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The Impact of the First World War on Bashkir and Tatar Muslims (1914-1918)

Les musulmans des Bashkirs et des Tatars et la Première Guerre mondiale
Salavat Iskhakov
Traduction de Ian Appleby (traducteur)
p. Vol 141, 103-121


L'article analyse les changements sociopolitiques dans le monde musulman des Bachkirs et des Tatars de l'Empire russe en se focalisant sur ceux d’entre eux qui servent dans l'armée russe de 1904 et 1917. Les guerres de cette période (guerre russo-japonaise, Grande Guerre) ont laissé de profondes traces, de même qu’à leur suite les révolutions russes et la guerre civile. Les soldats musulmans démobilisés se sont ensuite investis dans la défense de leurs droits à l'autodétermination nationale et religieuse sur leur territoire. Dans la lutte pour la constitution de leurs propres États, les musulmans attendaient le soutien des grandes puissances européennes, en particulier de la France républicaine, et comptaient sur la reconnaissance de leurs revendications par la Conférence de la paix de Paris.

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Texte intégral

1The First World War ushered in a new situation, whereby concepts of loyalty, patriotism, and obedient citizenship took on new meanings: the loyalty of the Muslim peoples in the Russian Empire was different to that of the Orthodox population. The official documents of the Russian Empire tended to lump together the Muslim peoples of European Russia, the Volga region, the Urals, Siberia, the Caucasus, Crimea and Central Asia under the generic term “Muslim”. They were labelled by shared religious affiliation, despite the fact that they nevertheless maintained ethnic, social and cultural distinctions from Muslims in other countries. In 1913, the Empire’s Muslim population comprised some 18 million people, according to official figures, although the Kazan Tatar newspaper Yulduz claimed in a Russian-language article of 9 January 1914 entitled “Are there many Muslims in Russia?” (Rybakov, 1913: 758) that there were 21 million Muslims. That is, of a total imperial population of almost 180 million, Muslims comprised around 17%. These significant disparities in the official data are rooted in the census results of 1897, on which certain calculations and corrections were subsequently carried out; even then, however, they did not inspire particular confidence among many experts, to whom they seemed artificially low, since the authorities had a vested interest in lowering the numbers and made attempts to underplay the Muslim population of the Russian state in various ways, as part of which the calculations were falsified.

2Opinions in modern historiography vary widely over the impact of the First World War on the Muslims of the Russian Empire. This article intends to demonstrate that both the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War, which were aimed at realising imperial interests, alien to those of the Muslims, did have a great impact on Muslims throughout the country; however, there was a failure to foresee this impact in Berlin. Despite calls from Constantinople and Berlin on Muslims drafted into the Russian army to raise a holy war against their own government, there was no betrayal of the oath they had sworn on the Koran to their monarch. To the Muslim masses who had been so oppressed under Tsarism, and who were so quick to awaken in the revolutionary year of 1917, the world war gave a powerful impetus towards the political struggle to assert their rights. Their response to the injustice, humiliation and insults endured by their religion was that they gladly welcomed the fall of the monarchy in 1917, and supported democratic change in society.

Muslims at war in the russian army before and during WWI

  • 1 Russian Imperial Foreign Policy Archive (AVPRI fond/opis/delo) 149/493/1348 p. 5.
  • 2 State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) 124/43/3298 p. 1.
  • 3 Terjiman, 5 Apr. 1905.

3Of all the Muslim peoples of the Russian Empire, only the Bashkirs and Tatars of European Russia, Siberia and Crimea were subject to call up on the basis of the 1874 universal conscription principles. Furthermore, Crimean Tatars served in a separate Crimean Cavalry regiment, which was established in 1784. On the eve of the Russo-Japanese war, there were about 30 thousand Muslims in the armed forces (Arapov, 2006: 276). Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, a rumour spread that the number of adherents of Islam in the Japanese ranks was constantly increasing. This rumour originated in Berlin, and was even believed by several English newspapers.1 The disinformation reached as far as the Tatar and Bashkir communities. For example, in 1904, as mobilised Bashkirs and Tatars were being sent off to the war, the mullah of the village Sipashevo (Ufa province) said the following in his address to the rank-and-file Muslims: “You are going to war against the Japanese; they are Muslims just like you, so don’t shoot at them, but aim high.”2 A dilemma arose between religious and military obligation, which posed a difficult challenge for the conscripted Muslims. In order to boost their sense of patriotism, the mullahs said that citizens “ought to be loyal to the fatherland”, ought indeed to love it, since “love for the fatherland is tantamount to faith in Allah”, as the prophet Mohammed said.3

  • 4 Ibid., 15 Ap. 1905.
  • 5 Ibid., 7 Nov. 1905.
  • 6 Kolokol, 15 Jan. 1910.
  • 7 Terjiman, 3 May 1913.
  • 8 Ibid.

