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Transgressing the Boundaries: The Migration of Uighurs into Soviet Central Asia After World War II.

AS CHINESE NEWSPAPER HEADLINES CONTINUE TO PROMISE THE SUCCESSFUL implementation of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), each bordering country still presents a number of challenges to this endeavor. The former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are an important hub through which the multiple routes of the BRI pass. Yet, on both sides of the border, a Muslim minority, the Uighurs, are considered to be a destabilizing factor in the relationship.

By the mid-1960s, with the Sino-Soviet split under way, the Uighurs who crossed the border to the Soviet side found themselves surrounded by an atmosphere of distrust, where their existence was perceived as a potential security threat. Nowadays, despite the emergence of similar concerns, the BRI, with the unprecedented scale of exchange of people and commodities that it entails, if successfully implemented, could become an important incentive not only to bring the Muslims on the Chinese and post-Soviet sides of the border closer but also to open a pathway to resolving the issue of separatism in China. It could transform Xinjiang into a wealthy borderland that both enjoys cultural proximity to its close neighbors and also supersedes them in terms of economic development, thereby directly benefiting those remaining in China.

The Uighur diaspora remains scattered all over the world. In the aftermath of World War II, some Uighurs moved to Taiwan along with the Guomindang government, while others proceeded to Afghanistan and Pakistan. From there a group moved to Turkey and the Middle East, thus building a strong Uighur community presence in the Muslim world and beyond (Jacobs 2016). One of the most important destinations for the escapees, however, was Soviet Central Asia. While all other Uighur enclaves abroad managed to stay engaged with one another and create cross-boundary ties, the Uighurs of the Soviet Union (USSR) were isolated. Their lives revolved around the necessity of adapting to the changing policies of the Soviet government as well as the unstable nature of Sino-Soviet relations.

Related academic research remains scant, and the scope and chronological framework of existing work is quite often limited. Some studies revolve around the history of Uighurs only in China or in certain enclaves abroad (Jacobs 2016; Millward 2007); others explore earlier periods of Uighur history (Brophy 2016; Thum 2014). In this article, therefore, I attempt to shed light on the life of Uighur immigrants in a more recent period within the geographical confines of Soviet Central Asia.

Sean Roberts (1998) identifies three sub-ethnic groups of Uighurs residing in Kazakhstan: yerliklar ("locals," those Uighurs who were born in Kazakhstan and whose families have lived there since at least 1900); keganlar ("newcomers," those Uighurs whose parents or who themselves came to Kazakhstan in the 1950s and 1960s); and khitailiklar ("from China," those Uighur sojourners presently coming to Kazakhstan from China to work or trade on a temporary basis). Roberts points out that the yerliklar and the keganlar maintain different perceptions of what it means to be a Uighur than those of the khitailiklar and, therefore, struggle with the issue of national identity.

In this article I focus on the changing Soviet policies toward the second group, keganlar, expanding Roberts's terminology both chronologically and geographically and thus including the Uighurs of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan who arrived in the USSR between 1945 and 1972. I examine the conditions in which the diaspora was shaped at the time and argue that the way the immigrants were accepted into Soviet Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan directly correlated to the state of Sino-Soviet relations.

Chinese "Defectors," 1945-1953

By the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had suffered an enormous population loss, which in turn had a tremendous effect on the Soviet labor force, which the USSR needed so desperately in order to rebuild its postwar economy. The government made an attempt to ease the labor force crisis through a change in its migration policy. On November 10, 1945, the Supreme Soviet issued a resolution on the restoration of Soviet citizenship for former Russian nationals who had abandoned their homeland or lost their nationality. The resolution applied to, among others, individuals living in Manchuria, Xinjiang, and Shanghai. On January 20, 1946, a similar decree was issued by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, inviting former subjects of the Russian empire and former Soviet nationals and their children residing in Xinjiang, Shanghai, and Tianjin to restore their Soviet nationality. The application period was set between January 20 and December 31, 1946. The Soviet consulate in Xinjiang issued a related statement calling for applications (Li 2003).

