Monday, 11 December 2017

“Away from Moscow”: a battle against provincialism in Soviet Ukrainian literature

Olena Palko

In March 1924, a Moscow best-selling author Boris Pil’niak was invited to a literary evening in Kharkiv. Pil’niak was well-known in Ukraine. His recently published novel Golyi God [Naked Year] was highly-praised by both young revolutionary writers and admirers of Russian modernism. Moreover, it created a real fashion on Pil’niak, when a great number of imitators started copying his ornamental style and highly metaphorical use of language. At the same time, some contemporary authors were not considered original only because their style reminded the critics of that of Pil’niak. This was the case of perhaps the most prominent Ukrainian revolutionary writer, Mykola Khvyl’ovyi, who was often called the “Ukrainian Pil’niak”.


Boris Pil’niak (1894-1938)
Source: WikiCommons


Mykola Khvyl’ovyi (1893-1933)
Source: WikiCommons

In fact, it was Khvyl’ovyi’s idea to invite Pil’niak to the Soviet Ukrainian capital. The literary evening was organised in such a way that Pil’niak could present his latest prose and the Ukrainian writers could introduce their Russian fellow to the literary developments in the Soviet republic. The event, however, finished with a scandal. The Ukrainian audience did not appreciate Pil’niak’s prose. From their perspective, it was simply not revolutionary enough. Khvyl’ovyi prepared a scathing review of the event, which was published shortly thereafter in the literary supplement to the official newspaper Visti VUTsVK. In the review, he called Pil’niak nothing but “a bard of a moribund noble estate”. 1 Khvyl’ovyi also disclosed the intentions behind the invite of the Russian writer to Kharkiv. According to him, the literary evening was intentionally organised to show Pil’niak that Kharkiv was not a Russian (russkaia) province, but the capital of a separate Soviet republic. In a private correspondence from around the same time, Khvyl’ovyi explained that writers in Kharkiv took a militant stand against all “the brazen fellows Mayakovskys […] and all the dandies from the Moscow bohemia”, who denied the existence of Ukrainian literature.2


A Letter from Mykola Khvyl’ovy to Mykola Mohylians'kyi (Kharkiv, April-May, 1924).
Source: The Institute of Manuscripts of the Vernads'kyi National Library of Ukraine


There are at least two considerations that make this mere literary episode important for the study of the early Soviet history in Ukraine. The first one concerns cultural development, while the second refers to the complicated centre-periphery relationship within the Soviet Union. In the mid-1920s, Khvyl’ovyi became widely engaged in the public debate over the future of Ukrainian Soviet literature and culture. The so-called Literary Discussion continued incessantly for almost three years between 1925 and 1928, and at different times involved the most prominent artists and politicians in Soviet Ukraine and Moscow, including Stalin himself. Regarded as the “last free debate” in Soviet Ukraine, 3 the Literary Discussion empowered the Soviet Ukrainian elites to voice their concerns on the status of their republic, on the one hand, and exposed the limits of the central control over the cultural sphere, on the other.

Khvyl’ovyi was probably the most prolific disputant in the Literary Discussion. 4 His main concern was how to make Soviet Ukrainian literature original and self-sufficient. From the Moscow perspective, little had changed since the imperial times, when the Russian capital was the centre of cultural trends, which were copied by, or brought down to the peripheries. Accordingly, Khvyl’ovyi as the “Ukrainian Pil’niak” represented the ‘small’ Ukrainian literature, which was subordinate to the ‘great’ Russian one. Well-aware of this comparison, Khvyl’ovyi resented it bitterly and reacted aggressively.

Instead, Khvyl’ovyi and his milieu regarded the 1917 revolution as a cardinal shift on the artistic map, which would finally enable independent cultural production. To succeed, however, Soviet Ukrainian culture needed first to become independent from the “Russian conductor”.5 Khvyl’ovyi questioned: “By which of the world’s literatures should we [Soviet Ukrainian writers] set our course?” He immediately provided a definite and unconditional answer: “On no account by the Russian. [...] Ukrainian poetry must flee as quickly as possible from Russian literature and its styles.”6

From Khvyl’ovyi’s perspective, this extreme attitude towards Russian culture was well justified. There was simply nothing new for Soviet Ukrainian literature to learn from the Russian one. Firstly, as stated, Russian literature had already exhausted itself during its golden age in the nineteenth century. In addition, even its best examples could offer no positive or useful role-models for a post-revolutionary audience. According to Khvyl’ovyi, the inherent feature of the Russian great literature was “passive pessimism”, represented through “superfluous people, […] parasites, dreamers, people without any given responsibility, whimperers, grey little people of the twentieth rank.” 7 Instead, new revolutionary literature was meant to propagate the value of a civic person and an active citizen, who was ready to take over responsibility and contribute to the Soviet society.