4During this war, the number of Muslim soldiers increased to between 50 and 60 thousand.4 In early 1905, the total number of Russian soldiers fighting against the Japanese was no more than 300 thousand, and so Muslim servicemen–mainly Bashkirs and Tatars–made up around 20% of this military contingent. The war made a deep impact on Muslim soldiers, as shown by a letter from a soldier from the 25th East Siberian Rifle Regiment, who fought in the defence of Port Arthur and, following its capitulation in January 1905, was taken prisoner and sent to Japan. His letter, sent from Osaka, was printed in the newspaper Terjiman. In his view, the Muslim soldiers would “return home as totally different people”.5 The Tatars, according to the Russian Orientalist Sof’ia Chicherina, understood the Russian defeat in the war against Japan to be God’s punishment for what they saw as illegal missionary activity directed against Muslims (Chicherina, 1906: 26). In other words, the Russian state, which had sought to destroy Islam, was defeated in this war. In this Muslim view, this was a sure sign of the success of the righteous, upon whom Allah had bestowed victory over the Russians. By 1910, there were 40 thousand Muslims serving in the Russian army.6 The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, which ended in the spring of 1913, similarly evoked strong emotions among Muslims in Russia. As noted by one Crimean newspaper, well informed about Muslim public opinion, Balkan rulers had spun this conflict as a modern crusade, while the brutality and ruthlessness displayed against Ottoman civilians, as well as the tacit acquiescence of the European powers in such actions, had left a painful impression. Muslims in Russia believed that the war had been waged not solely against the Ottoman Empire, but against Islam. “No other war has shaken Muslim feeling and thought the way this Balkan butchery has. Russia has repeatedly fought against Turkey, and each time in the interests of Balkan Christians. Muslims used to look upon all this as an inevitable historical phenomenon, while they found aiding the Christian population in their liberation to be understandable.”7 But this war, in which the civilian Muslim population was attacked and driven from the Balkans, had little in common with previous Russo-Turkish conflicts, and as the newspaper emphasised, it would leave deep scars in the future life of Muslims, including those living in Russia8.

5The First World War certainly did exert a powerful influence on the Muslims of Eurasia. At the start of the war, according to data published by an Azerbaijani newspaper, 320 thousand Muslims were called up to the front from various Russian provinces (Rasulzade, 2001: 528). In all, between 800 thousand and 1.5 million Bashkirs and Tatars fought in the ranks of the Russian Army on the various fronts of the First World War, which exceeded the number of Ottoman troops who had fought against Russia in the Caucasus (Iskhakov, 1999: 424; Iskhakov, 2005: 206). According to calculations made by the Russian press in 1917, 1 in 6 soldiers in the Russian army was Muslim (Tamarin, 1917: 3). By 1917, as the Tatar press noted, around 1 million Tatars and Bashkirs from the Volga and Ural regions had been mobilised to serve in the Russian Army, along with 40-50 thousand Crimean Tatars and approximately 100 thousand volunteers from the Caucasus (Iskhaki, 2012: 211), i.e. the highland peoples of the North Caucasus and Azerbaijanis from Transcaucasia, who incurred heavy losses fighting in the ranks of the Caucasian Native Cavalry Division.

6As history records, from the first days of the war, just like everywhere else in the country, the population of the Muslim areas of the Volga and Ural regions (which were mainly inhabited by Bashkirs and Tatars) exhibited an increase in patriotic sentiment: mobilisation proceeded quite smoothly; there were public displays of allegiance and demonstrations of patriotic and pro-monarchist feeling by different sections of the population, organised by the authorities to show loyalty to the Tsar and willingness to fight for the Empire; meanwhile, in the mosques, mullahs led prayers that victory be granted to the Russian Army, and members of the bourgeoisie held fund-raising drives to help the war effort, opening canteens etc. To this day, for many scholars, all this serves to create the impression of an almost euphoric Muslim patriotism (Tatarskii narod..., 2014). At the same time, it is evident that a number of modern writers have sought to adduce patriotism to the attitude of Muslim soldiers towards the authorities, when in fact the onset of war aggravated still further the already troubled relationship between the authorities and the Muslim population.

  • 9 Iskhaki (Iskhakov) Gaiaz (Mukhammet-Gaiaz) (1878-1954): Tatar writer, journalist, dramatist, and tr (...)

7Due to the policies waged by the Russian government against the Tatar population, the latter evinced little desire to fight on behalf of Russian power, as demonstrated by the beginning of attempts to avoid conscription into the army, and also by hurried departures from the country after war had broken out. Muslims emigrated into the Ottoman Empire from different regions (Kazan, Ufa, Orenburg…) in a process that continued right through to 1917 (Tiurkoglu, 2011: 84, 85, 87, 88). The famous Tatar writer Gaiaz Iskhaki9 noted that, in percentage terms, the rates of draft evasion among the Tatar population following wartime mobilisation exceeded that among ethnic Russians (Iskhakov, 2004: 7). Anti-war sentiments were widespread among Muslims, a fact well-known to the authorities, whose views towards the Muslim population were dominated by preconceptions of the lack of patriotism among the latter. According to the German historian Franziska Davis, testimony to the fact that there were serious fears in St. Petersburg over the potential for disloyal behaviour from the Russian Muslim population as a whole, and in particular from Muslims in the army, comes from a circular issued to regional governors in August 1914 by the Interior Minister Nikolai Maklakov, in which they were instructed to report on Muslim popular opinion, and in particular on the degree to which the draft of Muslim soldiers was proceeding successfully (Davis, 2014: 49).

