Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Caste of Helot Labourers (Cotton conference paper abstract)

During the Soviet era, cotton came to dominate the agricultural economy in southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The political economy of Soviet Central Asia centered on the cultivation of cotton to a greater extent than any other region since the Antebellum American South. Like the slave states of the southern US, the cotton fields of Central Asia also used forced labour. Already by October 1934, the Sazlag complex of corrective labour camps in Chirchik Uzbekistan housed 20,100 prisoners engaged in cotton cultivation. Cotton in Central Asia proved itself a crop particularly well suited to cultivation by forced labour. In the next decade, the Soviet regime greatly expanded the number of involuntary workers farming cotton in this region.

From November 1943 through November 1944, the Stalin regime forcibly deported seven whole nationalities from the Caucasus, Kalmyk Steppe and Crimea to Siberia, the Urals, Kazakhstan and Central Asia. In total nearly a million deportees arrived in the eastern regions of the USSR during this year. Here the Soviet government placed them under the discipline and administration of special commandants of the NKVD. These commandants kept the deportees known as special settlers confined to restricted areas and under constant surveillance. A large number of these exiles ended up in southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and later Tajikistan. The Soviet government used these special settlers as a source of cheap labour for many of the local cotton kolkhozes and sovkhozes. In particular, the Karachais in the Pakhta-Aral region of Kazakhstan, Crimean Tatars in the Bukhara region of Uzbekistan and later also in Tajikistan and Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan worked to cultivate cotton. They lived and worked under unhealthy conditions and many of them died from diseases and ailments related to malnutrition. This involuntary labour force became an important part of the cotton economy of Soviet Central Asia during the 1940s and 1950s.

Up until 1989, the deportation of nationalities remained a taboo topic in the USSR. The relevant archives dealing with the subject remained closed and survivors of the special settlement regime were prohibited from publishing or speaking publicly about their experiences. During the 1990s, the partial opening of the Soviet archives and a more honest public evaluation of the Soviet past resulted in the publication of a large amount of primary source material on this subject. This material includes both numerous collections of government documents from the archives in Moscow, Almaty, Bishkek and elsewhere as well as numerous memoir pieces by those who lived under the special settlement restrictions. I intend to use this recently available material to write a paper on the everyday life of special settlers working on cotton kolkhozes and sovkhozes and their role in the larger regional economy. It will cover their legal status, material conditions and issues of nationality and gender. In particular, it will examine how the special settlement regime created an exclusionary legal system to exploit the labour of the deportees and the experience of the men, women and children subjected to these policies.

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