Semirechye on Fire

A Story of Rebellion

The rebellion in Semirechye was one of the bloodiest uprisings in the history of the Russian Empire. 100 years on, descendants of some of the conflict’s leading figures share previously unseen family archives and diaries, and relate the blood-chilling stories told to them by their grandparents.

Back then, the land of Semirechye, or ‘the valley of seven rivers’, was populated by nomadic tribes collectively known as the Kyrgyzs. The first Russian and Cossack settlers came to the region in the mid-19th Century. When the Russian Empire gave the newcomers some of the land that previously belonged to the natives, it created tension in the region.

Then, the WWI broke out. By 1916, the Russian Empire desperately needed more people to work on the home front and a decision was made to enlist the Kyrgyzs. However, the poorly organised process, together with corruption and a lack of information, led to protests, with many believing a false rumour that those enlisted would be used as human shields.

The native population’s revolt against the Tsar’s policies intensified and they soon began to attack the settlers, who responded with indiscriminate violence. Peaceful bystanders on both sides became casualties of the bloody conflict. But amid the mutual hatred, there were stories of true heroism, humanity and mutual support: families of locals and settlers offered their homes as shelter and helped each other to stay alive.

After the revolt, many Kyrgyzs no longer felt safe in their homeland and decided to flee through the mountains. Little did they know, their ordeal was only just starting.

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