8An analysis of letters written by soldiers shows that Tatars tended to refer to the notion of sugyshka kuylu (“being whipped to war”) when the subject of mobilisation was raised (Salakhova, 2014: 92), which clearly demonstrates their negative attitude towards the war. According to the Turkologist Nikolai Ashmarin, who served as a military censor in Kazan throughout the war, Tatar letters from August and September 1914 contained very little information about what was happening at the front. “The war, it would seem, appears to the Muslim to be some kind of unforeseen misfortune, visited by fate on some and bypassing others...” he wrote in his report dated 8 September 1914. “Some among the Tatars obviously consider that the war with Germany and Austro-Hungary is a matter which has but little connection with Muslim interests. ‘We are here in the service of the giaours [infidels]; we must endure,’ writes one such”. From the letters which found their way from the front-lines into the hands of the Kazan censors, it transpired that the Muslim soldiers did not consider this war to be “their fight”, and they stated that it had nothing to do with Muslim interests (Iskhakov, 1999: 424). An analysis published in the 1930s of the contents of 54 letters written by Muslim soldiers bears witness to their experiences of a sense of national inferiority and incessant mockery and humiliation at the hands of [ethnic] Russian military personnel (Tagirov, 1977: 74).

  • 10 Even before the war, as noted in an Interior Ministry circular dated 20 October 1914, an appeal to (...)
  • 11 GARF 1834/1/700 p. 1.

9After Ottoman forces entered the war on the German side in October 1914, Nicholas II declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 20 October (New style: 3 November). The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed V, declared war on Russia, England and France on 28 October (11 November), and on that same day the religious and political authorities issued a proclamation calling on all Muslims resident in the Entente countries to declare holy war on their governments (Zürcher, 2016).10 A leaflet printed in Russian at the start of the war said “I address this decree of the Caliph and the content of the fatwah to Muslim officers and soldiers serving in the Russian Army. Leave the ranks of the Russian army, that most evil and implacable enemy of Islam, of the caliphate and the Ottoman Empire. Join the friends of your caliph, join the forces of Austria and Germany, who will welcome you with open arms.”11 Hence, the Muslims in Russia were once again faced with a difficult choice between their religious and their secular affiliations. Such appeals to Russian Muslims did not go unnoticed by the Russian government. An anti-Ottoman propaganda campaign, buttressed by scholarly input, was launched in Russia.

  • 12 Maksudov (Maksudi) Sadrutdin (Sadri) (1878–1957): Tatar lawyer, historian, polemicist, writer and d (...)

10Considering that, as Sadri Maksudov12 said in January 1920 in his address to the Versailles Peace Conference on behalf of Muslims from all over the former empire, the attitude towards the Caliph among Muslims was like that of Catholics towards the pope (Grazhdanskaia voina..., 2014: 771), what was the mindset of the Muslim population in Russia following the emergence of the Ottoman Empire as an enemy combatant? Tatar peasants offered a somewhat muted display of patriotic sentiment following the Empire’s entry into the war, limiting themselves only to prayers for a Russian victory (Minikhanov, 2014: 259). What were the mullahs preaching in the mosques in such a complex situation? Being Tsarist officials, albeit in turbans, they appealed to Muslims not to choose the path of jihad, nor to act against the Russian government, and in so doing they made the customary references to the Koran and Hadith. Thus, the Orenburg and Taurida muftis made a number of appeals to the local clergy, and also attempted to stoke a sense of Muslim patriotism as the ideological basis for wartime self-sacrifice. The Orenburg mufti reminded his co-religionists of their “sacred duty” to defend their fatherland, and bade soldiers remember their oath to fight to the last drop of blood for their Tsar and fatherland (Davis, 2014: 51).

11Such exhortations in fact demonstrate the reluctance of Muslims to wage war in support of the Tsar and Russian authorities. The efforts of Muslim clerics to mobilise Muslim patriotism came to naught. Muslims did not want to go to war. There was, however, no mass desertion from the army, although isolated instances did occur. Thus a Tatar soldier in Samara wrote to his brother on 30 December 1914 that when he ended up on the front and found himself in combat, “the only thing for it then is to get captured, to try and get captured... Just now they’re writing that our brothers the Turks have been defeated. If this news is true, then it is probably sad for all Muslims. God has given all Muslims over into the hands of the infidels. When will he deliver us from their hands?” (Samarskaia guberniia…, 2014: 634–635). Those who did end up being captured by the enemy were met with a particular interest from the German high command. A special propaganda was set up in Germany for Muslim prisoners of war, aimed at enticing them over to the side of the German and Ottoman armies. However, this large-scale propaganda effort did not bring about the expected result. One of the reasons, according to Kazan historians, could be considered the haste with which German strategists decided to attempt to instil such revolutionary ideas in the Muslim minorities, along with the lack of knowledge they possessed about these people, their mindset and aspirations. Moreover, there was no clear answer to the question “How will Muslim people benefit from a German victory?” And it was this lack of clarity, according to those Tatar historians, that played the key role in the failure of the German propaganda. The plans of the German strategists were built on unrealistic notions of the concept of holy war which ought, in their opinion, to have compelled the Muslims of Russia to fight against the Russian Tsar (Giliazov and Gataullina, 2015: 289-291), to whom they had sworn an oath on the Koran. This article demonstrates the mental robustness of the Bashkirs and Tatars in German captivity in the face of ideological and religious propaganda supporting German interests in the First World War.

