- Soldiers’ Letters to Inobatxon and O’g’ulxonGender and Nationality in the Birth of a Soviet Romantic Culture
From the autumn of 1944 to the spring of 1945 thousands of the Red Army’s characteristic triangle envelopes arrived in kolkhozes in Uzbekistan’s Andijan oblast addressed to two young women, Inobatxon Xoldarova and O’g’ulxon Qurbonova, whose portraits and labor accomplishments had appeared in Russian- and Uzbek-language army newspapers. The authors were Red Army soldiers of various nationalities, stationed across the Soviet Union and the newly liberated cities of Eastern and Central Europe, who wrote congratulations and thanks, requesting photos and letters in reply and sometimes proposing further friendship, acquaintance, and marriage.
Just after the German capitulation in May 1945 a soldier in west-central Ukraine penned a lilting note of introduction to O’g’ulxon. Apart from its first line, the letter was written in Russian:
Fiery, hot hello [Uzbek: Alangali issik solom]Hello from Novograd-Volynskii. [End Page 517]
This day or evening I inform you with this letter, when you receive it I don’t know, maybe at night or during the day, the exact time won’t interest you. […] Best wishes in your life, hot, fiery hello. Hello, unknown Ogulkhan. With greetings to you from Mukhamed Ergashov. First, I decided to write this letter to show my great thanks. If you don’t like this letter, you can throw it underfoot! My only desire is to meet you. If you have a friend [znakomyi], tell me. I suspected you as my countrywoman [zemliachka] in the newspaper Leninskoe znamia and decided to write these words. I’ll tell a bit about myself. I am also from Andizhan, from khodzhabad [sic] district serve in the ranks of the red army. … The other day I saw the end of the war. Maybe you and I will see one another. Ogulkhan, if I receive a response from you, then I will write with more detail about myself or more precisely. If you can read Russian, then I will write in Russian, or if you can’t I can write in our language [esli mozhete chitat´ po ruskii to budu pisat´ po ruski, libo nimozhete mogu napisat´ po svoemu (sic)]. So long I am finished writing so long with regards unknown, Mukhamed or Misha.
Write a response to this address. … Mikhail Ergashov I await your reply.1
The little we know of Ergashov is based on his neatly written note. Based on his mastery of the Cyrillic alphabet (introduced to Uzbekistan in 1939), he was probably a young and recent Uzbek call-up. Though full of spelling and punctuation errors, his Russian was idiomatic and free, indicating that he had augmented the Russian learned at school in the Russian-language service environment. His query about O’g’ulxon’s marital status implied he was a bachelor; he was also a common soldier, because he added no service details about rank or medals. Instead, his language served as his primary accomplishment, signaling to O’g’ulxon that he was, like her, a progressive and successful contributor to the Soviet war effort and therefore a fitting match.
Ergashov’s self-presentation offered a dilemma for O’g’ulxon that gets to the heart of Uzbek participation in the Soviet war effort: had she been able or willing to reply, to whom should she have addressed the letter? Was he Misha or Mukhamed Ergashov? Russian or Uzbek or perhaps both? [End Page 518]
Ergashov’s indecision was not a personal shortcoming but a reflection of a seismic transition in Eurasian history, triggered by the Bolshevik revolution and accelerated by the war effort. Uzbek men at war became Soviet in new ways: changing Islamic ritual practice, drinking alcohol, gaining military skills, interacting with men of multiple nationalities, leaving their home regions, learning Russian, embracing Russian nicknames, and even taking Slavic wives.2 Interethnic tensions and disastrous combat performances in the war’s first years had led the Red Army to ensure that Uzbek and other Central Asian soldiers were supported by propaganda materials rooted in their national languages and cultural traditions, according to the dictates of the Soviet friendship...