The target audience for these calls was only part Slavic, the other part being the Muslims of Eastern Turkistan and the former Russian Empire. The Slavs were mostly the white Russian immigrants who had fled the horrifying consequences of their defeat in the civil war (Li 2003). The Muslims were primarily Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Tajiks, several generations of whom went back and forth across the border into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, where they had family ties. For these people the border existed only virtually. Soviet power in Central Asia had been far from absolute until the late 1930s, as the Soviets had to deal with the Basmachi Revolt (Rywkin 1990; Sokol 2016). Therefore, the border remained porous almost throughout the first third of the twentieth century.

The Soviets referred to the immigrant Uighurs as perebezhchiki ("defectors"). Their exact numbers have been difficult to ascertain as statistics from various sources conflict. Chinese historian Li Danhui provides three sets of numbers. According to Soviet archival documents, by November 1945 around 25,000 people in Xinjiang carried Russian documents. Once the aforementioned resolution was passed, another 120,000 Kazakhs, Uighurs, and Russians either obtained Soviet passports or received Soviet residence permits. The Guomindang sources claim that in Xinjiang alone around 10,000 people were rumored to have accepted the Soviet passports, while in Yili region the numbers were as high as over a hundred thousand. According to mainland archival materials, Soviet passports were handed out to 2,000 people in 1946, 13.000 people in 1947, and 40,000 in 1948-1949. Days before the Chinese communists gained absolute control of Xinjiang, the Soviet consulate reported to Deng Liqun, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee's liaison in the region, that there were 65.000 Soviet families in Xinjiang, which added up to more than 200.000 people (Li 2003). Based on statistics from the local municipalities in the Kazakh Soviet Republic, during the period between 1945 and 1947, the regions within each oblast that bordered on China had 600-1,000 "immigrants from Western China," as they referred to them at the time (APRK 1947a, 1947e).

The conditions in which these people arrived were beyond any description. Central Asia was not only used as the backyard of the country from which the government relentlessly extracted resources, it was also the place where the government sent those whom it labeled unreliable. The entire Chechen, Ingush, Kalmyk, Balkar, Karachai, Meskhetian Turk, and Crimean Tatar populations, as well as generations of Russian Poles, Germans, and Koreans, soon found themselves here, unwelcome, considered suspicious individuals or traitors unworthy of the limited available resources, and thus were reduced to a life of wretched conditions (Martin 1998). The position of the Chinese immigrants was in many ways comparable to that of the deported nationalities, even if their troubles were on a lesser scale.

On the way to their new Soviet home, many people brought along cattle, a large number of which did not survive the trip across that border. Some were confiscated by local authorities, usually the heads of kolkhozes (a cooperative structure of small individual farms in the Soviet Union) and sovkhozes (farms organized by the state on land confiscated from former large estates), quite often for personal use and under false pretenses, with related paperwork falsified to show that the cattle had died due to natural causes (APRK 1947b). The same heads of kolkhozes extorted money from the immigrants for grazing animals and for local lotteries that were never held, and generally deceived the newcomers in a variety of other ways (APRK 1947e).

The majority of immigrants barely spoke Russian and quite often were illiterate; few of the representatives of Muslim nations were thus able to convey their concerns and complaints to officials above the level of the heads of kolkhozes. Therefore, it is the documents produced by the Slav immigrants from China that shed light on the daily life of those who had crossed the Chinese border. For instance, D. M. Timofeeva wrote,
   I am raising 5 children aged 3 to 17 years old. My material
   conditions are extremely poor. There is no fuel to warm up the
   house, no warm clothes, kids ask for food, they are sick and no
   healthcare services are provided for them. With this issue I
   approached the chairman of the kolkhoz Ormanbekov, who, instead of
   helping me, verbally abused me. I had to burn the hay that was
   brought to me to make the bed for kids, in order to warm up the
   house, because no fuel was provided. At the moment I am without the
   fuel and the food, my room is cold, the kids are sick; I have
   nothing to wear to work, there are no clothes. I am informing you
   thusly and beg for your help. (APRK 1947d)

Two other women put it even more bluntly. Natalia Baranova wrote, "I will abandon my children and commit suicide, then the children will be taken to an orphanage and raised, while I will no longer have to suffer." Tatiana Chuprova, who reportedly had her child swell from hunger, struck a similar chord: "I wish my child dies sooner, I can no longer watch him suffer like that" (APRK 1947d). In some regions, the authorities sent the children of immigrants to orphanages regardless of whether they had parents or not, most probably in an attempt to ease the difficult economic situation that the families found themselves in upon their arrival. They were soon returned to their families (APRK 1947c).

