New irrigation plans around Samarkand (1925), TsGARUZ, f. r-218, op. 1, d. 252, l. 12 (detail).

The History Reading Circle is back after the Winter break. Our first meeting for 2017 will be on Tuesday 31 January at 1pm, venue TBA.

We will discuss Beatrice Penati‘s paper

What flows? What stays? Continuities and novelties in early Soviet law-making about Central Asian water.

All those who wish to intervene can request the paper in advance from Dr Daniel Beben, who is co-ordinating the History Reading Circle calendar.


The first comprehensive Soviet land-and-water code for Uzbekistan was only approved in 1941. In the meantime, though, both access to water and the collection of resources to maintain existing irrigation networks had to be governed on a day-by-day basis at the regional (i.e. Central Asian), republican, and local levels. On the basis of sources from Moscow and Tashkent, this paper focuses on the law-making process on water rights, water management, and taxation on water in the crucial years between the end of the civil war in Central Asia and wholesale collectivisation drive, which came just after a massive purge in the Water Administration itself. In the absence of a code, but on the background of ongoing debates on the nature of water rights, regulation and financing were ensured by combining the adapted version of the Russian land code, a stratification of administrative norms, and procedures inherited from the pre-revolutionary period – while a degree of laissez faire in each water basin was tolerated, if not encouraged.

This paper is going to look in particular at three moments:

(a) the 1921 ‘Statute on Water Usage’ and its relations to both the ‘decolonising’ land-and-water reform of 1921-1922 and the process of adaptation of the all-Russian land code to Central Asia;

(b) the tensions between the republican and all-Union levels on the occasion of the drafting (in Tashkent) of  a ‘Temporary Water Code’ (1924) and of the introduction of the ‘standard land tax’: different views existed between Moscow and Tashkent as to whether Turkestan should also have a “water tax” (vodnyi sbor), or a payment (rent) for the usage of State-owned irrigation facilities. In the end, at the local level the problem was solved by recurring to the ‘old’ system of the naturopovinnost’, where peasants paid in kind with their own labour for canal repairing etc.

(c) the long and ultimately abortive attempts to produce a comprehensive code between 1926 and 1928, mainly under the direction of Uspenskii, a former Tsarist official in the sphere of land management and resettlement: should Uzbekistan have two separate codes for water and for agricultural land? Was it possible to create water users’ associations that could serve as a basis for land organisation, too? Could melioration co-operatives be the sesame to fund sustainable irrigation networks?

In this paper, I argue that early Soviet attempts at regulating water usage were shaped by the latest debates on a new ‘water law’ for Turkestan that had occurred before 1917. The revolution had delayed the implementation of norms, such as those advocated by Gins, that would have resulted in the expropriation of native Muslim owners of water rights in favour of the State (namely, in the shape of the Resettlement Administration). Yet, the Bolshevik system equally provided a new framework in which water was (in principle) nationalised: in such framework, the idea of a “hierarchy of users” (Joffe) with the State at the top could prosper. In this respect, the fact that it took so long to produce a comprehensive water code, while many attempts in this direction failed, represents an interesting puzzle, which casts light on the precariousness of the Soviet grasp on the Central Asian countryside and its inhabitants.