Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the USSR

When Lotte Jacobi’s went to the USSR in 1932, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were part of Soviet Central Asia, an area little known in the West. Throughout thousands of years of its storied history, this vast area (227,337 sq. mi.) of barren deserts, mountains, and farmlands had been crossed by trade routes, the Silk Road, which turned it into a cultural melting pot. Russia began to take an interest in the region in the nineteenth century. By the 1930s, Soviet Central Asia consisted of five states Russia had created out of Turkestan: the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Tajik, and Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). During Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), the Central Soviet government sent Russian bureaucrats to develop the region's resources, suppress Islam, build Russian schools, upgrade irrigation systems and railroads, and create factories, as well as govern the local peoples where needed. Its primary goal was to supply natural resources, food, cotton and textiles—wealth—for Russia.

Jacobi daringly documented this period of great political, economic, and social change in Soviet Central Asia in six cities: Khodjent (now Khujand), Qurghonteppa (now Bokhtar), and Stalinabad (the capital, now Dushanbe) in Tajikistan; and Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent (the capital) in Uzbekistan (Map). Jacobi’s photographs of historic sites—Islamic architecture and age-old bazaars—and of people in traditional dress contrast with scenes showing the Sovietization of the area and its inhabitants. A brief look at the historical background helps us to understand how the convergence of diverse cultures and political regimes had shaped this unstable area in the early 1930s.

Early History of Central Asia

The early history of what later became Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is notable for the number of empires that ruled the area, with each making an impact on language, religion, culture, politics, and trade. The tales of notorious figures—Alexander the Great, Timur (Tamerlane), Genghis Kahn, and Marco Polo—have added to the lore of the area. Initially, many of the conquerors were from Ancient Iran, such as the Scythians (9th-4th centuries BCE), the Parthians (3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE), the Sassanids (224-651 CE), and later the Samanids (819-999). An important change came with the introduction of Islam during the Muslim Conquests in the 7th century. Beginning in the 9th century, Turks and Arabs established new Islamic empires, which were then overturned during the Mongol Invasion led by Genghis Kahn in the early 13th century. One hundred and fifty years later, the warlord Timur used his vast army to build an expansive Sunni Muslim empire, which continued to be ruled by the Timurid Dynasty until the early 16th century. The complexity of these changes in ethnic populations and cultures during this early period was amplified further still by the fact that the Silk Road brought nomadic traders from other areas who were traveling between China and the Mediterranean through Central Asia as well. The legacy of Timur is especially relevant to Jacobi’s trip, as he and his grandson Ulugh Beg made Samarkand the capital of the Timurid Empire and a center of religion, art, and science. Many of Jacobi’s photographs show the ruins of Samarkand’s once-glorious Islamic architecture, including the monumental religious complexes.

Imperialist Dreams

The mid-to-late 1800s were characterized by colonialism led by Western Europe and the United States, and Russia joined in. As European countries continued to divide up and fight over Africa, Asia, and South America, Russia was only just beginning to emerge from feudalism. Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs in 1863, which would eventually lead to a half-hearted attempt at industrialization and urbanization. As they had done in the past, Russia looked to the West for inspiration and guidance. Already far larger in terms of land mass, Russia nevertheless investigated opportunities to colonize (Khalid 29). The land-locked region between the Caspian Sea and Mongolia offered open territory to grab and held the allure of land not frequented by Europeans (Caroe 135). It was also directly south of the Russian border, making it far easier to colonize than a place several thousands of miles away by ship.         

In 1865, Russia captured the city of Tashkent, followed by Samarkand in 1868 and Khiva in 1873 (Caroe 136). These cities were spread across ancient Turkestan, which shared borders with Persia, now modern-day Iran. As with many of its eastern territories, Russia once again took control of an area that had a diverse population. An additional challenge came from the fact that Central Asia’s proximity to the Middle East and its minimal contact with Western Europe meant that Islam was the dominant religion. Though Turkestan was across the border from Russia, it was treated as a colony and given a special distinction separate from the other territories that Russia controlled.

