"Colonizers with Party Cards": Soviet Internal Colonialism in Central Asia, 1917-39

Article excerpt

In November 1929, soon after the November Plenum and the announcement of mass collectivization, Stalin received a letter from a young Kyrgyz official named Iusup Abdrakhmanov. Then 28 years old, Abdrakhmanov was the chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). Located just south of Kazakhstan on the Chinese border, the Kyrgyz ASSR was then a small region in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), having come into existence just a few years before in the course of Central Asia's so-called "national delimitation." Like officials in many distant regions of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan's leaders, including Abdrakhmanov, struggled to advance the interests of this little-known territory. In his letter, Abdrakhmanov pushed for greater local control over economic matters. He argued that Kyrgyzstan's "triple subjugation" (troinaia podchinennost')--to the USSR, the RSFSR, and various regional organs in Central Asia--had retarded the territory's development by requiring that its leaders coordinate their policies among three centers, none of which understood local economic and social realities. In particular, the state's privileging of grain production (the occupation of Kyrgyzstan's predominantly Slavic settler population) over livestock production (the sector in which most ethnic Kyrgyz were engaged) favored the settler minority over the indigenous majority and threatened to perpetuate and even exacerbate the economic inequalities of the tsarist colonial era. (1) Abdrakhmanov contended that this disparity contradicted stated Soviet efforts to "liquidate the real economic inequality" between the "backward" regions of the Soviet Union and its more advanced ones, thereby "distorting the Party's nationality policy." (2) Policies disadvantageous to the Kyrgyz population even had international implications, as the failure of Soviet Kyrgyzstan to catch up with the other parts of the Soviet Union would make a bad impression on the Kyrgyz population living over the border in China. The solution to these problems, Abdrakhmanov concluded, lay ultimately in transforming the Kyrgyz ASSR into a union republic: "The national makeup of the population (70 percent Kyrgyz), its foreign policy significance, and the economic possibilities of Kyrgyzstan [all] point to this [conclusion]," he wrote. (3)

In this letter, Abdrakhmanov demonstrated a bureaucrat's knack for aligning his own ambitions (Kyrgyzstan's transformation into a union republic, presumably with Abdrakhmanov in a key post) with the policy goals of the party-state (increasing the production of key commodities and attracting the population of neighboring countries). But he also pointed to an essential feature of Soviet rule in Central Asia: the frequent contradiction between the Soviet Union's plans for economic development of the country as a whole and its stated goal of promoting the interests of formerly marginalized ethnic groups. As Abdrakhmanov's example of grain production showed, these two priorities frequently worked at cross purposes. In particular, he warned that the Kyrgyz ASSR would slip into a state of economic backwardness if its predominantly Kyrgyz local administration were not granted more control over economic policy and, specifically, more discretion in making agricultural investments. (4) This tendency was not unique to Kyrgyzstan: throughout the Soviet East, Bolshevik goals of social equality and economic advancement--indeed, a complete decolonization--for disadvantaged ethnic minorities frequently clashed with the economic and political priorities of central institutions in Moscow. (5) As Abdrakhmanov demonstrates in his appeal to Stalin, "socialist construction," which aimed to develop a socialist economy in a unified state under a strong central government, and "nationality policy," which strove to promote the development of every minority ethnic group, contradicted each other all too often. …