The first issue of the almanac Vaplite, initiated by Mykola Khvylovyi in 1926.
Source: Khvyl'ovyi, Mykola. Tvory v P''iatiokh Tomakh (New York-Baltimore-Toronto: Smoloskyp, 1983), Vol. 4, p. 236

Secondly, Khvyl’ovyi thought little of Russian contemporary literature. Well-aware of the literary tendencies in Moscow, he was highly critical of the proletarian writers, who were united in the literary groupings of the Proletkult, the Smithy (Kuznitsa), the Octobrists, and On the Guard (Na Postu). Similarly, as seen from his reception of Pil’niak, Khvyl’ovyi was sceptical of Russian fellow-travellers (poputchiki). Overall, he considered the new Soviet capital as a centre of “all-Union Philistinism”, a hotbed of bureaucracy and perverted revolutionary slogans. Unlike Petersburg or Kharkiv, Moscow “essentially never saw the October revolution and its heroic struggle.” 8 So, Moscow, which itself had borrowed the proletarian ethos, could not kindle and sustain the belief in the future of communism.

In contrast, Khvyl’ovyi had high hopes for Ukrainian revolutionary literature. He was convinced that the revolution had initiated a distinct literary current, which he defined as romantic vitaism [from vita – Lat. life]. He believed that Ukrainian literature was able to completely divorce from the Russian tradition. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s backwardness was no news to him. He often described Ukraine as a ‘khokhliandia’ (derived from ‘khokhol’, a pejorative exonym widely used to denominate Ukrainians), “classic country of cultural epigonism”, of “servile psychology,” and full of “sluggish artists capable only of repeating what has already been gone before, of aping”. 9

To overcome this cultural backwardness, Ukrainian writers needed to change their cultural orientation and learn from the best examples. These could be offered by “Europe”. Khvyl’ovyi, however, did not just wish to change “the conductor”. As explained:

“When we steer our course toward Western European literature, it is not with the goal of yoking our art to some other wagon bringing up the rear, but with the aim of reviving it after the asphyxiating atmosphere of backwardness. We will travel to Europe to study, but with a secret idea – after several years to burn with an extraordinary flame.” 10


Ukrainian writers, members of the Free Academy of Proletarian Literature (Vil'na Akademiia Proletars'koï Literatury, Vaplite), Kharkiv 1926
Source: The Online Encyclopaedia of Ukraine


In the course of the Literary Discussion, Khvyl’ovyi and his followers quickly realised that a separate cultural tradition in Ukraine could only be possible if the centre-periphery relationship within the Soviet Union were redefined. So, they started challenging Soviet political and economic centralisation. In March 1926, in the last essay of the series Apolohety Pysaryzmu [Apologists of Scribbling] Khvyl’ovyi openly demanded political autonomy for Ukraine. He explained:

“Of course, the development of culture is “dictated by economic relations.” But the point is precisely that these relations are not at all “the same in both countries.” […] In a word, the Union nevertheless remains a Union and Ukraine is an independent entity. [...] Under the influence of our economy, we are applying to our literature not ‘the Slavophile theory of originality,’ but the theory of Communist independence. [...] Is Russia an independent state? It is! Well, in that case we too are independent.”11

Needless to say, Khvyl’ovyi’s views quickly attracted attention of the central party leadership. Khvyl’ovyi, a member of the Bolshevik party since 1919, was crossing the line. In April 1926, Stalin addressed the views of “a noted Communist” Khvyl’ovyi in his letter to Lazar Kaganovich, the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party. The letter read:

“At a time when the proletarians of Western Europe and their Communist Parties are in sympathy with ‘Moscow,’ this citadel of the international revolutionary movement and of Leninism; at a time when the proletarians of Western Europe look with admiration at the flag that flies over Moscow, the Ukrainian Communist Khvilevoy has nothing better to say in favour of ‘Moscow’ than to call on the Ukrainian leaders to get away from ‘Moscow’ ‘as fast as possible’. And that is called internationalism! What is to be said of other Ukrainian intellectuals, those of the non-communist camp, if Communists begin to talk, and not only to talk but even to write in our Soviet press, in the language of Khvilevoy?”12

Stalin’s criticism initiated a campaign against Khvyl’ovyi and his literary circle. At the 1926 party plenum, Khvyl’ovyi was accused of promoting the views of “the Ukrainian petite intelligentsia”, of advocating “a bourgeois restoration” of Ukraine and its orientation towards a capitalist Europe, and of “distancing from the fortress of the international revolution, the capital of the USSR, Moscow”. 13 These views were linked to the weaknesses of his proletarian consciousness. As explained by Volodymyr Zatons’kyi: “one cannot be born a Bolshevik, instead one becomes a Bolshevik. Out of Khvyl’ovyi and Khvyl’ovyis we should harden communists […] we should train people, who are useful for the revolution, who would not spread the poison of disbelief and liquidationism, but who would instead help the proletariat in its arduous everyday battle.” 14

On the last day of the party plenum, Khvyl’ovyi was given a chance to explain himself. Yet he fully accepted the party criticism:

