Below is a copied and pasted version of a paper I published on Academia.edu (here) in which I examine the economic relationship between Tajikistan and the Soviet Union.
The economic relations between the Russian Soviet federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) (the centre) and the Soviet Union’s peripheral republics has frequently been described as ‘colonial’.
Nowhere is this colonial narrative more common than when discussing Tajikistan. The least industrially developed of the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics, there is no shortage of literature describing Tajikistan as a Soviet colony. According to Jesse Driscoll, “Tajikistan was never more than a frontier cotton colony.” Similarly, Robert Strayer describes how the “imposition of a single-crop, cotton-growing economy on large parts of Central Asia during the Stalin years had created a highly dependent, almost colonial relationship with the more developed regions of the Soviet Union.”
The theory of Tajikistan’s de facto status as a Soviet colony is attractive to scholars of Central Asia due to the civil war that engulfed Tajikistan between 1992-97. For decades scholars have debated the various factors that contributed to the outbreak of violence: regionalism, Islamic militancy and the spillover of the war in Afghanistan (one of the most famous mujahideen warlords, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was a Tajik), the overthrow of the Soviet Union, etc. Yet, as Idil Tunçer-Kılavuz notes, none of these factors, collectively or individually, explain why Tajikistan experienced civil war, since all these factors also existed in Uzbekistan, including the existence of a powerful Uzbek warlord in Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, with cross-border connections. “Uzbekistan resembles Tajikistan in many ways,” writes Tunçer-Kılavuz:
Unlike the other Central Asian countries, the territories of today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have long been home to sedentary societies. The literature on Central Asia describes their societies as having been influenced by Islam to a greater extent than the other Central Asian countries. They have similar social cleavage structures in terms of salience of regional identities and the prevalence of Islamic sentiment. Both their economics are based on agriculture. They share the legacy of the same Soviet past, having lived under the same Soviet institutions and policies, and then separated from the collapsed state. Economic factors stated as the causes of civil war in Tajikistan were valid for Uzbekistan as well. Both countries suffered from poverty, and the end of subsidies from the Soviet Union. They had similar social structures, with largely rural societies. A large degree of intermingling between their populations has taken place.
Thus, in an effort to solve this puzzle, Central Asian scholars have sought an answer in the degree to which Tajikistan was exploited as a colony of the Soviet Union. Tajikistan’s ‘cotton curse’ has frequently been cited as one of the primary reasons for the outbreak of violence in 1992. “Soviet economic policy disturbed Tajikistan,” writes Nasrin Dadmehr, and “played a significant role” in causing the civil war. Similarly, according to Nicole Jackson, “many of Tajikistan’s current economic problems, which have aggravated the internal conflict, are largely the result of decades of Soviet rule.”
As evidence of Tajikistan’s colonial status within the Soviet Union, scholars cite how “the Tajik economy retained the essentially extractive character that had marked Central Asia during the [tsarist] colonial period.” Tajikistan was the “most highly subsidized republic within the Soviet Union, receiving almost half its revenues from Moscow.” Consequently, when Tajikistan became an independent state, notes Jackson, the country “lacked food, fuel, and housing for which it was dependent upon Moscow.”
A strong case can in fact be made that Tajikistan, dependent on the Soviet Union for such basic necessities as food, despite being a predominately agricultural republic, and the single-crop nature of its economy, shares many similarities with Egypt and India under British colonialism. However, although it is impossible to deny that Tajikistan was highly dependent on the Soviet Union for food, fuel, and subsidies, and that the Tajik economy, dependent on the production of cotton, was the least industrialized in the Soviet Union, it is nonetheless wrong to characterize this dependency as colonial.
Colonialism vs. Socialism
The Soviet Union was a socialist, not a capitalist, state. This is more than an exercise in semantics, for colonialism, writes Michael Parenti, is predicated on a socioeconomic system “whereby the dominant investor interests in one country bring to bear their economic and military power upon another nation or region in order to expropriate its land, labor, natural resources, capital, and markets in such a manner as to enrich the investor interests,” that is, imperialism. “In short,” writes Parenti, “empires do not pursue power for power’s sake.”
While Tajikistan was industrially underdeveloped compared to the other republics within the Soviet Union (but not compared to actual colonies, such as those ruled by European colonialism), this underdevelopment can be explained by the history of the Soviet Union, the nature of a socialist system and the geography of Tajikistan.
