Category Archives: Soviet Central Asia

Vera Zaporozhskaya – Scholar of Siberia, by Elena Okladnikova, (Herzen University) translated by Richard Bland (University of Oregon)

Editor’s introduction:

This special blog post was translated and shared with us by Dr. Richard Bland, currently a Research Analyst the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, who has translated a wide variety of volumes and materials related to Russian and Soviet archeology, including the biography of Aleksei P. Okladnikov, well-known archeologist of Soviet Siberia.  The material presented here was written by Dr. Elena Okladnikova, the daughter of Okladnikov and herself a Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia in St. Petersburg.

This blog presents an excerpt of Okladnikova’s original biographical article “V.D. Zaporozhskaya: Scholar of Siberia: The Gendered Aspect of a Personal History” – the original Russian version was published in 2017 in Women in Russian Society 3 (84): 80-92, and was translated by R. Bland in 2019.  That full text details the professional biography of Vera Dmitrievna Zaporozhskaya, the wife of Okladnikov, and mother of Okladnikova. Zaporozhskaya was herself a prolific archeological researcher, scientific artist, and photographer, who documented many Russian archeological expeditions in Siberia and Central Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, and who provided illustrations and design for the many volumes published on those projects (several of which are listed here below).  It is important to recognize that while certain scholars were credited for those works, in fact these are the efforts of teams of talented individuals.

We would encourage our readers to consider this personal biography in understanding the rich tradition of historical archeological research in Soviet Central Asia and Siberia, and to read alongside contemporary research on similar Paleolithic sites from Altai to Transbaikal, which informs our understanding of hominid migration across the region.

Kolobova, Kseniya A., et. al. (2020) “Archeological Evidence for two separate dispersals of Neanderthals into southern Siberia.”  PNAS 117(6).

Kuzmin, Yaroslav V. (2007) “Chronological Framework of the Siberian Paleolithic: Recent Achievements and Future Directions.” Radiocarbon 49(2): 757 – 766.

Li, Feng, et. al.  (2019)  “Heading north: Late Pleistocene environments and human dispersals in central and eastern Asia.”  PLOS 14(5).  doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216433

Rybin, Evgeny. (2014).  “Tools, beads, and migrations: Specific cultural traits in the Initial Upper Paleolithic of Southern Siberia and Central Asia.” Quaternary International 347(1).  DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.04.031


Vera Dmitrievna Zaporozhskaya was born (30 September 1912) in Chita, Russia, her childhood and youth was spent in Irkutsk. After graduation from high school in 1928 she entered the Irkutsk Art College, which at that time was directed by the well-known in Siberian artist and teacher I. L. Kopylov, who first noticed her artistic talent. As early as her years of study at the college, Vera Dmitrievna felt her mission was to become a theater artist. She settled into work at the Irkutsk Regional Museum, where her father worked as a glazier. She worked in the museum from 1932 to 1933 as deputy director of the art gallery (Fig. 1). It was in the museum that she met a talented archaeologist, head of the Paleolithic Department, A. P. Okladnikov. Their wedding took place in June 1932. To her mother, who was then staying with relatives in Donetsk, Vera Dmitrievna sent a brief telegram: “Married, bless me, Vera.” [i] (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Personal data sheet of V. D. Zaporoshskaya in the account of personnel. Yakutsk, Science-Research Institute of Language, Literature, and History. (Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017).

Figure 4. V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov. Irkutsk, 1932. (Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017).

In 1933 she went to Leningrad with her husband, who entered graduate school at the State Academy of History of Material Culture (GAIMK) oriented toward “The History of Pre-Capitalistic Societies.” She was able to do much in these years: she entered the Academy of Fine Arts, then went to the school for lab work at the State Hermitage under the direction of the outstanding archaeologist M. P. Gryaznov; she also worked as a laboratory technician at the State Academy of Material Culture (GAIMK). At GAIMK Vera Dmitrievna finished courses for bookkeepers and accountants, as well as learning the art of documentary photography. From 1933 she worked in the Hermitage in the Department of the History of Pre-Capitalistic Society, and from 1936 to 1941 at the Institute of Material Culture. She completed archaeological courses at the Academy of Sciences and received the rank of Junior Researcher. As an artist in those years she helped to design scientific works and journals.[ii]

All spring-summer-fall seasons in the 1930s she and her husband spent on expeditions, organized at first by the Irkutsk Regional Museum, then by GAIMK. The materials from these investigations were the basis of work in the archaeological study of regions for future construction: the Angara, Ust’-Ilim, and Bratsk hydroelectric stations. The archaeological materials obtained were the basis of the books that were written then by V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov. [iii] In 1939 she and her husband discovered the presently world-famous Buret’ site. There they found the unique image of Paleolithic Venus—an anthropomorphic bone figurine in fur coveralls. It was Vera Dmitrievna who sketched the finds at Buret’, drew the plans of the dwellings, and conducted photographing of this unique Paleolithic site (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov at excavations in Buret’, Angara, 1939 (Author’s archive, 2017).

Zaporozhskaya took an active part in field work for the study of Neolithic and Eneolithic burials in the Angara region, that is, in search of the “first Americans,” as called by the American anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička, who met V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov on the Angara in 1939.That is where the artistic talent of Vera Dmitrievna and her sharp scholarly intuition were useful. In those years she masterfully executed the now classic reconstruction of the clothing of peoples of the Angara Neolithic period, included in all the textbooks on the history of the culture of peoples of Siberia. Its reconstruction is a brilliant example of integrated historical-artistic research: in costume are represented decorations of nephrite and mother-of-pearl fangs of Siberian deer, complementing the cut of the clothing, which combined the “Tungus frock” and the Tungus apron (Fig 4).

Figure 4: “Reconstruction of the decorated costume of a female shaman”, found at the burial site, published as drawing #175 in Okladnikov, 1955b.

The 1938 field season, and also seasons of the first post-war years, Zaporozhskaya spent in Central Asia, on the archaeological crew of her husband. The purpose of the work of this crew of the interdisciplinary archaeological expedition of M. E. Masson was the study of the Stone Age. It was in this expedition that the burial of a Neanderthal boy was discovered by Zaporozhskaya and Okladnikov. Publication of this find became the stellar hour in the scientific career of A. P. Okladnikov. In the post-war years Zaporozhskaya took part in archaeological study of the Turkmen deserts, in the discovery of a Mesolithic burial near Kailyu Cave, in the Neolithic “jewelry workshop” near Kuba-Sengir Mountain, and in excavations at Dam-Dam Chemshe Cave.

From 1941 to 1943 she worked in Yakutsk in the regional museum, and then from 1943 to 1945 in Yakutsk in the Science-Research Institute of Language, Literature, and History (Fig. 5). In her autobiography dated to 1945 she wrote that she participated in eleven archaeological expeditions (Fig. 6). On 8 March 1945, by order No. 46 of the Science-Research Institute of Language, Literature, and History, as an artist and archaeologist of the Lena Archaeological Expedition, she was awarded acknowledgment “for good production work.”[1]

Figure 5. V. D. Zaporozhskaya. Yakutsk, 1945 (Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017).

