From Aleksandr Kiyan’s Russian-language website devoted to the Red Army of Workers and Peasants, 1918-1945 (home page at http://, specifically the article “Ot Zheltorossii do Vostochno-Turkestanskoi respuliki,” .



One more undeclared war…



From “Yellow Russia” to the East Turkestan Republic.


By Pavel Aptekar’.



The Sinkiang[1] problem in Sino-Russian relations arose as early as the 1870s when native Muslims under the leadership of Yaqub-Beg effectively threw off Chinese control from a large area and proclaimed the formation of their own sovereign state. Under these circumstances the Manchu [Ch’ing, Qing] Dynasty was forced to turn to Russia and request help. Russia did not refuse and cossacks and regular army units were sent into Sinkiang where they put down Yaqub-Beg’s movement. In spite of the apparent ease of the occupation that promised a sure retention of this province, Russia transferred it to China in accordance with the St.-Petersburg treaty of 1881.


It appears that the situation in Sinkiang worried Russia even after the withdrawal of its forces, as seemingly ubiquitous representatives of the British empire were trying to penetrate this region, too.


Therefore Russian consulates were established in a number of Sinkiang towns and there were often visits to the territory by officials of various ranks. Thus, in 1885 came Lieutenant Bronislav Grombchevskii acting as an official for special tasks under the governor-general of Turkestan, and two years later a doctor of the Siberian Military District, N.L. Zeland, visited this Chinese territory in connection with a suspected plague epidemic.


Their travel notes characterize Sinkiang life rather clearly. On reading them, the reasons for the inhabitants’ frequent demonstrations against their Chinese rulers become apparent:


The Chinese do not make the slightest effort to learn the language of their subject Sarts (Uzbeks – P.A.) and as a principle the officials consider such knowledge as degrading… The greater part of the blame for the frequent uprisings and disorders lies with the Chinese themselves, who do not try to learn about the people’s needs but on the contrary drive them to discontent.”[2] There were plenty of reasons for this discontent. Primary was the extremely difficult material situation of both peasants and townspeople. In Zeland’s opinion, crafts and industry were in deep stagnancy if not actually in decline. The overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate. We may add that the officials and officers administering this vast region were, in the opinion of the local population, a particularly loutish bunch even for Chinese.


In this traveler’s opinion, the Sinkiang inhabitants themselves possessed many positive traits, the chief of which he counted as exceptional industriousness, patience, and sense honor. At the same time, negative characteristics of the Sinkiang people were “…deficient bodily hygiene; a weakness for hallucinogenic substances, and sexual degeneracy.”[3]


But it was Chinese soldiers who earned the most condemnation from the military doctor and the official for special tasks. Many of their notes agree:


Looking back at the Chinese regime as observed over the course of almost four months’ stay in Kashgaria, I am convinced that Chinese unit commanders purposely make the differences between authorized and actual personnel strengths as great as possible, with the extra funds received from the treasury going into the commander’s pockets...” “In the army the higher ranks feather their nests at the expense of the lowest. For example, the commander of a lyanza (a unit approximately equal to a battalion – P.A.) receives money to supply his command and so counts on paper two or three times as many soldiers as are actually present, with the sum for the fictional part going into his pocket… Often soldiers are not even given what they have already earned. Thus the hollow state of the forces which the commanders pretend not to see…”[4] “The poor quality of the Chinese soldiers is due in large part to their material situation which forces them to engage in petty commerce in their free time and even robbery, all at the expense of local merchants. Soldiers ‘ask’ for goods that please them and if they are refused brutally beat those who have ‘insulted’ them.


A description of the appearance of Chinese soldiery is very interesting. “Officers and soldiers dress like grandmothers… by their dress one could not know their profession. On their heads they wear dark-blue kerchiefs tied in a manner similar to our peasant women. A queue falls down in back…”[5]


Both writers rated the fighting ability of the Chinese forces as very low. Grombchevskii could not help smiling when he saw the cavalry using not only horses, but hinnies and donkeys as well. The lieutenant was also very surprised that the weapons in Chinese army units were practically never cleaned and even before a parade attention was given only to maintaining a bright exterior. Target practice was held only once a year. A description of training in one lyanza is simply amusing: “All movements were executed at a voiced command uniformly and in good order. In this, while carrying out an assault the entire line comically hopped forward and the defenders sat down. All this was more reminiscent of dancing circus clowns than the training of troops.”[6]


In the opinion of both writers China’s rule over Sinkiang was very unstable overall, and in the province there was a strong attraction to Russia occasioned by the relative order maintained during the period of Russian military control. Nevertheless the tsarist government did not undertake the occupation of Sinkiang in spite of China’s very weak situation around the turn of the century, preferring to be represented there by merchants and agents of large trading companies who sometimes also carried out intelligence missions.


This region continued to draw the attention of the rulers of the new Soviet Russia immediately after the end of the civil war in so much as several thousand soldiers, officers, and refugees belonging to the anti-Bolshevik army of A.I. Dutov were in the Sinkiang territory. In general, Chinese relations with them were benevolently neutral with the exception of a short period in October-November 1920 when Baron R. Ungern, leader of the “Asiatic Division,” attacked Ugra, the capital of Mongolia. But his assault was repulsed by Chinese forces that outnumbered him several times over. At that time a wave of persecutions swept over China including Sinkiang, and in some places Chinese authorities permitted Red Army units to even cross the border to capture the interned remnants of the Southern and Orenburg armies. However, neither the Chinese nor the Reds were able to disarm participants of the west Siberian peasant uprising who had entered Sinkiang in March of 1921.


At the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s basmachi guerillas and ordinary peasants from Kazakhstan and Central Asia who had fled the Soviet Union and famine resulting from collectivization found refuge within the Sinkiang territory. The Soviet government’s anxiety was also occasioned by Japanese agents penetrating northwest China, and this new source of tension of the long frontier with Sinkiang led to thoughts on how to avert a situation similar to the one in Manchuria.


