March 7, 2020

Women In Soviet East

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Fannina Halle

'The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, with its tendency towards social equalization that was particularly vigorous at first, did much to hasten the process of equalization of the sexes. Nevertheless, it is not only here that we must look for the great contrast to the parallel process in the non-Soviet countries. For amongst the millions of women, for the most part Mohammedan, in the Soviet East we have a threefold emancipation: as belonging to their nation, to their social class, and to their sex. And, moreover, without restriction to a relatively small upper class, a regenerative mass movement embracing all classes from the bottom upwards, a real uprising of the masses. And it really is a transformation in a single night from a creature hardly distinguishable from a domestic animal to a full member of the community, self-reliant and conscious of her strength, progressive and capable of development; it is a true attainment of human stature, a new creation.

What confronts us, then, is a phenomenon that places immense masses of women in the foremost ranks of the " Europeanization " and emancipation of the East, the mobilization of vast forces, hitherto passive, which promise wholly new contributions to the enrichment of human culture, and we must recognize its bearing as gigantic, its significance as worldwide. And, whatever may have occured in the past two decades in the immense territories of the Soviet Union, stretching across two continents-whatever .attitude one may assume towards it-the fact remains that reconstruction is nowhere more clearly to be seen; nowhere is the gulf between yesterday and to-day wider. One thing, therefore, is now placed beyond question: a new leaf has been turned in the history of the ancient continent of Asia., and half of it at least will be written by the awakening women of the Russian East.

In this sense, then, we are doubtless justified in detaching .. the liberation of women in the Soviet East from the complex whole-alike from that of European Russia and that of women in the non-Russian East-and treating it separately.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the many scientific and cultural authorities and institutes in Moscow, Leningrad, Baku, Tiflis, Makhach-Kala,. Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Ferghana, Ashqabad, Merv, and Stalinobad, and to their branches in many other places, which cannot be enumerated here, and further to all those persons who frequently gave me the most friendly and generous assistance. More especially I thank the Poks (Society for Cultural Relations of the Soviet Union with Foreign Countries), which was always "most kind in securing for me the opportunity of getting into contact with all the requisite authorities, and of investi-gating, extending, and improving my material.

Vienna, August, 1937


WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THE SOVIET EAST? FIRST AND foremost, an area of nearly six million square miles, that is to say, no less than three-quarters of the total area of the Soviet Union; a territory large enough to embrace the three large European States, England, France, and Germany, twelve times over and the whole of Europe outside Russia five times. 

Starting round about the middle reaches and the mouth of the Volga, where it flows into the Caspian1 Sea, and in the autonomous Republics and Regions of the Chuvashes, Tatars, and Kalmucks, the Soviet East extends across the Ural Mountains southwards, south-eastwards, and north-eastwards. On this side of the Caspian Sea it embraces the whole Caucasus, and beyond it the whole of Central Asia (formerly Turkistan), Northern Asia, and the Soviet Russian Far East. And whilst its frontiers to the south-west are those of Persia and Afghanistan, and to the south and south-east those of Mongolia and Manchukuo, in the far north-east its borders are beyond the Arctic Circle, and in the east the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Geographically, that is the Soviet East. 

Ethnographically, indeed, the Soviet East begins in Moscow, that focal point of the Union situated in Europe; in Moscow, where not only does every shoe-black at every street corner claim to be an Ajsor (the Aisors declare that they are the descendants of the ancient Assyrians, some of whom immigrated to the Caucasus), where not only does every fourth of fifth person, whether man or woman, with or without the tyubctyeika (a little embroidered cap especially in use in Central Asia), present Mongolian features, but where almost every one of the near two hundred nationalities in the Soviet Union has its own colony nowadays and its own representatives, to say nothing of the Soviet of Nationalities which, side by side with the Union Soviet, corresponds to the Second Chamber in a western Parliament. 

The Soviet East, like all Asia, like the whole East, whether Near or Far, is an alien, exotic land to our European feelings. And so any effort to grasp its alien quality emotionally is far better than all enumerations of names and figures, however systematic. 