That said, this situation was only in part the fault of the central or republican government, which throughout the late 1940s kept issuing one resolution after another, demanding better care for the immigrants from China. The main trouble was that most of the subsidies provided for the immigrants never actually reached the people, finding their way instead into the pockets of local officials (APRK 1947f). More honest heads of kolkhozes sent letters to the local division of the Ministry of State Security (MGB), flat out rejecting any immigrants from China. Many thought that, at the time, when the economy was devastated, using the limited resources on the immigrants was irrational; some went as far as calling these people "swindlers" and "crooks" (APRK 1947d).

Local authorities claimed that all the immigrants received a daily ration of bread, which was calculated as follows: 600 g of bread for the head of the family and 300 g per family member. The immigrants were reported to have received 900 meters of fabric and 200 pairs of shoes, as well as 240 kg of tea and 2,400 kg of sugar. Considering that same region had around 1,200 "defectors," it becomes obvious that these resources, even if properly distributed, could not have been sufficient to satisfy the needs of the newcomers (APRK 1947e).

The Soviet government did, nevertheless, have a clear intention to help, one that manifested itself in several very important ways. A December 14, 1946, resolution of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh Republic demanded in the strongest of terms that all immigrants be employed by the end of that month, be provided with land in order to build their houses, and have the cattle and money that were extorted from them returned to the rightful owners. The same resolution had the republic's Ministry of Health take measures to treat the immigrants, paying special attention to the diseases that could potentially turn into epidemics. Within the next four days the immigrants were to receive 300 coats, 800 pairs of pants and shirts, 300 pairs of underwear, 500 pairs of leather shoes, and 2,000 meters of cotton fabric (APRK 1947f).

Despite these efforts, some immigrants, even if in small numbers, attempted to return to China. Many were caught on their way back by officers of the MGB; they pointed out the horrible conditions, as well as the unjust behavior of the officials, as their main reason for leaving (APRK 1946). Some died on their way back, and others were severely frostbitten (APRK 1947d). In one way or another, their lives changed in unpredictable ways, and so did their perception of the Soviet Union. The government, therefore, decided to organize mass political work among the "defectors," which would introduce them to the social and professional life in the region and eliminate the "undesirable mood" within the community (APRK 1947f).

Thus, the first wave of keganlar had to face upon their arrival the inconsistency of the migration policies of the central government and the local authorities. This was in part due to the difficult economic conditions that the USSR found itself in at the time. The "defectors" were perceived as outsiders and had to overcome public misperceptions; they had to search for ways to adapt to these conditions. At this particular juncture, the state of Sino-Soviet relations played an insignificant role in the way they were perceived or treated.

Chinese "Repatriates," 1953-1963

After the death of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953, Soviet domestic and foreign policies underwent a dramatic change. As Nikita Khrushchev rose to power, he grew more concerned with augmenting his position as the leader of the communist bloc; the rising star Chinese leader Mao Zedong was to become an important asset in this endeavor. In order to secure Mao's support, Khrushchev provided the Chinese with the financial aid and technical expertise needed to rebuild their country, which had just emerged from the chaos of civil war. It was during this period when Sino-Soviet relations reached their zenith, and Beijing was forced to close its eyes to certain misgivings about the Soviet government, among them demographic policy in the region (Shen and Li 2011, 181). Throughout the 1950s, Moscow continued its effort to enlist Soviet "repatriates" from China. According to the available statistical data, by the end of the 1950s, there were around 120,000 individuals holding Soviet passports and living in Xinjiang (Li 2003).

By the mid-1950s, the state of the Soviet economy had improved dramatically (Khanin 2003). Compared to the postwar period, the inflow of immigrants was no longer perceived by the local population as an economic burden. The Soviet authorities began to approach the issue of people's arriving from China differently. At the same time, official documents began to refer to them as "repatriates" (repatrianty) or "re-emigrants" (reemigranty), thus significantly improving their social status.

