Rahim Masov's History of a National Catastrophe


Iraj Bashiri

Department of Slavic and Central Asian Languages and Literatures

© Iraj Bashiri, 1997

This article was originally prepared for the Central Asian Quarterly

"Our first step was the implementation of the national-administrative divisions to establish the national republics. In effect, we presented a rough draft. A great deal still remained to be discussed. We took the ax to the problem, you could say."

The 1917 October Revolution, led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, opened a new vista on Europe and Asia. It touched the lives of people living anywhere from China to Eastern Europe and from Novgorod to the Caucasus and Central Asia. In this regard, the formative decade of Soviet power (the 1920's) was epoch-making. During this decade, the Civil War between the White Army--assisted by the United States, Europe, Japan, and Canada--and the Red Army resulted in the victory of the latter; the New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced; the Kronstadt rebellion took place; Lenin died; and Stalin took over the Party machine. The decade ended with the introduction of a program of forced collectivization and rapid industrialization of the new nation.

At the same time, there were less prominent, local problems that had to be dealt with in the vast Soviet Empire. In Central Asia, for instance, the Basmachi movement pitted the Soviets against the Muslims who were defending their property, faith, and honor. The fall of the Basmachi movement coincided with the era of the implementation of the national-administrative divisions, and with hujum (assault) on traditional ways. These seemingly constructive efforts changed the face of Central Asia while paving the way for future difficulties.

Academic Rahim Masov's History of a National Catastrophe, while dealing with the delicate issue of the national-administrative divisions, presents a clear view of the Center's ethnic policies. It shows how the stronger ethnic groups were manipulated to eliminate opposition from lesser groups against exploitative measures to harness their resources. Uzbekistan's oppressive treatment of the Tajiks during the 1920's is a case in point. Masov provides detailed discussion of the linguistic, economic, and educational means employed by the Uzbeks to force the Tajiks out of their cultural centers of Samarqand and Bukhara in the north to take refuge in the Pamirs.

The European Soviets' allowance of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia to participate in political affairs at a high level resulted in the consolidation of a strong Turkish national feeling and the emergence of Pan-Turkism under the guise of the already existing Pan-Islamism led by the Ottoman Turks. Confronted with this situation, the European Soviets, especially the Russians, changed their strategy in Central Asia from one of cooperation to one of "divide and conquer." The introduction of the national-administrative divisions whereby the different ethnic groups were recognized as separate entities led by their own leaders broke up the power of the Turks and Muslims of the region for a long time to come. Masov analyzes the confrontation between Russia and Central Asia in detail and attributes much of the problems of present-day Central Asia to this political move by the Soviet leaders in the very early stages of the development of Soviet power.

While Russification was at the heart of the major plan of the Soviets for the Empire, at lower levels and with the tacit approval of the European Soviets, two other processes were taking place in Central Asia: Turkification and Uzbekization. Put into motion one after the other by the Turks to assimilate the Tajiks and other non-Turkic elements in the region, these processes were intended to expand the Turkish domains and, in the long run, do away with the Russian yoke. Once the process of Turkification, on which the rise of Pan-Turkism rested, failed, the Uzbeks forced the Tajiks to register themselves as Uzbeks. This process, Masov says, confused the ethnographic picture of Central Asia, increased the number of Uzbeks at the expense of the Tajiks, and created tension among otherwise friendly peoples.

The national-administrative divisions were completed in 1924 and, theoretically, should have had a positive impact on the subsequent life of the Soviets who built their empire through hard work, collectivization, and industrialization. Masov argues that this is an erroneous conclusion; he believes that the divisions dislocated the ethnic population putting the contending cultures on a collision course. With the promise of a Communist Heaven, for decades, Soviet rulers pushed the impending doom resulting from these early moves back. Eventually, however, the promise lost its luster. At that moment, Masov says, the mistakes of the 1924 national-administrative divisions returned to haunt Russia and Central Asia.

Masov's work is in two parts. Part one analyzes the dynamics of change and examines the various levels at which decisions were made for the allocation of resources and of political power. Part two reproduces the archival documents on which the analyses and assessments are based. The following excerpts reiterate most of the germane points in part one. They are selected and explained by Professor Iraj Bashiri, the translator and editor of the Tajiki text.