Whatever our approach to the question of the position of women m the East, we shall always be confronted with two aspects : on the one hand the comparatively prolonged duration of matriarchy, and on the other its suppression by patriarchy, produced by wholly different causes, particularly Islam, and still continuing in unmitigated force. This, if anything, seems to lead most directly to a comprehension of the peculiar position of women. in Asia, including the Soviet East with which we ate concerned. And so it is hardly surprising that to this very day we find relics of the once dominant matriarchal system, more especially 111 those parts least touched by Islam, and that particularly in Central Asia the position of women is determined by Islam, whose supporters, mainly Turkish peoples, had mutatis mutandis the same historical mission to fulfill as the Roman imperial. power in the West: that is, to remodel the life of the community into a patriarchy. 

Whereas the religion of Mohammed succeeded only partially in capturing the Caucasus, the second and by fat the largest area of the Soviet East became 11.ot only Islamic in the course of its history, but also Turkish. The most important, so-called native, peoples of what was formerly Turkistan, the Turkmans, Uzbeks, and their northern neighbors, the Kara. Kalpaks, Kirghiz, and Kazakhs are all either Turkish peoples, or such as have become Turkish, and, except for the Kazakhs', some of whom are Shamanists, they are uniformly Mohammedans. This double aspect is still characteristic of the vast area of the Central Asian steppes and tundra. There is no nation whose history is so deeply related to its religion as that of the Turks to Islam. The Arabs and Persians have a pre-Islamic culture; and there are Christian Arabs and Zoroastrian Persians. But we know practically nothing of a pre-Islamic culture of the Turkish peoples. This close connection between nationality and faith explains the pre-eminent part played for centuries by Turkistan in the life of the whole Islamic world.
When Russia assumed China's historic mission and began to advance against the nomads in order to push forward her frontiers to those of settled races-the Persians, Afghans, and Chinese-what is to-day Soviet Central Asia had been converted to Islam for a thousand years, and the spread of a Turkish stratum over the original population was also complete. Unlike the Mohammedan countries conquered hitherto, Islam had already attained a high level of civilization at a time long before the Russians, the subsequent masters of the population, were converted to Christianity.
It is obvious that the position of women in Soviet Central Asia is largely determined by such factors even at the present day, that it differs among the nomad peoples and among those who are settled, and that even Islam cannot bridge over these differences, much as it has done in other ways to unify customs and even racial types in what was formerly Turkistan. It will be my task to show elsewhere, though it is easily comprehensible, that there are particular varieties of the enslavement of women which are simply incompatible with a nomad life, especially the strict isolation and veiling required by the Shariat, the civil law of Islam.

Whereas the Caucasus and Central Asia were ancient centres of civilization, inhabited m part, perhaps, by the oldest civilized peoples in the world, we frequently find the most primitive of savage peoples in the north-east of the Union, especially m the Russian Arctic. Just as the steppes of Central Asia pass imperceptibly into the tundra and swamps of the North, so the ethical composition of the population changes, and strange, unique racial mixtures are found. The principal in-habitants from Eastern Siberia right across the Far East to the shores of the Pacific Ocean are the Evenks, together with other Tungus and Manchu tribes; then the Yakuts, of pure Turkish blood, but not Mohammedans (their territory amounting to over 1,000,000 square miles, is now an autonomous Soviet Republic, but was formerly a notorious place of exile for political offenders), and a number of other tribes, the largest of which in Western Siberia are the Nentsis (formerly Samoyedes), the K.hants (Ostiaks), and Mansi (Voguls). There are also a number of Amur tribes (G0Id1s, Nana1, and others), and finally the original inhabitants of the Far East, the Palaeo Asiatics who live along the coast.

