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.

The use of the ‘colonial’ label is ambiguous when related to a system that was ideologically founded on the values of internationalism and anti-imperialism and was employing its ‘colonies’ to promote decolonization abroad and the compatibility between socialism and Muslim societies.[i] This attitude clearly emerged at the Congress of the Peoples of the East held in Baku in 1920 and in the postwar era, when Tashkent – the city of ‘Friendship of Peoples’ – was promoted as a progressivist symbol of Soviet modernity for the emerging Third World. Nonetheless, despite numerous doubts that emerged in the definition of a Soviet colonialism tout court, evident features and dynamics typical of colonial systems are identifiable even in Soviet Central Asia, where Moscow’s authority was enforced over peoples and territories, and fundamental decisions, with at times tragic results, were taken from and in the interests of the center.

Tashkent’s Soviet era monument to the friendship of the peoples was relocated outside of the city in 2008 (photograph from

The Russian – and later Soviet – Empire has often been associated with internal colonialism – a concept that refers to Russia as a self-colonizing political entity (Etkind, 2011; Morozov, 2015). However, the use of this category can be misleading when considering the territorial size of the Russian multiethnic state, the differences between its regions in terms of demography, culture, and geography, and inequalities between areas within a nation-state that segregate the periphery. Besides the territorial continuity between the center and the periphery of the land-based Russian Empire, the differences between St Petersburg and Tashkent can remind one of those between London and Calcutta. Therefore, other categories better suit the case of Russian Turkestan, where phenomena of ‘settler colonialism’ are detectable, with the center favoring the large-scale immigration of Russian – and Slav – settlers to replace the indigenous population in many posts in the party and state apparatus, the cities, and the industries while marginalizing local peoples in rural areas (Houbert, 1997; Morrison, 2016). This trend favored the Russification, annihilation, or incorporation of local identities, and generally the enforcement of exogenous domination. These influxes would be effective until the 1930s during Stalin’s revolution from above, the mass evacuations in 1941-43, the Virgin Lands Campaign in Kazakhstan, and the reconstruction of Tashkent in the late 1960s (Cameron, 2018; Dooley, 2009; Ferrara and Pianciola, 2012; Manley, 2009; Pianciola, 2009; Stronski, 2010). To a great extent, Soviet Uzbekistan was also a context of ‘surrogate colonialism’, inasmuch as during the imperial period the center enforced the settlement of other non-native minorities (such as Ukrainians, Poles, and Armenians), promoted the settlement of “friendship brigades” during the post-earthquake reconstruction of Tashkent, and deported ‘punished’ peoples – such as Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and Koreans (Jolluck, 2002; Scarborough, 2017) – into Central Asia during wartime. Indeed, the war was not just a period of the symbolic inclusion of the Uzbeks into the front against the common fascist enemy, but also a dramatic episode of demographic reshuffle that created greater divergences between the local and alien, the traditional and modern, and the rural and urban populations.

Equally, the ‘exploitation colonialism’ of natural resources in Soviet Uzbekistan – and of local populations proletarized and marginalized in rural areas where an intensive cotton monoculture was imposed during collectivization – was evident. The extractive system exploited the natural resources of the ‘backward’ periphery while defining the closed mercantilist Soviet economy, where Uzbekistan was supplying raw materials to the center – mostly cotton – and reimporting them as finished products and manufactures transformed in the center. The outcome of the Soviet interrepublic division of labor and the specialization of regions was inevitably economic dependence. Moreover, cases of ‘ecological imperialism’ were evident in relation to the conquest of the desert through irrigation, the significant shifts in the ecology of the colonized areas, and the many pathogens related to the imposition of the cotton monoculture as a factor of expansion (Cucciolla, 2018; Obertreis, 2017).

On the cultural level, Soviet colonialism was related to the central claim of the cultural superiority of Marxism-Leninism and the imposition of Bolshevik modernity, progressivism, universalism, and legality that replaced local culture, religion, traditions, and institutions. This ideological imposition from above determined the formation of new hybrid cultures, identities, and communities, as well as the definition of a set of common values and symbols on the basis of which a Muscovite and a Karakalpak could mutually identify themselves as Soviet citizens (Edgar, 2004; Finke, 2014; Hirsch, 2005; Martin, 2001; Suny, 2001).