In truth the Chinese central authorities only controlled the situation in Sinkiang to a very limited extent and could not effectively influence the course of events. In this situation the Sinkiang governor (tupan),[7] Sheng Shih-ts'ai,[8] who had seized control in April 1933, had to orient his politics toward his powerful northern neighbor. The local authorities’ own forces were often too weak to deal with the growing strength of the Muslim popular movement. Chinese soldiers often scattered when attacked by enemy units. Under these circumstances the sole combat-capable formation in Sheng Shih-ts'ai’s hands was a Russian regiment of former White Guards under the command of Colonel Pappengut which in spite of its small size more than once, thanks to its training and discipline, defeated superior forces of Muslim horsemen.


However, at the end of 1933, when the Chinese 36th Division (most of whose soldiers were Dungun, which is to say Muslim Chinese) entered Sinkiang as a result of its conflict with the central government, the tupan’s position became critical. The Russian regiment, supported by local Chinese, was able to retain the Sinkiang capital, Urumchi, with difficulty, but there was no possibility of controlling the rest of the territory.


On 12 January 1934 the commander of the 36th Division, Ma Zhongying (Russian Ma-Chzu-In) began a siege of Urumchi. In the last days of January, however, the situation of the blockaded Sinkiang capital was significantly improved when Ma Zhongying had to move large forces against unidentified “Altai men” [“altaitsy”] advancing along the Chuguchak road. On 8-9 February the “Altai men” inflicted a defeat on units of the 36th Division and on 11 February the blockade was lifted.[9]


The question arises—where did this help to the besieged Sinkiang capital come from? In truth, the tupan did not control any significant forces in the province.


The answer is simple—the reinforcements came from the north, from the USSR. At the end of 1933 Sheng Shih-ts’ai first asked the USSR for aid, and he was not kept waiting for long. A Red Army group arrived in the beginning of 1934 with tanks, aircraft, and artillery in exactly the proportions needed to crush the enemy on the battlefield. The units and sub-elements were “camouflaged” as White Russians, and the Red Army commanders wore the pogony shoulder boards that had been so hated by them since the civil war. In spite of its significant technical superiority, in their first battles the “Altai men” sometimes suffered heavy casualties as they ran into the guerilla tactics used by Ma Zhongying’s Tungan division. However, technical and tactical superiority was soon achieved. The 36th Division was defeated and withdrew to the south. An attempt by these rebels to seize the initiative by shifting the center of military operations to west Sinkiang—the Kashgar region—was not successful. Occupied by the Tungans in May, it was already cleared of them in June.


One of the participants in these events, Hero of the Soviet Union F.P. Polynin, told of the Soviet fliers’ part in the fighting:


Civil war broke out in Sinkiang. General Ma Zhongying, incited by Japanese militarists, launched an armed revolt against the provincial government… Sheng Shi-ts’ai, governor of the province, requested help… On flying to the city (Urumchi – P.A.) we saw a great crowd of people at the fortress walls. Horsemen reared and wheeled behind infantry making an assault… We descend and take turns dropping 25-kilogram fragmentation bombs into the mass of rebels. We see the crowd of rebels melt away from the walls and turn to flee. Corpses stood out distinctly in the snow on the approaches to the fortress. We dropped our last bombs right at ground level. The rebels appeared panicked by the sudden air attack… Soon the revolt was put down. A grand reception was arranged in honor of the victory. The governor of the province decorated all the Soviet aviators who had taken part in the battle…[10]


It is curious that after the blockade of Urumchi was lifted Red Army units fought alongside former Whites and their children as part of the “Altai Volunteer Army” [“Altaiskaya dobrovol’cheskaya armiya”]. Nevertheless, with the agreement of the Soviet consul-general, the commander of the White Russian force, Colonel Pappengut—who had taken a hard anti-Soviet position—was shot. His place was taken by the more loyal N.I. Bekteev, who soon received the tupan’s permission to spend on himself large sums designated for expenses incurred by “the tupan’s representative.”


Several authors speak of the sending from the USSR into Sinkiang of 70,000 soldiers and officers interned in the Soviet Union after the Japanese seizure of Manchuria, but these writers cite only data from foreign researchers.[11] In reality, the tupan was sent about 10,000 troops—soldiers and officers of the Chinese army and Manchurian irregulars—forced out of Manchuria by the Japanese and interned in the USSR. These were the Manchurian Army of Salvation under General Su Bingwen and the Kirin self-defense force of General Li-Du. These troops were distinguished from the local Sinkiang Chinese by their greater discipline and combat ability. Their arrival caused protests by the local Muslim populace who felt threatened by new repressions.[12]


The Soviet elements of the “Altai Volunteer Army” returned to the Motherland at the end of April, leaving on Chinese territory a cavalry regiment numbering about a thousand men along with armored cars and artillery. For training Chinese soldiers there were several dozen military advisors, among whom the most noteworthy figures were the well-known reconnaissance scout Adi Karimovich Malikov acting as the tupan’s senior military advisor and future marshal and two-time Hero of the Soviet Union Pavel Semenovich Rybalko, whose pseudonym was the Chinese name Fu-Dzi-Khui, which was rather striking to Russian ears.[13]


Nonetheless, it was the White Guardsmen and the 6th “Altai” Cavalry Regiment that played the most important parts in the tupan’s victory. Here is one of exchanges between Malikov and Sheng Shi-Ts’ai:

Malikov: “…we need to make the advance to liberate Kashgaria appear to be not by Russian units, but by Sarts (Uzbeks – P.A.) and Chinese.”

