The Soviet state invested heavily in water infrastructure in arid Central Asia. These investments produced transformations with significant social impact.
They also created memories that many anthropological studies have tried to investigate alongside the various perspectives and perceptions of local actors regarding Soviet everyday water politics. This empirical data in a way gives a greater voice to people’s social reality and concerns as their lives were transformed by social politics.
Addressing Soviet water politics through the paradigm of social memories (Connerton 1989) illuminates which Soviet beliefs occupied people’s minds and how people implemented their beliefs in the present social-structural sites of their past lives (Halbwachs 1985). In this essay, I look at how Soviet-era water politics affected perceptions, social practices and political arrangements in rural settings in Soviet Kyrgyzstan (see Figure 1 and Figure 2).
Kateřina Zäch is a teaching assistant at the University of Fribourg, where she is pursuing her PhD under the supervision of Prof. Christine Bichsel in the Department of Geosciences. For her dissertation, she is exploring everyday water politics and how rural places are being transformed through human-water relations. She seeks to understand how modern influences have affected rural environments, as well as analyzing how archival and memory practices shape human engagement with water. Her research focuses on cultural aspects of environmental change, the social life of things, modernity, heritage, loss, and memory.
More Infrastructure—Greater Prosperity
Understanding everyday water politics requires close attention to the details of how people lived; how they acted; their relationship to representatives of the local government; and even what they said. The Soviet state claimed that coercive political implementation of Soviet policy was needed to achieve economic growth—which it saw as being tied to the production of diverse goods, metals or other resources—and meet the locals’ need for job security by ensuring labor and material comfort through its water infrastructure (see Figure 3).
Analysis of the empirical data that I compiled during my field research reveals that, from the perspective of many citizens of Soviet Central Asia, Soviet water politics functioned successfully, not least because many of the Soviet pumps, pipes, and water channels continue to function effectively and support local actors’ everyday lives in rural areas even today (see Figure 1 and Figure 3).
The dream of modernization began with the infrastructure of everyday life, which became a point of departure for the support of economic growth. In this sense, the piped water infrastructure can be viewed as an engine helping to realize this growth (see Figure 5).
The social memories I investigated during my fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan reveal that being a pastoralist was a well-paying, state-supported, and highly organized job. In the Soviet era, the structurally organized state recognized the necessity of a well-functioning water supply system that would provide water even to farmers and their families living in mountainous areas.
During the Soviet era, many families in the rural villages of Kyrgyzstan lived in harmony with nature but remained dependent on access to sufficient water to realize their dream of working as farmers on behalf of the state. I interviewed an 83-year-old woman who described the Soviet era as advantageous and helpful in terms of the support and care provided for people. She stated: “In the Soviet period, I worked as a young woman as a cow milker. Around 14 years. The work brought different payment monthly, but often 100 com. Being a farmer, you enjoyed a good standard of living. After I got married, my husband and I worked in a jailloo[i] and had our own well at our disposal.”[ii]
Thus, the empirical record illustrates the perceived responsibility of the Soviet government to provide working infrastructure, in this case a water pump, to facilitate agricultural production. Importantly, the socialist state met—and possibly even exceeded—these expectations, providing a monthly salary and water access to ensure local actors’ satisfaction with their working conditions. As a result, not only was the situation of the local population, which was now able to cover all the expenses of daily life, improved, but the satisfaction of the local population meant that the political situation was also secured.
Gifts and Dependency
Sufficient water access was part of the effort to provide suitable living and working conditions and develop the infrastructure to cultivate fields in rural Soviet Kyrgyzstan’s arid environment over time. The Soviets instituted a variety of prizes for attainment of its labor and production budgets, with the goal of ensuring that citizens appreciated the state and did not believe that their cooperation with the Party had been forced. In 1990, the Jenish Jolu newspaper published a story about two families that had received prizes for winning the award of “best farmer.” The Party awarded the first family eleven sheep and the second a tractor.[i][ii] Although these prizes may initially seem benevolent and appreciative, they can also be viewed as a political strategy for binding people to the state and preventing revolts against insufficient working conditions.
