Along many a rural Central Asian road, it’s not unusual to see signs celebrating the local cash crop. Beneath concrete white sculptures that look like popcorn (often freshly painted), bold letters declare “white gold.” Cotton is so critical to the region’s economy that it appears on four of the five post-Soviet republics’ national emblems.
The Soviets took a famously extreme view of cotton production, destroying the Aral Sea and hooking the region on a monocrop reliant on coerced labor. Before then cotton had already been grown in the region for thousands of years, but as late as the mid-19th century production was generally limited to smallholdings and workshops that wove cloth for domestic consumption.
It was the tsar who first made Central Asia a player in the global cotton trade. His generals conquered the region around the same time as the American Civil War, which had disrupted global supplies.
After General Konstantin von Kaufman, the first governor general of Russian Turkestan, seized Tashkent in 1865, he began filing illustrated reports back to St. Petersburg. In the early 1870s he oversaw production of the Turkestan Album, a six-volume survey of the history, archaeology, ethnography and economy of the newly conquered territories. The images here are from that compendium, a copy of which belongs to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Preparing yarn to make cotton cloth, Samarkand method
Preparing yarn to make cotton cloth, Tashkent method
Unwinding thread to make weft yarn (note the hand holding a backdrop behind the subject for the photographer)
Selling reeds and cotton thread for cotton production
Drying out a fabric used for turbans
Loom for wicker weaving
Fabric printing production
Printing patterns on the cloth
This map published with the Turkestan Album, the "blockade and attack of the fortified city of Tashkent, May 9 to June 15, 1865,” illustrates land use around the city. Cultivation is almost entirely fruit and vineyards, but according to the key some of the areas shaded in light purple on the eastern side of Tashkent are dedicated to cotton.
This detail of a 1926 map published by a commission under the aegis of the Soviet Academy of Sciences locates seed farms and cotton experiments as well as lands where irrigation was available for cotton cultivation (green). Regions shaded in pink (dark) were cotton lands proposed for irrigation; lighter pink areas indicate cotton-growing regions that had not yet been marked for irrigation projects.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.