Russia was an underdeveloped, backward, and semi-feudal state when the Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the brutal tsar in 1917. Confronted with almost universal hostility from the Western powers (14 countries invaded the newly founded Soviet Union), “USSR economic recovery and industrialization was a necessary condition to survive, but, could be financed externally by foreign credit and investment only to a minor extent,” Numa Mazat Numa Mazat and Franklin Serrano write. “Despite this difficult situation, Soviet economic mobilization and the adoption of a planned command economic model, in almost autarkic conditions, proved to be successful and USSR became an industrialized power before the end of the 1930’s.”
WWII, which left “left the Soviet Union, especially its western regions, in a catastrophic state of ruin,” writes Mark Davis, once more forced the Soviet Union to embark on an ambitious period of industrialization. According to Davis, more than 1,700 towns and 70,000 villages “had been all but wiped off the map along with around 32,000 factories and 65,000 kilometres of railway track. There were no men, no working machinery and no livestock and the failure of the harvests led to devastating famine during the war but also in the years immediately after 1945.”
Under such conditions, strategic considerations, not colonial exploitation, determined the type and location of industrial development.
Furthermore, as a multiethnic, multinational, socialist state, notes I. Vorob’ev, the Soviet economy was “characterised by the proportional and coordinated development of the system of interconnected branches in the productive and nonproductive sphere, which ensures the effective use of economic resources and the natural wealth of the nation in the interests of improving the well- being of the Soviet people.”
Geoffrey Jukes lists a number of reasons when industrialization might make little economic sense, such as “in a border area, remote from central markets, perhaps vulnerable to invasion, possibly poorly endowed with raw materials, or with a labour force which is difficult to train because of backwardness, language difficulties, or the lack of an industrial tradition.”
An example of such a region was Siberia. In the late 1960s, when the “Soviet leadership intended to deepen the geographic dispersion of the industrial complexes” by relocating some of them to Siberia, extreme cold destroyed 30% of all Soviet trucks, 37% of all the bulldozers, 35% of the excavators, 33% of the tower cranes, 62% of the drilling equipment, and 64% of the tracked prime-movers. Such a costly consumption of human, material, and financial resources was unsustainable.
Considering that 93% of Tajikistan is mountainous, with half the territory situation at elevations above 3000 metres, and shares a porous border with Afghanistan, it was virtually inevitable that most industrial enterprises would be located in more accessible and centralized regions, leading to a certain degree of dependency. “Hence,” Taimur Aza Khan writes, “the notion that USSR intentionally restructured the economy of Central Asia as prime source for raw material rather develop their industrial base is not valid.”
The challenges posed by Tajikistan’s extreme geography notwithstanding, the republic made impressive economic and social gains. As late as 1985, “Tajikistan’s economic prospects could hardly have been better,” notes Isaac Scarborough.
The republican economy had been growing by more than 3% a year, outpacing both the Soviet average and many other countries stuck in the global recession of the early 1980s. Industrial production was doing even better: new factories were opening, older factories, such as the enormous Tajik Aluminum Factory, were expanding, and hydroelectric dams were being built up and down the Vakhsh River. By the mid-1980s industrial growth had reached 5% per year, with the ambitious Rogun hydroelectric dam, built to be one of the tallest and most powerful in the world, taking the lead in both scope and investment.
If Tajikistan was a colony, it is hard to explain how it could have surpassed the metropole and many other countries in economic growth. By all standards Tajikistan, despite its dependence on the Soviet Union for certain basic necessities, was in no way comparable to the status of other underdeveloped, cotton-intensive territories, such as India or Egypt under British colonialism. Many Tajik people remember fondly life under the Soviet Union. One Tajik named Amid described to Alisher Kukanbekov how “surely grateful” they were “to have lived in the Soviet Union. Our lives moved rather slower back then, we didn’t have to worry about putting food on the table. Everyone was equal.”
The relative underdevelopment of Tajikistan can therefore be explained by the nature of the Soviet Union’s socialist system, where the needs of individual republics were subordinated to the whole, and the need for rapid industrialization to rebuild after two world wars was imperative.
National Territorial Delimitation
To describe Tajikistan as a cotton colony not only ignores the Soviet Union’s socialist system of production, which was incompatible with colonial exploitation, but also the modern history of Tajikistan.