One of the major points that the Uzbek's stressed in their claim for retaining Samarqand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan SSR was that the Uzbek population of the cities was larger than the Tajik population. Masov contends this:

Analyzing the formation of the cities of Central Asia, Zarubin states, "In 1915, the Tajik population of the heavily populated city of Samarqand was 59,991 and the Uzbek population was 819." In 1920, in the same place, there lived 44,573 Tajiks and 3,311 Uzbeks. The reason for the decrease in the Tajik population compared to the 1915 census was that the 1917-1918 famine in Samarqand killed a large number of Tajiks. And the increase in the number of the Uzbek-speaking inhabitants can be attributed to the fact that many Tajiks became Uzbek and that many Sarts and others chose the same option." In addition, the following measures played a significant role in bringing about the change: the formation of the Republic of Turkistan; the forced integration of the Tajiks through discriminatory processes of census taking; granting of key positions to Uzbeks; and the translation of administrative records, educational materials, the news, and the documents of the other organs into Uzbeki and Turkish languages.

In R. R. Rahimov's article, Zarubin's ethnographic conclusions are compared with similar data analyzed by other researchers. The results present a fascinating picture: during the few years of the existence of the Republic of Turkistan, the number of Tajiks is alarmingly reduced. For instance, L. F. Kastanko's conclusion, presented by Zarubin, indicates that, "At the end of the past century the main population of Samarqand was Tajik." N. I. Virskii's data also support Kastanko's statement. His sociological table, dealing with the Zarafshan rural district, provides the population for Samarqand at 35,326 (33,622 Tajiks), in 1876. The remaining population consists of Persians, Indians, Central Asian Jews, and Uzbeks. The first general Russian census of 1897, too, indicates that the Tajiks were predominant in the Samarqand region (60.58% men 66.58% women), Uzbeks (13.59% men, 13.55% women). These statistics, however, are totally obliterated by the results of a new census published in 1926. According to that census, the Tajik population of the city of Samarqand is 10,716, and the Uzbek population is 43,304. From this we can conclude that the establishment of the ASSRT (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan) provided the foundation for a racial cleansing of the Tajiks to be accomplished through the process of national-administrative divisions...

After the formation of the Soviet Union, the loyalty of the Turks of Central Asia, rather than to it, was increasingly directed to Pan-Turkism and its mainstay, Pan-Islamism. Turkistan, an entity that had lurked in the background during the decay and fall of the Ottoman Empire, gradually took the center stage and was supported by Anatolian Turks as well as by the Tatars, Bashkirds, and the Turkish peoples of Central Asia. A call for the elimination of the subtle differences, especially in language, among the Uzbeks, Kyrgyzes, Turkmens, Tatars, Bashkirds, Kazakhs, and Karakalpaks was, of course, most alarming to Tajiks, the only Indo-European people in a sea of Uralic-Altaic peoples. A revision of the educational system, Masov argues, was used as a pretext for eradicating Tajik identity:

In the field of education, especially during the formation of the schools, the special features of the Uzbeki, Turkmeni, and Kyrgyzi languages were ignored. As for Tajiki, its very existence was denied! The Turkicization of the schools was achieved by mixing Turkish and Tatari words. This process could be implemented in this manner because the whole educational reform movement was spearheaded by the Turks and the Tatars. The Turkicization of the schools was implemented within the borders of the republic of Turkistan, even in regions and cities where the inhabitants were not Turks. In addition, when Afandiev was the People's Commissar for Education, he introduced Turkish military marches as well as Turkish songs and drills into all the schools. He also appointed Turk teachers from among the Turkish officers, officially abandoned the use of the new script, and openly persuaded students to involve themselves in religious activities.

In a way, Turkistan and the Emirate of Bukhara played a complementary role for the Turks. The former was the breeding ground for a nationalist movement, Pan-Turkism, inspired by Tatar nationalist elements, the Young Turks, and the bourgeois elements gravitating towards a Turkish identity. The latter, before the establishment of the Republic of Bukhara, had Pan-Islamism as the center of its governmental ideology. Being of Sunni faith, the Central Asian intellectuals and the religious personages of Turkistan and Bukhara followed the learned men of Istanbul and Kazan. After traveling in these places, either as visitors or as students, they returned to Turkistan with the most radical brands of Pan-Turkism. Among those intellectuals there were also many Tajiks who, due to their religious allegiance, preferred Turkey over Iran; even though, from a linguistic and cultural standpoint as well as from the standpoint of their ancient heritage they should have gravitated towards Iran. But, as was explained above, no matter which sect of Islam they belonged to, their activities were detrimental to the interests of Tajik national unity. Tatar and Turkish missionaries had entered Central Asia and remained there as teachers and educators from the time of the Russian annexation of the region. During the Revolution and the Civil War, military consultants and Soviet and Party employees, sympathetic to the cause of the Pan-Turkists, made a concerted effort to create conflicts among the Russians, other Slavic peoples, Tajiks, Iranians, and the Indo-European kin folks in general....

