain, through passes such as Bedel Pass border post near the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. Burkan Zulkainarov, a Kyrgyz politician told Radio Free Europe, "From the Bedel Pass — which is 4,000 meters above sea level — to the Chinese border a river flows whose banks are covered with human bones. I was shocked. In Soviet times, there was a military garrison there and, as we were told, soldiers from Muslim [Soviet] republics were never taken in there." [Source: Radio Free Europe]

According to some sources, the first uprising was in Khojent (present-day Khujand, Tajikistan ) on July 4, 1916. The activity soon spread to other parts of Turkestan. On July 11, a mass protest took place in Tashkent and the police fired shots into the crowd. The Russians arrested some of the protesters and summarily executing thirty-five people. The Russian settlers, who had been brought into Tashkent some thirty to forty years earlier, began looting, apparently at the instigation of the Russian police.

History professor Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, author of a book on Urkun, said the cause of the revolt was a call for conscription issued by Boris Stürmer: "Already forced off prime farming land by newcomers from Russia and Ukraine, the population finally revolted in 1916. The main reason was a call for men into Russia's Central Asian colonies to serve in the Tsarist army fighting in World War I under the Russian flag. The war in Europe was a strange and unnecessary conflict for the local nations. The uprising broke out across Central Asia and was brutally put down." [Source: Celestial Mountains Travel Encyclopedia of Kyrgyzstan =]

In the Tokmak area mounted groups of Kyrgyz — armed with spears, pitchforks and guns began attacking the Russian militia, imperial officials and Russian sympathizers of all nationalities. Their first targets were the Russian police headquarters, to acquire weapons — their only source of supply. Houses and haystacks were burnt, property stolen, women and children abducted, and many people were killed. Two local chiefs were declared Khans, and the idea grew up of establishing an independent state. =

The Russian response was to declare martial law in Turkestan and a lower quota of draftees. These actions did not placate Russian settlers worried about more Kyrgyz attacks. They organized barricades and mounted vigilante patrols to defend themselves and fight back. A Cossack army led by General Aninekov was sent from Vernoe (Almaty), assisted by Russian forces from Ferghana and Tashkent and other regions, was ordered to crush the rebellion. Even prisoners of war were recruited by the Russian generals as mercenaries with regular pay. The vigilantes and the army were given free reign and a the result was a serious of massive reprisals — slaughtering flocks, burning down Kyrgyz villages, killing men women and children, (and according to eyewitnesses, massacred even babies in the cradle). Hundreds of people were arrested. It is said that the trials in Pishpek were so disorganized that the authorities lost track of the people that had been executed. =

The Kyrgyz continued their revolt as the czarist government was being ousted. During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Kyrgyz tried to wrestle themselves free form Soviet control. Alash Orda, pro-democratic party founded by Kazakhs and Kyrgyz intellectual in 1905, established a short-lived autonomous government in 1917. Meanwhile, more Russian settlers were brought in to occupy confiscated Central Asian land and homes.

Bolshevik and Early Soviet Periods in Kyrgyzstan

By 1915, even many Central Asians outside the intelligentsia had recognized the negative effects of the Russian Empire's repressive policies. The Kyrgyz nomads suffered especially from confiscation of their land for Russian and Ukrainian settlements. Russian taxation, forced labor, and price policies all targeted the indigenous population and raised discontent and regional tension. The Kyrgyz in Semirech'ye Province suffered especially from land appropriation.

Following a brief period of independence after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution toppled the empire, the territory of present-day Kyrgyzstan was designated the Kara-Kyrghyz Autonomous Region and a constituent part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union) in 1924. In 1926 the official name changed to the Kyrgyz Autonomous Republic before the region achieved the status of a full republic of the Soviet Union in 1936. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Kazakh and Kyrgyz Republics were created in the 1920s when the Russians decided that Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were different people. Before then, to avoid confusion between the Kazakhs and the Cossacks, the Russians used to call the Kazakhs “Kyrgyz.” Kyrgyz were called “Black Kyrgyz.”

Stalin redrew some borders, particularly in the Fergana Valley, upgraded the status of Kyrgyzstan to a union republic, the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), which was officially proclaimed and added the Soviet Union in 1936. Many people called the republic Soviet Kirghizia. Bishkek became the capital and was renamed Frunze after Mikhail Vasilevich Frunze, a famous general who was born in Bishkek in 1885 and played major role in both the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. Frunze died in 1925 after undergoing a stomach operation ordered by Stalin.