12As Iskhaki (2012: 211-212) wrote in the autumn of 1917, the Russian-language press in Russia had, since the beginning of the war, been turning the heads of everyone, Muslims included, with statements such as “We are fighting for freedom, we fight in the cause of defending the rights of small nations”. Russian Muslims, in fighting against the Ottomans, were undermining their faith; in this way “Muslim forces shed blood for the conquest of sacred religious ground”. Accordingly, the Muslims of the Russian Empire had been deceived in this war. “They all shed their blood to destroy and dismember Turkey, to hand Istanbul over to Russia, to raise the cross over the mosque of Haghia Sophia, to forcibly overthrow the Turkish government and to appoint as Turkish ruler an Arab Caliph subservient to the English!” (Iskhaki, 2012: 211–212). These lines show the strength of Muslim displeasure at their treatment by the authorities. A typical example follows: a Tatar private wrote home (Viatka province) that two of his fellow countrymen “had fled from the war” in November 1915, that he had read in the papers that “the [ethnic] Russians want to destroy our sacred Koran, saying that the Koran should be driven out of here” (Rafikov, 2014: 418, 419). Such assessments show that the prism through which Muslims understood the war was one of defending their religion not only from an external enemy but also from an internal Islamophobia emanating from the government, the Church and the press.

13Although Muslims were compelled to fight against their co-religionists following the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war, and for this reason there was, at least in Saint-Petersburg, the perception of a threat to Imperial interests, there was by and large no doubt among army officers and government officials over the loyalty of Muslim soldiers to their monarch and country. However, the hopes of Muslims that their military service would be rewarded by enhanced opportunities in the political life of the country did not prove well-founded (Davis, Bol’shaia voina Rossii..., 2014: 11). During the war years, there were no tangible positive changes in the socio-political and spiritual life of Muslims in the country. The actual situation and the constant accusations from Tsarist officials, Russian politicians and the Russian-language press of Pan-Islamism, Pan-Turkism, separatism, treachery etc. spurred a Muslim movement into action, which developed in the direction of cultural autonomy, seeking to familiarise Muslim nationalities with world culture and with the spiritual and cultural development of Muslims. It also advocated the democratisation of religious and civil administration. In this Muslim movement there coexisted two main currents: conservative and liberal. The struggle between their leaders was a reflection of a clash between two groupings of the political elite: one sought to smooth over differences and to create a united Muslim movement throughout the Empire, while the other promulgated the separate development of particular nationalities, identified by language. But the wider Muslim population of the Empire was absolutely indifferent to this national idea, as were, it must be said, their co-religionists in other countries. However, the Muslim uprising in Central Asia (summer 1916 to spring 1917) did have a large impact on them. Observing the actions of the army and government, Muslims in other parts of the Empire became ever more strongly convinced that in fact the authorities would never countenance the notion of true equality between Muslims and Orthodox Christians, which increased the sense of alienation felt by the Muslim masses towards those authorities. When the autocratic regime collapsed, they turned away from the monarchy without regret.

Revolution in Russia: reform of the armed forces and the formation of Muslim military units.

14Following the fall of the monarchy, the establishment of a democratic system, and the abolition of religious and ethnic discrimination, the Muslim community had the opportunity to express their demands for the first time. The revolution was perceived by Tatars in particular as the triumph of justice, the beginning of a free existence, the end to all religious and ethnic restrictions and, finally, their liberation from the oath they had sworn to the Tsar. As those in German captivity saw it, to take one example, the revolution was the one good thing to have happened during this war; it was to bring them a decent life (Giliazov and Gataullina, 2015: 264).

15Throughout the Empire, Muslims became more politically active, especially in the army, which inaugurated a process of reform. The issue of ethnically-constituted regiments was discussed on 9 May 1917 by the soldiers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The proponents of forming such units spoke of the possibility that they could raise the combat effectiveness of the army and strengthen the position on the front-lines. One of the participants, speaking on behalf of Muslim soldiers, noted that they wanted to have commanders in such units from their own areas, who could give orders in their native language. He also stressed that “we, the oppressed minorities, fear more than anything else a return to the old system.” A resolution was ultimately passed declaring that the formation of separate national regiments was undesirable, and threatened the “integrity” of the army; any such separate ethnic units were only to be permitted if manned by volunteers (not conscripts) (Petrogradskii Sovet…, 2002: 26, 27, 29, 30). Notwithstanding the negative attitude of the Petrograd Soviet Executive Committee to the formation of national units, this did not prevent the emergence in June 1917 of a regiment of Ukrainian soldiers nor, subsequently, that of other ethnic formations.

  • 13 Alkin Il’ias (1895–1938): Tatar. In Petrograd from 1914, he studied at the Polytechnical Institute (...)
  • 14 Utro Rossii, 2 May 1917.
  • 15 Izvestiia Vserossiiskogo musul’manskogo voennogo shuro (hereafter IVMVSh), 24 Dec. 1917.
  • 16  Russian State Military-Historical Archive (RGVIA) 2031/1/1577 p. 31–32.

