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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Central Asia in World War Two: The Impact and Legacy of Fighting for the Soviet Union

Updated: May 21

Author interview with Vicky Davis


Vicky Davis’ recently published book Central Asia in World War Two: The Impact and Legacy of Fighting for the Soviet Union (Bloomsbury, 2023) provides a rich tapestry of the wartime experiences of minorities fighting for the Soviet Union and Central Asians on the home front. In this interview with Peripheral Histories? Editor Hanna Matt, Vicky discusses the main ways in which the conflict impacted the region and shares her experiences of conducting archival work and interviews in Kyrgyzstan.


What motivated you to write a book about Central Asia during the Second World War?

 

By sheer coincidence, a lot of things came together in 2017. This was when I first volunteered in Kyrgyzstan with the NGO Women’s Public Union Erayim, providing professional development for teachers in a remote area of the country. My colleagues knew that I was interested in remembrance of World War Two through my previous book (Myth Making in the Soviet Union and Modern Russia) and offered to show me some war memorials and even set up a meeting with a veteran Red Army soldier and his family. Although I had no intention of writing another book at that stage, it was my chance meeting with the Director of the State Archives in the Issyk-Kul’ province that changed my mind. She introduced me to her domain and offered me the chance to access the records there – a remarkable opportunity too good to refuse! The final piece of the jigsaw was the link between Central Asia and my previous research base of Novorossiisk on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where I had interviewed around 150 people about remembrance of the war. Amongst them were two elderly Crimean Tatars whom I had visited on several occasions. Their story of forced exile and survival in Uzbekistan was so moving that it seemed fitting to include it in a book. Luckily, my editor at Bloomsbury agreed and the real research began!

 

What were the main ways in which Central Asian experiences of the war differed from, and resembled, those of other unoccupied regions of the Soviet Union?

 

Wartime deprivation such as requisitions and acute hunger were suffered across the whole Soviet Union, cementing the people’s unity of purpose. The demographic changes in Central Asia were largely representative of the whole of the Soviet Union, with decreases in births and a large increase in deaths. Much industry from Nazi-occupied areas was evacuated to the Urals and Siberia, with factories, power plants and universities springing up, too, in Central Asia. One interesting example was the evacuation of the key shipbuilding institute from Mykolaiv to Karakol, where it had to share premises with an existing institution. The lack of manpower on farms across the state similarly affected women and children left at home to shoulder the burden.


The war also introduced issues unique to Central Asia, such as its deployment as a space deemed suitable by the state for evacuees, deportees and prisoners of war. The impact of the population displacement across the region was immense – reminiscent of the movement along the trails of the ancient Silk Road, but on a far larger scale. In this respect, Central Asia became the veritable crossroads of the Soviet Union, leading to severe overcrowding in larger cities such as Tashkent.

 

In chapter six you discuss the plethora of propaganda that Soviet citizens were bombarded with during the war. In what ways did propagandists specifically try to mobilise the support of Central Asians and how did they respond?

 

The tension between the region’s distinctive tradition and the new Soviet modernity imposed on all its people – not only those who went to war – was a recipe for potential friction which could well have undermined the war effort if it had not been controlled by a substantial central propaganda effort. The official Soviet policy changed from one of prewar repression to the active encouragement of the region’s ethnic minorities. The overriding Communist Party line of the ‘friendship of the peoples’ emphasized the role played by indigenous Central Asians as equals in the struggle against the common enemy. The party recognized their dual identity as ethnic Kazakhs or Kyrgyz, for example, but also as fully-fledged citizens of the Soviet Union, in common with their Slavic brothers. The population was far more exposed to Soviet ideals than ever before, broadcast by the mass media and epitomized by the Russian language and culture imported by evacuees and returning soldiers.


Propaganda material took many forms: pamphlets and newspaper articles, talks and lectures from Communist Party leaders, radio programmes, plays and literature. Bombarded with information from Komsomol groups on the farm or factory floor, citizens were exposed to clear, simple explanations of why the Soviet Union needed their support in the war to defeat a common enemy. Facing the challenging conditions of war, the state was forced to enlist the support of the Muslim religious hierarchy as the German enemy attempted to win over fellow Muslims in occupied regions such as Chechnya and Crimea. While Moscow found itself in crucial need of the Central Asian republics during the war, it remained intent on using the circumstances of war to accelerate its campaign of sovietising society and completing its ideological aim of bringing enlightened socialism to the masses.



Figure 6.3 Listening to News from the Front in Kyrgyzstan, 1941. Vicky's favourite image from the archives.

 

How did the war impact the relationship between Central Asia and other parts of the USSR?

 

The dramatic ethno-dynamic changes of war caused huge strains on this region of the Soviet Union above all others, which could well have undermined the existing fault-lines and caused the collapse of traditional society. Thanks to the proactive propaganda campaign, however, the unification of purpose against the common enemy was stressed, leading to an acceleration of the integration of Central Asia into the Soviet Union.