After the establishment of the Republic of Bukhara, the representatives of the three Pan-Turkist groups assumed the key leadership positions. In the judicial branch, the section dealing with the national rights of the people of Bukhara was relegated to the Turkish Prisoners of War and others who had entered Central Asia without a permit. The Party and Soviet branches were led by people who had been sent from ASSRT (representing the Uzbeks, Tatars, and Bashkirds of Turkistan) and by individuals who were very heavily influenced by the promoters of Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism in the region.

Most of the famous intellectuals of the Tajiks' recent history (some refer to them as the jadids), especially those who had studied in Istanbul, along with their learning, imported new, Pan-Turkist notions to Central Asia. They held discussions during which they announced that Central Asia was Turkistan, i.e., Central Asia was the homeland of the Turks, intimating that the Tajiks did not belong there. Among them were some Tajik intellectuals who kept their identity a secret. They did not even try to support the cause of the Tajiks in the newly-formed republics of the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Turkistan and the People's Soviet Republic of Bukhara. That is why when the conditions were favorable and the Uzbeks, Turkmens, Kyrgyzes, Europeans, even the Jews of Bukhara had found their own ethnic identity, the Tajiks were denied recognition. The names of the Tajiks were not entered in any of these official documents.

The Pan-Turkists occupied all the key positions in the Party and in the Soviet organs of power. Sharing the same religion and speaking the same language allowed them to integrate themselves into the Turkish-speaking population. In almost all the newly-established schools of the Republic of Bukhara, including in areas where the principle inhabitants were Tajik, classes were taught by Turkish teachers. Turkish became the medium of instruction; Tajik children were forced to study in a language they did not know. They were not allowed to use Tajiki even outside the classroom, during their free time. Additionally, they were forced to register themselves as Uzbeks. Families that refused to register themselves as prescribed were forced out of their birthplace. In Bukhara, Samarqand, Khujand, and other cities, Tajik children were taught Turkish songs. In the national military, soldiers took their orders in Turkish. It is this rush to Turkicization that is translated into Uzbekization in subsequent years. Tajik students had to memorize the following war anthem in Turkish:

According to Masov, two processes affected Tajik identity before the establishment of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan in 1929. These processes were Turkification, an account of which was given above, and Uzbekization. The latter plagued the Tajiks when they were placed as an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan (1924-29). The intensity of Uzbekization was to the degree that Tajiks had to pay fines every time that they were caught using their native language. Here is part of Masov's discussion of this subject:

The national-administrative divisions of Central Asia and the establishment of the republics with corresponding ethnic identity were major historical events. These events affected the Tajiks, who had gradually lost their own government and were subjected to assimilation (especially after the Russian take-over of Central Asia), adversely. Using the divisions, Turkish tribes pushed the Tajiks farther into the mountainous regions. On the other hand, thanks to the assistance and foresight of Russian intellectuals, scientists, political and public servants, and the government, the Pan-Turkists did not find the opportunity to implement their anti-Tajik agenda to its fullest extent. Even though the Tajiks were the oldest people of the region, the Pan-Turkists insisted on their being devoid of culture and history; they were treated as "Persianized Turks." They recognized only the Tajiks of Badakhshan as Tajiks and argued that by the dawn of the 20th century the rest of the Tajiks had already become Turks. They further argued that Tajiks did not understand self-determination and, consequently, could not rule themselves. The establishment of the small Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan (even though it was deprived of its economic and cultural centers) neutralized the Turkish peoples' expansionist aspirations. In fact, the establishment of the Autonomous SSR of Tajikistan proved that the Tajiks, whose identity the Pan-Turkists wished to deny, were the oldest people of Central Asia.

As a result of this development, both Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism were recognized as anti-Soviet movements. This was because Pan-Islamic elements that had entered the Soviet government were supporting the Basmachis. Related to this, an effort got under way throughout Turkistan to change the language of instruction to Turkish. In the schools they used to teach Pan-Islamic and Pan-Turkist poems. However, a situation came about that intended to rally all the peoples of Central Asia around one nationality, Turkic.

On the eve of the national-administrative divisions, when the Basmachis and other major anti-revolutionary forces were defeated, and when the hopes of the Pan-Turkists were dashed, the Pan-Turkists became Pan-Uzbeks under the auspices of the Soviet revolution. As a result, all instruction in the schools of Turkistan was carried out through the medium of Uzbeki. The Tajiks were persuaded to identify themselves as Uzbeks. The influence of this persuasion was so intense that even some Tajik members of the soviets and the Party identified themselves as Uzbek and, indeed, served in leadership positions.