“I can see that some of my points were somewhat exaggerated. However, I believe that there were also some grains of truth. […] Nonetheless, if the entire Plenum thinks I’ve got mistaken, then I should acknowledge my errors and stop. First of all, I am a disciplined member of the Party.” 15

It is interesting that even at the time of the fiercest critique, Khvyl’ovyi did not see a contradiction between his national position and party affiliation. Indeed, he was convinced that Ukraine was a separate state. In 1924, Khvyl’ovyi invited Pil’niak to prove that Kharkiv was not a province, but another Soviet capital. Two years later in his censored pamphlet Ukraїna chy Malorosiia [Ukraine or Little Russia?], he declared that

“We are indeed an independent state whose republican organism is a part of the Soviet Union. And Ukraine is independent not because we, communists, desire this, but because the iron and irresistible will of the laws of history demands it, because only in this way shall we hasten class differentiation in Ukraine.” 16

At the same time, he never doubted his party membership. In a private letter to his close friend Mykhailo Ialovyi dated from 7 February 1928, Khvyl’ovyi refuted any rumours about his political dissent: “I not only was not thinking of giving back my party card, but I will appeal to Stalin himself if anyone should think to take it from me.” 17 It seems that Khvyl’ovyi himself did not regard his views as a deviation from the party line. Instead, he represented the Ukraine-minded faction in the Communist party, which saw no contradiction between being Ukrainian and Soviet at the same time. This faction continuously and successfully attempted to reorganise the power relationship in the Soviet Union and ensure a separate cultural development of Soviet Ukraine. It only ceased to exist after the Stalin’s Great turn of 1928/29 and forcible centralisation of the Communist party and the Soviet Union.


Olena Palko is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Researcher at Birkbeck College, University of London


1. Mykola Khvyl'ovyi, “Pil'niak, ‘Slovobludie’ i ‘Niekii’ Retsensent,” Kul'tura i Pobut, 11 (1924), p. 3
2. Mykola Khvyl'ovyi, “Lysty”, Spadshchyna. Literaturne Dzhereloznavstvo. Vol. VIII (2013), p. 251.
3. George Luckyj, Literary Politics in the Soviet Ukraine, 1917–1934 (Durham-London, [1956] 1990), pp. 92-93
4. Mykola Khvylovy, The Cultural Renaissance in Ukraine (Edmonton, 1986); Mykola Khvyl'ovyi, Tvory v P''iatiokh Tomakh (New York-Baltimore-Toronto, 1978-1986).
5. Khvylovy, Apologists of Scribbling, in Khvylovy, Cultural Renaissance, p. 222.
6. ibid.
7. Khvylovy, Ukraine or Little Russia, in Khvylovy, Cultural Renaissance, p. 229.
8. ibid, pp. 228-229.
9. Khvylovy, Thoughts against the Current, in Khvylovy, Cultural Renaissance, p.124.
10. Khvylovy, Apologists of Scribbling, pp. 223-224.
11. ibid, p. 222
12. TsDAHO, F.1, op.20, Spr. 2248; On Khvyl'ovyi, ark.1-7; For English translation see: Luckyj, Literary Politics, pp. 66-68.
13. A. Leites, M. Iashek Desiat' Rokiv Ukraїns'koї Literatury (1917-1927) (Kharkiv, 1928), vol. II, p. 300
14. TsDAHO, F.1, op. 1, spr. 208, ark. 45.
15. TSDAGO, F. 1, Op. 1, Spr. 208, Ark. 79-zv. - 80-zv.
16. Khvylovy, Ukraine or Little Russia, p. 227.
17. HDA SBU, Sprava-Formuliar C-183, ark.19.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Research in Progress: Remembrance of World War II in Russia and Kyrgyzstan

Vicky Davis

Exactly a year ago, a new war film hit Russian cinema screens. Dvatsat’ vosem’ panfilovtsev (Panfilov’s 28) tells the story of a handful of outnumbered Red Army guardsmen who make a stand against a German tank battalion closing in on Moscow on 15–16 November 1941.[i] In an heroic act of self-sacrifice, they destroy 18 tanks while paying the ultimate price.

This David and Goliath film is just one indicator of the war cult prevalent across Russia under President Putin. Under the current memorial climate, the Great Patriotic War (1941–45) has become both an existential narrative of Russia’s national identity and a metaphor for national unity as, more than ever, the state is staking a firm claim to ownership of war memory, as in the Brezhnev years. A black and white example of the forces of good against evil, Panfilov’s 28 is overtly supportive of the national war myth with its unquestionable heroes martyred in the defence of the Fatherland in the face of the fiendish enemy threatening its very existence. 

This is an updated version of the 1967 film Za nami Moskva (Moscow is Behind Us), which appeared during the war cult of the Brezhnev era.[ii] The new film retells the story of an exploit which was widely reported during the war to boost the morale of the population. This myth was so powerful that it was taught in school history lessons in the postwar years. Streets, schools and villages were named after the heroic riflemen, monuments erected to them, and more than one book written about their courageous stand. Its heroes became a legend.

