Middle Asia

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Middle Asia


the part of the Asian USSR that stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Chinese border in the east and from the Aral-Irtysh Divide in the north to the frontiers with Iran and Afghanistan in the south. The region was called Turkestan before the national-state demarcation in 1924–25, when it was renamed Middle Asia, as distinct from Central Asia. In foreign geographic works, the concepts of Middle Asia and Central Asia are not always clearly distinguished.

Natural features. A large part of Middle Asia is occupied by the Turan Lowland, a plain bounded in the northeast by the desert plains of the Balkhash-Alakol’ Basin and in the north by the southern end of the Turgai Plateau and the Kazakh Melkosopo-chnik, which have semidesert and dry steppe landscapes. The surface of the plain generally ranges from 28 m below sea level (eastern shore of the Caspian) to 300 m, although the bottoms of some enclosed basins are as low as 132 m below sea level (at Karagie on the southern Mangyshlak peninsula) and 81 m below sea level (at Akchakaia in northwestern Karakum). The monadnocks in the central part of the Kyzylkum Desert rise to 922 m (Mount Tamdytau). In the plains region aggradational lowlands and plains, including stretches of ancient alluvial sand shaped by wind (the greater part of the Karakum and Muiunkum deserts), alternate with weakly dissected tablelands (Ustiurt and Krasnovodsk plateaus and Transunguz Karakum) and with denudation plains (Kazakh Melkosopochnik and the eastern portion of the Bet-pak-Dala Desert). The mineral resources of the Middle Asian plains include petroleum (Karakum), gas (Gazli, Shatlyk), gold (Muryntau in the Kyzlkum) and nonmetallic minerals.

Most of southeastern Middle Asia is occupied by two mountain systems: the Tien-Shan (Pobeda Peak, 7,439 m) and the Pamir-Alai, which includes the Pamirs with the highest point in the USSR (Communism Peak, 7,495 m). The mountainous region contains deposits of petroleum (Fergana), gas (in river valleys and basins), coal, complex ores (Achisai, Almalyk), nonferrous and rare metals (Maikhura), and nonmetallic minerals. The Ko-petdag Range, rising to 2,942 m, stretches along the southern border of Middle Asia.

Most of the Middle Asian plain has an arid climate; in the mountains the climate is strictly determined by altitude. Middle Asia is a region of interior drainage, with no river basins connected with the ocean. The largest lakes, the Aral Sea and Lake Balkhash, receive the waters of the region’s major rivers, the Amu Darya, Syr Darya, and Hi.

Desert landscapes are found in the Turan Lowland and in the Balkhash-Alakol’ Basin. Both the temperate deserts in the north and middle and the subtropical deserts in the south have sandy and rocky expanses and salt flats. The clayey plains of the temperate zone support wormwood and wormwood-and-saltwort deserts, whereas deserts with ephemerals are widely found on the loess-clay soils of the subtropical zone. The desert plains are used as year-round pastures and for irrigation farming. In the mountains of Middle Asia the landscapes vary greatly, depending on such factors as elevation and exposure. Piedmont desert plains give way to alpine meadows, which are succeeded by cold deserts, perpetual snow, and glaciers in the high mountains.

The term “Middle Asia” also refers to the territory comprising the Uzbek, Kirghiz, Tadzhik, and Turkmen SSR’s, which together form the Middle Asian Economic Region.


