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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

The 'Face of the Desert' in Soviet Central Asia

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Alun Thomas

Face of the Desert (Lik Pustyni) was first published in Moscow in 1948. The book was written by Boris Alexandrovich Fedorovich and would earn him the Stalin Prize in 1952. It was a kind of geographical and anthropological survey of deserts and their peoples around the world, but especially the Soviet Union’s own extensive desert spaces such as those of Central Asia.

Face of the Desert

Fedorovich’s formal aim was to popularise geography and anthropology and bring them to the urban masses of European Russia. He wrote evocatively of the forbidding conditions of desert life and the beauty of an arid landscape. Amid his carefully written and accessible prose, readers could find multiple diagrams and photographs of, say, sand dunes, or caravans of camels loaded with wooden trunks and bundles of fabric. To these, Fedorovich added captions like: ‘’The largest lizard of the desert – the monitor lizard (Karakum)’ and ‘Still harder was the life of women, cowed and oppressed by the twin slaveries of need and lawlessness… In a sign of eternal obedience she would always have to keep in her mouth ‘the headscarf of silence’, beneath a photograph of a woman carrying a bucket with a section of her headscarf tucked between her teeth.[1]

Given its date and place of publication, of course, we should not be surprised by the intrusion of politics into a study of this kind, and Fedorovich begins a chapter towards the end of the book with a quotation from Joseph Stalin himself: ‘The history of peoples knows many revolutions … Only the October Revolution set itself the goal of destroying all exploitation and liquidating all and every exploiter and oppressor.’[2] This chapter goes on to explain that the ‘eternal obedience’ of desert women proved not so resilient after the Bolsheviks interrupted eternity by bringing socialism to Central Asia. The second sub-heading of this chapter is ‘The settlement of the nomads’, a section I read with interest having recently written on the Communist Party’s treatment of nomadic peoples after the Revolution.[3]

There were many nomadic pastoralist communities still living in Central Asia when the Bolsheviks took power, though – as Fedorovich confirmed – their ways of life and methods of nomadism varied enormously. Fedorovich characterised the nomadic lifestyle as static or primordial, perhaps ahistorical, drawing on tropes which would have been very familiar to regular consumers of Soviet middlebrow culture. They may have come from a particular reading of Marx, but they were surely also connected to a European, imperial mindset lingering on in a postcolonial state. The impression was given to readers of a population trapped in a set of ancient practices with progress kept out of reach; other media produced in the Soviet Union paint a comparable picture, even when they were published later and were more critical of the regime than Face of the Desert.

Fedorovich made no criticism of the Communist Party’s actions. This resulted in a wholly misleading account of the settlement of the desert nomads as an emancipatory gesture involving the allocation of land and resources to people willingly taking up a life of sedentary agriculture on a new set of kolkhozy, adjusting quickly to ‘life in one place’.[4] The truth is now well-documented: for the nomads of Central Asia, especially in the Kazakh Republic, the implementation of Stalin’s collectivisation drive in the late 1920s and early 1930s caused a catastrophic collapse in livestock numbers and lead to millions of fatalities.

In the 8-10 years preceding this disaster, the Communist Party acted on some convictions shared by Fedorovich, and others which are less apparent in Face of the Desert having been jettisoned when Stalin consolidated his power and implemented the first Five Year Plan. For example, the Communist Party of the NEP era thought of the nomads’ landscape - just as Fedorovich did - primarily as empty. This featurelessness made the land seem impatient for agricultural and industrial development, without natural or human impediment, and paid no heed to the nomads’ own common map of the region, which was rich with economic and cultural significance. The Communist Party’s view of women was also consistent between the early 1920s and the late 1940s. The nomadic women of Central Asia, most of whom were Muslims, were considered profoundly oppressed by the norms of their societies. The Bolsheviks’ early response was the Red Yurts, travelling bands of propagandists, medical and veterinary staff who sought to politicise women as well as improve their health and literacy.

B. A. Fedorovich

On the other hand, in his retrospective view, Fedorovich presented the forced settlement of nomads as a natural outcome of the Communist Party’s aims, and contended that agriculture in Central Asia was more orderly and productive after ‘sedentarisation’. In the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks were more ambivalent. Some in local Party branches argued that nomadism would decline automatically as the benefits of socialism became obvious to the desert population. Thus, no incentivisation, facilitation or coercion of the nomads would be necessary. Others (fewer) argued that the desert climate made sedentary agriculture impossible, so the nomads were maximising what little productivity could be gleaned from their lands. Advocates of these positions comprehensively lost the battle within the Communist Party, and just as with the horrors of collectivisation, they are absent from Face of the Desert.

The environmental degradation of Central Asia is a topical issue today, and Fedorovich is a window into a landscape and collection of cultures which changed dramatically during Stalin’s tenure. Its conspicuous imperfections make it all the more compelling, as well as helping us to understand the mindset or ideology which caused those changes to occur.

Alun Thomas is Lecturer in Modern European History at Staffordshire University. His book Nomads and Soviet Rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin was published in 2018.

[1] B. A. Fedorovich, Lik Pustiny (Moscow, 1948), pp. 65, 33, 107, 128.

[2] Ibid., p. 154.

[3] Ibid., pp. 159-164.

[4] Ibid., p. 162.

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