Grasshoppers, Soldiers, and Silk Weavers


I HATE Tashkent! It is a town where one always gets stuck much longer than one intended. When I tried to fly to Kabul I was held here two months, wondering blindly what was going on beyond that censored border into which my airplane refused to venture. It is easy to reach Tashkent, for all trains go there. It is hard to get out again, for trains are crowded, and telegraph is slow and plans not swift to make. One loses patience at the first touch of Asia, where time is not and the hours glide as the centuries. Beyond Tashkent one has learned, perchance, to adjust one’s self.

The bad news which met my arrival seemed like Tashkent’s usual fatality. Dubenko, Commander of the Army of Central Asia, told me on the second day that the flight to Horog in the Pamirs must be abandoned. The first test plane, bearing only its aviator, had landed and been unable to get off again. It seems that insufficient account had been taken of the high altitude in placing the airdrome, and there was not take-off space between the mountains. In two or three months a new landing field would be arranged, but at present the trip was canceled.

‘ But now that you have come so far, it is a pity to turn back to Moscow,’ said Dubenko. ‘If you care to go to the Pamirs, you can go in with the army. The troops in those distant posts change once a year, and the relief goes in from Osh in a few days. You can travel with one of these groups — some hundred soldiers.’

I asked if the presence of a woman would not prove an embarrassment. I admit that I wondered, privately, more about hardship than embarrassment. This trip into a region visited only by explorers, and spoken of with respect by the most hardy — could I keep up with the stalwart young peasant lads of an army?

Dubenko reassured me. ‘Several women are going, and even babies,’ he said. ‘Such of the commanding staff as are married usually take their families.’

Babies in the Pamirs! Across those passes higher than Mont Blanc, camping for many weeks at 13,000 feet elevation, these hardy Russians carry babies. The wife of one of the commanders had come out to Osh to have her baby, giving birth in a hospital a few days after crossing the Pamirs! A pioneer race! To make the trek with such women and babies and their soldiers across the Roof of the World might be as exciting even as the abandoned airplane trip.

So again I waited in Tashkent, enduring its expensive and filthy hotel and rejoicing in its flower markets along the streets. By the headlines in its newspapers I knew that a war was on. A war not against men, but against grasshoppers. A war along the Afghan front where the winged foe was appearing in clouds to threaten the cotton harvest of Turkestan.

A serious war it was, fought with airplanes, trenches, and poison gas. Along the streets of Tashkent marched students from the agricultural schools, preceded by a band. They were mobilized out to be officers in the AntiGrasshopper Army. Under them a peasant militia was working, digging trenches, spraying poisons, smashing hundreds of advancing bodies with their spades. Scientists in laboratories were working overtime to devise the best means of extermination; these were broadcast by radio and newspaper and graphic picture for those who could not read. An Extraordinary Committee of Five, armed with special powers to organize knowledge, man power, and materials against grasshoppers, was for the moment supreme in Turkestan.

The enemy came flying in clouds ten miles long and two miles wide from the Afghan frontier; he darkened the sun with his masses. He was the same dread African locust that once cursed the days of Pharaoh. His normal home is the Sudan. But there come years of maximum fertility when the deadly female of the species lays many times the usual number of eggs, producing little grasshoppers of incredible voracity. In such years the clouds of locusts travel in all directions seeking green fields; they fly over 5000-foot ranges and across seas; for a thousand miles they may be carried by favoring winds.

Such was the winged army advancing against the cotton fields of Turkestan. It came with many victories to its credit. The previous year it had ravaged the north of Africa, and cast parts of Persia into famine. After wintering in Southern Persia and Afghanistan, it was flying northward on a 2000mile front. It had penetrated Soviet Central Asia as far as the oasis of Khiva, a thousand miles from its point of entrance. Over this vast territory the battle raged.

