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The Soviet system, while brutal and callously profligate with human life, was not simply a continuation of Russian colonialism in another form. In Central Asia, it was a radically modernizing regime that transformed what had been a culturally and politically unassimilated colony of the Tsarist Empire into the nation states we know today. All five Central Asian states still bear a heavy Soviet imprint in their governance, institutions and identity.
“The Revolution arrived via the telegraph” – this is how historian Marco Buttino characterizes the coming of both the February and the October Revolutions in Petrograd to the territories of Russian Central Asia in 1917. This was, in fact, true of most of the vast empire’s territories beyond the capital and Moscow. And while the February Revolution was widely welcomed, this was not true of the Bolshevik seizure of power.
The Bolsheviks met widespread resistance across the Russian empire; they were rejected as illegitimate even by other socialist and revolutionary parties. In this colonial periphery – already devastated by the 1916 Central Asian Revolt and its suppression – the October Revolution was even less representative of the popular will than in European Russia. In Tashkent, the capital of the governor-generalship of Turkestan (comprising most of modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the southern half of Kazakhstan), the Tashkent Soviet reacted to the news by proclaiming its own seizure of power.
The first decree of the Tashkent Soviet, comprised almost exclusively of European railway workers and soldiers, asserted that representatives of the local Muslim population would not be admitted to membership. The logic of this was that the revolution had ushered in the dictatorship of the proletariat, and Muslims were too backward to have a proletariat of their own. In other words, it was an attempt by poorer Europeans to seize the colonial privileges and power of the former rulers – Tsarist officials and army officers – for themselves.
Unsurprisingly, the Muslim population did not remain passive. Earlier in 1917, they had gained control of the Tashkent City Duma in what were the only more or less free elections ever held in Central Asia, and now they responded to the Soviet’s seizure of power by proclaiming an autonomous government of the Muslims of Turkestan, with a capital in the cotton-rich city of Kokand in the Ferghana Valley. Meanwhile, in the steppe region to the north, a group of Kazakh intellectuals under the banner of “Alash Orda” (the party of Alash, the legendary common ancestor of the Kazakhs) led by Alikhan Bukeikhanov, Ahmad Baitursunov and Mirzhakup Dulatov also proclaimed autonomy. In neither case was this a call for independence – both groups sought representative self-government within the framework of a reformed Russian empire.
Neither of these attempts at self-government lasted long. The Kokand autonomy and Alash Orda suffered from what, in the turbulent years of 1917-18, was a fatal weakness: they did not control an armed force of their own. In February 1918, the Tashkent Soviet launched an attack on Kokand, in which former Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war and members of the Armenian Dashnak party participated alongside Russian workers, soldiers and settlers. This attack left about 14,000 people dead and much of Kokand in ashes. Those members of the autonomy’s government who survived – notably the Kazakhs Muhammadjan Tynyshpaev and Mustafa Choqay – would go on to build political careers in the 1920s, Tynyshpaev as a functionary of the Soviet state, Choqay as its critic in emigration.
Alash Orda managed to survive somewhat longer, first through an alliance with Siberian autonomists, then by hastily forging relations first with the Komuch government in the Volga region, then with Admiral Kolchak’s white government in Omsk, and finally with the Bolsheviks and the Red Army. As this sequence indicates, the political and military situation by this time was chaotic, with most of the empire embroiled in Civil War.
Apart from the Tashkent Soviet and the Muslim autonomies, the Orenburg Cossacks under Ataman Dutov formed part of the uncoordinated White opposition to the Bolsheviks. When they cut the Orenburg-Tashkent railway in late 1917, it cut off vital grain imports to the cotton-growing regions of Central Asia, provoking widespread famine.
Semirechie also saw a short-lived, Cossack-led autonomy, while the Amir of Bukhara responded to the Bolshevik takeover by proclaiming independence. In March 1918, he brutally suppressed an attempted takeover by the party of the Young Bukharans who, ignoring the fate of their compatriots in Kokand, had entered into an uneasy alliance with the Tashkent Soviet.
The Soviet reconquest of Central Asia, under General Mikhail Frunze, a settler of Bessarabian heritage born in the town of Pishpek (modern-day Bishkek) in Semirechie, came only in 1919-1920. As even official party histories would later acknowledge, the campaign aimed not just to suppress overt anti-Bolshevik resistance, but to bring the local Soviets under central control, and end what was seen as ideological aberrations. Frunze captured Khiva and Bukhara in 1920, but in Ferghana, the eastern part of the Bukharan emirate and parts of Turkmen territory, an anti-Soviet rural revolt, known as the Basmachi movement, gained strength. The Red Army would not finally defeat the Basmachis until 1926.
The Red Army might have won a military victory, but Soviet rule in Central Asia was politically very weak, with almost no base among the indigenous population. As Lenin and Stalin (then commissar for nationalities) both realized, they needed local allies, and these could not be drawn solely from the ranks of the European settlers, who had shown themselves more interested in perpetuating colonial privilege than in propagating revolutionary ideals among the Central Asian masses.
The temporary solution was to ally themselves with elements of the pre-revolutionary Central Asian intelligentsia, many of whom had been at the forefront of groups such as the Young Bukharans or the Alash Orda – notably Faizullah Khojaev, who became the First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist party, and Ahmad Baitursunov, who became commissar for enlightenment in the Kazakh autonomous republic. While some, such as the Kazakh leader Turar Rysqulov, were indeed convinced communists, many had little ideological sympathy with communist ideals. It was a marriage of convenience – the intellectuals gained a measure of state power, something they had never enjoyed before, while the Bolsheviks could strengthen their grip over Central Asian society.