Sredniaia Aziia: Fiziko-geograficheskaia kharakteristika. Moscow, 1958.
Murzaev, E. M. Sredniaia Aziia. Moscow, 1961.
Sredniaia Aziia. Moscow, 1968. (AN SSSR: Prirodnye usloviia i estestvennye resursy SSSR)
Ravniny i gory Srednei Azii i Kazakhstana. Moscow, 1975.
Population. Middle Asia has a population of 22.2 million (1974, estimate), 39 percent of whom live in cities. The density ranges from 1–3 persons per sq km in the deserts and semideserts to 278 persons in Andizhan Oblast in the Uzbek SSR. The population more than doubled between 1940 and 1974 and increased by 62.4 percent between 1959 and 1974 owing to a birthrate of 3–3.5 percent, the highest birthrate in the USSR, and to the migration of about 1.2 million people to the Middle Asia and Kazakhstan between 1953 and 1974.
The common history and ethnic kinship of the peoples of Middle Asia have left a mark on their spiritual and material culture. Centuries of ethnic development, frequent population movements, and the resettlement in Middle Asia of large groups of peoples from neighboring countries and regions at different stages of history gave rise to large nationalities, some of which were on the way to becoming bourgeois nations before the October Revolution of 1917, although the Turkmens, Kirghiz, and some of the Uzbeks were still divided into clans and tribes. Under Soviet rule, the Uzbek, Tadzhik, Kirghiz, Turkmen, and Kara-Kalpak socialist nations were formed, each of which received statehood. In addition to these peoples, a large proportion of Middle Asia’s population consists of Russians, who began settling here after 1850, and other peoples of the USSR, including Tatars, Bashkirs, Mordovians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis. There are also Koreans, Uighurs, Dungans, Arabs, Baluchi, Kurds, and Iranians.
All the republics of Middle Asia are multinational republics, whose inhabitants speak languages belonging to several linguistic families and groups. About 70 percent of the population speaks languages of the Turkic group of the Altai family. In 1970 the Turkic-speaking population included 8,902,500 Uzbeks, 1,430,900 Kirghiz, 1,498,700 Turkmens, 232,800 Kara-Kalpaks, 575,100 Kazakhs, 750,000 Tatars, and a small group of Uighurs. The Tadzhiks (2,100,400), Kurds, and Baluchi, together constituting about 11 percent of the population, speak languages of the Iranian group of the Indo-European family. Included among the Tadzhiks are the Yagnobians and such Pamir peoples as the Shughni, Roshani, Wakhi, Ishkashmi, and Yazgulami, who have almost completely merged with the Tadzhiks. In Bukhara, Samarkand, and other areas where Uzbeks and Tadzhiks live side by side, the majority of the people are bilingual. The Dungans speak a dialect of Chinese; the Koreans, their native Korean; Middle Asian Jews, a dialect of Tadzhik; Middle Asian Arabs, either Uzbek or Tadzhik, depending on where they live; and Gypsies, Tadzhik.
Russians (2,986,600) and Ukrainians (298,900), many of whom live in the cities but in the Kirghiz SSR also in rural areas, account for about 17 percent of the population of Middle Asia. Apart from their native language, they also speak the language of the people among whom they live; this is especially true of the old settlers. Russian has exerted a great influence on the local languages: most of the political, scientific, and technical terms in the modern Middle Asian languages are of Russian origin, and Russian is gradually becoming the lingua franca of Middle Asia. The 1970 census shows that more than 15 percent of the non-Russians in Middle Asia have a fluent knowledge of Russian; among young people between the ages of 11 and 19 the percentage is even higher (26 percent), attesting to a growth of bilingualism.
The native population of Middle Asia is not homogeneous anthropologically. The Tadzhiks and Uzbeks are Europeoids belonging to the Pamir-Fergana race, although the Tadzhiks of the plains and the Uzbeks of northern Khorezm show Mongoloid traits. The Kirghiz, Kazakhs, and Kara-Kalpaks belong to the south Siberian race, which evolved through the mixing of Central Asian Mongoloids with the ancient Euröpeoid population. The Turkmens are Europeoids of the Mediterranean group with slight Mongoloid traits. In the past, most of the peoples of Middle Asia were Muslims.


