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“Islands of Soviet power on the steppes”

Out on the Kazakh steppe, in the early days of Soviet rule, so-called red yurts tried to bring the USSR and its communist ideals to those that were most inaccessible to the party and the state. These "islands of Soviet power on the steppes" are an often forgotten yet important chapter in the emancipation of women. Novastan publishes this translated article with friendly permission from the redaction of Masa Media.

Written by: Anna Wilhelmi

Translated by Abigail Scripka and Graeme McGuire

Collage of red yurts, the emblem of the NKVD, a Soviet officer pointing a gun and, on the right, a pamphlet titled
Collage of red yurts, the emblem of the NKVD, a Soviet officer pointing a gun and, on the right, a pamphlet titled "For the Motherland". Illustration by Masa Media.

Out on the Kazakh steppe, in the early days of Soviet rule, so-called red yurts tried to bring the USSR and its communist ideals to those that were most inaccessible to the party and the state. These “islands of Soviet power on the steppes” are an often forgotten yet important chapter in the emancipation of women. Novastan publishes this translated article with friendly permission from the redaction of Masa Media.

‘Red yurts’ and the Sovietisation of Kazakhstan

In 1928, with the beginning of the first five-year plan, the Soviet government was faced with the fact that most people in Kazakhstan retained a nomadic lifestyle. In order to integrate nomads into the Soviet economy, many were forced into sedentism and agriculture. Although the 1920s saw an increase in sedentary agriculture, especially when compared to the beginning of the 20th century, nomads were still the majority. By1928, 65% of Kazakhs still practised seasonal nomadism – and even by 1932, 7% kept a fully nomadic lifestyle.

In the eyes of party apparatchiks, the nomadic arrangement of the Kazakhs was a useless waste of land better suited for growing bread. Marxist-Leninist ideology, in turn, regarded nomadism as an “inferior” form of economic development; the Soviet authorities considered it important to propagate communist values and promote sedentism among those who had retained their nomadic ways. It was for this purpose that the government of the USSR organised ‘red yurt’ expeditions.

Below is a brief history on how the ‘red yurts’ were established.

Special thanks to the historian Ivan Sokolovsky for his help with fact-checking and the literature review.

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What is a ‘red yurt’?

Red yurts were created to politically agitate those strate of Kazakh society – the steppe nomads – that were most inaccessible to the Party and the state. In 1928, Soviet newspapers referred to the red yurts as “islands of Soviet power on the steppes”.

The members of the red yurt expeditions, making good on this name, transformed ordinary Kazakh yurts into headquarters for agitprop, often topped with a red flag. The red yurt staff consisted of health workers and illiteracy eradication workers as well as legal workers, whose aim was to explain to nomads, especially women, their new rights.

“For each ‘yurt’ in our district we have three staff members each – a yurt manager (who was also the illiteracy eradicator), a paramedic-cum-midwife and a cleaner” explains Borisova, a Red Yurt activist who was cited in Antonina Nuhrat’s book about the expeditions.

Red yurts were supported by many Soviet-administrative structures in Kazakhstan – but the People’s Commissariats of Education and Health were particularly reliant on them.

The red yurts also enjoyed tremendous support from women’s emancipation organisations, such as the Directorate of Workers and Peasant Women and the Committee for the Improvement of Women’s Working and Living Conditions. Only the Red Yurts could reach women from nomadic Kazakh families otherwise untouched by these organisations.

However, as there were virtually no basic health authorities in the nomadic regions, most of the red yurts’ resources were spent on health services for nomadic Kazakhs.

The relationship between the red yurts and the authorities

The central and regional authorities of the USSR deferred to local party activists and regional administrative bodies when it came to matters concerning the Red Yurts. The administrative councils in even the most remote auls (villages) provided all possible assistance to the expeditions, up to providing them with horses and carts for their regular relocations. Upon arrival in the district center, the heads of the yurts would report to the district executive committees, the highest local authorities in the USSR at the time.

Borisova, the red yurt activist, noted that their yurt also had its own council.

“The council of the yurt is something between a women’s club board and an official commission. The yurt council consists of the head of the yurt, a medical officer, the secretary of the local cell of the All-Union Communist Party [later known as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – editor’s note], the chairman of the aul council, the secretary of the local Komsomol cell, a representative of the Koshchi organisation (an organisation for the settled farmers of Turkestan), and from the cooperative, a court officer, an agronomist or veterinarian, a local teacher, a female delegate or council member, [and] a pioneer worker” Borisova explained.

Assessments of the cooperation between the party organisations and the red yurts vary – some complain of difficulties in coordinating and obtaining support from the authorities, even charging that they were abandoned to their own fates, while others praise the support of party structures. Such contradictions may be indicative of strong regional differences in apparatchik attitudes toward the red yurts.