The ubiquity of Islam in Turkestan presented a unique challenge for how Russia handled the integration of the people into the Russian Empire. The system of social rank and standing was not extended to the new colony, and existing Turkestani elites were not accepted into Russian nobility (Khalid 30). Indeed, Konstantin Petrovich Kaufmann (1818-1882), the “first [Russian] governor-general of Turkestan and in many ways the architect of Russian rule there,” saw integration, especially regarding Islam, as the wrong move (30). Instead, he advocated for discounting local religions and traditions and refusing to extend the specific legal protections that existed in other parts of Russia to the population in Turkestan. The hope was that by refusing to provide state support, Islam would eventually die out in the region. Instead, as Russian settlers moved into the colony, this decision created, “a dual society, in which Muslims and Russian[s] coexisted largely in parallel” (30).

South of Turkestan lay the Emirate of Bukhara, which Russia also sought to control. Following Russias seizure of Khiva in 1873, Bukhara was brought under the wing of the Empire. The emir, Muzaffar bin Nasrullah (1819-1885), was supported by the Russians and remained in power (Khalid 39). Access to the wider world through Russian control meant that Bukharas society began to open. Merchants suddenly had access to markets far beyond their borders. Intellectuals took the opportunity to seek education outside of the Emirate, with many choosing to study in Istanbul (39). Proximity to Europe during their studies and an interest in Bukharas place in this widening world led to calls for reform at home. As Adeeb Khalid explains, “The state appeared as the logical locus of reform in Bukhara. Bukharan reformers hoped that emirs would take the initiative and implement reform” (40). Reform included such things as “providing modern education, public healthcare, and the establishment of economic policy” (41). 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some of these reformers were part of a group called the Jadidists, who focused primarily on the modernization of the educational system in Bukhara (Bashiri 90). Other groups, such as the Young Bukharans, were focused on overthrowing the Emir and installing a democratic government (90). Throughout the early 1900s, Russias southern colonies grappled with these different groups of reformers. Tashkent, considered the capital of Russian Turkestan, experienced concurrent economic and cultural booms, which were further enhanced by the 1905 Revolution in Russia (Yemelianova 52). Indeed, the Revolution led to more pro-Jadid schools opening and a culture change as native Bukharans and Turkestanis became involved in political discourse with Russian settlers. While these changes were very positive, the ineffectiveness of the Emir in Bukhara served as a reminder that true societal change was still out of reach.

By the beginning of World War I, the colonial landscape south of the Russian border was as follows: Turkestan, with Tashkent as the Russian capital of the colony, was continuing to grapple with its status within the Empire. Turkestanis became increasingly vocal as the early years of the century began, seeking out equal rights that would level them with the Russian settlers (Bleur et al, 52). The dual societies mentioned previously continued to exist, as Russian settlers and administrators continued to hold control over the native population. In Bukhara, ineffective Muslim leaders avoided meaningful reform. Bukhara, however, had the distinction of only existing as a protectorate, and therefore, it was not subject to the same challenges that Turkestan was.

The War at Home

It cannot be understated how devastating the First World War was for Russia, and the impact of the war could be seen in Soviet Central Asia as well. Setting aside the incredible loss of life due to poor military planning and a lack of supplies for the soldiers fighting, Russia had to continue to hold together a fractious empire stretching west from the borders of Western Europe, south to the borders of Persia, and East to China and the Pacific. While the initial outbreak of the war led to patriotic sentiment in much of the empire, this evaporated as it became clear that the conflict would not end quickly. The Russian military began throwing soldiers lacking proper uniforms and weapons onto the front lines. They became nothing more than machine gun fodder, often forced to charge the Central Powers’ lines with farm tools and the odd rusty rifle. Morale within the empire plummeted and with that came the inevitable whisperings of revolution and insurrection (Kappeler 351). 

To help supplement the Russian Army after significant losses, St. Petersburg (then the capital of Russia) made the decision to introduce conscription for Kazakhs and Turkestanis in 1916 (Yemelianova 53). The decision was met with fierce resistance by the local populations, even after a protracted propaganda campaign from the Russians. Eventually, an armed uprising began, led by the Basmachi. The Basmachi were a Muslim group that evolved as the Russian monarchy, and subsequently the Provisional Government, collapsed, and the Bolsheviks fought to consolidate control of the empire. The name “Basmachi” comes from the Turkic verb “basmak,” which means “to attack.” It was originally used by Russians as a descriptor for Muslim raiders in Central Asia (69). By 1918, the Basmachi had developed political goals and built a larger movement (Bleur et al, 56). Their goal was to preserve the old economic and social orders against further change. The movement grew after the conscription order was given in 1916. Starting in July, the Basmachi targeted Russian farms, military bases, and administrative buildings. By January of 1917, Russian troops finally stopped the uprising, after hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed, along with hundreds of thousands of Central Asians (Yemelianova 53).

