Large numbers of Central Asians joined the communist party, many gaining high positions in the government of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (Uzbek SSR), the administrative unit established in 1924 to include present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The indigenous leaders cooperated closely with the communist government in enforcing policies designed to alter the traditional society of the region: the emancipation of women, the redistribution of land, and mass literacy campaigns.

The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was officially proclaimed and added the Soviet Union in 1925. The Soviets were repressive in Central Asia as they were everywhere in the Soviet Union. Their aim was to make Central Asia into a cotton-growing region. Politically and ideologically the goals were to eradicate religion, educate the people, make Russian the common language and replace local traditions with Communist values.

The number of Russians as a percentage of the population rose from two percent of Uzbekistan’s population in 1917 to 13.5 percent in 1950. It fell to 8.3 percent in 1989. Russians dominated heavy industry and key government and party positions.

One professor in Tashkent told National Geographic in 1971, "Here we have built a new order...Since the Revolution, Uzbekistan has grown from a backwards, exploited province of landless peasants to an industrial republic within the greater Soviet nation...Our people are counting benefits beyond those of our capitalist neighbors."

Soviet Union and Central Asia

In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, the Soviet Union) was established by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It was comprised of the four entities: the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Transcaucasian republics. By the late 1930s, there were 11 republics, all with government structures and ruling communist parties identical to the one in the Russian Republic. The 15 Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) that existed at the time the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 were established by 1940. In the Soviet era Kazakhstan was known as the Kazakh SSR.

The giant Central Asian territory was given republic status piecemeal, beginning with the inclusion of the Turkmen and Uzbek republics in 1924 and concluding with the separation of Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan in 1936. The Tajik ASSR was created within the Uzbek SSR in 1924. The Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was officially proclaimed and added the Soviet Union in 1929. The Kirghiz SSR was established as part of the Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in 1920 and was renamed the Kazakh SSR in 1926.

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.”

Ethnic–Territorial Divisions in Soviet-Era Central Asia

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “The establishment of a uniform territorial administrative system based on centralised control from Moscow was another important step on Central Asia’s way to ‘USSR, Inc.’. Known as the national–territorial delimitation of 1924, this process of drawing borders remains a highly controversial issue in terms of its motivation and far-reaching results. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

In Rakowska-Harmstone’s words:[T]he process of delimitation was designed to grant political autonomy to major ethnic groups, in line with the stated policy of the right to national self-determination; the degree of formal autonomy granted depended on the degree of political development. Other reasons for the delimitation, equally important if not explicitly stated, were the Russian desires to facilitate All-Union (federal) control and to keep local nationalities apart by application of a ‘divide and rule’ policy.”

“In October 1919, the Russian Government stated that ‘self-determination of the peoples of Turkestan and elimination of all kinds of national inequality and privileges of one national group at the expense of another constitute the backbone of the entire policy of the Soviet government of Russia’. Ostensibly this declaration was aimed at overcoming the image of Russians as a domineering force in Central Asia. In January 1920, the Turkkomissiia published the draft document entitled ‘On the Dismemberment of Turkestan for Three Separate Republics According to National Features’—that is, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. Why was it decided to create these particular national units instead of devising plain administrative divisions according to territory and population, or simply retaining existing borders, as some Russian orientalists advised? It appears that the leadership of the Russian Communist Party believed the fledgling sense of national identity a force to be countered.

As Stalin emphasised at the Twelfth Congress of the Russian Communist Party in April 1923, apart from the danger of Great Russian chauvinism, ‘there is local chauvinism, especially in those republics that have several nationalities. I allude to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Bukhara, and partly Turkestan, where we have several nationalities whose progressive elements may soon begin to compete with one another for primacy.’ Indeed, the fact that Bukhara and Khiva had become People’s Socialist Republics by no means alleviated any historical animosity between Tajiks and Uzbeks, or Turkmen and Uzbeks. If anything, the turbulent years of revolution and civil war had politicised previously dormant ethnic elites, so that in the 1920s traditional raiding, plundering and blood feuds were compounded by confrontation along ethnic lines in local party committees. The creation of national entities under Moscow’s strict supervision appeared to be the best way to placate nascent nationalist sentiments, avert a serious conflict in the already ravaged region, and in the long run utilise Central Asian elites in building communism.

