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

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

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

When Egon Erwin Kisch, the „Raging Reporter“ from the Germany of the Weimar Republic, travelled to Central Asia in 1931, he had a clear goal in mind. Kisch had radicalized himself ideologically after the European catastrophe of World War I. Like many of his contemporaries, he wished that the old capitalist, nationalist and patriarchal order of European societies would be replaced. Kisch longed for a state of peace in which the different peoples of the world could work together peaceably.

In the socialist project of the Soviet Union, he hoped to see this longing fulfilled. As the traditional societies of the peoples of Central Asia were fundamentally changed by Soviet power, he hoped to find stories there that documented such a path to humanity and peace.

The peoples of […] Central Asia underwent enormous social changes during the first two decades after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917: secularization of society, literacy and education campaigns, a ‚cultural revolution‘, forced settlement, collectivization of agriculture and industrialization. (Baldauf 2007, p. 101)

For Kisch, the old feudal structures and the uncontrolled patriarchal capitalism had driven the people into the First World War. Accordingly, his collection of reportages provides much attention to the new role of women in the new Soviet republics of Central Asia.

A girl of Samarkand, photo by P. Kildyushev (1931), Egon Erwin Kisch

Full of enthusiasm, Kisch reports on the visit to a cooperative of sewists in Garm. Sheets, upholstery and linen are sewn there by 40 women, all of whom are unveiled. After work, concerts are given, and there are courses in reading, writing and arithmetic. Portraits of the famous socialist Rosa Luxemburg and the German women’s rights activist Klara Zetkin hang on the wall there. When asked what the men say about the fact that they work here and no longer wear a veil, the women reply that their husbands were naturally dissatisfied at first. But now they see how much money their wives bring home. They were able to redecorate the house, buy a radio and now heat with wood instead of manure.

„Do you know who Lenin was?“ „Yes, he was Russian, and he took off the veil for us women. Praise his name.“

EGon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia, p. 76

The proletarians should receive a new culture determined by their economic base, which they shaped and which served their needs. The new rulers regarded the disgraced traditions and customs as harmful cultural relics. [This was to be eliminated with] the Central Asian ’substitute bourgeoisie‘: the rich, the counter-revolutionaries (Basmatchi) and the Muslim clergy. (Baldauf 2007, p. 101-102)

At the women’s outpatient clinic in Garm, Kisch meets a former nurse from Russia who has volunteered to go to Central Asia and works here as a real doctor. Initially, there were almost 40% miscarriages in the region, she says, because the mothers were far too young. Now that child marriage is banned, she says, only 5% are left. Almost all Russians, writes Kisch, initially intended to come only for a short time, but after a few years, they all want to stay. Kisch sees in this woman, an Anna Mikhailova Orlova Orlova, the ideal type of Soviet worker.

Everyone here feels like a bringer of culture, if not the founder of a new city, a new country. Everyone shows you what has been created. Everybody says how happy they are here.

EGon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia, p. 79

A whole new world should be built in Central Asia: According to the maxim of the cultural policy of the Soviet headquarters in Moscow, the people of Central Asia did not live in a grown culture that was meaningful for itself. Feudalism and religion would have forced them to lead a life like in the Middle Ages. The Soviet system was supposed to enable people to become human beings first, Soviet people.

The most visible symbol of this was the ban on the veil. This was followed by the transfer of female labour to paid factory work. And when women were brought together in large groups, they were separated from their families, which made literacy, medical instruction and birth control possible. All this, of course, was a massive intervention in cultures that had grown up over centuries.

The tractor operator Haib Saitova, Tashkent, photo by M. Penson (1937)

For the majority of the urban, rural and nomadic population, however, culture in the early 20th century was still embedded in everyday life in space and time. Art and craftsmanship were indissolubly linked. The culture was expressed in clothing, but also in cooking and consumer habits, in sports and games, medicine and literature. All this was shaped by local knowledge and everyday religion and often accompanied by music. The culture had its seat ‚in the middle of life‘. (Baldauf 2007, p. 105)

Tahtabibi Omanova and Tadjikhon Askarova – the best female workers of Tachkent, photo by Gazeev (1937)
First students – Uzakali Samedinov, Inobatkhan Rahmonova and Aolohon Azimova, Andijan, photo by Dorensky (1938)

Lenin had called tsarist Russia a ‚prison of the peoples‘. Accordingly, the Soviet power did not want to be perceived as an imperial colonial power. And of course, there were also apparent differences, above all the Soviets did not reproduce racist stereotypes to the same extent by essentially attributing the backwardness of peoples to them. But the implementation of the socialist utopia was inevitably connected with a devaluation of existing ways of life.

