Thus far, we have only examined the impact of the March 1917 Revolution in European Russia and in the Sino-Russian frontier east of Baikal. Russia and China also shared a significant border in Inner Asia, encompassing Mongolia, Turkestan and Xinjiang. The Turkestan-Xinjiang region in particular had already seen great upheavals before 1917. Forced conscription, coupled with long-standing tensions over land-ownership and ethnicity, triggered a devastating and bloody uprising in Turkestan in the summer of 1916. Tens of thousands of Kazakh and Kyrgyz nomads fled from Semirech’e into Xinjiang to escape the violence, in what is now known as the Urkun or “Great Flight”. Starvation and death were widespread.
Xinjiang governor Yang Zengxin struggled to cope with the influx of refugees. The arrival of the new, liberal Provisional Government in March brought the refugee issue to a kind of conclusion, as the following telegram from Yang suggests (translation has been re-paragraphed).
A 23 May telegram from Ili military commissioner Yang reads:
‘Regarding my management of the handover of refugee Kazakhs, the various garrison officers have now reported that in the vicinity of Khorgas and south of the Tekes River, a total of 23,000 refugee Kazakh households have been expelled, or approximately over 160,000 men and women, and around 260,000 heads of various livestock. Proof of the handover has been obtained from Russian officials. Russian Kazakh chieftains have furnished documents saying that our troops have not maltreated or harrassed their relatives and associates. However, among them are refugee Kazakhs who were expelled with their livestock in previous instances. Since they had not been taken in by Russian officials, instead returning on their own accord, hence cases have occurred where documentation was not obtained.
Having made further confidential enquiries, there are now among the nomads in the Tekes River and Khorgas region no more than 200-300 refugee Kazakh households. In the various embankments near Ghulja there is still a small number of Russian Kazakhs. Based on the Ministry’s instructions that they should be allowed to stay for three months, it was not appropriate to drive them out too much. Apart from providing a detailed report once these Kazakhs have completely departed, I am sending this initial telegram on the general circumstances and numbers involved in the expulsion of the refugee Kazakhs and their various livestock. For your kind attention and approval. Yours, Ili military commissioner Yang Feixia. Sent 20th [May].’ etc.
Of the Russian citizens who fled to Xinjiang in 1916, I estimate that the number in Ghulja, Chuguchak, Aksu, Kashgar and other areas is no less than 200,000. Repeated reports have been made on this to the government and are on file. In this current instance involving the Ili region, the number of refugee Kazakhs taken back by Russia, according to the report, was 160,000. However, the total number of refugees from Russia in the whole of Xinjiang is no less than 300,000. In addition to the Kashgar area, which has already been reported as cleared, the majority of the Russian Kazakhs in Ili have already been expelled. The Russian Kazakhs in the Aksu and Chuguchak areas have also been reported as returning successively to Russia.
This diplomatic problem occurred as long as ten months ago and, although it was extremely difficult to manage, it was fortunate that order was maintained and there were no disturbances whatsoever. If not for the government’s far-reaching, great virtue, we would not have had this outcome. Among all the staff in Ili dealing with the return of the Russian Kazakhs, there are those who have exerted themselves in some small way. I propose selecting and rewarding those who were outstanding as a sign of encouragement. Please indicate if this is appropriate. Xinjiang civilian and military governor Yang Zengxin. 24 May.Telegram from Yang Zengxin, 25 May 1917 (sent 24 May). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 101-102.
Lying behind this brief, almost clinical report are complex political and ethnic currents, as well as a profound humanitarian crisis. Although the telegram mentions only “Kazakhs” (哈), the Xinjiang authorities were well aware that the refugees included other Central Asian groups as well, such as Kyrgyz (布) and Uyghurs (纏). The term “Russian Kazakh” is also important: China had its own Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uyghur populations, who resided in Xinjiang or regularly crossed the Sino-Russian border. To nomadic groups, at least, state lines could be more symbolic than real. Yang not only feared that the refugees would trigger conflict over land and resources, he was also concerned that they could provoke similar unrest among Xinjiang’s Muslims. The Russian punitive missions that arrived in China in pursuit of the rebels also compounded matters.
The incoming Provisional Government had no stomach to carry on tsarist attempts to suppress the uprising. Already in March, conscription of the non-Russian population in Turkestan was halted. Ethnic and religious restrictions were lifted. A general amnesty was declared with respect to the rebels; following discussions with the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, refugees would be allowed to return to Semirech’e. In a May meeting with the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Russian ambassador N.A. Kudashev proposed the formation of a joint Sino-Russian refugee committee in Ili and Kashgar to enable the process of return. A peaceful resolution to the refugee crisis seemed at hand.
In practice, however, there was little relief for the refugees. Yang’s statement about Beijing’s “far-reaching, great virtue” masked the fact that even before any committee could be formed, the Beijing government had already ordered that refugees should no longer be sheltered. The term “expulsion” (驅出) was particularly apt. Before March 1917, Beijing’s stance was that of “advising” the refugees to leave. After March, however, it seems that refugees were summarily driven out into the mountains with little warning, and given no time to pack or prepare their livestock. The Russian consul at Ili protested the resulting loss of life due to cold and hunger – there was not enough time, he wrote, even to bury the dead. Only then did Beijing consent to three-months’ grace.
Things were no better on the Russian side. Amnesty notwithstanding, the Russian authorities were loathe to allow the refugees to return to their original lands, where conflict between them and Russian settlers could be reignited. Settlers were given arms in advance of the refugees’ return, hardly the recipe for defusing pre-existing tensions. Trapped in liminal frontier valleys, the returnees were subject to harrassment, robbery and outright murder by Russian troops and vigilantes. The violence continued into the summer and remained endemic even as a fresh revolutionary wave arrived in November 1917.
Yang Zengxin’s proposal to reward those involved in handling the refugees is also worth noting. In all likelihood, among the “outstanding” individuals he had in mind was Ili military commissioner Yang Feixia, whose report he had quoted and who also happened to be Yang’s paternal cousin. A cynical move, perhaps, but not unusual in the venal politics of Xinjiang at the time.