I knew that this film would be useful for my research project on myth making even before it was released.[iii] By sheer coincidence, the first opportunity I had to buy it was in Bishkek, where it took quite a lot of searching to track it down; locals simply had not heard of it. This in itself was strange, as Panfilov’s regiment was formed largely from troops mobilised in the Soviet Union’s central Asian south, thousands of miles from where they eventually met their death in the defence of Moscow. Why, then, is the film evidently not so popular in Kyrgyzstan as in Russia, where its production was partly financed by crowd-funding, presumably from the younger generation who are more comfortable with transferring money via the internet and who are literally buying into war memory in this way?

Apparently, remembrance of the war is less significant in Kyrgyzstan than in Russia. As the 75th anniversary of the end of the war approaches, ‘eternal’ flames in towns and villages are starting to die out. Where they are tended, they are not always the mandatory focus of respect as in the Soviet days: citizens of Bishkek have even been caught frying eggs and baking potatoes in the flame of the central war memorial.[iv] This would certainly never happen in Russia, where any such culprits would probably eat their next meal in custody. 

Despite this, an unmissable statue to General Panfilov still stands in the centre of Bishkek’s Panfilov Park, while all 28 riflemen are commemorated in Almaty in Kazakhstan.


In the regional centre of the Issyk Kul’ district of Kyrgyzstan, details of five local members of Panfilov’s 28 are retained in the archives, their images dusted off and proudly brought out on display for the Victory Day season in May. Of especial interest is young rifleman Anan’ev, whose home village on the banks of Lake Issyk Kul’ was renamed in his memory. There, a giant Soviet mural recalls the exploit of all Panfilov’s men who died during that action in November 1941, just off the beaten track and obviously not tended as well as their more prestigious general.



These men were all made posthumous Heroes of the Soviet Union as the event was mythologised in Soviet history. This is the reason given by writer and director Andrei Shal’opa for wanting to make the film in the first place. However, during the lengthy filming process, archival evidence came to light suggesting that, although such a skirmish had indeed taken place, not all the Soviet soldiers had died. It appears that the encounter had been exaggerated at the time in a report by Krasnaia zvezda war correspondent Vasilii Koroteev.[v] Although Koroteev was probably doing his duty within the unspoken guidelines of the times to seek out examples of Soviet heroism in order to boost public morale, an investigation in 1948 into the incident proved that the whole affair had been wildly over-inflated. The findings of the investigation were, however, suppressed by the authorities in order to maintain the popular myth which had by then developed.[vi]

Fast forward to today, when transparency is still apparently an issue in Russia. Shal’opa protested against mounting criticism of the resurrected myth by attacking those who seek to debunk instances of accepted national heroism, which in his view only serves ‘to weaken the people’s moral foundation’.[vii] According to the director, it is dangerous to pull the carpet out from under this widespread myth, a mainstay of Russian cultural heritage and the nation’s identity. Although Shal’opa recognises that the action is not strictly speaking historically true, he claims that the basic facts remain relevant: that the incident actually took place and real, heroic people definitely died.[viii] Accordingly, he has creatively reworked this longstanding myth to explore the nature of idealised patriotism as the Russian state wishes to see it disseminated today.

My current research examines the impact and legacy of World War II in the countries of Central Asia. This film is a timely example of the different attitudes to war memory in Russia and the former peripheral Soviet republics. I have found that in Kyrgyzstan memory of the war has been eroded substantially as the history of the twentieth century has been revised since independence in favour of events promoting nationalistic pride rather than a distant conflict under the flag of the former Soviet Union. Here is a problem for families of veterans and war heroes, whose genuine courage may seem devalued with respect to that of their Russian counterparts.


An opposite mnemonic bias is evident in Russia. State sponsorship and endorsement by the president and minister of culture demonstrate the film’s utility in developing Russian national pride today.[ix] But it is notable that the film’s cast includes relatively few Asian faces; just like the ghostly figures re-emerging in the final scenes, only shadows of Panfilov’s 28 live on in their home country.


Vicky Davis is an author and independent researcher. Her latest book is Myth Making in the Soviet Union and Modern Russia: Remembering World War Two in Brezhnev's Hero City.



