It is hard to find a leader whose life exemplifies the dilemmas of leadership in a muslim-majority country more than that of Faizulla Khodjaev who was head of the Bukhara Socialist Republic from 1920-24. Bukhara, of course, is no longer an independent republic but part of the state of Uzbekistan.
As we pick up the action, Bukhara was an independent Emirate but had a Czarist Russian Agent overseeing matters much like the British Residents in Princely States in pre-independent India.
Khodjaev was the son of a well-to-do merchant in Bukhara and like scions of many wealthy families in the Bukhara of that time was sent to the Soviet Union and then Turkey for higher studies. In Turkey he came under the influence of the Young Turks movement, that restive group impatient with the old ways of the Emir-ruled states and wanting to bring them into the modern world.
By then it was 1917 and Russian revolution shook the world, so Khodjaev and his radicals presented a plan to the Bolsheviks proposing radical modernization. With Russia’s support the plans were again presented to the Emir who had no choice but to accept it.. It is said that the Emir , after accepting the plan, encouraged the ulema to use their reach to the masses through Friday prayers and the madrasas to oppose it. This set up clashes in the streets of Bokharo between the Ulema and the radical faction of the Jadid. The Emir used this excuse to arrest the radical faction leaders.
This made Khodjaev and his team decide that they had no choice but to ask the Emir to go if Bokharo was to modernize. This coincided with Lenin’s announcement that all former Russian colonies were free to go their own way and could even ask for the help of the Red Army to unseat the traditional emirs who ruled all over Central Asia.
The first sign of trouble for Khodjaev was when he tried to alter Bokaro’s role as the cotton plantation of the Soviet system. He pushed for a larger allocation of land and resources to food crops, famously telling Stalin that people cant eat cotton. It is said that Stalin viewed this as an expression of nationalism which ran counter to the views of the Communists at that time.
Ominously, in the 1937 election to the Party posts, Khodjaev’s name was not proposed. The next year, he was summoned to Moscow and after a brief trial was condemned to death for his anti-people attitude. He was promptly executed and his mother, wife and two daughters were packed off to Siberia to do hard labour from which only one daughter survived.
Khodjaev’s struggle to modernize his country makes a poignant tale. He was swimming against the many strong tides of his day: the rise of Communism, the social structure of the Central Asian emirates of that time with a tightly coupled relationship between the ulema and the Emir, a country which was a single-crop ( cotton) commodity producer vulnerable to fluctuating prices, the Great Depression of 1929, the formation of the Soviet Union in 1924 and the consequent isolation from world markets.
After Uzbekistan was set free from the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, Khodjaev has been posthumously rehabilitated. There is a university now named after him and his ancestral home is a museum.