See Separate Article EARLY SOVIET PERIOD IN CENTRAL ASIA Under Central Asia

Collectivization and Repression in the Kyrgyz Republic

Some self-rule was allowed in the 1920s. In the 1930s, a Russification effort was begun under Stalin. The Soviets had less success suppressing ethnic traditions in the Kyrgyz Republic because the region was so remote and many people lived in the mountains beyond the control of authorities.

Under the forced collectivization policy under Stalin in 1927-28, nomadic Kyrgyz were forced to settle down and hand their animals over to the state. Hundreds of thousands died in Central Asia from starvation as herders chose to slaughtered their animals rather than give them away. Again many Kyrgyz fled to western China.

During the purges that followed, people who had resisted collectivization, local cadres deemed disloyal and Kyrgyz nobility were executed or sent to labor camps. Some have argued that intentions of the Stalinist repression was to wipe out the "backward" ethnic groups in Central Asia and pave they way for Slavic people to take over the region.

Some Muslim guerrillas known as “basmachi” resisted for a while but were ultimately subdued. Under Stalin’s policy of de-nomadization and collectivization, nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were forced to settle down and turn their animals over to the state. The Kazakhs resisted. Many people chose to slaughter their animals rather than give them to the state. In some cases guerrillas fighting against the Communists killed the animals.

Soviet Era Kyrgyzstan

During the Soviet era, the Kyrgyz Republic played a specialized, uneventful role as the supplier of agricultural products and specific mineral and military products. Until the 1960s, Russians dominated the republic’s government. Beginning in that decade, the accession of Kyrgyz politicians to high-level positions established the pattern of local patronage that still underlies politics in Kyrgyzstan.[Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

The Soviets built roads, schools and airstrips and brought industry and dams to a country of nomadic herders. People were given guaranteed bread rations and lifetime job security. Between 1926 and 1959 large numbers of Russians and Ukrainians and some members of other ethnic groups moved into Kyrgyzstan. For a time non-Kyrgyz outnumbered Kyrgyz. The ethnic groups that were deported to Central Asia as punishment around the time of World War II were largely sent to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan not Kyrgyzstan.

During the Soviet era, much of Kyrgyzstan was closed off to the outside world. The Tien Shan region was largely off limits because the lay alongside sensitive border area with China. Lake Issyk-Kul was used to test secret naval weapons and technology.

Russians were disproportional represented in the Communist Party leadership and in managerial positions at factories and collectives. Russian workers from outside Kyrgyzstan were given perks and big salaries to work in the secret uranium towns and torpedo testing centers on Lake Issyk-Kul. Some old timers, mostly Russians, look back in the Soviet period with nostalgia but for the most part Kyrgyz have left the Soviet era behind them without looking back.

Soviets Carve up Central Asia

Although the peoples of Central Asia—Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Kazakhs—have a long history the republics that became Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrzgzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were created in the 1920s as the equivalent of American states with no plan for them ever to be independent countries. The Tajiks were given their own republic but it lacked Bukhara and Samarkand, cities with mostly Tajik populations that traditionally had been Tajik cultural and business centers.

Stalin, serving as people's commissar of nationalities, divided up Central Asia into the current republics in 1924 as part of a divide and rule strategy to thwart any attempt at a pan-Turkic or pan-Islamic revolt against the Soviet Union. Borders were not established along ethnic or geographical lines but along lines mostly likely to suppress dissent. Ethnic groups were divided and placed in neighboring republics rather than into a single nation. Russians were pushed to move in the area.

Before that time there were no real borders in Central Asia. People were grouped together by religion, loyalty to a certain leaders, language in a way that was always changing and never clearly defined. There was no sense of nationhood and even ethnicity. Under the Soviets, ethnicity became defined as rigidly as the borders and many groups were provided with a history, culture and tradition that conformed to Soviet ideology.

