„Changing Asia“ – Travelogue of an Austrian journalist about Uzbekistan in 1930 (I)

Part I: Egon Erwin Kisch, raging reporter and convinced communist, in Samarkand

Central Asia has changed fundamentally many times since the „Raging Reporter“ Egon Erwin Kisch, a dazzling figure of the German Weimar Republic before the National Socialists seized power, travelled there. Kisch arrived in Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, precisely at the time of the first five-year plan. He was thus able to observe and report on the far-reaching transformation process that Soviet modernization required of the people. Central Asia had never before experienced such a massive transformation, which forced people to modernize at a pace that also demanded many human sacrifices. Of these victims, Kisch, a convinced communist, doesn’t write anything. But he does let the people he meets in 1930 talk about their everyday lives and how they experience the changes in society.

Read Part II: Egon Erwin Kisch on the new role of women in Uzbekistan against the background of Soviet social reconstruction of society

Egon Erwin Kisch and photographs from the year of his visit to Samarkand by the Russian photographers P. Kildyushev and I. Panov

Already Kisch’s arrival was an adventure. He was flying from Moscow to Tashkent in four days in a single-engine biplane and at a speed of 100 to 150 kilometres per hour. Many stopovers in fields were necessary, where the Moscow authorities had barrels of fuel provided. From the low-flying propeller plane, he saw nomads, semi-nomads, yurts, grazing camels and was sure that this life would soon be history thanks to the Soviet power.

Kisch took the train from Tashkent to Samarkand – the Turksib had just been built. He tells of walls woven from reeds and twigs to protect the tracks from the dreaded steppe wind and sand drifts. The yurts of the curious nomads lay the more he approached Tashkent, closer and closer to the railroad tracks. They could exchange their milk products for tea and household goods at the railroad stops.

The new era has not yet reached the people of the steppe. Therefore the people of the steppe are pushing towards the new time. While in the last two thousand years, everything had proceeded so slowly, everything must now progress so much faster within ten years. […] People and goods roll from Leningrad to the country on the Pamir, from Amu-Darya to Moscow. One can travel from the Orient to the northern Arctic Ocean. The Turksib is finished. The Moscow-Tashkent trains ran four times a week in 1927, now twice a day.

Egon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia. On Soviet Central Asia, 1932

Clip from the documentary propaganda film „Turksib“ (1929) by Viktor Turin

As great as Kisch’s contempt for the military leaders and warlords Genghis Kahn and Timur is, as high is his admiration for Ulug Beg. He reports of him as a great teacher whom the students loved. And Kisch loves the Registan of Samarkand because this place was also called „Medresse of Ulug Beg“. But Kisch does not describe the Registan. For whoever wants to describe the beauty of this building must involuntarily fail. For no one can describe in words a phenomenon that has been made solely for looking at it.

No, we will not describe the Registan. We only notice that in no other city do we know a square with such colourful, magnificent buildings as the Registan of Samarkand. That’s all. Our eyes drink what our eyelashes cannot keep away from this great place. But we will not describe it.

Egon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia. On Soviet Central Asia, 1932

Again and again, when Kisch lets himself be captured by the past, it is the Uzbek comrades who rebuke him. One man asks why the Europeans are always interested in the old houses. The new ones are much nicer: the technical facilities, the research institute, the factories, the waterworks in Rewat-Chodscha, the farmers‘ house, the maternity care houses and the clinics.

You all come to Samarkand to gaze at romance. […] But you have to look at the transition from Islam to Socialism! You see it in collectivization, in the growth of the party, in the schools. Even women are learning now! They are visiting the maternity stations; the veils are falling.

Egon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia. On Soviet Central Asia, 1932

And Kisch describes how he climbs the stairs of Shah-i-Zinda, in his view a staircase of palaces. Overlying palaces, marbled, majolica tiled, decorated with mosaics, supported by garlanded columns. Kisch raves about the floor plan of the buildings, which run upwards into an open octagon, divide further and are finally covered by a bright blue dome. The corners remind him of honeycombs, red, blue, and gold. The niches look to him as if they were filled with colourful candy – Kisch finds it inappropriate that they are called stalactite arches.