Red yurts and the rights of women

In 1928, the red yurts launched their activities based on the Infant and Maternity Protection Organisation – other organisations had organised their own ‘yurts’ up to four years before that. In the same year, the Central Executive Committee recommended that the red yurts should focus their activities on disseminating hygienic and medical information among nomadic and semi-nomadic Kazakh women.

Women from the ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ Administration, the so-called ‘Women’s Department’, were active in the initiatives of the red yurts. It was the ‘women’s departments’ which sponsored yurt activities together with the People’s Commissariat for Health. They continued to operate as part of the red yurts in Kazakhstan until the end of the 1930s, even after expeditions were no longer organised at state level.

One activist said that “women’s red yurts served as the epicenter of all cultural-educational work” in Kazakhstan. Women’s activists and others declared their task as “fighting against an uncultured everyday life.” This expression was in fact a euphemism for combating Islamic culture and its local variations (adat) – including polygamy, dowry and marriage to minors.

The work concerning women’s reproductive health was particularly demanding. The yurt’s duties included the provision of qualified obstetric care, prevention of pregnancy complications and gynecological examinations. During these examinations, Kazakh women were asked standard questions, for example about when they started menstruating or when they had their first sexual intercourse. The red yurts also tried to educate them about contraception.

Surveys were also used to, for example, gather information about how women were treated by their husbands and whether they could read. Such questions were perceived as shameful and unacceptable and made the work of the ‘yurt’ extremely difficult.

In its activities, the Soviet authorities relied strictly on Marxist-Leninist ideology – hence the policy of the red yurts was based on the idea of ‘class struggle‘. Its services were not available to ‘class enemies’.

“The first paragraph of the instruction on the work of the ‘red yurts’ states that the wives and daughters of the bai (wealthy man) are not allowed to work [in the yurt]. At the opening of the yurts, it is also specifically announced that the ‘red yurt’ will work among farmhands, poor women, middle-class women, [and] all those nomadic women who are not disenfranchised” said Borisova.

This policy, according to those who worked in the red yurts, caused the yurts to get a bad reputation among some.

“And the women themselves [who worked at the yurts] even warned the wives of bais – ‘don’t go to the kzyl-otau’ [red yurt in Kazakh – editor’s note],” they gloated.

The work of the red yurts also included an educational programme called likbez (likvidatsiya bezgramotnosti, the elimination of illiteracy) – this initiative promoted Soviet legal norms, medical knowledge and involved women in cooperatives, teaching them skills such as sewing and tailoring. Legal norms in the ‘yurts’ were promoted through ad hoc judicial committees. Placard newspapers were published nine times per year.

Everyday life in the red yurt

From the outside, the red yurt was an ordinary Kazakh dwelling with a red flag on top. It was covered with koumacha [a bright red cloth – editor’s note] depicting slogans in Kazakh-Arabic script. The interior was divided into two separate zones by a curtain.

The literacy zone was a miniature school with a small hanging blackboard, a bench and a few tables. On the walls often hung bookshelves with educational literature and propaganda posters in Russian, Kazakh and Tatar, mostly concerned with maternity and hygiene. The space functioned as an ‘after-work club’.

The other half of the yurt was designed for medical activities – there paramedical and midwifery equipment was kept. There were white benches and stools as well as tables and cupboards with medical supplies and instruments.

Some yurts were equipped with space for needlework and handicrafts. The kitchen was outside, as was typical for yurts. Having been assigned a particular aul, the red yurt would visit the community up to several times a month.

How extensive was the initiative?

The actual number of ‘red yurts’ – as well as the number of territories and people covered by them – is difficult to determine. Some of them continued to operate even after collectivisation, up until their complete disbandment in 1939.

In 1926, the authorities planned to establish two red yurts for each district. An article in 1927, however, states that only 13 yurts operated in all of Kazakhstan – reaching just 534 women. Another article in the same year states that 13 yurts for ‘women’s departments’ and 59 yurts for ‘political education’ were in operation.

Soviet researcher Kapira Sadvakasova found that in 1928 there were about 80 ‘red yurts’ operating – while Paula Michaels gives a figure of 69. Michaels also notes that by 1929, of the some 130 ‘red yurts’ operating in Kazakhstan, 100 were exclusively female.

In any case, by the beginning of mass collectivisation, the Soviet leadership had lost interest in the red yurts. Collectivisation implied the destruction of the nomadic way of life as such – and the replacement of auls with collective farms. This approach rendered the red yurts useless.

Regardless, various researchers agree that the red yurts had little impact on the ‘Sovietisation’ of the steppe as a whole – there were too few of them for such a task.

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Sources Used:

  1. Paula A. Michaels Curative Powers. Medicine and Empire in Stalin’s Central Asia
  2. Нухрат А. Юрты кочевки: К работе женских красных юрт. М., 1929
  3. Rebekah Ramsay Nomadic Hearths of Soviet Culture: ‘Women’s Red Yurt’ Campaigns in Kazakhstan, 1925–1935

Written by Masa Media

Translated by Abigail Scripka and Graeme McGuire


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