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Ferghana Events: 20 years later. History without a lesson?

10.06.2009 21:32 msk

Alexander Osipov


The Ferghana tragedy occurred on June 4 exactly two decades ago. Mass disturbances and pogroms took place in the Ferghana region of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, directed against the Meskhetian Turks. The center (it was Moscow then) evacuated victims - thousands of them - into other regions of the USSR. Practically all ethnic Turks, over 90,000 of them, left Uzbekistan in the year that followed. Here is analysis of those events by historian and ethnologist Alexander Osipov, an authority on the Meskhetian Turks and their problems.

Pogroms and attacks on the Meskhetian Turks in the Ferghana Region in early June 1989 became the first ethnic conflict in the disintegrating USSR. The Ferghana events are interesting material for analysis: leaving lots of questions unanswered, they nevertheless offer an insight into the Soviet system and Soviet society in general.

Clashes in Ferghana remain an enigma even now: lack of exact knowledge of details leaves the whole meaning of what transpired obscure. It is impossible to say now why the disturbances began, why they escalated to this scope and degree of ferocity, and who led the pogromists if anybody did at all.

Before evacuation, Turk families were taken to the military shooting range in the outskirts where they were guarded from pogromists
Before evacuation, Turk families were taken to the military shooting range in the outskirts where they were guarded from pogromists

Sources of information are scarce. Media outlets of that period remain the main source but even they are mostly full of speculations based on scant facts. Max Lurie's pieces in Ferganskaya Pravda are the only exception. The involved parties - attackers and victims - did not say anything worthwhile during the events themselves. There were practically no independent observers in Ferghana then. Stories and explanations from the involved parties appeared only post factum but all of them bring to mind the old axiom "telling lies like a bona fide witness". Official statements and comments should be taken with caution, and access to materials of investigation and trials is problematic even now.

Absence of hard data is recompensed for by a multitude of hypotheses, mostly phantasmagoric. Explanations may be divided into two categories: focused on a conspiracy (referring to scheming on the part of either the authorities of some unidentified underground) and centered around an ethnic conflict (fomented by economic motives or plain bigotry). The only catch as I have already pointed out on more than one occasion is that all these theories do not jibe with known facts.

June 3, 1989. The Internal Troops help refugees with their belongings. (Photo by Utarbekov)
June 3, 1989. The Internal Troops help refugees with their belongings. (Photo by Utarbekov)

In any event, it stands to reason to assume that the involved parties had nothing to do with "nations", "ethnic groups", "secret services", "mafia", "extremists" or "Party functionaries". They were ordinary people with their weak points, superstitions, and - more importantly - willingness to justify their own deeds in hindsight. A look from this particular angle explains a lot.


According to Lurie, "... it all began with a fistfight between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks where a young Uzbek was killed. Nobody could imagine then what it would result in." Lurie even suggested that "it could be just about anyone else (in the place of the Mekhetian Turks) because the attackers meant to demonstrate their strength. The Turks were ideal as victims - unlike the Russians, they did not have a major power behind them. In short, any other people lacking roots [in Uzbekistan] could find itself in their place."
There were lots of areas in the former USSR where life was even worse than it was in Ferghana. Chauvinistic propaganda in 1989 spread to a lot of regions and republics, but pogroms were rare all the same. The Turks were a small ethnic group dispersed over a vast territory. Nothing outstanding, in other words. The conspiracy theory ought to be abandoned right away (an anonymous force appeared out of the blue, fomented riots for some reason, and disappeared never to be seen or heard about again). Actions of the authorities fit ordinary bureaucratic logic: there were several centers of power and decision-making in Ferghana during these events, not one of them was willing to delegate its powers to anyone else and was even less willing to shoulder responsibility for fear of being made a scapegoat afterwards.

What is already known suffices to stop treating the Ferghana events as something absolutely incomprehensible. Riots, senseless and merciless, are not exactly rare throughout the world. History is full of episodes when minor incidents provoked a powerful and impromptu surge of collective aggressiveness. Ostensibly unreasonable, mass disturbances including clashes and pogroms took part even in the Soviet Union. In fact, it is possible to draw parallels between the events in Ferghana and, for example, race riots in the United States.