This Basmachi Revolt, coupled with the continued troubles at the Eastern Front, only exacerbated the challenge the Russians faced. As the Russian Army became more thinly spread and encountered losses both fighting the Central Powers and the Basmachi uprising, civil discontent grew. In February of 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, making way for the ineffectual Provisional Government (Yemelianova 54). In October, the Bolsheviks staged a coup led by Vladmir Lenin. The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early 1918 signaled the end of Russian participation in World War I. In late 1917, as the Provisional Government shuffled towards its inevitable end, Bolshevik ideas began to permeate the empire, making their way into Turkestan.

In Tashkent, the local soviet (in this context being used as another word for “union”) of soldiers and workers placed the governor general under arrest (Khalid 70). In his place, a Turkestan Committee was formed to govern the region until the Provisional Government could determine the territorys status. Instead, Turkestan became de facto independent, as the Provisional Government struggled to address domestic issues (71). Tensions between the Turkestanis and Russian settlers continued to grow as 1917 dragged on. Inevitably these tensions led to bloodshed; in the fall, Russian soldiers engaged in a battle with Muslim troops and seized power from the committee in the name of the Soviets on November 1st (71).

In Bukhara, the revolution was viewed differently. Initially, under the Provisional Government, the Jadidists were punished for continuing to push for reforms. The drive for change, however, overcame these attempts to stifle it. In the Fall of 1918, eleven months after the October Revolution, approximately 200 Jadidsts created the Bukharan Communist Party, which grew to 5,000 members by 1920 (Yemelianova 55). Attempts were made in early 1918 by the Jadidists to overthrow the Emir of Bukhara. The arrival of Fyodor Ivanovich Kolesov (1891-1940), chairman of the Turkestan Government and a Bolshevik, along with 500 Red Guards from Tashkent, meant that the Emir would stay in power for two more years, and Bukhara was left in peace during that time (55).

The Consolidation of Soviet Power

Historian Adeeb Khalid notes that, “For the indigenous population, the first months of Soviet power were one of great insecurity” (Khalid 83). Indeed, Russian plans to turn Turkestan into a cotton-producing powerhouse had backfired, as due to the reallocation of farmlands to grow cotton, Turkestan was no longer able to produce enough food to feed its people and had to look outside its borders for assistance. The cost of cotton slipped relative to grain, leading to poverty and famine among the local population (83). It is during this period that we see a resurgence in the Basmachi movement. Though the original uprising in 1916 had been put down violently, with estimates of over 100,000 Muslims killed, the movement had never really died out (Kappeler 352). Many Muslims in Turkestan opposed Soviet rule, leading to significant growth within the Basmachi. By 1919, the group had close to 20,000 fighters (Olcott 355). Although the Basmachi enjoyed the support of farmers and small towns around Turkestan, their challenge was the consolidation of power. Different leaders of the movement claimed that they were the rightful leaders, leading to power struggles. Power was finally consolidated in early 1919, and later in the year, the Basmachi leader Irgash Bey joined forces with a Russian peasant army, creating a successful partnership that lasted through 1920 (356). The Basmachi movement would continue until 1926 before moving underground and then having a resurgence during the First Five-Year Plans collectivization movement (355).

In late 1919, as the tide of the civil war turned within Russia’s borders, the Bolsheviks began to address the issues within the colonies, including bringing in Red Army troops to suppress the Basmachi. In 1920 the governmental structure in Tashkent was overhauled, with a Provisional Central Committee made up of Russian and Turkestani Bolshevik supporters being installed. The Bolsheviks determined that in order to finally defeat the Basmachi, they had to work to improve their image with the native population (Olcott 357). To that end, the Bolsheviks prioritized relief for the famine that had begun during the civil war. Grain was shipped to Turkestan and economic relief came as part of the New Economic Policy (NEP) established by Lenin in 1921 (357). Turkestan became the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR).

