The Soviet East through a Ukrainian Lens: The Travelogues of the Ukrainian Expedition to Kyrgyzstan in 1929
by Iryna Pupurs


Based on an in-depth reading of the two travelogues written by the leaders of the Soviet Ukrainian expedition to Khan Tengri in the early 1930s, this article investigates the role of Soviet propaganda in determining the economic, social, and cultural modernization of Central Asia. The author analyzes ethnic hierarchies and stereotypes based on these Ukrainian travelers’ descriptions of three populations in the region, namely the Kyrgyz (as natives), the Dungan (as “exotic” migrants from China) and the Ukrainians (as European settlers). The author also draws readers’ attention to the ambivalent role Ukrainians played in the process of colonizing Central Asia.

Key words: Soviet Kyrgyzstan, Soviet modernity, korenizatsiya, the Kyrgyz, the Dungan, the Ukrainians, Ivan Bahmut, Mykhailo Pohrebetskyi
The Soviet Ukrainian expedition to Khan Tengri, 1929

In 1929, the All-Ukrainian Scientific Association of Oriental Studies, established three years prior under the auspices of the People’s Commissariat for Education (Narkomos) organized a major expedition to Khan Tengri, a mountain of the Tian Shan Mountain range situated on the tripoint between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. It was led by the professional alpinist Mykhailo Pohrebetskyi and included the novice Ukrainian writer Ivan Bahmut and the composer Mykola Koliada, both of whom were tasked with gathering ethnographic material regarding the lifestyles and traditions of the Ukrainian emigrant community in Central Asia. The expedition also comprised two cameramen from the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration (VUFKU), Ivan Loziiev and his assistant, a certain Shevchenko, assigned to provide a cinematic account recording the ascent of Khan Tengri and the lives of the main ethnic groups in the region. As a result, Loziiev produced two silent documentary films: Through Turkmenia and Bukhara with a Movie Camera (1929) and Towards Khan Tengri (1930).[1]   

During the expedition, both Pohrebetskyi and Bahmut wrote essays about their travels, presenting a creative account of the vicissitudes of their expedition to Khan Tengri and, in parallel, reflecting on life in the Soviet East. Bahmut’s travelogue Travel to the Celestial Mountains was first published in 1930, with a print run of some 5,000 copies.[2] The Ukrainian communities who had settled in this part of Asia were in the focus of his literary account. In 1934, Pohrebetskyi’s own travel book, Khan Tengri, was published for a Ukrainian-speaking audience, with a total of 15,000 copies printed.[3] As a professional alpinist, the author was mainly interested in the mountains themselves and the geographical range around Khan Tengri. His account was equally informed by the existing historical, geographical, and geological studies that had featured central Tian Shan, such as the geological surveys on Central Asia conducted by the prominent Russian and Soviet geologist and paleontologist Dmitri Mushketov.[4] It is important to note that Khan Tengri was originally written in Russian, yet translated into Ukrainian in line with the Soviet policy of Ukrainization, that promoted Ukrainian-language publications.[5] The Russian version of Pohrebetskyi’s travelogue was published a year later.

By the late 1920s, the diversity of Central Asia’s population had increased, with the native Kyrgyzs, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks being supplemented by an influx of new “European” settlers, mainly Ukrainians, Russians, and Germans. This ethno-national heterogeneity, just as with animosity between different ethnic groups, was a legacy of the Russian Empire’s military and agricultural colonization of Central Asia.[6] By contrast, Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi, in line with the Soviet ideology of fraternity and equality between nations, aimed to create a literary account of a new Soviet East bereft of ethnic and religious tensions. Soviet modernization efforts are mirrored in their works, too. Pohrebetskyi’s Khan Tengri, in particular, is filled with images of Soviet progress in architecture, medicine, industry, agriculture, and other spheres of life in Central Asia. Bahmut, in turn, occasionally accounts for the side-effects of accelerated modernization – dilapidated buildings, frequent alcoholism, and poverty. To strengthen their works’ overarching propaganda massage, the tropes of the Imperial past (characterized as “tsarist,” “colonial,” “traumatic,” “negative”) are set against the Modern present (defined as “socialist,” “anti-colonial,” “anti-traumatic,” and “positive”).

Thus, this article scrutinizes a Ukrainian account concerning the process of Soviet modernization in Central Asia. Both Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi’s travelogues specifically focus on the personal experiences of Soviet modernization as encountered by three major ethnic groups in the region: the Kyrgyz, as natives; the Dungan, as “exotic” migrants from China; and the Ukrainians, as European settlers. The dual role of Ukrainians is of particular interest here. On the one hand, Ukrainians in the Soviet East are presented as representatives of a colonizing central power, either as agricultural settlers in the imperial context, or Soviet officials who came to report on and evaluate the region’s social and economic development. On the other hand, Ukrainians in Kyrgyzstan are themselves presented as objects of imperial assimilation who often became indistinguishable from other European (read, Russian) settlers. Told through the eyes of these Soviet Ukrainian narrators, this article contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the Soviet experience in Central Asia, and the role of non-Russians in the colonization of others both in the imperial and later Soviet contexts.[7]

The Kyrgyz ASSR in 1929: Towards Soviet Modernity?

When Pohrebetskyi’s expedition arrived in Kyrgyzstan in 1929, a radical change in the economic and social life of the Soviet Union was underway. In 1928, the New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1921 as a temporary expedient to resuscitate the war-torn economy, was abandoned in favor of a more effective drive towards state-controlled collectivization and industrialization. A set of policies aimed at accelerated socialization were launched that included industrialization, with such major industrial projects as the construction of thermal power stations and numerous textile factories; collectivization. focused primarily on animal husbandry and the sedentarization of the nomadic communities; and the cultural revolution, which included societal reforms such as the eradication of illiteracy, women’s liberation campaigns and female education, antireligious campaign, and changes in the alphabet.[8] These actions were accompanied by a revitalized class struggle, especially against the so-called “NEPman”, a label used in the early Soviet Union to define private entrepreneurs who took advantage of the opportunities provided by the NEP economic liberalization.

However, in the newly established Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (KASSR), NEP culture was never the same as it was in Russia, Ukraine, or the other western Soviet republics. In the Kyrgyz nomadic society, the term NEPman was associated with clan leaders or wealthy herd owners, also known as bai or manap.  These men were supposedly not only active in the economic sphere, but also came to dominate administration, local affairs, and enjoyed great authority among the population. In his essay, Bahmut mentions that in the Tong volost (district), for example, “the bais occupied all local Soviet administrations. The local judge was the bai’s relative and he inhibited any cases against the bais.”[9] In the eyes of the Soviet administration, the bais were not only “class enemies,” but constituted a serious obstacle to the further sovietization of the region, and the struggle against them was particularly fierce.