Unlike India and Egypt, where British colonialism systematically destroyed ancient manufacturing societies by transforming them into single-crop, cotton colonies for the benefit of British investors, Tajikistan was created by the Soviet Union. Tajikistan came into existence as an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1924, when national territorial republics were established in former Russian Turkestan with the intent of fostering national consciousness and socialist development among the Soviet Union’s national minorities. Five years later, in 1929, the Tajik ASSR was upgraded to full republic status, in independent of Uzbekistan.
The origin of Tajikistan must be taken into consideration when examining the alleged colonial relationship with the Soviet Union. If, as Driscoll writes, Tajikistan was a cotton colony and nothing else, this raises the question as to why Soviet leaders created a Tajik republic.
If Soviet leaders wanted to exploit Central Asia’s cotton, they could have done so without embarking on the costly and time-consuming project of national territorial delimitation. After all, as David Trilling notes, it was the tsar that first exploited Central Asia’s cotton potential, and he did so without creating five separate republics. Uzbekistan, which Tajikistan was originally attached to as an ASSR, moreover, produced the majority of the Soviet Union’s cotton, not Tajikistan. If Tajikistan’s raison d’etre was cotton production, as Driscoll implies, then there would have been little reason to create a separate Tajik republic, in direct opposition to the Soviet Union’s largest cotton producer, Uzbekistan.
Neither does the ‘divide-and-conquer’ narrative explain the creation of Tajikistan. Again, if Soviet leaders wanted to exploit Central Asia’s cotton, they had no reason to ‘divide-and-conquer’ Central Asia. According to Adeeb Khalid, in Central Asia the Soviet Union wasn’t confronted “by a unified, cohesive local society, but a bitterly divided one. Conflicts within Central Asian society were just as important as conflicts between Europeans and Central Asians in the early Soviet period…As historians, we should rid ourselves of the phantom of Central Asian Muslim unity and look at Central Asia as an arena of multifaceted conflict.” For this reason, Khalid argues that “We should therefore be wary of claims of a primordial unity of the people of Turkestan that was shattered by Soviet machinations. Turkestan was quite literally a creation of the Russian conquest, and it encompassed no unity.”
Tajikistan was not created to ‘divide-and-conquer’ subject peoples to better exploit them. Like other national republics, Tajikistan was created, as Adrienne Edgar notes about Turkmenistan, to encourage political stability and socialist development through fostering “national consciousness and incipient national statehood among its [Soviet Union’s] numerous non-Russian minorities.” Thus, the very existence of Tajikistan discredits any claim that Tajikistan was a colony of the Soviet Union. If Tajikistan was never intended by Soviet leaders to be anything more than a frontier cotton colony, then it shouldn’t have existed at all, since there would be no strategic or practical value in establishing a Tajik republic.
Tajikistan was never a colony of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a socialist, not a capitalist, state. Despite its dependence on the Soviet Union for certain basic necessities, there is no evidence a colonial relationship, which is inherently exploitative, existed between Tajikistan and the Soviet Union.
If such a colonial relationship did exist, since Tajikistan was created by the Soviet Union, one should expect the Soviet Union to have benefited economically from the creation of a separate Tajik republic, in direct opposition to Uzbekistan, the most dominate of the Central Asian republics. Yet no evidence exists which demonstrates how the Soviet Union benefited economically by creating a separate republic for Tajiks.
Since Tajikistan, the poorest and least developed of the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics, was not a colony, it follows that neither were any of the Soviet Union’s other, more economically developed republics. It is time, in the words of Adeeb Khalid, for historians to rid themselves of the phantom of Soviet empire.
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Zanca, Russell. Life in a Muslim Uzbek Village: Cotton Farming After Communism CSCA. Belmont, CA: Nelson Education, 2010.
