Think Twice Before Promising to Change the World

Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan Artemy Kalinovsky Cornell University Press 2018

The rise of a new era of identity awareness and the politics of recognition forces us to re-examine the meaning and the consequences of the policies of development that transformed societies over the twentieth century. In this context, the legacy of the Cold War has also been reassessed through the lens of two competing ideologies that promoted different vectors of the historical change for the entire world.1 Such a global perspective on the history of the Cold War highlights the important encounters of much of the Third World with competing ideological blocs. Two alternative ideologies were projected upon the developing world by the socialist East and the capitalist West backed with massive financial, military, technical and cultural resources. Aspiring to assist in the emancipatory breakthrough of newly sovereign post-colonial nations, these endeavors infiltrated a decolonization process and proved to be, once again, a new form of domination driven by an inherent civilizing mission.2 Whereas in the past social scientists spoke confidently about “traditional societies” becoming “modern”, the very idea of such a transformation as well as diverse and contested strategies of “becoming modern” have now become the subject of critical revision.

Drawing on the case study of the Nurek Dam construction in the Soviet Republic of Tajikistan, the book by Artemy Kalinovsky “Laboratory of Socialist Development” illuminates the complexity of this process becoming modern through the lens of the experiences of local protagonists in remote peripheries of the Soviet Union. The position of the Central Asian republic in this context is twofold. Being part of the story of internal Soviet modernization, it reiterates the major concerns and contradictions of the global development agenda, many of which have remained unsolved until today.

Soviet Ideology as a Dynamic Venture

Kalinovsky’s book covers a peculiar moment in Soviet history, between Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 and late socialism in 1980s when the most important modernization projects were implemented across the various Soviet republics. The Virgin Land campaign became one of the most famous episodes in the interventionist policy of the Soviet leadership that brought massive changes both in society and in the nature of Kazakhstan, although there were multiple stories of similar transformative ventures across the state.3

Kalinovsky’s book demonstrates the complex interplay between the central power and local participant behind the façade of the top-down modernization scenario.

While the idea of transforming backward peripheries of the former Russian Empire had been on the Soviet government’s agenda since the 1917 October revolution, it was only after Stalin’s death that multiple projects of development—construction of dams, irrigation schemes, industrialization that were designed to accelerate the spread of welfare and education and transform the whole societal fabric—were launched with a new vigor and financial commitments. Based on archival materials, analysis of media accounts and oral interviews, Kalinovsky’s book demonstrates the complex interplay between the central power and local participant behind the façade of the top-down modernization scenario. Soviet ideology emerges in his portrayal as a dynamic venture: not only it shaped historical actors across the vast territories of Soviet Union, but as it was in many respects also shaped by them.

Drawing on the study of Central Asian elites—from party leaders to economists and social scientists—Kalinovsky demonstrates their rise to being a local power and their input in the Soviet decision-making pro- cess. Planning, Kalinovsky contends, became a field of political struggle as much as a technocratic process that allowed different groups to argue for or against investments and targets.

Multiple Links and Parallels to Decolonization in Africa and Asia

There have been predictable difficulties in outlining “uniform” strategies of development in the culturally and economically diverse territories of the Soviet state. Tajikistan proved to be a good spot on the Soviet map to expose the great disparities between the Soviet West (European territories), the Soviet East (Siberia) and the Soviet South—Central Asia and part of the Caucasus. Tajikistan was known for its relative poverty compared to the rest of the Soviet Union with the industrial production per inhabitant much lower than the union average, i.e. 49.7% in 1963 and 37.4% in 1973, and the highest population growth in the whole USSR. In an attempt to overcome underdevelopment and backwardness, economists in Tajikistan, in the Central Asian region as well in Moscow, were forced to rethink how territory, industry and agriculture need to interact if they are to facilitate the development of society as a whole.

