Turkmenistan - Soviet Victory and Stalin’s Rule
Because the Turkmen generally were indifferent to the advent of Soviet rule in 1917, little revolutionary activity occurred in the region in the years that followed. However, the years immediately preceding the revolution had been marked by sporadic Turkmen uprisings against Russian rule, most prominently the anti-tsarist revolt of 1916 that swept through the whole of Turkestan.
In October 1917, the Communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin overthrew the Russian government. The Communists succeeded in taking control of Ashkhabad in the summer of 1918. In response, Dzhunaid Khan and forces loyal to the old Russian regime joined together to drive out the Communists. In July of 1919, these anti-Communist allies established the independent state of Transcaspia.
By the fall of 1920, however, the Communist Red Army was advancing from Tashkent (in modern Uzbekistan) and from Bukhara. The Communists gradually subdued Turkmenistan by military occupation and by putting Communist politicians in control of local governments. In 1922, the Communists founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Two years later, they established the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) as a full member of the USSR. In October 1924, when Central Asia was divided into distinct political entities, the Trans-Caspian District and Turkmen Oblast of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic became the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin made harsh and sweeping changes throughout the USSR. Private property was seized, and the Soviet government used brutal methods to punish opposition. These policies sparked a rebellion in Turkmenistan, and in 1927 the Soviets lost control of the republic to a national resistance movement called the Turkmen Freedom [in Turkmenistan].
Their armed resistance to Soviet rule was part of the larger Basmachi Rebellion [ Basmachi is Russian for bandit, a term later applied in Afghanistan] throughout Central Asia from the 1920s into the early 1930s. Although Soviet sources describe this struggle as a minor chapter in the republic's history, it is clear that opposition was fierce and resulted in the death of large numbers of Turkmen.
After reclaiming the Turkmen SSR in 1932, Stalin executed thousands of Turkmenistan’s Communist leaders—including the president and the premier—whom he accused of helping the nationalists. After the terror of the 1930s, the Communist regime in Ashkhabad became completely obedient to the central Soviet government in Moscow.
Meanwhile, another international conflict was brewing in Europe. The western Soviet Union was devastated by World War II (1939-1945), when Germany invaded with a huge military force. Fierce fighting destroyed factories, farms, and cities throughout western Russia and Ukraine. After the war, the Soviets built new plants in central Asian cities, including Ashkhabad and Chardzhou (modern Turkmenabat). A work force made up of ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians emigrated to the Turkmen SSR to take advantage of new jobs in the republic.
By some accounts, most Turkmen remained rural and nomadic. By other accounts, during the forced collectivization and other extreme socioeconomic changes of the first decades of Soviet rule, pastoral nomadism ceased to be an economic alternative in Turkmenistan, and by the late 1930s the majority of Turkmen had become sedentary.
Despite the immigration of factory workers, the Turkmen SSR remained one of the Soviet Union’s most isolated republics. Foreigners, and even Soviet citizens, were forbidden to visit most of the region, and the Soviet government also would not allow most Turkmen to travel out side the republic.
In spite of the republic’s isolation, economic development continued in the region. New irrigation projects diverted water from rivers to collective farms, many of which began growing fruits and vegetables instead of cotton. During the 1970s, the Soviet government also developed the region’s energy resources, including oil and natural gas.
Efforts by the Soviet state to undermine the traditional Turkmen way of life resulted in significant changes in familial and political relationships, religious and cultural observances, and intellectual developments. Significant numbers of Russians and other Slavs, as well as groups from various nationalities mainly from the Caucasus, migrated to urban areas. Modest industrial capabilities were developed, and limited exploitation of Turkmenistan's natural resources was initiated.
Beginning in the 1930s, Moscow kept the republic under firm control. The nationalities policy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) fostered the development of a Turkmen political elite and promoted Russification. Slavs, both in Moscow and Turkmenistan, closely supervised the national cadre of government officials and bureaucrats; generally, the Turkmen leadership staunchly supported Soviet policies. Moscow initiated nearly all political activity in the republic, and, except for a corruption scandal in the mid-1980s, Turkmenistan remained a quiet Soviet republic.
The Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev instituted several new policies after coming to power in 1985. Glasnost allowed more open criticism of the Communist party and of the country’s economic system. Perestroika eased government control over many small businesses, which could now set their own wages, prices, and production schedules. Turkmen Communist leaders, however, were slow to adopt these reforms. Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (see Glossary) and perestroika did not have a significant impact on Turkmenistan. Annamurad Khodzhamuradov, who became the Turkmen SSR’s leader in 1986, remained loyal to the Soviet government but never accepted Gorbachev’s reforms. The republic found itself rather unprepared for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence that followed in 1991.
In the late 1980s, many Soviet republics attempted to gain their independence from Moscow. When other constituent republics of the Soviet Union advanced claims to sovereignty in 1988 and 1989, Turkmenistan's leadership also began to criticize Moscow's economic and political policies as exploitative and detrimental to the well-being and pride of the Turkmen. By a unanimous vote of its Supreme Soviet, Turkmenistan declared its sovereignty in August 1990. The Turkmen SSR declared that it would take greater control over local politics and economic policy. The government established the office of president and named Saparmurat Niyazov to the post.
After the August 1991 coup attempt against the Gorbachev regime in Moscow, Turkmenistan's communist leader Saparmyrat Niyazov called for a popular referendum on independence. The official result of the referendum was 94 percent in favor of independence. The republic's Supreme Soviet had little choice other than to declare Turkmenistan's independence from the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Republic of Turkmenistan on October 27, 1991.
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