[Annie Mosher and Jan-Pieter Verheul]

The Turkmen people trace their ancestry back to the warrior Oguz-Khan, his children, and grandchildren. This common genealogy is the foundation of Turkman history and society, which focuses on tribal and clan relationships rather than social hierarchies. The first Turkmen were nomadic pastoralists and this tradition remained a characteristic of the “most Turkmen” tribes. Other Turkmen turned to an agrarian lifestyle, but both ways of life were supported by a strong emphasis on kin groups and the adat, the unwritten code regulating all aspects of society (Edgar, 20-25).

By the 19th century, the Russian Empire had expanded its influence through trade and annexation. In the 1860s the Russians added the provinces of Khiva and Bukhara to the Empire as vassal states. Russian rule was accompanied by an engineered hereditary aristocracy and the allocation of Turkmen land for the cash-crop farming of cotton. The Russian language quickly became a symbol of power and oppression. By the early 20th century the region saw a movement for a pan-Turkic nation consistent with territorial and linguistic cultural trends. The Muslim Jadid movement popularized pan-Turkism as reformers pushed for change, including education in the vernacular, and promoting secular nationality (Edgar 29-33).

Soviet Turkmenistan would emerge from three multiethnic territories: the former Russian colony of Turkestan, and the former tsarist protectorates of Khiva and Bukhara. The Bolsheviks dissolved these areas and merged them into one state, hoping to “win the allegiance of minorities” in order to provide a union of nationalities with equal status through this process of national delimitation (Edgar, 42). According to Lenin’s interpretations of Marxism, these groups needed to form nations before progressing to socialism. New territories would also accommodate nationalism, which washeld to be inevitable, and resolve ethnic conflicts (Edgar, 44-45). The location of the new Turkmen republic was of special consideration to the Soviets, as the relatively large nation shared several international borders, but none with Russia.

The Soviets used the advice of the indigenous groups to negotiate internal borders; the Turkmen, many of whom had been educated in Russian schools during the tsarist colonial era, were eager to work with Moscow. Many of the plans for borders submitted by regional representatives conflicted and Moscow eventually took a more direct role in establishing the region’s new territories (Edgar, 50-55). Conflicting internal borders were not the only problem they faced. The borders with both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were shared pastures, and often inhabited by groups that were difficult to define ethnographically. Additionally, Turkmenistan lacked its own ethnic cities and only had an internal Turkmen population of 77%.

The biggest conflict involved the placement of the new capital city. The two candidates were the cities of Ashgabat, north of the Iranian border, and Chärjew, south of the Uzbekistani border. By selecting Chärjew, the government would have shown its commitment to advancing less-developed areas, whereas Ashgabat already had the necessary resources to develop a number of institutions, such as schools and hospitals. Although Chärjew won the majority, its development was never fully mobilized and Ashgabat became the capital. On September 24, 1924, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was officially recognized as part of the Union (Edgar, 50-67).

The creation of Turkmenistan utilized the Soviet policy of indigenization, or korenizatsiia, which intended to create a socialist state concurrent with native traditions and culture. Soviet leaders also believed that the “promotion of national cultures and elites in non-Russian republics would help atone for the past oppression of these regions by tsarist colonizers” (Edgar, 71). New Soviet-educated elites replaced the old intelligentsia, but Europeans strongly resisted as indigenization policies often favored non-Russians.

While the overarching goal of these policies was to promote education and develop an infrastructure, this “affirmative action” process proved to be much more difficult than anticipated. Often the indigenous workers had no skills, and while some did receive job training, such training sessions were usually unsuccessful as a result of language barriers and discrimination. Ethnic Russians became upset at the hiring of unqualified non-Russians, while Turkmen believed they were being treated unfairly, because many businesses hired Russians, ignoring indigenization policies. Tensions between Russians and ethnic Turkmen increased, but Russified Turkmen were mocked and discriminated not only by Turkmen for sacrificing traditional clothing and practices for Russian ones, but also by Russians, who viewed them as unqualified (Edgar, 75-81).

To augment the poorly implemented indigenization policies, in August 1924, the Turkmen National Bureau called for linguistic “Turkmenization” of the republic, which involved a campaign for all citizens to learn local languages. The attempt was poorly received, and most Russians and Europeans made excuses to avoid learning any new language (Edgar, 87). In 1928, the Five-Year Plan, designed to speed up indigenization, pushed for the promotion of Turkmen into the bureaucracy and emphasized the Turkmen language in educational and governmental institutions. All government work was to be translated into Turkmen, though no organization succeeded in doing so. In 1932 Soviet officials were instructed to hire only members of “exploited classes,” including landless peasants, women, and national minorities. This resulted in increased ethnic tension, as well as frustration from non-Russians, who were ill-equipped for any job provided to them. In 1937, business was still conducted in Russian and Turkmen continued to be underrepresented in all government arenas (Edgar, 89-97).