16Delegates to the all-Russian Conference of Muslim warriors (Moscow, April 1917), chaired by warrant officer Il’ias Alkin,13 debated the war, speaking in favour of a peace accord to be concluded as soon as possible on the basis of national self-determination without annexations or reparations; they also acknowledged the need for representatives of the Muslim population of Russia to take part in any future peace conference.14 At the meeting it was decided to push for the formation of Muslim military units, and an All-Russian Provisional Muslim Military Soviet (Vremennyi Vserossiiskii musul’manskii voennyi sovet or VVMVS) was elected. This was entrusted with the task of organising Muslim soldiers and beginning preparatory work towards the formation of entire units.15 Thus began the movement for the “Muslimification” of the Russian army: the VVMVS set itself the aim of creating a Muslim army as one component of the Russian armed forces. Evidence for this comes inter alia in the form of a telegram which, judging from its contents, was sent by VVMVS chairman Alkin to front-line commanders. It baldly announced “preparations for a million-strong army of Muslim soldiers stationed at the front”.16

  • 17  Izvestiia Komiteta Bakinskikh musul’manskikh obshchestvennykh organizatsii (hereafter IKBMOO), 11 (...)
  • 18  IVMVSh, 7 Jan. 1918.
  • 19  Izvestiia Vserossiiskogo musul’manskogo soveta (hereafter IVMS) 22 Sept.- 20 Oct. 1917.­­­­­­­­­

17In Kazan, the First All-Russian Muslim Military Congress (17-25 July) was opened by a military Imam reading verses from the Koran, and closed with a rendition of La Marseillaise.17 The main issue at the Congress was organisational: elections to the All-Russian Muslim Military Soviet. It was decided to establish a Central Military Council (VMVSh) as the supreme body for Muslim soldiers, and Alkin was elected as chairman (Rezoliutsii…, 1917: 3-12). The Congress eventually decided to send a special delegation to Petrograd without delay in order to resolve the question as to whether separate Muslim military units could be formed. In the event of a refusal, it was decided that formation should proceed in a clandestine manner. Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the new Minister of War, did not discount the aspirations of Muslim servicemen. He recognised their military committees, both in rear echelons and at the front. The VMVSh gained the right to have its own commissars in the Political Directorate of the War Ministry, in the Main Directorate of the General Staff, in the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, and in headquarters on the front lines, in the various armies, in the headquarters of “Muslimified” divisions, in military district headquarters etc.18 At the official reception for the VMVSh delegation, Verkhovsky let it be known that approval had been granted for ethnic military formations to be created by transferring the requisite personnel from existing military units. Furthermore, provision had been made for the formation of three reserve Muslim regiments in Ufa, Kazan and Simferopol, to be followed by additional units in other Muslim centres. The following resolution, laid down by Verkhovsky in one of his many memoranda on the “Muslimification” of the army, is typical: “To instruct the Kazan district that Muslims are permitted... to form up as one reserve unit in each city. To identify Muslim-majority units in the regular army... to select these regiments for permanent manning by Muslims.” In response to suspicions of “separatism”, Verkhovsky replied “If we are not to trust the peoples of Russia, then there is no point in attempting to save Russia; it is only in the unity of all, and in trusting all the peoples living in Russia, that the salvation of our motherland lies.”19

  • 20 Tokumbetov Usman (Osman) (1888-1930?): Tatar. At the outbreak of WWI he was a student of St Petersb (...)
  • 21  IVMS, 22 Sept. 1917.
  • 22  Izvestiia Kazanskogo voenno-okruzhnogo komiteta (Kazan’), 17 Sept. 1917.
  • 23  RGVIA 2003/2/336 p. 57.
  • 24  Izvestiia Komiteta Bakinskikh musul’manskikh obshchestvennykh organizatsii, 7 Oct. 1917.

18The army began taking measures to implement Verkhovsky’s orders, but the authorities did not take consistent action. Speaking at a Democratic meeting in Petrograd on September 17, the VMVSh deputy chairman Usman Tokumbetov20 proposed that “the army be reconstructed ... along the principles of an ethnically-constituted army.” He made reference to the idea that “only in an ethnic army, when those in command are close in spirit and in blood to the mass of the soldiers, when they are closely linked to their kin, the mass of the soldiers, only then can the reformed commanders deserve the trust of the soldiers; only then can an army organised along ethnic grounds be capable of saving the motherland from further breakdown and collapse”. Only “an army organised along ethnic grounds”, he forecast, “is capable of leading Russian out from this dead end”. The attempt to create “ethnic/Muslim regiments”, he went on, was not some idle fantasy but an “idea of benefit to the state, and of vital importance to the state”.21 This was how Muslims perceived their role in enhancing the military capabilities of the Russian Army. On 17 September, those garrisons in the Kazan military district which had a sufficient number of Muslim soldiers received orders to assign them to Muslim companies and, where possible, to appoint Muslim officers.22 On 18 September, the Government approved the transfer of Muslims into separate units.23 This news spread quickly through the country, and was received with great enthusiasm among Muslims. “For us, today, a new era dawns,” wrote one Muslim journalist in a newspaper article, “and we must add two new commemorative dates to the list of our national holidays: the day of liberation from the Tsarist yoke and the Day of the decree on the creation of a national army”.24

  • 25  RGVIA 2003/2/336 p. 24, 25, 26–27, 50, 57, 58, 92-92ob.
  • 26  Vestnik Vremennogo pravitel’stva, 11, 17 Oct. 1917.