Migration soon became a state-planned activity. In the mid1950s, the Kirghiz authorities learned that if the relocation was conducted without taking into consideration the prior place of residence of the re-emigrants or the location of their relatives, then it would become impossible to fully secure their settlement in other locations (TsGA OPD KR 1959a). In September 1958, the Council of Ministers of the Kirghiz Soviet Republic issued a resolution stating that the region should expect the arrival of 1,050 families from the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Ministry of Agriculture, regarding this issue, considered it necessary to send two representatives of the Kirghiz Republic to Kuldja in order to conduct "a selection of families" who used to reside in Soviet Kirghizia or who had close relatives in the south of the Republic (TsGA OPD KR 1959a).

The relocation was conducted with more than just the tacit approval of the Chinese authorities. There was a clear exchange of documents and information about the repatriates. In 1959, a man without citizenship, Uighur A. Salimov, moved from Xinjiang, first to Ili in the Alma-ata oblast, Kazakh Republic, and then to the Frunze oblast of the Kirghiz Republic. The Chinese authorities soon contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the USSR, asking it to send him back because he was suspected of stealing a significant amount of money while working as an accountant in a cooperative. The Kirghiz authorities were to "find him, have a conversation about the substantiality of these claims and inform the Far Eastern Bureau of the Soviet MFA about the results" (TsGA OPD KR 1960).

In a similar manner, a teacher working in the Kirghiz Republic wrote to the Kirghiz MFA asking officials to count the time she worked in China as past employment experience (TsGA OPD KR 1959b). The circulation of information went beyond a simple bureaucratic exchange. Families were reunited, and they did not always choose to settle on the Soviet side of the border. For instance, in January 1957, the MFA of the Kirghiz Republic was in touch with the Far Eastern Department of the Soviet MFA in order to report that a twelve-year-old boy, Yusup Rozakhunov, was brought to Kirghizia by a Soviet citizen named Umarova. The boy was sick and ended up at an orphanage. The Soviet government provided him with free medical care; after having the necessary surgery, the boy was returned to his parents, who resided in Chinese Kashgar (TsGA OPD KR 1957).

In 1960, the CCP Xinjiang Autonomous Region committee decided to curb the flow of immigrants across the Sino-Soviet border. But the Soviet consulates circumvented this ban by putting the Association of Soviet Emigres in charge of issuing the passports and other documentation (Li 2003). While such activity is often presented as the Soviets' trying to encourage migration of foreign nationals to the USSR (Li 1999), it is important to remember that for many minorities living in Central Asia, the region was perceived as having cultural unity: people had close family ties on both sides, and for decades they had moved around freely without any border restrictions. Therefore, very few of these immigrants felt truly abroad on either side of the border, and many considered themselves equally eligible to be either Chinese or Soviet nationals.

From early April to late May 1962, more than 60,000 people fled across the border into the Kazakh Republic, a flight that resulted from a large and violent riot in the town of Yining (Kuldja) on May 29, 1962, as China moved to seal the border (Fravel 2008, 101). These figures nevertheless seem to offer only a general understanding of the real numbers. Between 1958 and 1963, 78,298 people arrived in the Alma-ata oblast alone; 36,018 people arrived in 1962 (APRK 1963a). Another source claims that in the spring of 1962, 39,703 people came to the Semipalatinsk oblast (APRK 1963d). The ethnic composition of this inflow was a combination of Kazakhs and Uighurs, with a predominance of the former.

The scholarly debate about the reasons for this mass migration continues: Michael Dillon (2004) believes it to be a result of the devastating consequences of the Great Leap Forward, but Li Danhui (1999) opposes the assertion by pointing out the relative wealth of the region and maintains that Xinjiang did not experience the famine on a significant scale. While further research still needs to be conducted, Kazakhstani scholar Alima Bissenova, in her recent study based on an impressive number of interviews with immigrants from China, claims that the famine could not have been the main reason for migration. She points out that the Soviet propaganda about the great accomplishments in building communism had a significant impact on the hearts and minds of people residing in Xinjiang (Bissenova 2017).