Newspaper columns were given daily to the news from the front. Each day brought telegrams from a dozen regions. Old Bokhara reports four hundred tons of grasshoppers killed to date, which is estimated at 32,000,000 individuals. A wire from Dushembe reports ‘a movement of locusts observed from Jar toward the Tajik Republic; detachments have been sent to meet them.’ ... ‘In Regar the six instructors who arrived yesterday have mobilized most of the available man power; peasant militia to the number of 3000 have moved to the attack.’ . . . ‘Six scouting groups of twenty horsemen each have been sent into the surrounding deserts to locate egg-laying.’ . . . ‘Four companies of sixty students each are taking a week’s emergency course in grasshopper fighting.’ ... In Termes, ‘ within two hours after the appearance of the young grasshoppers, 5000 peasants were mobilized; by the end of the day 8000 were working and had collected 12,000 bags full of the creatures.’

The methods of warfare vary with the stage of the enemy’s development. As long as the locust flies, little can be done; airplanes with poison gas have only a moderate success and cannot be used near populated regions. Loud shouting and cannonading, the timehonored methods of the populace, divert the locust temporarily from her path, but are in the end futile. Fortunately this adult flying locust eats little, but is preparing for egg laying, after which she dies.

Airplanes may be used to scout the direction of the enemy’s flight and the place where eggs are laid. When these are discovered, ploughing kills many of them. But ploughing cannot reach the millions of desert acres. On the edges of cultivated regions the young hatch out, without wings, but hopping along the ground. They eat voraciously; in five weeks they change their skin five or six times, each time growing larger; at last they grow wings and fly to new pastures, having destroyed all behind them.

During the hopping stage they are most voracious, and can then also be most easily destroyed. Walls of sheet iron are erected across their pathway, diverting them into deep ditches where they are burned or buried. Even without sheet iron, wide ditches are effective. During some of the early stages, poisoned cotton waste scattered about the fields is a good weapon.

Tons of poisons, tons of sheet iron, thousands of trained workers are needed for this serious war with grasshoppers. A war chest of several million is voted; Moscow sends seventeen additional airplanes for observation and mapping; special landing fields are prepared; all freight marked ‘Grasshopper’ gets right of way on the railroad and goes at half rates. Five thousand soldiers from the army and many more thousand workers from factories are sent out to lead the more ignorant peasants in the fight.

War correspondents begin to return from the front. One describes the battle near Kushka. ‘These columns are enough to cause panic to men. One of the commanders of a battalion has been sent to the hospital for the insane at Ashkabad; he had delusions of being overwhelmed by inescapable grasshoppers. . . . For twelve days they passed our lines and there was no strength to withstand them. They lashed in the eyes the men who faced them and made them turn and flee. Clouds of gases were turned upon them and they fell to earth, but in forty-five minutes revived and continued their flight.

‘Kushka is the front post; behind her are the second, third, and fourth lines of defense. All along the railway from Merv down you see them. They are war trenches with driving gutters; the iron walls shine blindingly in the sun-struck sands of Kara-Kum; but sometimes they grow gray from the locusts beating against them. If there is the slightest forward slope to the wall, the locusts pass over on each other’s bodies to the cultivated lands beyond. So far the brunt of the fight falls on the Aviakhim battalions, the workers, students, and Young Communists. On red-hot sands without water they work all day. With burned skins in a desert renowned for sunstrokes, they fight for the oasis of Murgab far behind them.’

Allies appear in the Grasshopper War. The chief natural enemy of the locust is the rosy starling. He has scented their approach and is coming south from the mountains of Samarkand. The starlings fight tirelessly till their bills stick shut from locust juices and they must have water lest they die of suffocation. Their helpers, the native peasants, set out barrels of water for starlings to drink.

The Mohammedan mullahs tell the natives that locusts are sent by God to punish their obedience to the Bolsheviki. Only by barrels of holy water can they attract the starlings. The Young Communists retort by attracting starlings with unblessed water. This adds a touch of amusing color to the fight.

Another touch is added by the rumor which starts along the border that ‘ locusts are sent against us by the English, who buy them at eighty kopeks a pood for this purpose.’

Thus the Grasshopper War was waged. By the time I came back from the Pamirs it was over, leaving noticeable but not catastrophic losses on the cotton fields of Central Asia. The richest valley, Fergana, it never reached at all.


Meantime Dubenko said to me, as I waited disconsolately in Tashkent: ‘Would you care to take an air trip to a summer camp of the army ? The chief of the air forces is going over for a day’s work there.’ So casually was the invitation given that I was somewhat overwhelmed to discover that the camp was fourteen hours distant by rail and then some fifty kilometres back in the hills. I went by air, a pleasanter method in the heat of Central Asia.