19On 7 October, Alkin sent a telegram to the Supreme Commander Aleksandr Kerensky, insisting that he permit the reconstitution of the army along ethnic grounds. That same day, the Chief of the General Staff, General Vladimir Marushevsky, sent his own telegram to Headquarters, stating that Verkhovsky, with reference to the constant petitions from Muslim organisations that enjoyed widespread support among Muslim servicemen, had ordered that Muslim soldiers should be assigned to reserve infantry regiments in all cities where they were present in large numbers. Initially, three regiments were to be created: in Simferopol, manned by Crimean Tatars; in Kazan and in Ufa, manned by Volga Tatars; and reinforcements were to be sent to the front immediately. The General Staff decided that these regiments were to be sent to the infantry divisions on the South-Western Front, the Western Front and the Romanian Front. On the basis of an order dated 11 October from the Chief of the General Staff, the “Muslimification” of these reserve regiments was begun.25 Regarding the issue of national armies, on 10 October Verkhovsky said that, in addition to the Polish units which already existed at that time, “the formation of units is actually already under way–Ukrainian, Estonian, Georgian, Tatar... This will give us the opportunity to allow people who used to live together to serve alongside one another, and in addition to this will, in exactly the same way, allow us to increase the military capability of the army.”26

  • 27  IVMVSh, 3 Dec. 1917.
  • 28  RGVIA 2003/2/336 p. 60–62.
  • 29  Ibid.

20Muslim units had become necessary to the Provisional Government in the guise of buttresses to it. The VMVSh message reporting governmental approval for the formation of Muslim regiments was greeted with a lively response from Muslim soldiers in the front lines, being published, in particular, in the newspaper Voice of the 3rd Army (25 Oct. 1917). Taken overall, nationalisation affected 53.5 infantry and rifle divisions, 6 cavalry divisions, 3 separate infantry regiments and 5 separate cavalry regiments, plus a multitude of auxiliary and technical support units. In late September 1917, “Muslimification” began, proceeding in three directions (the 1st Muslim Corps on the Romanian Front, the 75th and 77th Infantry Divisions manned by Volga Tatars and a Corps of Transcaucasian Muslims). In all, 8 infantry and rifle divisions and 1 cavalry regiment were “Muslimified” (Sheviakov, 1998: 37). “Muslimification” accounted for approximately 16% of all “nationalised” infantry and rifle divisions, and 20% of cavalry units. As the Muslim press maintained in the autumn of 1917, “Reorganisation of the army along national lines is proceeding at full pace.”27 Chief of the General Staff Marushevsky stated in a telegram to the Headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief that, of the Muslim peoples striving for the creation of separate units, it was mostly Tatars and Bashkirs. The general emphasised that Turkic peoples were united by the commonality of their religion, which was for them “the main and most powerfully unifying point of departure.” He went on to explain their attitude in the clearest of terms: “no desire for insularity among the Muslim nationalities can be discerned, while, on the contrary, there can be seen a strong urge towards unification on the basis of their common interests.”28 Unlike many prejudiced politicians, the general correctly believed that “all the most authoritative Muslim democratic revolutionary organisations”, such as the All-Russian Muslim Soviet and the VMVSh, “are multi-national in nature” and “have as their aim to unite Muslims without distinction along ethnic grounds...” According to his data, this drive for unity could be seen in every Muslim military district congress and also in the Muslim committees of the regular army. The general agreed with the idea that Muslims, united by a shared religion, “provide strong military units through high morale and discipline.” For this reason, the General Staff, in initially “Muslimifying” three reserve infantry regiments in Kazan, Ufa and Simferopol, “did not find it possible to assign Muslim soldiers by individual nationality, which would only have complicated the work of organising military units along national lines which is urgent at the present time.” Marushevsky concluded that there was an urgent need to select divisions for “Muslimification”, since the delay “was causing tension among Muslims, which could only lead to undesirable complications”,29 alluding to the mass desertions that had swept the ranks of the Russian army.

  • 30 Vıstnyk Heneral’noho Sekretariyatu Ukrains’koi Narodn’oi Respubliky, 23 Dec. 1917.
  • 31  IVMS, 29 Dec. 1917.
  • 32  RGVIA 2003/2/336 p. 86-88; IVMVSh, 17 Dec. 1917.