As these groups crossed over to the Soviet side of the border, many chose Kazakhstan as their primary destination. The Soviet authorities had to implement a set of measures to deal with an immense flow of immigrants. The party committees and executive committees of the Alma-ata, East Kazakhstan, and Semipalatinsk oblasts were entrusted with "placing the border violators in certain centers under the control of Soviet authorities and preventing them from dispersing [over the Soviet territories] and departing into other regions." Bending under the pressure from Chinese state authorities, who continued to express their displeasure with the situation, the Soviet officials were also to conduct "explanatory work," clarifying that crossing the border was illegal and persuading these people to return to the PRC (APRK 1962). The same document nevertheless ordered the local Kazakh authorities to submit proposals about the accommodation and employment of persons who, "despite the explanations," decided against going back to China (APRK 1962).

Some of those who chose to stay moved on to live with their relatives in the Kirghiz SSR (Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic). By July 1962, the Kirghiz MFA called on the republic's Council of Ministers to search for ways to deal with the "mass" inflow of people traveling without visas through Khogoz to the USSR. These people were either former Soviet nationals, people without citizenship, or Chinese nationals. Since they did not carry any documents with them, the basic metrics, such as name, date of birth, and citizenship, were recorded based on their personal testimonies. Despite the attempts of the authorities to keep them inside the Alma-ata oblast of Kazakh SSR, where dealing with them in bulk was simpler, many moved on to the Kirghiz cities of Alamedin and Frunze, where they had relatives (TsGA OPD KR 1962). Thus, an open attempt by the Soviet government to create a concentrated settlement failed dramatically.

Upon their arrival, the Chinese repatriates were provided with financial aid. They were given a onetime allowance; for example, over 30,000 immigrants who arrived in 1962 in the Alma-ata oblast received 700,000 rubles of allowance from the state (APRK 1963a). Other sources mention an allowance of thirty rubles per person (APRK 1963a). Their transportation, by rail and automobile, to their place of permanent settlement was paid for, and a daily allowance was allocated to cover the duration of the trip (APRK 1963c).

Assistance with food and manufactured goods was also provided. The same 30,000 people received loans to purchase 1,179 head of dairy cattle (APRK 1963a). The overall number of repatriates arriving in the Kazakh Republic between 1954 and 1963 rounded up to 253,000 people; 5,400 tons of flour, 225 tons of sugar, and a significant amount of other money were allocated for them to purchase warm clothing, including body warmers and trousers--20,000 each, 24,000 pairs of valenki, and 24,000 pairs of boots, which were also manufactured in order to cover their needs (APRK 1963c).

The authorities had to provide the repatriates with housing. By 1963, in the Kazakh Republic, "3.5 million rubles were granted to be loaned to the newcomers" for the acquisition of cows, and "the state farm allocated 3 million rubles of capital investments for the construction of housing for the resettled" (APRK 1963a). On January 18, 1963, the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh Republic adopted a special resolution "on measures to improve the economic and living conditions of the citizens arriving from China," which provided the kolkhozes of the Alma-ata, Semipalatinsk, and Dzhambul oblasts with a wide range of resources for the construction of accommodations for the repatriates from China: standard houses with a living area of 12,000 square meters, around 12,000 cubic meters of timber, 6,500 tons of cement, 65,000 square meters of soft roofing material, 1.5 million roofing slates, eight tons of roofing steel, 21,000 square meters of window glass, and 100 tons of nails and other building materials (APRK 1963c).

Given that many of these new arrivals were already qualified for specific jobs, they were beneficial to the Soviet economy, despite the financial resources that were dedicated to establishing them in their new homeland. There were many experienced shepherds, livestock breeders, machine operators, and construction workers among them. Many collective farms in the Alma-ata, Semipalatinsk, Karaganda, and Chimkent oblasts replenished their ranks of qualified workers who could herd livestock and other staff. There had been a shortage of such workers until the arrival of immigrants from China (APRK 1963c).

The youth were willing to attend professional training or related educational institutions. Out of 39,703 people who arrived from China in the Semipalatinsk oblast, more than 700 entered vocational technical schools in 1962, mainly to study the mechanization of agriculture, and after their graduation they were sent to work on the farms of the oblast, many as operators of combine harvesters or tractors. In 1963 more than 500 people began to study in the same vocational technical schools (APRK 1963d).

