Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 12, October 1930, No. 10, pp. 638-639.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
Red Star in Samarkand
By Anna Louise Strong
(Williams & Norgate. 329 pp. 15s. 1930.)
OF all the territories in the Soviet Union, comprising a total of one-sixth of the world’s surface, and over a hundred different nationalities, the region that was formerly known as Russian Turkestan is in many ways one of the most fascinating and instructive. In climate, population and culture it has all the vaunted picturesqueness of the East. It is the home of ancient civilisations; names like Samarkand, Merv, and Bokhara are fragrant with the romantic historical associations of centuries ago. It is a leading example of the colonial revolt against imperialism and the development of Socialism skipping over the intermediate stages of capitalism. It offers a picture of the impact of highly developed Soviet Communist culture on a culturally backward people in what was a typical exploited tropical colony. It presents the sharpest contrasts of ancient and modern in technique of production, in social and cultural institutions, means of communication, forms of administration, and political life.
These contrasts are vividly brought out in this book by the well-known American writer on Russia, Anna Louise Strong. The book is a record of the impressions gained in a personal visit during the latter part of 1928; it is not a monograph or learned statistical report of investigation, but it is considerably more than the superficial jottings of a casual tourist. It does not go very deep, but what there is is very well worth reading. It is, in fact, an admirable piece of descriptive writing; detailed, accurate, and interesting, coming from a keenly inquiring, intelligent, and sympathetic “neutral” observer. Since the present reviewer visited this region in 1928 within a few months of the authoress of this book and had himself particular facilities for seeing the life of the people, he can recognise and vouch for much of what is described in this book and also appreciate the live way in which it is presented to the reader.
Since 1928, great changes have taken place in Turkestan. The first beginnings of the Five-Year Plan, faintly adumbrated at the end of this book, have been transferred into a mighty advance in all spheres of economic and cultural life. But even in 1928, the contrast with the dark period before the revolution was vivid enough. In many ways Turkestan before the revolution was in a position very closely similar to India, and particularly some of the Indian States, at the present day. Like India now, it used to be described as the “brightest jewel in the crown of Empire.” Like India now, it was actually a typical colony exploited by Russian imperialism. As in India also, the imperialist rulers allied themselves with the most reactionary feudal elements, such as the Emir of Bokhara, and deliberately fostered the cruel dominance of the beys (landlords) and the mullahs (priests) and kept the people illiterate, backward, and without political rights, the more easily to rule over and exploit them.
The struggle to overthrow this despotism was a long and bitter one. Already in 1916 there was a rising, bloodily suppressed, against conscription of native forced labour. A year later, the workers’ soviets took power in Tashkent, were crushed by Kerensky troops, rose again, and a period of three years’ civil war followed, during which Tashkent only once, in January, 1919, fell into the hands of the counter-revolutionaries, when with the co-operation of the British on the Caspian there was a brief four days of White and British rule. During this time, thirty-five of the most important leaders of the Tashkent Soviet Government were executed in cold blood, recalling the similar massacre by the British of the twenty-seven commissars of Baku.
The enormous change that has come about since then, as reflected in every aspect of life and general conditions, is well shown in this vivacious record of personal observation, where even the little things such as the placards in the streets and details of food, clothing, and recreations are all faithfully set down.
The book is particularly concerned with the cultural aspect of life in Turkestan. After descriptions of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bokhara, with some account of the central part played by cotton and irrigation, it goes on to depict the problems of local soviet administration in the fight with corruption, religion (as a cloak for exploitation), and landowners; the development of education and the movement for women’s freedom; the administration of justice, the development of housing, hospitals, childwelfare, &c., and the “human” problems confronting the communist movement.
Actually, only a few of the most obvious features of Usbek life are treated of. Much more could be said on the economic side, particularly as to the general features of the economic system. Even on the descriptive side of economy there was already in 1928 much to be seen that was not noted by the authoress. Thus, for example, in Tashkent there was the big new engineering works, turning out agricultural instruments and even Diesel engines, the large flour mill on the latest American pattern, the new fruit preserving and canning factory, and so on. Practically nothing is said in the book about trade unionism. Further, the very important process of Usbekisation, the replacement of Russians by native Usbeks in all leading positions, is not dealt with at all. Again, nothing is said of the Usbek red army and the entire difference in its character from the dehumanised “native regiments” commanded by Russian officers before the revolution. Most important, the political leadership of the Communist Party is altogether inadequately dealt with.
These omissions, however, do not detract from the value of the book, taking it for what it is, viz., a traveller’s record, and not as a handbook to Soviet Turkestan. If it does nothing else, it will create a keen desire in the reader to learn more about this important country, and a longing to have a Marxist survey of the whole significance of the important development that is taking place there.
C. P. D.