[i] Andrei Shal’opa, Dvatsat’ vosem’ panfilovtsev, Libyan Palette Studios: St Petersburg, 2016.
[ii] Mazhit Begalin, Za nami Moskva, USSR: Kazakhfil’m, 1967.
[iii] Vicky Davis, Myth Making in the Soviet Union and Modern Russia, London: IB Tauris, 2017.
[iv] ‘Kyrgyz Authorities Looking For Men Seen Roasting Potatoes On Eternal Flame’, Radio Free Europe, 6/12/2016, [accessed 09/11/2017].
[v] Vasilii Koroteev, ‘Zaveshchanie 28 pavshikh geroev’, Krasnaia zvezda, 28/11/1941, p. 1.
[vi] ‘Russian archives cast doubt on legends of Soviet war heroes’, The Moscow Times, 09/07/2015, [accessed 15/11/2016]; Shaun Walker, ‘Russian war film set to open amid controversy over accuracy of events’, theguardian, 23/22/2016, [accessed 23/11/2016]; and ‘Panfilov’s 28 Men: Is Russian war movie the whole story?’, BBC, 24/11/2016, [accessed 27/11/2016]. 
[vii] Andrew Pulver, ‘Russian film about disputed wartime action wins Putin’s support’, 11/10/2016, The Guardian, [accessed 11/10/2016]. 
[viii] Elena Kostomarova, ‘Rezhisser fil’ma "28 panfilovtsev": "otstupat’ nekuda”’, 16/11/2014, Argumenty i fakty,  [accessed 11/10/2016]. 
[ix] Andrei Shal’opa, Dvatsat’ vosem’ panfilovtsev, Lenfil’m, 2016, [accessed 11/10/2016]. Harry Bone, ‘Putin backs WW2 myth in new Russian film’, BBC, 11/10/2016, [accessed 11/10/2106].

Monday, 25 September 2017

"Bridging Central Asian and Caucasus Area Studies” at the ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference in Bishkek, Kyrgystan


Timothy Blauvelt, Ilia State University and American Councils for International Education, 
Tbilisi, Georgia



After the panel...  Timothy Blauvelt, Alexander Morrison and Donnacha O Beachain 

Central Asia and the Caucasus share much in common:  a Eurasian heritage in the liminal space between great cultures and language families; the experience as both conquerors and conquered in regional empires, ancient and modern; and conditions and challenges of post-Soviet transformation. Yet the two regions tend to be separately compartmentalized, especially in scholarship and their respective area studies traditions. In the first of two round tables that I organized to discuss this topic (the second will be held at the CESS Annual Conference in Seattle in October 2017), four international scholars who teach about and have conducted research in both regions gathered to contribute their views.

As somebody who has conducted and published research on both Central Asia and the Caucasus, Donnacha O Beachain of Dublin City University started by questioning the degree to which the concept of “regions” is meaningful for each of these areas, as the countries within them are often very different from one another. Azerbaijan, for example, has more in common in many respects with several of the countries of Central Asia than it does with other countries in the Caucasus, such as personality cults, the rise in Islamic religious sentiment, and its Turkic language. Donnacha continued by highlighting several areas in which useful comparisons can and have been made across the regions, such as  studies of economic models and oil resource, political regime types, especially hybrid and semi-authoritarian types, methods of manipulations of elections, and the geopolitical orientations of various countries and the pull between Russia and Europe. Such comparisons are rarely made, he concluded, and scholars of both regions lack engagement with one another.

The historian Alexander Morrison, currently at Nazarbayev University, focused his comments on the shared experience of Russian and Soviet colonialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia that arose during the course of his research. In particular, the experience of the Caucasus wars had a profound impact on the conceptions of Islam among the 19th Century Russian military officers who later participated in the conquest of Central Asia, shaping their view of Muslims as inherently fanatical, and of Sufi societies as dangerous and conspiratorial. Many of these officers made their careers in the Caucasus before participating in the campaigns in Central Asia, and a number of the administrative measures that were implemented in the Central Asia, such as the system of military administration (voenno-narodnoe upravlenie) and policies towards Islam (the official “ignoring” of Islam, and attempts to separate and manipulate adat  and shar’ia) were directly transplanted from the Caucasus. Similarly, Alexander suggested that Bolshevik ideas about the need to accommodate nationalism in the Soviet period and Stalin’s definitions of nationality may have been derived from the Caucasus, in particular the position of the Armenians and Georgians. The “message for Central Asianists,” Alexander concluded, is that if one wants to understand the way in which Russia’s relationship to Islam and to its “Orient” changed in the 19th century, then the Caucasus is the crucial place to start. In a more general sense, the importance of both the Caucasus and Central Asia in Russian and Soviet history and politics demonstrates some of the ways in which the “periphery” directly shapes understandings and events at the center, to such an extent that historians of the center should be encouraged to pay much more active attention to the historiography of the “periphery.” 

For her part, Keti Khutsishvili of Tbilisi State University in Georgia focused on the bridging of area studies of the regions from the perspective of the local scholarly space in the Caucasus. Because of the Soviet legacy, ethnography and anthropology in both Central Asia and the Caucasus share a common intellectual history and outlook, and more generally there are many common experiences and markers that could enable fruitful comparisons and parallel analysis. Yet such comparative studies are rarely undertaken by regional scholars themselves. Scholars in Georgia, and especially the younger generation, are interested in comparisons, but they more often think about Europe, the Middle East and the Black Sea region, while making comparisons with Central Asian countries rarely occurs to them. Many young Georgian scholars have difficulty thinking about a “common cultural space” with Central Asia, which for them implies political connotations. This is ultimately unfortunate, Keti concluded, as there are often rich comparisons to be drawn, and openness to studying other regions can only enhance social science in the region. Young Georgian scholars should be encouraged and inspired to think about new possibilities, to think about different sorts of comparison, to give more consideration to interdisciplinary approaches, and also to develop contacts with scholars in Central Asia.

