This chapter seeks to understand why the death toll of the uprising, in both
the settler and native societies, was highest in Semirech’e. It was the
intersection of ethnic mobilization and the fear of destruction in the hands
of the “enemy” group that gave rise to the mass nature of violence. Both
parties to the conflict were driven in their actions by what they saw as a
threat to their livelihoods and indeed their lives. Although the threat
posed by groups and individuals was often exaggerated, perceptions of the
threat were real. That this threat was embodied by the aggregate group –
rather than certain individuals – was the chief reason behind the
indiscriminate targeting of the non-combatant, civilian population by both
rebels and colonists.
The 1916 revolt was a key event in the history of Central Asia, and of the
Russian Empire in the First World War. This volume is the first comprehensive
reassessment of its causes, course and consequences in English for over sixty
years. It draws together a new generation of leading historians from North
America, Japan, Europe, Russia and Central Asia, working with Russian archival
sources, oral narratives, poetry and song in Kazakh and Kyrgyz. These illuminate
in unprecedented detail the origins and causes of the revolt, and the immense
human suffering which it entailed. They also situate the revolt in a global
perspective as part of a chain of rebellions and disturbances that shook the
world’s empires, as they crumbled under the pressures of total war.
The revolt of 1916 in Russian Central Asia was an important part of the First
World War and the crisis of imperial globalization. Despite this, it remains
little-known and understudied in Anglophone and Francophone scholarship.
While there is a rich legacy of Soviet-era publications on the revolt in
Russian, these usually bear the strong ideological imprint of the period
when they were produced. The post-Soviet period has seen a flowering of new
scholarship from Central Asia itself, some of it in Central Asian languages.
While much of this continues to use paradigms and terminology inherited from
the Soviet period, and interprets the revolt in a series of narrow national
frameworks, some of it is also making use of new types of sources, and
uncovering voices that were often silent in earlier scholarship – most
notably those of the rebels themselves, and the revolt’s many victims. This
introduction will give a brief overview of the overall course of the revolt,
review the existing historiography, suggest some of the unanswered questions
that remain, and explore the new approaches found in the most recent
publications and among the contributors to this volume.