Starting in 1921, the Soviet regime began to espouse a policy of korenizatsiya (striking roots) in Central Asia and other non-Russian regions, which has prompted historian Terry Martin to describe the USSR in this period as an “Affirmative Action Empire.”
This policy reserved quotas of industrial, administrative and political positions for Central Asians, launched campaigns for mass literacy and indoctrination with Soviet ideology, and called for the emancipation of women. The spirit of early Soviet rule was often radically anti-colonial, denouncing not just the western colonial empires, but also the legacies of the Tsarist regime and Russian colonialism in Central Asia.
In 1924, a series of new Central Asian Republics were created, each with a new set of boundaries and state structures – contrary to what is often thought, these were not simply imposed from Moscow, but built upon local national projects, some of which pre-dated the revolution. New national histories, languages and ideologies were built atop older foundations. Over time, each republic would acquire its own set of national cultural institutions: universities, academies of science, libraries and opera and ballet theaters. Central Asians were no longer inorodtsy, or “aliens” as they had been before 1917, but Soviet citizens on a relatively equal footing with those in Russia, even if the rights which Soviet citizenship granted were illusory.
Korenizatsiya did not last in this early, radical form. By the late 1920s, as the Soviet regime in Central Asia began to feel more secure, distrust of local nationalism began to grow in the upper ranks of the party hierarchy. The first generation of national leaders, together with the intellectuals who had worked with the Soviet regime, began to be imprisoned and executed, starting in the late 1920s.
Rysqulov was dubbed an “enemy of the people” and shot early in 1938. Faizullah Khojaev, who had played a major role in creating the Uzbek Communist party and Soviet Socialist Republic, would be executed later that year after appearing alongside Bukharin and Rykov in the last of the great Stalinist show trials. He was accused of nationalist deviation.
As it did everywhere in the Soviet Union, Stalin’s collectivization policies took a heavy toll on the people of Central Asia. It was particularly horrific in Kazakhstan, where it was accompanied by the forced sedentarization of Kazakh nomads, and the mass death of livestock. At least 35 percent of the ethnic Kazakh population – 1.5 million people – died of starvation and disease.
By the time of the outbreak of war in 1941, Central Asia had been fully incorporated into the Soviet Union and the apparatus of Stalinist terror. Many outside observers believed that the anti-colonialism, affirmative action policies and nation building of the early Soviet years had been wholly reversed. The national republics still existed, but their autonomy appeared fictional – window-dressing to disguise renewed Russian colonialism.
The flow of Slavs from European Russia into the region grew through the 1950s and 1960s, so that they made up a majority of the population in large cities, such as Almaty and Tashkent. Spoken Russian became ubiquitous, sometimes at the expense of indigenous languages. The transformation of much of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan into a vast cotton plantation producing the raw material for Russian industry, and for export, seemed to reproduce a classic colonial economic relationship, particularly when the irrigation it required led to the drying up of the Aral Sea. Historian Robert Conquest dubbed Stalin “The Breaker of Nations.”
The reality was more complex: Soviet leaders in the Kremlin certainly tightened political and economic control over Central Asia, starting in the 1930s. But Soviet nation-building policies never disappeared entirely, especially in the cultural sphere. There was a recognized place for national culture – languages, literature and music in all the Central Asian republics, and many of the best-loved national poets and writers, such as Auezov and Esenberlin in Kazakhstan, wrote all their work under Soviet auspices.
The autonomy of the Central Asian republics was not wholly fictional, at least in their internal affairs. The cotton economy was certainly exploitative and ecologically damaging, but its most enthusiastic promoters were the local party hierarchies in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Sharaf Rashidov, the long-time head of the Uzbek Communist Party famously tricked Moscow into paying his republic for cotton that had never even been sown, much less harvested.
In Kazakhstan, Dinmuhammad Kunaev oversaw a “second korenizatsiya,” in which the proportion of ethnic Kazakhs in state positions more than doubled to over 60 percent, even as the use of the Kazakh language went into precipitous decline. The Zheltoqsan protests in Almaty in 1986 and their brutal suppression were a sharp reminder of the continuing tensions between national and Soviet identities.
For Central Asia, the long-term legacies of the October Revolution and the Soviet rule that followed are more mixed than their unpromising beginnings in terror, repression and famine would suggest. With hindsight, the last thirty years of Soviet rule after Stalin’s death compare favorably both to continuing Chinese colonial rule in Xinjiang, which permits a far lesser degree of cultural and political autonomy, or indeed to Afghanistan, where all the major indices of human development were far lower than in the five former Soviet Republics, even before the blight of war settled over that country from 1979.
Universal literacy, a moderately effective system of healthcare, a comprehensive railway network and a greater degree of gender equality than is usual in the Muslim world, and a highly educated and skilled urban population were all notable Soviet achievements.
On the negative side of the balance, the Soviet ecological legacy is almost uniformly disastrous, including the destruction of the Aral Sea, radiation caused by nuclear testing, growing soil salinization and other forms of chronic environmental pollution. With the partial exception of Kyrgyzstan, the authoritarian traditions of Soviet rule have so far prevented any of the Central Asian republics from making a transition toward more representative forms of government.
And finally, for good or ill, cultural and linguistic Russification is another important long-lasting legacy.
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