At five in the morning we left the Tashkent airdrome, soaring aloft to a height of eleven thousand feet to pass a range of snow peaks. Descending again, we marked how the snow gave place to desert hills, and these in turn to the green of irrigation. Shortly after seven we came to what was called an ‘airdrome,’ but in reality was only a flat expanse of desert from which rose two tiny columns of smoke built by Red soldiers to mark our way. We landed, set a guard for the day and night over the airplane, and took the Ford touring car that had come down from camp to meet us. It was a two hours’ ride by atrocious roads in great heat.

My companion had formerly spent several years fighting bandits in this region and was now revisiting it for the first time since the end of the civil war. ‘ It is a new country,’ he said. ‘ You see that black-haired girl waving at us from the roadside, and those youngsters making imitation salutes? When I was here before, the village doors were walled shut in terror, and stray shots from guerrillas were our roadside greeting. In those days the “bands” had most of the peasants with them, through either fear or racial allegiance; but now the peasants are with us, and help us chase the few bandits that arise. ’

During a stop for repairs, we had tea at the inevitable chai-khana, the carpeted tea platform of Central Asia; and a crowd of women with many babies clinging to them invited me to the rear of the house to the women’s quarters. They were all unveiled, a change indeed in the past few years of Central Asia. They showed me their spring harvest of silk cocoons and pointed woefully to the number of dead silkworms smitten by an infection before they could weave their costly shrouds.

Two Uzbek girls now approached us and begged for a ride in our automobile to a village on our road where they wished to visit their parents. Their husbands were with them and seconded their request. There was room in our auto, so the two girls mounted with ecstatic grins, while other women, who had perhaps merely failed to think of a similar request in time, stared in envy. Two unveiled Uzbek damsels, riding in a car with a Russian commander and a soldier chauffeur, and waving their hand in triumph at every Uzbek peasant we passed! Was the presence of one American woman a sufficient chaperon? Certainly two years ago it would not have been so considered. The males of their families would have torn them in pieces for the shame they brought the household. But now the Uzbek husbands made of the army commander a convenience for their wives’ visits to parents.

In the heat of noon we came into the mountain camp by the side of a turbulent stream. Groups of men in bathing trunks sat in the shade of the trees or played basket ball. The six hours daily allotted to military training had already been finished, from six to twelve at noon. For the rest of the day the men were free to wear what costume they chose, and bathing suits won the majority. Later in the afternoon I saw the various ‘classes in politics’ sitting in groups of thirty under the trees with instructors, discussing the difference between state farming, collective farming, and communes. From a distance one hardly knew whether they were Uzbeks or Russians, so brown were their bodies burned by the tropical sun.

Lunch time! The men gathered in open-air pavilions, each seating a thousand men, for the inevitable Russian dinner of cabbage soup, meat, potatoes, and black bread. Members of officers’ families ate in another but similar pavilion, where the meal must be paid for. Soldiers also could eat here, if they chose; but except when they had visitors they preferred the free food of their own pavilions. The soldiers had better music; each regiment had its band which played at ten meals a week, while in our smaller pavilion two stringed instruments sufficed.

The chief of Political Instruction sat beside me at lunch. ‘The men are fed by the army,’ he explained, ‘but our dining pavilion is run by the Cooperatives of Andizhan. They give us three hot meals daily for thirty rubles a month. The portions are large; if you have a family of five, three portions will do. The Andizhan Coöperatives lose money on us; but that is considered part of their “social work.”’

In the cool of early evening I strolled through the camp and saw many more evidences of the ‘social work’ done by civilian organizations to help the army. The camp was charmingly laid out, taking advantage of hillsides and stream. The torrent was diverted to form several shower baths, one fountain, and two cement swimming pools. Alleys of three-year-old poplars served as boundaries between regiments, of which several were camped here. The tents were raised high above foundations of sun-dried mud, rounded into walls and whitewashed. Inside each tent, on a wooden floor, were sleeping cots for ten men.