21In Autumn 1917, it became known that the disciplinary code of the newly-formed 1st Muslim Infantry Corps was similar to that of the French army, although the oath was sworn on the Koran.30 Officers from all branches of the armed forces were invited to serve in this Muslim Corps, as were others, including doctors and specialists from various branches of the military. VMVSh invited 7 French officer-instructors to assist in training the Corps.31 On 13 December 1917, delegates from various regiments, divisions, corps and armies arrived at the Muslim Committee of the Western Front to demand the immediate formation of another such Muslim Corps. The frontline Muslim committee stated in a telegram sent on 14 December to their military commanders that, as the result of the delay in forming such a corps, the mood of the 70 thousand Muslims on the Western Front was such that the Muslim committee absolved themselves of any responsibility for the consequences.32 Thus, practical steps were taken towards the formation of two large-scale Muslim military formations. This was the result of the position maintained by Muslim soldiers, who did not succumb to the “revolutionary ferment” that had seized the army, and of the efforts of the VMVSh.

  • 33  IVMVSh, 12, 31 Dec. 1917.
  • 34  Ibid., 24, 31 Dec. 1917.
  • 35  Russian State Military Archive (RGVA) 1/1/21 p. 157.

22By the end of 1917, VMVSH was “the highest authority for over one million Muslim soldiers” and it considered that the government was not able to dictate to Muslims the conditions of internal living arrangements in army units. By December 1917, there existed 4 frontline committees, 13 army committees, 12 district committees, 98 garrison committees, and over 150 divisional Muslim committees; in all, around 300. There was not a single army or district in which a Muslim committee was not operative, and very few divisions and garrisons without a Muslim organisation. Muslim cavalry and artillery units began to be formed 33 and the Muslimification of the regiment in Moscow and in Elisabethpol was begun. When the “Muslimification” of the 144th regiment in Ufa was completed, its commander, appointed by VMVSh, was ceremonially handed a green standard and a thoroughbred horse.34 In January 1918, this well-equipped and disciplined regiment consisted of some 5,000 men.35

  • 36  IVMVSh, 12, 31 Dec. 1917.

23In just a few months following the February revolution, Muslim soldiers–who had hitherto been scattered right across the country, often physically abused and deprived of even the basic rights of an enlisted man–were able to create cohesive organisations which strove to attain the goal of all soldiers serving in their own national units, with the ultimate aim of Muslims serving in a national army.36 Such armed forces were essential to them since, in the context of the Russian civil war, Muslim nationalities had no recourse other than to rapidly accelerate the establishment of statehood as a means of self-defence and survival.

Conclusion: toward political self-determination for Muslim peoples

24The Alliance of United Highlanders of the Northern Caucasus and Dagestan declared the existence of a Mountain Republic in November 1917. The Bashkir Regional Soviet announced the creation of the Autonomous Republic of Bashkurdistan. The Fourth Extraordinary All-Muslim Regional Congress announced Autonomous Turkestan. In Ufa, there commenced the National Gathering of Muslim Turkic-Tatars from European Russia and Siberia. In December, the Second All-Kazakh Congress in Orenburg decided to establish the ethno-territorial autonomous area Alash (various regions of in nowadays Central Asia and Altai). In Bakhchisarai, the Crimean people’s Republic was proclaimed. In early March 1918, the Idel-Ural (Volga-Ural) Republic was proclaimed in Kazan; this state was by no means simply Tatar, being a federal republic of Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash, ethnic Russians and other nationalities inhabiting the region. In late March, the republic was crushed by the Bolsheviks, following which its supporters mounted an armed uprising. In May 1918, the Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed, while the representatives of Northern Caucasian nationalities promulgated a declaration of independence (North Caucasus and Dagestan, which united seven regions on federal principles). On 1 December 1918, the Muslim National Council in Kars adopted a resolution on the formation of a South-West Caucasian Democratic Republic (Gadzhiev, 2004: 48, 52–53, 72). These and other examples bear witness to the fact that Muslim nationalities and their political leaders were attempting to restore or to create statehood for themselves, drawing on both their heritage and on principles of democracy and parliamentarism.

25It is precisely for this reason that Muslim delegates were sent to the Versailles peace conference to deliver the “Muslim Declaration”, which announced that Muslims throughout the former Russian Empire held a stake in how issues regarding the post-war reconstruction of the world were to be resolved: no question concerning Russia could or should be decided without input from Muslims, whose fates were so closely intertwined with that of the country as a whole. Representatives of the Muslim population of the former Russian Empire should be invited and given a deciding vote; all Russian Muslims should be granted the right to national self-determination at their own unfettered discretion; all military activity or preparations for war should cease and a lasting peace be established for all the peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa, each of whom should be granted the right to full national self-determination (Iskhakov, 2014: 120).The question was raised as to whether there would be early international recognition of statehood for Russian Muslims, whose hopes lay on help from the great European powers. But these appeals to the Paris peace conference did not meet with the hoped-for recognition of their states.

26The Muslims of the Russian empire in the early twentieth century had a quite distinct political programme based on the belief that they had the right to their own territory within the framework of the monarchy, and that the empire should change from being an Orthodox, Great Russian or Russian state to one which was Islamic and Turkic. This demand arose from a sense of diminished significance in the life of imperial society, and of alienation from the administration of the state they were a part of. In the context of the revolutionary years 1917-1918, the “Muslimification” of the Russian army from below was to a significant degree the product of the soldiers’ urge to defend their own nationalities, and not at all a desire to protect the Russian authorities. The project to create a million-strong Muslim army within the armed forces of the Russian republic was successfully launched in the summer of 1917, and by early 1918 serious progress had been made. The subsequent demobilisation of hundreds of thousands of Bashkirs and Tatars put a stop to this process, but the return of demobilised Muslims from the front led to an increased role that not only they but also other Muslims in the former Empire played in the public life of the entire post-Imperial space. New states arose in every part of the former Empire. The Muslim peoples on their own territories were able to avoid the many horrors of the Russian Civil War, and even to ensure for themselves a relatively free democratic development. And the prime movers behind this process were the soldiers and officers that had taken part in the First World War.