Dilemmas of socialist modernization faced by Soviet decision-makers were far from being an exclusively intra-Soviet matter. Kalinovsky demonstrates the important role that the Soviet engagement with nations in the Third World played “back home” in modernization projects implemented in the territory of the former Soviet south. Discussions on economic performance, industrialization and societal changes, which we find at the center of this book, had multiple links and parallels to decolonization in Africa and Asia. Kalinovsky describes how in 1957, at a meeting in Uzbekistan, Khrushchev told local party elites that their region would play an important role in developing friendly relations between the Soviet government and the people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America who were undergoing liberation from colonial oppression.

Central Asian Elites Felt a Connection with Developments in the Soviet Union

In their turn, ambitious politicians in the Soviet republics used this new dimension of Soviet foreign policy in relation to the Third World to articulate and lobby for new cultural and economic policies in their home republics, as well as to advance their own careers. Originally coming from the peripheries, they were often similar to their colleagues from the Third World, while remaining, at the same time, crucial protagonists in the Soviet project that expressly claimed universal nature and aspired to serve a “development donor”. Being inherently national, Central Asian elites felt a connection with broader developments in the Soviet Union and even the world at large: they were both local and global.

Construction of Nurek Dam—which remained the tallest dam in the world up until 2013—in the poorest republic of the Soviet Union provided a vivid example of how the technology-driven development intended to transform the entire life of Tajik people.4 Large dams have been a true embodiment of what James Scott called “high modernism”, being top-down attempts to improve nature and society led by experts and leaving people out of decision-making.5 Across the globe in the 1960s, dams became a popular way to demonstrate the power and prestige of power. A foreign colonial or a national post-colonial power and their construction projects often came with huge costs and impacts including the resettlement of thousands of people, disrupting of fish irrigation patterns and destruction of the habitats of land animals and so forth.

In addition, supervision of water resource development in the conditions of the Cold War was transformed into a geopolitical instrument. Promoting and designing the Pa Mong dam on the Mekong River in South East Asia during the 1960s by the US State Department was meant to assist in containing the spread of global communism.6 Comparing the Nurek Dam with similar American projects (the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority in Afghanistan), Kalinovsky demonstrates how many similarities existed in the reliance on the ideological power of technological projects on both sides of the Iron Curtain. At the center of his analysis, however, is the way in which the dam construction impacted local communities and how it was perceived and received by those directly involved in its making.

The Colonial Nature of the Soviet Union

Much like all dams, Nurek caused enormous disruption in the lives of the people inhabiting the surrounding territories, many of whom lost their land and were forced to relocate. The project, however, also brought vital investment in roads, schools, health infrastructure and opened up new opportunities for local farmers. While not omitting the multiple mistakes and pitfalls of the construction process, Kalinovsky shows how the Nurek project differed from its multiple American predecessors and counterparts.

Western scholarship has discussed extensively how shortages of human capital led to the failure of Western development efforts in the Third World. Export of US technical expertise to developing countries, paradoxically, only deepened social problems as some groups benefited from the endeavors while others did not. Ac- cording to Kalinovsky, projects like Nurek proved able to do both—while erecting an infrastructure that would drive development it also created new human capital. The enormity of the task not only attracted people by the promise to transform their life, but also gave them a sense of ownership over the result.

Ambitious politicians in the Soviet republics used this new dimension of Soviet foreign policy in relation to the Third World to articulate and lobby for new cultural and economic policies in their home republics.

While providing a rich historical account of the experience of socialist modernization in the Soviet periphery, Kalinovsky’s book makes an important contribution to the ongoing debate on the colonial nature of the Soviet Union and the post-colonial status of the former Soviet republics. Seen from today’s perspective of the politics of recognition, the Soviet practices of development were, as some scholars underline, more radical and interventionist than the Western ones. Soviet reforms intruded into those realms that Western colonial powers preferred not to interfere, such as religion, family life and gender law.7 This totalizing nature of the changes under socialism was linked to a Soviet ideology that envisioned not mere economic change but a complete transformation of social relations and the creation of “a new man”.

