Wednesday, September 9


The road from Dzharkent to Bayseit is dotted with small Uyghur villages.  Chinese long-haulers rest under their trucks cheek-by-jowl with borzoi bitches; göşnan and şorpa smells vie with the aroma of apricot.

Uyghurs started to settle in today’s Kazakh territory in the 19th century after the Qing conquest of Dzhungaria.

The first Eastern Turkestan Republic (Uyghur: شەرقىي تۈركىستان ئىسلام جۇمھۇرىيىتى‎ Sharqi Türkistan Islam Jumhuriyiti) was a short-lived breakaway Islamic republic, founded in 1933, centered on Kashgar, primarily the product of an independence movement of the Uyghur population sensing an opportunity with a China preoccupied by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. With the sacking of Kashgar in 1934 by Hui warlords (nominally allied with the Kuomintang government in Nanjing), the first ETR collapsed. At this point, the USSR stepped into Xinjiang and effectively took over, ruling by proxy through an ethnic Chinese (i..e neither Uyghur, nor Kazakh, nor Chinese Muslim Hui/Dungan) warlord Sheng Shicai. With Soviet assistance, Sheng quelled Uyghur and Dungan uprisings, and expelled 20,000 Kazakhs out of Xinjiang to Qinghai (i.e. towards China), where they were massacred by their co-religionists the Hui.

The USSR sent a commission to Xinjiang to draw up a plan for the development of Xinjiang/Turkestan, led by Stalin's brother-in-law Alexander Svanidze, Deputy Chief of the Soviet State Bank. This resulted in a Soviet 5-year loan of 5,000,000 gold rubles to Sheng Shicai's regime. In 1940, Sheng Shicai concluded an agreement granting the USSR additional concessions in the province of Xinjiang for fifty years, including areas bordering India and Tibet. This placed the area under virtually complete control of the USSR, keeping it on maps as part of China in name only. Soviet advisors swarmed around Turkestan, developing plans to extract minerals from desert and mountain.

In 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and Stalin pivoted to the 'Western' front. Sheng took the opportunity to dump the USSR, and seek relations with the Kuomintang. With each Soviet defeat to the Nazis, Sheng expelled more Red Army military forces and technicians residing in Xinjiang. In August 1942 Sheng demanded that the Soviet Union withdrew all military forces and political officers from Xinjiang in 3 months, and, in a few days, met with Mme Chiang Kai-Shek, who flew to Urumqi with letter from Chiang Kai-Shek promising his forgiveness to Sheng for all his transgressions. Sheng was appointed the head of the Kuomintang branch in Xinjiang in 1943, and, to prove his zeal, arrested a number of Chinese communists and executed them. Among those killed was Mao Zemin, brother of Mao Zedong.

Many of the Turkic elites of the Ili region of Xinjiang had had close cultural, political and economic ties with Russia and then the Soviet Union over many generations. Refugees from the Sheng/Kuomintang alliance fled to the Soviet Union and sought Soviet assistance for Uyghur rebels fighting the Kuomintang. The result is called the Ili rebellion. At the end of the fighting, the rebels had set up a second East Turkestan Republic (1944-49.) The pro-Soviet Uyghur who became leader of Ili rebellion, Ehmetjan Qasimi (photo below), was Soviet-educated and described as "Stalin's man." It was declared:

The Turkestan Islam Government is organized: praise be to Allah for his manifold blessings! Allah be praised! The aid of Allah has given us the heroism to overthrow the government of the oppressor Chinese. But even if we have set ourselves free, can it be pleasing in the sight of our God if we only stand and watch while you, our brethren in religion ... still bear the bloody grievance of subjection to the black politics of the oppressor Government of the savage Chinese? Certainly our God would not be satisfied. We will not throw down our arms until we have made you free from the five bloody fingers of the Chinese oppressors' power, nor until the very roots of the Chinese oppressors' government have dried and died away from the face of the earth of East Turkestan, which we have inherited as our native land from our fathers and our grandfathers."

The Ili rebels engaged in retributive massacres of Han Chinese civilians, especially targeting people affiliated with the Kuomintang and Sheng Shicai. Sheng himself fled Xinjiang in 1944 (after unsuccessfully appealing to Stalin to be let to change sides again; 11 members of his family were killed in the endgame), and 50 trucks accompanied him, loaded with 'personal property earned in Xinjiang over 15 years', including 1,500 kg of gold  and  15,000 kg of silver - which he took with him to comfortable retirement in Taiwan.

