- Central Planning, Local Knowledge?Labor, Population, and the “Tajik School of Economics”
At a meeting of Central Asian economists and their counterparts from Moscow in 1981, the Tajikistani academic Rashid Rahimov delivered an impassioned speech criticizing those colleagues, some from his own region and others from the Soviet capital, who were arguing against further investment in heavy industry and instead suggesting a program that involved the development of cottage labor to employ the region’s burgeoning population. By this point, Rahimov had led Tajikistan’s Institute of Economics for nearly two decades and had been among those who had been arguing that the development of labor-intensive modern industry in the region was necessary to provide jobs to the region’s young people and raise their standard of living. By the mid-1970s, however, it had become clear that Central Asians were not entering the new industries, and the factories built at great cost were instead being staffed by Europeans. The failure of Central Asians to enter the industrial workforce, in turn, became an argument against further investment in the region’s industrialization. Rahimov, however, was not buying the alternative being proposed. “I will explain my reasoning to you,” he told his colleagues. “Home labor in the conditions of Central Asia is economically effective only on the surface. There is a major social cost here. In the conditions of Central Asia, in small and medium-sized cities child labor is [already] being used. This has to be kept in mind. It means being taken away from school, from gaining relevant knowledge, and so on.”1 Although he did not say so to his colleagues, Rahimov spoke from experience: as a child in the 1940s, he and [End Page 585] his siblings had been pulled in to help with the cottage labor his mother performed at home.2 He and his colleagues had envisioned a future where such labor would no longer be necessary. As we will see, for a while in the 1960s and 1970s their ideas held sway, but by the early 1980s calls for further industrialization were increasingly met with skepticism. Understanding how this change came about, and its consequences, will go a long way toward explaining the consensus that kept Central Asia seemingly so firmly part of the Soviet Union throughout the post–World War II decades, and why that consensus started to come apart in the 1980s. Following these debates will also help us see what happened in Central Asia as part of the broader story of development in the postcolonial world.
During the Cold War, scholars examining Soviet Central Asia debated whether the region could be understood as a colony dominated by Russia or, as Soviet propaganda often claimed, a model for the Third World.3 Those who supported the latter view, like Alec Nove and Donald Wilber, pointed to the USSR’s success at developing the region, highlighting figures for industrialization, education, and access to services that compared favorably with indicators for countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.4 As scholars like Gregory Massell noted, however, Soviet development practices and nationality policy on the periphery threw up their own contradictions by promoting an elite that was encouraged to think of itself in “national” terms and might ultimately challenge the legitimacy of a centrally controlled Soviet system.5 Historians of Soviet Central Asia have returned to these questions, now armed with a theoretical apparatus, possibilities for comparison, and access to archival records and first-person accounts unavailable to their Cold War–era predecessors. These newer studies have highlighted the extent to which the Soviet era in Central Asia, at least during certain periods, was [End Page 586] indeed shaped by the pursuit of deliberately anti- or postcolonial policies, even as legacies of the colonial past proved difficult to overcome, while central control and the single-party system created their own quasi-colonial patterns.6 Scholars have also debated the extent to which various Soviet modernization drives in Central Asia are best compared to other colonial development contexts or to the experience of modernizing states like Kemalist Turkey.7
This article approaches these questions by looking at the careers and efforts of...