Although many of these points are shared with Western European empires, the colonial theory presents many limitations when applied to the USSR, where the peripheries and their elites were also active players in the Soviet project. Indeed, one of the main evolutions of the Soviet system from the Russian Empire was related to the level of discrimination and inclusion of locals within Soviet political, economic, and social life. The Russian imperial census of 1897 recorded some 6,891,989 “aliens” (inorodtsy) in Turkestan without citizenship – approximatively 89.22 percent of the population. From the early 1920s, the affirmative action empire established national territories and categorized the peoples of Central Asia into specific nationalities. The Soviet system was doing nothing other than ‘othering’ its Eastern subjects and disclaiming the foreignness (or coloniality) of its rule. Those people recognized as Uzbeks were legitimized as Soviet citizens with the new privileged status of titular nation within their respective republic, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (UzSSR). This peripheral entity was established in 1924 and became the most important non-Slav institutional subject of the USSR, playing the role of primus inter pares in Central Asia. Consequently, the Korenization (indigenization) campaign started to Bolshevize and co-opt local elites within the party and state cadres, an ambiguous inclusion that simultaneously recognized a Sovietized version of national languages and culture, promoted a process of cultural Russification, and turned native elites into mediators between the center and local communities. This process slowed with the new course of centralization during Stalin’s campaigns of terror.

Nevertheless, after Stalin’s death the Soviet leadership transitioned to a more peaceful, tolerant, and decentralized pattern of control over the farthest regions of the USSR; center-periphery relations evolved along the path of neopatrimonialism, where party officials (patrons) used public resources in order to secure the loyalty of local elites (clients). In the context of political stability, a shadow economy, informal politics, corruption, patronage, and clientelism spread across the USSR and became the pillars on which the equilibrium between the center and the periphery was established. Indeed, since the mid-1950s Soviet local leaders ruled their republics in a quasi-autonomous regime for a quarter of a century: Moscow demanded political loyalty and economic results but in return turned a blind eye to internal issues. Consequently, the Brezhnev era maximized the inclusion of local elites within the Soviet project, limiting as much as possible the adoption of centralistic measures and presenting deviations and limits to the application of the colonial category to the Uzbek periphery.

Monument to Sharaf Rashidov in Jizzakh, 2015 (photo by author)

This was evident during the long ‘reign’ of the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan (CPUz), Sharaf Rashidov (1959-1983), who promoted a ‘white monoculture’ to turn Uzbekistan into a ‘cotton republic.’ However, the start of the tenth five-year plan of “quality and efficiency” in 1976 imposed excessive cotton production thresholds on the UzSSR: Soviet planners demanded an annual production of six million tons of raw cotton from Tashkent. Reaching this target at any cost became a matter of political stability, legitimacy, and survival for the Uzbek ruling elite. By this time, the Soviet economy was entering chronic crisis, becoming unsustainable under the weight of military costs, the failures of agricultural policies, and the inefficiencies of redistribution to the peripheries. The Brezhnev social contract was based on self-delusion and self-congratulatory tones while the Soviet system was dramatically floating adrift.

The compromise between the center and the periphery would last until the system entered a crisis of stagnation and needed to be reformed. This leads us to the “Cotton Affair,” an extended period of mass purges and criminal cases that overwhelmed the UzSSR establishment in 1983-1989 and changed the relationship between the Soviet center and periphery. The affair proceeded at different levels, involving some 58,000 people from the party, prokuratura, MVD, KGB, and soviets at the local and even central level. This judicial and political imbroglio linking the falsification of cotton production data and corruption involved thousands of party and state officials in Uzbekistan. It was a symptom of a greater incurable disease within the wider Soviet Union itself, a system that collapsed when the top-down hierarchical order – led by ideology, elite politics, social forces, interest groups, administrators, and bureaucrats – broke down. However, only some of the corruption and other ‘negative phenomena’ revealed in Uzbekistan were directly related to the cotton sector, and many of the involved officials were not ethnic Uzbeks. Moreover, from 1984 the krasnyi desant (‘red paratroopers’) campaign was advanced by the Central Committee of the CPSU in order to heal the situation in the apparatus of the UzSSR. These ‘party reinforcements’ led by Moscow consisted of hundreds of Slavic officials who were ‘exported’ to Uzbekistan to heal the corruption and directly govern the republic by replacing local cadres in key posts. The reversal of the long process of Korenization and the imposition of exogenous rulers among the highest ranks of the republic meant a sort of Moscow trust administration in the UzSSR and potentially the end of the Soviet non-colonial compromise (Cucciolla, 2017).

