F. M. Bailey, Mission to Tashkent

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Oxford University Press
Released: 2002 (Originally published in 1946)

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Frederick M. Bailey was a career military and political officer for the British government during the early years of the 20th century. Born in Lahore on February 3, 1882 [making him one day younger than James Joyce], he was, by the outbreak of World War I, a reknowned Central Asian explorer, traveller, intelligence officer and naturalist. His journeys through Tibet, China, and other parts of Asia--along with his distinguished military service record, which included fighting in France and in Gallipoli--made him the prime candidate (in the eyes of his superior officers) for a most daring expedition: a secret mission into Central Asia to find out what was going on there following the Russian Revolution of 1918 and the Bolshevik seizure of power.

This book, then, is Bailey's story of his journey into modern day Uzbekistan, his encounters with Bolshevik officials who thought he was a scout for a British army garrison poised to roll into Central Asia, his arrest, his escape, his year-long game of cat and mouse with Bolshevik officials, and finally his return to British territory. Along the way, we learn of Bailey's fascination with butterflies, the Communist witchhunt that led to the execution of hundreds, and the kindness and civility and overwhelming hospitality that so many different people showed to this man. We also learn of Bailey's own amazing courage and resourcefulness and intelligence.

There are many amazing stories in this book, and they are all enhanced by Bailey's absolute matter-of-fact prose. Even the most intense moments of anguish or suffering are here rendered in understated language, as if he were merely retelling the events of an uneventful day at work. Here's an example. While hiding from the Bolsheviks in the mountains south of Tashkent, Bailey broke his leg. It was a serious injury, and it occurred far from his "home." However, his Tajik helpers were with him, and they managed to carry him (yes, carry him) back, and they also fetched a local doctor:

The next day a Sart doctor was obtained: an old man with a long white beard. He explained that my knee was dislocated and must be pulled straight. This he said would be painful and I believed him. The whole knee was fearfully swollen, and he said that it was full of water and that he would take the swelling down with salt which was the 'enemy of water'. He made a paste of salt and eggs which luckily we were able to get from the Tajiks. Then after a short prayer he seized my leg, pulled it out and pressed it down. I have never felt such pain. (107)

You won't get any description of pain here; just stating the pain's existence is enough. Bailey reserves his superlatives for the actions of other people, especially those, like the men who carried him home and who tended him while he recovered, who not only went out of their way to help him but did so at their own risk. After all, Bailey was, in the minds of the Bolsheviks, a British spy; anyone caught helping a spy would surely be put to death.

Of course, Bailey was a lot smarter than those Bolsheviks; that's why he managed to outwith the entire secret police in Tashkent and remain in hiding right under their noses for over a year. In fact, it was better than that: he actually became a member of the secret police, and one of his first missions was to hunt down one British officer named Bailey, who (they thought) was hiding out in Khiva!

Yes, this is a great read. More importantly, it tells a story that really has not been told before--at least, not in the west. The Russian revolution is well documented, but the Bolshevik takeover of Central Asia is generally glossed over. It's fascinating to read an account of this takeover while it is happening, while the sides are fighting one another, and while the reorganization of the state (eliminating private property, renaming all the streets, destroying the monuments) was still going on. Bailey's account is really unique in this respect, since he was one of the few westerners to witness it.

Of course, Bailey was a Victorian military officer, so he is not without his prejudices and stilted attitudes towards the "natives," though these are tempered by his outright disgust at the Bolsheviks and their mob mentality. But the book is an important one, not only for its historical value but also because it provides a glimpse into life in Tashkent and the surrounding region at a crossroads: when the people still remembered the Emirs and the Islamic and native cultures of their ancestors, but those things were being slowly eradicated. It's important to read this book today because we are living in another crossroads, when the past is being wiped away in favor of an uncertain future.

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