Uzbek Land and People

Nikolai Mikhailov, Uzbekistan. 1948


The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic

Area-160,000 sq. miles.

Population: 6,300,000 (census of 1939). Majority Uzbeks; many Russians, Kara-Kalpakians and Tadziks; also some Kirghiz, Turkmenians, Bukhara Jews, Arabs, and Kazakhs.

Neighbors: North-Kazakh SSR; west and south-Turkmenian SSR; south-Afghanistan; east and south Tadzhik SSR, east-Kirghizia.

Relief: Plain running into mountains in the east. Highest point 16,500 feet. Several large deep valleys in the mountains, most important being Fergana (120 miles long, 60 miles wide.)

Chief Rivers: Syr Darya 1,800 miles, Amu Darya 1,590 miles, Zeravshan, Kashka Darya.

District of Russia since 1856-76 (except Bukhara and Khiva which were nominally independent).

Soviet power established in some districts 1917. Finally victorious 1920. Bukhara and Khiva formed People’s Republics and finally adopted Soviet power in 1923-24, in 1925 Uzbek Re. public formed.

National Autonomy: in Uzbekistan: Kara-Kalpak ASSR (center Nukus).

Chief Produce: cotton. fruits, and Southern farm produce, complex metal ores, copper, sulfur, coal, oil, rare metals, hydro-electric power.

Capital: Tashkent.

On our right is the irrigation system that has been built in the Hungry Steppe. In this waterless region whose very name tells of its poverty Russian engineers began irrigation work in the last. century, cutting big canals from the Syr Darya. The work developed slowly and produced modest new irrigated areas. Under Soviet power the old system was greatly improved and the irrigated area considerably extended. The canals form straight lines at regular intervals and bear no resemblance to the tangle of ariqs which once formed the only irrigation system in Central Asia. The new settlements are built along straight, tree-lined streets. The irrigated area is aptly called Pakhta Aral–the Cotton Island. It is a real green island, a new oasis in a sea of grayish-yellow stand.

Suddenly we are astonished to learn that part of the irrigated section of the Hungry Steppe is not Uzbekistan but Kazakhstan. We left Kazakhstan for Tashkent, have not turned back and yet we come again to Kazakhstan. What winding frontiers for countries to have! This, incidentally, is typical of the Central Asia Republics and we shall see it several times more in our travels. This intricately winding borderline is due to the historic past of the country. In the course of past centuries many nomad peoples invaded the flourishing valleys between the high mountains. They settled around the oases, mingled with the cultivators who have always kept close to the water. Between the mountains tribes and then nations, principalities and khanates were formed. Many of them disappeared leaving behind no traces but some remained as part of the fantastic national pattern that is Central Asia. The Soviet government gave the peoples of Central Asia the opportunity of delineating boundaries in accordance with living ethnic principles, dividing the Uzbeks, Tadziks, Turkmenians, Kirghiz, and Kazakhs in accordance with the territory they actually inhabit. The mixture of peoples in the mountain valleys was reflected on the map.

In addition to this, in delineating the boundaries the sources of water supply bad to be taken into consideration. Fields cultivated by Uzbeks, for example, could not be separated from mountains which for centuries bad provided them with water. The frontiers, therefore, not only follow the regions in which different nations live but also run along the mountain water divides. This observance of national interests is one of the reasons why national enmity has disappeared in Central Asia.

From the Hungry Steppe the train turns south into the interior of Uzbekistan. We pass the point where the full-watered and noisy Syr Darya enters the plain from the Mogol Tau Mountains; the Farhad Hydroelectric Power Station was begun at this point in 1943, and is now nearing completion. This will be the “Uzbek Dnepr” and will supply current for the industries of the Tashkent Oasis. The dam will impound water to irrigate fresh lands.

The name of the power station has an interesting origin. The Uzbeks have an ancient poetic legend which every peasant knows. It is the story of a good-natured but capricious princess whose castle stood on the cliff about the place where the power station is now being built. The princess agreed to give her band to the one of her many suitors who would perform a great deed: in sympathy with the poor people who were in dire need of water, she announced the irrigation of the steppes was the deed that would win her. One cunning young nobleman ordered the steppes to be covered with mats of chi grass so that when the sun rose the princess thought it was water and agreed to marry the “hero.” In the meantime a simple hero of the people named Farhad had brought water to the steppes by his honest toil

Great streams of water flowed from the mountains down into the plains. The sun changed its course, the mats no longer glistened and the trick was discovered. It was too late, however, for Farhad, learning of the victory of his rival threw his heavy ketmen (hoe-like spade) up into the air which fell on him and split his skull open. In Soviet times an opera was written on the theme of this legend and is now splendidly produced in the repertoire of the Tashkent Opera House. The name of Farhad, the popular hero and water-bringer, has been given to the power station that is being built on the Syr Darya. In our own days the people have accomplished deeds that were prophesied by the poets of old. Not far from Farhad is the first Uzbek iron and steel mill which was built and opened during the war.