Sheng Shi-Ts’ai: “In that case the Sarts would be calm as they saw themselves accomplishing their own liberation from Ma Zhongying.”[14]


In June of 1934 Bekteev was assigned as commander of the Southern Front and P.S. Rybalko was named his deputy. The tupan and his senior military advisor ordered that their Soviet identities be concealed. Officially, Rybalko was called “a Russian general in Chinese service.” Military advisers and instructors were also assigned to other units and formations where they often effectively took on command functions.


In November of 1934 a Russian force consisting of four White regiments and a horse-artillery battalion, a total of 2200 men, was merged into a single regiment under the command of the apolitical Colonel Chernev.[15] The question arises as to why former White Guardsmen fought bravely, often suffering significant casualties, alongside Red Army men in the interests of another country, and why White officers worked with Soviet instructors. The answer is quite simple: many of them were promised a chance of returning to the Motherland or obtaining grants of large tracts of land in the vast regions that were sparsely settled or had been abandoned during the war.


That the Tungan uprising was able to be suppressed was also due to the fact that in many places their actions provoked the opposition of Sinkiang’s largest ethnic group—the Uighurs, who formed a cavalry division with the support of the Sinkiang government. This division played a major role in military operations, a fact noted more than once by the Southern Front commander, Lieutenant General Bekteev.


After the defeat of the 36th Division and its withdrawal south to the area around Khotan, Sheng Shi-ts’ai, on the advice of Malikov, wanted to reduce the army almost in half (from 40,000 to 20,000) by discharging from its ranks soldiers older than 35 and all opium smokers. Judging from documents from the Central Asian Military District’s headquarters, Malikov was effectively not just an advisor, but the chief of staff of the Sinkiang army, drafting plans for its reorganization and new deployment. These plans were confirmed not only in Urumchi, but also in the Red Army’s intelligence administration. Also on Malikov’s advice, the tupan intended to reorganize the 36th Division and make it a brigade in his own army. However, while this reduction was proceeding, disturbances in areas settled by Uighurs and Tungans again increased, and neither was it calm in the 36th Division itself. As a report by the Central Asian Military District’s intelligence section declared in December 1935:


The situation in Sinkiang is characterized by hostile relations between two military groups: that of the Urumchi government and that of the 36th Tungan Division which is extending its influence in the Khotan area. The 36th Division had come from Gansu, and after being defeated at Urumchi and losing battles in other districts it was forced to retreat to the south in May of 1934. After negotiations its commanders were interned in the USSR. At the time of its retreat to Khotan the division had about 6000 men, 20 to 25 machineguns, and 10 or 12 old artillery pieces. While it was in the Khotan district the division basically robbed the region through requisitions and levies. In this way it engendered the discontent of the population (Uighurs constitute an absolute majority). There are several factions in the division’s command (divided on the question of whether to leave Khotan and return to Gansu). Nevertheless, the division remains combat capable and is able to resist the forces of Urpra (Urumchinskoe pravitel’stvo, the Urumchi government – P.A.).


Negotiations between Urpra and the division began in May. They ended inconclusively. The division does not want to yield over some issues and continues an independent existence. Possibly, the division is preparing to seize Kashgaria.


Urpra’s situation improved noticeably during 1935. Agriculture that had been destroyed by war is being reestablished; there is a marked increase in trade. Nationalistic rhetoric has dropped off after the granting of political rights to Uighurs, Mongols, and Kazakhs. During the civil war the Uighur cavalry division played an important role.


Meanwhile the Uighur nationalist movement is growing. The idea of an independent Uighuristan continues to occupy an important place in the minds of Uighur leaders, even those who are adherents of Urpra… In spite of an increase in pay, the army receives paltry supplies. Rations provide only about 1000 calories; barracks are unfurnished and lack sleeping arrangements. All the soldiers are lousy. The army possesses about 16,000 rifles, 107 light and 130 heavy machineguns, 50 artillery pieces (most of which are not working), 6 armored cars, and 6 airplanes. The mountain guns and armored cars left by the “Altai men” are unfit for action due to lack of maintenance.


Currently the Urpra’s military request to replace airplanes needing maintenance with new ones is being fulfilled, and there will be additional deliveries of U-2’s and P-5’s, 6 mountain guns, 2000 English rifles, 15 heavy and 30 light machineguns, 4 FAI armored cars, 5000 artillery shells, and 9 million rounds of small-arms ammunition. To improve his force’s military efficiency, the tupan requested Red Army and NKVD unit commanders, of which there are 28 with 15 of them due to be relieved…[16]


The situation in northwest China remained unstable. This was in large part explained by the activities of new political forces. After declaring himself an adherent of the principles of Soviet power and Marxism, Sheng Shi-ts’ai interpreted them in an extremely idiosyncratic manner. Thus, for chief of the Kurlin district in 1934 he appointed a young man of very handsome appearance who had received a rather solid education by local standards. He loudly proclaimed adherence to the “six principles of Sheng.” Known to the local populace as a passive homosexual, he set about actively implementing the new regime’s policies. The inhabitants soon learned what these principles were. As reported by a military advisor, V.T. Obukhov:


…The new leaders took over all the worst methods of the old Chinese district chiefs. Torture and beatings of those arrested in order to obtain confessions are used more than before. A ‘normal’ inventory for a judge or police chief consists of a leather plait for striking the cheeks, a three-edged stick for beating the thighs, a mallet for hitting the ankles, blocks for squeezing the feet, and finally, a stand to hold the suspect up, who is no doubt weak from having his shins pounded…[17]


Usually these “investigative instruments” were in the corner of the courtroom or by the table. According to Soviet instructors the new men in power used them to send a visual message: the afore-mentioned chief of the Kurlin district hung them carefully on the wall under banners and portraits of Sun Yat-sen, Sheng Shi-ts’ai, and Stalin. Upon an advisor’s query as to the intended purpose of these objects the district chief answered, “With these people you can’t get anything without a stick.” Like some other district chiefs and the governor of Aksu (a region in southeast Sinkiang) he personally took part in interrogations and to the old Chinese tortures added his own invention—nailing to the wall by an ear. Even in district police headquarters buildings, cloth hangings were replaced with three-edged sticks painted red (imagine your own precinct police station’s entrance having, instead of a hanging curtain, a sheet of dangling rubber truncheons). One would assume that the populace remembered their previous local authorities as exceptional humanitarians.