[insert Figure 6.  These expeditions and sites were described in Okladnikov and Beregovaya, with forward by Okladnikova and translated by Richard Bland (2008).

In the 1940s, V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov conducted field work in the Arctic. She spent six years on expeditions on the Lena River. This delicate woman “with a classic figure and long braid”[iv] paddled thousands of kilometers, that is, all the way from Kachuga village on the upper Lena to Tiit-Ary Island on the lower Lena. She learned to manage the sail, to feel the flow of the great Siberian river, to withstand bad weather and the “nizovka”—a treacherous wind that drags the boat not down but up the river. She infused much spiritual and intellectual force into her husband’s major work, Istoriya Yakutii [The History of Yakutia]:[v] she sketched, drew, photographed, made plans of excavations, and kept a field log. She and her husband jointly studied the winter camp of the first Russian mariners on Cape Baranov (Taimyr 1948), where she, as usual, participated in the excavation, was occupied with photo-recording the finds, and fearlessly carried out field processing of the finds while being constantly watched by hungry polar bears.

Zaporozhskaya was occupied with archaeological research in Kolyma and Tadzhikistan (1948), again returning to the Angara and Lena (1951), and working in Zabaikal’e [Transbaikal] (1947–1951). Up to the last days of her life, she was immersed preparing for publication of the large, now classic investigations of the rock art of Siberia and the Far East—Petroglify Srednei Leny [Petroglyphs of the Middle Lena], Petroglify Nizhnego Amura [Petroglyphs of the Lower Amur], and Petroglify Zabaikal’ya [Petroglyphs of Transbaikal]. On New Year’s Eve 1959/60 in the Leningrad apartment on Nevsky Prospect, V. D. Zaporozhskaya inscribed a dedication on the title page of the joint (with her husband) monograph Lenskie pisanitsy [Lena’s Writings]: “This book, Alyosha, I give to you—your inexhaustible creative flame, brilliant thought and boldness. Everything that I did in archeology, all this was done only for you. The pages of this book contain so much that is so dear to me, and to you. Preserve it. Vera. 31/12/1959.” [vi]  These lines can become the epigraph to this article. In them openly and clearly rings the declaration of this bright and talented woman in her love for her husband, archaeology, and sites of the ancient art of the peoples of Siberia.

In the 1970s and 1980s she became one of the leading organizers of the Museum of History and Culture of the Peoples of Siberia, Institute of History, Philology and Philosophy, Siberian Branch, Academy of Sciences, USSR.


Michael, Henry N. 1970.  Yakutia Before Its Incorporation into the Russian State(A translation of A.P. Okladnikov’s History of Yakutia 1950[1955].  McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Okladnikov, A. P. 1955a.  Неолит т Бронзобый век Прибайкалья. Издательство Академии Наук, СССР.

Okladnikov, A. P. 1955b.  Материалы и Исследовании по Археологии СССР.  Издательство Академии Наук, СССР.

Okladnikov, A.P. and N. A. Beregovaya. 2008.  The Early Sites of Cape Baranov. (translated by Richard L. Bland).  Shared Beringian Heritage Program.


[1] Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017.

[i] The materials described through this excerpt are contained at the time of writing in the author’s own archive in St. Petersburg, and are cited here with permission.

[ii] Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017.

[iii] These texts were usually published with Okladnikov as author (e.g. 1955a, 1955b).

[iv] Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017.

[v] Okladnikov’s Istoriya Yakutii [The History of Yakutia was published in 1950, republished in 1955, and was translated into English and republished as Yakutia Before Its Incorporation into the Russian State by Henry N. Michael in 1970.

[vi] Author’s archive, 1980s.

The History of Soviet Anthropology in Kazakhstan, by Rinat Shayakhmetov


In this special post Rinat Shayakhmetov, grandson of the first Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan Zhumabay Shayakhmetov and himself a researcher of Soviet Kazakhstan, presents a narrative history of his uncle Noel Shayakhmetov, one of Kazakhstan’s first scientists working in the field of physical anthropology. Based on his own oral history interviews, archival resources from letters to photos, and museum materials, R. Shayakhmetov presents a personalized account of foundational figures in the field of skull reconstruction in the 20th century, and provides a rare and valuable resource and reflection on the development of this field in Soviet Central Asia (i). In its consideration of the projects, priorities, and lineages of learning in the academy, this piece also speaks to the broader use of physical anthropology in the ideological construction of nationality, cultural memorialization, and the framework of scientific history itself in the FSU (ii; cf Anderson and Arzyutov 2016; Ssorin-Chaikov 2019).


(i) A Russian version of this article was published at Tengrinews:   The full text of the English version presented here was prepared by Rinat Shayakhmetov and published with his permission. All images are also used with his permission.

(ii) We encourage our readers to consider such biographic histories alongside other recently publicized archival materials of the academy such as the expedition notes of Muhiddin Faizulloev in Tajikistan, compiled and translated at Heidelberg University (


David G. Anderson and Dmitry V. Arzyutov. 2016. “The Construction of Soviet Ethnography and ‘The Peoples of Siberia’ in History and Anthropology 27 (2): 183-2019.

Ssorin-Chaikov, Nikolai. 2019. “Reassembling history and anthropology in Russian anthropology: part 1” in Social Anthropology 27 (1). DOI: 10.1111/1469-8676.12628



In the late 1960’s, an idea was floating in Kazakhstan to commission a gallery of portrait sculptures of prominent figures in Kazakh history, made according to the face-from-the-skull [sic] reconstruction method, pioneered by Professor Mikhail Gerasimov[i] and widely discussed at that time not only in the academic community but also by the public at large.

Saim Balmukhanov, Director of the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute under the Ministry of Health of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakh SSR) and a true Renaissance man, was the driving force behind the whole idea. He suggested that the project should start with the reconstruction of the image of Makhambet Utemisov (Otemisuly),[ii] a revered poet-turned-rebel (1804-1846), whose burial site had been discovered in the late 1950s by academician Kazhim Zhumaliev and poet Tair Zharokov, following years of painstaking search for its actual location.

The young Saim Balmukhanov.

In 1965, Saim Balmukhanov met with Noel Shayakhmetov, a forensic expert, anthropologist and one of Professor Gerasimov’s apprentices, and offered him a job at the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, with a possibility to pursue his passion for anthropology.

The young Noel Shayakhmetov (used with permission).

The offer was so tempting that Noel Shayakhmetov took it immediately. Later, he would call the period that followed the happiest and most productive years of his life. Hooked on anthropology since his years in the medical school, he now had a job one could only dream of.

As Noel Shayahmetov recalls in his book “Through the Darkness of Ages” (A Portrait from the Skull),” published in 1969 in Alma-Ata, “in the fall of 1950, I bought an unusual book from a book stand at one of the railway stations on my way home from Moscow. It was about great men of the past. Page after page, it revived the sounds of sword blades clashing, deposed rulers moaning before breathing last gasp, sails flapping in the wind, ship’s cannons blasting, thousands of horses galloping, with ancient towns and villages perishing under their hooves.” Back then, he was a second-year student of the department of general medicine of the Alma-Ata Medical Institute.

