Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
Beginning in late July 1939, 160,000 Uzbek kolkhozniks assisted by several thousand Tadzhik collective farmers were mobilized by the Uzbek Communist Party to construct the two-hundred and seventy kilometers long Great Fergana Canal. The main purpose of this canal was to draw waters from the Syr-Darya River to irrigate the cotton fields of the Fergana Valley, and thereby to achieve “cotton independence” for the Soviet Union. The last great construction project of the 1930s, the Great Fergana Canal amazingly took only forty-five days to build. By the time of its completion, the Second World War had begun.
Earlier projects, most notoriously the White Sea (Belomor) Canal of 1931-33 and the Moscow-Volga Canal of 1932-37, relied heavily on Gulag-supervised prisoner labor. The Great Fergana Canal was different. Labeled by party propagandists a “people’s construction project,” it drew mainly on local resources. Hardly any mechanized equipment was available and, with the exception of an occasional automobile or motorcycle, none appears in the extant photographs taken by some of the Soviet Union’s better-known photographers from the Stalin era. The dominant impression conveyed by both photographs and newsreel footage was pharaonic – enormous numbers of Uzbek dekhkane (peasants), called to the trenches by karnai (elongated horns), flailing away with their ketmeny (backhoes) under the broiling summer sun. Among those impressed by reports of the Uzbeks’ labor enthusiasm was Sergei Eisenstein who, together with the novelist Pavel Pavlenko, wrote a script to a film called Fergana Canal. The film was to be a “triptych.” Part one, set in the late 14th century, culminated in the sacking of Urgench by Timur (Tamerlane); part two involved a riot (bunt) by dekhkane against local notables (miraby) who controlled the water supply in the early years of the twentieth century; and part three was to demonstrate the triumph over the elemental forces of water and sand by Communist labor. Unlike the canal itself, the film was never completed, joining a long list of projects abandoned by Eisenstein.
The canal project came hard on the heels of a thorough-going purge of the Uzbek Communist Party. It derived its labor force from recently collectivized Central Asian populations for whom a sense of nationality was newly minted. It as well as other canals constructed after the war supported significant agricultural and industrial development in the Fergana Valley, which became the most densely populated region in all of Central Asia. At the same time, the canal also set in motion forces that would result in the desiccation of the Aral Sea, one of the great ecological disasters of the second half of the twentieth century.