John Schoeberlein, currently at Nazarbayev University, began by pointing out that the ways in which regions are conceptualized, defined and understood entail assumptions about commonality, and that conceptions of regions can have political implications and reflect larger agendas. The regional definitions themselves have changed over time. Much of our current framework of understanding “Central Asia” and the “Caucasus” as distinct regions comes from the ways in which these areas were incorporated and studied in the Russian and Soviet empires. In the very centralized Soviet academic system, scholars in Moscow could study the different peoples and regions of the USSR, but while local scholars were discouraged from studying other Soviet regions and peoples (“like spokes on a wheel”). This created a legacy for local scholars in the post-Soviet periphery that encourages focusing on their own nations or ethnicity and obstructs them from thinking more comparatively. One of the motivations for the creation of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) was to break of such constraining frameworks, and to create a space for local scholars to understand their regions on their own terms rather than just as peripheries of other regions. The concept of Central Eurasia was also a vague framework, and in itself has had the effect of creating new centers and peripheries. As with area studies fields related to other parts of the world, Schoeberlein argued that taking disciplinary rather than regional approaches is one way to draw connections across the Central Asian and Caucasus regions, and that thematic issues provide a means for both local and international scholars to think beyond borders and boundaries. In that regard, the commonalities and important difference of the countries and people in these regions, the common imperial legacies, languages (including the role of Russian) and religions in Central Asia and the Caucasus continue to provide fertile ground for meaningful comparisons.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Life and Works of Harold Karlovich Belger


G. S. Zhugenbaeva
The creative legacy of Harold Karlovich Belger (1934-2015), social and political actor and literary translator, provides vivid material for the study of the social and political history of Kazakhstan in the 20th and 21st centuries…
Belger’s family migrated to Kazakhstan during the second wave of ethnic deportations. For the German population, including those who already lived in Kazakhstan at the time, life was dramatically changed by the Declaration of the Sovnarkom and Central Executive Committee of 26th August 1941 regarding the resettlement of Germans from the Saratov and Stalingrad provinces and the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
Historical sources describe the mechanism by which Germans were transferred to Kazakhstan and redistributed there. Under the early conditions of the Great Patriotic War, measures were taken in the republic to prepare the economy for a large number of resettled forced labourers. In accordance with the initial plan, all of these labourers were moved to rural locations. All the work was carried out by Soviet and Party organs, sub-divisions of the NKVD.[i] The creation of new collective and state farms was envisaged, the deportees were also accommodated in locations which had previously received migrating Germans.
Belger’s works describe the collective fate of the German and Kazakh peoples. His poetry demonstrates his humanism, his devotion to universal values, and his respect for the culture and religion of the Kazakh people. As such, Belger was the first to receive a prestigious state decoration of Kazakhstan (Orden Parasat).
An argument for achieving unity between two peoples, with different languages and cultures, was demonstrated in the life of this author, who spoke Kazakh artfully and busied himself in literary translations from Kazakh into Russian and German (translating authors such as B. Mailin, Kh. Esenzhanov, A. Nurpeisov, A. Kekil’baev, D. Doszhanov and others). Various translated manuscripts of well-known Kazakh authors and poets can be found in Belger’s personal archival collection (lichnyi fond), including A. Kekil’baev’s ‘Warm Snow’, A. Nurpeisov’s ‘Dying Sea’, and works by the great poet Abai such as ‘Autumn’ etc.  Works by the repressed Kazakh authors B. Mailin and Kh. Esenzhanov have also been published in Russian using Belger’s translations…[ii]
Alongside all this, the documentation left behind by Belger includes materials connected with his socio-political opinions. These include rough copies of undelivered speeches, numerous interviews about the fate of the deported peoples, letters to his compatriots and so on. In his interview with the newspaper Ana tili, the author stated that ‘two thirds of Germans have already abandoned Kazakhstan. It’s a shame that they’re losing the departed. I’m talking about Germans. In the homeland of their ancestors they are not, for the most part, demanded, and the soul of the Kazakh Germans remains here.’[iii]
When Kazakhstan gained independence it opened up new horizons for Belger. In 1987-1997 he joined the staff of the Presidential National Council for State Policy, in 1989-1995 he served as the head of the German national-cultural centre and so on.
The creative works of Harold Belger are an entire page in the history of the Kazakh people. Epistolary study of this writer and statesman is valuable from a methodological point of view and is varied in terms of the historical material to which scholars will return again and again.
G. S. Zhugenbaeva is Head of the Department of Historiography, Source Studies and Modern Methodology at the Valikhanov Institute in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Translation by Alun Thomas.