One of the leaders of Uighur people, Mahmud Shih-chang (Mamut Sidzhan, Mamut Sichzhan, Mahmud Muhiti Shih-chang), took advantage of the people’s dissatisfaction with those in power. With the help of the tupan he was able to solidify his position in the Kashgar district, but he soon began to dispute the need to share even a small part of his power with the Urumchi government. Therefore he began to base his politics on the clergy and other social classes that were discontented with Chinese demands. From the middle of 1936 Mahmud Shih-Chang and his followers began to agitate in favor of the creation of an independent Uighur state and set about organizing its armed forces. To reinforce the 6th Cavalry Division that was effectively under his control he even sought to obtain weapons from the USSR through the head of the Urumchi government, but was refused.


Mahmud Shih-chang then began to prepare relationships with his former archenemies, the Tungans.


In the beginning of April 1937, Mahmud Shih-chang started a revolt even though it was supported by only two regiments of the 6th Division (the 32nd and 33rd) while for the time being the other two remained loyal to the Urumchi government. From 6 to 8 April the Urumchi government tried to settle the conflict by peaceful means, but Mahmud Shih-chang with a small group of followers preferred to flee to British India. Meanwhile, adherents of Mahmud Shih-chang seized a group of the tupan’s emissaries who had been sent to Kashgar to resolve the situation. For a month after this Urumchi was unable to formulate a policy and by continuously changing course lost support among the people. Seeing the ineptness and weakness of the regime, and incited by Mahmud Shih-chang’s agents, simple Uighur peasants and craftsmen with support of the rebel regiments came out on the side of the revolt, the leaders of which did not have any idea of how it would develop.


Under these circumstances the tupan could not find anything better than to entrust the suppression of the uprising to… the 36th Division.[18] As a rule, the rebels did not engage in “battle” with units of the Tungan division, which already on 27 May had occupied Yarkand and a couple of days later marched to the approaches to Kashgar. The tupan telegrammed an order to the division commander demanding that they halt, in answer to which on 30 May one of the regiments attacked the aerodrome near Kashgar. The division commander, Ma Hu-shan, added in a message to Sheng Shih-ts’ai that his subordinates could not determine where government forces were located and where the rebels were. Fortunately for the government forces the airplanes were able to fly away from the attacked airfield.[19]


Ma Hu-shan appeared to leave Kashgar, leaving one brigade there while the main part of his forces moved east to occupy Uch-Turfan and Maral-Bashi.


In the opinion of our military advisors the subsequent period showed “the tupan’s army to be completely ineffective.” In road-less Sinkiang, blind imitation of the Soviet tactic of moving in strong motorized formations resulted in a complete collapse in July. The Chinese “motorized infantry” proved to be glued to their trucks which could only operate on the few roads. The people, sympathetic to the uprising, by various means damaged the roads and cut the enemy off from his sources of supply. Angered by their lack of success, Chinese soldiers turned their wrath against peaceful inhabitants, robbing and murdering. The military advisors were also extremely negative regarding the high command of the tupan’s army, which with rare exceptions they characterized as “…illiterate, lacking initiative, cowardly, robbing their own soldiers… Naturally, a starving army, systematically robbed by its commanders, would turn to supplying itself at the expanse of the population, engaging in raids, marauding, and looting.”[20]


The only thing that held back the rebels was the tupan’s aviation with its Soviet instructors. The unassuming P-5, obsolete for operations against modern armies, proved to be an effective means of bombing and strafing Uighur and Tungan cavalry.


In this situation the Soviet government again had to examine the Sinkiang problem and send aid to Sheng Shi-ts’ai. It is possible that the preparation of a new operation was delayed for a time by the arrest of some of the commanders at the headquarters of the Central Military District such as the chief of the district intelligence section Colonel Vasilii Vasil’ev and the specialist for various secret operations Komdiv Yakov Mel’kumov.


On the orders of the People’s Defense Commissar, on 21 June 1937 two small forces began to be prepared for operations. Each consisted of two regiments (one Red Army and one NKVD), a mountain battery, a sapper company, and a signal company. The groups’ mission was a secret for all the soldiers and most of the command element. Officially, both groups were moving to the border “to conduct protracted exercises under mountain encampment conditions.” As one of the orders stated: “Loading units and their subsequent transport by railroad must be done with the strictest secrecy. All personnel must be warned against any mention in letters of their units’ or subunits’ actions, as well as any local placenames… Do not allow any unauthorized actions in connection with the local population.”[21]


In addition, to maintain secrecy the campaign’s participants were ordered to use their winter quarters’ address in letters home and not “exercise area.” A long wait was also in store for letters from relatives. They first arrived at the permanent station and only after examination by the military censor were they sent to the addressees.[22]


Before being sent off, the groups’ commanders were ordered: “While organizing, you along with your commissar must carefully check all personnel, weeding out and leaving behind in winter quarters anyone unfit for campaign service.”[23]


Besides all this, for camouflage and deception our regiments, batteries, and companies… changed clothes. On 4 July 1937 the commanders of both groups received identical telegrams:


Special-order uniforms are being sent for the units in the group under your command. The indicated uniform clothing is to be issued upon the orders of the force commander… You are not to take with you any equipment marked with a star and in general take nothing of the regulation uniform… The special-order uniform clothing has no labels or stamps and is trimmed in various colors. You will give orders that every unit must remove tags from saddles and boots, as these items are not being replaced. On leather items markings are to be obscured with ink.


