Samarkand Returns to Power


I SHALL always be glad that I first saw Samarkand in the golden glow of her beauty, when frosty November dawns melted swiftly into gorgeous sunny days; when the first rains had sapphired the sky and turned desert hills into snow peaks and laid the dust of the plains, but had not yet made mud. Then I learned that, having loved and left many cities, one can still fall in love with a new one; that sheer bluegold weather can be as intoxicating to the critical senses as champagne, or as youth. There came other rains, and the grayness of shabby old age descended upon her, on old Samarkand still sitting where she sat twenty-three centuries ago, to receive her first recorded conqueror, Alexander. Yet two hours after the rain she again wove sunny magic.

Even the animals felt this magic. Elsewhere camels are plodding creatures, patiently threading walled streets or desert sands. Here I laughed with fellow feeling as I saw a camel gallop blithely around a bend in the boulevard, tossing into the air a foot above him his human freight — a ball of colorful rags topped by a brown-faced grin. Elsewhere in Russia the horses are beasts of burden, dragging ramshackle droskies over the cobbles; here my first horse frightens me by racing madly down the street like (he desert nomad that he is, quite unaware that he has a cart behind him.

After all deductions for the weather’s magic, surely nothing could make those tiny donkeys on all the streets and boulevards anything but a constant entertainment. They are surmounted by such solemn men, bearded and turhaned, much larger than the donkeys, with feet tucked up to keep them from dragging. The booths at street corners, festooned with green and purple grapes in monstrous clusters; the long-cloaked red and maroon merchants solemnly clasping hands in an historic market place, to seal some bargain involving a few rubles; gay plush cap shops festooning the walls of some famous ruin; colored laundry hung out to dry from carved walls of some ancient seat of religious learning — here is the golden heart of sunny Asia, mellow mother Asia, hot young Asia,

Samarkand is renewing her youth. There is, to use a flippant Western word, a ‘boom’ in Samarkand. Never, it seems, have T seen so many new buildings side by side with so many historic monuments. Here is a new bank, a new Department of Agriculture building; across the boulevard from it a new girls’ school, complete with dormitory and classrooms. Here is a new building for the Department of State Industry; a new Teacher Training School. These I notice in my first casual walks through the heart of the city. Farther out, to be reached only with intention, is the new silk factory for nine hundred and fifty workers, most of whom are housed near by in new workmen’s dwellings; and the new Hospital of the Uzbek Republic, costing $600,000, a cluster of gorgeously modern buildings of stone and glass. Around it also are scattered new workmen’s quarters; these seem to be in many places.

Power has come again to Samarkand. She who was a capital of many conquerors is a capital once again. In ihe new division of Turkestan into Soviet republics, Samarkand is the government seat of the Uzbeks. Here is the tomb of Tamerlane, and here is the farm-hand president’s six-room White House. Here meets the Central Executive Committee of the Uzbeks, and here are the headquarters of education, and health, and agriculture, and justice. Here is a Musical High School from which gay youth goes forth to sing and dance propaganda into the villages of Central Asia.

Samarkand is very crowded. Congresses and conferences flood her halls, and the building of hotels has by no means kept pace with the building of government offices. On none of my visits to Samarkand did I find a room in any hotel. But this may be accounted luck rather than otherwise, for I was most hospitably entertained on each occasion by kindly Samarkanders who took pity on the stranger. The first time I stayed at the Clara Zetkin School for Women; the second time in the president’s own mansion. Neither quarters were palatial. In the School for Women I shared a tiny bedroom with the director, her sister, and the teacher of physical training; in the presidential home I was given a divan in the secretary’s living room, also occupied for sleeping by his mother.


Because I wished to learn of Samarkand the Ancient, I called first on Professor Viatkin, who, under varying rulers and conditions, has given all his life to studying the archaeology of Central Asia and is to-day head of the ‘Committee on Ancient. Monuments.’ A kindly and rather sad gentleman, not interested in politics or in all the fury of new building in this old capital. He is well aware of the world importance of the great monuments of the past; he remembers the Germans who journeyed hither before the war for research, and the Americans of the Carnegie Foundation back in 1908; it hurts him to realize that he is responsible for the preservation of all these relics and has so little money to care for them properly.

