National Delimitation in Central Asia


Introduction by Shoshana Keller

These documents concern the national delimitation of the Central Asian republics in 1924 and 1929; two of them focus specifically on Muslim clergy in the new republics. The delimitation was largely carried out by Central Asian communists who wanted to see modern nations arise from the former khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand.  The very idea of nations implied a radical transformation of identity in the region. Prior to 1924 most people identified themselves by the markers of religion, tribe, or where they lived. After 1924 the Communist Party told them they were now Uzbeks or Tajiks, and that Islam was an oppressive illusion they should be glad to be free of.  The delimitation did not just create new borders and administrations, but new sources of conflict among Central Asian nations and between communists and the mass of ordinary Muslim believers.  These documents provide glimpses of the new forms of conflict.

1)  From O. Karklin to Zelenskii on Kygyz [kazakh] problem in Bukhara (RGASPI,f.62,op.1,d.22,l.83)

The Soviet definition of nations required that a clearly-defined people should live in a clearly-defined territory.  Unfortunately, the different ethnic populations of Central Asia lived inter-mixed with each other.  In the northern part of today’s Uzbekistan Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Tajiks had lived together for centuries.  The act of creating an Uzbek-majority republic in this territory would strand a large community of Kazakhs, who would suddenly find themselves a minority in a land they considered theirs.  In this personal note dated August 25, 1924 from O. Ia. Karklin, deputy chair of the Central Asian Bureau of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist party(bolshevik), reports that the 270,000 “Kirgiz” (Kazakhs) of the Bukharan Soviet Peoples Republic are demanding their own autonomous area within the new Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.  He recommends studying the issue.

2)  Protokol No. 107, Sredazburo TsK RKP. Discussion of current state of borders as the delimiation nears completion (RGASPI,f.62,op.1,d.22,l.84-91)

This September 7, 1924 protocol of a meeting of the Central Asian Bureau outlines in detail the borders of the new Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.  They were not yet making final decisions on everything; in some areas the populations were so mixed further study was needed.  Uzbek and Turkmen communists were arguing fiercely over a number of areas that both groups claimed.  A Tajik Autonomous Oblast’ was being carved out of the former Eastern Bukhara, and there were also border disputes between Turkmen and Tajiks.

3)  Memo from Alekseevskii to Zelenskii, et al. Update on discussions regarding drawing the new borders of Tajik SSR (RGASPI,f.62,op.1,d.552,l.78-81)

This December 10 (?), 1928 secret report from Alekseevskii and OGPU agent D’iakov to Sredazbiuro TsK VKP(b) chair Isaac Zelenskii, Gikalo, and the head of the Central Asian OGPU Lev Bel’skii concerns border security problems in the nascent Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic.  Chair of the Tajik Soviet Narodnykh Kommissarov (Sovnarkom, the state side of the government) Abdurakhim Khojibaev and Chair of the Tajik Central Executive Committee (TsIK) Nasratulla Maksum think that the OGPU does not understand the border situation, where basmachi fighters and other “criminal elements” enter the USSR without fear of being shot.  They want more Tajiks to be engaged in border protection, especially from the Khojent region.  Alekseevskii and Diakov went to the border themselves and found that security organs’ work was “not bad,” but local Red Army soldiers were stealing from the populace.  There’s a big smuggling problem, however, presided over by a wealthy bai.  The OGPU agents have some ideas for action, but clearly do not trust Maksum.  See also Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures: Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016).

4)  Detailed report on the Tajik clergy, including Sufi Ishans (RGASPI,f.62,op.1,d.552,l.159-184)

This is a long Sredazburo report dated early February, 1929, on the state of the clergy and Sufi ishans in the new Tajik SSR.  The clergy’s position had become difficult, especially economically.  Peasants were increasingly reluctant to pay clerical fees, sometimes hiring and firing several imams per year in search of the cheapest one. This increased tensions; clergy were known to beat their fees out of people.  Later sections of the report discuss the many clergy earning fees as healers, tending livestock, and being supported by local farmers.  Some clergy benefited from the practice of khudoi (sacrifice)—a desperate man would vow to give his son or daughter to the mulla if his dire situation was relieved.  The investigators found that “several clerical individuals in Tajikistan have 2–3 ‘sons’ or ‘daughters’ who were given to them, who carry out all the farmwork for these individuals.”  While some ishans wielded wide influence, the numbers of their followers had dwindled.  Many villages had lost their mosques and thus positions for imams.  Some had quit being imams and more fled to India and Afghanistan.  Other clergy resisted with countereducation and anti-Soviet agitation.  In several cases former clergy served on village soviets.  One mulla headed the local peasant union Koshchi and collected “dues” from every individual and dues for two people from pregnant women.  Muslim schools and courts operated in areas where there were no Soviet equivalents, and waqfs still existed.  The document includes accounts of  apocalyptic hysteria: in villages in the Kuliab region thousands of people were gripped by “madness,” refusing to eat, work in the fields, or engage in “personal life” because they believed that the world was about to end. Arresting the ringleaders stopped the outbreak.

5)  On the Kyrgyz and Turkmen clergy (RGASPI,f.62,op.1,d.221,l.213-218)

In this undated OGPU report (probably from 1927) the agents express their fears that the Ufa Central Spiritual Administration (Tsentral’noe Dukhovnoe Upravlenie) was extending its influence into Kyrgyz and Turkmen areas.  Tatar imams organized spiritual administrations in the area.  The Ufa administration is accused of “organizing group religious instruction,” among other things.  The Ufa administration had not been as successful in the Turkmen SSR.  Nonetheless, the OGPU felt that conditions in the republic were favorable for it.  The report describes Turkmen clergy as “feudal-clan bosses,” who wielded influence over the mosque-based clergy and Communist Party officials.  The proof was that four ishans in Merv Okrug had come out of the land reform campaign with more land than they had held before it started.  The report should be interpreted more as an expression of OGPU paranoia than of the actual reach of the Ufa Spiritual Administration.

6)  Note from Pozdnyshev to Mukamilovy about the problem with a protocol, legal action, the "June affair," and nationalities conflict (RGASPI,f.62,op.1,d.22,l.11)

A brief, undated memo, of interest primarily for its language, on the squabbling among local communists.  Is this the earliest use of “throwing shade”?


  • Shoshana Keller