N. Shayakhmetov at the Kazakh State Medical Institute, Alma-Ata, 1954 (used with permission).

The book, titled “Fundamentals of the face-from-the skull reconstruction method” and published in 1949, was written by Mikhail Gerasimov, a renowned anthropologist, archaeologist, sculptor, doctor of historical sciences, winner of the USSR State Prize, founder and head of the world’s only laboratory of plastic anthropological facial reconstruction at the Institute of Ethnography of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences.

It took Noel Shayakhmetov several years, however, to pluck up his courage and come to see Professor Gerasimov in his lab in order to confide in him his dream of becoming an anthropologist, influenced by Professor’s book that Noel would always carry with him. That meeting took place in 1957. By that time, he had already gained some experience as a forensic expert. That year, he came to Moscow to spend some time with his father, who was recovering from a major surgery. Zhumabay Shayahmetov, who had headed Kazakhstan in 1946-1954 as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and had chaired one of the chambers of the Soviet parliament (Council of Nationalities of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR), lived in Moscow, after his retirement, with his wife Maryam and younger son Targyn.

Mikhail Gerasimov received Noel well and asked him what he was doing. “I’m a forensic expert,” was the answer. “Very well,” said Gerasimov, “criminologists and forensic experts were the first to recognize my method when I conducted check tests at the Lefortovo morgue in Moscow in 1940-1941.”

Soviet facial reconstruction expert Mikhail Gerasimov (used with permission).

That was how Noel Shayahmetov became a student of Mikhail Gerasimov, followed by years of apprenticeship and collaboration with the well-known researcher, which lasted until Professor’s death in 1970. “Every year, for nearly 14 years, I would come to Moscow to see Gerasimov. He was an incredibly open, patient and amiable man, a true intellectual,” recalled Noel. In memory of his mentor, Noel kept in his library Professor’s book titled “Forensic Facial Reconstruction,” published in1955, with an inscription “To Noel Shayakhmetov with wishes of further success in the field of facial reconstruction. Mikhail Gerasimov, 29 December 1958.”

Following in footsteps of his teacher and under his direct supervision, Noel Shayahmetov completed his first assignments for the criminal investigation department, restoring skulls of missing people. He passed his “final exam” as Gerasimov’s student in 1961 with an anthropological reconstruction of an ancient Uysun (Wusun), currently on display at the Presidential Cultural Centre in Astana. After that, he performed facial reconstruction of Bolatbek Omarov, one of the first members of the young pioneer movement who had died at the hands of opponents of the Soviet regime, and of some other personalities.

“Gerasimov wanted us to realize that ‘facial reconstruction’ was not an artistic but a documental facial visualization of a person, the closest possible approximation to his/her appearance. Defending his method, he had to overcome skepticism of peers and the public. Criminologists, however, were the ones who immediately accepted and used ‘Gerasimov method’, and it passed the test of everyday practice,” recalled Noel Shayakhmetov.

‘Ancient Uysun’ – physical reconstruction by N. Shayakhmetov 1961 (used with permission).

During that period, he pursued his interests in anthropology while working as a forensic expert first in Alma-Ata (now Almaty), then in Aktyubinsk (now Aktobe) as head of the regional bureau of forensic medical examination, and then again in Alma-Ata, seeking a balance between his passion and his main job, which allowed him to at least support his wife and two children.

By joining Balmukhanov’s Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, Noel managed to strike that balance, and so he enthusiastically plunged himself into exciting work, travelling across Kazakhstan as a member of numerous expeditions composed of researchers, historians and anthropologists.

“On Professor Balmukhanov’s recommendation, it was decided to start the work with the reconstruction of the sculptural portrait of a talented Kazakh poet (Kaz: akhyn) Makhambet Utemisov,” writes Noel Shayakhmetov in his book.

Since to conduct the search for and then excavate the poet’s burial site one needed permission from the authorities, Noel decided to ask for a meeting with Dinmukhamed Kunayev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of Communist Party of Kazakhstan, whom he knew since 1942, when he was a still boy. That year, at the age of 30, Kunayev was transferred from Leninogorsk, where he was director of the flagship Ridder mine, to the capital Alma-Ata, where he was elevated to the post of Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (Council of Ministers), on the recommendation of Zhumabay Shayakhmetov, at that time Second Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, responsible, among other things, for human resources development in the country.

Dinmukhamed Kunayev received Noel Shayakhmetov warmly and supported the project. He gave instructions to prepare relevant letters to the Ministry of Culture and to the Guryev (now Atyrau) Regional Party Committee.

In July 1966, Saim Balmukhanov phoned Khairzhan Abisatov, head of the surgical department of the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, who was then at the head of the expedition to the Guryev region, investigating the causes of the incidence of esophageal cancer among residents of the area, and told him that Noel Shayahmetov was coming to excavate Makhambet’s burial site, with all required official authorizations.

With the excavation plan drawn up and the project’s goals and objectives set, Noel Shayakhmetov presented them at a closed meeting of the Bureau of Inder District Party Committee.

The first expedition was a success, and the remains of the poet were taken first to Guryev, then to Alma-Ata, and from there to Moscow. “I continued my work on the sculptural portrait in the laboratory of plastic reconstruction of the Institute of Ethnography of the USSR Academy of Sciences Moscow, under the guidance of Doctor of Historical Sciences Mikhail Gerasimov. Supervising my work on the portrait sculpture, Mikhail Mikhailovich was very demanding and constantly reminded me of the great responsibility that the researcher assumes when offering a portrait reproduced from the skull of a historical figure,” recalled Noel Shayahmetov in his book.

Facial reconstruction of Kazakh poet Makhambet Ustemisov, by N. Shayakhmetov 1967 (used with permission).

While visiting the Museum of Local History of the Atyrau Region, I came across a document titled “Verbatim report of the meeting on the work of N. Shayakhmetov (portrait sculpture of Makhambet Utemisov), held at the Institute of History and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the Kazakh SSR, Alma-Ata. 3 July 1967. Chaired by: Academician A. Kh. Margulan.” Below is an extract from the report:

“Chairperson: Let me begin our meeting. We have one item on the agenda: a documental portrait of Kazakh poet Makhambet Utemisov, reconstructed according to the method of M.M. Gerasimov. We have in Kazakhstan a young and talented student of Professor Mikhail Gerasimov. His name is Noel Shayahmetov. He has studied under Professor Mikhail Gerasimov for the past few years. In addition to the reconstruction of the historical portrait of Makhambet, Noel Shayahmetov has thoroughly studied the history of the uprising, led by Isatai and Makhambet. He talked to elders familiar with historical traditions of Kazakhs of the western part of the country, recorded and researched all the events related to the fate of Makhambet Utemisov and tales about his life and heroic deeds. Sifting through this wealth of knowledge, Noel Shayahmetov has come up with an interesting synthesis, which is of tremendous importance for the cultural life of Kazakhstan.”