The hope of overcoming the disabilities and pains that illness can inflict on the human body, gave these simulated healthy bodies of the Soviet dream-world (in which cinema played a significant role) a utopian impetus. Defeat of disease, among the other brutal effects of nature on the corporeal body (such as hunger, cold and death), was yet another promise of modernity with its drive for scientific and technological advancement. But this utopian impulse, too, became incorporated into the Soviet ‘phantasmagoria of production’; in other words, by discursively linking disease to the body that resides in ‘pre-modernity’—the body of the peasant and the Oriental—this utopian potential became a legitimizing force to control and regulate. As a result, in its articulation of the East, the dominant discourse in post-revolutionary Russia came increasingly to resemble that of the late Imperial era. Those who lived on the Oriental periphery of the new Soviet state, whose cultures and ways of life were deemed as ‘vestiges of the past,’ came under immense pressure to ‘speed up’ in order to become contemporaneous with their age. Therefore, the unhealthy bodies and veiled women of ‘the East’ came to represent (signify) the very antithesis of modernity, first in the cosmological narrative of Soviet historiography, and later in the simulated world of the Soviet cinema, particularly since the late 1920s.

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 188, refering to the film „Turksib“

Such a critical perspective, looking at the Russian view from the outside, was of course still unfamiliar to Egon Erwin Kisch at that time. After all, it was only in the 1980s that Edvard Said succeeded in initiating a debate on Orientalism, which has now become firmly established in cultural-critical debates.

Kisch dedicates a full reportage to the life story of Chassjad Mirkulan, who was born in 1904 in the Fergana Valley. She was veiled at the age of eight and married at fourteen. In the year of Kisch’s visit to Uzbekistan, she is 26 years old. She had witnessed ancient Turkestan, the Bolshevik conquest and the establishment of the Soviet system. Her life story contains unimaginable painful experiences that are still shared by too many women today who have to grow up in patriarchal societies all over the world. Without going into detail here, however, she also makes one experience clear. The moment women show solidarity and protect each other, it becomes possible to dissolve orders that have always been considered immutable.

I cannot tell you what it was like when I first crossed the street unveiled. I held myself just behind my husband so that my face was pressed against his back. Again and again, I looked to the side to see if the passers-by would stop and laugh. You must remember that a woman was only allowed to bare her hands and face in front of the father and son. The face was also allowed to be shown in front of the older brothers and the brothers of her mother. „If a woman coughs so that a man hears it, if a strange man sees a woman’s hand, it is a disgrace and a sin for the whole family,“ the priest often used to proclaim, I remember it well. Because every time the father came home after the visit to the mosque and repeated everything the mullah had said. A girl who turned to a man was considered a prostitute. […] In 1923, I joined the youth association. After graduating the Rabfak, I went to university and studied political economy, revolutionary history and some subsidiary subjects. […] I stayed in Tashkent for five years, became a party member and finished my studies. I became the political leader of the women’s association in Bukhara […], then a member of the women’s section in Stalinabad, which was then called Dushanbe. After some time, I became the second mayor. It was the time of reconstruction. Hundreds of new houses were built. In 1929 I came to Garm; the women here were politically and economically very backwards. There were still child marriages and therefore, frequent miscarriages. Polygamy was the rule, lack of hygiene, lack of education, almost 100% illiteracy. I have stayed here to help the women in these circumstances. […] My mother is now the chairman of a collective vegetable economy. Do you want to know if she still wears the veil? No, not for six years.

EGon Erwin Kisch, Changing Asia, p. 81-90

An example of contemporary women’s cultures in the south of Uzbekistan in Termez: the intergenerational group frames a visit to a burial mosque in Termez with a day spent together on picnics, walks and discussions.

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/


Baldauf, Ingeborg (2007). Tradition, Revolution, Adaption. Die kulturelle Sowjetisierung Zentralasiens [Tradition, revolution, adaptation. The Cultural Sovietization of Central Asia]. In Machtmosaik Zentralasien. Traditionen, Restriktionen, Aspirationen, ed. Manfred Sapper, Berlin 2007, 99-120.

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

Farbod Honarpisheh (2005) The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, Critical Middle Eastern Studies, 14:2, 185-201, DOI:10.1080/10669920500135561

Edward W. Said (1978). Orientalism. Routledge & Kegan Paul. London and Henley.

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