Whereas before the war, the city of Leningrad had assisted the development of new industries in Central Asia, during the war the tables were turned, as financial and other support was sent to besieged Leningrad, while thousands of refugees were welcomed to new homes in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. A concerted strategy by war correspondents served to highlight the positive aspects of the fighting men and civilians of Central Asia, but this did not affect the prejudice of many Slavic soldiers and unit commanders, who all too often deemed their Asian comrades in arms to be both weak and cowardly.


Men conscripted into the Red Army were encouraged to improve their literacy and learn the Russian language, while benefiting from opportunities for advancement in and after the war, often within the Communist Party hierarchy. The chance to study in Moscow, for example, was a further attraction to young men and women in the postwar years. Overall, the war served as an eye-opener to many Central Asians as they came into contact with Russian culture and the wider Soviet society for the first time.



Figure 8.2 Lt. Muedin Settarov (bottom right) and Red Army Comrades (image provided by family).

 

There is an important tradition of oral history in many parts of Central Asia. How did you approach this in your project?


This is an interesting question. Although most of my research took place in the archives, I was fortunate to be able to interview several respondents about their own or their family’s wartime experience. Some of them did not know their exact date of birth, but most had a good knowledge of their family’s history during the twentieth century. Most introductions were made with the help of my colleagues at WPU Erayim or the Karakol archives. A neighbour offered the help of her daughter-in-law with family in Bishkek, while a young Kazakh friend, who had been studying at university in England, put me in touch with useful contacts in Almaty. This led to a bizarre meeting with the granddaughter of Kazakhstan’s most famous wartime army general, set up over WhatsApp: ‘Meet me by the Eternal Flame. I’m the one wearing a polka-dot dress’!


In any interview it is essential to build up a personal but professional relationship with the respondent. This is easier said than done when the subject is meeting a stranger, a foreigner to boot, from a different cultural and linguistic background. Unlike archival study, live encounters demand attention to interpersonal dynamics. Photographs of where I lived helped bridge the immense geographical distance between us, although many subjects expressed surprise that somebody from as far away as England could be interested in the local history of a remote Kyrgyz village, for example. Some more informed subjects referred positively to the fact that my results, obtained from an outsider’s perspective, may render them more objective.


Although I spoke to some war veterans with the help of their Kyrgyz families as interpreters and, indeed, safeguarders, most interviews were conducted in Russian, the lingua franca of the former Soviet Union and the current CIS. However, such enormous cultural and linguistic barriers are not to be taken lightly and it is possible that I may have missed certain nuances in accounts. Would a native Kyrgyz interviewer have been quicker to grasp these inferences? Were some subjects trying to put a positive spin on their own wartime experience or commemorative remembrance of the war out of nationalistic pride? It is evident that care has to be taken with the interpretation of the oral interviews which formed a relatively minor, illustrative part of my field research, in comparison with the major role played by interviews with well over 100 subjects for my previous book.

 

During my fieldwork I experienced immense hospitality – overwhelming in a couple of cases, when I endured two hearty meals in successive households, Vicar of Dibley style. The question ‘How old are you?’was the overture to most of my conversations in Kyrgyzstan, while one notable encounter ended with the even more personal query: ‘Are those all your own teeth?’

 

Interestingly, while some respondents had little tangible to offer about the effect of the war on their families, others sought me out in order to have their stories recorded. In this way I was given access to the private papers of several soldiers, carefully preserved by their descendants. Thanks to their generosity, the tapestry of wartime experiences I uncovered became much richer and more personal.

 

You include more than 300 individuals’ stories in the book, which highlight how diverse wartime experiences were across the region. Are any of them particularly emblematic of how children experienced the war?

 

The life of Kyrgyz children in wartime is embedded in living memory and is well documented in the archives, especially the difficulties experienced by undernourished schoolchildren and those in care. Other children, often unaccompanied, arrived in Central Asia as refugees or even deportees. While memoir literature offers an insight into their arduous journeys, archival documents reveal the official correspondence and decision-making behind their treatment. The state may have vaunted its hospitality in offering sanctuary to the evacuated children of besieged Leningrad, for example, but closer examination indicates the possible exploitation of child labour by local families eager to ‘adopt’ unaccompanied refugees and gain some financial compensation from the state.

 

Some of the most heartrending documents I unearthed were the letters written by parents and grandparents of children who had been forcibly removed to Central Asia in a bid by the Soviet state to protect the future generation. Very few of those refugee children who had been removed from children’s homes or adopted by Central Asian families were ever reunited with their parents, despite attempts made over the years to track them down.

