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The Balance of Power in Central Asia by the End of 1923

By 1923, the Basmachi had been neutered and while they still caused problems in the Ferghana and Turkmenistan regions, they were no longer seen as an existential threat. The roads to Central Asia were safer now that the Soviets had defeated the White Armies in Siberia. This allowed the Bolsheviks to slowly build a cadre of European Bolsheviks within Central Asia and create a pseudo-Communist indigenous cadre. Men like Xo’jaev, Fitrat, Ayni, etc. were not true Communists, but they were willing allies in the reformation of Central Asia. All of these factors allowed for a stronger Soviet presence in the region, enabling the Bolsheviks to ensure that Communist principles were being implemented in the republics.

There is a big debate amongst historians whether the Soviet Union should be considered a colonial power or not and it’s particular contentious in Central Asian studies.

People argue the Soviets can’t be colonists because they integrated local actors into various levels of government, actually worked with them to address problems, and supported the local actors’ efforts at reforms and nationalization. Both the Soviets and the local reformers believed the emirs were harmful, believed that a government that included all peoples of Central Asia was possible, fought against the Basmachi and the conservative ulama and merchants, wanted to reform Islam and lead several campaigns against the ulama and tradition centers of Islamic thought and belief, and believed that the role of women had to be rethought.

I don’t think this is true only on a superficial level. I think for a period, there was a true dialogue happening between the Bolsheviks and the local actors, a dialogue full of misunderstandings, mistakes, and some deception as both sides pursued their own goals, but it was a dialogue.

However, one can’t ignore that the Soviets could be very heavy handed when it suited them. We can’t ignore that Frunze dismantled the Musburo simply because they weren’t created by the Soviets and he threatened to recreate the Turkestan Communist Party because, again, it wasn’t Communist enough. We can’t ignore that every attempt the republics made at having autonomy outside of the cultural and internal life was denied. They couldn’t be independent economically, they had to serve the Soviet economy first and foremost, their control over their own foreign affairs was limited, and even though both sides agreed women needed liberation, the approach adopted by the Soviets was heavy handed and ignored local feelings and needs.

I, personally, think the Soviets were a colonial power because, even while allow some local independence, Central Asia was still subjected to the needs of the center, at the detriment of their own ecology, culture, and people.

Douglas Northrop makes an interesting argument in his book Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia that by trying to define Central Asia, the Soviets ended up defining themselves and that’s where a lot of problems arose. The Soviets started to define themselves based on how they differed from Central Asians, allowing this narrative of everything Europeans (or Russians) did was good because it was different from what the Central Asians did. This allowed them to continue to think of Central Asians as inferior, except this time with an ideological spin.

It “wasn’t” racist to believe that Central Asians weren’t educated in Communist thought and thus they weren’t pure Communists and couldn’t be trusted with their own destinies. It was a fact. However, one day they be true Communists. They just needed to be re-educated and guided by the European Communists, the true vanguards of Communism. All of which sounds pretty damn racist.

Basically, the Soviets in Central Asia between 1920 and 1925ish are the perfect example of the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

The Rise of Nationalism in Central Asia

In our last podcast episode, we talked about how the creation of the republics coincided with and encouraged local efforts at crafting a nationalist narrative.

A black and white picture of a man with eraserhead like hair and a sharp aquiline nose. He is wearing a black button down shirt with a black tie and a black suit jacket.
Fayzulla Xo’jaev, Chairmen of the Bukharan Republic and later First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan
Image courtesy of Wikicommons

We’ve talked a lot about how Abdurauf Fitrat helped create an Uzbek identity of Turkicness with deep connects to Temur and Turkic culture, which is different from the Turkic culture you’d find in Türkiye. For many Jadids who supported this identity, Turkestan was a land of Turks which left many other peoples out.

For example, the Kazakhs had a completely different nationalist story with different heroes, even though they claimed some of the same lands as the Uzbek Jadids. The Kazakhs didn’t really care about Turkestan as a whole, but they wanted to unite the former Steppe krai which included the Semirech’e and Syr Darya provinces.

As we’ve discussed in other episodes, scholars and activists in the steppe had already made considerable progress in crafting Kazakh as its own language with its own distinct orthography and they wanted to establish a solid literature community. They also had dug into their own history and their environmental activism and had a strong identity.

Many of the Kazakh elite had gone to Russian schools for education and thus were more comfortable conversing in Russian than in Chagatai or the new Uzbek language Fitrat was crafting. If we remember correctly, the Alash Orda had contributed to the Kokand Autonomy, but actually broke away from it and created their own government in the steppe that co-existed with the Kokand Autonomy.