From the examination of subsequent documents it becomes clear that the “special uniform clothing” consisted of native khalat robes and caps. However, in that case it is unclear why footwear was not replaced. Really, boots of artificial kirzovyi leather, even with markings rubbed off, were worn only by Soviet soldiers. This would turn out like the well-known anecdote about Shtirlits who immediately recognized his contact in Berlin by the parachute trailing behind him.[24]


The groups themselves were dubbed “Osh” and “Narynsk” after their assembly places before the campaign. The first included the 42nd Mountain Cavalry Regiment, a battery and specialist subunits of the 19th Mountain Cavalry Division, and the 19th NKVD Cavalry Regiment, all under the command of Colonel Bekzhanov. The second was made up the 48th Mountain Cavalry Regiment, a battery and specialist subunits from the 21st Mountain Cavalry Division, and the 13th NKVD Mechanized Motor Regiment, under the command of Kombrig Selivanov. On 25 June unit commanders received orders and were given maps of Sinkiang, and as early as 9 July both groups were encamped at the border. In the traditional Russian manner preparations were sometimes slipshod. Thus, the 42nd Cavalry Regiment received machinegun ammunition belts from 1916 and 1917, some of which were decayed and falling to pieces. In the 48th Cavalry Regiment the horses were not shod on their hind legs, and in the 21st Signal Squadron they simply did not take any spare horseshoes at all.[25]


At this same time the Sinkiang government’s aviation group had difficulty obtaining ammunition and fuel. This situation compelled a special operation to deliver these items and increase technical support. As early as the beginning of July the Central Asian Military District’s chief of aviation, Kombrig Yakubov, reported his assessment to the district commander:


Air force combat operations should be divided into three phases.

First phase – independent air operations to destroy the enemy in the Maral-Bashi area before our ground forces come into contact with the enemy.

Second phase – joint air and ground operations to pursue the enemy from the Maral-Bashi area towards the south and southwest.

Third phase – complete the destruction of the enemy through air strikes on individual enemy groups that have withdrawn and broken contact with our ground troops.

To accomplish the first phase’s operational objectives the air force must work from the Karakol aerodrome including necessary utilization of the aerodrome at Uch-Turfan where after completing its combat missions the aviation group will refuel for the return flight to Karakol. Here are the required calculations:

1) Route Karakol - Uch-Turfan, a distance of 270 km.

2) Route Uch-Turfan – area of military operations – 250 km, on the return trip – 520 km.

The planes must cover a total distance of 1040 km. The tactical operational range of a plane with a full load of fuel is 700 km. (On the document is a note written in pencil – Uch-Turfan, possible enemy – force of Karchuns. Possibly to Aksu, aerodrome 900#400, maximum range of P-5 – 700 km, distance Karakol-Aksu – 350 km – P.A.)


The operational radius of the P-5 planes must be increased by creating a mid-route refueling base at the Uch-Turfan aerodrome (pencil note – Aksu – P.A.). There is a lack of transport aircraft, but the fuel may be delivered by seven P-5 planes to be used in the first stage exclusively for this purpose.


Combat operations will be carried out by a group consisting of 10 planes. The aviation group under Babenko’s command (the Sinkiang government air group of six P-5 planes – P.A.) will be used for reconnaissance of the enemy in the Kashgar-Yarkand area. After fuel is brought up from Urumchi and bombs and ammunition from Karakol, this group may also be used for combat operations.


After the enemy withdraws, Vasil’ev’s group may be relocated to Kashgar, and Babenko’s group to Maral-Bashi…


To guarantee air operations outward from Karakol and Osh, especially during the third operational phase (based out of Kashgar and Maral-Bashi), and also to evacuate wounded personnel, transport aircraft are required, not less than a flight of six TB3’s. In the extreme case of TB-3’s not being able to be assigned, the 4th Transport Aviation Group of the Civil Air Fleet [Grazhdanskii Vozdushnyi Flot – GVF] must be mobilized, consisting of eight ANT-9’s….[26]


On 12 July 1937 the commander of the Central Asian Military District’s forces, Komkor I.K. Gryaznov, had a conversation on this subject with the Red Army Chief of the General Staff, V.M. Shaposhnikov. Gryaznov asked Shaposhnikov to assign twelve TB3’s to deliver fuel for combat aircraft. In answer, Shaposhnikov advised using heavy transport planes (ANT-9’s and G-2’s) from civil aviation. To ensure that they would be available he promised to personally speak with the head of the GVF’s main administration. In addition, this conversation also touched on problems in increasing rations. Tashkent [headquarters of the Central Asian Military District] was strictly warned not to cross the border without orders from Moscow.[27]


As a result, to deliver ammunition, fuel and other military supplies, the GVF detached six ANT-9’s and one G-2. The military district added three TB-1’s. On 17 July they flew out of Tashkent to Alma-Ata and after refueling there continued on to the southeast. On 20 July all ten planes landed not far from Kulja and a day later delivered the first load of fuel to Kurle, where the planes from the local government’s aviation and our own air group were based. On 23 July, as stated in the report, “Rudakov’s detachment successfully attacked rebels in Uch-Turfan.” [28]


A short time later an ANT-9 crashed while making an emergency landing and two more returned to Tashkent, but the remaining aircraft continued to deliver needed supplies to Urumchi, from where they were transported to Kurle under the protection of a well-armed Soviet motorized column under the command of Major Pshenetskii. On 3 August a TB-1 and the G-2 returned to Alma-Ata, and a few days later the remaining ANT-9’s in Sinkiang all arrived there.[29]


For a long time the Narynsk and Osh groups stayed near the border, crossing it only at the end of August, before which time they engaged in training for operations in mountainous terrain. In this regard the training objectives are quite interesting:


17 July, Mission No. 1: According to air reconnaissance and our agents’ reports, at 6:00-6:30 on 14.7 there was movement by columns of small enemy groups heading for Suluk, Lyagar, Tokuzak. There is a large mass of cavalry in Kashgar. At 16:00 on 16.7.37 the commander of forces in the Central Asian Military District received the mission of seizing Kashgar by day’s end on 21.7.


