• Peripheral Histories

Researching Displacement in Central Asia: A Reflection on the Use of Sources

Updated: Aug 1

Hanna Matt


Drawing on my dissertation research on displacement and famine in Central Asia, this blog post will reflect on the methodological challenges and opportunities of writing a history of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union from the margins. The first part of my thesis examines responses to displacement in Central Asia during the First World War. I am working on a chapter examining one facet of these displacements: German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war in Turkestan. One type of source that can give insight into their situation is the reports written by European aid workers sent to Russia to inspect the conditions in Russia's prisoner of war camps. These documents provide valuable information on the situation of prisoners of war in Russia. However, the accounts give only a limited view of displacement in Central Asia, and while they offer a unique perspective on the events considered, this picture is only partial.


Red Cross delegates travelling by train (1916).

Source: Pamir Archive.


Several international Red Cross missions travelled to Turkestan from 1915 onwards. Among them were German and Austrian Red Cross nurses as well as men, mostly officers or medical professionals, representing the American, Swedish, and Danish Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).[i] Delegates rarely spent more than a few hours in the camps they visited. The German and Austrian delegations that travelled to Russia as a part of reciprocal agreements between the belligerent nations were granted the same amount of time to complete their inspections as their counterparts who toured camps on the Central Powers' territory.[ii] This did not account for the fact that they would have to traverse much greater distances to reach the districts assigned to them. In 1916 it took almost a week to get from St. Petersburg to Tashkent by train.[iii] The ICRC delegates faced the same constraints and tried to mitigate against them by focusing only on one area. Soon after their arrival, Ferdinand Thormeyer and Frédéric Ferrière understood that they would not be able to visit camps in all parts of Russia and had to decide which area to focus on. They chose Turkestan, which had been less visited than other areas (and would remain so until the end of the War), and which the delegates felt deserved attention due to its particular climate and system of governance. However, their final route included some camps in Siberia, and as a result, they spent exactly one day at each site they visited in Turkestan.[iv] It would have been impossible for the delegates to make the thorough assessment they wished for in this short time, especially as local authorities and camp commanders went to great lengths to prevent them from seeing the actual situation in the camps and systematic deception kept not only the Central Powers but the authorities in St.Petersburg in the dark about the true hardships prisoners of war faced in the Russian hinterland.[v]


Nevertheless, they endeavoured to provide detailed descriptions of the conditions they encountered in Turkestan's prisoner of war camps. The reports follow a similar structure: First, they give a general overview of the region and outline the most pressing concerns. A detailed discussion of conditions in the individual camps follows, which considers accommodation, nutrition, medical facilities, clothing, issues with correspondence and working conditions. Special attention is usually paid to hygiene and sanitation, and it is evident that prisoner health was the delegates’ primary concern. However, the description offered in these reports is also incredibly detailed in other aspects. For example, delegates would describe prisoners' rations down to the content of their soup and the amount of sugar they received with their tea. German nurse Mathilde von Horn even weighed the meat on a soldier's plate to ascertain whether portion sizes were sufficient.[vi] However, her assessment may not have been representative of the true situation in the camp. As the dates of these visits were usually known to camp commanders several days in advance, they were able to prepare for them, for example, by ordering additional supplies for the kitchens.[vii] As detailed as these reports may be in other respects, some things were obscured from their view. Consulting the accounts of the prisoners themselves shows that the situation on the ground often differed from the way it was represented in official documents.




ICRC report on POW camp visits in Russia (1916) Source: https://library.icrc.org/library/docs/DOC/DOC_00053.pdf