The real feature of the camp life was the club buildings. Hundreds of them, of all shapes and sizes, accommodating from fifteen to a hundred men. They had been planned by the men in conference with their commanders; their civilian ‘patron organizations’ had made donations to them; and the men themselves had built them, vying with each other in decoration schemes and comforts invented. Little summerhouses under trees served tea for three kopeks a glass; little square boxes of houses, gayly painted and set in formal gardens, offered various reading matter and posters. One regiment put all its club buildings four feet down into the earth for greater coolness; another secured the same result by doubleroofing. Others diverted little streams from the general river to irrigate small plots of grass and hopeful attempts at flowers.

Everywhere in the afternoon were men working on clubhouses, putting up ornamental gates, painting posters, finishing the second swimming pool. The camp was only in its second year and the State gave only $10,000 to furnish it. The men themselves had given work worth several hundred thousands; and their civilian ‘patrons’ and friends had donated materials. The commander of one regiment thus indicated the proportion between the government funds and the voluntary. ‘I got from the State $500 for outfitting our club; our “patron factory” gave us $25,000, of which most was spent on our winter club, but $7000 went to fix our summer camp.’

Who were these lavish ‘worker patrons’ ? Chiefly the Uzbeks in cotton gins and cottonseed-oil factories of the Fergana Valley. Not Russians, but brown-skinned Asians voted to become ‘patrons’ of such and such a regiment. Perhaps they voted it from trade-union funds; or perhaps they voted to give ‘four hours’ overtime work.’ In any case, these Russian army boys were dependent for their club comforts on the votes of Uzbek workers.

‘A large part of our task,’ said the chief of Political Instruction, ‘is to organize friendly contacts with the neighborhood and get many patrons. The task of a good commander is not merely to teach military tactics, and not merely to organize good social life for his men. Unless he secures good contacts among the workers, his organization suffers, and his reputation loses. A good regiment commander organizes visits by his men to factories, and return visits of factory workers to his army camp. He starts study circles on military subjects in the factories, and his staff volunteer to do the teaching.

‘ When ploughing time comes and the native peasants buy European ploughs through their coöperatives, but do not know how to use them, a good commander will send volunteer detachments of soldiers, themselves peasants from European Russia, to act as instructors of ploughing in Uzbek villages. Still more, for the hundreds of peasants who have never had a horse, and who farm painfully with spades and mattocks, a good commander organizes horse assistance, planning the work of his animals so that he can free some for ploughing. He stirs up interest among the agricultural-implement coöperatives, and gets the loan or hire of implements, even of tractors. Later, perhaps these same peasants, or their sons in the factories, vote to become his patrons.’

‘The political lessons are more important than the military,’ said one regiment commander frankly. ‘The latter we can always shove in somewhere. But the political lessons must be given in accord with local events. Just now we are all helping, of course, in the Grasshopper War.’

I went in the evening to see the ‘movies’ in a great open square in the darkness. Here I met also a class of thirty miners, who had come from a near-by coal mine for a month’s course in politics under army instructors. All during summer various civilians camp with the army. Some 1500 Young Pioneers come for a month’s vacation, seeking chiefly a healthy vacation from the heat of Central Asian cities. They study surrounding nature and the life of the army while an army doctor cares for their health.

For the spring opening of the camp, the commander told me, over a thousand civilian guests came on foot and by horse cart from a radius of more than a hundred miles, to share in the celebration. For three days they camped with the army, and the army fed them. These brown-skinned Uzbek peasants and workers, patrons of various regiments, elected by their factories and villages as delegates for this visit, poured through the camp, attended club meetings and cinema, made suggestions and criticisms about the club arrangements and the new facilities needed. Anyone who can imagine this picture in contrast with the usual habits of white armies among brown-skinned populations will understand something of the revolution occurring in Asia.


Even with such excursions at hand, the wait in Tashkent grew dull. My train acquaintance, the praying dyer, had urged me to visit the Silk Makers Collective of Old Margelan. This was en route to Osh, whence the army caravan would start. I decided to start ahead of Commander Lavroff and his family, and stop over with the silk weavers, joining the commander on a following train. It was with him that I was to make the trip into the Pamir posts.

After a ghastly jam at the Tashkent railway station, in which each person, showing his ticket, held up the line for no apparent reason, while corners of wooden fruit boxes tore my clothes, came an evening of enchantment. I drew by luck a sleeping-car compartment alone, and with window opened I watched the full moon shining over irrigated cotton fields and deserts. Loud songs of crickets rose in the air, which was softened by evening to a delicious coolness and fragrant with the breath of wide-growing summer.