Narody Srednei Azii i Kazakhstana, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1962–63.
Itogi Vsesoiuznoi perepisi naseleniia 1970 g., vol. 4. Moscow, 1973. (Central Statistical Board of the USSR.)
Historical survey. Habitation sites of primitive man dating from the Lower Paleolithic have been discovered at Teshik-Tash and elsewhere in Middle Asia. The Neolithic, which lasted from the eighth to the fifth millennium B.C., saw the emergence of the characteristic Middle Asian economy, combining livestock raising with irrigation farming.
Numerous remains of the Aeneolithic and Bronze Age have been found in Middle Asia, at Anau, Geoksiur, Namazga-Tepe, and elsewhere. The first urban settlements (Altyn-Tepe) arose in the sixth or fifth millennium B.C. The first millennium B.C. saw the development of nations—the Khwarazmians, Dahae, and Mas-sagetae. The disintegration of the primitive communal system in Middle Asia in the late second and early first millennia B.C. was followed by the rise of the slaveholding states of Bactria, Sogdiana, and Khwarazm. A large part of Middle Asia was conquered by the Persian king Cyrus II in the mid-sixth century B.C. and became part of the Achaemenid Empire.
Subjugated by Alexander the Great in 329–27 B.C., Middle Asia was incorporated into the Seleucid state after Alexander’s death. In the mid-third century B.C. the Parthian Empire arose in the western part of Middle Asia, and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom emerged on the territory of Bactria and Sogdiana, later to be destroyed by Massagetae and Tochari tribes. Several slave-holding states were established in Middle Asia in the second and first centuries B.C., of which the largest were Kangiui in the northeast and Davan in the Fergana Valley. The slaveholding culture of Middle Asia reached its apogee between the first and fourth centuries A.D., when the Kushana Kingdom flourished in southern Middle Asia. After the fall of the Parthian Empire in the first half of the third century A.D., western Middle Asia fell under the rule of the Iranian Sassanids. The Ephthalite state that existed in Bactria and Sogdiana in the fourth and fifth centuries fell under the onslaught of nomadic Turkic tribes from Semirech’e, and the state became part of the Turkic Kaganate. From the fourth through the eighth century, the slaveholding system in Middle Asia declined, and feudal relations emerged.
Middle Asia was conquered by Arabs in the eighth century and was absorbed by the Caliphate. Heavy land and poll taxes were levied on the farming population, and oppressive taxes in kind were introduced. The harsh Arab rule provoked many rebellions, the largest of which, the Mukanna Uprising, engulfed all of Mavera-un-Nahr (Transoxania) and lasted from 776 to 785. After Middle Asia’s de facto separation from the Caliphate in the ninth century, the Tahirid and Samanid states arose there and in neighboring regions. In the late tenth century eastern Middle Asia became part of the Karakhanid state, and the lands south of the Amu Darya were incorporated into the Ghaznavid state. The Ka-rakitai conquered Middle Asia in the early 12th century. The political importance of Khwarazm increased after 1150. The shah of Khwarazm Muhammad II Ala’-al-Din drove the Karakitai completely out of Mavera-un-Nahr and southern Kazakhstan.
Between the ninth and 12th centuries, the Uzbek, Turkmen, Tadzhik, and other Middle Asian nationalities evolved, and feudal relations were consolidated. This was a period of cultural flowering, and Samarkand, Bukhara, Urgench, and Merv became economic, cultural, and religious centers of the Muslim world. Important contributions to science and culture were made by Avicenna, al-Biruni, al-Farabi, Rudagi (Rudaki), Daqiqi, Narshakhi, and Naser-e Khosrow.
The Mongol-Tatar conquest of Middle Asia, which began in 1219, brought untold calamities upon the various peoples. The conquerors established a ruthless system of exploiting the subject peoples, which reinforced the backward feudal practices. The local population was oppressed by both the conquerors and local feudal lords. Slavery was revived. There were frequent uprisings against the Mongol-Tatar invaders, the largest of which were led by Tarabi and by the Serbadars. In the late 14th century Middle Asia was united under Tamerlane’s rule. Feudalism reached its peak under Tamerlane and his successors, who granted feudal landholders tax, judicial, and administrative privileges. Large-scale construction projects were undertaken, based on the ruthless exploitation of the working people and the plunder of conquered territories. Artisan crafts developed. The outstanding literary figures of that time were Navoi and Jami, and the Samarkand ruler Ulug Beg made an important contribution to science.
In the early 16th century nomadic Uzbek tribes overthrew the Timurids and founded the Sheibanid state. After Abdullah-Khah II ibn-Iskander transferred the capital from Samarkand to Bukhara in 1557, the state was renamed the Bukhara Khanate. The Khiva Khanate arose on the Khwarazm lands. Feudal fragmentation intensified in the 17th and 18th centuries. The almost ceaseless wars between the Bukhara and Khiva khanates became more destructive from the second half of the 17th century, weakening both states and undermining their economy and trade and ruining the peasants and artisans. Feudal relations assumed a conservative character.
The social and economic development of the peoples of Middle Asia was not uniform. Barter and a money economy existed side by side. Although part of the population engaged in primitive farming and livestock raising, irrigation farming was highly developed in many parts of Middle Asia. The lands in the khanates were divided into state lands, privately owned lands, and waqf lands (seeWAQF) of the Muslim religious leaders. The state lands were tilled by peasants who turned over as much as 40 or 50 percent of the harvest to the khans. Sharecropping and debt servitude were widespread, and the population was burdened by heavy taxation. Slavery and the slave trade were openly practiced as late as the mid-19th century. Literature and art developed slowly. The foremost writer of the time, Makhtumkuli, voiced the aspirations of the popular masses, who struggled against their oppressors.