Nevertheless, the people who arrived from the PRC were largely illiterate, thus lagging behind in cultural and political development. Therefore, the primary task for the Soviet authorities was to eliminate illiteracy and raise the level of education among the adult population. In the Alma-ata oblast, 568 study groups were formed, in which 4,098 illiterate adults were educated and 2,470 were trained individually under the guidance of 1,600 specially selected cultural workers from among the teachers and specialists in agriculture (APRK 1963 a). However, in 1963 these programs were not yet organized sufficiently, and on some farms the classes were not organized at all (APRK 1963b).

Proper education was also to be provided for the children of the Chinese immigrants. Among the population that arrived in Semipalatinsk from the PRC in 1963, there were 8,242 children of school age. Of them, 8,069 were enrolled in schools while 173 children did not study due to being sick or disabled. To train this influx of children, twenty-three elementary schools, four eight-year schools, and twenty boarding schools were organized in the region (APRK 1963d).

While raising the level of expertise of the local population was at the top of the agenda, literacy and basic education levels were crucial to sustaining the spread of propaganda among the immigrants from China. A significant portion of the propaganda work was conducted through lectures delivered by a wide range of speakers with various areas of expertise, including the secretaries of the regional party committees, the heads of the local KGB committees, the heads of the border guard services, and so on. In one oblast, sixty-two "agitators," people conducting political discussions on the grassroots level, were appointed from the local workers; in addition, eighteen agitators were selected from among the repatriates (APRK 1963b).

A large variety of topics was discussed during the lectures and in the reports. By July 1963, 504 lectures about the March and June plenums of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), scientific atheism, the international situation, and the agricultural economy were provided for settlers in the Semipalatinsk oblast (APRK 1963d). The same year in Alma-ata oblast, 108 lectures were held for the re-emigrants on topics including the international situation, relations between the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and the PRC, the international communist and workers' movement, the moral code of the builders of communism, the reactionary nature of Islam, the culture of everyday life, and many others (APRK 1963b). The speakers also answered questions of the re-emigrants as to why the return to China was so troublesome at the time (APRK 1963b).

The local authorities tried to engage people in cultural activities, most of which were held in the local Houses of Culture. They usually were equipped with a library, a lecturer, and a small amount of amateur art (APRK 1963b). In order to provide cultural services to the workers of the collective farms, including re-emigrants, three agitkult--agitation and culture--educational trains were organized. Besides being supplied with lecturers and libraries, they organized amateur performances as well as household workshops and film installations, and also served as mobile medical posts. The amateur art groups also put on performances for the re-emigrants: the plays Karakoz and Djamelia were highly welcomed by the local population (APRK 1963b). As part of the song and dance ensemble of the Emgek collective farm, Arun Makhametov, a tractor driver in Emgek's Panfilov Manufacture Department; Salam Nazarova, a milkmaid; and the collective farmer Mansurov reportedly gave a performance at the Exhibition of People's Economic Achievements in Moscow in 1963 (APRK 1963a).

With so much improvement in their living conditions, most immigrants with families and some of the single people were very optimistic about their future in the Soviet Union. They were eager to work there and settle permanently. But most single men who had left their families behind on the other side of the border strove to go back; they refused to apply for Soviet passports (APRK 1963b). Many of them may have attempted to return to the PRC, but with the rapid deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations, they most likely did not succeed.

As the new wave of keganlar immigrants was getting accustomed to Soviet life under much better conditions than those of their predecessors, their political views became a greater concern for the Soviet authorities. Not only was it important to reduce the influence of ethnic traditions and religious beliefs of the immigrant population, it was absolutely essential for the government to have them adjust their political views in accordance with the current state of Sino-Soviet relations. That, in part, was a decision informed by the number of migrants and their influence on the local population.

Chinese "Violators," 1964-1972

During the last years of Khrushchev's rule, Sino-Soviet relations continued to deteriorate in a downward spiral. The conflict of interests of the two countries, their different interpretations of communist ideology, and the clash of ambitions of their leaders prevented the PRC and the USSR from finding a middle ground and maintaining a strategic alliance. When Leonid Brezhnev assumed power in 1964, Chinese leaders attempted to send a delegation to probe the intentions of the Soviet leader. Yet Brezhnev was firm in stating that he would continue the general line of the party, thus hinting to the Chinese that no change was in the cards (Luthi 2010).

