Nomads and Soviet Rule: Central Asia Under Lenin and Stalin

Simon Wickham - Smith

Central Asia’s nomadic population provided the Soviet Communist Party with a unique set of concerns and difficulties during the early revolutionary period. As a self-regulating and self-sustaining migratory society, their worldview was not defined by Marxian ideas of mass labor and class struggle, but rather by issues of animal husbandry and a traditional, stratified lifestyle. The political and social lives of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh nomads during this critical time in their history have yet to be properly studied. They were distant from the largely Eurocentric Soviet political elite, in terms of both geography and worldview, and became gradually enfolded into the USSR over the course of the 1920s and 1930s. Alun Thomas’s new book offers a striking and minutely-researched study of how the nomads of Soviet Central Asia negotiated, primarily during the New Economic Policy period between 1920 and 1928, the issues central to the developing governance of the Soviet Union. It becomes clear early on that the economic and social effects of the revolution did not prepare the Central Asian population well for the subsequent unrolling of the Party’s policies.

The image on the book’s cover, a 1933 poster from Tashkent, presents a fine summary of the problem. A nomad and a soldier march toward us, each determined to fulfill, in his own way, the Party’s wishes for the benefit of the Soviet people. But despite such resolve, as Thomas illustrates across the book’s six chapters, and despite a genuine zeal for improvement, there existed cultural, economic and political obstacles which even the most politically committed found hard to negotiate. A prime example of this is the land itself, respected for centuries by nomadic herders, but now subject to a series of legal reforms designed to allow through redesignation for its subjugation. Added to this, while Party discourse framed the traditional nomadic social structure as outmoded and reactionary, the centralization of power during the 1920s – and especially following the 15th Party Congress in December 1927 – removed from local leaders decisions over representation and movement, and thereby created tension between the nomadic population and those sent among them to carry out the Party’s directives.

The primary narrative of the Soviet intervention in Central Asia during this period was defined by a broadly-defined process of collectivization. The various aspects of nomads’ lives – those of education, of finance, of agriculture, of the very movement which was central to their existence – were all gradually re-evaluated according to the Party’s definition, and this re-evaluation is dealt with in the successive chapters of Thomas’s book. Thus it was, for instance, that the overarching campaign for literacy which spread through the country during the late 1920s, was expressed through the Red Yurt network. These were groups of largely Russian, largely male, ‘bands of medical and legal experts, veterinary experts, tutors and Party propagandists, offering the benefits of their expertise and distributing educational publications’ (p. 142).  The education which they offered was designed to bring the nomadic population into line with the rest of the population, promoting ideas of class and labor and Party quite out of kilter with their traditional lifestyle. The Russians’ own lack of familiarity with nomadic culture, however, coupled with the less bureaucratic system in place so far from the centers of power, in fact resulted in the Party bending to and negotiating with nomadic culture, and Thomas’s portrayal of explicit advances, such as in the treatment of nomadic women, and the education in issues of basic sanitation and healthcare, shows the real benefits which the Red Yurts brought to the population.

Much of the debate around how to deal with nomads centered on the extent to which their historical and societal position rendered them a demographically discrete group from the sedentary population of Central Asia and of the Soviet Union as a whole. The revenue which nomads provided to the government came in spite of, rather than because of, these differences. Thomas’s sensitive analysis describes the tribal and geographical issues which informed these conversations and traces their development from the policies of confiscation during the initial, post-revolutionary, period to the collectivization which followed the 1928 congress, and which finally threatened nomads with the loss, in the form of their livestock, of both their livelihood and their cultural identity. The debates which flared up in various iterations around the relative strategies of taxation – whether to tax poor nomads differently from rich ones; whether nomads should be taxed differently from the sedentary population; whether nomads should be taxed according to what they could afford or according to what the country needed – remained largely unsolved by those charged with solving them, and nomads’ fiscal and political identity remained, at the end of the 1920s, much the same as it had been at the beginning of the decade.

The tension which such intractable differences created between the nomadic population and the Soviet Russians, who would transform them into effective and productive citizens of the Soviet Union, is well-conveyed by Thomas in his painstaking reading of case studies. When the New Economic Policy period gave way to what Thomas describes as ‘the catastrophe of collectivization’, both the people and their environment were suffering from such mismanagement and misunderstanding, that they ended up merely prolonging the historical relationship between Russia and Central Asia; ‘a product of economic and social changes and state interference that began during the period of modern imperialism but continued with a new dynamic in after the collapse of direct imperial rule’ (p. 176).

I have few criticisms of this book, and I would urge it upon anyone who has an interest in modern Central Asian history and society, or in the processes of Soviet empire-building. Two caveats, however: I would have preferred to have had photographs to illustrate the narrative, and I would also have preferred a more comprehensive index, to complement the thorough and extensive endnotes. That said, the narrative is engrossing, and provides an eloquent and honest appraisal of a far-reaching, yet largely ill-starred, social experiment.