Besides territory, language was the other characteristic the Bolsheviks recognized as necessary for a national territory. Within Turkmenistan, this was especially difficult as Turkmen consisted of numerous dialects spoken by tribes within the region. Some claimed Turkmen was a dialect of Ottoman Turkish, or that using Azerbaijani or Russian would be more practical than creating a national Turkmen language. Turkmen argued that the use of any other language would threaten their national integrity, and began the process of constructing a national language. However, conflicts between tribal dialects made it difficult for the Turkmen to develop the language on their own and Moscow had to complete the project. The next step was to develop a writing system for the new Turkmen national language. The Committee for the New Turkic Alphabet, established in 1922, chose the Latin alphabet after years of research and debate. The Latin alphabet represented social progression, but was also better suited to the Turkmen vowel system than Arabic. The new alphabet was confirmed on January 3, 1928, and was present in all printed material by October 1929 (Edgar, 135-143).

Along with the creation of Turkmenistan, came the formation of the Turkmen Communist Party. Recruitment was very successful, though many new members came from the upper echelons of society rather than the lower classes. Educating citizens about Communism was relatively unsuccessful: illiterate Turkmen couldn’t read pamphlets or understand the Russians trying to teach them, and Turkmen communists often continued to follow Turkmen adat even after joining the party. By 1928 the party had all but collapsed, and Moscow implemented its system of duality, creating two secretaries at every level of bureaucracy – one Turkmen and one Russian or European. This structure guaranteed Moscow’s control regardless of local communist practices (Edgar, 107-115). One Turkmen secretary, Gaigïsïz Atabaev, had strong ideas about how to develop communism within Turkmenistan. He supported teaching communism within Muslim schools, creating native militias to fight Basmachi rebels, and focusing the attack against bridewealth as a symbol of Turkmen “backwardness” (Edgar, 122). Despite its progress, the Turkmen Party was subject to OGPU purges, just like those of other republics. By the end of the 1930s the OGPU had removed Turkmen communists who could be associated with nationalism as “bourgeois nationalists.” This signified a gross change in Party politics, as less than ten years earlier, the Soviets had been almost fostering “bourgeois nationalism” in the region through efforts to encourage self-determination (Edgar, 128).

Identifying the proletariat within tribal Turkmen society was a difficult task for Soviet leaders. They instead attempted to destroy tribal affiliations with “tribal parity policies,” designed to also remove socio-economic status. The Land and Water Reform of 1925-26 redistributed tribal lands and relocated thousands of citizens in order to diminish kin relationships by removing hereditary land ownership. People resisted this reform and many clans divided their large areas of land into much smaller plots distributed to family members. Tribal competition affected all aspects of society. Often larger tribes would dominate smaller tribes in various party organs.

Initially, the effects of this were limited to job discrimination, but with the rise of the secret police in 1928 accompanied persecution of all “kulaks,” many of whom were members of the minority tribes singled out by party-dominant tribes (Edgar, 176-195). The OGPU continued the search for kulaks throughout the early 1930s. Nomads were now categorized as kulaks because they “lacked class consciousness,” as their pursuit of a free-roaming lifestyle was associated with trying to accumulate personal wealth. Along with their herds, the nomads were collectivized through military action, but the Party soon realized the consequences of this action. Some nomads slaughtered their own herds, while others emigrated to Persia, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. Attempts to lure émigrés back to Turkmenistan were grossly unsuccessful. In the agricultural sphere, grain was replaced with cotton, leaving peasants at the mercy of the state for food staples. Violent protests in reaction to these policies led to the publication of Stalin’s article “Dizzy with Success” in Pravda on March 2, 1930, which lay the blame of agricultural catastrophes on local officials (Edgar, 197-220).

As within the other Central Asian Republics, Soviet policy attempted to use women as a substitute for the proletariat. Zhenotdel, the women’s section of the Communist Party, was created in 1919 to promote Communism through changes in women’s status, but the program enjoyed very little success. Few women had time to attend meetings and those who did were either old or equated to prostitutes. The only young women involved in the early 1920s were party members’ wives, but by 1929 many women were physically dragged to meetings. Zhenotdel established workshops for carpet and silk-weaving to integrate younger women, but still failed to rally women around communism, leading to its dissolution in 1930 (Edgar, 226-234). In Uzbekhistan and other republics, Moscow had centralized the fight for women’s rights around the veil, but the only Turkmen equivalent was the yashmak – a scarf sometimes held over a woman’s mouth. This article of clothing held strong cultural significance, attempts to eliminate it failed. As Atabaev had suggested, the campaign shifted focus to bride wealth, which the Soviets connected with slavery. By propagandizing bride wealth as one characteristic of backwards Turkmen culture, the Soviets hoped to further women’s rights and modernize Turkmen culture as a whole. The Turkmen population opposed this treatment of their culture and continued practicing many “backwards” traditions illegally, including bride wealth (Edgar, 236-255). Also, Turkmenistan had an identifiably lower class with whom the Soviets could align; as a result, the need for women as the proletariat in Soviet Turkmenistan was markedly less than neighboring areas.

The creation of the Turkmen Republic saw the concretion of major territories into one large conglomerate, involving linguistic, political, and geographical condensations. Although the Soviet project was an overall failure and the people of the Turkmen Republic were coerced into modernized society through brutal indigenization policies, this Republic made tremendous strides. After all, in less than forty years, a land based on agrarian and nomadic civilizations had been transformed into a nearly fully-functioning Soviet republic that has survived into the twenty first century. Modern Turkmenistan may reject its Soviet past, but it owes a great deal to the modernizing efforts of the Soviet Union.


Works consulted:

  • Adrienne Lynn Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)]