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The Orguz Turks, forebears of the Soviet Turkmens, migrated into the territory of the present-day Turkmen Republic at the end of the tenth century and beginning of the eleventh century. Composed of many tribes, they began their migration from eastern Asia in the seventh century and moved slowly toward the Middle East and Central Asia. By the twelfth century, they had become the dominant group in the present-day Turkmen Republic, assimilating the original Iranian population as well other invaders who preceded them into the area. By the end of the fourteenth century, the Orguz tribes had developed a common language and traditions, and by the fifteenth century they were recognizable as a single people. Although they often became subjects of a neighboring state, their military skills and pastoral culture enabled them to enjoy an independent existence. Forced into a cooperative and defensive alliance first by the Mongol invasion and then by the Uzbek conquest, the Turkmens nevertheless retained their strong tribal divisions and failed to establish a lasting state of their own.

The Turkmens opposed Russian expansion into Central Asia more vigorously than other nationalities. They defeated a Russian force in 1717, when Peter the Great first attempted the conquest of Central Asia. And, in the nineteenth century, when the Russians resumed their expansion into the area, Turkmen cavalry posed determined and prolonged opposition. The conquest of Turkmenia (also known as Turkestan) was not completed until 1885, and the territorial boundary of Russian Turkmenia was not set until a decade later by an Anglo-Russian border treaty. That treaty separated the Turkmens of Russia from the roughly equal number of their brethren in present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey.

Turkmenia became part of Russian Turkestan and was treated by the tsarist government as a colonial territory where Russians and other Slavs were encouraged to settle. A railroad was built, and other features of modernity were introduced. Turkmens resented losing their grazing land and in 1916 joined a Muslim uprising throughout Russia's Central Asian territory.

After the February Revolution of 1917, several political forces competed for power in Turkmenia. The Turkmens were divided between Islamic traditionalists and the more progressive nationalist intelligentsia. At this time, both Bolshevik and White armies sought the loyalty of Turkmenia's Russian population. A provisional government, established by Turkmen nationalists with support of the White forces and limited British assistance, was able to maintain itself against the Bolsheviks until mid-1919. Thereafter, Turkmen resistance against the Bolsheviks was part of the general Basmachi Rebellion, which reemerged sporadically until 1931. By 1920, however, the Red Army controlled the territory, and in 1924 the Turkmen Republic was established in accordance with the national delimitation process in Central Asia.

The Soviet policy of forced collectivization in the late 1920s and early 1930s was particularly abhorrent to the nomadic Turkmens. It led to enhanced national self-awareness and an opposition movement, which burst into an open rebellion in 1928-32. In response, Soviet authorities arrested scores of native communist leaders and broad segments of the Turkmen intelligentsia. Most perished in the Great Terror of the 1930s.

The great majority of the over 2.7 million Soviet Turkmens lived in the Turkmen Republic, the least populous of the Soviet Central Asian republics. Turkmens constituted nearly 72 percent of the republic's 3.5 million population. Russians and Uzbeks were the largest minorities.

The Turkmen language, which developed from several Turkic dialects and has adopted some Arabic, Persian, and Russian loanwords, belongs to the southern group of Turkic languages. In the 1989 census, about 98.5 percent of the Turkmens considered it their first language. Only slightly more than 25 percent of the Turkmens had fluency in Russian.

In 1987 Turkmens were more rural than urban, even though the population of the Turkmen Republic, which included a large number of highly urban Russians, was almost evenly divided between urban and rural residents. The Turkmen Republic had only a few large cities in 1989. Ashkhabad, the capital, had a population of 398,000; only Chardzhou and Tashauz also had populations over 100,000.

In 1971 Turkmens were fourteenth among the seventeen major nationalities in the number of students in higher education institutions and twelfth in the number of scientific workers per thousand. In 1986 the Turkmen Republic ranked tenth among the union republics in the number of students in higher education per thousand.

Turkmens were among the least represented nationalities in the CPSU. In 1984 they ranked thirteenth among the union republics.

Data as of May 1989

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