In 1922, Nazir Torequlov, a Ferghana born bilingual Kazakh explained the growing difference between the two ethnic groups as

“A lot has happened in the past ten or fifteen years. Turkestanis have grown a great deal in this period. Everyone has recognized himself and his companions. The Uzbek has found Amir Navoiy and the Kazakh has caught hold of Abay”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 267

Tensions between the Kazakh republic and Turkestan increased as they butt heads over issues ranging from food supply to trade to population migration. The Turkestan officials blamed the Kazakh officials for not implementing land reform which allowed European settlers to continue to oppress the Kazakhs who then fled to Turkestan and exasperated their many issues. The Kazakhs blamed Turkestan for no longer carrying food for the Kazakh republic on its trains and for searching the citizens of Kazakh republic as they traveled through Turkestan. The bitterness grew so bad, Moscow had to create a special commission to resolve disputes between the two republics. The Soviets were confounded by the tension. The head of the Central Asian Bureau wrote in 1924 that:

“National relations here are extraordinarily sharp for the simple reason that there is a constant struggle between Uzbeks and Kazakhs [in the party] for the right to be the ruling nation [in Turkestan]….Conflicts take place constantly between Kazakhs and Uzbeks in the struggle to acquire a dominant position in the state.”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, 267

The Kazakhs weren’t the only ones who clashed with the Uzbek Jadids. The Tajiks would have a big problem with Fitrat’s formulation of Turkic identity and the Kyrgyz and Karakalpak would fight to differentiate themselves from both the Uzbeks and Kazakhs.

In fact as early as 1922, the Kyrgyz Communists organized a conference that passed a resolution seeking the formation of an autonomous mountain oblast for the Kyrgyz people. The Turkmen in Bukhara organized to demand their own party and state.

State Creation

It is common to claim that the process of creating nation states in Central Asia was a Soviet invention forced onto the people of Central Asia. However, as we’ve seen, many Central Asians fought tooth and nail to be involved in crafting a political entity in Central Asia. When the Soviets organized the region into Soviet Republics, the indigenous actors acted fast to take advantage of the power that brought them. Similarly, the creation of nation states was a merging of Central Asian reformist and Soviet desires and needs.

From the Bolshevik perspective, the creation of Central Asian states was all about integrating republic economies and suppressing movement towards republic autonomy. They believed that if they redrew the republic borders, transforming them into Soviet states with Soviet bureaucracy, it would squash any remaining economic and administrative divides that were inherited from the Tsarist and Emirate rule, and replace them with Communist goals and principles.

At first, the Central Committee was against drawing borders based on nationalist principles because they considered the region “too mixed.” However, because of the Russian’s lack of useful information on the region’s ethnic and racial identities, the indigenous actors were able to use the state creation to finish their reform efforts and create their own nationalistic states. So, really, the creation of the Central Asian states was an initiative discussed within the Central Committee but driven by the indigenous actors themselves. And honestly, this was what Fayzulla had been angling for when he wanted the Bukharan Republic to have control over their own economy and foreign affairs. This was the culmination of local actor efforts as much as it was out of Soviet desire.

The Delimitation Process

The delimitation process started in January 1924. The Central Committee sent Janis Rudzutaks on a tour of Turkestan to:

“organize a meeting of responsible workers of Bukhara, Khorezm (if possible) and Turkestan in order to initiate a preliminary discussion of the possibility and expediency of the delimitation of Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkmen oblasts according to the national principle”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 272

The three Central Asian republics eagerly took up the task and discussed the issue in February and March. They presented their basic positions to the Central Asian Bureau in April. The Bureau sent it to the Politburo and the Politburo issued its own decree in June 1924. The Central Asian Bureau created a Territorial Commission to determine the boundaries of the future states which they finished by November 1924. On November 18th, 1924, the three central committees of the republics dissolved themselves and create the new republics for the new states.

This all happened very quickly and without any references to expert knowledge. The Russians never properly documented or understand the ethnic makeup of Central Asia. Instead, the Central Asian Bureau relied on claims and counterclaims, which could lead to ridiculous claims such as the Kazakh republic claiming 360,000 Kazakhs lived in the Bukharan Republic and the Bukharan Republic claiming it was only 36,000.

A color map of the four Central Asian Soviet Republics before the national delimitation
Soviet Central Asia in 1922 before national delimitation. Image Courtesy of Wikicommons

These fights over nationhood and ethnic identity affected how the borders of the republics were drawn. For example, after the Kazakh republic was created, they petitioned for the Kazakh dominated Manghishlaq Peninsula to be transferred from the Turkestan republic to the Kazakh republic. They also wanted the Semirech’e and Syr Darya oblasts since:

“the Kazakh people in both the republics are of one blood, one culture, one language, and at the same stage of economic development”.

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan pg. 269

However, the Syr Darya oblast included Tashkent which was hard no from the Uzbek. The Kazakhs continued their petition, claiming that 93% of the population of the two oblasts were Kazakhs and uniting all the Kazakhs together would make “connecting Soviet principles to Kazakh reality” easier.