The Osh group was given the mission of destroying the Kashgar concentration as it moved out, to be completed by day’s end on 18.7. Subsequently the group is to seize Kashgar by day’s end on 21.7. It is to pass Irkeshtan at 12:30 and move on the route Ulugcha, the Karadavan Pass, Kizil-oi, Andijan-Kichi, Kashgar.


Mobile column – 19th Cavalry Regiment, flight [zveno] of aircraft, sapper platoon, section of chemical troops. Mission – by 14:00 on 17.7 seize the pass of Kizyl-Beles and ensure the passage of the group’s main body…[30]


Here is Mission No. 2:


As a result of a battle on 17.7 the group seized the pass of Kizyl-Beles. The enemy suffered heavy casualties and retreated to Kashgar and adopted a defensive stance.


The enemy, up to regimental strength, is defending along the Aryk from north to south supported by artillery fire from the Sibu fortress.


The group received the missions of capturing the Sibu fortress by 18:00 and, in cooperation with the Alma-Ata group and government troops from the southeast, of destroying the enemy concentration in Kashgar.


Boundary line – on the right—Tokuzak, on the left—aryk Sibu.


Mission for government forces – seize the Kuli-Darvaza pass by 10:00 on 21.7 and then coordinate movement with neighboring groups to participate in the destruction of the Kashgar enemy concentration.


Mission of neighboring force on the left – by 18:00 on 21.7 seize the Yarbag-Darvaza pass and with active operations participate in the destruction the Kashgar enemy concentration.


19th Cavalry Regiment. Initial location – eastern edge of the USSR consulate. Advance by road to the bridge west of the Sibu fortress. Mission – seize the bridge and then the gates of the Sibu fortress.


42nd Mountain Cavalry Regiment – behind the 19th Cavalry Regiment’s right flank with the mission of seizing the Sibu gates.


Horse-Artillery Battalion – in the area of the artillery position and USSR consulate. Immediate mission – suppress enemy firing positions in the area of the three bridges and then concentrate fire on the Sibu gates.[31]


The missions were of course written only as exercises, but they were still very close to reality. Unfortunately, it has not yet been possible to find documents describing in detail the military operations of Soviet forces in August-November 1937, so we are therefore limited to what has been found in documents from the intelligence section of the Central Asian Military District.


On 1 September government forces supported by Soviet aviation began to advance on Maral-Bashi. On that same day one of the brigades of the 36th Division revolted and went over to the government side, occupying Kashgar without a fight when it was abandoned by another brigade’s regiments which remained loyal to their commanders. As an intelligence report stated, “This was preceded by the movement of the “Simkhans” and “Kirghiz” to Maral-Bashi.”[32] (Simkhan – border settlement on Sinkiang territory – P.A.)


The division tried once more to give battle to the government forces, but on 5 September its main forces were crushed in a fight in which 25 airplanes took part on the government side.


After this the government forces along with the “Kirghiz” moved forward without any serious opposition. On the same day Yangi-Gissar was taken, where about 3000 men surrendered. On the next day planes bombed Yarkand, whose garrison surrendered on 9 September. Lastly, on 10 September there was the surrender of another two regiments from two different brigades of the 36th Division. In fact, the division ceased to exist as a formation capable of facing the government and Soviet forces. On 22 September units of Ma-Shen-Gui’s brigade, gone over to the government side, also occupied Khotan. Characteristic is the conclusion of the Central Asian Military District’s intelligence section: “We do not need to join forces with the Tungans, but rather put an end to them.”[33]


A decision in this regard was not made right away, but only after the opinion of the regime and its advisors from the USSR was that:

…Ma-Shen-Gui’s intent is to try to preserve his division. In the beginning of October it was decided to disband the 36th Division… Khotan underwent aerial bombardment, and afterwards the Chinese 38th Regiment and a strong “Kirghiz” (quotation marks in the original – P.A.) column with tanks were set in motion, occupying Khotan on 19 October… Operations undertaken against Ma-Shen-Gui’s division ended with the occupation of the Khotan district and the complete defeat of the 36th Division and its destruction. This radically changed the situation in the southern part of the country was and decisively ended the Tungan question… Life is entering a normal course. The suppression of the uprising, accomplished mainly by Kirghiz units, was accepted by the population. This does not mean that everyone was pleased with the Kirghiz’s appearance with tanks and airplanes…[34]


The “Kirghiz” units remained in Sinkiang for several more months to pacify the population while continuing the elimination of remnants of rebel formations.


Colonel Noreiko, later kombrig of border guards, took command of a group consisting of the 13th and 15th NKVD Regiments and the Red Army’s 48th Regiment. He had taken part in the 1934 expedition, and on 15 December 1937 he wrote, “By 5 December the 36th Tungan Division had suffered 5612 men killed or taken prisoner, and of those taken prisoner 1887 have been liquidated. Captured were 20 artillery pieces, 1 mortar, and over 7000 rifles. Of the 6th Uighur Division approximately 800 men were killed or taken prisoner, and of those taken prisoner 607 have been liquidated.”