It is not only among the Polar tribes, the most primitive peoples in the Soviet East, that we come upon customs everywhere which may easily be interpreted as relics of a matriarchal phase. The same applies to many other parts of Asia.
Amongst the Avars, the most numerous of the so-called tribes of Daghestan, the girls choose their husbands themselves. Amongst the Kurds, some of whom live in Azerbaijan and are among the oldest descendants of the great fallen empires of Asia Minor, the women are free and independent, in contrast to their oppressed sisters among the surrounding Turks. It is they who give a name to a newborn son and, 1f they are particularly beautiful and clever, they give him their own name as well. According to ancient accounts, the Kurdish women exercised great power at one time.

The women are still the rulers among the Jassians, a small tribe living in settlements in hidden gorges near Sakatal in Daghestan; they practise agriculture and fishing. They are, moreover, very competent in the use of arms, but that is not peculiar to Jassian women; it is by no means infrequent elsewhere in the Caucasus. But It is noteworthy that among the Jassians, whose name means " nation of girls," the maintenance of the family is regarded as the woman's duty.
Among the Mountain Tajiks of the Pamir the women move about freely, and not only do the men discuss all questions with them, but their voice has weight within the social unit to which they belong. An " elder" woman counts for as much as an" elder" man. Whereas property is in common among the men, the women own private property (cattle, etc.), and the men are not admitted at all to the larder. It is an ancient characteristic of matriarchy that this is the exclusive domain of the woman.
The history of the Uzbek women, who were, perhaps, more shut off from the outer world than any other women in the Moslem East, likewise tells us of a few famous women, even till recent years; in spite of the fetters of tradition, they succeeded in attaining a fairly high position, socially and intellectually, and enjoyed great popularity with the people.

Among the Kirghiz it also occurs that the bridal pair fight before the wedding; in the seventeenth and eigh-teenth centuries they had a heroine called Jangul Mursa who was famed far and wide as a brilliant horsewoman and archer, and possessed all the manly virtues. There are a number of sagas and legends telling of her bravery, and so great was her renown that she was regarded as the chief of her clan. 

How was it possible to introduce the "proletarian class warfare " into these countries? Even now it appears strange to European readers when, let us say, a Tungus newspaper uses the well-known expression " capitalist exploitation," whereas many Western European Socialist theorists have always declared Russia to be unripe for the socialist revolution, although it is in some measure European and capitalist.

The protagonists of the new development in Soviet Russia have never been blind to the fact that the prime necessity is to allow the non-Russian peoples in the Union to catch up Russia proper in economic and political progress. Everything that has been done since the October Revolution, and is still being done, belongs to this transitional programme, the accomplishment of which is to create the prerequisite conditions for the real nationality programme. The right of self-determination of the peoples of the Soviet East finds unambiguous expression m the political structure of the Soviet Union, but it has been left to further progress to fill in the out-lines, which progress, however, is actively encouraged by the whole Soviet policy. And so we may not unreasonably ask whether realities will not disappoint expectation, and whether the economic and cultural progress of the backward peoples, to which every effort is directed, will not produce results other than those expected at present: whether, when once these peoples have reached a certain stage of economic and cultural progress, they will not try to make use of their chartered right of self-determination in an unwelcome manner.

Be that as it may, the encouragement of cultural, and of course less economic, progress is the alpha and omega of the Bolshevik programme, or rather, of the transitional programme, of the present Government in all the non-Russian territories of the Union, and first and foremost in the Soviet East. Two aspects of the constructive of the Soviet Government-economic and cultural-emerge unambiguously in the principles of the dominant party, formulated in 1922.. According to these it is the task of the party's nationality policy to "help the working masses of the non-Russian peoples to catch up the more advanced Central Russia." This was to be achieved on the one hand cc by the systematic establishment of industries in the frontier districts, especially by hastening the speed of development of industry and culture in the backward national areas," but, on the other hand, " by consolidating the native systems of justice, administration, industrial management, and government under persons with a knowledge of native conditions and of the psychology of the inhabitants; further by encouraging the Press, education, the theatre, and club organization, as well as other cultural institutions; and finally by creating a widespread network of courses and schools, both general and technical or professional, in the native tongue.