‘Seventy important memorials of the past are in Uzbekistan alone,’ he told me. ‘We do not know how many more are undiscovered. For such research we have no money at all. Our 34,000 rubles this year barely suffices to keep the most important from falling to pieces. In the famous Righistan of Samarkand we must chain columns in position, or they will crash into ruins and spoil other things as well. A few things like this we can do; it is next to nothing.’

The glory of Samarkand from before the dawn of history unrolled before me as we talked in Professor Viatkin’s crowded dining room, used also as study, and he pictured to me the many conquerors who have come into these rich watered lands of Central Asia. Always there has been here a settled people, farmers, clustering from prehistoric days around the hillside streams and following them with irrigation into the plains. Always the harsher nomad hordes from the surrounding deserts have overwhelmed them and become in their turn settlers. Samarkand, like a fair mistress, submitted to their violence, and then subdued them to the ways of her household. Each of her masters, as far as he might, destroyed the remembrance of all past lovers. Nothing to-day remains of Alexander’s days but a few Greek coins and figurines unearthed from time to time as sign that once Hellenic culture enriched this soil.

The earliest known peoples here were the Tajiks, Persian in race and culture, high in musical and poetic attainments; they still survive in the distant mountain villages and as a city population in the valleys. They lost their fertile lands to the invaders, but they kept the superiority of trade and culture. The Arabs came, bringing the Arab civilization of the seventh and eighth centuries; there followed a local dynasty of high attainments, when irrigation flourished and books were many and the arts were prized. Raw Turkish tribes from the East overwhelmed this and passed beyond to settle Asia Minor. They were followed in the thirteenth century by the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his lesser sons. Warlike and strong invaders, but destroyers who left the rich lands ruined. Tamerlane, who followed them, brought a renaissance of literature and building; his are the most magnificent monuments now remaining. After him descended from the north the Uzbeks, uncultured but virile nomads. Later, only fifty years ago, the Russians.

On invitation of Professor Viatkin, I took next morning one of the large red autobuses which furnish modern transportation to this ancient city. I was bound for the Righistan, for hundreds of years the central market place, flanked by stately medresses, the religious academies of the Moslems. It is still to-day a market place much attended, as I realized when I stood in line and fought for a place in the bus. No prestige whatever attaches to being a white woman in a crowd of jostling natives bent on purchase. This, it chanced, was one of the market days, which occur twice weekly. Past the various government buildings we swept, along the wide shaded boulevards of the new city, and across a ravine to the colorful jostling streets of Samarkand the Ancient.

A certain stark grandeur distinguishes the ruins of Asia. Torn and lofty, covered with brilliant mosaics, they stand in patient aloofness under the golden noons. Beneath them whispers or roars the life of the market, with its petty barter, and its satisfaction of daily needs. Under the gorgeous walls of the Righistan I saw a popular peep show, behind the curtains of which veiled women removed their veils to chuckle at what they saw; by the pictures of Egyptian and Assyrian gods and the scientific mottoes, I judged it was antireligious propaganda. From a high tribune in front of the famous medresse which faces the square a speaker was taking subscriptions to the latest government loan wdiile a small crowd stopped to listen and edged away — as no doubt was done in some form in the days of Tamerlane.

Avoiding massive processions of camels and rumbling processions of carts, I sought refuge from the traffic under a high stone cavern, built for who knows what purpose by its original architect, but. serving now as the cap market, w here the males of Samarkand beautify themselves with giddy designs in plush and velvet. Dodging down a side street, I came to still another ancient medresse, now turned to secular uses. A crowd of young Tajiks hailed me, and pointed out the relics in their building. They were taking a short course to become village teachers. The mechanism of my kodak so enthralled them that they all took turns looking into the finder, and shouted with triumph when they saw’ the scenes; at this gleeful occupation they lost their places in the waiting line for lunch, and, remembering this, ran suddenly away.

