Sep 07

Alone Through the Forbidden Land: Gustav Krist’s Account of Early-Soviet Central Asia

Cover photo: The Qirghiz in flight to the Pamirs    Credit: Gustav Krist

Austrian explorer Gustav Krist’s account of early Soviet Central Asia, Alone Through the Forbidden Land, provides fascinating insights into a society undergoing a period of profound change. First published in English in 1939, the book documents Krist’s journey through Central Asia between 1924 and 1925.

Captured by the Russians in 1914, Krist was one of some 40,000 Austro-Hungarian who spent the rest of the war imprisoned in camps in Central Asia. He stayed in the region for six years, acting as an interpreter and serving the Emir of Bukhara during his ill-fated attempt to resist Soviet rule in 1920 (this is documented in his war memoir Prisoner in the Forbidden Land, published in 1938). In 1924 a chance meeting with Turkmen traders in Persia led him back to the region. Travelling under the guise of being a geologist, he managed to enter the “forbidden land” of Soviet Central Asia where he remained for the next year.

Whereas most western travellers who reached Central Asia from Marco Polo to Burnes wrote about the majestic Timurid cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, Krist’s account is exceptional because he focuses largely on the less frequently visited Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Krist describes living with the nomadic Kyrgyz in the Pamir Alai mountains, Stalinabad (now Dushanbe)- the newly established capital of the Tajik ASSR, and the field where former Ottoman General Enver Pasha met his end in 1922.

Krist’s remarkable account captures Central Asia at a time of transition; although the Soviets nominally controlled the region, they were yet to fully consolidate their power. The picture that Krist constructs is one of limited Soviet power and local resistance. He participates in the final summer migration of the Qara Kyrgyz (Black Kyrgyz) into the Pamirs. Krist, and the Kyrgyz themselves, realise that life is changing for the nomads of Central Asia:

To an enormous distance I could see camel train after camel train; the entire horde was on trek, flying from officials of the Soviet . . . hot tears filled my eyes, although I little suspected at the time that I had been the witness of the last march of the free Kirghiz. (p.141)


Photo: The Kyrgyz in flight to the Pamirs Credit: Gustav Krist

One year later the Soviet authorities rounded up and collectivised the nomads of Central Asia. More than a million Uzbeks, Turcomans, Kazakhs and other tribesmen died as a result.

Krist is a keen and sympathetic observer of the customs of the local population. His narrative provides invaluable insights to historians of early-Soviet Central Asia. A skilled linguist, his semi-anthropological account focuses on the politics of everyday life in Central Asia. In the Uzbek town of Kerki, he meets Madame Kulaeva. A former slave girl, she now heads the local Soviet. She symbolises the new “freedom” that women enjoy under Soviet rule. Nevertheless, such “emancipated women” remain the exception rather than the rule.


Photo: Madame Kulayeva  Credit: Gustav Krist

Krist documents the limits of Soviet secularisation. Religion retains a pivotal role in the lives of most Central Asians at this time. He describes how women in Gharm were not permitted to leave their homes and all wore chimat (horse-hair veil). For Krist, the wearing of the veil symbolised the local population’s resistance to Soviet modernisation. In his words, “The whole Moscow programme, drawn up on so grandiose a scale and at such great expense, was wrecked on the chimat, the women’s horse-hair veil The menfolk of Bukhara were ready to adapt themselves to any changes: but the unveiling of women was unthinkable” (p.187). Indeed, most Muslims continued to keep the fast during Ramadan. According to Krist, “Communist teaching has been powerless to abolish it. The authorities even close the Government offices during the fast and only the military can afford to ignore it” (p.182).

Central Asian Muslims remained caught between traditional religious practices and the new ideology of the Party. Krist observes how many religious leaders resisted Soviet religious policy, stating their loyalty to the regime whilst maintaining their faith.

Krist’s observations in Bukhara are worth quoting at some length:

Bukhara possesses well over a hundred madrassahs (religious schools or universities)and remains still the centre of Islamic learning. You may here see the Red Star of the Soviet or the portraits of Lenin and Khidiralieff in queer juxtaposition with the ancient text-books of Shariat Law and commentaries on the Quran […] Few religious teachers in other parts of the world would be able to reconcile two philosophies so diametrically opposed. I ventured in some astonishment to ask how it was possible, and was informed that Bukharan students found no difficulty in keeping the teachings of Lenin and Muhammad in two separate mental compartments. (p.204)

The inability of the early Soviet leaders in Central Asia to abolish religion was in part a result of the need to placate the local population. Soviet rule in the region is based on weak foundations; the newly appointed leaders, who were often ethnic Russians, needed to ally themselves with local forces. Indeed, Krist talks with local officials who have joined the Communist Party out of a desire for self-preservation rather than any ideological commitment. Central Asia was essentially a feudal society in 1917 and the communists needed to manufacture a working class for them to protect. In Krist’s words, “The Bolsheviks were forced to artificially create the prerequisites for their propaganda […] The most grotesque attempts were made to call the non-existent proletariat into being” (p.185). Such a process would take decades not years.

After his adventure in Central Asia, Krist returned to Vienna via Iran. A carpet trader by profession, he became the editor of “Die Teppichborse,” a monthly carpet industry trade-magazine. Tragically, he was killed in 1939 and never lived to see his account of Central Asia published. His account, nonetheless, remains one of a handful of western accounts of life in early Soviet Central Asia. For this reason alone, it should be essential reading for students of this period.