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1 Russian Imperial Foreign Policy Archive (AVPRI fond/opis/delo) 149/493/1348 p. 5.

2 State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) 124/43/3298 p. 1.

3 Terjiman, 5 Apr. 1905.

4 Ibid., 15 Ap. 1905.

5 Ibid., 7 Nov. 1905.

6 Kolokol, 15 Jan. 1910.

7 Terjiman, 3 May 1913.

8 Ibid.

9 Iskhaki (Iskhakov) Gaiaz (Mukhammet-Gaiaz) (1878-1954): Tatar writer, journalist, dramatist, and translator. One of the leaders of the Tatar Socialist Revolutionaries, a delegate to the National Parliament of Turkic-Tatar Muslims of European Russia and Siberia. Émigré.

10 Even before the war, as noted in an Interior Ministry circular dated 20 October 1914, an appeal to the Muslims of the whole world was drawn up. This appeal, bearing the title “Holy War is a Must”, made reference to excerpts from the Koran to argue that every Muslim must employ all means and measures to fight for the liberation of other nationalities professing Islam but subjugated to non-Muslims (Samarskaia guberniia…, 2014: 172).

11 GARF 1834/1/700 p. 1.

12 Maksudov (Maksudi) Sadrutdin (Sadri) (1878–1957): Tatar lawyer, historian, polemicist, writer and deputy in the 2nd and 3rd State Dumas. In 1917 he was a member of the Turkestan committee of the Provisional Government, a deputy in the National Parliament of Turkic-Tatar Muslims of European Russia and Siberia (1917-1918) and was in charge of Turkic-Tatar Muslims in various department of the Russian Interior. Emigré.

13 Alkin Il’ias (1895–1938): Tatar. In Petrograd from 1914, he studied at the Polytechnical Institute and became an army warrant officer from 1915. A Menshevik, and then a Socialist Revolutionary, he chaired the All-Russian Muslim Military Council (1917), was deputy of the Constituent Assembly and participated in the civil war. Repressed.

14 Utro Rossii, 2 May 1917.

15 Izvestiia Vserossiiskogo musul’manskogo voennogo shuro (hereafter IVMVSh), 24 Dec. 1917.

16  Russian State Military-Historical Archive (RGVIA) 2031/1/1577 p. 31–32.

17  Izvestiia Komiteta Bakinskikh musul’manskikh obshchestvennykh organizatsii (hereafter IKBMOO), 11 Aug. 1917.

18  IVMVSh, 7 Jan. 1918.

19  Izvestiia Vserossiiskogo musul’manskogo soveta (hereafter IVMS) 22 Sept.- 20 Oct. 1917.­­­­­­­­­

20 Tokumbetov Usman (Osman) (1888-1930?): Tatar. At the outbreak of WWI he was a student of St Petersburg University law faculty. He volunteered as a naval warrant officer (posted to the Admiralty, late 1916). He was among the leaders of the All-Russian Muslim Military Soviet and the Second All-Russian Muslim Military Congress (1918), which resolved to send him to Germany to work among Muslim PoWs. After Brest-Litovsk, he was in Turkey and Germany and later in Crimea, where he played an active political role. In 1923 he emigrated to Germany.

21  IVMS, 22 Sept. 1917.

22  Izvestiia Kazanskogo voenno-okruzhnogo komiteta (Kazan’), 17 Sept. 1917.

23  RGVIA 2003/2/336 p. 57.

24  Izvestiia Komiteta Bakinskikh musul’manskikh obshchestvennykh organizatsii, 7 Oct. 1917.

25  RGVIA 2003/2/336 p. 24, 25, 26–27, 50, 57, 58, 92-92ob.

26  Vestnik Vremennogo pravitel’stva, 11, 17 Oct. 1917.

27  IVMVSh, 3 Dec. 1917.

28  RGVIA 2003/2/336 p. 60–62.

29  Ibid.

30 Vıstnyk Heneral’noho Sekretariyatu Ukrains’koi Narodn’oi Respubliky, 23 Dec. 1917.

31  IVMS, 29 Dec. 1917.

32  RGVIA 2003/2/336 p. 86-88; IVMVSh, 17 Dec. 1917.

33  IVMVSh, 12, 31 Dec. 1917.

34  Ibid., 24, 31 Dec. 1917.

35  Russian State Military Archive (RGVA) 1/1/21 p. 157.

36  IVMVSh, 12, 31 Dec. 1917.

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Salavat Iskhakov, « The Impact of the First World War on Bashkir and Tatar Muslims (1914-1918) », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 141 | juin 2017, mis en ligne le 26 octobre 2017, consulté le 22 septembre 2018. URL :

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Salavat Iskhakov

Institute of Russian History, (Moscow, Russia)

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