Central Asian Studies_AlunThomas1
Photo by Alun, from an April 1927 issue of Pravda

by Alun Thomas

The first complete census of the population of the Soviet Union was produced in 1926. Soviet authorities had conducted major censuses before, in 1920 and 1923, but the former was highly geographically limited and the latter was restricted to urban spaces.[i] Nor had been made a meaningful study of Soviet Central Asia, the region today constituted by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkestan and Uzbekistan. The 1926 All-Union census drew together information from all over the new socialist polity including its southernmost Islamic regions.

A result of collaboration between Communist Party members and scholars trained in the Tsarist era, the census was mammoth in its ambition. Soviet administrators had been unhappy with the results of earlier censuses because, they said, these studies had been insufficiently rigorous and scientific in the way they categorised the population.

This is indicative of the intellectual atmosphere of the early Soviet period: it was believed that objective social knowledge could be utilised to govern society rationally, thereby hastening the arrival of communism.

For example, rather than simply asking respondents for their nationality and recording the response, an approach which produced a dizzying range of answers, the census-takers hoped to assign citizens a correct national appellation scientifically by considering a series of factors including not only ethnicity but also language, lifestyle (in Russian, byt) and so on.[ii]

This was despite the fact that, for many Soviet citizens including many Central Asians, the national category they were assigned was not meaningful. Before the fall of the Tsar, the most widespread signifiers of identity in Central Asia were those of tribe,

Soviet Stamp commemorating 40 years of the Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic (1960)

kin, or faith.[iii]

The complete published census is a vast and comprehensive document spanning many volumes.[iv] Section one, volume eight; section two, volume fifteen; and section three, volume forty-two all contain information about the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the second Soviet iteration of the territory which preceded contemporary Kazakhstan.

These volumes offer enormous amounts of data on the population of 1920s Kazakhstan. Neatly delineated into numbers is information on marital status, profession, literacy, gender, native tongue, nationality and other qualities. The figures are valuable for what they reveal, and what they overlook.

Overlooked in particular were the more that one million Kazakhs who still lived a nomadic life in the mid-1920s. As a new PhD student some years back I was surprised to find that there was no ‘nomadic’ characteristic listed here, let alone a detailed division between nomads who migrated all year round, nomads who migrated only twice a year, and other variations of practice. Aspects of the nomadic identity emerge in other categories, such as those listed as ‘cattle-herders’ under profession, but in this instance cattle-herders could certainly be permanently sedentary.

Like all such studies, the 1926 census speaks of the priorities of the regime which produced it. For all the specificity of the Soviet regime’s language regarding class and nationality – a specificity born of scientific pretensions and ideology – documentation in the Soviet archives is frustratingly reticent on the nomadic practises of its citizens in Kazakhstan. What I learned from the 1926 census was that the Communist Party’s conceptual understanding of nomads in Central Asia could be critically underdeveloped.

Beyond the census, in everyday documentation, administrators spoke of citizens who were ‘settled-agricultural’, ‘agricultural semi-settled,’ ‘cattle-herding semi-nomadic,’ and ‘nomadic with cattle-herding’ in an abortive attempt to communicate the breadth and

Eurasian Steppe in Altyn Emeil National Park, Almaty Region, Kazakhstan. Photograph: Walton Lloyd Burns (via WikiMedia Commons)

diversity of lifestyles and practises in evidence in Central Asia, before eventually succumbing to a crude dichotomy between ‘nomadic’ and ‘agricultural’ for the purposes of taxation, social provision and economic planning.[v] By so diminishing the social realities of the Kazakh Steppe, the Communist Party lost any real opportunity – assuming it was sought – to govern nomadic peoples with humanity.

What were the implications of the census-takers’ decision? Collectivisation of the rural economy came earlier to Kazakhstan than elsewhere in the Soviet Union and the impact of the campaign was profound. Astonishing numbers of Kazakhs, many of them nomads, starved to death or succumbed to epidemics as a result of the state’s actions.[vi]

Part of the justification for the brutal treatment of Kazakhstan’s nomads submitted by Filipp Goloshchekin, then First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party, was that the inherent poverty of the nomadic lifestyle necessitated decisive action to save nomads from a cycle of deprivation.[vii] Poverty there was in evidence, but this was partly a product of the state’s mismanagement, precipitated by a stubborn refusal to speak of nomadism as a nuanced social reality in census data and elsewhere.

Alun Thomas is currently Lecturer in Russian History at Nottingham Trent University. His first monograph, Nomads and Soviet Rule: Central Asia from Lenin to Stalin, is forthcoming and will be published by I. B. Tauris. Find him on Twitter @AlunR_Thomas


[i] Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 105-107.

[ii] Francine Hirsch, “The Soviet Union as a Work-in-Progress: Ethnographers and the Category Nationality in the 1926, 1937 and 1939 Censuses,” Slavic Review 56, no. 2 (1997), pp. 251-278.

[iii] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), p. 62.

[iv] A complete printed copy of the multivolume census can be found in Oxford’s Bodleian library.

[v] Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Respubliki Kyrgyzstan (TsGARKy) fond 847, opis 1, delo 14, list 13; Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Politicheskoi Dokumentatsii Kyrgyzstanskoi Respubliki (TsGAPDKR) f. 10, op. 1, d. 33, l. 99.

[vi] Gulnar Kendirbaeva, “Migrations in Kazakhstan: Past and Present,” Nationalities Papers 25, no. 4 (1997), pp. 741-751.

[vii] Talas Omarbekov, Golomodor v Kazakhstane: prichiny, masshtaby i itogi (1930-1931 g.g.) (Almaty: Kazakhskii Natsional’nyi Universitet im. Al’-Farabi, 2009), p. 77.

Full image attribution for image 3: By Walton Lloyd Burns (en:User:KZblog) (en:File:AltynEmeil.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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