Divisions of Ethnic Groups in the Soviet Union

The ethnic mix and configuration of some the ethnic republics in the Soviet Union was odd and unnatural. The strange ethnic make up of some of the ethnic republics was primarily the work of Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Lenin in the 1920s , to suit the needs of the state not the people. In some cases traditional rivals were placed together in the same state and major population centers for one group were divided into different states. Some of the most creative gerrymandering was done where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet (See Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The Soviet authorities attempted to shape ethnic identities throughout the USSR, and in Central Asia there were particular difficulties as most people here did not see their primary identities at the ethnic or national level. As part of the Soviet process, languages were standardised, traditions codified, pre-existing sub-ethnic identities (for example, tribe or city) were suppressed (for instance, by being removed as an option in the official census), privileges were granted or denied based on ethnic identity, and many people found that they were outside the borders of their titular republic (for example, ethnic Uzbeks inside Tajikistan). Despite the continuing rhetoric that the divisions between nationalities (that is, ethnic groups) would eventually disappear and give way to a unified people, ethnic identities continued to be strongly promoted in the Soviet republics... There were, however, also divisions within the ethnic groups.For Tajiks, there was the reality that ethnic Tajiks from different regions had obvious differences in dialect and in many other aspects of their culture.” [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

The borders of the ethnic homelands and republics were gerrymandered to suit the divide-and-rule policy of Moscow. Stalin’s idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too occupied bickering among themselves to unite against Moscow and threaten the Soviet state and in turn require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”

As Lenin’s commissar in charge of national minorities, Stalin created “autonomous regions” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1922, as part of the divide to conquer strategy he also employed in Central Asia, where he grouped Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in artificial enclaves. One objective was to create a situation in which if the Soviet republics were ever able to break the grip of Soviet rule they would experience a wave of ethnic violence. One Georgian historian called the autonomous regions “time bombs set to detonate if Georgia became independent.” Indeed that is what happened when Georgia became independent in 1991. It also happened the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Volga Tartars, Germans and Cossacks, among others, have lobbied through history for the creation of ethnic states within the Russian empire. One American State Department official told the New York Times, “If you are Russian and you look at the map, what you see is that most of the country isn’t yours. The psychological consequences are enormous. It’s as if American had honored all the Indian treaties and everything from the Mississippi to the Pacific was an Indian reservation.”

Mass Deportations of Ethnic Groups

A number ethnic groups deemed untrustworthy by Stalin were sent to Central Asia — particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — before, during and after World War II. These groups included Germans, Poles, Balts, Koreans, Ingush, Chechens, Meskheti Turks, Kalmyks and Tatars. Many died on the journey to Kazakhstan. Others died not long after they arrived. Some of those that survived continued to live in Kazakhstan. Others returned to their homelands when they got the chance.

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

During World War II, the Volga Germans and Caucasus ethnic groups such as the Chechens and Ingush were rounded up a transported in cattle cars to new "homelands" in Siberia and Central Asia. After Stalin died some were allowed to return. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

Fearing them as potential spies and traitors, Stalin rounded up all the ethnic Germans in 1941 and deported them to Siberia and Central Asia. Nearly 900,00 0 people were deported. They rounded up a transported in cattle cars. Some died on the way there. Thousands died in labor camps and coal mines. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide, against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

The Germans were only able leave the places they were exiled to in 1955 and 1956, after Stalin died. In the meantime their homes and land were taken over by Russians. Without an autonomous region they were unable to organize politically and were unable to do much to improve there situation.

As for the Greeks, initially they prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There a was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory. Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” In 1949, Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Pontic Greeks in Crimea and the Caucasus.

Gorbachev Era in the Kyrgyz Republic

In the late 1980s, the Kyrgyz were jolted into a state of national consciousness by the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in power 1985–91) and by ethnic conflict much closer to home. As democratic activism stirred in Kyrgyzstan's cities, events in Moscow pushed the republic toward unavoidable independence.

In the “perestroika” era under Gorbachev, a several activist groups were founded that battled homelessness and unemployment. Some of them occupied abandoned land and built homes on it. One of these groups, Ashtar, expanded into a pro-democracy movement.

The most important single event leading to independence grew from an outburst of ethnic friction. In 1989 the Gorbachev liberalized policies ignited strife between the Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbek population in Osh Province. From the perspective of the Kyrgyz, the most acute nationality problem long had been posed by the Uzbeks living in and around the city of Osh, in the republic's southwest. Although Kyrgyzstan was only about 13 percent Uzbek according to the 1989 census, almost the entire Uzbek population was concentrated in Osh Province. Tensions very likely had existed between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks throughout the Soviet period, but Moscow was able to preserve the image of Soviet ethnic harmony until the reforms of Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. See Below. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the presidential election of 1990, the resulting general democratization movement led to the defeat of Communist Party chief Absamat Masaliyev by physicist Oskar Akayev. Akayev was the first person without a substantial party résumé to lead a Soviet republic’s government. Akayev’s support of Gorbachev at the time of the August 1991 coup and his cautious approach to independence gained international respect. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

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.

Last updated April 2016

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