 Nicole J. Jackson, Russian Foreign Policy and the CIS (New York: Routledge, 2003), p.148)
 Robert W. Strayer, Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?: Understanding Historical Change (London: Routledge, 2016), p.163)
 Tim Epkenhans, The Origins of the Civil War in Tajikistan: Nationalism, Islamism, and Violent Conflict in Post-Soviet Space (Lexington Books, 2018))
 Kilavuz Idil Tunçer, Power Perceptions, Networks and Violent Conflict in Central Asia: A Comparison of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (London: Routledge, 2014), p.4)
 Nasrin Dadmehr, “Tajikistan Regionalism and Weakness,” in State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), pp. 245-264, p.249)
 Nicole J. Jackson, Russian Foreign Policy and the CIS (New York: Routledge, 2003), p.148)
 Richard C. Foltz, A History of the Tajiks: Iranians of the East (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2019), p.124)
 Dominic Stucker, “Environmental Injustices, Unsustainable Livelihoods, and Conflict: Natural Capital Inaccessibility and Loss among Rural Households in Tajikistan,” in Environmental Justice and Sustainability in the Former Soviet Union, ed. Julian Agyeman and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 237-274, p.241)
 Nicole J. Jackson, Russian Foreign Policy and the CIS (New York: Routledge, 2003), p.148)
 Michael Parenti, “What Do Empires Do?,” Global Research, September 22, 2010, https://www.globalresearch.ca/what-do-empires-do/21153)
 Michael Parenti, The Face of Imperialism (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), p.7)
 Numa Mazat and Franklin Serrano, “An Analysis of the Soviet Economic Growth from the 1950’s to the Collapse of USSR,” An Analysis of the Soviet Economic Growth from the 1950’s to the Collapse of USSR, accessed December 20, 2019, http://www.centrosraffa.org/public/bb6ba675-6bef-4182-bb89-339ae1f7e792.pdf, p.1)
 Georgy Manaev, “Which Countries Dared to Invade Russia?,” Russia Beyond, August 1, 2019, https://www.rbth.com/history/330753-which-countries-dared-to-invade-russia)
 Numa Mazat and Franklin Serrano, “An Analysis of the Soviet Economic Growth from the 1950’s to the Collapse of USSR,” An Analysis of the Soviet Economic Growth from the 1950’s to the Collapse of USSR, accessed December 20, 2019, http://www.centrosraffa.org/public/bb6ba675-6bef-4182-bb89-339ae1f7e792.pdf, p.1-2)
 Mark Davis, “How World War II Shaped Modern Russia,” EuroNews, May 4, 2015, https://www.euronews.com/2015/05/04/how-world-war-ii-shaped-modern-russia)
 Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Tajikistan: A Political and Social History (Canberra, ACT: ANU E Press, 2013), p.62)
 Numa Mazat and Franklin Serrano, “An Analysis of the Soviet Economic Growth from the 1950’s to the Collapse of USSR,” An Analysis of the Soviet Economic Growth from the 1950’s to the Collapse of USSR, accessed December 20, 2019, http://www.centrosraffa.org/public/bb6ba675-6bef-4182-bb89-339ae1f7e792.pdf, p.19)
 “General Information about Tajikistan,” General Information About Tajikistan (High-Level International Conference on International Decade for Action “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018-2028), accessed December 20, 2019, https://wsdconf2018.org/obshhaya-informatsiya/)
 Taimur Azam Khan, “Uzbek SSR Economic Development: A Colonial Model or Comradelier?,” Academia.edu (dissertation, University of Peshawar , 2018), https://www.academia.edu/38520152/Uzbek_SSR_Economic_Development_A_Colonial_Model_or_Comradelier, p.10-11)
 Isaac Scarborough, “The Extremes It Takes to Survive: Tajikistan and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1992,” The Extremes It Takes to Survive: Tajikistan and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1992 (London School of Economics and Political Science, 2018), http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/3758/1/Scarborough__the-extremes-it-takes.pdf, p.34)
 Kalinga Seneviratne, “As Capitalism Fails in Tajikistan, Older Tajiks Are Nostalgic About the Communist Era,” In Depth News, September 6, 2019, https://www.indepthnews.net/index.php/archive-search/central-asia/2951-as-capitalism-fails-in-tajikistan-older-tajiks-are-nostalgic-about-the-communist-era)
 David Trilling, “Before Uzbekistan’s Cotton Industry Exploded, a Russian General Made These Pictures,” Eurasianet, April 26, 2019, https://eurasianet.org/before-uzbekistans-cotton-industry-exploded-a-russian-general-made-these-pictures)
 Russell Zanca, Life in a Muslim Uzbek Village: Cotton Farming After Communism CSCA (Belmont, CA: Nelson Education, 2010), p.xxi)
 Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), p.88-89)
 Ibid, p. 49
 Adrienne Lynn Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), p.2)