[i] Of the 289 documents included in the collection, prepared by the archivists of Kazakhstan, The Declassified War: ‘Special Folders’ of the Kazakh Communist Party, 1941-1945 only 7 were previously known to the public. All the rest were concealed as a matter of the highest secrecy. These are materials on life at the home front: the reception of evacuated enterprises and citizens, their redeployment, the instigation and operation of defensive efforts, the deportation of peoples on ethnic grounds and the formation of a labour army.
[ii] Presidential Archive of Kazakhstan F. 152-NL, Op. 1, D. 27, 31, 33, 34, 49.
[iii] Presidential Archive of Kazakhstan F. 152-NL, Op. 2, D. 103, l. 9.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Cycle of Violence: The Uprising of 1916 in Semirechye

Aminat Chokobaeva


In August 1916, the native nomads[1] of Semirechye rose in a popular rebellion that for weeks reduced the colonial presence in the region to several beleaguered towns and settlements. Colonial authority was restored by September 1916, but the uprising proved to be a formative experience for the region and its multi-ethnic population. Beginning initially as popular resistance to the labour draft conscripting the native men for labour in the rear in WWI, the uprising grew increasingly violent, ushering in the period of turmoil and civil war as destructive in the peripheries of the collapsing empire as in its centre.

Tsarist soldiers on manoeuvres in Central Asia, 1916 Source: StanRadar

The roots of the uprising lay in the agricultural colonization of Semirechye in the decades before the war, but the dynamics of the uprising remain less clear. The first mass protests against the labour draft took place in the sedentary areas of Turkestan before spreading further to Semirechye and further still to the Steppe. It is in Semirechye, however, that the uprising claimed most victims, both among the settlers, who lost over 3,000 men, women and children, and in the native communities, which by 1920-21 declined by approximately 150,000 persons.[2] But what explains the lethality of the uprising in Semirechye?

My research suggests that both the rebels and the colonists were driven in their actions by fear. In the course of increasingly violent interactions, the two groups came to see each other as a threat to their wellbeing and survival. Furthermore, archival data, including telegrams, letters, and numerous depositions by witnesses and participants demonstrates that the resistance to the draft first took peaceful forms and it was the repression with which the colonial administration responded to peaceful protests that escalated the violence and led to the uprising proper.

The official announcement of the draft was made in Verny, Pishpek, and Przhevalsk uezds in the first half of July. The initial response to the draft was panicky flight across the border. The first crossings into China began immediately after the announcement of the draft in Przhevalsk uezd on 13 July. The majority of those fleeing were young unmarried men of draft age.[3] By the end of the month, the exodus of the nomads to China took on a more organized form; families and entire clans crossed the border. Some observers noted the sudden rush of Kyrgyz buyers at the local markets and the steep rise in prices on horses and staple foods.[4]

Not everyone was willing or able to flee. Soon, mass crossings gave way to mass protests led by popular leaders who opposed the draft and called on their communities to resist it. Wary of potential disruptions to the draft, the administration targeted these “agitators” and their supporters for arrest. In the second half of July, the authorities seized dozens of people suspected of agitation against the conscription. On July 17 alone, 34 “agitators” were arrested in 3 volosts of the Verny uezd.[5] According to native depositions, many of the arrested were executed.[6] The wave of arrests failed to quell the discontent and angered the native society. The deployment of armed police, Cossacks, and soldiers to arrest the native leaders and break peaceful protests mobilized the nomadic communities and galvanized resistance to the authorities and the colonial society at large.

As the resolve to resist hardened in the native society, Kyrgyz and Kazakhs routinely threatened and warned native administrators and Russian scribes that “they did not wish to implement the draft” and “would rather die here, at home, than on foreign soil. Even if all of them were executed, they did not wish to work and would not give a single man.”[7] Instances of resistance to the draft were reported in all volosts of the oblast and across the Muslim communities. On 7 July, the Dungans of the Dzharkent uezd told a Russian scribe that they “would rather die” than become labourers at the front.[8]

The festering discontent of the nomads reached a point of no return in early August. The first violent clashes between the authorities and the nomads happened in the Lepsinsk uezd of Semirechye between 24 July and 1 August, when a border patrol attempted to detain families crossing the border. The fleeing families opened fire in response.[9] Two incidents that followed in the wake of the events in Lepsinsk mark the beginning of the rebellion proper with attendant violence and targeted assaults on European settlements.

Between 3 and 6 August, the Kazakhs of the Verny uezd clashed with the local police who arrived in the area to collect – by force if necessary – the lists of new recruits. In both instances, the police fired into the crowd in an attempt to disperse the crowd of increasingly agitated nomads. Although it is ultimately unclear who fired the first shot, it is clear that both groups feared each other. Nomads were intimidated by soldiers’ guns, but so did soldiers fear large crowds.

The dispatch of a punitive expedition consisting of a Cossack sotnia, one infantry company, and a settler militia terrified the nomads of the Verny uezd and further convinced them that the authorities were intent on destroying them. The flight of panicky Kazakhs to the neighbouring Pishpek uezd between 6 and 7 August spread further panic among the Kyrgyz of the Pishpek uezd.[10] From there, the rebellion spread and became increasingly violent, escalating into a self-perpetuating cycle of violence where the violent suppression of protests by the authorities led to further disturbances thereby triggering a new wave of repressions.