One consideration that drove Soviet decision making was the need for the states to have economic centers for their hinterlands (although that didn’t apply to all states, like poor Tajikistan who didn’t get an economic center until after the state was already created).

For other rural republics, such as Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, it was expected that cities would be the source of nationalization for its vast rural territory. Thus, even though certain cities like Osh, Dasoguz, and Jalalabat had large Uzbek populations and were desired by Uzbek leaders, they went to other republics to serve as a centralized location for economic and government needs.

As we can see, even though the process was very quick, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t complicated. I want to discuss the process from the perspective of the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, however, these weren’t the only people affected by the delimitation. We’ve already mentioned the Turkmen, but there were also Tatars, Uyghur, Jews, Karakalpak, and others who called Central Asia home and who weren’t granted states or even oblasts of their own.

I had to simplify the perspectives and the debates for this blog, but want to acknowledge what I’m not covering, mostly because I don’t yet feel comfortable enough in my research to present those perspectives. I still want to acknowledge that those perspectives exist and are vital parts of the different state identities and I am planning to come back once I feel more comfortable about my knowledge base.

The Uzbek Perspective

I want to start with the Uzbek Perspective because their decisions greatly impacted the borders of what is now Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

The Uzbek cause was championed by Fayzulla Xo’jayev, the chairman of the Bukharan Republic. Rudzutaks visited the region to discuss delimitation in January 1924. Fayzulla had a proposal ready by February 1924.

It may seem odd that Fayzulla, who fought so hard for increased independence for his own republic, would be excited about the creation of a state that would subsume the Bukharan Republic. But he saw Bukhara as the center of Uzbekistan, with its tendrils expanding into Ferghana, the Syr Darya, the Samarkand, and Khorezm provinces i.e. all of the territories that contained a majority sedentary population and all of Central Asia’s historic cities. He explained:

“The Uzbek people, earlier united in the state of Temur and his successors, disintegrated in recent centuries into various parts. Over the course of centuries, this disintegration was characterized by the weakening of economic forces and of political structures, the final stage of which is the economic decomposition, the loss of state unity, and the physical destruction of the people under the domination of khanates, emirates, and Tsarism…[this disunity meant] the Turkic population could not historically resist its gradual disintegration or defend the unity of the people, the integrity and continuity of its culture…[the] Uzbek people and its various states (Bukhara, Khiva)…were thrown off the basic historical path and became the object of struggle.”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, 273-274

We can see the Chagatai influence at work here. He is placing Temur as the ultimate unifier with Central Asia blossoming under Turkic influence and control. When the state fragmented and lost its connection to its past, it left itself open to ill fortune and exploitation. He claimed that the Russian Revolution placed the Uzbek people on the path of historical development and economic growth, but it was vital to reject the “the old divisions imposed by force on Central Asia by conquerors” and give:

“all peoples bearing a single name – on a national basis, according to the specificities of their way of life and economic habits – their own Soviet political units”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 274

He further claimed that:

“The Uzbek Republic should include in it Tajiks and those peoples of Turkestan, Bukhara, and Khorezm who speak Uzbek and consider themselves related to the Uzbeks i.e., Uzbeks, Qurama, Kashgaris, Turks, Karakalpaks, and Qipchaqs”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 274

Fayzulla was willing to sacrifice the Bukharan republic for a united, Uzbek nation and Uzbek nationalism. It may also be fair to read this as Fayzulla understanding the Bukharan Republic was going to be disbanded no matter what (the Soviets forced him to expel four of his own ministers in 1923 after all) and it was better to destroy the republic on his terms and potentially gain something worthwhile. I think it’s also fair to say that there is an element of ruthlessness in his willingness to trade a republic for a state, especially a state that would be primarily Turkic but still wanted claim over peoples such as Tajiks, Karakalpaks, Qipchaqs etc. mostly because they “spoke Uzbek” and because he wanted the land they called home.  

The Kazakhs, predictably, had a lot of problems with Fayzulla’s proposal, including a dual claim over Tashkent which was going to cause a lot of problems, but not as many problems as the Uzbek claim over Tajik lands.

The Tajik Perspective

When you build an entire identity on a handful of principles that are exclusionary, you are going to purposely and inadvertently leave people out in the cold. While the Chagatai project was meant to connect with Central Asia’s past, it was a very specific, Turkic past that either ignored or wrote off the Persianate past as foreign and the modern usages of Persian as inconsequential when it came to determined one’s nationality.

Before the Russian Revolution, language was a tool and a skill in Central Asia. It wasn’t tied to a national or state identity and many people were multi-lingual. Two popular languages, especially in the sedentary places, was Turkic and Persian, with Persian being associated with the madrasas, literature, and the Emir Court while Turkic associated with the market places and everyday encounters. The usage of the Turkic languages increased in the 1900s and the usage of Persian decreased.

