Creation of the Ethnic Republics

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

On December 5, 1936 in connection with the proclamation of the new “Stalin” Constitution, the Kazakh and Kirghiz ASSRs were elevated in status to fully-fledged union republics. With the simultaneous sub-division of the Transcaucasian Federation into the three union republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, this brought the total number of union republics to eleven. These administrative changes along ethno-territorial lines represented the fruits of the Soviet nationality policy of korenizatsiia, and specifically, the training of a sufficient number of indigenous cadres to reliably promote the party’s line of “national in form, socialist in content.” Many indices pointed in the direction of cultural modernization. Literacy rates rose dramatically. For example, in Tajikistan the proportion of literate people between the ages of nine and 49 increased from just four percent in 1926 to nearly 83 percent by the end of the 1930s. Each of the republics nationalized long-dead writers, dispatched singing and dancing ensembles to tour the USSR, and otherwise exhibited the trappings of national cultures.

But not all was well in Central Asia. Collectivization had had a particularly devastating effect in Kazakhstan where flocks of sheep and goats, lacking fodder, suffered huge losses, and the predominantly pastoral Kazakhs faced either starvation or flight across the Chinese border. Little wonder that their numbers showed a decline of 20 percent between the censuses of 1926 and 1939. Elsewhere, the expansion of cotton cultivation was often at the expense of food crops and human consumption. The crackdown on religious practices that had begun in the late 1920s continued, and thousands of Muslim clerics fled to Afghanistan and Iran, accompanied by their families and disciples.

Politically, though the situation in Central Asia seemed stable in 1936. In Uzbekistan, power was shared between Faizulla Khodzhaev (1898-1938), a native of Bukhara and a former Jadadist who served as Chairman of the Uzbek Council of People’s Commissars, and the First Secretary of the Uzbek party organization, Akmal Ikramov (1898-1938). But stability — particularly when it involved employing the nomenklatura system to strengthen clan ties — was anathema to Stalin. Both Khodzhaev and Ikramov were removed from office in 1937, and wound up in 1938 as defendants in the last major show trial of the Great Purges. Tens of thousands of other party and state officials throughout Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian republics were also victims of the purges, which opened up opportunities for a new crop of Communists to assume office and favor their fellow clan members.

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