The travel accounts by Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi also projected an image of modernization in the region. Pohrebetskyi’s Khan Tengri was itself a eulogy to the transformative nature of the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan, established in 1924, and the Soviet administration that undertook the economic and cultural modernization of this backward, unindustrialized Central Asian region. According to his text, the entire expedition to Tian Shan became possible thanks to the introduction of Joseph Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. To achieve the Plan’s declared goals, the Soviet economy required more raw materials, thus necessitating geological surveys of previously underexplored areas like Khan Tengri, as the one his expedition was tasked to perform. Pohrebetskyi’s account illustrates this through detailed descriptions of the reclaiming of the boundless Kyrgyz steppes, the opening of the first sugar factory and hydroelectric power stations, the building of new bridges, and the introduction of motorships across the Issyk Kul Lake. He also fondly speaks of subsequent social changes, whereby “the former nomads turn into settled kolkhozniki (collective farmers), they become school pupils, students in technical colleges and universities, postgraduate students at the Kyrgyz scientific-research institutes.”[10] Pohrebetskyi is especially awed by the glaring changes he observesin the KASSR’s capital of Bishkek, renamed Frunze after the late Bolshevik hero and military leader Mikhail Frunze, who was born and lived in the city. By 1929, Soviet Frunze boasted broad streets, where “new buildings stood in beauty: a printing-house, schools, a cafeteria, a hospital and a leather factory on the outskirts of town…”[11] As Pohrebetskyi summarizes: “during the five years of socialist building, a country was reconstructed anew.”[12]

Pohrebetskyi dedicates special attention to female emancipation, describing the multiple experiences of women whom he met during the expedition such as, for example, his interpreter Fatima Tairova, an Uyghur girl from Kyrgyzstan who became a student at the Moscow Higher Technical School. Her studies had been made possible thanks to a special contingent (bronia) reserved for national minorities from Central Asia, a region in a dire need for educated technical cadres.[13] Pohrebetskyi and Bahmut also comment on the visible successes of the unveiling campaign known as khudjum.[14] Bahmut describes the traditional veil of the Uzbek women called chachvan:

The chachvan is a veil made from horsehair that covers the entire face, but Uzbek woman can see through. One or two years ago it was difficult to find Uzbek women without chachvans. However, over time the number of veiled women has become progressively smaller.[15]

These changes allowed Pohrebetskyi to conclude that “now a former woman-slave knows that she has the right to live freely, [she is aware] that the First Congress of Republican Councils[16] has decided that ‘a Kyrgyz woman, who until now remained a slave in the family and social life, has become a full member of society’.”[17] Here, too, the emancipation of women is presented as a progressive liberation from backward religious structures, which had been made possible by the Soviet state.

Both travelogues also reflected the government viewpoint according to which Central Asian populations were extremely backward in terms of education. Literacy was seen as the most pressing concern, with almost the entire populations of the most distant Kyrgyz regions being reportedly unable to read and write. Bahmut’s account describes how even local leaders in these remote areas would sign documents by simply putting a finger to a sheet of paper.[18] To him, it was therefore justifiable that nearly all managerial posts in state enterprises and administrations were occupied by more educated Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, or Tatars.

To fight illiteracy in Kyrgyzstan, the likbez [elimination of illiteracy] campaign was implemented alongside the development and promotion of the Kyrgyz native language. In the eyes of the two Ukrainian travelers, the increased number of titles in Kyrgyz on the newsstands in urban centers spoke this initiative’s success.[19] Among these newly founded periodicals were the first Kyrgyz-language newspaper Erkin Too, named after the enormous peaks seen throughout Kyrgyzstan, as well as the first Kyrgyz-language literary journal Ala-Too, which had begun circulation in 1931, named after a large range in north Tian Shan. Together with the Russian-language newspaper Sovetskaia Kirgiziia (Soviet Kyrgyzstan), launched in 1925, and the journal Kommunist (Communist), established in 1928, the Kyrgyz-language newspapers Kyzyl Kyrgyzstan (Red Kyrgyzstan), Leninchil Dzhash (Young Leninist), and the journal Dekhan were widely circulated. These newspapers were used as both a forum and a propaganda tool to promote the Soviet regime and its role in the social and economic transformation of Kyrgyzstan.[20] The expansion of the native-language press was linked to a spelling and language reform in Kyrgyzstan, which had replaced the Persian Arabic alphabet with Latin in 1926. This was subsequently replaced with the Cyrillic script in 1941.[21]

This process of modernization had different impacts on various social and ethnic groups in the region, however. Such varying experiences are showcased through observations of the lives of three dominant groups – the Kyrgyz, the Ukrainians, and the Dungan.

The Kyrgyz: “Awaiting Soviet Civilization”

The first ethnic group discussed in Bahmut’s and Pohrebetskyi’s travelogues were the indigenous Kyrgyz, the titular nationality of Kyrgyzstan. It is worth noting that foreign observers, as well as Russian imperial and Soviet colonizers in Central Asia, were often confused when differentiating between the indigenous nomadic tribes. Indeed, until the 1920s, Russian ethnographers had referred to the Kazakh people as Kyrgyz (or Kaisak-Kyrgyz) and to Kyrgyz people as Kara-Kyrgyz (True or Dark Kyrgyz).[22] Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi were aware of this distinction, although in defining people’s tribal origin they often relied on information received from the locals.

In both authors’ works, the Kyrgyz people are presented as being in dire need of an immediate “Soviet treatment” that would help them overcome their backwardness and traumatic colonial past. In this instance, Soviet ideologists and propagandists used the dichotomy of colonial, referring to the Russian Empire, and anti-colonial, when the Soviet Union was concerned. As seen from the two travelogues, this “Soviet treatment” was often associated with “becoming civilized,” which implied abandoning the nomadic lifestyle and becoming sedentary. Similar to their imperial predecessors, the Soviet administration came to see nomadic life as inferior to a fully settled existence. They believed that by observing the way of life in the villages populated by Uzbeks, Russians, Ukrainians, or Tatars, the Kyrgyz would eventually come to appreciate the benefits of a sedentary lifestyle. Indeed, with time many Kyrgyz had already begun living in kishlaks (Central Asian villages), although, as accounted for by Pohrebetskyi and Bahmut, they remained faithful to their habitual nomadic life and preferred to move with their cattle to jailoo (summer highland pastures) during summer.

