MINORITIES IN CENTRAL ASIA

MINORITIES IN CENTRAL ASIA

By some counts there are over 140 different ethnic groups in Central Asia. Many ethnic groups have traditionally identified themselves by their headgear and are divided by anthropologists into the Turkic and Persian language speakers, Muslims and non-Muslims and nomads and settled people. The main groups in Central Asia have generally been divided into the nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen) and the settled peoples (Uzbeks, Tajiks and Uighurs). [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

There has traditionally been a lot of intermarriage between the people’s of Central Asia. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally been difficult to distinguish from one another, The same is true with Kyrgyz and Kazakhs. Clan and regional toes have historically been more important than ethnic identity.

As a result of the borders drawn up by Stalin in the Soviet era and the tradition of living without border in a crossroads of ethnic groups, there is a great deal of demographic confusion in Central Asia. You can find Uzbek villages in Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz villages in Uzbekistan. Tajiks pop everywhere. Turkmen often wander into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyz often wander into Kazakhstan.

Central Asia has a long history of tolerance. It has traditionally been a crossroads for people for different ethnic groups, religions and regions. In the Soviet era, Central Asia, and Uzbekistan in particular, was dumping ground for dissidents and unwanted minorities. Among the groups that were exiled to the region where Crimean Tartars, Chechens, other Caucasus groups, Germans and Koreans.

In some of the Central Asia republics, the ethnic group for which they were named struggled to make up a majority of the population. Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “Whereas the titular population dominated in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, with approximately 80 percent of the total population, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were home to large nontitular minorities. The Kyrgyz accounted for only 65 percent of the population of their republic. The Kazakhs would not cross the majority threshold until the 1999 census (53 percent of the population). [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2006]

Soviets Carve up Central Asia

Although the peoples of Central Asia—Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Kazakhs—have a long history the republics that became Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrzgzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were created in the 1920s as the equivalent of American states with no plan for them ever to be independent countries. The Tajiks were given their own republic but it lacked Bukhara and Samarkand, cities with mostly Tajik populations that traditionally had been Tajik cultural and business centers.

Stalin, serving as people's commissar of nationalities, divided up Central Asia into the current republics in 1924 as part of a divide and rule strategy to thwart any attempt at a pan-Turkic or pan-Islamic revolt against the Soviet Union. Borders were not established along ethnic or geographical lines but along lines mostly likely to suppress dissent. Ethnic groups were divided and placed in neighboring republics rather than into a single nation. Russians were pushed to move in the area.

Before that time there were no real borders in Central Asia. People were grouped together by religion, loyalty to a certain leaders, language in a way that was always changing and never clearly defined. There was no sense of nationhood and even ethnicity. Under the Soviets, ethnicity became defined as rigidly as the borders and many groups were provided with a history, culture and tradition that conformed to Soviet ideology.

Divisions of Ethnic Groups in the Soviet Union

The ethnic mix and configuration of some the ethnic republics in the Soviet Union was odd and unnatural. The strange ethnic make up of some of the ethnic republics was primarily the work of Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Lenin in the 1920s , to suit the needs of the state not the people. In some cases traditional rivals were placed together in the same state and major population centers for one group were divided into different states. Some of the most creative gerrymandering was done where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet (See Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The Soviet authorities attempted to shape ethnic identities throughout the USSR, and in Central Asia there were particular difficulties as most people here did not see their primary identities at the ethnic or national level. As part of the Soviet process, languages were standardised, traditions codified, pre-existing sub-ethnic identities (for example, tribe or city) were suppressed (for instance, by being removed as an option in the official census), privileges were granted or denied based on ethnic identity, and many people found that they were outside the borders of their titular republic (for example, ethnic Uzbeks inside Tajikistan). Despite the continuing rhetoric that the divisions between nationalities (that is, ethnic groups) would eventually disappear and give way to a unified people, ethnic identities continued to be strongly promoted in the Soviet republics... There were, however, also divisions within the ethnic groups.For Tajiks, there was the reality that ethnic Tajiks from different regions had obvious differences in dialect and in many other aspects of their culture.” [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

The borders of the ethnic homelands and republics were gerrymandered to suit the divide-and-rule policy of Moscow. Stalin’s idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too occupied bickering among themselves to unite against Moscow and threaten the Soviet state and in turn require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”