The gauntly beautiful ruined arches of Bibi Khanum cut the blue sky at one end of the street. Of this ancient mosque there are varying legends, chiefly concerning the favorite wife of an emperor, who built the temple to honor him during his absence. It is said that the architect became inflamed with love for his sovereign, and could not set his genius at work without her favors; and that she, burning with impatience to celebrate her lord’s return, sacrificed his household honor to honor him the better in public. The fate meted out to the culprits is variously recorded; there are tales of death connected with the high towers of this old ruin. On some of its broken slabs I saw two Uzbeks from the market reclining; sipping tea in the shade of the walls and cutting juicy melons on the storied stones.


Beyond the walls of Samarkand, and beyond the dusty plain devoted to trading in horses, rise the exquisite domes of tombs built for the family of Tamerlane. In all Central Asia there is no cluster of ancient monuments more harmonious in their setting of trees and sky, and perfectly balanced stairways lead from mausoleum to mausoleum. Vivid mosaics, stone steps worn by the feet of pilgrims, a famous old Koran exhibited reverently in the central mosque, where Tamerlane himself may have stood to pray for the souls of his dead — these are the perfect memorials of the power that is gone. On my way back to the Righistan I saw the cruder modern emblems of the new power that has come in Samarkand.

In the midst of the bazaar, with its shouts and camels, its donkeys and bargaining merchants, arose a large and ugly building: ‘Universal Stores, Uzbek State Trading Company, No. 3.’ The crowds outside were greater than anywhere else in the market; they were standing in line to buy cotton goods or soap at prices below those in the private booths. Around a corner, with plentiful red banners, stood the ‘House of the Dekkans.’ I stepped inside and found a small exhibition of modern farm machinery, intermingled with placards about fertilizers and seed selection and the war on pests. The room was empty; with some trouble I unearthed the doorkeeper, and was told that the dekkans (the Central Asian word for ‘ peasants ’) were all out shopping, but would return en masse for sleep in the evening.

Some of them, in fact, were already assembled in the red chai-khana, or tea house, around the corner, where they squatted on carpeted platforms above the roar of the market and solemnly quaffed tea under pictures of Lenin. A placard on a hall near by announced the ‘Fourth Congress of the Uzbek Teachers Union,’ and informed all delegates that dormitories had been opened for their accommodation at the Central Labor Union and also at the Club of the Teachers. A block away was the main workers’ club, named after Tomsky; a congress of the Peasant Coöperatives of Uzbekistan was going on in its crowded, badly lighted hall. In a high-pitched, monotonous voice, an Uzbek peasant woman, unveiled, with her hair covered by a Russian kerchief, was complaining from the platform about the bad organization of village cooperatives. Here was some change, surely, from the days of Tamerlane.

Following her came a tall, dark peasant, in a coarse wrapper of brown unlined homespun, with high leather boots and little round embroidered skullcap, now very shabby. Though only a farm laborer, he spoke with an air of fierce, firm authority that would have well suited a chieftain of Genghis Khan, just descended from his charger. ‘ I don’t know the methods of order in a meeting and I don’t much care,’ he said with a fine casualness. ‘I don’t know how to begin a speech or what must be included. But — what do we see in the village? The rich peasants get the new machines on credit and we poor ones don’t.’

As the discussion proceeded, a baby boy wandered down the aisle pulling his rough coat back from his otherwise quite naked brown body. No one paid any attention to him. Leaving the assembly, I mingled with the aftermarket crowd of shoppers jamming all means of transport on their way home. Sacks of nuts and melons and rich green raisins, the kind most highly prized, filled carts and buses. Above the crowd tossed turbans of blue and white and orange, sometimes stuffed with the smaller purchases. In more than one turban I saw a shining glass lamp chimney thrust, like a strange ornament, to keep it safe above the jostling turmoil. 1 returned to the chief restaurant of Samarkand, whose oilcloth-covered tables were already very sloppy from the succession of diners. On its walls were placards with fiercely gesticulating figures pointing fingers, conveying this reproach: ‘You, You, You — are NOT YET a member of the Cooperative.’ Truly American advertising methods had come to Samarkand.