Visitors at the Mustaqillik monument in Tashkent in 2015 (photo by author)

The end of the Cotton Affair coincided with the rise of Karimov in 1989. The new Uzbek leader promoted his new ideology of independence (Mustaqillik), legitimizing national mythologies, rewriting the historical narrative—through politically-directed historiography, literature, new textbooks, monuments, and museums—and reshaping collective memory to make a clear break with what was now being cast as an awkward Soviet past. Mustaqillik essentially combined a soft (and non-orthodox) nationalist folklore with a rhetoric of Uzbek ‘victimhood’ at the hands of Soviet colonizers, who imposed on the republic ethnic division (such as the progenitor of interethnic clashes in Fergana valley in 1989 and the 1990s), economic planning (which triggered food and consumer goods shortages in the republic after 1989), the division of labor (establishing cotton monoculture and Uzbekistan’s total economic dependence upon it), water and agricultural policies (producing ecological disasters, such as the drying up of the Aral Sea and the salinization and pollution of the soil in Karakalpakstan and the pre-Aral rayons), the imprudent overtures towards Islam during perestroika, and the ‘repression of the Uzbek people’ during Stalinism and in the 1980s, when the Cotton Affair became the last in a series of repressions characterizing a Soviet system portrayed as a continuum from Bolshevism to perestroika. This negative commemoration of the Soviet period within this process of crafting a new Uzbek national consciousness blended the memory of suffering and a general sense of post-colonial trauma.

Nevertheless, in Uzbekistan nostalgia for Soviet times is still relevant, and the Uzbek people remain divided when judging the Soviet experience in general, and the Cotton Affair—one of the most sensitive topics of their contemporary history—in particular. These contradictions—in analyzing an issue that remains sensitive in both Russia and Uzbekistan—are indicative of the complexity of an as-yet unresolved issue. An overall evaluation of the Soviet experience in Central Asia that can be shared by both Russians, (who perhaps suffered the most and invested the most in the Soviet utopia) and Uzbeks (who still struggle to assert a cultural identity separate from the past Soviet experience) remains elusive. Thus, the purpose of further research is to analyze the period of perestroika from the perspective of additional cases on the periphery, defining the other social, economic, political, and cultural elements that characterized the traumatic transition to independent nation-statehood.


[i] Colonialism is still a controversial and potentially sensitive issue in Russian society, which previously developed an antipathy to the very word ‘colonial.’  In contrast, the colonial question was proclaimed without dispute in the imperial era and was restored to the national debate within other former Soviet republics after 1991. This divergence of views is also found among scholars and commentators: many have limited the ‘colonial’ label to the imperial period or the Bolshevik Revolution, when the restoration of Russian rule – the “revolution turned upside down” – defined the last purely colonial episode of Central Asian history: a “Russians’ revolution”. Since then, the colonial dimension of the subsequent Soviet system has been disputed or has been used to refer to very specific aspects, such as the central role of Moscow in forging new national identities or the debate on gender, cultural and social issues (Abashin, 2015; Buttino, 2007; Kalinovsky, 2013; Kamp, 2006; Khalid, 2007; Levi, 2017; Morrison, 2008; Northrop, 2004; Rywkin, 1988; Sahadeo, 2007; Sartori and Trevisani, 2007). The argument is that the ‘colonial’ category for Soviet Central Asia is, to a great extent, misleading (Adams, 2008; Gorshenina, 2007; Kandiyoti, 2002; Khalid, 2006).


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