 

The string of letters concerning one girl in particular were so moving that many of my archivist colleagues had tears in their eyes as they read them for the first time. In the spring of 1941 a certain Ekaterina Sausha was posted from her work in Leningrad to the town of Vyborg on the Finnish border, leaving her daughter Anna in the care of her mother-in-law. As soon as war broke out, Ekaterina was evacuated directly from Vyborg to the Urals, where she was immediately conscripted into the Red Army. During the harsh winter of 1941–1942 Anna’s grandmother died – probably, like many others, of starvation or extreme cold. The seven-year-old child was placed in a children’s home, which was then evacuated to Krasnodar in the south of the country in the spring of 1942. As the enemy approached Krasnodar that summer, the home with all its residents was re-evacuated to Kyrgyzstan, to be re-established in the Issyk‑Kul’ province.


As no contact had been made with Anna’s parents, the following year she was placed for adoption with the family of a certain Sorombai Jel’denov, a collective farm worker. By 1944 her real mother, Ekaterina, was taken ill and returned to Leningrad, where she eventually discovered what had happened to her mother-in-law and daughter. Having lost her first husband, she re-married in July 1945, shortly after the end of the war in Europe. Her new husband was Nikolai Eidemiller, demobilized from the army following two serious wounds in 1944. It was at this point that Ekaterina enlisted Nikolai’s help in tracking down her lost daughter.

 

By August, Ekaterina and Nikolai had discovered through the Leningrad authorities that Anna had been in a children’s home in Kyrgyzstan, but that she had been placed for adoption. Nikolai wrote to the home’s director in September 1945 and then to the head of the local district the following January, but received no reply. By May 1946 he took the drastic decision to write directly to Nikolai Shvernik, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. It had long been a Russian tradition to take one’s troubles directly to the country’s leader, with letters received from ordinary citizens by the tsar and later by Stalin. This proved to be a good move, as a fortnight later Shvernik’s office had instructed the Issyk‑Kul’ authorities to respond with full details of Anna’s case to Comrade Eidemiller.


It was this response of August 1946 which brought the bombshell to Ekaterina and her husband. Apparently, when approached by the investigating authorities, Anna had expressed the strong desire to remain with her new, adoptive parents in Kyrgyzstan – after all, she had not seen her own mother for well over five years and could probably remember little of her prewar life in Leningrad. The Jel’denov family could not agree more: they had formed firm bonds with Anna over the previous three years and considered her to be their own daughter. Diplomatically, the provincial authorities invited Comrade Eidemiller to come to Kyrgyzstan to discuss the matter in situ. There was no reply from Ekaterina and her husband on this final occasion, although a letter from Kyrgyz officials to the Leningrad authorities the following month served to tie up any loose official ends on behalf of this one individual. In this tragic case, it was the interests of the child – by then a teenager – which overrode the understandable wishes for a reunion on the part of her mother.

 


Figure 7.3a One of Nikolai Eidemiller's letters in search of Anna Sausha


All of the archival files you consulted for the book are located in the Issyk-Kul’ state archives. Could you tell our readers about your experience of conducting research there?


I was extremely lucky to be invited to work in the provincial archives in Karakol. In comparison with the official archives in Moscow, conditions for the researcher in Kyrgyzstan were helpful and open. Archives director Chinara Seidimatova provided me with a desk and a team to locate, fetch and carry all the files which were of potential interest. I worked in one of the larger rooms with four or five other employees and a stunning view of the Tien Shan mountains. Although I usually took lunch at a local café, we sometimes went out together and shared sweets and apples during the working day. In contrast to the situation in Moscow, I was allowed to photograph anything of interest, enabling me to cover reams of material at pace. I was also permitted to reproduce in the book some of the photographs held in the archives, for a modest fee.


I believe that I was the first Westerner to work in the Issyk Kul’ archives, although I also encountered one researcher from Hungary who visited for a couple of hours. I was also able to visit outlying branches of the archives, where it was obvious that great care is being taken to conserve and preserve the contents for future generations.


My one sadness is that my colleague Chinara died during the Covid pandemic, shortly after we had met again at a conference in Moscow at the end of 2019. I visited Karakol once more in 2023 and was invited to deposit a copy of my book for their records.

 

What questions remain unanswered in your book?


It was very difficult to find much information about the Axis prisoners of war interned in Central Asia, as much of the detail is probably held in the central Soviet military archives in Moscow and few POWs were held in Kyrgyzstan. Urban myth recalls the use of POWs in the construction of post-war public buildings in Bishkek and Tashkent, while the relatively recent return of one Japanese former POW to Kyrgyzstan was documented in local newspapers. Otherwise, families of German origin live in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, but it is possible that they have survived from original nineteenth-century settlers. This aspect of the legacy of the war is worthy of a future research project in the region.


Vicky Davis is an independent scholar, writer and linguist with a professional background in international education. She holds a doctorate in Russian social history from University College London and has travelled widely in the republics of the former Soviet Union. Her research interests focus largely on wartime propaganda, remembrance of the Second World War and the politicization of memorial practices. 


We would like to thank Vicky for allowing us to use images from the book.


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