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  • The Cotton Boom and the Land Tax in Russian Turkestan (1880s–1915)
  • Beatrice Penati (bio)

In 1912, Aleksandr Vasil′evich Krivoshein, then head of the Main Administration for Land Settlement and Agriculture (GUZiZ) of the Ministry of State Properties, published a report about his recent mission to Central Asia.1 The report expressed his hope for the establishment of a “new Turkestan,” where irrigation projects would promote peasant colonization and cotton autarky. Historians correctly refer back to Krivoshein’s zapiska (as this report is familiarly called) in locating the origins of the technocratic mindset that would produce Soviet large-scale irrigation endeavors.2 It is more problematic to project Krivoshein’s dreams back into the imperial period and to consider his report as evidence that the Russians had thoroughly planned on transforming Turkestan into a giant cotton plantation, or that they had conquered the region for that purpose.3 The fact that Krivoshein advocated such a transformation of Turkestan in 1912 shows that large-scale [End Page 741] new irrigation projects had not yet taken place.4 Nor have historians’ references to other evidence to suggest the existence and enactment of such a “grand plan” proved convincing.5 For instance, the much-invoked new irrigation works in the Hungry Steppe (along the Syr Darya between Djizakh and Khojent) advanced very slowly, and even in 1914 the additional irrigated surface they created (which was not all under cotton) amounted to 3.6 percent of the total cotton acreage in Turkestan, excluding Transcaspia.6 [End Page 742]

It is critical not to take plans (or mere hopes) as facts; instead, we should question the extent to which declarations such as Krivoshein’s or, still more, those of his predecessors were translated into reality. To be sure, some officials and even some government ministries saw new irrigation works as the single most important measure for fostering the expansion of cotton acreage and production in Turkestan (and in Transcaucasia). But it would be incorrect to infer from this that such an expansion took place thanks to new irrigation works before the 1917 revolution. State-fostered irrigation plans in prerevolutionary Turkestan proved ineffective, and this ineffectiveness, together with their relatively small scale, suggests that we must look elsewhere to explain the flourishing of the cotton sector in Turkestan in the late tsarist years—for example, to the collective agency of the native population and investors, both Russian and local.

In this article, I seek to show how other macroeconomic factors and incentives pushed the native Muslim population to sow more and more cotton, on average with better and better yields, especially in Fergana. In particular, I emphasize the role of what one would now call “subsidies,” while drawing special attention to their origins. I propose that although a set of budgetary and administrative measures favored the growth of cotton cultivation, their mere existence demonstrates neither that they were intended to support this production,7 nor that they corresponded to “a consciously designed and collectively agreed policy,” as Olga Crisp put it in her famous polemic on the role of the state in Russian industrialization.8 This article questions the existence of coordinated, effective planning on the part of St. Petersburg, from the late 1880s to at least 1908. The single measure that most directly affected cotton-growing households was a tax break on land sown under American cotton, and local officers and economic actors forced it on (or, at the very least, suggested it to) the imperial government, not vice versa. In addition, its continuation largely depended on the practicalities of Russian rule in Turkestan.

To support this thesis, I look closely at the genesis and subsequent development of this tax break on land under American cotton varieties. The [End Page 743] following sections provide evidence in support of two statements: first, that decisions pertaining to this tax break originated and ripened in Tashkent, or in more remote localities, and were only subsequently accepted by St. Petersburg; second, that the decision to introduce the tax break—and above all the way the latter was extended over time—reflected the specificities of Russian colonial rule in Turkestan itself, in particular high information costs and the blend...


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