One key reason was that when people left the region to learn they went to Russian and Turkic schools, not Persian schools. A member of the Tajikistan Communist Party claimed that an:

“enormous majority of educated Tajiks, having received their education in Uzbek, speak it better than Tajik, and many of them even call themselves Uzbek”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 297

The Jadids, themselves, went to Türkiye, not Persia, to further their education and some, like Fitrat, were so inspired by the Young Turks, they stopped writing in Persian all together and wrote and spoke only in Turkic. This created an impulse amongst the Uzbek Jadids to downplay the existence of the Tajiks. Vadud Mahmud, a writer and friend of Fitrat’s amongst other Jadids, wrote:

“that in Samarqand “there are no [Tajiks] there except for a few ‘sayyids’ and ‘aghas’ from Iran who preside over the current of Tajikness and who for a while published journals in Persian”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, 297

They also argued that given the lingual fluidity in the region, speaking Persian didn’t mean you were Tajik. Mahmud argued that:

“We know of many other peoples in the world who speak two languages, whose home language is different from their language of culture. These bilingual nations’ cultural life and literature is conducted in this official literary language…“Language is not simply a matter of acquiring literacy or reading the alphabet…Language must be understood as the instrument of civilization. A language should have a literature and it should provide all the necessities of today’s social life…For [establishing such] a civilized life, the Tajik language or the Persian language of Iran do not suffice. To implement these languages is to prevent [us] from entering life, because both circumstance and history prohibit it. Second, to accept this language is to accept a useless, superfluous language. True, we love Persian for being an old literary language. It is a delicate, playful literary language. We benefit from “classical Persian literature.” In this regard, Persian is a good language. But there is a difference between “good” and “useful” and we need the “useful” more than the “good”.

Precisely for this reason we do not need a separate language for the Tajiks of the cities and their environs, but rather, the most rapid and direct introduction of Uzbek [among them]”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 297-298

What made comments like this especially horrible and cutting was that many Jadids spoke and wrote in Persian. Many of them could have just as easily claimed a Tajik identity over a Turkic one, or, better yet, could have created a space for both identities. Instead, they chose to ignore and overwrite an existing identity and language in favor for their own. And so, we must ask why?

A popular argument is that a bunch of people who should have identified as Tajik betrayed their own people and supported the Turkic identity and that the existing Tajik identifying reformers were too weak and cowardly to fight for their own country.

While I understand the emotions behind that argument, I think it underestimates the fluidity of language and identity, especially within the Tashkent and Bukhara Jadids, before the need for firm identifiers. Fitrat spoke and wrote in Persian. Not only did he speak and write Persian, but he would also return to Persian after he was removed from Fayzulla’s government and sent to Moscow on probation. Fayzulla spoke and work in Persian. Ayni wrote and spoke in Persian and would become a champion for the Tajik people.

A post stamp with Russian writing on it. In the center of the stamp is a white oval and in the ovla is the black and white picture of a man in a white turban with a short but thick black mustache and beard. He is wearing a tan robe or a white shirt
Abdurauf Fitrat, Image Courtesy of Wikicommons

It’s true that during the 1920s Fitrat and others embraced the Turkic identity wholeheartedly, but to expect an equally dedicated group of scholars to also develop a strong Persianate identity at the same time and make the same kind of advancement is asking a lot.

Adeeb Khalid argues in his book Making Uzbekistan that the reason that the creation of Tajikistan was so helter-shelter is because Tajik identity wasn’t fully developed by the time the states were created. There wasn’t a strong coalition of Tajik activists to champion the Tajik cause because the Tajik identity was still being crafted. Khalid goes really far and say that the creation of the Tajik state necessitated the creation of a Tajik identity, which can be misread as the Tajiks didn’t exist until the Uzbeks and the Soviets made them, but I don’t think that’s what he’s saying.

The Tajiks have always existed, but they didn’t have the tools or organization to form an identity until after the borders were already formed because the process of forming the borders forced everyone to jump to warp speed when it came to defining identities.

There were people like the Kazakhs who had been fighting for their identity against the Russian settlers for ages, there were the Uzbeks who coalesced around the Chagatai project, and then you had the peoples like the Tajiks, the Kyrgyz, and the Karakalpak people who always existed and always had their own stories and languages, but were now forced to create an identity that was strong enough to separate themselves from their larger neighbors.

The other aspect that needs to be considered is the financial and this is when Fayzulla’s desire for all major cities and sedentary lands becomes even more ruthless. Why would the Soviets support a state that couldn’t support itself? So not only did you need to create a culture that was distant and stood on its own and had a large cadre of champions who could explain themselves to the Russians, you also needed land or a resource that would contribute to the Soviet economy and would justify creating a new ruling entity to manage.