A few evenings later I attended the opening session of t he Central Executive Committee of the Uzbek Republic — the highest administrative authority in the land. It does not control railways, or posts and telegraphs, or army, or foreign trade and ultimate economic programmes; these economic lines of dominance are dictated from Moscow, in whose central government Uzbekistan is representedThe session which I visited controls, however, education, health, agriculture, courts, local trade and industry, making its own budget within the limits of a general tax policy fixed by the Central Government of the Soviet Union. The budget of the Uzbek Republic, incidentally, shows large and increasing deficits, due to the expansion of education, health measures, and irrigation in a region too backward to pay heavy taxes. The deficit this year amounts to forty million rubles and is met by Moscow, as part of its announced policy of ‘equalizing the backward regions with the centre.’

It was a report on the budget that the Central Executive Committee was considering when I entered. I saw before me a long narrow hall, unimposing, the typical meeting hall of a small town, decorated in the typical Asian manner with strings of tissue-paper flags in all colors festooned from wall to wall. To these were added many red streamers, and a more than life-sized statue of Lenin at the rear of the stage, arising from a sea of red flags. Above the stage a large red banner bore, in place of the slogans on world revolution which used to grace such assemblies, the much more sober words which are to-day the fashion: ‘ We grow, we strengthen, we are building socialism and will complete its building. ’ A larger banner at the far end of the hall was inscribed with the words of Lenin: ‘The Soviet Power will be carried to success only when in it take part the millions of workers and peasants.’

Much calmer ideals, these, than the war cries once expressed! And were, indeed, the millions of workers and peasants taking part? Certainly the members of this governing body were native, under whatever methods of pressure they might have been chosen from distant villages. Uzbeks in manycolored robes, padded against the sharp autumn weather, were the chief figures. The proceedings went on in the Uzbek language, but the more important parts were translated into Russian, ‘for the benefit of the Europeans.’ These ‘Europeans,’ by which name were included Russians, Jews, and one Lett, numbered forty-eight, one quarter of the assembly. Of the rest, one hundred and twenty-seven, or a clear majority, were Uzbeks, while twenty-six came from minor Asiatic nationalities, resident in the Uzbek Republic.

Behind the long red table which filled the front of the stage sat the Presidium, a dozen or more Uzbeks, in the usual gaudy gowns and plush skullcaps. One of them was a woman, Shadiva, aged twenty-two, with the naive, friendly smile of a sixteen-yearold girl.

When Shadiva flitted about the hall in a mussed blue flannel blouse, with a green velvet cap on her long black curls, it was impossible to believe the tales I was told of her past. A miner’s daughter of Fergana, sold in marriage at the age of ten, she lived with her middle-aged husband a tragic existence. When Russian women began to organize the woman’s movement of Uzbekistan, Shadiva was one of their first adherents. They taught her to read; they discovered and trained her capacity for eloquence; they got a divorce for her. She is married now to a youth of her own age, a modernist and communist; she holds great audiences spellbound with her oratory. Her former husband also has remarried, but they say he has never ceased to regret the flamelike Shadiva.

In and out among the members of the Presidium moved the secretaries of the Central Executive, some of them Russians, some of them drawn from the Asiatic nationalities of the Caucasus, which have had more education than the Uzbeks and are now supplying many organizers and secretaries in Central Asia. I inquired of one of these to what extent the government in Samarkand was run by the natives. In the chief assembly their predominance was obvious, but how about the civil departments of government? He told me that the departments of Education and of Social Welfare are almost entirely manned by Uzbeks, since teaching is chiefly done in the Uzbek language. The Finance Department is 70 per cent Uzbek. The Department of Agriculture is Uzbek except for its farm experts; the Water Department except for its engineers. The local courts are all Uzbek, but in the higher courts some 15 to 20 per cent are Russians. Russians persist throughout the Health Department, since practically no Uzbeks have as yet had time to learn medicine. In the higher economic departments, such as the State Planning Board or the Department of State Industries, about half the staff is Russian.