“There is little doubt that Islamic, tribal and local affiliations remained potent sources of identification for indigenous people in Central Asia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Still, this region was not immune to the general rise of nationalism in Asian countries, such as in Turkey, Iran or Afghanistan, where it had successfully ousted ideas of pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism. In Central Asia, too, ‘the development of a capitalist economic order, the spread of literacy, written communication and modern education culminated in the rise of local and regional elites which … identified themselves consciously with a particular region and ethno-linguistic group and language. These elites were the architects of the forthcoming nation.’”

Was Early Soviet Policy in Central Asia Really Divide and Rule?

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: ““Was this ‘artificiality’ a deliberate strategy of ‘divide and rule’ on the part of the Soviets? This assessment for Central Asia as a whole is shared by many scholars and appears time and time again in the literature. Some make short references to the strategy. Muriel Atkin, for example, refers to national delimitation as ‘divide et impera’ (divide and rule). Others, such as John Schoeberlein-Engel and Olivier Roy, provide similar explanations; however, the last two scholars qualify their remarks. Schoeberlein-Engel notes that the ‘conventional wisdom’ that portrays national delimitation as part of a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy has not been ‘adequately documented’, while Roy questions whether national delimitation was a ‘Machiavellian calculation’, ‘bureaucratic incompetence’, or ‘the power interests of local factions at work’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“Certainly, it would be misleading to regard the process of setting internal Soviet republic borders as a scheme conceived and implemented exclusively by Bolshevik masterminds in Moscow. In reality, the delimitation was greatly influenced by nationalist forces in Central Asia. In regards to English-language literature on the subject, an alternative view was presented by Isabelle Kreindler, who argued that the apparently ‘illogical’ Central Asian administrative divisions are a result of the ‘complexity of the task—intermingled, illiterate populations, unstudied dialects—rather than a deliberate policy to weaken Muslim peoples’. When more significant attempts to adequately document national delimitation based on primary sources were eventually made (in English), it became clear that the ‘divide and rule’ theory is quite weak, most prominently as illustrated by Francine Hirsch. Olimov and Olimova argue that the borders of Tajikistan were not created on the basis of ‘ethnic lines’, which were ‘never a reality’, but on the ‘administrative realities’ of geography, land usage, economics and communication.

“At the same time, writing specifically about Tajikistan, the Tajik historian Rahim Masov noted that national delimitation was a complex process in which native Central Asian cadres presented different proposals and argued their cases before the Soviet authorities. In summary, the presumably ‘divide and rule’-motivated policy of national–territorial delimitation proved to be in line with the aspirations of ethnic elites in Central Asia. It is rather the way this policy was conducted that echoes today in numerous inter-ethnic disputes in the former Soviet Union. These tensions are caused either by unclearly defined borders or by the perception that these borders were drawn wrongfully in the first place. As Masov has written, ‘it is still not clear what criterion was decisive for the incorporation of this or that settlement into the newly created republics, how other factors were treated, and whether economic, historical, national and other peculiarities were considered objectively, and whether interests of every nationality were taken into account’. And in Masov’s view, the main villains of national delimitation are not the Soviet central authorities, but rather the Uzbek leaders allied to the Bolsheviks who manipulated the process of national delimitation to create an unfairly large Uzbek Republic at the expense of ethnic Tajik-dominated areas.”