By 7 January 1938 the number of those liquidated rose to 2192 from the 36th Division and 853 from the 6th. Finally, on 15 January 1938 Komdiv Kruchinkin, chief of the border and internal security administration, stated in his report that “96 Japanese agents have been eliminated, 318 English agents, and several Swedish.”[35] At this time Soviet troops began to be withdrawn from Sinkiang.[36]


However, the author of the report noted that “Urumchi government forces are nearly incapable and cannot stand up against rebels unaided. The Urumchi government forces are unable to secure the supply line Khorgos-Urumchi-Khami-Lan’chzhou (this was the main route for Soviet military and technical aid to the central Chinese government – P.A.). In joint operations with our units the Chinese soldiers act more bravely and also do not rob the populace as much so that they are not driving them to rise up in opposition. I propose that after the withdrawal of the main part of our forces we put a border guards regiment at Khami, reinforced with an aviation squadron and company of BT tanks.” This suggestion was adopted.[37]


One supposes that the presence of Soviet troops on Chinese territory, as well as the tupan’s very close relations with the USSR, brought little joy to Chang Kai-shek who was not too well disposed to communists, but he had to accept the situation. Any kind of armed intervention into the affairs of the country’s northwest corner was impossible in view of his need to concentrate his strength for the fight against Japanese aggression. And in fact it was the Soviet Union that was giving China the most weapons, military hardware, supplies, and pilot-instructors within the framework of so-called “Operation Z.”


In September of 1938 a grateful Sheng Shih-ts’ai journeyed to Moscow where at the Frunze Academy his younger brother Sheng Shi-tsi had attained the pinnacle of military knowledge. He came to ask for new deliveries of weapons and materiel for his army. He brought with him a large quantity of various gifts such as a portrait of Stalin made from rice and poppy stalks and a one of Voroshilov in silk. Among the presents there were also various products of local arts and crafts and decorative jewelry.


In turn the Administration for Foreign Relations and the People’s Defense Commissariat’s Operations Administration prepared a list of presents for the high-ranking Chinese guest and his suite: various kinds of weapons, watches, etc. However, the iron-fisted People’s Commissar Klim Voroshilov crossed out almost half of these and made the dismissive annotation “This would be too rich for them!”


One supposes, however, that the Sinkiang guests knew nothing of this. The meeting between Voroshilov and Sheng Shih-ts’ai lasted several hours and became drowned in the florid phrases of the Chinese guests praising the Soviet nation in general and the great leaders Stalin and Voroshilov in particular, along with the Red Army and Soviet military hardware. The stenography of the meeting is peppered with notes such as “Sheng Shih-ts’ai stands up and warmly embraces and kisses Comrade Voroshilov on the forehead.” Kisses were also bestowed on Kliment Yefremovich’s hands and cheeks, and it seems by the end of the meeting he did not know where to hide from the persistent visitor.


Still, during the course of the meeting Sheng Shih-ts’ai announced something new: supposedly, he had a longtime inclination towards Marxism and wanted to remake the economy and whole fabric of Sinkiang life on Marxist principles. Moreover, he wanted to become a communist, not in the Chinese Communist Party but rather in the All-Russian Bolshevik Party. After long consultations at the highest levels the Politburo decided to accept “Comrade Sheng” into the ranks of the glorious party, after first obtaining his word that he would conceal his membership in its ranks from all.


On 29 September, at the departure of the Sinkiang delegation in the room for the reception of important guests, the deputy chief of the Red Army’s Intelligence Administration Sergei Gendin, in the presence of a female translator, presented Sheng Shih-ts’ai with his cherished party card.[38] The gratitude of the latter knew no bounds, all the more so since the receipt of the testimonial booklet was reinforced with new gifts of weapons and military materiel. Still, as early as 1933 the Central Asian Military District Headquarters’ intelligence section had noted: “Sheng Shih-ts’ai’s communism and his sincerity are questionable, and most likely a diplomatic tactic.”[39]


Several documents from the compilation Border Troops in the Years of the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945 speak of a decided change in Sheng Shih-ts’ai’s orientation. According to a report by the headquarters of the Kazakhstan Border District:


“…he appears to show friendship toward our country but is a student of Japanese militarism and has begun to display a pro-Japanese outlook. In addition, one can make the characteristic observation that during the second half of the year, coincident with the assault of fascist Germany on the USSR, Sheng Shih-ts’ai undertook a serious of “defensive” measures: a start to the restoration of fortresses in border towns, rebuilding long-abandoned barracks and caravan-sarais, reconstruction of bridges across border rivers, improvements in ferries, mobilization of transport… A more telling anti-Soviet display was the uprising of White Guard cossacks in the Altai. This had a sharp anti-Soviet aspect as all the rebels’ “ultimatums” boiled down to demands that trade with the USSR be stopped, etc. Sheng Shih-ts’ai appeared slow and indecisive in suppressing this uprising. The White Guards in Tarbagatai District are showing signs of revolt and began to create rebel-bandit formations, bringing together cadres for armed raids on our territory.”[40]


In the beginning of 1943 China’s central government was finally able to wrest power from Sheng Shih-ts’ai. Now border guards officers began to talk of the anti-Sovietism of the Kuomintang party’s leader:


All of the central and local newspapers are under the control of the Kuomintang and criticize the regime and its policies as they were up to 1942, meanwhile praising the rule and ideas of the Kuomintang as carried out in Sinkiang after 1942… In its propaganda the press systematically maintains an anti-Soviet line, not refraining from calumnies against the USSR. At meetings district chiefs, police officials, and unit commanders came right out and declared that the Soviet Union wanted to colonize the peoples of Sinkiang, but thanks to the intervention of China’s central government they were able to free themselves…[41]


By the summer of 1943 the situation of our specialists and consulates in Sinkiang was extremely difficult. Their workers and geology technicians were often attacked, and sometimes crowds whipped up by the authorities assaulted Soviet representatives in the province’s largest cities: Urumchi, Shara-Sume, Kulja, Khotan, and Kashgar.[42]


This anti-Sovietism did not interfere with the existence of an aircraft factory in Khami during 1941-44, guarded by the 171st Separate NKVD Battalion dressed in White Guards uniforms. Formed in January 1941, in February of that same year it was moved to Sinkiang and stationed in the capital, Urumchi, were it was occupied with protecting the aircraft factory and geologic survey parties that were investigating the mineral resources of northwest China. The Red-Army men and their battalion officers, like the “Altai men” and “Kirghiz,” wore “the specially established uniform” and carried the ranks of the old Russian army. Lieutenants [leitenanty in the Soviet army] were renamed podporuchiki and majors became captains.[43] Even the political officers [politruki] had “old regime” ranks in which, if a lieutenant became a podporuchik, a political officerwhose rank in the Red Army corresponded to that of a lieutenant—for some reason received the higher rank of poruchik. You must agree that there is a curious ring to “Political propaganda instructor Poruchik Timonin.” Even the battalion’s commissar, Regimental Commissar Kiselev, received the rank of colonel [polkovnik]!