In addition, the Soviet Kyrgyz were expected to start thinking as “a civilized man,” by adopting European values and lifestyle, and gradually abandoning their tribal customs and traditions. To this end, special nomadic centers were established throughout the region. These centers consisted of various yurts (nomadic tents) dedicated to specific issues, such as yurts for women in childbirth, yurts for overseeing nomadic cooperatives, yurts that provided medical services, yurts where one could seek out agronomical advice, yurts for hosting nomadic council meetings, and, above all, the “Red Yurt,” a Soviet propaganda hub.[23] The Red Yurt, regarded as “a center of Soviet culture in the nomadic regions” hosted a school and a social club. In the words of Pohrebetskyi, its main objective was to fight “the eternal darkness, prejudices, and authority of mullahsbais, and manaps; polygamy, bride price (kalym), marriages with underaged girls, enslavement of women, and common illnesses.”[24]

Within both travelogues it can be seen that the Soviet administration relied heavily on local traditions and customs and came to incorporate many cultural elements of the nomadic tribes, such as their traditional dwelling, into their agenda. In this way they hoped that the Soviet regime would become more familiar and acceptable to the indigenous population. Much attention is dedicated to describing the traditional Central Asian sport of kokboru, during which horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat carcass in a goal. This traditional sport was incorporated into the Soviet agenda and accompanied many important governmental or party meetings. Within the remits of such permitted oriental exotics, such Kyrgyz horse-riding skills,[25] or the stated competency of Kyrgyz women in erecting yurts[26], the Kyrgyz were presented as superior to the Europeans. Beyond this traditional sphere, however, the travelogues continuously present the Kyrgyz as semi-tribal and semi-feudal barbarians, who had little chance of reaching the standard of, or becoming equal to, the archetypical European man.

In Bahmut’s and Pohrebetskyi’s travel accounts, the overwhelmingly positive effect of sovietization is juxtaposed with the dreadful legacy of the imperial past. For example, “muddy aryks” (small aqueducts), which are used by locals for washing themselves, doing laundry and as a source of drinking water, are regarded as “doomed pre-Soviet Eastern exotics” and defined as remnants of tsarist Russia.[27] Another contraposition to the colonial imperial past can be found in Pohrebetskyi’s description of the northeastern city of Karakol, a former imperial military outpost:

The Bazaar defines the physiognomy of each town: the emigrant carts and Uzbek ashkhanas [cafeterias] represent a sedentary world; Kyrgyz horsemen descending from the mountains are reflective of the nomadic world. Between these two worlds stands Karakol, which serves as a link between the settled and nomadic lifestyles. Founded in 1869 as an outpost of the Russian tsarist militant plans, it has now become the outpost of the Soviet culture that continues to attack the relics of semi-tribal and semi-feudal nomadic lifestyle.[28]

Pohrebetskyi concludes that Tsarist Russia had no positive effects on the lives of the Kyrgyz. Guided by the principle “let their barbarian traditions exist – it is easier to rule,” the imperial administration had never even attempted to destroy the more exotic aspects of oriental life, the author suggests. At the same time, the tsarist authorities introduced some negative features of European culture, such as vodka and syphilis. Pohrebetskyi regards these elements as “a necessary vanguard of the colonial Kulturträger mentality.”[29] Moreover, the former imperial administrators had come to control the best lands, maintained systems of bribery (chagym), and hosted mock trials, while continuing to exploit the poor. As a result, Pohrebetskyi accentuates, the imperial legacy nurtured a sense of cultural and political friction between different ethnic groups – particularly the indigenous tribes and the Russian and Ukrainian settlers – culminating in the notorious Central Asian revolt, also known as the Semirechye Revolt of 1916.

The revolt, which broke out in July 1916, was sparked by an imperial decree that initiated the conscription of Central Asian men into labor battalions to support Russian military actions during the First World War. However, it had mostly stemmed from more long-term causes, notably the corruption of the Russian colonial regime, the legal transfer of lands to European settlers, and the spread of political and religious extremism. During the summer months, Russian and Ukrainian settler-villages, as well as Cossack settlements, the inhabitants of which were viewed as historically complicit in the ills of the locals, were burned down with many of the residents being killed and their cattle and property taken away. In order to bring the situation back under control, around 30,000 soldiers were diverted from the Eastern Front to Central Asia, armed with machine guns and artillery. The revolt was quickly and brutally crushed with as many as 40% of the ethnic Kyrgyz population killed in connection to the uprising. Many more emigrated to China.[30]

In his travelogue, Pohrebetskyi reflects on these events and their effect on the Kyrgyz population. Discussing the revolt itself, he recalls a sad folk song about the uprising performed by a local guide, the Ukrainian translation of which featured in his Khan Tengri.[31] In Pohrebetskyi’s eyes, it was this traumatic imperial legacy that had helped the native Kyrgyz, to a certain extent, accept the Soviet regime, which from the very beginning had presented itself as a complete opposite to the imperial practices.

Both Ukrainian writers also placed Kyrgyz people at different stages of the transformation process into Soviet citizens. Some of their protagonists had already become “modern Soviet Kyrgyz,” like the female leader of an aul (fortified village) board whom the protagonists had encountered during their expedition. The majority, however, were still “under the treatment with ‘the Soviet’,” whereas some (especially the bais or Basmachi[32]) chose to categorically reject the regime and what it offered. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the writers, the benefits of Soviet rule remained uncontested. Both Bahmut’s Travel to the Celestial Mountains and Pohrebetskyi’s Khan Tengri feature lengthy monologues by locals praising the transformative nature of the Soviet regime in Central Asia, when a Kyrgyz, for the first time, “started to be treated as a human.” Prior to the October Revolution, both accounts claim, any European-looking and better-dressed man could seize a horse or a ram from a Kyrgyz and could easily offend or use force against them. A Kyrgyz had no right to complain and needed to accept such treatment as a matter of fact. By contrast, the “Soviet bosses” did not hit the Kyrgyz, or exploit their labor. The Soviet Kyrgyz, like every other citizen, were only expected to pay taxes,. Moreover, the “Russians” (rus’ki, a collective denomination used in by the locals to define all non-Asian settlers) could no longer seize their land.

Of course, Bahmut’s and Pohrebetskyi’s observations of the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, or Kazakh way of life were not bereft of the typical colonialist tropes reflecting their superiority to “odd and dirty” Asians. This becomes obvious when one reads Bahmut’s and Pohrebetskyi’s descriptions of the dirt and insanitary conditions in the cafeterias in Frunze, that seemed to be fully acceptable to the locals, or a visit to a Kazakh yurt, the owner of which had never seen electricity, trains, or even a car. Meanwhile, violence perpetrated by the Soviet state against local communities remained a blind spot in both travelogues, unsurprising for what were essentially propagandistic texts.