Through an interview that I conducted in 2019, I have explored the human perceptions constructed by such political mechanisms, which affected the everyday lives of millions of people working under the Soviet regime. My interviewee, a local woman, indicated that she had enjoyed a secure monthly salary in the exchange-based economic system: “Under the Soviet government, I earned 100 com. This was enough to feed the whole family. One kilogram of flour cost 14 com and one kilogram of sugar 7 com.”[iii] It is worth noting that the monthly salary that my respondent mentioned was generous. The salary provided was more than she may have asked for. This demonstration of generosity may be an example of the socialist state’s efforts to create an image of family-friendly relationships with the people. Furthermore, this highlights an aspect of Soviet politics that suggests sociality needs to present people as independent and owing nothing to anybody, as Dubin (2015) emphasizes. In reality, such generous policies gave rise to social dependence on the system, as noted by Emerson (1962).
Generous policies gave rise to social dependence on the system
We can see more clearly the intent behind gifts like a tractor or eleven sheep: although ostensibly given to enable recipients to achieve their goals, such gifts were in fact instrumentalized to bind the local population in invisible dependence by recognizing the hard work that they had invested to achieve the Party’s production quotas.
Failed Dreams and Punishment
The legitimized power of the Party was embedded into the social structures of everyday life, embodied in everything from piped water infrastructure to motivational gifts. The Party coerced local actors to work harder and faster, with the sole goal of fulfilling the Party’s plan. Through a system of spying, surveillance, and cadres, the state closely monitored people who were seemingly lazy or presented a danger to the Soviet regime. A collective anger at having to struggle against the Party’s oppressive politics eventually led the people to begin refusing to meet the unrealistic production quotas. Eventually, the Soviet production planning system became characterized by a loss of efficiency, in that the expenditure of materials, energy, and labor was constantly increasing, incompatible with the expected economic quotas.
Beginning in 1991, the total lack of economic, social, and personal direction was amplified. The Soviet Union made many investments in water access, but there was still much to do after its dissolution (McKee et al. 2006). Additionally, there had been a lack of investment in the modernization of water infrastructure in rural areas. As such, locals were coping with repairs on the water infrastructure, particularly the many inactive water pumps that required technical realignments. Moreover, the job of farmer was effectively abolished, leaving the local population with no governmental support in the cultivation and irrigation of their fields and in the rearing of animals in mountainous areas. Those individuals among the younger generation who are interested in pursuing careers as farmers struggle with unsatisfactory conditions and uncertain and potentially irregular income (see Figure 6).
In this short essay, I assessed the social system of water infrastructure through the lens of human perception and memories of piped water systems. I showed that while Soviet water politics were able to build piped water systems, they failed to provide ongoing maintenance and repairs. The reality, combined with economic struggles since the Central Asian states became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, has left a mixed legacy.
In this film, I share my fieldwork experience of accessing memories of the Soviet era through local residents. Exploring the village of Orlovka enabled me to perceive the local environment and understand everyday water politics as a necessary political responsibility for the successful functioning of a local piped water system. I would like to express my deep gratitude to the local people who entrusted me with their information and provided me with valuable insights into their daily lives.
Connerton, P. (1989). How societies remember. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dubin, D. (2015). Das unmögliche Leben: Studien, Essays, Erinnerungen. Berlin: Osteuropa 1.
Emerson, R. M. (1962). Power-dependence relations. American Sociological Review, 27(1), 31-41.
Halbwachs, M. (1985). Das kollektive Gedächtnis. Stuttgart: Enke.
McKee, M., Blabanova, D., Akingbade, K., Pomerleau, J., Stickley, A., Rose, R. & Haerpfer, C. (2006). Access to water in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Public Health, 120, 364-372.
[i] Jenish Jolu 135(5706), November 21, 1990, 3.
[ii] Jenish Jolu, 142(5713), November 27, 1990, 3.
[iii] Interview and fieldwork conducted by Katerina Zäch, Kyzyl-Tuu, 2019.
[i] Jailloo is a mountain pasture where the shepherds bring herds to grazing.
[ii] Interview and fieldwork conducted by Katerina Zäch, Kyzyl-Tuu, 2019.