Each of the palaces has only one inhabitant, and each of these inhabitants is dead. There lies Tuglutekim, a wife of Emir Hussein. There lies Shirin-Beka-Aka, a sister of Tamerlan, opposite one of his wives named Turkhan-Aka. There lies a holy one, Prophet on the right, Prophet on the left, and top of him and on top of him the highest of the Prophets, the cousin of Mohammed Kussam ben Abbas. Strictly speaking, he is not lying here at all. His tomb is the only apocryphal tomb of the necropolis.

Egon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia. On Soviet Central Asia, 1932

Kisch withdraws his own opinion about the historical background of the buildings, whose architecture and artistic design he openly admires. Instead, he lets his Uzbek comrade and travel companion Mustapha speak, who graduated from the Moscow Academy of Eastern Nations.

Look around you, comrade! What piety and what godliness lies in the necropolis of Shah-i-Zinda? Timur built it for his wives and his relatives. Over there, the building, that is Bibi-Chanum’s grave, it is called a „love song, built of stone. So was he a good husband and family man, a God-fearing man, this Timur? Well, he slaughtered the inhabitants of the conquered cities by the thousands or buried them alive. His cruelty was unprecedented.

Egon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia. On Soviet Central Asia, 1932

Nevertheless, the comrades are proud of the architectural heritage that Timur’s reign of terror brought them over all the peoples he conquered. And it is to be preserved, even if the costs are immense and money is lacking elsewhere. The reporter Kisch lets Vasily Lawrentievich Vyatkin speak about this, whom he calls the „guardian and propagator of the sanctuaries of Samarkand“.

65,000 rubles will be spent on renovations this year. And that is nothing. Lopsided minarets from Timur’s time can just about be prevented from falling over with this money, but not renovated. Then there are the mosques, the bazaar, the two tombs at the square. The decorations cost the most, but we have reconstructed them perfectly! […] We found the clay pits, where the old builders had got their material and their ochre. We also excavated the old ovens and the workrooms where they made the paints. We even found the coal and were able to reconstruct the temperatures at which they fired the tiles! This is how we learned from the old masters!

Egon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia, 1931

Only at the end of the first chapter of his book about his journey to Samarkand in 1931 does Kisch seem to have found his own opinion on the multiple overlaps of historical events and their structural results in space.

Tamerlan was unable to read and write throughout his life, which did not prevent him from developing more taste in art than the King of Prussia was able to demonstrate with his Potsdam buildings and gardens. And Friedrich was taught by the best architects of his time. But all the buildings that testify to heavenly and earthly love, all the vocations to Samarkand of God’s scholars and gifted artists did not make the people happy. The boundlessly exploited people lived in miserable mud huts in filth and slavery. This was the truth behind the beautifully decorated walls of the world ruler Timur.

Egon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia. On Soviet Central Asia, 1932

However, the resistance movement against Soviet colonisation is nowhere mentioned by Kisch in his book. Ella Maillard, the famous skier, mountaineer and explorer from Switzerland, who in 1932 travelled to former Turkestan one year after Egon Erwin Kisch, takes a much more objective approach. She travelled from Moscow without an official guide and took advantage of the opportunities offered by the fact that the communication network was not yet as tight and illiteracy was still widespread. This often allowed her to pretend to have permits that she did not have.

Ella Maillart reports about a trial against the so-called „Basmachi“ rebels, a word derived from the Turkic term for thief or bandit. It was a blanket term for all those who were considered enemies of the Soviet Union. Some of them were old followers of the Emir of Bukhara, others members of the former tsarist troops. Most of them, however, were probably former peasants who formed a resistance movement with guerrilla tactics in response to the cruel massacres of the Bolsheviks after 1918. The history of the Central Asian resistance is too complex to be presented here in a nutshell. Ella Maillart, however, thinks less ideologically than Egon Erwin Kisch and takes the time to investigate it in her book „Turkestan Solo“, while Egon Erwin Kisch tells us nothing about it.

In the second part we will follow Kisch’s reflections on the new role of women in Uzbekistan against the background of Soviet social reconstruction of society.

Text: Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: Stefan Applis (2008); the historical photos are kindly provided by the website of the following tour operator: https://abasayyoh.com/


Egon Erwin Kisch (1931). Asien gründlich verändert [ Changing Asia. On Soviet Central Asia, 1932]. Globis-Verlag Wien.

Ella Maillard (1935). Turkestan Solo. [A Journey Through Central Asia].

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