The life of Samarkand is in her water, brought by a primitive system of irrigation learned from the Arabs. Every year its dikes of wood and earth need repairing; in some years high water destroys the dikes and floods whole regions. The Water Department invited me to visit their new irrigation dam at Revat Khoja, thirty miles from the city. Built in the modern fashion of reenforced concrete, under an engineer who once constructed the Baikal section of the Trans-Siberian Railway and part of the line to Murmansk, it is attracting visits from peasants throughout the Uzbek Republic.

The methods of modern technique know neither race nor boundary. When I stopped for lunch at the chief engineer’s house near the main dam, it seemed that I might have been in any one of a dozen construction camps in the far West of America. The same clean, bare floors, the same whitewashed walls covered with blueprints, the same bare furniture of working tables and hard chairs. Even the food was the same — chiefly canned goods, the diet of the breaker of trails the world over. Sitting across the table was the same type of keen face, lean and efficient, busy with the skilled subduing of nature and caring little for politics. Out of the window was the same type of landscape — brown unreclaimed fields leading to mountains, and a single telephone line to connect with civilization. Only when I crossed the room to look at the dike with its medley of turbaned figures and colorful Asiatic garments did I recall that this was the oldest continent of earth instead of the youngest.

When, after lunch, we went to see the dam, which runs for two kilometres across many channels eaten by former floods, we met a delegation of peasants that had come to inspect it. Middleaged men, with voluminous robes and large white turbans, sat sedately on little clay mounds above the river, staring long and contentedly down at the swiftly working machines. Layers of reenforced concrete were being applied under their eyes; men like themselves in turbans and flapping robes were working at pumps. Besides these shrewd and patient peasants there was another inspection. Jumping hastily from crag to crag, the photographer of the State Cinema of the Uzbeks was busily snapping scenes which would go forth to village movies. Propaganda of modern irrigation was to reach those peasants too far away to visit Revat Khoja.

‘The local peasants were very skeptical when we began,’ smiled the engineer. ‘But now that our dike and canal are nearing completion, they know enough about irrigation to be very enthusiastic. Even before Revat Khoja opens, scores of peasant delegations come to Samarkand from all Uzbekistan, asking for similar improvements to their ancient irrigation systems. They offer to pay for the engineers, the machines, the cement and iron, and to furnish their own unskilled labor. Some fifty such local companies have been organized; a Meliorative Fund exists in the Water Department to aid them with threeto five-year credits. No longer does the Government rebuild their irrigation systems for nothing; it reserves its budget funds for reclaiming entirely new land. On the old land the peasants themselves are willing to pay for improvement. But Revat Khoja was done on government budget; the dike and the ten-kilometre canal cost seven million rubles. These will stabilize irrigation on a million acres, of which one hundred and fifty thousand wall be newly reclaimed land. This will be distributed without cost, to the local peasants, but we estimate t hat the Government will get its money back on the increased cotton crop in not more than seven years. ’

The usual social life of the Russian industrial community had already been introduced, rather sketchily, into this temporary construction camp, where somewhat less than half the workers were Uzbeks. There was equal pay for equal work regardless of race; but the Russians had a greater proportion of the skilled jobs. The single men lived in barracks; the married men who had worked for some time on the job liad attained perhaps to private quarters of two rooms. The Uzbeks had separate dormitories from the Russians, ‘since their habits of living differ from ours.'