At the conclusion of WW II, once the Japanese surrendered, Mao's PLA started slowly prevailing against the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War. When the PLA started to push into the Xinjiang frontier, Stalin saw the possibility of tremendous strategic advance - welcoming the Chinese communists into the orbit of the Soviets and making China a junior partner to Russia. To this end, the Ili rebellion could become a sacrificial pawn. There was a secret Stalin Mao pact. Mao telegraphed the leaders of the second Eastern Turkestan Republic, inviting them to attend the Inaugural Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference to be held in Beijing. They took the bait; on August 22 1949, the five top leaders of the Ili rebellion - Ehmetjan Qasimi ("Stalin's man"), Abdulkerim Abbas, Ishaq Beg Munonov, Luo Zhi and Delilhan Sugurbayev - boarded a Soviet plane in Almaty headed for China. Soon, cables said they had perished in a mysterious plane accident near Lake Baikal.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, former KGB generals revealed that  the five top ETR leaders had had their plane diverted to Moscow on Stalin's orders, where they had been imprisoned in the former Tsar's stables, personally interrogated by the head of MGB Colonel General Viktor Abakumov, and then executed.

With each geopolitical twist and turn, there had been Uyghur influxes into Kazakhstan - in 1934, in 1949, and again in 1962 (when the Sino/Soviet split was accompanied by an increase in oppression by the Chinese government over the Turkic minorities.)  As a result of many flows into the USSR, the Uyghurs, while never forgetting the dream of autonomy over East Turkestan, started to view Kazakhstan as something of a refuge and an adoptive homeland.

In the rest of Kazakhstan, the Soviet era had brought significant in-migration. The bigger Soviet labour camps were built here. Many minority groups (Koreans, Germans, Poles, Chechens, Ingush, Tatars) were deported to these camps during the 1930s and 1940s, under accusation of being traitors in the Great Terror wreaked by Stalin. Other Soviet citizens, mainly Slavs and Europeans, also fled to Kazakhstan from the European front to escape the advancing Nazis. Under Khrushchev, the Kazakh steppe became a destination for Russian homesteaders to conquer Virgin Lands. Kazakhs, as a result, were decimated - collectivization had disastrous effects on the nomads and destroyed a way of life that had been stable for millennia. By the 1990s the Kazakhs were no longer a majority in the Kazakh SSR.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new 'stans', the presence of minorities in Kazakhstan became problematic for the newly independent Kazakh elites. A solution has been found in ambiguity. The Kazakhs emphasized the common past - under Turko-Mongol clans, under the Tsars, and under the occupation of the Soviets. The political leadership guaranteed citizenship to all ex-Soviet residents, but at the same time supported discriminatory linguistic and demographic policies, and kept encouraging the promotion of ethnic Kazakh hegemony in the state sector. President Nazarbayev administration has kept a delicate balance between concessions granted to the 'national minorities' (mostly related to every nation being able to stay within its own folklore, though every citizen has to learn Kazakh) but kept tight control over economy and politics.

Uyghurs in Kazakhstan, then, live in limbo. They can open small businesses, study Uyghur after they study Kazakh, organize cultural events, keep beards  -  provided they do not organize politically, and accept tight State control over relations with their relatives in Xinjiang. A common suspicion of Islamic extremism lingers over them.

We wander around Bayseit, the village is festive on Saturday, the market day. At the local Uyghur school, a children's ensemble plays the dombra and the dutar. Traditional Uyghur music, however, as in Xinjiang, has been given a run for its money by Bollywood.

A traveler across the border in China writes:

Uyghur enthusiasm for Hindi film songs has moved from consumption to production. ‘Hebbeli’ is a popular bootlegging which skillfully juxtaposes Hindi film videos with Uyghur pop songs. We see a suave Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood megastar, fronting massed lines of scantily-clad chorus girls, lip-synching to the Uyghur with uncanny accuracy: ‘Khanimlar, ependiler, diqqet … mushundaq yashash kerek!’ (ladies and gentlemen, observe .... this is how to live!) Even in the heart of the Uyghur countryside you can hear local singers, accompanying themselves on the dutar long-necked lute, singing Uyghur-language cover versions of Bollywood classics. One major influence was the 1951 classic ‘Awāra’ by Raj Kapoor, a love story between the vagabond Raj and rich girl Rita.

This was one of the first films to be shown in the Uyghur region post-Cultural Revolution when its core theme of class-contradictions was deemed acceptable by the authorities. It was shown in villages across Xinjiang, projected onto sheets hung outdoors. But class struggle was not what audience took from this film. Instead it gave them their first taste of melodrama, romantic love and tragedy, and it filled an aching need for such things after the emotional wasteland of Cultural Revolution.

"It was the first film that I saw that wasn’t Chinese revolutionary propaganda”, says Aziz from Shahyar. “They showed it in our village, and we boys climbed up onto the courtyard wall to see it. We sang the title song ‘Awāra Hoo’ all the time”.

I am soon mobbed in Bayseit by young Uyghurs who ask me if I know Salman Khan. An enterprising quartet proceeds to snatch shashlik skewers and dance out a garba number lest I be a talent scout from India. The old woman selling fruit beckons me from across the street and presses some white apricot in my hands. One of the young men translates: "She is asking you to give her regards to Raj Kapoor and his family", and then, with a grin, "She also says 'Awalagu.'"


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