Making Central Asia Soviet

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Nativization (“korenizatsiia”) in Central Asia involved the preferential selection of indigenous peoples to leadership positions in political, economic, and cultural institutions, and the promotion of indigenous languages over Russian. Both dimensions reflected the party’s commitment to overcoming “great-power chauvinism” and the legacy of “cultural backwardness” that was blamed on tsarist colonial practices. In the case of linguistic korenizatsiia, the Uzbek authorities seem to have gone furthest, decreeing in December 1928 that all paperwork in state institutions down to the level of the village soviets was to be conducted in Uzbek. A subsequent decree of October 1929 forbade the hiring of anyone for state positions who did not speak Uzbek. While Europeans initially flocked to Uzbek-language courses, the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism and the shortage of appropriately trained Uzbeks doomed the application of these decrees.

The party vigorously prosecuted campaigns to outlaw Islamic-derived practices that, while considered markers of nationality among Central Asians, were condemned as oppressive of women. These included polygyny, bride-price, forced marriage, and, above all, the wearing of the veil (parandzha). The first hujum was launched in early 1927 by the Uzbek Communist Party in conjunction with the All-Union party’s Women’s Section (zhenotdel), and was directed against the veil. Mass meetings at which thousands of women ceremoniously burned their veils and urged others to follow their example occurred in Tashkent and other cities. These acts, however, provoked a rash of retaliatory violence (rape, disfigurement, murder) against unveiled women. Although party members were enjoined to promote the campaigns against the veil and other outlawed practices, risking expulsion if they failed to comply, evasion was widespread within their own families, a situation that persisted throughout the 1930s.

One reason for the party’s emphasis on the emancipation of women in Central Asia was that in the absence of a real proletariat, they could serve as a surrogate. But the party also promoted the formation of a proletariat via one of the major construction projects of the late 1920s. This was the Turkestan-Siberian (Turksib) Railroad, a massive undertaking designed to expand cotton cultivation in eastern Kazakhstan and Kirghizia by connecting these areas to grain-growing regions of Siberia. Spanning the years 1927 to 1931, the project employed a peak workforce of nearly 50,000, and was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. Only about a quarter of the construction workers were indigenous Kazakhs, and they were subjected to systematic discrimination by managers and frequent racial taunts and physical assaults by imported Russian workers. Nevertheless, for thousands, exposure to industrial discipline and other culturalizing influences associated with the construction project was a transformative experience.

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