The government-led evacuation to the Soviet East in late 1941 was due to the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) when hundreds of trains from the European part of the Soviet Union started arriving at Tashkent station in the Uzbek SSR one after another. The city had been turned into the major site for the reception of children, and the place where the train stopped bore resemblance to the aftermath of a natural disaster. For many displaced orphans from the European parts of the Soviet Union who had no family to return to, adaptation to life after adoption was not just a temporary stage, but rather their first step towards full integration. These Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian or Latvian speaking children had no other choice but to adopt local Central Asian religious and social practices, master the indigenous language(s), and in some cases, even change their Russian or Ukrainian names to Turkic or Persian ones.
In my research, I have looked at various press articles about adoption cases from across the Soviet Union, where hundreds of families in various Soviet locations adopted over 10 children. And yet the single most famous example of an Uzbek family from Tashkent that adopted evacuated children over the course of WWII is the family of the blacksmith Shoakhmad Shomakhmudov, and his wife Bakhry. According to historian Rebecca Manley, “A newsreel made during the war in Tashkent offers a fairly typical example of the way such adoptions were publicized [italics mine]. Entitled “The Blacksmith Akhmed,” the newsreel featured a blacksmith on a kolkhoz who “gave shelter to and is raising five children of different ages and nationalities who have lost their parents on the front”.
The blacksmith Shomakhmudov and his wife Bakhry were used as prototypes of the fictional characters in Rakhmat Fayzi’s novel “Ego Velichestvo Chelovek” (The Nobility of Man) published in 1969, which is the sequel of the film titled “Ty Ne Sirota” (You are Not an Orphan) directed by Shukhrat Abbasov in 1962.
The Shomakhmudovs’ name has entered Uzbek-Soviet toponymics as well, with one of the streets in Tashkent named after them, and a monument by sculptor D.B. Riabichev depicting the blacksmith’s family was erected in front of the Palace of the Friendship of Peoples in Tashkent in 1982. These are all late post-WWII depictions and interpretations; therefore, I suggest looking at the myth-building process in a chronological perspective.
In the decades since WWII, the number of children adopted by the family that had been initially reported by the Soviet press as 5 in 1942, had grown to 12 then to 14, and finally, to 15 and 16 in various post-war newspaper articles. On the one hand, it is an established fact that over the war years, when this family story skyrocketed to fame, the Shomakhmudovs went on to adopt more orphans. On the other hand, the couple themselves or perhaps, their interviewers, misreported the number of children, as other interviews reveal very different information about the new names that children adopted and the language that they acquired.
The iconic number of 15 is even more important as Soviet propaganda campaign presented it as nothing less than the embodiment of friendship of 15 Soviet Republics (15 children of multinational ethnic origins – Russians, Byelorussians, Moldovan, Ukrainian, Latvian, Kazak, Uzbek, Tatar, and others among them, corresponding to the 15 Soviet Socialist Republics). So, how did this ordinary family become an exceptional example of Uzbek hospitality and the friendship of Soviet nations in Soviet propaganda?
Perhaps the only unmediated source on the Shomakhmudovs is the interview that Bakhry Akramova gave on 30 June 1943, to the researcher B. Likhter who was affiliated with the Mints’ Commission (on the national republics during the Great Patriotic War). The interview was conducted through an interpreter. Bakhry, the adoptive mother, spoke only Uzbek to her adoptees. As recorded in this archival document, “All (adopted) children received Uzbek names. In the remainder of this post, I am going to compare this Mints’ commission interview with articles published in the press, to show how the narrative of the Shomakhmudovs became detached from reality.
During the Great Patriotic War, with more and more evacuees arriving in Uzbekistan, Tashkenters organized a remarkable adoption movement. Among the first citizens who took in evacuated children were Bakhry Akramova and her spouse Akhmat Shomakhmudov. Initially, they took two children at once. Eventually, the family adopted more children, and by May 1943 they already welcomed 8 adoptees. The Mints’ commission interview does not speak to the friendship of the peoples, and just reflects the common patriotic motif of the Soviet war effort as a heroic struggle for a just cause. The earliest reference to the Shamakhmudov family in the press appeared in Pravda Vostoka in June 1942, and this article clearly aimed to popularize the adoption movement in the rear Central Asian republics and encouraging locals to take in more orphans. Articles in Izvestiia and Komsomolskaia Pravda followed the similar route to Pravda Vostoka, except that they were aimed at the larger all-union audience. Notably, the backgrounds of newspaper correspondents determined whether the story was saturated with highly nationalized/ethnicized terminology or whether it rather adhered to more generalized terms. The articles that appeared in Pravda Vostoka were mostly penned by bilingual Uzbek natives, whereas ones intended for Komsomolskaia Pravda and Izvestiia were produced by field correspondents from Moscow, and the majority of them were not proficient in indigenous languages whatsoever.
The Izvestiia correspondent claimed that:
“…the first child adopted by Shomakhmudovs was a seven-year-old Russian girl named Raia. The girl is described as a blue-eyed blond, with freckles on her nose. Although Akhmet and Bakhry spoke Uzbek, whereas Raia spoke Russian, they understood each other well, for ways of expressing suffering, joy and love in all languages are the same. Raia quickly felt at home in her new parents’ house that had clay floors. Within a year Raia became proficient in Uzbek”.