The Opposition between “State” and “Society” Became Undetectable

While admitting the semi-colonial status of the Central Asian republics and revealing the quasi-colonial patterns in the central control of the Soviet peripheries, Kalinovsky also demonstrates the essential difference between Western development and Soviet transformation. The Soviet project from the very beginning sought to create a new subject which would trust in institutions, modern forms of knowledge, would be committed to self-improvement and the Soviet conception of equality. Due to a comprehensive welfare policy, this project did transform society as a whole and endowed the Soviet subject with the capacity to have and the ability to shape its own interests and qualities.

Post-colonial optics applied to any state formation usually produces binary opposition between the colonizers and the colonized who can- not evade the totalizing power of the central power and define themselves through the position of a victim. In the Soviet Union of the post-Stalin era, as Kalinovsky’s study shows, the opposition between “state” and “society” that implies a rigid confrontation between two unitary actors often became undetectable. “The state” operated through multiple agencies at various levels ranging from republican to local; the state’s offices were staffed by the people from the communities they were meant to govern. All of this created sufficient space for negotiation and ensured that both large and small projects could be changed and reshaped locally.

The major deficiency of the Soviet project that Kalinovsky detects, following the claims of his interviewees, ultimately failed to deliver promises and sustain the balance between the assurances of cultural autonomy and regional development with the goals of socialist unity and all-Union economic growth. Its de-colonization policy, in its turn, created a new set of quasi-colonial tensions that remained hidden behind the façade of Soviet internationalism until the moment of the Soviet collapse.

One of the central assertions of this book is the correlation of the strategies of development in the Soviet Union, including its peripheries, with post-colonial states across the Third World as well as with the “capitalist West”. It is no coincidence that the decline in support for comprehensive development projects in Soviet peripheries echoed the fate of welfare policies in the First World as of the 1970s.

The collapse of the Soviet modernization project did not end the debate on the notion of development. Some larger questions at the center of Kalinovsky’s story on socialist modernization remain unsettled up until the present. Various international agencies involved in humanitarian aid and developmental projects in the Global South are still searching for effective mechanisms of assisting in the development of nations.

Seen from today’s perspective of the politics of recognition, the Soviet practices of development were, as some scholars underline, more radical and interventionist than the Western ones.

The United Nations and other international agencies have recently begun, once again, to rediscover a holistic approach to development that once constituted the core of socialist modernization. The experience of the Soviet planners, Kalinovsky writes, might not be able to offer a solution, but it can give us the humility to think twice before promising to change the world.


  1. Federico Romero, “Cold War Historiography at the Crossroads”. Cold War History 14 (4), 2014, 685-703; Akira Iriye, “Historicizing the Cold War”, in The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War, ed. by Richard H. Immerman and Petra Goedde, 15–31.
  2. Jason C. Parker, “Decolonization, the Cold War, and the post-Columbian era”, The Cold War in the Third World, ed. by Robert J. McMahon, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 125, 131
  3. See for example, Michaela Pohl. 2007. ‘The Virgin Lands Between Memory and Forgetting: People and Transformation in the Soviet Union, 1954-1960’, Indiana University 2000.
  4. It remained the tallest dam until 2013, when Jinping-I Dam was completed in 2013 in China
  5. James Scott, Seeing Like a State. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.
  6. Chris Sneddon, “The ‘Sinew of Development’: Cold War Geopolitics, Technical Expertise, and Water Resource Development in Southeast Asia, 1954–197. Social Studies of Science. 2012, 42 (4): 564-590.
  7. Adrienne Edgar Tribal Nation: The Making Of Soviet Turkmenistan.

Nelly Bekus

holds PhD in Sociology (2007) and currently works at the University of Exeter in the project 1989 after 1989, Rethinking the Fall of Socialism from a Global Perspective. She is the author of the book Struggle over Identity. The Official and the Alternative “Belarusianness” (2010). She has also published numerous articles on the post-Soviet nation and state-building, religious and linguistic policies, history, and memory.

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