Summarizing the results of the expedition, Noel Shayahmetov wrote his book “Through the Darkness of Ages and dedicated it to his father Zhumabay Shayakhmetov. Later, he himself would even serve as a prototype of sculptor/anthropologist Khamit, the protagonist of a short story “The Skull,” written by a well-known Kazakh writer Tolen Abdikov.

In 1967, the appointment of Ilyas Omarov as Minister of Culture of Kazakhstan gave a new impetus to the efforts to create a gallery of sculpture portraits of Kazakhstan’s great men.

During that period, burial sites of some prominent historical figures were identified and excavated: Kurmangazy Sagyrbaev in 1967, Kozy-Korpesh and Bayan-Sulu in 1968 (the grave, however, contained nothing but an artfully embroidered saddle), Koblandy Batyr in 1969.

According Saim Balmukhanov, the burial place of great warrior Koblandy-Batyr was known to Malik Gabdullin, a legendary Second World War hero and later a researcher, who wrtote a Ph.D thesis after the war on the Koblandy Batyr epic. His burial site was found in 1969 in the Kobda District near Zhirenkop.

The chairman of the executive committee of the Aktobe region was very helpful, providing the researchers with housing, food and a biplane for aerial mapping. The warrior’s burial site was seriously damaged in different periods in the country’s history, including during the development of so called “virgin lands”. When the grave was opened, it contained the remains of several men and horses. A complex but exciting work was under way to put together different pieces of a puzzle.

Unfortunately, the passing away, on 19 July 1970, of Minister Ilyas Omarov, who supported the researchers, followed by the death of Mikhail Gerasimov two days later, became a game changer. Balmukhanov and Shayakhmetov started to run into problems and, as a result, the project was effectively suspended.

Under the circumstances, the portrait sculpture of the great Kazakh composer Kurmangazy was not completed in the manner that had been planned, and an anthropological reconstruction of Koblandy-Batyr was not even started. In 1971, Noel Shayakhmetov left for Moscow, where, until his retirement in 2009, he worked in the Blokhin Oncology Center of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.

Later, Noel Shayakhmetov was blamed for keeping, for too long, in his possession the remains of Kurmangazy, Koplandy and Makhambet Utemisov, although, in April 1968, Noel was going to deliver Makhambet’s remains to Guriev, after the completion of the reconstruction and the casting of the bust, as evidenced by his letter to Saden Bissenov, who at that time headed the Museum of Local History of the Atyrau Region. That letter, kept in the museum’s archives, reads as follows:

“Alma-Ata, 14 April 1968

Dear Saden,

Today, they have signed my travel authorization. I will fly to you on 23 April and bring Makhambet with me. I kindly ask you to just stay there and wait for me. I will bring all the documents needed for your bookkeeping office. I count on your assistance and cooperation. After my meeting with you, I’m going to take a flight first to Orenburg and then to Kazan, hoping that I might find in the archives of those cities some documents on Kurmangazy. I have decided to make a half-length sculpture of Kurmangazy, playing a dombra. For that, in addition to the face, the hands would have to be reconstructed as well. To identify the right posture for the future sculpture, I asked the movie studio to assign a camera man to shoot performances by dombra player Kenen Azerbaev. He lives not far from Alma-Ata, in the Kurday area. Hale and hearty, despite being in his eighties, he is still playing his dombra. His physical appearance is close to that of Kurmangazy. I hope that the elder will not object and will agree to sit as a model. Also, to complete his image, I’m thinking of making plaster casts of his hands. To this end, I want to make casts of the hands of all leading dombra players, in particular of Eskaraev, and, of course, of Akhmet Zhubanov. For this project, I need a dombra typical of Western Kazakhstan. Would it be possible to borrow one through you, for a few months? I guarantee its return. It is important that Kurmangazy’s dombra and clothing were reflective of the time. It would be better yet if one could find a dombra that is ninety years old. Attention to all these details is important to create a truthful image. According to my estimates, this work will take some six months. It is possible, however, that changes will have to be made due to various circumstances and as time goes by. We’ll have to see. The editors of the book about Makhambet have returned the manuscript with their comments concerning mainly the history of establishment of the zhuzs (Kazakh hordes), the Bökey Khanate and the uprising itself. That’s the way things are. Dear Saden, once again, I ask you to pick me and Makhambet up at the airport and not to go anywhere. Best regards to all your staff.



In fact, “various circumstances” and “time” did necessitate changes to these plans. The remains of the poet were not brought to Guryev. The Ministry of Culture informed Noel that the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan was planning to build a pantheon on top of the Kok-Tobe mountain in Alma-Ata. Until 1974, the remains of Makhambet Utemisov, Kurmangazy and Koblandy-Batyr were, indeed, stored in Noel Shayakhmetov’s apartment in Alma-Ata and, before that, in our family’s home in the same city, because the pantheon project was put on hold and no one knew what to do next.

The Museum of Local History of the Atyrau Region displays an “Affidavit of excavation and creation of a sculptural portrait of Makhambet Utemisov”, signed by its Director Saden Bissenov and two other museum staffers on 14 October 1975. In particular, it says that “in December 1974, the remains of the poet were taken from Alma-Ata by the Director of the Guryev Regional Museum Saden Bissenov. On 14 October 1975, the remains of Makhambet Utemisov were delivered to the Inder district, through M. Eleuov, head of the Inder district department of culture, for a reburial”. That document contains an attachment titled “Act of Delivery and Acceptance”, signed in Guriev on 28 July 1976. It reads as follows:

“We, the undersigned, comrade S. Bisenov, Director of the Regional Museum of Local History, comrade S. Izmailov, Museum’s Chief Curator and Major G. Arystanov, Chief of the Operations Division of the Headquarters of the Regional Department of the Interior Ministry, have drawn up the following act:

As instructed by the Regional Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, the Regional Museum, represented by comrade S. Bisenov and comrade S. Izmailov, hands over and the Regional Interior Department, represented by comrade G. Arystanov, accepts for temporary storage in the Regional Interior Department:

  1. Bone remains, including the skull, of Makhambet Utemisov (all bones).
  2. Bone remains, including the skull, of Kurmangazy Sagyrbaev (without bones of inferior limbs and left ribs).

Bone remains are handed over packed in two separate metal boxes.

Handed over by: S. Bisenov and S. Izmailov

Accepted by: G. Arystanov”.

The reburial of Makhambet Utemisov took place only on 15 May 1983. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the poet, a mazar (tomb) was built on the burial site, which later underwent reconstruction.

The remains of Koblandy Batyr had to stay in Noel’s possession for much longer because no institution wanted to take ownership of them and the project was put on hold, indefinitely, by the Ministry of Culture. Then events started to unfold dramatically: first, the perestroika, then the dismissal of Kunaev, followed by the accusation of the entire nation of nationalism (no one dared at that time even to mention national heroes and the project itself), the collapse of the Soviet Union, the raucous 1990s and the challenges of the transition period.