Aminat Chokobaeva is completing her PhD at the Australian National University. Her dissertation examines the late Tsarist and early Soviet state-building in southern Semirechye, the borderland colony with the largely nomadic native population. Her previous publications include a chapter “Krasnye kyrgyzy: sovetskaia istoriografiia vosstaniia 1916 goda” in Poniatiia o sovetskom v Tsentral’noi Azii, published in 2016; and an article, “Socialist Promises, Ethnography and the Building of a Kyrgyz Soviet Nation”, published in September 2015 in issue 3, volume 69 of Asiatiche Studies – Études Asiatiques 


[1] It would be more correct to say that the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, whom I call nomads, in fact practiced transhumance – short-distance seasonal migrations while maintaining permanent winter camps and engaging to a limited extent in agriculture. I use the term “nomads” or “pastoralists” to stay true to the original sources describing Kyrgyz and Kazakhs as “nomads”.
[2] Thanks to the records kept by the colonial administration we know the exact number of the Russian victims. How many Kyrgyz were killed remains, however unknown; although some of the punitive expeditions reported on the number of “rebels” – including the non-combatant population – they killed, the information is patchy at best. It is possible to come to a rough estimate of the decline in the nomadic population by comparing the population statistics of the 1897 and 1925 censuses. The resulting number of 100,000-150,000 Kyrgyz (excluding Kazakhs) is an aggregate inclusive of the victims of violence and related starvation and disease. See G. Krongardt, "Demograficheskie aspekty istorii vosstaniia 1916 goda v Kyrgyzstane " in Vosstanie 1916 goda v Kyrgyzstane (sbornik materialov nauchnoi konferentsii, posviashchennoi 75-letiiu vosstaniia), ed. V.  Ploskikh and J. Junushaliev (Bishkek: Ilim, 1993), 49-53.
[3] “Protokol doprosa svidetelia Tulembaia Diusebaeva o polozhenii v Przheval’skom uezde Semirechenskoi oblasti v iiule 1916 g. – posle ob”iavleniia tsarskogo ukaza o mobilizatsii, 21 sentiabria 1916 g.” in Piaskovskii, A. V., ed. Vosstanie 1916 Goda V Srednei Azii i Kazakhstane: Sbornik Dokumentov (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1960), 354.
[4] “Protokol doprosa mirovym sud’ei 4-go uchastka Przheval’skogo uezda svidetelei – zhitelei sel Semenovki i Grigor’evka o nachale vosstaniia i rassprave vosstavshikh s zhiteliami etikh sel, 11 noiabria” in E. S. Kaptagaev, ed. Vosstanie 1916 goda v Kyrgyzstane. Sbornik dokumentov (Bishkek: Tsentral'nyi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv KR, 2011), 149-50.
[5] Edward D. Sokol, The Revolt of 1916 in Russian Central Asia (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1954), 118.
[6] “Spravka, sostavlennaia iz rassprosov zhitelei Aulieatinskogo uezda dlia voennogo gubernatora Syrdar’inskoi oblasti A. S. Galkina, 30 sentiabria” in Kotiukova, T. V., ed. Vosstanie 1916 Goda v Turkestane: Dokumental’nye Svidetel’stva Obshchei tragedii (Moscow: Marjani, 2016), 228-29.
[7] Raport pisaria Al’dzhanskoi volosti Dzharkentskogo uezda Komarova nachal’niku Narynkol’skogo uchastka A. Podvarkovu o nevozmozhnosti sostavleniia mobilizatsionnyh spiskov, 11 iiulia” in Piaskovskii, A. V., ed. Vosstanie 1916 Goda V Srednei Azii i Kazakhstane: Sbornik Dokumentov (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1960), 324-25.
[8] Raport i. d. nachal’nika Dzharkentskogo uezda N. N. Stupina voennomu gubernatoru Semirechenskoi oblasti M. A. Fol’baumu o vystupleniiakh kazakhov, uigur i dungan protiv mobilizatsii na tylovye raboty” in ibid, 329.
[9] “Doklad i.d. voennogo gubernatora Semirechenskoi oblasti A. I. Alekseeva general-gubernatoru Turkestanskogo kraia A. N Kuropatkinu o prichinah i khode vosstaniia v oblasti” in ibid, 371.
[10] “Iz protokola doprosa mirovym sud’ei 4-go uchastka Cherniaevskogo u. inzhenera M. Tynyshpaeva ob istorii vzaimootnoshenii rossiiskoi vlasti s kazakhami, st. Cherniaevo, 5-25 fevralia 1917 g,” in Koigeldiev, M. K., ed. Kazak Ult Azattyk Kozgalysy (Almaty: Otkytaia biblioteka Kazakhstana, 2011), 107-110.