Uzbek Meskhetian Turks. At the shooting range near Ferghana awaiting evacuation into Russia
Uzbek Meskhetian Turks. At the shooting range near Ferghana awaiting evacuation into Russia

But why Ferghana? Why would the masses, meek and obedient only the day before, would rush to a rally and join a stampede? We can only make guesses. The assumption that the disturbances - or rather the atmosphere that made them possible in the first place - were fomented by the so called Cotton Affair looks quite plausible. First the depressing effect made by the "war on corruption" and mass reprisals. Then a shock caused by a dramatic turn in Moscow's policy and scandals unearthed by investigators of the Gdlyan-Ivanov's team. Bewilderment at the new leadership of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic demonstrating weakness and confusion... The 1st Congress of Deputies in the meantime shuttered the traditional look on the world. People were itching to do something and did not know what. A petty incident became a valve that letting steam out. Existence of organizers and masterminds behind the scenes is questionable of course, but a provocation could well take place. Perhaps, it was staged to ruin establishment of a regional organization of Birlik in Ferghana. Turning a rally into disturbances and leading part of the crowd in search of the Turks could not be difficult. A dozen "plants" in the crowd acting on a cue from secret services would have sufficed, particularly when the whole region was already upset by the rumored fights with the Turks in Kurasai.

At the shooting range near Ferghana awaiting evacuation into Russia
At the shooting range near Ferghana awaiting evacuation into Russia. 1989

Consequences of those tragic events are well-known. The Meskhetian Turks became victims. Most of them left Uzbekistan altogether: some were evacuated into Russia, others left of their own volition. Some Turks opted to stay (and some even returned to Uzbekistan again, later on), but up to 70,000 Turks ended up in Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, and lately even in Turkey and the United States. Initially deported from the southern part of Georgia in 1944, the Meskhetian Turks never got together again. These days, they live in at least nine countries.

The events in Ferghana delivered another (one of many) blow at the repute of the Soviet leadership and at the expectations that it would keep the country together much longer. The tragedy made no lasting effect on Uzbekistan and was soon forgotten. All sorts of people throughout the Soviet Union - from political leaders in Moscow to the Georgian mavericks - tried to make use of the tragedy in their speeches and campaigns but did it halfheartedly at best. And without success.

The events in Ferghana illustrate some features of Soviet and the still recent post-Soviet society.

The state's disdainful and wholly consumer attitude toward people is the first nuance that ought to be mentioned. Individual soldiers, officers, investigators, prosecutors, Party officials appeared to be doing their best during the tragedy but the general logic of actions of the state was far from aspiring to defend people and their rights. Everything was focused on absolving big-wheels, crushing disturbances, and removing the target ethnic group from the limelight.

Light armored fighting vehicles patrolling Kokand streets in June 1989
Light armored fighting vehicles patrolling Kokand streets in June 1989 (Photo from web site Desantura.ru)

Confusion is the second nuance. Conspiracy theory was elaborated on - for all its faults and shortcomings. The world was perceived as "us" and "them" - the titular nation vs diasporas, the indigenous population vs strangers, honest workers vs suckers. No wonder so many took the expulsion of the Turks with indifference or poorly concealed malicious glee. Hence absolute alienation from the ideas of equality and demands for protection of all. The Soviet people were ever ready to feel for the deprived and the needy, for war veterans and Stalin's victims. They could never feel for the independent people capable of making their own decisions and earning their own daily bread. Pinning the blame on the victim in episodes like that was almost a norm.

Along with everything else, the events in Ferghana bring to mind the thoughts of accountability. From the standpoint of actual participation, that is. Pogromists constituted but a minority in the crowds then. They were vastly outnumbered by idlers curious to listen to rally speeches. It looked like mass support of the pogroms only to a casual observer, as even pogromists themselves knew. Most people in the crowds were ordinary people who would never have anything to do with murderers and looters. For some reason, however, whenever these ordinary people speak up in public, condemnation of violence is the last thing on their minds. They sympathize with victims only in passing, and mostly concentrate on the demands to release the unfairly imprisoned, elaborate on the proverbial "hand of Moscow", complain of the republic's problems, and so on.

Genocide and ethnic purges do not stem from mass bigotry or from abundance of sadists and murderers in society. They become possible when ordinary citizens love their motherland, want to be with their people, do what everyone else does, and ask no questions.

Turk family from Uzbekistan
Turk family from Uzbekistan

Alexander Osipov, exclusive for Ferghana.Ru