At the station of Ursatevskaia, the railroad divides into two branches, one going east to the Fergana Oasis-one of the most important oases in the whole of Central Asia-and the other branch to the oasis of the Zeravshan River. We will go eastward to Fergana. To reach Fergana we shall have to cross a narrow strip of the Tajik SSR and the town of Leninabad–another example of the zigzag boundaries of the Central Asian Republics.

Sun-cracked earth, scanty growth of wormwood, gray tones, then, suddenly, the desert ends as though cut off with a knife: the train enters a bright green oasis.

Here there are water and shade. Along the bubbling ariqs are rows of pyramidal poplars and mulberry trees. Isolated black beeches are to be found near the railroad; their thick leaves look like balls. The fields are sown to cotton and alfalfa. In paddy fields surrounded by low earthen walls there are plantations of rice. In the villages-kishlaqs they are called in Central Asia there are vineyards and orchards surrounded by the same low walls. On the slopes of the mountains, where there is a bigger rainfall and the temperature is not so high, wheat is grown.

The Fergana Valley is surrounded by a ring of mountains that are broken by a narrow pass leading to the west. This region has one of the densest populations in the whole of the USSR. The kishlaqs form an almost continuous chain, a sort of inner circle in the foothills. The valley is exceptionally fertile: it enjoys abundant sunshine, is sheltered from the wind and is well watered by a dense network of ariqs. The cotton harvests are very high. Alfalfa, a nitrogen fixing plant, is sown to restore the soil; it grows so profusely that it may be mown five times a year. The fruits of Fergana have a very high sugar content.

The upper reaches of the Syr Darya, a very full river, flow through the Fergana Valley but until recently this river was not used for irrigation purposes; the Fergana canals were fed by comparatively small rivers flowing from the near-by mountains and which were used entirely for irrigation purposes. In plan each of these river-canal systems looked like the skeleton of a leaf: the main stem split into a number of veins from each of which hundreds of tiny arteries again branched off until the water which they carried disappeared into the ground they irrigated. A considerable part of the valley, however, was not watered and remained desert. In the years 1939-40 the collective farmers on their own initiative and in an incredibly short time dug the Stalin Great Fergana Canal, one of the biggest irrigation works in the USSR. The first section of the canal was about 170 miles long and was completed in six weeks. About 160,000 people took part in the work which gave rise to unexampled enthusiasm. The canal takes its water from the headwaters of the Syr Darya (or rather from the Naryn which joins with the Kara Darya to form the Syr Darya) and stretches for hundreds of miles distributing water throughout the whole valley; the extremely fertile soil has become an almost unbroken mass of cotton fields, vineyards, and orchards.

The initiative and the voluntary work of many thousands of collective farmers in gigantic undertakings for the common benefit of the people have become a characteristic feature of life in the USSR. Many irrigation and drainage canals and a number of long arterial highways have been built in this way during the past few years.

Cotton growing in Uzbekistan has achieved some big successes. Collectivization, mechanization, the irrigation of larger, and larger tracts of land have all helped toward producing three times as much cotton a year as in pre-revolutionary days. Be. fore the Revolution half the cotton used in the Russian mills was imported; today the USSR grows enough cotton for its own needs and in this Uzbekistan, producing about two-thirds of the country’s cotton, is the decisive factor.

The Fergana Valley is mostly in Uzbekistan although some of the surrounding mountains and foothills belong to Tajikistan and Kirghizia; an interesting feature of the valley is the oil derricks and pit head workings of coal mines, for nature has made this region a rich one in every sense of the word. In the towns and bigger villages there are new cotton ginneries; in the town of Fergana, there are new silk-winding mills, new oil plants, and a new textile mill. Kokand, Andijan, Namangan and Kuvasai, all in the Fergana Valley are also becoming industrially important.

Source: Nicholas Mikhailov, Soviet Russia, the Land and its People (New York: Sheridan House, 1948), p. 282.


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