By 1969, tensions reached a peak. After the Damansky Incident in March, when Soviet border guards sustained an attack from the Chinese side, the Soviets, apparently, reciprocated with a sudden attack on Zhalanashkol (Yang 2000). Since the latter incident occurred on the border of Soviet Kazakhstan, it had an important impact on the lives of Uighurs in the country. Starting in 1969, the border saw no real peace: Genrikh Kireev, the head of the Russian part of the Joint Russian-Chinese Demarcation Commission in the 1990s, asserts in his work that there were over 8,000 incidents on the border in just ten years of the conflict (Kireev 2006).

Toward the late 1960s, any individual attempting to cross the border was no longer perceived as an immigrant or even a defector. In a significant change in language, these people were now called border violators. Everyone who had crossed the Sino-Soviet border over the last decade was recorded and their backgrounds were investigated. The KGB had the statistical data available for every region. For instance, in the Issyk-Kul oblast of the Kirghiz Republic, the KGB was aware that there were 6,445 "re-emigrants and immigrants" from China. Among them were forty-three Chinese citizens, ninety-eight persons without citizenship, twelve former Guomindang police officers, twenty-four People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers, ten former employees of the Ministry of Defense of the PRC, as well as seventeen defectors, twenty-six former executives of state institutions in the People's Republic of China, and a hundred people who corresponded with relatives and acquaintances residing in the PRC or in various capitalist countries. In the Djeto-Oguz district of the same oblast, people who were convicted of particularly dangerous crimes against the state were under surveillance. There were statistics on other social groups too: the same district, for instance, had eighteen former dobrootryadets (volunteer squad members), fifteen former smugglers, and two guides. They all received special attention from the intelligence services given that they had the expertise or possibly the inclination to cross the border illegally (TsGA OPD KR 1971).

These people were investigated for both intelligence and counterintelligence purposes. Defectors who arrived after 1969 were considered suspicious, especially those who occupied high positions within the state apparatus in China and, therefore, had been able to enjoy certain privileges at home. Ethnicity rarely played any role; Dungan (Hui), ethnic Hans, Uighurs, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs were all surveyed. Certain facts from one's personal life were considered red flags, such as being born to the family of a Muslim cleric or speaking ill of Soviet power in private conversations (TsGA OPD KR 1971).

The KGB also put a great amount of consideration into the possibility of recruiting re-emigrants in their intelligence work abroad. One of the local executives reported that the KGB had singled out ten individuals, of whom three were already recruited as agents and others were still under surveillance and investigation (TsGA OPD KR 1971).

Seeing how the Sino-Soviet border grew to become a source of primary concern for the local intelligence officers, the state conducted further research into better ways of securing the border. In the Issyk-Kul oblast, the 323-kilometer border was difficult to traverse, but there were several passages, such as Bedel', Kaichi, Soiktor, Pekirtik, Kokryum, and Terek, where there were recorded cases of violations of the state border by the agents of the Guomindang, smugglers, and other individuals (TsGA OPD KR 1971). Certain routes were studied for their probability of being used by the Chinese intelligence services, "individuals bearing treacherous intentions," or other violators (TsGA OPD KR 1971).

The Soviet authorities also underscored the fact that the Chinese leadership supposedly claimed that China would occupy the contested territory of Chon and Kichik, Uzenchi-Kish, and other areas, which put additional pressure on the local border guards and intelligence services (TsGA OPD KR 1970). The fear of missing violators who crossed the border grew to the point where KGB officers conducted practical experiments, sending undercover officers across the border to discover whether any of them would be detained by the Soviet border guards. Reportedly, the disguised officers managed to cross the border unnoticed by their colleagues, thus pushing the KGB leadership to take stricter measures to protect the border (TsGA OPD KR 1971).

The state of Sino-Soviet relations rapidly changed the position of immigrants within this society. In order to truly integrate, the Uighurs, just like other immigrants from China, had to pay attention to expressing only politically correct opinions--the condemnation of Chinese "aggressive" behavior on the border being one of them. Attempts to compare life in the two countries and to express discontent with certain Soviet policies invited suspicion from the Soviet government and intelligence services. The struggle to be accepted by society has only grown more difficult for recent immigrants.