Bahmut’s depiction of Asiatic women, in particular, were full of irony and orientalism. In one instance, he compares a Kyrgyz female headdress with “a big white clay pot [makotret]” because of the many layers of white cloth wrapped around the head. At the same time, he adds that it was puzzling how women could keep their headwear so white while “being so dirty themselves.”[33] He also noted a stark contrast between the beauty of Asiatic women and their surroundings:

many Kyrgyz women have rouged cheeks; their eyebrows are painted dark black; some have their eyebrows shaved off and a straight black line is drawn on their stead. Here comes a Kyrgyz man on a horse, and his ‘dolled-up’ wife is following him on a cow.[34]

This feeling of superiority expressed by Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi was often reinforced by the locals, however. The Kyrgyz called them “chief” (nachal’nik) or treated them as doctors given their education and the mere fact that they had first aid kits.

The Ukrainians: Settling in a Foreign Land

Bahmut first encountered Kyrgyz Ukrainian settlers on a train. Just after passing through Orenburg, a city on the Ural River close to the border with Kazakhstan, two Ukrainian peasants boarded his carriage. Encounters like this were not unusual in the steppes, where many landless peasants from Ukraine, the Don area, the Russian central provinces, and the North Caucasus had relocated following the abolishing of serfdom under the Emancipation reform of 1861. Mass labor migration to Central Asia was linked, for example, to the construction of the Trans-Aral railway, or the Tashkent Railway in 1906, connecting the city of Kinel in Russia’s Samara Oblast with Tashkent in the imperial colony of Turkestan.[35] The ‘European’ presence in the region was further enhanced as a result of Pyotr Stolypin’s socio-economic reform, introduced between 1906 and 1912, during which up to half a million peasant households from these land-poor central imperial provinces had been moved to Central Asia, where they were granted land for private use.[36] Pohrebetskyi considers this “agricultural colonization” as having been on par with the “military colonization” of Kyrgyzstan, whereby agricultural resettlement was seen as a means of deterring rebellion in the Empire’s most overpopulated (and thus land-hungry) provinces of Voronezh, Poltava, and Kyiv.[37] It is not coincidental, therefore, that in both travelogues the railroad serves as a place of encounters that connected European and Asian ways of lives, as well as a symbol of the historic migration behind the arrival of so many Ukrainians in areas such as Kyrgyzstan.[38]

Bahmut writes of some 1,500 Ukrainian farms in the region around Akbulak, a border town between Russia and Kazakhstan founded during the construction of the Trans-Aral railway.[39] Similarly, Pohrebetskyi refers to the existence of 51 Ukrainian village soviets out of a total of 113 in all of Kyrgyzstan.[40] These were established as part of the Soviet policy to create ethnically homogeneous administrative units where, in addition to self-rule and control over land, inhabitants could enjoy the free development of their respective national cultures, education in their national languages, and access to a native-language press.[41] Conversely, however, Ukrainian settlers in the KASSR complained that their children were being forced to go to Russian schools, even asking Bahmut, seen as a representative of the center, to intercede and bring their concerns to the attention of the Soviet Ukrainian government in Kharkiv.[42] It is worth noting that the Soviet Ukrainian government did invest in the cultural development of Ukrainians “abroad.” Already in February 1929, the Narkomos had passed a resolution pledging support to these communities in terms of providing Ukrainian teachers, textbooks, Ukrainian publications, pedagogical programs, art exhibits, musical and theatrical presentations, films, and radio programs. Help in setting up museums and in organizing literary societies or reserving places for Ukrainians abroad in the Ukrainian institutes of higher education was also promised.[43]

In addition to linguistic discrimination, Ukrainians in Akbulak complained to Bahmut about the poor harvest in the Kyrgyz steppe, where climatic conditions were favorable for growing wheat only once every two or three years. They spoke of their agricultural methods and how they continued to work the land as they had done so back in Ukraine, rejecting the native Kyrgyz approach to farming. They especially opposed using camels as domestic animals. Although they appreciated that these animals were not picky about their fodder, they were strong and had high-quality wool, Ukrainian peasants were wary of them: “It is very difficult to become accustomed to a camel. It is a useful livestock, but very mean – when the camel becomes angry, he can easily spit on you.”[44]

The above-mentioned Central Asian revolt of 1916, despite having affected the lives of many Ukrainians in the region, did not feature much in either Bahmut or Pohrebetskyi’s depiction of the Ukrainian experience in Kyrgyzstan. Indeed, the uprising itself is only mentioned in passing, as, for example during a conversation between the expedition’s members and their assigned teamsters, who were most probably ethnic Ukrainians. During their conversation, one teamster recalled how almost all “European” villages in his neighborhood had been burnt down, and many “Russians” were killed. He himself was seriously wounded and lost his entire farmstead. The almost complete absence of first-hand accounts of Ukrainian experiences during the 1916 Central Asian revolt in either Bahmut or Pohrebetskyi’s travelogues can be attributed to self-censorship. Both authors were well aware of the official line whereby the Soviet Union in general, and the Soviet East in particular, was meant to serve as a symbol of the friendship between nations and, as such, no mention or even suggestion of ethnic animosity could be present in propaganda material. Within Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi’s depiction of Soviet Kyrgyzstan, Ukrainians were not presented as victims of Kyrgyz hostility. A second teamster was even cited as evidence that no animosity between “Europeans” and the Kyrgyz people remained: “perhaps it could be otherwise, but… Soviet power (sovets’ka vlast’)”.[45]

The biggest grievance of the Ukrainian settlers, as recorded in both travelogues, was the fact that within popular imagination they were often incorporated into a unified “Russian world.” In the views of the locals, Ukrainians were regarded as “Europeans,” hence identical to “Russians”. According to these accounts, “Russian absorption” became a true concern for the Ukrainian settlers in the KASSR since they wished to build “their own” Ukrainian world amidst the foreign (Kyrgyz) territory, and not simply contribute to the Russian presence.[46] Indeed, both texts feature Ukrainian settlers approaching the Soviet Ukrainian delegation with their complaints over the lack of Ukrainian schools and Ukrainian-language periodicals in their settlements, repeatedly requesting Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi to appeal to the Soviet Ukrainian government to intervene on their behalf.[47] While it is impossible to establish the truthfulness of these accounts, they clearly betray the interests of the Soviet Ukrainian government represented by the expedition (as opposed to the all-Union institutions).

