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Volume 41, Number 1January/February 1990

In This Issue

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The Republics in Pictures

Photographed by Brynn Bruijn and Mike Andrews
Additional photographs by Susan Griggs Agency and Tor Eigeland


Azerbaijan lies on the southeastern flanks of the Caucasus Mountains against the Caspian Sea - a legendary site of the Garden of Eden. Early Assyrian chronicles of more than 5000 years ago mention the riches of Azerbaijan. More than one third of the republic's 86,835 square kilometers (33,450 square miles) lies in the alluvial Kura basin, where wheat and vegetables are cultivated. Citrus fruits, tea and rice are grown in the subtropical Lenkoran lowlands, and the slopes of the Caucasus are covered with vineyards and orchards. More cotton is grown in Azerbaijan than in any other Soviet republic except Uzbekistan, and it is one of the world's most famous oil-producing areas. The Azeris, who are mainly farmers and oil workers, combine in themselves a Turkic strain dating from the 11th-century westward migrations of the Seljuq Turks, with admixtures of older inhabitants of the Caucasus, including Iranians. Like those of neighboring Iran, Soviet Azeris are mostly Shi'i Muslims.


Uzbekistan, with its ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, is the heir to Central Asia's glorious past. Lying between the Aral Sea in the north and Afghanistan in the south, it covers some 449,600 square kilometers (173,600 square miles). The northwestern half of Uzbekistan is largely desert - the Kyzl Kum (Red Sand)- while the southeastern half includes the great fertile valleys of Ferghana and Zeravshan. The Uzbeks became a distinct people at a relatively late date - toward the end of the 15th century. They take their name from Khaa Uzbek, the ruler responsible for the conversion of the "Golden Horde" to Islam at the beginning of the 14th century. Although they derive largely from Turco-Mongol elements who were once nomadic pastoralists, the Uzbeks are primarily a sedentary, agricultural people. Uzbekistan today produces 67 percent of the cotton grown in the Soviet Union and half its rice. Land under irrigation in the republic has greatly increased in recent years, and industry too has undergone rapid expansion. Now, with the USSR easing entry for foreigners, tourism is showing potential as well.


Kazakstan's 2,715,000 square kilometers (1,048,310 square miles) make it the Soviet Union's second-largest republic, after the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Mostly vast steppeland - grassy plateau - it stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to the border of China in the east, and, under the Soviets, has been transformed from a backward livestock-raising region into one of mechanized agriculture and industry: Large chemical and steel plants now operate in several cities, and, as a result of intensive development of "virgin lands," Kazakstan is an important granary of the USSR. The Hungry Steppe, once uninhabited, now grows cotton. The Kazaks,a fiercely independent Turco-Mongol people - kazak is a Turkic word meaning "a man without a master" - and traditionally nomadic pastoralists, rebelled in 1916 against Russian rule. Faced with forced settlement on collective farms in 1917, many of them fled with their herds to China, where they still lead a semi-nomadic life. (See Aramco World , July-August 1985) Those who remain in the Soviet Union have adapted to a settled life style, while jealously guarding their traditional culture.


Rugged and remote, Tajikstan consists mainly of mountains, including parts of the Pamir range, known as "the roof of the world."  Its climate varies considerably with the relief: from semi-desert in the relatively low-lying west, to permanent glaciers in the Pamirs. Bounded on the east by China and on the south by Afghanistan, Tajikstan covers an area of 143,100 square kilometers (55,250 square miles). The Persian-speaking Tajiks are one of the oldest peoples of Central Asia, and also the region's longest-practicing Muslims: They adopted Islam 1200 years ago. The Tajiks' sedentary culture - they are traditionally farmers - was ultimately copied by many of Central Asia's nomadic tribes. Today, the Tajiks' principal crops are cotton and rice, and the industries of Tajikstan are mainly concerned with processing these agricultural products. In recent years, some 6400 kilometers (4000 miles) of roads - often built over difficult mountains - and wide use of air transport have reduced Tajikstan's previous inaccessibility.


Kirgizia lies entirely within the Tian Shan range (the Heavenly Mountains) on the Soviet Union's southeastern border with China. Its alpine-like 198,500-square-kilometer area (76,460 square miles) rarely falls below 3000 meters (10,000 feet), and rises in peaks up to 7400 meters high (24,300 feet). The Kirgiz are an ancient Turkic people who acquired a considerable Mongol infusion following Genghis Khan's march west. Historically nomadic pastoralists, they continue to make stock raising the basis of their economy. Nonetheless, collectivization of agriculture, development of industry and growth of the cities has done much to change the traditional Kirgiz way of life.


Turkmenia is the driest region of the Soviet Union. Eighty-five percent of its 488,100-square-kilometer area (186,400 square miles) is covered by the Kara Kum (Black Sand) desert. The southernmost of the Soviet republics - bordering on Iran and Afghanistan - Turkmenia has been inhabited by Turkic tribes since the 10th century. Once notorious raiders of Silk Roads caravans, the Turkmen have turned from plunder to the plow - settling in oases to grow wheat and cotton. Recently, extensive irrigation projects, including the 1000-kilometer (625-mile) Kara Kum Canal, have extended agriculture to the desert. But traditional livestock rearing still continues there - chiefly sheep to furnish wool for the famous carpets of the region.

This article appeared on pages 14-23 of the January/February 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1990 images.