For the Uzbek Jadids, acknowledging that there was a large Persian speaking population that may identity as Tajik in major cities they wanted, especially in the Zarafshon Valley which bordered Samarkand and connec Dushanbe and Khujand, could jeopardize their claims. They were already having issues with the Kazakhs trying to take Tashkent from them because of a “majority Kazakh population”. They couldn’t lose their other cities and so they downplayed how many Tajiks were in Uzbek claimed lands and focused on the large Tajik population in rural Eastern Bukhara.

Eastern Bukhara was the only self-contained Persian speaking population. It was a mountainous, rural, poor area that was still controlled mostly by the Basmachi, and was almost impossible for any governmental entity to establish control over. The region didn’t have any major cities, which would later force the Soviets to transform Dushanbe into the economic and governmental center of Uzbekistan. Even though the leaders of Uzbekistan wanted to enforce a Turkic language only education, they acknowledged that that would be impossible in Eastern Bukhara because there were no Turkic speakers. Because it was so poor and there were no Turkic speakers and it was still struggling with the Basmachi, this was the perfect unwanted land to turn into a state for the Tajiks.

No one representing the Tajik people were involved in the delimitation process. When a subcommittee to discuss the Tajik people was established, it was fielded by two Uzbeks and neither objected to Fayzulla’s proposal to create the Tajik oblast in Eastern Bukhara and assimilate the Zarafshon Valley into Uzbekistan. This is how they justified the proposal:

“The allocation of autonomy to the oblast has especially great significance, for no other people in the world has undergone such prolonged and heavy oppression as the mountain Tajiks. Driven by their Turkic conquerors into high and inaccessible mountainous ravines, they were obliged to lead a half-hungry existence, to suffer from a shortage of land and to perpetually fight the sever mountainous landscape. Scattered into small and isolated groups, they were constantly subjugated to the despotic authority of petty khans of alien origin. Although belonging to one of the most cultured nationalities of Asia, with a centuries-old culture and rich illiterate, they themselves were exclusively ignorant. Literate men among them are a rarity or a lucky coincidence, while the women are almost universally illiterate.”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, 302

In October 1924, Tajikistan was elevated from an oblast to a republic and was handed the Pamir district. It was a small, rural, desperately poor republic without any cities, its capital a small village. It was ruled by a plenipotentiary until 1926, when the first congress of soviets was held in Dushanbe. Tajik was frequently referred to as a backwater place and became a dumping grown for those unwanted in Uzbekistan. I mean this with all the love in the world: it was basically a Central Asian Australia.

The Kazakh Perspective

While the Uzbek desire was to unify the sedentary lands of Turkestan under one government while retaining the cultural economic centers of Central Asia, the Kazakh desire was to united all Kazakh majority locations while seeking redress from the harms inflicted by Tsarist Russia. The Kazakh people had been wrestling with the Russian settlers over control of the Steppe since the first settler and not a lot had changed with the revolution.

Unlike Turkestan, where the Jadids were brought into the governmental fold, the Alash Orda were excluded from government in 1922, with Alikhan Bukeikhanov arrested and sent to Moscow under armed guard.

The Alash Orda returned to their initial passion: education and scholarship. Bukeikhanov would continue to have a strong influence of Kazakh thought and literature, receiving many visitors and officials even while under house arrest in Moscow. The Soviets increased anti-Alash Orda sentiments in the newspapers, revealing how they failed to support Communist principles in the past and the OGPU (precursor to the KGB) turned their focus from actually important issues to track and harass former Alash Orda members.

If the Bolsheviks were using Alash Orda as an excuse to get rid of Kazakhs they didn’t like or trust, the leaders of the Kazakh republic used the word “colonizer” to rid themselves of troublesome Europeans. One Kazakh Communist complained in 1923:

“Squabbles are arising between Russians and Kazakhs on the basis of settling personal accounts. Russians report on Kazakhs as nationalists, and Kazakhs report on Russians as colonialists.”

Maria Blackwood, Personal Experiences of Nationality and Power in Soviet Kazakhstan 1917-1953, Pg 175

As nationalist feelings increased amongst the Kazakh people, they used the term “colonizer” to defend their national interests. For example, during the dispute over the Siberian-Kazakh borders, the Kazakh government accused the Siberian Revolutionary Committee of being made up of colonialists. He claimed that they were sending settlers and colonizers into Akmolinsk and Semipalatinsk regions to artificially inflate the European population so they could claim it for themselves.