Symptomatically, Bahmut incorporated two quotes within the title of Travel to the Celestial Mountains’ second section. The first quote was in Ukrainian, and rhetorically asked the reader “Ukraine or Central Asia?” The second was in Russian, claiming that “Ukrainians have lost their national face.” These two short quotes defined the ambiguous nature of the Ukrainian presence in the Soviet East. The first part of the title suggested how content the writer was to see Ukrainian national culture continued to spread and gain appreciation far beyond the titular republic’s borders – one could hear the Ukrainian language, enjoy Ukrainian national cuisine, there were posters for Ukrainian theatre troops and films on the streets of Kyrgyz towns. Inspired by these national manifestations, Bahmut came to perceive the Kyrgyz steppe as almost mirroring its Ukrainian counterpart to the west; only “the mountains on the horizon, the heat, the train stations names, such as Aulije-Ata and others, the Kyrgyz people and the Kyrgyz language kept reminding me that I was some four thousand kilometers away from Ukraine.”[48]

The title’s second part came from the response of the deputy head of the local Central Executive Committee to Bahmut’s question on how the Kyrgyz authorities provided for the national-cultural needs of the KASSR’s Ukrainians: “The Ukrainian population has lost its ethnic face, it has become russified [obruselo].”[49] In addition, Bahmut had heard that korenizatsiya in the context of Kyrgyzstan actually meant “kyrgyzization,” although not many Russian officials wanted to learn the titular language of the republic. While a high level of russification was true for the urban areas, Bahmut undertook to examine whether the Ukrainian “national face” had been preserved in the countryside.[50]

What the expedition team observed during their expedition to Khan Tengri both pleased and disturbed them. In the village of Rybache, for instance, they had been offered lodging at the house of one “Russian” (rus’kyi) man, who turned out to be a Ukrainian.[51] Within another village, Kok-Pak (or Kapky, in Ukrainian), the children called themselves “Russian” (rus’kyi), although they spoke a Ukrainian dialect (po-khokhliatsky).[52] In other “European” villages, through which the expedition passed on their way to Khan Tengri, they could hear soft Ukrainian vernaculars.[53] Soviet border guards, many of whom were Ukrainians, sang Ukrainian folk songs.[54]

Moreover, in the town of Karakol, regarded as the cultural center of Soviet Kyrgyzstan, the Ukrainian expedition witnessed how Ukrainian theatre and cinematography were represented in the Soviet East. A Ukrainian theatrical troupe from the Kuban city of Armavir was on tour in Karakol at the time. The Armavir troupe’s performing repertoire included the nineteenth-century classics: Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba, Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnov’ianenko’s Courtship in Goncharivka, and Borys Hrinchenko’s A Guest from the Steppe, all of which, according to the (Russian-speaking) director, enjoyed great success throughout Central Asia. When asked why there were no contemporary plays, the director replied that they were expected to serve the appetites of the local Ukrainians. It was especially necessary to include the key elements of the traditional national culture with a Cossack costume, Ukrainian hopak, folklore and horilka (vodka) as the most recognizable attributes of “Ukrainianness.” Indeed, the troupe’s performance of Taras Bulba was noted as having followed these expectations to the letter. According to Bahmut, already in the first act they had seen “the actors drinking horilka three times, three times dancing hopak and three times singing [the folklore song] ‘Let’s have a drink, lads’ […] With sadness we left the play.”[55]

In Karakol’s local cinema, the expedition’s members watched the 1926 silent film Taras Shevchenko, directed by Petro Chardynin with the famous Ukrainian actor Amvrosii Buchma playing the main part. Bahmut noted in his travelogue that the film abounded in illiterate and absurd quotations from Shevchenko’s Kobzar. Although the presence of settlers from Ukraine was significant in the Asian steppe, their cultural and ethnic identification was thus rather weak, making them prone to assimilation. The cultural products offered to (and, it seems, demanded by) those Ukrainian communities did not reflect the cultural aspirations of the new Soviet Ukrainian nation that was being created at this time. Rather than show Ukrainians as a modern, urban nationality, local Ukrainian cultural productions in the KASSR merely reproduced (by then clichéd) tropes concerning peasant life and Cossack legends that had formed the core of nineteenth century Ukrainophile imagination.[56]

In contrast to these rare encounters with Ukrainian culture, the most common association with the Ukrainian world were the “European” (Ukrainian) villages scattered around the KASSR. In contrast to the semi-nomadic kishlaks, with their dilapidated clay houses bereft of greenery,[57] these Ukrainian village represented green oases in the steppe. Pohrebetskyi depicted traditional white houses (mazanka) with reed roofs and poplar trees near the wattle fence; ducks swimming in the aryks, pigs wallowing in the puddles, and chicken running around.[58]

Amidst the Asian steppes, Ukrainian settlers had attempted to recreate their own (Ukrainian) world, while adopting the traditional methods they have learned from the locals. For instance, following the example of the Kyrgyz nomads, Ukrainians had also started moving with their cattle to green valley pastures for the summer period. However, unlike their Kyrgyz peers, they did not erect yurts, but instead built small huts resembling those in their permanent settlements. For Bahmut, the villages of “Kyrgyz Ukraine” represented the centres of a grain-growing civilization that had become embedded in a wild nomadic world. Referring to the words of one Ukrainian peasant who had moved to Turkestan from the Kyiv province in Ukraine before the war: “he was fully satisfied with his new life and did not miss his homeland.”[59]

For all its apparent shortcomings, this “Kyrgyz Ukraine” could indeed become a happy place, a home away from home. Nevertheless, the severe and adverse weather and environmental conditions were not favorable to the Ukrainian settlers. Bahmut writes that it was hard to find a pretty face among the “European” children and adults. Indeed, “seldom could one meet a physically healthy person.”[60] There were also other issues that troubled the Ukrainian community; the launch of the Soviet nationalities policy of korenizatsiya had changed the power balance in the republic. For the first time, the majority Kyrgyz population had moved to the top of the political hierarchy and gained control over land, whereas the status of minorities became very uncertain, with many cases of ethnic-based expulsions from villages, discrimination in employment, and limiting of access to other opportunities.[61]