I asked the secretary of the Camp Committee if there was much race prejudice. ‘No,’ he said, after a moment’s thought. ‘Rather the opposite. When quarrels occur, it is Russians who quarrel with Russians, and Uzbeks with Uzbeks. They know their own kind better and fight, with them more readily. ’

The secretary of the Camp Committee showed me the workers’ quarters and the various facilities maintained under the trade-union. A thousand workers were employed on the dike, he told me; the average wage was about eight rubles a day, but the lowest unskilled labor got only three. They had a clubhouse, and a motion-picture apparatus; a small permanent library of 500 volumes, supplemented by traveling libraries of 150 to 200 books sent by the Construction Workers Union from Samarkand. A drama circle of thirty members, a musical circle, a chess club, as well as political, military, and sport, circles, gave occupation for leisure time in the lonely camp on the desert. Not all was bliss, however, among the workers at Revat Khoja. As I entered one of the dormitories, a large Russian near the door rose and blocked my way. He was garrulous from a recent celebration.

‘So you’re an American,’ he said. ‘Well, what do you think of our bunk houses? Fit for humans, are they?' He spat disgustedly. I glanced around; sixty men in one enormous room certainly allowed no privacy. Yet each man had his own bunk, with a shelf and hook above it and a table beside it. There were no upper bunks; the room was high and airy, the wooden floors well raised above the winter damp.

‘Not. much comfort,’I admitted, ‘but I’ve seen worse in the lumber camps of America.’

‘You lie!’ he shouted, proceeding to inform me that all American workers had automobiles. Why not the Soviet workers? I remarked that, since work on the dam was a temporary job, he could hardly ask the tax-paying Uzbek peasants to furnish better quarters for the dike workers than they themselves had permanently. ‘You’re a hell of a delegate!’ he cried, disgustedly. The other men paid him no attention; they went on playing chess or reading.

Leaving the barracks, I caught the last truck back to Samarkand. Passing along the line of the new canal, I saw on a tiny railroad a small tractor, remodeled to act as locomotive, pulling twenty tons of trailing cars along the rails. Thus was cement delivered to line the new waterway. Not far beyond, along the trees by the road, a train of fifty camels had made camp for the night; their Kirghiz owners, nomads of the desert, were earning an honest ruble working for Revat Khoja. Thus also was cement delivered to the new canal. The old and the new means of transport were working side by side to reclaim the deserts of Asia.

The Russians in Samarkand, however, found my enthusiasm a bit naive. Not so easily do the old and new work together as it might seem to me, a stranger. They complained that Samarkand is hard to work in; that progress goes slowly. The hot Asian summer had tired them; they longed for Moscow — craving perhaps some winter tonic needed by Northern blood. They did not share my excitement over the picturesque life of the markets. The endless rows of old men, sipping their tea in chai-khanas, — those open carpeted platforms along the streets where a man may squat and musingly contemplate all passing life without the labor of sharing it, — were to these new crusaders no picturesque background, but a positive obstacle — something to be removed that young life might flourish. ‘Those old men take their tea as seriously as one does the Revolution,’ complained one of the Russians.

When I mentioned the scores of new buildings, the six hundred thousand dollar hospital, the local representative of the newspaper Pravda Vostoka said grimly: ‘That hospital was supposed to open last May Day, and again in October; now they say, but we do not believe, it will open in January. True, there are many workmen’s dwellings finished; but we also know workers’ houses promised two years ago and still awaiting roofs. We know what is to blame; not lack of workmen or money, but wasteful and bureaucratic planning and changing of plans. Deadwood at the top. It is hard to get action so far from the centre. ’

And the local manager of the Dobrolet airplane line said, more briefly: ‘It is easy to put up buildings from a state budget, but hard to transform a backward people. ’ Yet the mere fact of his own existence — manager of airplanes in the capital of Tamerlane — was in itself an unnoticed revolution.

Impatient souls, destined never to be at peace in t he war of changing worlds. Yet it is their impatience which is remaking in a brief generation the lands which had remained unchanged from the days of Tamerlane. They are too near the conquest to know its triumph.