A notable absence is that the reports do not mention refugees from Russia's European front, thousands of which had arrived in Tashkent since the beginning of the war and spread across the province.[viii] Likewise, Mathilde von Horn barely mentions the Revolts of 1916, even though these disrupted her itinerary and prisoners in several locations witnessed the violence of the uprisings first-hand.[ix] These omissions reflect the delegates' positionality and reveal the need to include a broader range of voices, including non-Western ones. However, this can be a difficult task for historians of crisis and displacement, as minorities and the victims of catastrophes such as famine often have historical records written about them rather than being active participants in writing their own history. As Robert Kindler points out in his work on the Kazakh famine, the documents that can be found in the archives were created mainly by the Soviet state.[x]The subjugation of Kazakh nomads during the famine extends into the archive, rendering them victims of epistemic and structural violence.[xi] Likewise, Pierre Fuller suggests that the perspectives of international and Western institutions often dominate the historical records of disasters. Local relief 'leaves fainter paper trails', and voices of the marginalised communities who suffered in crises like famine are often absent from official accounts. [xii] This does not mean that they are absent from the historical record. But, when choosing to work with documents produced by 'foreign' relief organisations, we must be attentive to what these types of sources are unable to tell us.


Compared to other groups of displaced persons during the First World War, prisoners of war were in a privileged position. They were citizens of European empires who had fulfilled their patriotic duty by fighting in the War. They received support from their home nations and the emerging international humanitarian community, and substantial resources were committed to easing their plight. These aid workers, as well as the prisoners themselves created a connection between the European front and regions that have previously been neglected in the study of the War, such as Turkestan. However, they present the perspectives of outsiders, and there are elements of displacement in Central Asia that lay outside their reach.


Hanna Matt is a PhD Candidate at the University of Manchester. Her research explores the development of practices of relief in late Imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union. She examines the provision of aid for different groups of displaced people in Central Asia, including prisoners of war, refugees, and victims of famine. She tweets on @histhannamatt

[i] ICRC delegates only visited Russia once, from October 1915 to February 1916. [ii] Elsa Brandström, Unter Kriegsgefangenen in Rußland und Sibirien – 1914–1920 (Leipzig: Koehler & Amelang, 1927), p. 73. [iii] LABW GLAK, FA 6643, Mathilde von Horn, Bericht über den Besuch der Kriegsgefangenenlager in Turkestan, n.d. (describes visits that took place between September and November 1916), p.1. [iv] F. Thormeyer and F. Ferrière, Rapport sur leurs visites aux camps de prisonniers en Russie Octobre 1915 à Février 1916, (Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross, March 1916), pp. 4-5. [v] Reinhard Nachtigal, ‘Seuchen unter militärischer Aufsicht in Rußland: Das Lager Tockoe als Beispiel für die Behandlung der Kriegsgefangenen 1915/16?’, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Vol. 48 (2000), pp. 363–387, (p. 368) and Reinhard Nachtigal, ‘Hygienemaßnahmen und Seuchenbekämpfung als Probleme der russischen Staatsverwaltung 1914 bis 1917: Prinz Alexander von Oldenburg und die Kriegsgefangenen der Mittelmächte‘, Medizin-historisches Journal/Medicine and the Life Sciences in History Vol. 39 (2004), no.2-3, pp. 135–163 (p.156-157). [vi] Thormeyer and Ferrière, Rapport, p.102; von Horn, ‘Bericht’, p.5; BArch R67/1149, Erika von Passow and F. Drechsel, ‘Bericht’ (Report) on their visits to prisoner of war camps in Russia, 1915-1916. [vii] Rudolf Köstenberger, Sechs Jahre in Turkestan (Graz: Verlag von Ulr. Mosers Buchhandlung, 1923), p. 18. [viii] Jeff Sahadeo, Colonial Society in Tashkent 1865-1923 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), p. 165; Peter Gatrell, A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia During World War I (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), p. 56. [ix] LABW GLAK, FA 6643, Bericht, p.86; Fritz Willfort, Turkestanisches Tagebuch: Sechs Jahre in Russisch Zentral Asien (Vienna and Leipzig: Wilhelm Braumüller: 1930), pp.69-81. [x] Robert Kindler, Stalin’s Nomaden: Herrschaft und Hunger in Kasachstan (Hamburg: Verlag des Hamburger Instituts für Sozialforschung, 2014), p. 28. [xi] Marisa J. Fuentes, Disposessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p.137. [xii] Pierre Fuller, Famine Relief in Warlord China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2019), p.14.

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