The Dungan: The Exotic Other

The Dungan people were the third ethnic group depicted in Bahmut’s and Pohrebetskyi’s travelogues. The Dungan were Muslim people of Hui origin, descended from Chinese-speaking Muslims who had emigrated from northwestern China to Central Asia (mostly Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) in the second half of the nineteenth century. In his description of this people, Bahmut characterized the Dungan as “Chinese of Turkic origin, Muslims […] specialists in the production of opium, and good cooks.”[62] The footnotes to the 1960 edition of Pohrebetskyi’s book, published after the Cyrillic alphabet had been adapted for the Dungan language and new ethnographic information had been gathered, described the Dungan as follows:

the Dungan (Hui-tsu in Chinese, who call themselves “chzhun-jan”) are people of Mongol origin. They mostly reside in Northwest China, in Xinjiang Province. In 1850, the Dungan together with the Uyghurs rebelled against China. After their defeat, many escaped to the Ili region in the north of Tian Shan. In 1871, Ili province was occupied by Russia but later returned to China. The Dungans who had previously resided in the Ili region moved to Russia. In the Soviet Union, at present there are some 25 thousand Central Asian Dungans who live in the Kazakh and Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republics. On their collective farms [kolkhoz] they mainly grow rice, opium poppy, and cotton.[63]

Before and during the interwar period, hardly any ethnographic knowledge on this group existed. Therefore, in the eyes of the 1929 expedition, the Dungan were truly exotic, with Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi devoting much of their literary attention to describing and analyzing Dungan culture and society. For instance, in his book’s portrait of Frunze, Bahmut noted that there was only one “European” canteen in the whole city, while entire streets were full of Dungan ashkhane (canteens). These canteens were remarkably clean in comparison to other eateries: “We spend a lot of time deciding where to eat. We check the kitchen to evaluate its cleanliness and hygiene levels. In the end, we choose a beer house called ‘The Rebirth of China’.”[64] The menu consisted of beer, red tomatoes, Dungan noodles, kumis (a dairy product traditionally made from mare's milk or donkey milk), and Russian pelmeni (dumplings). Since there were not enough spoons for everyone, the expedition team needed to eat with chopsticks: “We are getting used to eating with chopsticks. At first it was very uncomfortable. Noodles stretch for half a meter and slip off. We needed to watch how the Dungans used chopsticks…,” writes Bahmut.[65]

Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi also described another professional activity of the Dungan in Kyrgyzstan: the cultivation of opium poppy. Some Dungan had entire poppy plantations, while others were hired as skilled laborers to work on those belonging to the “Europeans.” Labor on opium plantations was very hard and potentially dangerous. As Bahmut records, “a plantation worker must eat a lot of meat while picking opium or otherwise he can easily get poisoned.”[66]

To the Ukrainian travelers, the Dungan were an integral part of the Chinese nation, with both authors even using the terms “Dungan” and “Chinese” interchangeably. They wrote about “Chinese kvass bars, Chinese laundries, Chinese taverns.” This confusion becomes obvious in the following excerpt from Pohrebetskyi:

Behind the counter in a mercery there are black-haired girls with yellow cheek-bony faces. Those are the Dungans and Tarantchis  descendants from the Chinese provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Gansu, and Xinjiang. There is an entire Dungan village (sloboda) in Frunze’s suburbs. The Dungan speak Chinese, while the Tarantchi speak Turkic …[67]

Neither Bahmut nor Pohrebetskyi wrote about the reaction of the Dungan to this association with the Chinese. However, the principle behind this link was more geographical than ethnic: just as Ukrainians were associated with Europe, the Dungan were equaled to the Chinese, having originally emigrated from China.

Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi tend to compare the Dungan positively with the Kyrgyz or even the Europeans. For example, they speak of “a Dungan cart covered with a cloth decorated with Chinese motives while Kyrgyz carts are thatched.” While there were supposedly no beautiful and healthy people among the Europeans in Kyrgyzstan, “the Dungan children are great specimens. They have expressive eyes and a nicely tanned skin tone”.[68] Thus, both observers highlighted the higher social status of the Dungan in comparison to the settlers. However, neither author discussed the Dungan’s attitude towards the Soviet state, or the Soviet expectations of this community in Kyrgyzstan, thus presenting them not only as an exotic “other,” but also as a group who existed outside the historical process.


The travel accounts written by Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi during their expedition to Khan Tengri in 1929 are an important source, both in terms of ethnographic knowledge and ideology, for understanding the situation in the Soviet East during the onset of Stalinism. Both mirror the arrival of the new Soviet modernity in Kyrgyzstan and depict the social impact of accelerated modernization across Central Asia’s heterogeneous populations. In addition, these sources provide us with a rare example of a specifically Ukrainian cultural perspective on Central Asia – an idealized image of the East that reproduces conventional colonial tropes.

The main elements of Soviet modernization, such as new industrial sites, rampant urbanization, female emancipation, the decline of traditional cultures, the sedentarization of the local nomadic population, and the cultural blending and increase in the number of Soviet officials and Communist Party members, feature frequently within the writings of both authors under discussion. Bahmut and Pohrebetskyi, although drafting their notes at the same time, chose to describe and highlight different aspects of life in the Soviet East. Bahmut’s depiction of Kyrgyzstan is more intimate, paying closer attention to regular people and their everyday life experiences. While, in line with his objective, his key focus remained the Ukrainian settler community in Kyrgyzstan, Bahmut also provides insightful descriptions of the national life and traditions of the native Kyrgyz and the Dungan people. By contrast, Pohrebetskyi’s descriptions of Central Asia are decorated with admiration for the on-going process of Soviet modernization, which is depicted in stark contrast to the destructive nature of the previous imperial administration. In addition, Khan Tengri abounds with specialist knowledge of the Central Tian Shan region, which he drew from secondary sources.

Ukrainians fulfilled two very different roles in the state-driven Soviet modernization project, as depicted in the pages of these two travelogues, of which the authors clearly viewed themselves as agents. Being, at the time, an aspiring writer, Bahmut in particular was a representative of Soviet Ukraine’s growing cultural milieu, a milieu that “spoke Bolshevik” in the Ukrainian language and wanted to turn Ukrainians into a modern and urbanized nationality. In Bahmut’s accounts, the Ukrainian community in the KASSR is presented as “our own” (although orientalized) and is set against the oriental others. At the same time, he barely hides his disappointment with the community itself: the settlers’ progressive assimilation into the all-Russian collective, their stale “ethnographic” cultural preferences, and their lack of interest in modern Ukrainian culture. Ultimately, it seems, Bahmut saw the Ukrainians of Kyrgyzstan as being equally in need of (nationally inflected) civilization through the state as the indigenous Kyrgyz population.