In the 1740’s, Middle Asia was invaded by the Iranian forces of Nadir Shah. After his death and the disintegration of his empire, the Mangyt dynasty came to power in Bukhara, ruling there until 1920. Besides the Bukhara Emirate, the Kokand Khanate, which arose in the early 18th century, and the Khiva Khanate, there were a number of independent feudal holdings perpetually at war with each other. By the mid-19th century, a social division of labor had developed in the khanates. There were agricultural regions producing wheat, cotton, rice, millet, and other crops and areas in which the chief economic activity was the raising of cattle, sheep, and horses. The commercial and artisan cities of Bukhara, Gissar, Kokand, and Ura-Tiube produced silk and cotton fabrics and weapons. The interference of the feudal lords in the activity of artisans and merchants retarded the development of capitalist production.
Trade and diplomatic relations between Middle Asia and Russia were established in the 16th and 17th centuries and expanded in the first half of the 19th century. In the mid-19th century Russia’s exports to Middle Asia amounted to 15 million rubles annually, and its imports from there exceeded 10 million rubles. Cotton yarn accounted for up to 25 percent of Middle Asia’s exports; 341,000 poods (1 pood = 16.38 kg) of cotton were exported in 1862. Finished products and metals were its chief imports.
Middle Asia became an object of rivalry between Great Britain and Russia in the struggle for markets and for sources of cheap raw materials. The Russian offensive into Middle Asia began in the 1860’s. The Kokand Khanate was conquered in 1865–66, and military operations against the Bukhara Emirate began in 1866. The Turkestan Governor-Generalship was established in 1867 to administer the Kokand Khanate and the Bukhara Emirate, which were annexed to the Russian Empire. The following year, the emir of Bukhara acknowledged the Russian protectorate. Russian troops under General K. P. Kaufman conquered Khiva in 1873, and by the Treaty of Gandamak, concluded that year, the khan of Khiva became a vassal of Russia.
Russia’s advance into Middle Asia exacerbated relations with Great Britain. In an Anglo-Russian agreement signed in 1873, Great Britain left Khiva in “Russia’s charge.” The Kokand Khanate was abolished in 1876, and Turkmenia was conquered in 1880–81 during the Akhal-Tekke expeditions. Atrek, Tedzhen, Merv, and the Pende Oasis voluntarily joined Russia in 1885. An agreement concluded with Great Britain in that year established the frontier between Russia and Afghanistan. Russia acquired the Pamirs in 1895.
After annexing Middle Asia, the tsarist government established a colonial regime in the area. A military administrative system was established that ignored the national and economic interests of the native population. The tsarist government deliberately supported the reactionary feudal regimes in Bukhara and Khiva. The peoples of Middle Asia were oppressed by both the native feudal bey elite and the Russia colonialists. Popular uprisings broke out, of which the most important were the rebellion of dekhkans (peasants) in eastern Bukhara in 1885–87, the disturbances in Tashkent in 1892, and the Middle Asian Uprising of 1916.
The unification with Russia had a progressive effect on the development of Middle Asia. The destructive feudal wars and internecine strife ceased, and slavery was abolished. More favorable conditions were created for the development of the region’s economy, which was gradually drawn into the sphere of the Russian capitalist economy. The cultivation of cotton, grapes, fruit, and melons increased. The cotton-processing industry expanded, and by 1908, 208 out of 220 cotton mills in the Russian Empire were in Turkestan. Middle Asia became the major supplier of cotton to the textile factories of the Central Zone; cotton exports rose from 3.76 million poods in 1890 to 13.7 million poods in 1913. The development of capitalism in Middle Asia was promoted by the construction of the Transcaspian Railroad in 1899, the Orenburg-Tashkent Railroad in 1905, and the Fergana and Bukhara railroads between 1910 and 1916.
As the number of workers increased, a national industrial proletariat was formed. By 1914, the enterprises of Turkestan, excluding the Transcaspian and Semirech’e oblasts, employed about 21,000 workers, including Russians, Uzbeks, and Ta-dzhiks. The flow of Russian and foreign capital into Middle Asia increased after Russia entered the imperialist phase. Coal mining and oil extraction were initiated. Despite some strides in economic development, however, Middle Asia remained an agrarian and colonial appendage of the Central Zone, a source of cheap raw materials, and a market for Russian manufactured goods.
The local population benefited from its economic, political, and cultural contacts with the Russian workers, the Russian democratic intelligentsia, and Russian peasant settlers. Russian democratic culture spread despite the opposition of the tsarist authorities and the local feudal elite and religious leaders. The working people of Middle Asia were drawn into the revolutionary struggle of the nationalities in the Russian Empire and into the struggle of the Russian proletariat. In the 1890’s there were workers’ demonstrations on the Transcaspian Railroad and in Kokand and Samarkand. Social Democratic groups arose in several Middle Asian cities between 1903 and 1905, and the working people of Middle Asia participated in the Revolution of 1905–07 in Russia.
The Great October Socialist Revolution liberated the peoples of Middle Asia, as it did the other peoples of the Russian Empire, from colonial and national oppression. Soviet power was established in most of Middle Asia between November 1917 and March 1918, and on Apr. 30, 1918, the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed. During the Civil War and the foreign military intervention, the working people of Middle Asia, with the vigorous support and participation of the working people of Russia, defended and consolidated the gains of Soviet power. An uprising of the working people of Khiva led to the establishment of the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic in April 1920, and the Bukhara People’s Soviet Republic was formed in October. They became socialist republics in 1923 and 1924, respectively.
Land and water reforms were carried out in Middle Asia in the 1920’s. The national-state demarcation of the Soviet republics of Middle Asia in 1924–25 resulted in the formation, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, of the Uzbek, Turkmen, Tadzhik, and Kirghiz SSR’s. Owing to industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, and the cultural revolution, the peoples of Middle Asia bypassed the capitalist stage and made a leap from feudalism to socialism. Within the national economy of the USSR, Middle Asia constitutes the Middle Asian Economic Region.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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