When others claimed that the Kazakhs were too nationalistic, the chairmen of the Kazakh republic wrote:

“As to the so-called ‘nationalism’ within the Communist Party in Kazakhstan, I must say that this is an invention of the colonialists. There are no nationalists among the Kazakh Communists. If we posit that ‘nationalism’ is sometimes displayed among the indigenous Communists, this is primarily a result of the manifestation of kolonizsatorstvo on the part of Russian Communists. In the end we became Communists not in order to watch indifferently as the Kazakh nation dies. We are not interested in being such ‘Communists.’ No party, much less the Communist party, teaches its members to hate their nation. There is no Marxist literature that states that it is over the corpses of oppressed nations that the working class of civilized nations will achieve the kingdom of Communism.”

Maria Blackwood, Personal Experiences of Nationality and Power in Soviet Kazakhstan 1917-1953, 176-177

This was the mindset of the Kazakhs as they entered negotiations over their borders with their Central Asian brethren. The Kazakh Commission that was supposed to work with the Uzbeks and others, was led by Sultanbek Qojanov.

Sultanbek had been involved in the Alash Orda and establishing a Kazakh language. Initially he had favored a Central Asian Federation, like the one championed by Risqulov, but when that died, he committed himself to consolidating all Kazakhs into one political unit – including the Kazakhs in Turkestan. They argued that Tashkent, in particular, had a large Kazakh population and thus should be given to Kazakh in order to create a:

“continuous space where the Kazakh population or cultural-national groups related to it [i.e. those] of the Karakalpaks, Kyrgyz, Qurama [and] Qipchaqs form the absolute majority or plurality”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 274

This claim ignored the Kyrgyz and Karakalpak desires for their own autonomous states. The fighting between the Kazakhs and Uzbeks reached the point where Stalin had to personally intercede. He gave the Syr Darya province to Kazakhstan but gave Tashkent to Uzbekistan. The Karakalpak and Kyrgyz people were given autonomous oblasts, but they remained within Kazakhstan’s control

The Kyrgyz and Karakalpak Perspective

The Kyrgyz people never wanted to be an oblast. They wanted their own state. Their petition for autonomy was led by Jusup Abdrakmanov, Abdukerim Sydykov, and Ishenaly Arabayev. They argued that scattered Kyrgyz communities were struggling as minorities within other national units, as a result leading many to slip back into tribal feuds and bourgeois influence. They were separate from the Kazakh and Karakalpak people and would never have their needs met except through a Kyrgyz government.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkestan proposed the creation of a Kyrgyz mountain oblast in 1922. This oblast would include the Chui, Talas, Issyk Kul and the Naryn provinces and the Kyrgyz-settled pockets within the Ferghana valley. The Kazakh’s strenuously resisted this proposal, but so did many Kyrgyz who wanted to remain within the Kazakh region. While the bid for an independent state failed, the Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast was created on October 14th, 1924.

Abdrakmanov would continue his fight for an independent Kyrgyzstan, arguing that the Kyrgyz people would be able to development cultural and economically if they had their own government. He argued that national recognition would accelerate the spread of Communism in the region, since it would prove that the Soviets actually cared for the Kyrgyz people and their needs. He also believed that they had a higher chance of developing politically and economically if they were their own state then if they were an oblast within a bigger, non-Kyrgyz state. Abdrakmanov’s petitioning would pay off with the creation of Kyrgyzstan in 1926.

A vintage map written in Russian detailing the national delimitation in Central Asia 1924-1925
Cool Russian Map of the National delimitation in Central Asia 1924-1925. Image Courtesty of Wikicommons

By November 8th, 1924 the following republics existed: The Turkmenistan Republic including control over Khiva and Ashgabat. Uzbekistan, which was considerably smaller than it would become, but still controlled Samarqand, Tashkent, Bukhara, and Kokand. Kazakhstan which included the Semirech’e and Syr Darya oblasts as well as the Karakalpak and Kyrgyz autonomous oblasts. Tajikistan went from being an oblast in Uzbekistan to becoming an independent state at the last minute.

Further changes were made in 1926 when Kyrgyz oblast was elevated to a nation state and in 1936 when Uzbekistan gained control over the Karakalpak oblast (which now included lands originally belonging to Turkmenistan), solidifying today’s modern borders.

Now What?

The Soviets saw the creation of the Central Asian states as a chance to unite the more controlled and “developed” regions of Turkestan and the Steppe with the troublesome rural lands or lands formerly controlled by the emirs. They saw it as a merging of the “advanced” and “backward” regions and every time they implemented a new policy, they implemented it first in the “advanced” regions, which were more likely to be “open” to Communist thought and values, before expanding it into the “backward” regions. Which, to be fair to the Russians, is a common mindset found all over the world, even if it’s a bigoted and idiotic mindset.

In Uzbekistan, it allowed the Soviets to recreate governmental structures and minimize the power of various troublemakers. The Communist Party of Uzbekistan was composed of the Turkestan Communist Party (KPT), the Bukharan Communist Part (BKP), and the Communist Party of Khorezm, as well as the Young Communists (who we mentioned in the last episode).

