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The Turkmen SSR


Following the Russian Revolution, the Transcaspian region experienced several reversals of power. Control in Ashgabat was initially taken by the Social Revolutionary Party, formed from a nucleus of railway workers. The Social Revolutionaries were unseated by the Bolsheviks, only to rise up again against the new and thuggish Bolshevik administration, in the process hanging nine of the Bolshevik Ashgabat Commissars and thereby inadvertently creating a set of future Soviet martyrs.

The new Social Revolutionary government enlisted the support of the British, who saw the Ashgabat administration as an ally against the threat posed to India by their Turkish enemies, who were then preparing to attack Baku, across the Caspian. In a now barely remembered military engagement of October 1918, Anglo-Indian forces and their Transcaspian allies were pitted against Bolshevik troops in a battle based around the small railway town of Dushak, in present-day Ahal Region. But the end of World War I, and the consequent removal of the perceived Turkish threat to India, resulted in the recall of the British Transcaspian mission. Without British support, the Social Revolutionary Transcaspian government was unable to stand up to the Bolsheviks, who had taken the whole region by February 1920.

The Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (TSSR) was established on 27 October 1924, one of a series of republics in Central Asia founded on the basis of a distinct 'nation', as part of a Soviet policy which aimed to discourage tendencies towards pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism within the region. In May 1925 the TSSR became one of the republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The activity of anti-Bolshevik guerillas known as basmachi was a thorn in the regime's side in its early years, and briefly intensified following the commencement of the hugely traumatic policy of collectivisation in the late 1920s, when traditionally nomadic Turkmens were forcibly settled onto collective farms. Inflamed by Soviet attempts to settle the tribes and collectivise farming, Turkmen resistance continued and a guerrilla war raged until 1936. More than a million Turkmen fled into the Karakum desert or into northern Iran and Afghanistan rather than give up their nomadic ways. The Turkmen also fell foul of a Moscow-directed campaign against religion. Of the 441 mosques in Turkmenistan in 1911, only five remained standing by 1941.

Waves of Russian immigrants brought with them farming technology and blueprints for cotton fields. Turkmenistan’s arid climate was hardly conducive to bumper harvests, and to supply the vast quantities of water required the authorities began work in the 1950s on a massive irrigation ditch – the Karakum Canal. The 1100km-long gully runs the length of the republic, bleeding the Amu-Darya (Oxus River) to create a fertile band across the south. Cotton production quadrupled, though the consequences for the Aral Sea have been catastrophic.

Soviet policy encouraged the TSSR, and the other Central Asian component  republics of the Union, to focus their economies on a small range of products, to ensure dependence on the USSR as a whole. The industrial sector was not deleveloped. As in Uzbekistan, the agricultural sector was strongly oriented towards the production of cotton, a task which was given a boost by the construction of the Kara Kum Canal in the 1960s, but with little regard for the environmental
consequences. The exploitation of Turkmenistan's hydrocarbon reserves was also prioritised. During the 1970s and 1980s, the production of natural gas soared, but it was sold for a pittance to other Soviet Republics. Turkmenistan was dependent on an annual subsidy from Moscow which it would not have needed had it received a proper price for its gas.

The status of the ethnic Turkmen majority within the TSSR was always a sensitive issue. In 1958, Sukhan Babaev, the then First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan, made clear his concern that ethnic Russians were occupying too high a proportion of the leading jobs. He was sached. Membership of the Soviet Union certainly brought some benefits for the Turkmens: an education system open to all, producing high rates of literacy; a reasonably progressive approach to the role of women, who had relatively good opportunities to study and work; and health care that was available to everyone. But the downsides outweighed the up. In the late 1980s, a movement of Turkmen intellectuals, Agzybirlik, formed a manifesto based around concerns surrounding the Turkmen language and culture, as well as wider economic and environmental issues.

But the last years of the USSR were not marked in Turkmenistan by the emerging success of popular nationality-based movement. Rather, the transition to independence was managed by the local regime. The post of First Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan had fallen in 1985 to relatively unknown Saparmurat Niyazov who retained power until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although totally unprepared for the event, Niyazov was forced to declare independence for Turkmenistan on 27 October 1991.

The new First Secretary strengthened his hold on the republic in 1990, when he was first elected Chairman of the Supreme Soviet and then, on 27 October, elected to the newly created post of executive President of Turkmenistan. He was not opposed in the latter election, in which he secured a reported 98.3% of the vote. He combined a strong line against movements such as Agzybirlik with concern about the prospect of the break-up of the USSR, fearing the consequences of the loss of the subsidy received from Moscow. In the all-Union referendum on the status of the USSR held in March 1991, a higher proportion of the voters of the TSSR (more than 95%) opted for the preservation of the USSR than of any other republic. But as the flow of events through 1991 increasingly clearly spelt the end of the USSR, a national referendum on 26 October produced, according to the official figures, an overwhelming vote for independence. On the following day, independence was declared by the Turkmen Supreme Soviet.