From 1972 until the 1980s, the number of immigrants arriving from China was negligible. The situation began to change in 1986, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave his famous Vladivostok speech that signaled his willingness to negotiate and improve bilateral relations. The change in the general course of Soviet foreign policy paved the way toward the Sino-Soviet rapprochement, which, in combination with the Chinese new economic policy, created a favorable atmosphere for limited economic exchanges in the 1980s (Radchenko 2014). The opening of the border at the end of perestroika enabled many Uighurs to visit family members in Central Asia and to combine this activity with a modest shuttle trade, delivering China-manufactured home appliances and plastics to the Soviet side and bringing back higher quality Soviet products. The reforms encouraged Uighurs, as well as Hans, to set up small private companies for the transit of commodities, a trend that continued well into the 1990s. But by the second half of the 1990s, the cross-border character of the trade diminished as it increased in magnitude at the regional and then at the state level. The cross-border shuttle services had to compete with the Almaty-Urumqi railway line, which extends to the great regional centers. The rapid emergence of Han and Dungan businesses, which are better integrated into the Chinese economy and encounter fewer political obstacles, in the Central Asian market meant that Uighur traders faced unequal competition, a situation in which they have been on the losing side ever since (Laruelle and Peyrouse 2009).

In the past, the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations and the split in the 1960s created many obstacles for Uighurs arriving in the Soviet Union. As long as China was perceived as an ideological ally, the immigrants from China were welcomed and measures were taken to facilitate their integration into the community, but once it became clear that bilateral relations were worsening and the prospect of improvement was a distant one, the attitude changed significantly, with the Soviet authorities' viewing the people of the borderlands as a security threat.

At the same time, much like in the late 1940s, the Uighurs in the post-Soviet states as an ethnic minority are now forced to fight the prejudice of other nationalities in Central Asia. Many across the region treat the recent Uighur immigrants from China unfavorably. Media reports from 2014 claimed that Uighurs from Xinjiang moved to Kazakhstan permanently by pretending to be Kazakhs, while the latter failed to gain visas to travel to their motherland; these reports hint at the extent of that prejudice ( 2014). According to the head of the National Uighur Association, Sheripdjan Nadirov, if one compares two Central Asian states, at the moment Uighurs are better integrated into Kazakh society than they are in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz law enforcement, for instance, tends to racially profile Uighurs, although many Uighurs inside the country paradoxically enjoy a relatively high social status. The problem is rooted in the social composition of the Uighur diaspora in the two countries: the khitailiklar are represented in smaller numbers in Kazakhstan, while they are present in greater proportions in Kyrgyzstan, and it is the Uighur newcomers from China about whom the Kazakh and Kyrgyz authorities tend to be cautious (Volkov 2004).

Unfortunately for all parties involved, the PRC continues to tie the success of Sino-Kyrgyz and Sino-Kazakh bilateral relations to the issue of Uighur separatism, which is perceived to be a part of the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and extremism, against which these countries have united. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan's effort to maintain good relations with their powerful Eastern neighbor, in turn, reinforces suspicion and unfavorable practices toward the khitailiklar in the post-Soviet republics. Keeping in mind the direct correlation between the state of bilateral relations and the political position of the immigrants, it is of utmost importance for all the governments involved in the implementation of the BRI to realize that peace in the region be maintained only when people of the borderland are perceived as valuable members of the society contributing to the common prosperity of their homeland.


Alsu Tagirova is assistant research fellow at the Institute for Studies of China's Neighboring Countries and Regions (Department of History), East China Normal University. She received her PhD from the Sun Yat-sen University, PRC. Her research interests include the history of Sino-Soviet relations and Cold War history. She has published articles in several historical journals, including Cold War History, Far Eastern Affairs (Russian Academy of Sciences), and Shilin (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences). Her current project is on the history of the Sino-Soviet border.

The research and writing of this article have been supported by the Special Entrusted Project of National Social Sciences Fund (Document Collection and Historical Studies on China's Neighbors' Policies Toward China, project #15@ZH009).


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Author:Tagirova, Alsu
Publication:Asian Perspective
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Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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