The chauvinistic persuasion methods of the Uzbeks, after the national-administrative divisions, appeared in the following forms:

    They said that in Uzbekistan there is room only for the Uzbeks. Those who call themselves Tajik will be sent to Tajikistan.

    Those who wish to remain in Uzbekistan must accept Uzbeki as the official language. Therefore, the language of instruction is Uzbeki.

    Research workers who showed signs of nationalism, especially teachers, were released from their duties and placed in positions in which language did not play a role. This was done mostly in

    Samarqand, Bukhara, and Khujand.

    When officials were sent to Tajikistan on business, a rumor was circulated that the person was being exiled to Tajikistan due to his affiliation with Tajiks, or for having identified himself as a Tajik.

All of this created the impression that Tajikistan had become what the pre-Revolutionary Siberia used to be for the Nation. The Tajiks who came to Uzbekistan to work identified themselves as Uzbek. As a result, we can see that at the time of the 1926 census, under the chauvinistic persuasion of the Uzbeks, the Tajiks identified themselves as Uzbeks. Another fact that is impossible to deny is that the Turkish and Uzbek Pan-Turkist and Pan-Uzbek intellectuals were not the only force pushing these ideologies. Tajik intellectuals not only promoted the movement, but after assimilation, became the spokespeople for it. Some of them, who had penetrated the Soviet and Party organizations, went so far as to state that no Tajiks lived outside the boundary of the Tajik republic. They stated that there was no need for opening Tajik schools for Tajiks who lived in Uzbekistan. Additionally, they announced that no Tajiks lived within the rural districts of Samarqand and Bukhara.

Economics was the other reason for the Tajiks' willingness to change their identity to Uzbek. After the divisions, the region had become a hotbed of Basmachi activities; it also had been severed from all its cultural centers. No one desired to move to such a place, even though the Soviet and Party officials were trying very hard to assign cadres for the region. Because of this, in fact, many Tajik members of the Soviet and Party organizations identified themselves as Uzbeks so that they were not sent by the Soviet and Party organizations to Tajikistan. This, of course, affected the general public that also was trying to hide its identity.

Finally, a major contention of the Tajiks is that Soviet authorities failed to show concern for the well-being of the Tajiks when they decreed that Qashqa Dariya and Surkhan Dariya should remain in Uzbekistan. This, of course, is a sensitive issue with far-reaching political and economic ramifications. And admittedly no brief account of it can do justice to the claims of either side. For a full exposition of the issue, therefore, the Reader is referred to the information provided at the end of this article to Professor Bashiri's Home Page for Central Asia and Iran where Masov's entire text can be accessed and studied. A sample of the discussion is provided below:

What motivated the Tajikistan Subcommittee to assume the posture it took during the national-administrative divisions? All the members of the Subcommittee had been born and educated in Uzbekistan. Some of them, when working in that republic, had registered themselves as Uzbek. They liked the lifestyle, customs, and the music of the Uzbeks. They sought high offices which required proof of being sympathetic to the Uzbek cause. When Tajikistan became an Autonomous Republic within Uzbekistan, these Uzbek sympathizers knew that they had reached their goal. Only later, when their situation and the situation of the republic took a turn for the worse, they changed their orientation. But mere confession to past wrong-doings was not sufficient to remedy their situation. The time had past. Why? A rationale is provided further below.

The arguments of the Subcommittee that the geographical, administrative, and cultural situations of the mountainous region would adversely affect Ferghana, Bukhara and its western areas, and Samarqand is absolutely baseless. After several years, first Badakhshan and later northern Tajikistan, including Khujand, were added to the Autonomous Republic of Tajikistan. The geography was still the same, no roads had been built, and many other problems had still remained unresolved. But none of these prevented the formation of an independent republic within the Union.

Let us suppose that the mountains in the Pamir area prevented the peoples living in the far-off regions from forming a union. But what about the people of the Emirate of Bukhara? Were they not all Tajiks living in an area that was not geographically difficult for the formation of a union? Everybody knew that there was no (geographical) obstacle preventing Hissar, Surkhan Dariya and Qashqa Dariya from joining the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan and, later, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan; but both regions were prevented from doing so.

As can be seen, the arguments of the Tajikistan Commission for resolving the problems and uniting certain regions were meaningless. There is no doubt that the Pan-Turkist leaders of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, who wanted to revive the "great" Uzbek culture, had a hand in this. They intended to take over (and this is proven) the great culture of the Tajik people. The inclination to take over a foreign culture and seek distance from its own culture continues to be a feature of Uzbek life even today. The creation of a union on their own ancestral lands within the great Uzbek nation was not possible unless both the people and the land belonged to the Uzbeks. In other words, the Tajiks were now expendable.

Top of the page

Home | Courses