Bahmut’s Travel to the Celestial Mountains and Pohrebetskyi’ Khan Tengri laid the foundations for Soviet orientalism, presenting an idealized account of the successful Asiatic Soviet republics and their peoples. Throughout their texts, Soviet Kyrgyzstan is depicted as an idyllic place where all nations live in peaceful and fraternal coexistence, while each succeeded in preserving their national features and traditions. Although this image corresponds with official Soviet propaganda of the time, when reading between the lines one cannot help but notice the adverse outcomes of the rampant modernization and uncontrolled implementation of Soviet policies. Indeed, certain sections of these texts might even be considered as a covert critique of the Soviet intervention in Central Asia.

About the author

Iryna Pupurs (Arendarenko) holds a PhD in Philology, which she obtained in 2003. During the last twenty years she has conducted research at the Department of Comparative Literature at the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (Kyiv). She is the author of two monographs on Romanticism (published in 2004 and 2017), as well as numerous articles on comparative literature. Her first book focuses on the typological comparison of British and Ukrainian romantic poetry, while the second, entitled The Orient in the Mirror of Romanticism (the Imagological Paradigm of Romantic Orientalism in Western and Eastern European Literature at the End of the 18th and during the 19th Century) explores these themes in a broader, international context. Her main research interests include Orientalism in the Ukrainian and European literatures, imagology, and the problems of comparative literature studies.


[1] For more on these documentaries, see V. Myslavskyi, “Stanovlennia vyrobnytstva kulturfilmiv v Ukraini protiahom 1922–1930 rokiv” [The formation of kulturfilm production in Ukraine in 1922-1930], Chasopys Natsional’noi muzychnoi akademii Ukrainy im. P.I.Chajkovskoho, 1 (2018): 147.

[2] Ivan Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir: notatky turysta do tsentral’noho Tiyen-shanu [Travel to the Celestial Mountains: Notes of a Tourist to Central Tian-Shan] (Kharkiv: Derzhavne Vydavnytstvo Ukrainy, 1930).

[3] Pohrebetskyi originally wrote Khan-Tengri in Russian; it was subsequently translated into Ukrainian by Kh. Lin. The Ukrainian translation was published in 1934: Mykhailo Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri (Kharkiv-Odesa, 1934). The Russian version of the book appeared in 1935: Pohrebetskyi, Tri goda bor’by za Khan-Tengri [Three Years of Struggle for Khan Tengri] (Kharkiv: Ukrainskyi robitnyk, 1935). The second revised edition of Pohrebetskyi’s travelogue was published in 1960 under the title V sertse nebesnykh hir [To the Heart of the Celestial Mountains] (Kyiv: Molod’, 1960). All quotations in this article refer to the 1934 Ukrainian edition, unless specified otherwise.

[4] D. I. Mushketov, Geologicheskiy Ocherk Turkestana [Geological Survey of Turkestan] (Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1928).

[5] On linguistic Ukrainization, see Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union 1923–1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), esp. 75–122; George Liber, “Language, Literacy, and Book Publishing in the Ukrainian SSR, 1923-1928,” Slavic Review, 41, 4 (1982): 673–685; Olena Palko, Making Ukraine Soviet. Literature and Cultural Politics under Lenin and Stalin (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020); eadem, “Reading in Ukrainian: The Working Class and Mass Literature in Early Soviet Ukraine,” Social History 44:3 (2019): 343-368.

[6] On the Russian colonization of Central Asia, see Adeeb Khalid, Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021); Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, Islam and the Russian Empire. Reform and Revolution in Central Asia. Comparative Studies on Muslim Societies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Alexander Morrison, The Russian Conquest of Central Asia. A study in Imperial Expansion, 1814–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[7] On a similar case regarding the Polish implication in colonization, see Lenny A. Ureña Valerio, Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities: Race Science and the Making of Polishness on the Fringes of the German Empire, 1840–1920 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2019).

[8] On the sovietization of Central Asia, see Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the EarlyUSSR (Ithaca,NY: Cornell UP, 2015); Adrienne Lynn Edgar, “Nationality Policy and National Identity: The Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, 1924–1929,” Journal of Central Asian Studies 1 (1997): 2-20; Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Arne Haugen, The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia (London: Palgrave Macmillan; 2003); Grigol Ubiria, Soviet Nation-Building in Central Asia. The Making of the Kazakh and Uzbek Nations (London: Routledge, 2016); Jörg Baberowski, “Stalinismus als imperiales Phänomen: die islamischen Territorien der Sowjetunion 1920–1941” [Stalinism as an Imperial Phenomenon: the Islamic Territories of the Soviet Union, 1920-1941], in: St. Plaggenborg (Hg.), Stalinismus. Neue Forschungen und Konzepte (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 1998): 113–150; Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia. The Creation of Nations (London: I. B Tauris, 2000); Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures: Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016).

[9] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir.

[10] Ibid, 13.

[11] Ibid, 18.

[12] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 17.

[13] Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 161.

[14] See Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity and Unveiling Under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006); Douglas Northrop, “Nationalizing Backwardness: Gender, Empire, and Uzbek Identity,” In A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, eds. Suny, Ronald Grigor and Martin Terry, 191-220 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021); Douglas, Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); Adrienne Edgar, “Bolshevism, Patriarchy and the Nation: The Soviet ‘Emancipation of Muslim Women in Pan-Islamic Perspective,” Slavic Review 65, no.2 (2006): 252–272.

[15] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 10–11.

[16] The writer refers here to the Resolution of the Third Kyrgyz Oblast Party Conference on the Activities Regarding the Fight for the Emancipation of Women” (Frunze, March 1–8, 1927), in Kul’turnoye stroitel’stvo v Kirgizii: sbornik dokumentov i materialov [Cultural Construction in Kyrgyzia. Collection of Documents and Materials] ed. A. K. Kaminetov, Vol. 1, 1918-1929 (Frunze: Institut Istorii Kirgizskoi ASSR, 1957), 9.

[17] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 53.

[18] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 30.

[19] Eugene Huskey, “The Politics of Language in Kyrgyzstan,” Nationalities Papers 23, no. 3 (1995): 549–72; Liber, Language, Literacy, and Book Publishing; Palko, Reading in Ukrainian.

[20] On the pages of those propaganda periodicals, one could find features with the following titles: “Report on the Political and Educational Work of the Komsomol in the Alamedin Pastures” (Sovetskaya Kirgiziya [Soviet Kyrgyzia], June 18, 1929), “Report on the Work of the Osh Komsomol Members in the Red Yurts” (Sovetskaya Kirgiziya, August 19, 1929), “Report on the Successes of the Cultural and Educational Work Carried Out by the Chui Organization of VLKSM–All-Union Leninist Young Communist League–at the Pastures” (Sovetskaya Kirgiziya, August 29, 1929).

