Why revolutionary Russia backed Turkish nationalists over communists | Bulent Gökay


(Communist Party of Turkey founder Mustafa Suphi (right) met a mysterious fate when he tried to take on the Ankara government. Wikimedia Commons)

Both the Turkish nationalists and the Russian Bolsheviks found themselves threatened by the Western imperial powers. The 1920s were the heyday of anti-imperialist revolution for the Bolsheviks, and the notion of an alliance with majority Muslim nations made perfect sense – a chance to simultaneously unite against the imperial West in the Muslim world and to transform Muslim society along the Bolsheviks’ preferred ideological lines.

On December 7 1917, almost immediately after they came to power, the Bolsheviks issued their Appeal to the Toiling Muslims of the East, which assured the Muslims of Russia that “your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions, are free and inviolable” and called on the Muslims of the east to overthrow the imperialist robbers and enslavers of their countries.

At the Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920, Lenin went so far as to suggest that, with “the aid of the proletariat of the advanced countries”, it might be possible for Asia to skip the capitalist stage and “go over to the Soviet system, and, through certain stages of development, to communism”.

In this promising atmosphere of friendship between the Bolsheviks and anti-imperialist Muslim Turks, a number of left-leaning groups started to gain momentum in Anatolia in the 1920s. Most significant among these were the Green Army Association (Yesil Ordu Cemiyeti) a popular grassroots radical movement, and the Communist Party of Turkey, organised in 1920 and led by Mustafa Suphi, a Turkish communist who had been in Russia since the start of World War I.

(Signing the Treaty of Moscow, March 1921. Wikimedia Commons)

The Soviet government and Turkey’s new nationalist government were drawn together by mutual fear of the Western powers in the region and, on March 16 1921, they signed the Treaty of Moscow. In its preamble, it committed both countries to the “struggle against imperialism”. Thus began the long era of Soviet-Turkish friendship, officially confirmed in December 1925 with a non-aggression pact in December 1925.

Aid to – or an alliance with – a local government or a “bourgeois” national movement aimed against “imperialists” always posed the danger that the non-communist “client” might turn against the local communists. In practice there was no escaping from this dilemma, and in Turkey as elsewhere, the Soviets many times took the side of the friendly government as opposed to their Communist fellow travellers. While the Communist Party of Turkey enjoyed political and financial support from Moscow from the outset, it was clear that when push came to shove, that relationship would always be less important than the Soviets’ bigger strategic concerns.

Murder on the Black Sea

In September 1920, soon after the party was founded, Mustafa Suphi and the other leading party members decided to shift the centre of their activities to Turkey proper. In late 1920, they left Baku and set out across the Black Sea. They got no further than Trabzon, on the Turkish coast. On January 28 1921, Suphi and 15 other leading communists were apprehended, put on a boat and sent back to Batum in Georgia. Immediately after that boat set out, another boat left the harbour and overtook it. Of what happened next, all that is known is that no-one on the first boat survived.

The available documents confirm that the nationalist Ankara government had a substantial role in this incident – and the Bolshevik government apparently did not share the Turkish communists’ optimism. When the news arrived in Moscow, the Soviet politburo forwarded an official statement to inform the members of the Soviet communist party, warning them of the “dangers of left-wing and adventurist initiatives”.

Ultimately, this incident was simply noted and put aside by both governments. That their relationship survived the murder of Turkey’s leading communists speaks volumes about how the early Soviet era unfolded in the “near east”. The Moscow government faced a very particular dilemma: how to support both anti-communist national liberation movements who were fighting common enemies while also sponsoring and organising local communist groups against those same nationalist governments.

In the end, it more often than not came down on the side of strategic pragmatism rather than ideological purity. As Turkey’s Kemalist leadership openly started to root out all communist activity in the country, world communist gatherings issued their protests – but through it all, Moscow and Ankara stayed on good terms until the start of the Cold War.

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The Promised Springs | Lily Hamourtziadou


Mosque attack, North Sinai, Friday, November 24, 2017

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‘Egypt has been fighting a vicious Isis insurgency in Sinai for the last three years. Friday’s attack comes after a spate of recent bombings targeting the police and army ( The Independent).

‘The attack marks a major escalation in Cairo’s battle with regional insurgents….No group claimed responsibility for the assault, but it was the deadliest yet in a region where for the past three years Egyptian security forces have battled an Islamic State insurgency that has killed hundreds of police and soldiers’ (The Guardian).

‘Egyptian officials investigating the massacre of worshippers at a mosque in Sinai say the attackers were carrying the flag of the Islamic State group. At least 305 people died in the assault, which was launched during Friday prayers and has not yet been claimed by any group. Egypt’s public prosecutor said there were up to 30 attackers at the scene. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has vowed to respond with “the utmost force”. The Egyptian military says it has already conducted air strikes on “terrorist” targets (The BBC).

Where is the narrative of democratic peace the West was promising Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia during the Arab Spring uprisings? Where are the strong states? Where is the transformation? Egypt’s internal struggle for power between the revolutionary youth (in coalition with secularists), the Islamists and the military continues. Other states have been weakened, especially identity-fragmented ones, as regional power struggles have intensified. Hard-liners have been empowered, while moderates have been marginalised.

“The core of security, the protection from harm, assumes a field of relationships, including a threatener, the threatened, the protector or means of protection, and the protected” (Fierke, Critical Approaches to International Security, 2007: 46). In today’s Middle East the blurring of the lines between war and peace, tyranny and democracy, freedom and oppression has resulted in confusion as to who is threatened, who is the threat, who is the protector and what the means of protection are. The relationships between protector and protected, threatener and threatened, are in disorder.

“The advance of freedom leads to peace,” said George W. Bush. A liberated Iraq, Egypt, Libya would, presumably, become peaceful. No internal threats and itself no threat to other states. “We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator … America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region … we need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike”, stated Barack Obama, in a major speech on May 19, 2011.

Yet Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya are now fragmented states, where each party struggles to gain power, at the expense of the others, as they have incompatible security requirements, which means that the security of each cannot be assured at the same time as the security of its rivals or enemies. Thus they seek relative gains, where their own gain is a loss to another, rather than absolute gains, which require cooperation. In such weak and fragmented states, all sides see the struggle for power and its acquisition as a means to their survival.

The violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Syria, following Western intervention, exploitation and ‘responsibility to protect’, and the terror and insurgency engendered, are the legacy of Springs and Awakenings that were never realised.

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