Years later, some researchers and journalists, trying to stir up heated polemics about the issue in an attempt to turn the public opinion against Noel Shayakhmetov, found him guilty of every sin that had a name, ignoring the fact that his project had not been a government program, that the official ideology had not encouraged digging too deep into the history of constituent Soviet republics and that the party leader Kunayev and Minister Omarov had known about all expeditions, as well as about all relevant circumstances. Pure enthusiasm and desire to find scientific evidence in support of certain facts of Kazakh history were the main drivers of the entire project.

Some people prefer to build up their careers not on their own accomplishments, through trials and errors, but on finding fault with those who dare to do something their way. Being a sensitive and tactful man, Noel chose not explain all the circumstances around the situation to people who knew little about the project.

It was only years later, when Kazakhstan was already an independent state, that, with assistance of Saim Balmukhanov, researchers Orazak and Ainagul Ismagulova, following extensive preparatory work, delivered the skull of Koblandy Batyr to Moscow to the Mikhail Gerasimov laboratory of plastic reconstruction, where in 2006 sculptors/anthropologists Tatiana Balueva (head of the laboratory) and Elizaveta Veselovskaya reconstructed the great warrior’s portrait. In 2007, an imposing mausoleum was built on his burial site.

It has to be mentioned here that, in 2002, when Noel Shayakhmetov again raised with the authorities the issue of an anthropological reconstruction of 10 Kazakh historical figures, starting with Koblandy, he got an official response from the Ministry of Culture (letter № 04/2020 dated 10 June 2002), explaining that the matter was too complicated and required a special resolution by the Government.

In a conversation with me, in 2005, Noel said, “Although I’m 74 years old, I’m full of energy and ideas. The legendary scholar Gerasimov had just a handful of followers. As for me, there is no one now with whom I could share my experience and skills that I have acquired. An objective face-from-the-skull reconstruction method is a combination of such disciplines as anatomy, anthropology, paleontology and archeology. The Gerasimov Method is a tool for understanding the processes behind the ethno genesis of the Kazakh nation. I wanted to establish a laboratory in Kazakhstan where I could carry out my work and mentor my students, future Kazakh anthropologists. I have a list of 10 legendary names. An anthropological reconstruction of our heroes would have provided historians with an information about their physical appearance, physiology, injuries and illnesses. This issue generates great interest in academic circles all around the world, yet here we sometimes prefer to mythologize our past .The life and death of Makhambet Utemisov is a case in point”.

As for the Kurmangazy project, the manuscript of a book on that expedition and the history of that reconstruction, together with photographs, X-rays, as well as anatomical and anthropological descriptions of the skeleton, was lost, unfortunately, when a journalist from Kazakhstan, whose name Noel could not recall, had borrowed it with a promise to translate and publish it in the Kazakh language. That manuscript was never returned.

In 2006, I had a chance to talk to Galina Lebedinskaya, a well-known anthropologist who had worked in the Gerasimov lab since its opening in 1950 and had become its head after the teacher’s death in 1970.[iii] According to her, “when Noel showed up in our lab, he was so young, so passionate and so terribly shy! Gerasimov liked him immediately and asked me to take care of him. I shared with Noel the results of my own work, especially those related to the mid-section of the face and the nose.”

Physical anthropologist Galina Lebedinskaya, student of Gerasimov, headed the Laboratory of Plastic Reconstruction of the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (now the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology of the Russian Academy of Sciences) after Gerasimov’s death (image used with permission).

I had a chance to pay Lebedinskaya a visit at her Sretenka Street apartment in Moscow thanks to Saim Balmukhanov. Earlier he had shown me volume I of the National Encyclopedia of Kazakhstan, published in 2004. One of its entries, titled “Anthropology”, contained a factual error: the photo of the bust of an ancient Uysun, reconstructed by Noel Shayakhmetov, was captioned as “Bust of a Saka. Reconstruction by anthropologist G. Lebedinskaya.”

Saim Balmukhanov suggested that during my next visit to Moscow I should try to find Lebedinskaya and clarify the matter. I did just that: I called Galina Vyacheslavovna on the phone and introduced myself as Noel’s nephew. She kindly invited me to come to see her. At that time, she was 82. Her big Moscow apartment was filled with books and busts. In the living room, there was a large Rembrandtesque painting, depicting her working on a skull. That slim and dynamic woman of small stature with a keen and intelligent expression was a living legend, well known among anthropologists not only in the former Soviet republics but also in Europe, Asia and the United States. When I showed her a copy of page 230 of volume I of the Encyclopedia, she immediately said that, even though she had indeed worked on Sakas, that particular bust had been made by Noel. Then she asked her granddaughter, also an anthropologist, to copy her reconstruction works on a CD for me.

That was how I met Galina Lebedinskaya. “Physical anthropology is a discipline for enthusiasts, for those who have a passion for it,” she told me. “It is not for everyone. Every morning I would wake up feeling happy that I have that job.”

Later, I came to see her again. During our meetings, Galina Vyacheslavovna shared with me many interesting stories from her practice. The most memorable was the one about the start of their reconstruction work on Ivan the Terrible. “When we approached the table displaying the skeleton of the Czar, the lights suddenly went out and a gust of wind threw open the window. Even though we were all atheists, we could all feel that there was some mysticism to that!”

Noel Shayahmetov spoke highly of Galina Lebedinskaya. According to him, she was Professor Gerasimov’s most trusted assistant and his best student. She perfected his method, first, of graphic and then of sculptural reconstruction. She loved to study X-rays of Egyptian mummies that she would get from the British Museum, and then used them to make graphic reconstructions. During Noel’s visits to Moscow, she would show those pictures to him, since he was a radiologist at the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, and they would spend hours discussing details of various projects. Perhaps, that explains the large number of X-rays he had at home, especially of Kurmangazy and Makhambet. He was writing books about them, working in the archives of Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.

Author Rinat Shayakhmetov listening to the memoirs of academicians                         S. Balmukhanov and S. Zimanov (used with author’s permission). 

During our meetings, Noel Shayahmetov often recalled those happy years of quests and discoveries, hopes and disappointments. Before moving permanently to Moscow, he would come to see his elder brother Ravil (my father) and would tell us stories about the lives of Kazakh heroes. He would, for example, explain why Kurmangazy’s ribs had been so twisted and why Makhambet had limped and describe circumstances of his assassination.

In the newly independent Kazakhstan, the idea to create a gallery of great figures of its past has been revived. Ties with the Gerasimov laboratory of plastic reconstruction have been reestablished and Kazakh archaeologists and anthropologists are increasingly turning to it for advice and guidance.

The project to create sculptural portraits of outstanding historical figures of Kazakhstan, championed by Ilyas Omarov, Saim Balmukhanov, Khairzhan Abisatov, Noel Shayakhmetov and other enthusiasts, represents an initial step in the development of physical anthropology in Kazakhstan. Time will come when that experience will found invaluable and when the country will have an anthropology school of its own.

