Throughout history, water has been a highly political resource. Dams, canals, and irrigation and drainage systems are intimately linked with the organization of state power. Many of the most ambitious projects of this kind in recent history were realized in the Soviet Union. This book addresses the political significance of water management programs implemented in the vast arid expanses of Central Asia that came under Soviet rule in 1917. It offers a compelling narrative of how megalomaniac irrigation projects were devised to expand existing infrastructure and intensify cotton production and thus secure Soviet independence from imports of this vital commodity. But by retracing the water policies and water technology designed as the backbone of Soviet modernization policies in Central Asia, this study also furthers our understanding of more complex historical issues in Soviet and Stalinist history.
For the Bolsheviki, large-scale hydrotechnical constructions were a means of shaping the land and utilizing natural spaces to further the goals of a centralized economy and create work for the population. But as historian Christian Teichmann demonstrates, they were also an instrument for establishing Soviet rule in every far-flung corner of the Union and supplanting traditional social structures, especially in the fragmented and heterogeneous societies in the oases of Central Asia. Nonetheless, the new rulers did not perceive emancipatory nationality policies, on the one hand, and the implementation of a centralized economy, on the other, as contradictory aims. Both were presented as part of a process designed to mitigate the consequences of Czarist “imperialism” and “colonialism” in the region. In practice, their realization by Russian engineers and administrators frequently clashed with the interests of the Uzbek ruling elite and local communists, as centralist interventions, collectivization schemes, mass deportations, and other forms of state violence obstructed the original agenda of decolonization.
Soviet water management in Central Asia increasingly led to the destruction not only of the existing technological and agricultural infrastructure. These policies destroyed, more fundamentally, the region’s social, political, and economic order; ultimately, the creation of disorder became an instrument for enforcing repressive Stalinist policies.