The Young Communists heavily disagreed with men like Fayzulla, Fitrat, and Ikromov because they weren’t Communist enough and many Soviets felt they could turn the Young Communists into a cadre of reliable and faithful Communists. They ensured that several Young Communists held leadership positions while marginalizing members of the old Communist parties.

However, the Soviets weren’t strong enough yet to stop relying on the reformers turned Communists completely and thus Fayzulla became KPUz’s Prime Minister, his rival Akmal Ikromov became its first secretary, and Yo’ldosh Oxunboboyev held the ceremonial position of Head of the Central Executive Committee of the Uzbekistan state. His role may have been to manage both Ikromov and Xo’jayev, and if it was, he did a terrible job. They would continuously butt heads until their executions in 1937.

While the intellectuals were excited by the creation of Uzbekistan, there is little evidence that the local people even identified as Uzbek. The government sent out questionnaires to determine how people identified and what language they spoke, but the results were all over the place. This meant that a nationalist narrative (which was started by Fitrat and other Jadids) was needed.

The Soviets helped craft this narrative by providing mechanisms in which the locals could debate their own identity. They helped create the Committee for the Study of Uzbeks, the Uzbek Committee for Museums and the Preservation of Ancient Monuments and a Commissariat for Education. They continued integrating local actors into the party and state governing apparatus but did little to counter Russian influence.

In fact, Fayzulla claimed that the Russians were equal to Uzbeks in all respect in the republic, so instead of pushing Russians out of government, integration turned into targeting minorities who found themselves in a state called Uzbekistan and making sure they assimilated correctly. Of course, this would only increase Tajik, Kazakh, and Karakalpak nationalism both within Uzbekistan and in neighboring states.

In Kazakhstan, this meant further eroding the local governmental actors control. In 1925, Filip Goloshchekin, an ardent Stalinist, was appointed First Secretary of the Communist Party in Kazakhstan and was appalled by what he saw. He believed the region was in need of a “Little October” to help it align with Communist principles. In 1927, he implemented a campaign of expropriation and collectivization that would communicate in the Kazakh Famine of the 1930s. The famine began in 1930, a year before the Holodomor in Ukraine and would kill a total of 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan, with 1.3 million being Kazakh. That means about 38% to 42% of all Kazakhs died during the famine.

In Tajikistan, this meant creating a governmental and economic center from scratch, while reclaiming the Tajik identity. When Tajikistan was created in 1924, the Tajik Communist Party was practically non-existent. The first Tajik Revolutionary Committee (Revkom) was led by Nusratulla Makhsum, one of the few Communists native to the region. However, he had spent most of his childhood in Kokand before joining the Bukharan Communist Party and only returned to Tajikistan because he had to. Many of his cabinet members were similarly banished to Tajikistan, including Fayzulla’s own rival, Abduqodir Muhiddinov. The same Mudiddinov whose brother tried to lead a coup against Fayzulla’s government in the Bukharan Soviet Republic. Many Europeans who went to Tajikistan went with a mission for Communism, but were quickly disappointed with what they saw and soon begged to be sent anywhere else.

The land of Tajikistan was difficult to develop and government. Only 7% was suitable for cultivation. The rest was impoverished, underdeveloped, and divided by the world’s highest and impenetrable mountain range which covered 90% of the land. Tajikistan was dependent on their fellow republics for infrastructure and economic development. The mountains were so impenetrable, the main road and railway linking the northern half and southern half had to cross into Uzbekistan. Tajikistan was further divided into the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous District which contained 3% of the population (mostly the Pamir Ismailis), but 45% of the land that wasn’t mountain.

Leadership within Tajik was very regional, since the land was broken up by a mountain range and inarable land. Dushanbe was the capital, but powerful clan networks from the Khujand region in the north held the real power. The population was subject to relocation either to the capital to help turn it from a village into a modern capital or into the areas where they needed more labor. The fact that power was held by clannish networks meant that losing one’s position or power not only threaten oneself and one’s immediate family, but an entire chain of people. This basically replicated the power structure of the ancient courts, where patronage and favors were the great currency of the land.

Given the mountainous terrain, Tajikistan was the best place for Basmachi leader, Ibrahim Bek, to lead the last of the Basmachi, something we’ve talk about more in our final episode of this season. Ibrahim Bek could never hope to overthrow the Bolshevik government or the Tajikistan government on his own, but he could make it impossible to govern an already formidable location and people.

As the Tajik identity and government took shape, members of that government realize that the division of the land had not been in Tajikistan’s favor. Shirinshoh Shohtemur, a member of the Tajik Revkom, brought Tajikistan’s complaints to the Soviets and argued that Samarkand should be given to Tajikistan because of its Persianate history. They argued that the Uzbeks were acting in pan-Islamic, pan-Turkic, and chauvinistic manner when denying Tajik claims.