Thanks to this some of the battalion’s orders sound almost like jokes:


While conducting political training in his company, the group leader of the exercise, Poruchik Volkov, in presenting the story of “The Civil War and the Creation of the Red Army,” did not prepare a map and did not indicate all the offensive axes of the White Guards and interventionists into the Soviet republic. In addition, Poruchik Volkov did not adequately show the locations of the Red Army’s chief victories over the White Guards, and did not mention the beastly character of the White officers and their atrocities against workers and peasants.[44]


Long before the Red Army changed to a new uniform in 1943, here in Sinkiang were worn not the army’s universal rank triangles, squares, and diamonds, but stripes and stars on shoulder boards. Therefore the battalion did not have to change uniforms when it returned to the USSR at the close of 1943.


After the communists seized power in China, Sheng Shi-ts’ai was no longer needed by the Soviet government, which refused to support plans that had been bruited about in the 1930s for the establishment of an “Eastern Turkestan Republic,” and in 1948 he died under very suspicious circumstances.[45]

[1] [Note by M.C. – Now the Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Russian Sintsyan, Chinese Xinjiang (meaning “new frontier”). Also known as Chinese Turkestan or Eastern Turkestan.]

[2] N.L. Zeland. Kashgariya i perevaly Tyan’-Shanya. Omsk, 1888. Page 36.

[3] N.L. Zeland. Ibid. Page 53.

[4] N.L. Zeland. Ibid. Page 74. B. Grombchevskii. Otchet o poezdke v Kashgar i yuzhnuyu Kashgariyu v 1885 godu. Novyi Margelan, 1885. Page 38.

[5] B. Grombchevskii. Ibid. Pages 52, 58. N.L. Zeland. Ibid. Page 37.

[6] B. Grombchevskii. Ibid. Page 47.

[7] [Note by M.C. – “Border Defense Commissioner.” Russian duban’.]

[8] [Note by M.C. – Sheng Shih-ts'ai (Sheng Shicai, Russian Shen-Shi-Tsai) - (b. 1897 Manchuria; d. 1970 Taiwan) was a well-trained military man who had first come to Sinkiang during the winter of 1929-30. Beginning as Chief of Staff of the Sinkiang Frontier Army, he was promoted in 1932 to Provincial Commander-in-Chief.]

[9] RGVA, F. 25896, Op. 1, D. 923, L. 24.

[10] F.P. Polynin. Vypolnyaya internatsional’nyi dolg//V nebe Kitaya. 1937-1940. Moscow, “Nauka,” 1986. Pages 18-21.

[11] V.V. Chubarov. Voennye konflikty v Kitae i pozitsiya SSSR (1927-1933)//Sovetskaya vneshnyaya politika 1917-1945. Poiski novykh podkhodov. Moscow, 1992.

[12] Russian State Military Archive (hereafter RGVA) F. 25895, Op. 1, D. 879, L. 139.

[13] [Note by M.C. – For an English speaker, imagine being assigned a cover name such as “Fuk-Mi-Dik.”]

[14] Ibid., D. 892, L. 4.

[15] Ibid., D. 892, L. 32, 275-278.

[16] Ibid., D. 75, L. 14-24.

[17] Ibid., D. 879, L. 270, 286.

[18] Ibid., D. 923, L. 313.

[19] Ibid., L. 101.

[20] Ibid., L. 323-324

[21]. Ibid., L. 393.

[22] Ibid., D. 762, L. 5.

[23] Ibid., D. 760, L. 4, 9.

[24] Ibid., D. 762, L. 7.

[25] Ibid., L. 79, 81; D. 760, L. 27-29.

[26] Ibid., D. 761, L. 3; D. 775, L. 268-270.

[27] Ibid., D. 775, L. 10-12.

[28] Ibid., L. 16-24.

[29] Ibid., D. 779, L. 99, 111, 132, 150.

[30]. Ibid., L. 37, 42, 63, 71, 77, 90.

[31] Ibid., D. 759, L. 6-7, 16.

[32] Ibid., D. 756, L. 26-27.

[33] Ibid., D. 917, L. 102; D. 923, L. 402.

[34] Ibid., D. 917, L. 102.

[35] [Note by M.C. – There was a Swedish religious mission in western East Turkestan since 1892. From the web site “Swedish Mission in East Turkestan” (updated August 25, 2000, at “1938 was a time of unrest. The Swedish Mission in East Turkestan had to close down. Over the years about 60 Swedes had been working there. Now the last three missionaries had to leave. The churches were destroyed. Buildings were taken over for various purposes. Most of the Christian men were killed. The women suffered in many ways.”]

[36] Ibid., D. 917, L. 106-107; D. 923, L. 411-412.

[37] RGVA, collection Op. 3, D. 1187, L. not indicated.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] F. 25895, Op. 1, D. 879, L. 103.

[41] Pogranichnye voiska v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny. 1941-1945. Sbornik dokumentov. Moscow, 1968. Pages 616-618.

[42] Ibid., pages 622-624.

[43] V.I. Ivanenko. Tropoyu pamyati. Moscow, 1968. Page 62.

[44] RGVA, F. 38447, Op. 1, D. 5, L. 15.

[45] [Note by M.C. – This may be in error. See Note 9.]


Translated by Mark Conrad, 2004.