[21] Cf., V. M. Alpatov, “Scripts and Politics in the USSR,” Studi Slavistici, 14 (1) (2017): 9–19.; Ingeborg Baldauf, Schriftreform und Schriftwechsel bei den muslimischen Russland- und Sowjettürken (1850–1937): Ein Symptom ideengeschichtlicher und kulturpolitischer Entwicklungen [Spelling Reform and the Alphabet Change among the Muslim Russian and Soviet Turks (1850–1937): An Episode in the Developments of the History of Ideas and Cultural Policy] (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó 1993); Ihsan Bayraktarlı, Die politische Debatte um die türkische Schrift- und Sprachrevolution von 1928 [The Political Debate about the Turkish Spelling and Language Reform of 1928] (Freiburg: ‎Hans J. Maurer, 2008); T.G. Winner, “Problems of Alphabetic Reform Among the Turkic Peoples of Soviet Central Asia, 1920-41,” The Slavonic and East European Review, xxxi, 76 (1952): 133–147.

[22] See, Ali Igmen, Speaking Soviet with an accent: culture and power in Kyrgyzstan (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), 20.

[23] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 52. On the role of ‘red yurts’ in Soviet propaganda, see Rebekah Ramsay, “Nomadic Hearths of Soviet Culture: ‘Women’s Red Yurt’ Campaigns in Kazakhstan, 1925–1935,” Europe-Asia Studies (2021) DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2021.1940869.

[24] ibid, 36.

[25] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 50–54.

[26] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 42–43.

[27] Ibid, 19.

[28] Ibid, 29.

[29] Ibid, 33.

[30] For more information, see: Alexander Morrison, Cloé Drieu and Aminat Chokobaeva, The Central Asian Revolt of 1916. A Collapsing Empire in the Age of War and Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019); Jörn Happel, Nomadische Lebenswelten und zarische Politik. Der Aufstand in Zentralasien 1916 [Nomadic Worlds and Tsarist Policies. The 1916 Uprising in Central Asia] (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010) (Quellen und Studien zum Östlichen Europa, Band 76).

[31] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 58.

[32] The word basmachi is of Uzbek origin and means “bandit” or “robber.” Basmachi was the term that Russian imperial officers and Soviet state officials preferred for the Central Asian anticolonial and anti-Soviet fighters. Indeed, the Basmachi movement was the largest armed opposition against Bolshevik rule in Central Asia. On the Basmachi movement, see H.B. Paksoy, “‘Basmachi’: Turkistan National Liberation Movement 1916-1930s,” Modern Encyclopedia of Religions in Russia and the Soviet Union (Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1991); Martha B. Olcott, “The Basmachi or Freemen’s Revolt in Turkestan 1918-24,” Soviet Studies, vol. 33, no.3 (1981): 352–69; Alexander Marshall, “Turkfront: Frunze and the Development of Soviet Counterinsurgency in Central Asia,” in Central Asia: Aspects of Transition, ed. Tom Everett-Heath (New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003), 11-20.

[33] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 13–14.

[34] Ibid, 14–15.

[35] On labor migration and rural modernization, see Katja Bruisch and Klaus Gestwa, “Expertise and The Quest For Rural Modernization In The Russian Empire And The Soviet Union,” Cahiers de Monde Russe, 57/1 (2016): 7-30, as well as other articles in this special issue.

[36] On agricultural resettlement, see Judith Pallot, Land Reform in Russia 1906-1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin’s Project of Rural Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); A. M. Anfimov, and Greta Bucher, “On the History of the Russian Peasantry at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century,” The Russian Review, vol. 51, no. 3 (1992): 396–407; Paul Castaneda Dower and Andrei Markevich, The Stolypin Reform and Agricultural Productivity in Late Imperial Russia, CEFIR/NES Working Paper series, Working Paper No 239 (February 2017), URL:

[37] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 21.

[38] On the role of trains in the process of modernization and as a symbol for migration and mobility, see F. Benjamin Schenk, Russlands Fahrt in die Moderne: Mobilität und sozialer Raum im Eisenbahnzeitalter [Russia’s Journey into Modernity: Mobility and Social Space in the Age of Railways] (Stutgart: Steiner, 2014); Schenk, “Imperiia i territorializatsiia. Stroitel’stvo zheleznoi dorogi i povyshenie geograficheskoi mobil’nosti v pozdnei tsarskoi Rossii,” [Empire and Territorialization: The Construction of the Railway and the Increase of Geographical Mobility in Late Imperial Russia] In Rossiiskaia imperiia mezhdu reformami i revoliutsiiami [The Russian Empire between Reforms and Revolutions], 1906–1916, ed. Miller, A. I.; Solov’ev, K. A., 622–643 (Moscow: Kvadriga, 2021).

[39] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 8.

[40] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 21.

[41] On the ethnic aspect of the Soviet administrative reform, see Olena Palko’s article in this issue.

[42] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 8.

[43] Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 289–290.

[44] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 9.

[45] Ibid, 32.

[46] M. Trafyak, “Siryi Klyn,” [Grey Wedge] Suchasnist, 12 (1993): 90-95; Fedir Zastavnyi, Skhidna ukrainska diaspora [The Eastern Ukrainian Diaspora] (Lviv: Svit, 1992).

[47] Ibid, 8.

[48] Ibid, 11.

[49] Ibid, 15.

[50] Ibid, 15.

[51] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 21.

[52] Ibid, 72.

[53] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 21.

[54] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 84-85.

[55] Ibid, 26.

[56] On the discrepancies between the goals of the cultural managers and the recipients (the audience), see Palko, Reading in Ukrainian; Mayhill C. Fowler Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine. Toronto, Toronto UP, 2017. On Ukrainophile cultural tropes, see Serhy Yekelchyk, “The Nation’s Clothes: Constructing a Ukrainian High Culture in the Russian Empire, 1860-1900,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 49, no. 2 (2001): 230–239.

[57] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 27.

[58] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 45.

[59] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 71.

[60] Ibid, 17.

[61] Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 57–72

[62] Ibid, 13.

[63] This description comes from note 9 in Pohrebetskyi’s V sertse nebesnykh hir, 2.

[64] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 13.

[65] Ibid, 13.

[66] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 18.

[67] Pohrebetskyi, Khan-Tengri, 19–20.

[68] Bahmut, Podorozh do nebesnykh hir, 17.