[i] On the work and legacy of Mikhail Gerasimov see Herbert Ullrich and Carl N. Stephan. 2016. “Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov’s Authentic Approach to Plastic Facial Reconstruction” in Anthropologie 54 (2): 97-107.

[ii] A biographic history of Makhambet Utemisoly may be read here:

[iii] Archival footage of physical anthropologist and facial reconstruction expert Galina Lebedinskaya has been published online here:

Author Interview: The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan, by Sarah Cameron (University of Maryland)

In this second installation of our series featuring those books shortlisted by CESS for this year’s prize, we welcome Nurlan Kabdylkhak (University of North Carolina) who interviews Sarah Cameron (University of Maryland)The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan “examines one of the most heinous crimes of the Stalinist regime, the Kazakh famine of 1930–33. More than 1.5 million people perished in this famine, a quarter of Kazakhstan’s population, and the crisis transformed a territory the size of continental Europe. Yet the story of this famine has remained mostly hidden from view. Drawing upon state and Communist party documents, as well as oral history and memoir accounts in Russian and in Kazakh, Sarah Cameron reveals this brutal story and its devastating consequences for Kazakh society” (Cornell University Press website).

First of all, congratulations on writing an impressive book on such an important topic. Your work and other recent publications have enriched our understanding of this horrendous event that wiped out at least 1.5 million lives in Kazakhstan.  Do you remember how you first learned about the famine in Kazakhstan? What drew your interest to this particular topic and why did you decide to dedicate your dissertation work to this event?

As a PhD student in Russian and Soviet history at Yale, I took several courses on Middle East history. I was intrigued by the themes that I encountered in these courses, and I began to think about how they might be combined with my existing interest in the Soviet field. I then turned towards Central Asia. At that time, a lot of the scholarly work on Soviet Central Asia had focused on Uzbekistan, and many authors used the case of Uzbekistan to generalize about Central Asia’s experience under Soviet rule. By focusing on Kazakhstan, I sought to illuminate some of the differences in how Central Asians experienced Soviet rule. It also helped that Kazakhstan had (and still has) excellent archives. Both the former Communist Party and state archives are open to researchers.

Having decided to focus on Kazakhstan, I spent the summer in Almaty studying Kazakh. While I was there, I began to flip through high school history textbooks, where I noticed discussion of the famine. I was floored that I had never heard of this event. It was a powerful story on a human level, but one that also had immense importance for our understanding of Soviet history.

How does your work on the Kazakh famine contribute to our understanding of broader theories and themes in the historical scholarship? What historiographical conversations do you see yourself to be a part of?

I see the marginalization of the Kazakh story—most overviews of Soviet history only refer to it in passing, if at all—as just one example of how we are still struggling to incorporate the Soviet east into our understandings of Soviet history. Soviet history is often thought of as “European history.” But the Soviet Union was not just a European power. It was an Asian one, too. In the book, I show how further research on the Soviet east might overturn some of our basic assumptions about Stalinism. Most of our models for Stalinism were constructed using examples draw from the Soviet Union’s west. But if we turn to the Kazakh case, we get a different view of many issues, including Soviet modernization, Soviet nation-building and Stalinist violence.

I also see the book as part of a broader literature that seeks to recover the stories of mobile peoples. Part of the reason we have heard relatively little about the Kazakh famine, I would argue, is a tendency to see the violence committed against mobile groups as part of a “natural,” or “civilizing,” process. In the United States, we only need look at our own struggles to come to terms with the scale of the violence committed against Native Americans for such examples.

Young camels on a tether. Zhangil’dy-Mola.  Adai.  Photo by S.I. Rudenko in Kazaki: Antropologicheskie ocherki.  Sbornik II, 91. (Used with permission by Sarah Cameron.)

It’s an exciting time to be publishing the book, as I think that Central Asian history is beginning to become a field in its own right. The book furthers our understanding of the relationship between the nomadic and sedentary worlds, a long running theme in Central Asian history. I also see the book as engaging with the fields of environmental history and genocide studies.

What was the most challenging aspect of researching/writing about the Kazakh famine?

The most challenging aspect of this project by far was identifying primary sources that were not produced by the Communist Party or the state. I found an abundance of state and Communist Party documents pertaining to the famine in archives in Kazakhstan and Russia. But to illuminate the human side of the story in greater depth, I wanted to incorporate sources such as memoirs or oral history accounts by Kazakhs. These types of materials, I felt, would also help me counter some of the biases that can cloud sedentary peoples’ observations about the nomadic world. But these accounts proved to be exceptionally difficult to find. For various reasons, there are fewer types of these sources available for the Kazakh case than there are for other crimes of the Stalinist regime.

Ultimately, the handful of memoirs and oral history accounts that I did find were crucial to my research. Through them, I was able to convey how the famine transformed Kazakh society.

A major goal of your work is to determine the causes of the Kazakh famine. In the past, scholars emphasized ecological issues, particularly the phenomenon of zhut; meanwhile, today historians discuss Moscow’s various policy decisions. Is it possible to establish the single most important factor in causing this event? Or should we talk about the combination of all these factors?

I think the most important causal factor is clear. It was the grain and meat procurements that accompanied collectivization. Without the Stalinist regime’s interventions, there would not have been a famine. A drought in the summer of 1931 then intensified Kazakhs’ suffering. But I don’t know that policy decisions like collectivization can be neatly disentangled from environmental factors. Put another way, this drought was not an independent variable, something for which the regime should be absolved of responsibility. Rather, I show that Moscow had clear information about the environmental risks of nomadic settlement when it moved forward with collectivization. Focused on increasing the production of grain at all costs, Moscow accepted that Kazakhs might suffer as a result.

But while grain and meat procurements were the most important factor, other factors were important too. The first chapter of my book focuses on Russian imperial rule over the Kazakh steppe, which led to important changes in Kazakhs’ diet and migration routes. These changes then intensified the disastrous effects of collectivization. While I would not elevate the legacies of Russian imperial rule to the status of a “causal factor,” I do call them a “contributing factor.”

An aul, with a herdsman on the right.  Kumdoil’, the River Uil.  Adai.  Photo by S. I. Rudenko in Kazaki: Antropologicheskie ocherki.  Sbornik II, 91.  (Used with permission by Sarah Cameron.)

You mention in your book that one of famine’s consequences was the emergence of a new Kazakh identity. How did the famine transform the sense of Kazakhness? How do your findings enrich our understanding of Soviet modernization and nation-making?

In my book, I argue that the famine led to the emergence of a new Kazakh national identity. On the eve of the famine, “Kazakh” was a mixed social and ethnic category, one that denoted an ethnicity but also a way of life, pastoral nomadism. But in the famine’s aftermath, Kazakhs began to think of themselves as a national group.

The crisis embedded nationality as the primary marker of Kazakh identity, and this in fact was a goal of the regime’s “nation-building” project, or effort to craft certain non-Russian groups into modern, Soviet nations. But it did not eliminate alternate forms of Kazakh identity entirely. To give just one example of this pattern, Kazakhs’ allegiances to various clans, transformed by the famine and divorced from their origins in the system of pastoral nomadism, continue to exert an important influence on Kazakh identity in the postfamine years.

