The Great Game

The history of Turkmenistan is strongly marked by its geographical position. The country is in fact located at the crossroads of that network of routes commonly known as the ‘Silk Road’ that linked Beijing to the Mediterranean Basin.

The Silk Road has been, over the centuries, the most important transit and transportation corridor of ideas and trade between China and the Western world.

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Several armies reached the territories of modern Turkmenistan. In the 6th century BC the area of what is now Turkmenistan was part of the Persian Empire of the Parthians. In the 4th century BC Alexander the Great conquered Central Asia, then, in the 7th century AD, the Arabs conquered the region and converted the inhabitants to Islam; and in the middle 11th century, the Nomadic Selijuk tribes arrived in Turkmenistan in an attempt to expand into Afghanistan. Then in the second half of the 12th century, the Turkmen lost their independence when Genghis Khan conquered the region.
In the seven following centuries the Turkmen endured several dominations and constant wars between tribes until the time of the ‘Great Game’ a term referring to the strategic rivalry for supremacy in Central Asia, between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 brought to a close the period of the Great Game. Russia, in the meantime had gained control of Turkmenistan (1894) and incorporated it into its empire. After the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution Turkmenistan, with the British support, was able to establish an independent government, but in 1920 the country was re-conquered by the Red Army, and, in 1924 the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic within the USSR was established. From that moment on, the Soviet Turkmenistan, like the other USSR territories, was subjected to the Soviet nationality policy aimed at the creation of a Soviet socialist state.

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Traditional and tribal structures were gradually eliminated to pave the way to the development of a sense of national identity, through a standardized language, and other features of modern nationhood. Basically, the Soviet nationality policy modified radically the Turkmen’s life style in several ways. They had always been nomadic and were forced to become a sedentary population. The Arabic script was replaced by the Latin alphabet first and then by the Cyrillic one. Even economic policies were also meant to promote the eradication of ethnic differences and the creation of a standardized Soviet man. The Soviet reorganization of agriculture definitively destroyed what had remained of the nomadic life style in Turkmenistan.

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The forced process of industrialization which, however, lasted only until the 30’s, implied the migration of Russian ethnic technicians and workers to the newly acquired territories of the USSR, not only for the realization of works (such as, the Karakum Canal), but individuals were persuaded and often forced to inhabit the newly annexed regions in order to make republics ethnically diverse by ‘absorbing the Russian blood’, to create the ‘new man’ or better the ‘Soviet man’. However, the Turkmen people never gave in completely and their identity survived the Soviet nationality policy. (F.R.)


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