Soviet Nationality Policies in Central Asia

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: Muriel Atkin notes that before the Soviet nation-building process in Central Asia, the ‘overwhelming majority of indigenous inhabitants considered themselves part of the Muslim community but also saw that community as subdivided into groups which were different and, not infrequently, mutually hostile’. Atkin lists these divisions as ethnicity, religious ties, loyalty to dynasties or local tribal chiefs, tribal or clan affiliation, economic interests, geographic locations and political ideologies. Subtelny provides fewer identity categories, listing tribe, town or religion. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“Sergei Abashin provides a more comprehensive list:The basic cultural frontiers in pre-Russian Central Asia were not shaped along ethnic or ethnic-national lines. The main divides used to differentiate ‘one of us’ from someone ‘foreign’ were based on position in the social hierarchy, religious separation into Sunni, Shi’ite, or Ishmaelite, membership of different Sufi brotherhoods, economic-cultural categorization between settled, mountainous, nomadic or semi-nomadic groups, family or tribal distinctions, or by regional classification.

“By the beginning of the Soviet era, in Abashin’s words, the many ‘cultural and social categories and “named groups” that existed in Central Asia was [sic] artificially and administratively reduced to an extremely limited range of “nationalities” or “national groups”’. The manipulation of identity categories began at an early date. One example is from the 1920 census, in which there was, in addition to difficulty in assigning ethnic identity to those within the Tajik-Uzbek categories, ‘deliberate misidentification for political purposes, particularly in the Tajik-Uzbek case’.Similarly, Atkin writes that many people ‘feared being forcibly relocated to ensure that a given nationality would be entirely contained within “its” own republic. Thus some of the self-designations as “Tajik” and “Uzbek” did not reflect that individual’s ethnic consciousness but rather his estimate of which answer would enable him to remain in his home.’ The Tajik historian Rahim Masov takes the above themes to a much higher level, dedicating much of his writing to demonstrating what he perceives to be the ethnic injustices inflicted upon Tajiks by both Uzbeks and fellow Tajiks. Masov convincingly demonstrates that many Tajiks outside the present-day area of Tajikistan were forced into the ‘Uzbek’ category through discrimination, falsified census results, local bureaucratic subterfuge, and various other methods.

“Soviet social scientists’ work was ‘closely tied into the official ideology and politics of ethno-nationalism dominant in the Soviet state—with ethnic groups forming pseudo-federal administrative units or Republics’. In Soviet Central Asia, Uzbek and Tajik cultural histories were ‘redefined’ on the basis of language and territory; however, many of those now determined to be Uzbeks and Tajiks had often shared the same territory, culture and languages throughout recent history, so the ‘compartmentalization of individual elements from this common background into “Uzbek” and “Tajik” was bound to create confusion and overlap’. Centlivres and Centlivres-Demont maintain that Soviet ethnographers took many diverse Persian-speaking and Turkic-speaking groups and gathered them into two categories, Tajiks and Uzbeks respectively, and ‘treated them as homogeneous entities’; however, this focus on the Soviet central government’s plans does not take into consideration the manipulative roles played by local allies of the Bolsheviks. As an example, Carlisle points especially to Fayzulla Khojaev, a Jadid (Muslim reformer) and Moscow’s ‘primary native ally’.Obiya Chika focuses entirely on Khojaev’s career and identity, noting that as his career progressed he ‘seemed to show a drastic change of self-identity—from Bukharan to Uzbek’, and that ultimately he was the most active of any Central Asian leaders in the process of national delimitation. Masov is particularly critical of the role played by Khojaev and other local leaders—both Uzbek and Tajik—in manipulating the process whereby the population of Central Asia was divided ethnically into nationality categories and geographically into republics.

“Sergei Abashin describes the process whereby an ethnic consciousness developed amongst Soviet citizens: Over seven decades, Soviet power was responsible for huge changes in people’s self-consciousness. Moscow mobilized all of the instruments and resources necessary to achieve this: a national state, a national culture, national language and literature, national education and national media (particularly television). Among the most powerful tools for introducing ethnic self-consciousness to the masses were internal passports and the census, which, in effect, was a survey of the population’s ethnic-national allegiance. Every person had to be formally registered as a specific ‘nationality,’ which he/she could not change later, even if he/she wished to. Education also contributed to this socialization process. Thus, in the Soviet period, a citizen’s consciousness, the sense of belonging to the Uzbek or Tajik state, came increasingly to resemble ethnic self-consciousness, as in identifying with a certain culture, language and history.”