As Lenin’s commissar in charge of national minorities, Stalin created “autonomous regions” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1922, as part of the divide to conquer strategy he also employed in Central Asia, where he grouped Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in artificial enclaves. One objective was to create a situation in which if the Soviet republics were ever able to break the grip of Soviet rule they would experience a wave of ethnic violence. One Georgian historian called the autonomous regions “time bombs set to detonate if Georgia became independent.” Indeed that is what happened when Georgia became independent in 1991. It also happened the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Volga Tartars, Germans and Cossacks, among others, have lobbied through history for the creation of ethnic states within the Russian empire. One American State Department official told the New York Times, “If you are Russian and you look at the map, what you see is that most of the country isn’t yours. The psychological consequences are enormous. It’s as if American had honored all the Indian treaties and everything from the Mississippi to the Pacific was an Indian reservation.”

Mass Deportations of Ethnic Groups

A number ethnic groups deemed untrustworthy by Stalin were sent to Central Asia — particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — before, during and after World War II. These groups included Germans, Poles, Balts, Koreans, Ingush, Chechens, Meskheti Turks, Kalmyks and Tatars. Many died on the journey to Kazakhstan. Others died not long after they arrived. Some of those that survived continued to live in Kazakhstan. Others returned to their homelands when they got the chance.

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

During World War II, the Volga Germans and Caucasus ethnic groups such as the Chechens and Ingush were rounded up a transported in cattle cars to new "homelands" in Siberia and Central Asia. After Stalin died some were allowed to return. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

Fearing them as potential spies and traitors, Stalin rounded up all the ethnic Germans in 1941 and deported them to Siberia and Central Asia. Nearly 900,00 0 people were deported. They rounded up a transported in cattle cars. Some died on the way there. Thousands died in labor camps and coal mines. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide, against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

The Germans were only able leave the places they were exiled to in 1955 and 1956, after Stalin died. In the meantime their homes and land were taken over by Russians. Without an autonomous region they were unable to organize politically and were unable to do much to improve there situation.

As for the Greeks, initially they prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There a was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory. Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” In 1949, Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Pontic Greeks in Crimea and the Caucasus.

Forced Exile of Crimean Tatars

On May 18, 1944, towards the end of World War II, all of the Crimean Tatars—some 230,000 of them—were roused from their beds and rounded up in one night, under orders from Stalin, and forced onto trucks and rail cattle cars for the long trip to Central Asia (mostly to Uzbekistan) and the southern Urals. The Tatars were falsely accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis— even though they supplied a large of soldiers to anti-Nazi units in the Red Army—and were exiled as punishment. The Tatars were one of a dozen or so ethnic groups accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis.

One Tatar late told the Washington Post, "A Russian officer came with three soldiers and ordered us to leave. He said the Tatars were traitors to the Motherland. My father gave him documents showing that my brother was fighting the Germans in the Red Army, but [the officer] threw them aside. He said that meant nothing.”

The Tatars were locked inside the cattle cars. At stops some food and water was thrown in and dead bodies were removed. As many 100,000 of them died—nearly half their entire population— during the journey and the early days or resettlement. Those who survived lost their land, lost their identity and were subjected to crushing restrictions.

Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan

The Tatars were settled in communities under tight supervision. They were prohibited from traveling or publishing in their language. One woman told the Washington Post, “In Uzbekistan, Tatars are being turned into Uzbeks and Russians. We're losing our languages, our culture and identity.”

The Tatars first lived in concrete huts set up on the steppes. Over time they built proper houses. After Stalin died, other groups were allowed to return to their homelands, but not the Tatars. Some historians believe this was because that Tatars might stir up anti-Soviet activity among other Muslim groups. Other historians have said the Soviet’s simply wanted the Tatars land and firmer grasp on the strategically important Crimean peninsula.

Back in the Crimea, Russians had moved into Tatars houses and farmed Tatar land and destroyed Tatar mosques and cemeteries. The Crimea was developed into an important military zone and a playground for the Soviet elite. In 1946, the Crimean Tatars ceased to officially exist as a distinct ethnic group, instead they were grouped in the broad Tatar category.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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