Next morning we rode through an increasingly hot landscape, not unlike the inland valleys of Southern California, where sagebrush alternated with irrigated cotton, and distant snow peaks were veiled in haze. But very unlike California were the jostling colorful crowds at the stations, in bright turbans and long flapping dressing gowns known as khalats. Unlike California’s trim motor roads was the track I later took to Old Margelan, jolting in an ancient hack amid smothering clouds of dust.

Water was the life of this region. Every muddy irrigation ditch a yard wide was an excuse for a chai-khana in which the population rested, reclined, talked, and drank tea. Families set little wooden cots lengthwise in these ditches and crowded on them to dangle their feet in the coolness, exposing their bodies to the slight breath of air that follows even such tiny streams. Little naked boys were plashing. Beyond these ditches rose uneven elevations of beaten earth dignified by the name of gardens, boasting a rug on the ground and a dust-laden shade tree above. At crossroads the male population of whole settlements sometimes lounged under a single shade tree.

Thus I drove past the Regional Executive Committee, the Regional Children’s Commission, the new Silk Filature Mills, the dingy office of the Social Insurance, and came through the market to the Regional Union of Handicraft, to which my silk dyer belonged. They sent for him and he was a trifle surprised, but rather proud, to see me, and exhibit me as an American visitor come all the way to Old Margelan. He introduced me to the president of the Silk Makers Artel (production collective), Riabof-Muksunof, a former revolutionist from Russia. The latter at once asked if I could help him buy some German books.

‘Books of technical explanation with pictures,’ he said. ‘We have some machines of the English system, 220 spindles in all, but no manual of instruction. I myself am an administrator; I knew nothing previously of silk making. The members of our artel are handicraftsmen; once Old Margelan was famous for its silks. Little by little we introduce some machinery, but we need explanations. Technical books on silk dyeing we also need — serious books, used by specialists.

‘There are 16,000 silk-making artisans in Old Margelan,’ he continued. ‘Of these 7500 are now in our artel. Our dyer told you 5000? But since he went to Moscow we have been able to accept 2500 more members. It is all a question of how much credit we get; all the artisans wish to join us. But we must limit ourselves by our credits and materials.’

We visited houses of spinners, weavers, and dyers in the late afternoon. Cavern-like huts, with floor of beaten earth and a jagged hole in the mud roof to let in light near the loom or dyeing bench. A wooden platform at one end piled with sleeping pallets. ‘Not so bad in summer,’ said Riabof-Muksunof. ‘Cooler than in the street. But in winter it’s very miserable, damp, chilling. Yet the artisans work here fourteen hours a day winter and summer. In the new Silk Filature Mills they have the eight-hour day and all sorts of social insurance. But most of the skilled artisans prefer their independence at home; it is chiefly unskilled girls who go to the mills.

‘ Little by little we hope to unite more artisans and get credits. We hope then to set up our own machines under collective ownership, where the artisans may grow used to a factory type of labor. At present the Turkestan Silk Trust exploits us, driving our prices down to make up the deficits on their eight-hour factory system. But eventually we shall get credit direct from the State Bank ourselves and not through the Turkestan Silk. Each year our status improves. Two years ago artisans were not even citizens; now they vote, elect members to the city soviet, and make demands.’ I could not know if Riabof-Muksunof’s accusations and hopes were true, or if he was the spokesman of artisans vainly opposing the factory advance.

As we went from house to house, our dyer shouted each time through the closed door. Sometimes a little girl peeped out to answer, ‘No one but women are home.’ It was then not proper for us to enter. On other occasions we were admitted to see a man sitting at a loom, primitively weighted and balanced in its motions by various sizes of stones. The dyer showed us his own shop where his brother and son were stamping bright colors with blocks on the cream-colored silk. He gave us tea, and plov, the main dish of Central Asia — rice cooked with small pieces of meat and fat. His wife did not appear to greet us, but remained in the women’s quarters. But he showed us his other treasures, chiefly an ancient Koran, four hundred years old, in gold-shaded lettering on parchment, and exquisitely illustrated.