Shohtemur was born in the Pamirs, came from an Ismaili family, had been orphaned as child and adopted by a Russian officer who took him to Tashkent to attend a Russian school. He worked with the Soviets in Turkestan before being assigned to the Pamirs in 1922 to help establish Soviet power. While he was neither Persian speaking nor Sunni, he had never been a Jadid either. His arguments were backed by Muhiddinov, who used the criticism to attack the Uzbek government, especially his rival Fayzulla Xo’jayev. While the Soviets would not grant any further land concessions to the Tajiks, their claims of Uzbek chauvinism worked in the favor of the OGPU, who were conducting an ongoing investigation into “Uzbekism and the rise of Chauvinism”.

A black and white picture of a bald, elderly man with a short white beard. He is wearing a tubeteika and a grey button up shirt in the soviet style
Sadriddin Ayni, father of Tajik language and identity. Image courtesy of Wikicommons

While Makhsum and the others tried to create a government, Sadriddin Ayni took on the task of reclaiming Tajik literature and identity. Ayni was the first person to coin the name for the Tajik language and wrote several poems, stories, and novels to create a literary corpus. He is considered to be a major Tajik intellectual and writer even though he lived in Samarkand for most of his life and only moved to Dushanbe a few months before he died.

Ayni can be thought of as the Abdurauf Fitrat of the Tajiks. He worked long and hard to create a Tajik identity through literature and to merge the mountain Tajiks and the urban Tajiks into one identity. In the introduction to an anthology of Tajik literature, Ayni wrote:

“From the first events recorded by history today, a great nation called Tajik to Tazik has lived in the lands of Transoxiana and Turkestan. In the same manner, its language and literature have also developed. The develop of the Tajik language has not been dependent on the ages or occupation of the throne. Thus, we see how highly Tajik literature developed in this land in the age of the Samanids, who were racially Persian speaking, it developed the same way in the times of Chinggisids, Temurids, Shaybanids, Astrakhanids, and Manghits, who were racially Mongol, Turk, and Uzbek. Thus, it is clear that the development of Tajik language and literature in these places did not take place simply because of the dominion of the Samanids or the immigration of the Iranians. Its real cause is the presence in these places of a large nation by the name of Tajik of the Aryan race”

Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg. 308

For Ayni, Tajikistan did not conquer others, it survived through its culture, which was often adopted by it conquers. He wrote “great conqueror Temur, despite the fact that he was a Turk, wrote his autobiography in Tajik.” (pg. 309, Khalid, Making Uzbekistan) While the Tajik language was birthed out of Persianate influences, it existed out of Iran. Ayni highlighted Tajikistan’s Aryan roots, crafting an identity of being indigenous to the region and thus breaking away from a language identification only (which would have tied them to Iran and the idea of being the “other”, which was what the Chagataists were arguing).

The creation of the new republics simplified ethnic diversity of the region (many identities were either turned into minorities or overwritten and suppressed), simplified the language, and centralized the government over large swarths of territories that had been unreceptive to Communism and central control for a long time. It also solidified idea that homogenization was a key ingredient to nationalism. Diversity, many argue, makes a nation almost impossible to form. Unity in purpose and identity is the only way to ensure a nation survives. And so, people begin to identify themselves in opposition to each other, not in interrelation with each other and what could have been a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic federation or state turns into a handful of narrowly defined nation states.

While we can’t blame the Soviets for injecting an unknown strain of nationalism into Central Asia because it would rob the local people of their own autonomy, we also can’t blame the local actors solely for this development. This is a common path most nationalist movements take when trying to create their own nation. All Western European states had gone through this process leading up to WWI and would repeat the process after WWII. While Central Asia was remaking itself, their brethren in Eastern Europe were following a similar path during the interwar period, and we’re currently seeing this behavior in the United States today. It is easy to adopt a “us vs them” mentality during times of great turmoil and need, especially when the most popular model of governmental development is the idea of a nation state.


Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR by Adeeb Khalid

“Personal Experiences of Nationality and Power in Soviet Kazakhstan 1917-1953” by Maria Blackwood

“The History of the Alash Movement in the Context of the “Empire of Positive Action”” by Khazretali Tursun, Nasuh Gumus, Kanat Bazarbayev, Gulzhamal Zhorayeva, Samat Kurmanalin

Central Asia: A New History by Adeeb Khalid

Soviet and National Kyrgyzstan: Local Agency and State-Building in Central Asia
1918-1940 by Zhanara Almazbekova

Despite Cultures: Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan by Botakoz Kassymbekova

Speaking Soviet with an Accent: Culture and Power in Kyrgyzstan by Ali Igmen


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