The case of the Kazakh famine has important implications for our understanding of Soviet modernization and nation-making. By turning to a region outside the Soviet Union’s west, my book places the issue of Soviet modernization in a different light. In Kazakhstan, the timing and tempo of Moscow’s modernization project was distinct, and Moscow struggled with various environmental factors, such as the steppe’s aridity, that it did not encounter in areas further west. The book also illustrates the extraordinary importance that Moscow placed on its nation-making project, even as it underscores its destructive power. As I show, the Kazakh famine took its peculiarly destructive shape not in spite of the Soviets’ nation-making efforts, but partly because of them.

What are the remaining unexplored aspects of the Kazakh famine? What sorts of research do you see being done in the future on this subject?

One of the big gaps in our understanding of the Kazakh famine is the death toll. It is clear that the number of dead in the Kazakh famine was horrific—the crisis claimed at least 1.5 million lives—but we do not have a good sense of how these deaths break down at the provincial or district level. In the case of the Ukrainian famine, for instance, demographers have done sophisticated work to calculate the number of dead at the provincial and district levels. Not only has their research helped us better understand how famine affected Ukraine regionally, but it has challenged some understandings of the Ukrainian famine’s major causal factors. But this kind of demographic work has not yet been done for Kazakhstan.

Another unexplored aspect is how the Kazakh famine has been remembered in Kazakhstan. I touch upon this issue briefly in the epilogue to my book, but it is a complicated topic, which deserves a full-fledged study in its own right.

As to future projects, much depends upon the climate for research in Kazakhstan. After three decades in power, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president, resigned unexpectedly this past March, and it is not totally clear how his handpicked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will approach the issue of the famine. But I have seen signs that a younger generation of Kazakhs would like to know more about this important chapter in Kazakh history, and I am hopeful that this interest will lead to many new studies in the years to come.

Author Interview: Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan, by Artemy Kalinovsky (University of Amsterdam)

CESS is pleased to present a series of author interviews highlighting the books shortlisted for this year’s prize. In the first of these, we welcome Malika Bahovadinova (University of Manchester and Czech Academy of Sciences), who poses a series of questions to Artemy Kalinovsky (University of Amsterdam) on Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan (Cornell University Press 2018) – thank you to both colleagues for this virtual conversation!

“Artemy Kalinovsky’s Laboratory of Socialist Development investigates the Soviet effort to make promises of decolonization a reality by looking at the politics and practices of economic development in central Asia between World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Focusing on the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, Kalinovsky places the Soviet development of central Asia in a global context.” (from the Cornell University Press website)

I would like to hear more about the idea of decolonization or decolonization/s. You suggest that there are multiple decolonizations in Central Asia, and you specifically look into the second process of the Khrushchev era. It seems that decolonization sometimes means claims on the state and requests for greater equality (or a fairer share of the statist welfare program). On other occasions, it seems more complex. I wonder if there is a relation between the claims to decolonization and the promise of “culturedness,” and if the latter posits a different type of decolonization or at least emancipation from certain ways of being in the world? What would a “good enough” decolonization look like at this particular historic juncture?

First, thank you for these great questions! I should start out by saying that I use “decolonization” not as something fixed or as one half of a binary, but rather as an idea whose meaning was redefined multiple times. The Soviets tried to practice a kind of revolutionary decolonization through a federal system: there would be no domination of one group by others, and every group would have cultural autonomy, but, at the same time, everyone would work towards a shared communist future. Of course this was a very contradictory concept, and this is why we’ve had very fruitful debates in the last three decades about whether or not we should think of the USSR as an empire.

But my approach was to step away from that debate a bit and see what people did with the claim about decolonization, in an era when the USSR was trying to reassert itself as a champion of decolonization in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. And indeed, for some it was mostly a question of inequality or different levels of economic development. For others it was about relative cultural autonomy, including how you represent the past, how much freedom you have in the arts, and so on. What “good enough” looks like depends on whom you are asking and when. I think to many people in the 1950s it looked like economic equality, growth, the ability to write and publish in your own language, the resources to do that, and so on.

Culturedness is one area where it often seems we are not far at all from European style colonialism. The kind of “cultured” everyday behavior –modes of dress, comportment, and so on, envisioned for a modern Soviet citizen was very clearly based on European models. And yet even here we have two crucial wrinkles. The first is that these modes of culturedness were imposed on everyone; it was not a clear case of Russians imposing Europeeanness on everyone else, but rather a revolutionary minority trying to impose a vision of culturedness on everyone, starting with the Slavic peasantry.

Poet Mirzo Tursunzoda and other Tajik writers meeting with dam-builders.  Photo credit Central State Archive of Video and Photo Documentation of the Republic of Tajikistan (used with permission from Artemy Kalinovsky).

But more important for me is that again, the Soviet promise of decolonization creates room for negotiation what culturedness means in different contexts. One of the things we see when we read the memoirs of Tajik intellectuals, for example, is that they clearly have an idea of what a cultured person is, not just in terms of the literature that person knowns but how they behave towards others, and so on, and this clearly is not a carbon copy of what a Russian intellectual might say, although there is some interesting overlap. But what is also clear, both from those memoirs and from the interviews I conducted, is that these intellectuals took the task of passing on this version of culturedness to a wider public very seriously.

While reading your book I also was reading Gramsci’s prison notebooks, and after reading the latter I became quite interested in your analysis of the role of intellectuals. You start your book with committed intellectuals and end it with an analysis of disillusioned cultural and other elites. Reading this with Gramsci in mind and his analysis of intellectuals (as the backbone of civil society and the site where hegemony forms and extends from), I began to wonder what happens when intellectuals lose faith. This is rather a question to Gramsci who talked about the “spontaneous” remit of hegemony (or we can say ideas), but I wonder if you could be better positioned to explain. I was surprised by the sharp contrast between the cohorts of intellectuals, the ones who had faith, and the others who had lost it. What happened in the middle? And how can we explain the shift from hegemonic belief in a state to utter dissatisfaction with it? I wonder how this “spontaneity” emerges or how it is lost? Why did these specific intellectuals stop believing?

I would start out by saying that perhaps the contrast is not really that sharp. First, even the most committed intellectuals who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s saw the Soviet project as something incomplete and requiring work and perfection. And many of the highly critical ones of the late 1980s were still willing to work for a reformed Soviet state. But a number of things happen in between, of course. One is that the many of the economic initiatives that they had championed in the 1950s not only fail to meet expectations, but also have all sorts of harmful effects, particularly for the environment and for health. Another is the engagement with the developing world, and later the war in Afghanistan, which makes (some) people question the claims about Soviet superiority and also think about the limitations of cultural autonomy as practiced in the USSR. But perhaps the most important factor is the way that with perestroika and glasnost Gorbachev encourages a re-thinking of everything that comes before. So much of the pre-perestroika past is presented as a lie that it inevitably leads to a reassessment of whether anything was true. And I think for the harshest critics, like Abdujabor, who you mention later, the answer was no.