‘I paid for this six hundred rubles in 1914, when I was a merchant,’ he told us. And Riabof-Muksunof informed me, while the dyer held himself proudly, that the latter had received the name Abdullah-Kari, — reader of the Koran, — in token of a pious education.

I went for the night to the home of Riabof-Muksunof, in Skobelef, the old Russian town built for the conquerors a few miles across the valley, shabby and down at heel under its splendid trees, but with ‘a human climate,’ according to my host. ‘With its abundant shade and its breeze down the ravines, its temperature may be thirty degrees lower than sun-baked Old Margelan in the hottest days.’ Here in two rooms, where the president of the Silk Makers Collective lived with his wife and daughter, he told me his life, and discussed theories of government.

‘I am not a Bolshevik,’ he said, ‘ but a former revolutionist of a different party, disagreeing with the Bolsheviki on many points. I was first jailed at seventeen years, and for eighteen years I lived an illegal life. Once I spent two and a half years in solitary confinement. Sometimes men go crazy from that; if that does n’t happen, then in the first six months they lose all sense of reality and live in a dream.

‘The thing I criticize in the Soviet Power in this region is the low price they give cotton growers and silk makers. The market price for cocoons is fifty rubles a pood, but the government price is twenty-three rubles. The peasant is bound to the government by debts and must deliver his cocoons to it. From this come many rows and scandals. However, one must take into account how the government subsidizes this whole region, giving new schools, more in proportion even than in Russian provinces, and issuing endless loans to poor peasants which it knows will never be paid.’

At this point in our talk a hurried rap came at the door and a man entered to talk hastily with my host, and then withdrew. ‘He wants to borrow our automobile,’ was the explanation. ‘All the government offices borrow it; we never get any use of it ourselves. He must go in haste to-night to a town in the hills and bring down the judges who have just issued a death sentence against a group of murderers. These murderers have plenty of friends, and it is well to get the judges back to town quickly.’

Thus I learned the tale of a religious riot and murder in a little hill settlement of Mohammedans. The village proudly possessed a sacred grave, said to be some relative of Mohammed. ‘All the villages have some relative of Mohammed,’ remarked Riabof-Muksunof. There came to this village a Trotskyist, exiled here to some small job of cultural work. This ardent atheist announced that there was nothing holy about this grave, and that it was probably no grave at all, but an empty hole, and proceeded to prove his case by opening the spot. A band of villagers attacked him, cut him to pieces, and carried the pieces away as souvenirs, saying, ‘Thus shall it be done to those who attack religion.’ Thereupon an investigating commission came, detected some of the murderers, finished the opening of the ‘grave’ in the presence of a large crowd and proved that there was nothing whatever in it, and followed this up by a spectacular public trial. They had apparently succeeded. All the same, they wished to leave the spot quickly.

‘However,’ said Riabof-Muksunof, ‘the country is really very quiet now. A few years ago the peasants supported the bands. Now they report bands to the government and help in their capture. This little religious flare-up is an exception. The peasant wants peace and order; the moment a guerrilla war starts, everyone takes the peasant’s horses and he can’t move out of doors. Then he starves. The peasant believes now that the Soviet Power can give him order, and he supports it for that.’

I asked Riabof-Muksunof if there had been large massacres of peasants by Bolshevist troops in the Fergana Valley, as reported in books I had seen abroad. He looked puzzled. ‘No special ones that I know of,’ he said. ‘There was plenty of killing on both sides during the civil war and the war with the bands. Hundreds and hundreds of Red agitators both Uzbek and Russian went to certain death by torture in the efforts to “reason” with the bands. Sometimes these efforts succeeded; it was always worth trying by the sacrifice of one emissary to bring peace to a whole neighborhood. But mostly the bands cut red stars and sickles and hammers on the breasts of these victims, and cut off ears and nose and mutilated them in many ways before they killed them. At last the Reds in this region grew strong enough to use force instead of reasoning. Naturally they killed lots of those bandits then.’

The following day I took the train, on which I met Commander Lavroff, his wife and baby, and several other persons of his party. Together we rode to the end of the Fergana Valley at the city of Andizhan. And together we took the autobus which brought us, late at night, to the town of Osh. Here was to start the caravan for the High Pamir.