Counterintuitively or not, the article by Pravda Vostoka painted a totally different picture of the same adoptee Raia. It is safe to assume that Pravda Vostoka correspondents’ interpretation was relatively more accurate for they interviewed the Shomakhmudovs in person and in their native language.
According to the article in Pravda Vostoka:
“…The couple went to an orphanage, for Akhmed wanted to take the most unattractive girl of all. He lovingly embraced a 6-year-old girl Raia. According to Uzbek blacksmith and his wife, the unpleasantness of their new daughter’s facial features came from the fact that she was red-haired and freckled, whose looks created a stark contrast with a regular appearance of Central Asian children”.
The authors of the article further insisted that Akhmed made no distinction and offered no special treatment for children of various ethnicities.
In the late 1960s, the Shamakhmudov family promptly returned to the Soviet spotlight. Kul’tura i Zhizn’, an all-union Russian-language monthly journal, published an article entitled “Dear mom and dad” on the life of Shamakhmudovs 20 years after the war. In 1955, by the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR, the family was awarded the Order of Honor, and Bakhry was awarded the honorary title of mother-heroine in 1963 for bringing up 15 adopted children. This is significant because before Bakhry, adoptive mothers had never been eligible for this award. Igor Krupnitsky, the journal’s correspondent from Moscow, further detailed his visit: “Having met me in the courtyard of their house, Bakhry and Akhmed greeted me with the outstretched hands (a traditional Uzbek sign of respect), and then press the right one to the heart, exclaiming “Glad to host you in our house, be our guest!” (Khush kelibsiz! In Uzbek). Shamakhmudovs’ sons and daughters greeted me along with their grandchildren.
The brotherhood of nations and a vertical kinship was further reinforced through the organization of a meeting between the Shamakhmudovs and a Moscow-based family who also adopted children. When Shaakhmed celebrated his 75th birthday, and Bakhry her 63rd, the family received hundreds of telegrams and letters with congratulations and warm wishes. One of these letters was addressed to Shamakhmudovs by Mamenko family from Moscow. Anna Afanasievna and Artiom Akimovich Mamenko, like the Shamakhmudovs, adopted children. However, not 15, but only 8. Shamakhmudovs and Mamenkos met twice. The first time Mamenko invited Shamakhmudovs to Moscow for no special occasion – just to tour the Soviet capital. The second time they met was in in 1963, when Bakhry was awarded the Mother Heroine Order at the Kremlin.
Why was it important to draw the parallels between a Tashkent and Moscow based families? Why should the narrative of normalizing the Uzbek hospitality and selfless sacrifice be placed into the larger framework of wider Russian/Soviet practices? Partly because during the war, the notions of “Eastern”, “Asian”, oriental hospitality (according to Qur’an, no guest can be sent away without being fed and offered a shelter) had been superimposed on all Uzbek inhabitants. After the war, there was a great official need to bring together the heroic efforts of ALL nations across the center-periphery divide, using the issue of wartime adoption as an example of creating ‘Sovietness’.
Zukhra Kasimova has a Master’s degree in Comparative History from the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary (2016). Currently, she is a third-year Ph.D. student in the History Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She focuses on post-WWII Central Asian history, primarily on the Uzbek SSR and the Karakalpak ASSR. Her research interests lie in the fields of cultural, social, and intellectual history, mobility and migration, and nationalism studies.
Baron, Nick, ed., Displaced Children in Russia and Eastern Europe, 1915-1953: Ideologies, Identities, Experiences, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017.
Belsky, Natalie, “Evakuirovannie Deti: Trudnosti Vizhivania v Tylu” in Demograficheskoe Obozrenie N2, 2016, pp. 169-179.
Holmes, Larry, Stalin’s World War II Evacuations: Triumph and Troubles in Kirov, Kansas UP, 2017.
Manley, Rebecca, To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).
Shaw, Charles David, “Soldiers’ Letters to Inobatxon and O’g’ulxon: Gender and Nationality in the Birth of a Soviet Romantic Culture” in Kritika, Volume 17, Number 3, Summer 2016, pp. 517-52.
Zahra, Tara, Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families After WWII, Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 2011.
 Rebecca Manley, To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).
 Rebecca Manley, ‘The Evacuation and Survival of Soviet Civilians, 1941–1946’ (Ph.D dissertation, University of Toronto, 2004), p.272.
 For more on the movie, see ‘This is Your House: The Soviet Wartime Experience as Uzbek Family Values’ in Michael Rouland, Gulnara Abikeyeva, Birgit Beumers (eds), Cinema in Central Asia: Rewriting Cultural Histories (I.B. Tauris: London, New York, 2013), pp. 76-8.
 IRI RAN, Mints’ Commission, f. 2, razdel 7 (natsional’niie respubliki), op. 8, d. 1 (Zhenschiny Uzbekistana v dni Otechestvennoi Voiny).
 Igor Krupnitsky, Dorogie Mama i Papa’, Kul’tura i Zhizn’ N7, 1966.