None of these things happens in isolation from what is going on outside of Tajikistan – these intellectuals are in conversation with their counterparts elsewhere in the USSR, and of course they know what’s happening beyond the Soviet Union’s borders as well. And that also means that they are responding to the growing nationalism elsewhere in the USSR – especially Russian nationalism, which they see (correctly) as a danger to any kind of equality in the USSR, and Baltic nationalism, which becomes an inspiration for some of them.

What about race? Was it simply not an issue – was not there in Soviet Tajikistan? Or was it there, but not enunciated or present in archival materials and sidelined later by nostalgic memories of the internationalist city?

I think we need to be clear regarding what we mean by race. There was certainly plenty of prejudice, including at the “city of friendship,” Nurek. Sometimes it took on racial overtones, as when Russian workers talked about locals as “blacks;” in these instances differences were seen as biological. But more common I think were forms of prejudice that I would hesitate to call racial; this would manifest itself in construction managers not wanting to hire rural Tajiks because they assumed they would be less qualified, or becomes their Russian was weak. All of these things have been muted by nostalgia, but they come out in the archival records, in interviews, and even journalism and fiction about the period. (I would really recommend Jeff Sahadeo’s work[i], although he deals with migrants in Leningrad and Moscow rather than on relations within the republics.)

A more clear case for racialization of difference can be made, I think, in the way that social scientists talk about the relationship of ethnicity and labor in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. In seeking to explain why Central Asians do not seem to be moving towards industrial cities but staying in the countryside, they start to treat culture as something almost immutable. And although no one ever makes the case that this is biological, I think it comes pretty close.

I really liked your analysis of the “local labour” problem, or, rather, the problem of its im/mobility, as well as how this problem came to be understood in Soviet knowledge production. In your book, Tohir Abdujabbor argues that local labour did not move because industries were built with Russian in minds. I found this expression quite interesting, and from my limited knowledge of the labour “immobility” in Soviet Union, quite persuasive. Claims about inherent immobility often overlooked the role of networks and personal connections in procuring housing in cities, propiska, language barriers in navigating the bureaucracy, and many other structural factors in place making local labour “immobile”. Could you elaborate more on this issue: how can we interpret Abdujabbor’s statement?

I think Abdujabbor confuses effect with intent, perhaps deliberately to make a political point. His point is not just about industries but about the cities; he was referring to the size of apartments, for example. It’s worth pointing out that the idea that immobility was “inherent” only took hold in the late 1970s and 1980s, and even then remained controversial among Soviet planners. Simultaneously there were ongoing discussions about 1) how to make the cities more attractive for Central Asians with large families both physically (the “vertical mahalla” in Tashkent is a particularly interesting example) and aesthetically and 2) about changing the geographic distribution of industries so that people in rural areas could stay close to their extended families and still join the industrial workforce.

A Belaz truck mounted near the reservoir overlooking the city.  Pictured here is Nurullo Shulashov, a local who became a Belaz driver, studied engineering, and eventually became mayor of Nurek. He identified strongly with the dam, and with his former profession.(Photo credit Artemy Kalinovsky)

Of course Soviet planners were largely blind to the questions you mention: the role of networks, personal connections, and so on. But the sociological surveys they carried out showed plenty of other reasons that many avoided coming to the cities, and the optimists tried to address these along the lines mentioned above.

You note in your concluding discussion some parallels between Chinese “hard” development in Tajikistan with the Soviet commitment to social and cultural transformation in the process of development. There is an implicit critique of the former, it seems, because there is no “commitment” to Chinese development today. It would be curious to hear more about this “commitment.” In your depiction of Nurek and Nurek’s local and migrant labour there is something of a missionary-style assumption of local backwardness, which needs to be overcome: the necessity of older brothers who need to be imported and thus bring quite colonial overtones to the Soviet aid. In the Chinese case, couldn’t cash transfers (and other “hard” development) be beneficial to people without the extended statist or developmental bureaucracies? If Chinese money builds infrastructure, why ought it to have a moral agenda along the way? Why is there a need for social transformation?

I think this is a very good question, and of course it cuts to more fundamental problems with the whole notion of development. I should say that I have not studied the question myself, and the things I say in the conclusion to the book are based on observations made in the 2011-2015 period. But the first question is who gets to benefit from these projects, and who gets a say in what benefiting from these projects means? My sense is that in the case of Chinese projects, which is carried out by Chinese companies using Chinese laborers, the benefits to locals are often unclear (although Irna Hofman has found some interesting nuances at least as far as agriculture is concerned[ii]).

I would say it was precisely because the Soviets had an explicit agenda that it was possible to challenge projects, to reshape them, at the very least to make sure they benefited local people in some way. We see this at Nurek when local villagers demand to get access to water, or roads, or other things that dam builders never thought they would have to think about. And when they mobilize local workers (which, again, is part of the agenda of social transformation) those workers also become spokespeople for their communities. When the USSR undertook projects without commitment to social transformation, for example in its various closed cities, this kind of engagement did not happen.

The PRC, I think, would claim to be less colonialist because it does not impose moral conditions on the governments they partner with, but they are engaged in extractive work with the benefits primarily going to Chinese companies and local political and economic elites, which to me is a very solid definition of colonialism, if not the only one.

Cash transfers are really intriguing, because they really do seem to get rid of paternalism all together, and this is one of the reasons we’ve seen even people like James Ferguson come out as cautious supporters. But the danger with cash transfers, as with Universal Basic Income, is that the government steps back from responsibilities for maintaining equality. Suppose the prices for services or rent or food go up? Will the government (or donor agency) increase cash transfers to compensate? What if wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of a few, who consolidate their control of political and economic life? What are the mechanisms to challenge this political and economic inequality? You could see cash transfers actually have a de-politicizing effect, where the recipients are treated like consumers who are given the choice on how to spend money, but no real citizenship.

[i] Sahadeo, Jeff. Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow. Cornell University Press, 2019.

[ii] Hofman, Irna. Cotton, control, and continuity in disguise: The political economy of agrarian transformation in lowland Tajikistan. Diss. Leiden University, 2019.

The Cotton Republic: Colonial Practices in Soviet Uzbekistan? by Riccardo Mario Cucciolla, Higher School of Economics (HSE)

The history of modern Uzbekistan is inexorably linked with Russian colonialism and the evolution of the Soviet system. This Central Asian territory was the last frontier of Russian imperialism before becoming the Soviet periphery par excellence. In the 1860s, the Russian Empire expanded towards Transoxiana in order to compete with British influence in the region, create a captive market for Russian manufactures, develop trade, and secure a source of cotton. Indeed, since the imperial era, this latter element, one characteristic of the history of modern industry, has been the pivot on which center-periphery relations were based in political, economic, military, and social terms, defining the colonial ties between Moscow and Tashkent. This was a relationship that, in different forms, would last until 1991.

Continue reading The Cotton Republic: Colonial Practices in Soviet Uzbekistan? by Riccardo Mario Cucciolla, Higher School of Economics (HSE)