Bukharas Emir was forced out in 1920 after the Red Army shifted their forces away from Turkestan following the defeat of the Basmachi in Turkestan. The Soviets took control of the country quickly, and the Peoples Republic of Bukhara was established (Bashiri 89). While the Jadidists and Young Bukharans were quick to support the Soviets initially, resentment against the Bolsheviks and the Red Army grew quickly. This was due in part because of marauding Red Army units that attacked civilians (Bleur et al. 57). By 1921, the local population began to call for the withdrawal of Red Army troops. While the Bolsheviks were able to consolidate power in Turkestan through goodwill and numerous communist organizations, Bukhara was not so easily pacified. By the end of the year, without an established authority, the country fell into anarchy and violence (58). It was during this time that we see the Basmachi movement resurface in Bukhara. However, we must take this labeling with a grain of salt, as it was standard for Red Army commanders to indiscriminately label any adversaries as Basmachi (59).

It became evident to the Soviets that one aspect of handling both the Turkestanis and the Bukharan involved acquiescence to certain aspects of the indigenous culture. Specifically, it became clear that a compromise had to be found regarding Islam. The Soviets were staunchly atheist, which was already a difficult position to defend in an empire used to Orthodox Christianity. During the ensuing 70 years of Soviet rule, the Russian Orthodox Church was not recognized and went through periods of discrimination and persecution, but citizens still worshipped in the open. For Islam, the Bolsheviks worked to create distinct Soviet Islamic and nationality policies aimed at the dissolution of Islamic beliefs and practices. This included the creation of Soviet Islam, an apolitical offshoot, and the eventual closing of mosques and madrassas (the Islamic schools). It also included a revision of the borders and countries within Central Asia (Yemelianova 58). The Turkestan ASSR, along with the Bukhara Peoples Soviet Republic, continued to exist as part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic as separate polities and were not part of the USSR (58).

The Sovietization of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan

Between 1924 and 1925, the USSR reconfigured parts of Turkestan into Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). In 1924, the Emirate of Bukhara became the Uzbek SSR, which included the Tajikistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR); Tajikistan was made a separate SSR in 1929. The Soviets recognized that the key to holding power was the presence and growth of the Communist Party in the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan SSRs, as well as a kind of economic reconfiguration. After the establishment of Uzbekistan, the Soviets introduced land-and-water reform, which entailed nationalizing and then redistributing land to the farmers (Khalid 162-163). The Soviet government was in effect practicing a less-radical version of dekulakization, the practice in Russia of seizing the land of wealthy peasants, nationalizing it, redistributing it to other local farmers, and forcibly relocating the wealthier peasants to other parts of the empire. The idea in Uzbekistan was to tie farmers more directly to the Soviet system, as the economic weakness of small farms created a need among the farmers for aid from the larger Soviet government. 

The next phase of the Soviets’ plan was political education. They recognized that by creating and distributing propaganda in the form of curricula for political clubs, plays translated into local languages, and more, they could more easily reach these populations and spread the expectations of the Soviet system (Khalid 165). By 1926, material was being created and spread at a frantic pace with the intent of indigenizing Soviet rule. As Khalid explains, “The non-Russian peoples of the new Soviet state had to think of Soviet rule as their own” (165-166). This policy of korenizatsiia, the integration of non-Russian peoples, “provided a formal mandate to promote national elites and national languages in the non-Russian parts of the Soviet state” (166). However, korenizatsiia was not always effective. It required the hiring of translators, as well as other expenses, including training the native population in new jobs and teaching Russians indigenous languages (166). 

While 1921-1926 saw focus placed on the acceptance of local religions and native languages, in 1927-1932, this focus shifted to fixing the backwardness of Central Asia. New policies were rolled out that included the Sovietization of education, and importantly, more direct attacks on Islam (Khalid 342). Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, started in 1928, included the policy of forced collectivization, which led to the creation of massive, state-owned farms. Villages had their farmland nationalized, and peasants were expected to work the same land they had previously owned, but now for the good of the state. Reception of the Plan across the USSR was very negative, especially in the Central Asian SSRs. The local population struggled to integrate into these new expectations with the resulting unrest and a renewal of Basmachi opposition. No longer would the Soviets try to appease the local authorities (Olcott 361). 

