- Becoming Soviet through WarThe Kyrgyz and the Great Fatherland War
In October 1941, many expected the Soviet state to collapse; this included not only those living under German occupation but also the people on the home front. In the Kyrgyz Republic, rumor had it that Turkey would soon intervene and that Central Asia would become part of a Turkish protectorate.1 Initially, people stayed calm, but when the Soviet state started to requisition ever more cattle and grain and recruit more and more Kyrgyz men, turmoil spread throughout the countryside. Over the summer of 1942, armed groups of deserters challenged Soviet power in the northern Issyk-Kul´ region and southern Dzhalal-Abad. The Central Committee had to send in troops to quell the uprisings.2 While Soviet propaganda would later tell a war story of common patriotism and voluntary recruitment, it seems that in reality most Kyrgyz men could only be drafted via brute force and intimidation.
Rumors and uprisings point to the fact that at the beginning of the war many rural Kyrgyz did not identify with the common war effort or, for that matter, the Soviet state. Nevertheless, in what follows I argue that these same rural Kyrgyz started to identify with the Soviet state as a result of the war. Even the greatest challenges—such as renewed grain requisitions and the corresponding hunger or the evacuation, flight, and deportation of hundreds of thousands of people to Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan—could not stop this larger trend. Becoming Soviet did not necessarily entail an understanding or the internalization of Soviet ideology (even though this could be a side effect). Instead, people of different generations and regional backgrounds could become Soviet by starting to identify with a community of suffering and heroism that was created by war. This community came into existence as [End Page 495] a result of the spontaneous dynamics of the conflict, of individual experiences in the Soviet army or in the rear, and of the state’s effort to create inclusive myths for all Soviet citizens. In some cases this entailed not only identification but also the emergence of new, typically Soviet patterns of daily life and—as Eren Tasar has shown—ways of accommodating local and Muslim traditions within a Soviet identity.3 Of course, this article cannot argue that all the people living in remote rural areas of Central Asia became Soviet through war. Nevertheless, the Kyrgyz example can help us understand that the war created new interpretations of Soviet identity. War provided people of diverse backgrounds with new reasons to identify with the Soviet state.
Recent research has argued that the Bolsheviks’ attitudes toward Central Asia were shaped by the belief in the civilizational superiority of “European”—in this case, Soviet socialist—modernity. The nomadic way of life was considered to be particularly backward, and thus had to be transformed.4 While some Central Asians shared this belief in the necessity of modernization, they also adapted the slogans of Bolshevism for their own purposes.5 Ali Igmen has highlighted the ways Kyrgyz club managers, festival organizers, actors, and authors participated in shaping the institutions and discourses of modern nationhood during the 1920s.6 This project remained elitist, however. Writing about the fate of Central Asian nomads during collectivization and famine, Robert Kindler and Adrienne Edgar have convincingly argued that they learned to interact with communist officials and to use the newly created institutions in local struggles for power or survival. This, however, did not [End Page 496] necessarily entail a more positive sense of identification with the Soviet state and its modernist ideals.7
In what follows, I argue that during the war the modernist impetus did not completely disappear. Nevertheless, the war created new grounds for identifying with the Soviet state. Focusing on Soviet Tashkent, Paul Stronski has already demonstrated how the war helped solidify a sense of loyalty between Uzbek city residents and the Soviet state.8 Other authors have focused on the ways in which “non-Russian”—here, Central Asian—soldiers were integrated into the Soviet army during the war.9 Wartime patriotism also created new hierarchies and lines of exclusion, however. Researchers such as...