Phew! I am back from my short and energetic vacation (“Vacation from what?” you might well ask, but I promise you I’m keeping busy) to Bukhara and Tashkent, both in Uzbekistan. But my adventure started before I’d crossed Kazakhstan’s southern boarder. Embracing the cliché, in this instance I was as excited about the journey as I was about the destination. It is therefore fitting that in the first of the few posts I’ll write about my trip, I begin by describing my mode of travel.
There was never a question in my mind that, were I to travel to Uzbekistan, I would do so by train, and that I’d go platzkart (плацкарт, or “economy class”) rather than kupé (купе, “compartment”). This is not because I’m cheap (or not only because of that, in which case I would have taken the bus – which also happens to be quicker) nor that I revel in discomfort (although my sister seems to suspect this). Instead, my reason was that this particular line, or at least the segment connecting Almaty to Tashkent, is an important piece of Central Asian history, and I wanted to see and feel as much of it as possible. For all 25 hours to Tashkent and all 8 more to Bukhara.
The Turkestan-Siberia Railway, or “Turksib” (“Turkestan” being until at least the 1930s, if not later, the general name for what is now roughly Central Asia) was constructed between 1927 and 1931 as the second rail link between Russia and lands south of the Kazakh steppe, and the first on the eastern side of the territory. In the late 19th century Imperial Russia had already extended its iron tendrils into Central Asia with the Trans-Caspian line, connecting European Russia and the administrative nexus of the empire with its outer reaches, tantalizingly close to the British in India and the weak Qajars in Persia. The purpose of the Turksib, by contrast, was to connect grain-growing southern Siberia and the cotton- and produce-rich Fergana valley (located mostly in modern Uzbekistan).
From the relatively little I know about the Turksib (there is a 2001 book about its construction by Matthew Payne, Stalin’s Railroad, but because it isn’t available for my Kindle, I haven’t read it yet), what fascinates me about this railroad are the many different ways it can be understood beyond providing economic advantages.
First, it announced Stalin’s continuing commitment to the maintenance of the Russian empire in form and spirit if not in name. I’ve discussed Soviet colonialism in his blog before, and while I have lingering questions on the subject, I am confident that Moscow’s investment in this project should have cast into doubt continuing (throughout the 1920s) Soviet promises of national autonomy.
But it also, as Lewis Siegelbaum notes in his review of Payne’s book, plays a large role in the modernization and even creation of a self-aware Kazakh nation. As a matter of Soviet policy, the Turksib was built by a largely (at least 50%) indigenous labor force, meaning that many young, nomadic Kazakhs were drafted into the realization of this thoroughly 20th century and technical endeavor. As Siegelbaum writes, “Turksib, then, was to serve as a ‘forge of the Kazakh proletariat,’ transforming a formerly exploited colonial people into authentic members of the Soviet Union’s putative ruling class.” It therefore simultaneously subjugated and empowered these people.
And it is for this latter aspect that, of course, Turksib was celebrated during the Soviet period. A. Kasteev, one of Kazakhstan’s most celebrated Soviet-era artists and still a painter of national importance post-independence (the state art museum is named after him), immortalized the Turksib in a 1929 painting that is telling of the Soviet perception of their rail link. In the image, the locomotive bursts into a scene from a bygone era: a caravan of camels lines a dirt road and covered women and men on horseback gather to watch in amazement as the modern wonder rumbles through their pastoral, backward idyll. (That a very similar image was reproduced in a 1992 stamp suggests a great deal about Kazakhstan’s early post-Soviet conceptions of itself and perhaps hints at why many Kazakhs refuse still to denigrate the period of Soviet rule as “colonialism.”)
From yet another angle, others have suggested that the Turksib was built to give the Soviet military easy access to Central Asia’s eastern border – that is, the one the USSR shared with China. And indeed, although Stalin may not have foreseen it, the Turksib played a major role in the shuttling of Soviet troops to the border during the period of tense Sino-Soviet relations in the 1960s and ’70s.
Whatever its symbolism (and why do we need to choose just one reading?), the Turksib is a rail line of major historical significance, even if it is much shorter and less romantic than the Trans-Siberian. And I appreciated this… for the first few hours. However, after 25 hours in a hot railcar with people snoring, smelling, speaking too loud, sleeping in the only isle, knocking into my feet every time anyone walked past and passing around my passport because it is an American passport, I was only too happy to disembark in Tashkent and being my first visit to Uzbekistan.