Life in Central Asia in the Soviet Period

During the Soviet era, Central Asia was arguably the most isolated region in the world. Central Asia was closed off from the outside world as the Soviet Union closed its borders with Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and, later, China. Very little news of what was going in there leaked to West. More was known about North Korea and Albania.

Under Soviet rule, Central Asia went from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Literacy increased. Living standards were raised. Health care improved. People got jobs. Infrastructure and concrete apartments were constructed. Statues of Lenin were raised. Socialist Realist monuments were built with commemorations written in four languages. Cities were renamed after Soviet commanders who put down local revolts.

On an Intourist guide in Bukhara told National Geographic in 1971, "I remember my mother and father speaking Arabic at home. But my comrades of this generation find no need for Allah and His prophecy. Visit a mosque nowadays and you will see mostly the white-haired."

Economic Development Under the Soviets in Central Asia

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Overcoming the ‘economic inequality’ of the peoples of Central Asia was always regarded in Moscow as an important element of its nationality policy in the region. Theoretically, the aim was to achieve similar levels of socioeconomic development throughout the Soviet Union by eliminating what was referred to as the grim legacy of tsarist rule in non-Russian regions: 1) narrow specialisation of the economy in producing food and raw materials; 2) absence of heavy industry; 3) one-sided and primitive structure of industry; 4) extreme technological backwardness of industry and agriculture; 5) lack of infrastructure and transport networks; 6) absence of a native working class; 7) general cultural ‘backwardness’ of the population. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“In practice, however, considerations of pragmatism and expediency determined the course of economic modernisation in Central Asia. As Geoffrey Jukes has pointed out: “[I]ndustrialisation is not merely an act of social policy; for it may make little economic sense to establish industry in a border area, remote from central markets, perhaps vulnerable to invasion, possibly poorly endowed with raw materials, or with a labour force which is difficult to train because of backwardness, language difficulties, or the lack of an industrial tradition.” Other experts often put special emphasis on geostrategic factors, such as the proximity of China, as a reason the Soviets sought to support economic modernisation in Central Asia.

“The attainment of prosperity in the Central Asian republics has not come through the classical path of industrialisation. The industrial progress of the region has no doubt been very substantial, but rapid growth in agriculture has been a key element in their progress. A distinctive and related feature of their experience has been the continued predominance of the rural sector … What the Central Asian republics experienced was rapid agricultural growth leading to a rising standard of living in the rural areas and the consequent absence of pressure to move out of the rural society.

Cotton, the Soviets and Central Asia

One of the primary aims of the Soviets in Central Asia was to make it into a cotton-growing region. From 1921 to 1927, during the New Economic Policy (NEP) Soviet agricultural policy promoted the expansion of cotton cultivation in Central Asia. By the end of the NEP, the extent of cotton cultivation had increased dramatically, but yield did not match prerevolutionary levels. At the same time, the cultivation of rice, a staple food of the region, declined considerably.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The specialisation in cotton was complemented by a spectacular increase in yield per hectare due to the introduction of new long-stapled varieties, implementation of massive irrigation schemes and use of chemical fertilisers. Even in the late 1980s the republic continued to have the best yields in the USSR and was not far behind the main world cotton producers. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

“While it is true that cotton production in” Central Asia “became ‘the focus for the development of a large economic complex embracing many industrial sectors: irrigation; production of agricultural machinery; production of mineral fertilisers and toxic chemicals; the cotton refining, oil producing, paper manufacturing and—to a lesser extent—sewing and knitting industries’, it is important to remember that this complex never presented a viable manufacturing entity capable of guaranteeing the republic’s balanced independent development. It was meant, first and foremost, to provide ‘USSR, Inc.’ with deficit materials—a design ‘logically stemming from and imposed by the strategy of the [Soviet] command-administrative system that favoured creation of agricultural and raw-material enclaves in the national economy’.Throughout the Soviet period only 4 to 5 per cent of Central Asia’s cotton was processed locally; the rest was dispatched to the European part of the USSR, where more than 70 per cent of the country’s output of cotton textiles was generated.”

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.

Last updated April 2016

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