In 1927, plans began to be formulated for Tajikistan to become its own SSR. Prior attempts had been put on hold because of the focus on Uzbekistan, but in 1929, Tajikistan became a Soviet Socialist Republic (Bashir 89, 94). When the Soviets first seized control of the area in the early 1920s, Tajikistan appeared to them to be medieval. They saw an opportunity in the region for development and sent social engineers, mechanical engineers, and agronomists there to work (99). These professionals assisted in the further development of agriculture, as well as industry. Railroads were constructed, canals dug, and hydroelectric dams set up, forcing Tajikistan into the twentieth century (100). Of particular note was the further development of cotton farming. This push for cotton led to an unlikely collaboration between American farmers and engineers, the Soviet government, and Tajikistani farmers. For example, as Maya Peterson explains, “In June of 1929, Arthur Powell Davis returned to Turkestan—now Soviet Central Asia—to take up a new post, that of chief consulting engineer for the Soviet governments irrigation schemes in Central Asia” (Peterson 448). (Davis had previously worked as chief engineer of the US Reclamation Service, a subsidiary of the Department of the Interior.) Bringing in Western specialists as advisors in the process of modernization and industrialization was the norm in Russia and other areas of the USSR as well.

The Aftermath

Russia’s imperialist desires, much like those of Western Europe and the United States, would irrevocably damage the ancient societies in Central Asia that they sought to subjugate. It was another example of white Europeans seeking power and spreading Western civilization with the intent of forcing modernization on countries and peoples that werent looking for it. For the Russians, it went the same way as it did all over the world. However, Marx and Engels’ plans for revolution were predicated on the belief that they would be carried out in Europe. Their plans were never meant to be guidance for installing Communism in a Muslim agrarian/merchant society. The native population was decimated as the imperialist power sought to wrest control from local groups. Borders were drawn and redrawn haphazardly, often dividing native ethnic groups, and these divisions were made without a thought to the hundreds of years of history upon which the local cultures were built. New countries and capitals were established and integrated, and local customs were supposed to fall by the wayside in favor of assimilation into first Russian (under the Empire), then Soviet culture. The tradition of Soviet rule that developed over 70 years left these countries with massive societal issues after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Corruption, weak economies, and societal challenges continue to plague Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to this day.

Politically and culturally astute, Lotte Jacobi could see evidence of this complicated history of political, cultural, and economic disruptions in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan when she was there in the fall of 1932. As this brief history shows, the Uzbeks and Tajikistanis had just lived through decades of subjugation, violence, and famine. Jacobi witnessed the suppression of Muslim traditions as the Soviets worked to control the area’s resources, including human, in their quest to build a powerful and homogenous Soviet state. Regardless of the volatile circumstances at the time, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also offered subject matter for a German travel photographer. In the 1930s, a few of Jacobi’s photographs did appear, for example, in the German magazine Atlantis but, sadly, under another, “Aryan” name. She no doubt also hoped to obtain a market in the USSR through her new connection to the powerful Russian publisher Mikhail Kol’tsov. These hopes of hers died unfulfilled.

Contributor: Charles True, Eleanor Hight

Works Cited:

Bashiri, I. Raj. The History of the Civil War in Tajikistan. Academic Studies Press, 2020.

Caroe, Olaf. “Soviet Colonialism in Central Asia.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 32, no. 1, 1953, pp. 135–44, https://doi.org/10.2307/20031013. Accessed 7 Apr. 2022.

Kappeler, Andreas. The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. Pearson Longman, 2001.

Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Khalid, Adeeb. Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR. Cornell University Press, 2016.

Nourzhanov, Kirill, and Christian Bleuer. Tajikistan: A Political and Social History. ANU E Press, 2013.

Olcott, Martha B. “The Basmachi or Freemens Revolt in Turkestan 1918-24.” Soviet Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 1981, pp. 352–69, http://www.jstor.org/stable/151077. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.

Peterson, Maya. “US to USSR: American Experts, Irrigation, and Cotton in Soviet Central Asia, 1929–32.” Environmental History, vol. 21, no. 3, 2016, pp. 442–66, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44132071. Accessed 6 Apr. 2022.

Yemelianova, Galina M. Muslims of Central Asia: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press, 2019.