Polish Diaspora in Turkmenistan: SR, April 2000

Polish Diaspora in Turkmenistan

A Colonial Narrative

Walenty Tyszkiewicz

The group "Turkmenistan Polonia" was formed in October 1992. I say "group" because in present circumstances, free civic activity is still impossible. We cannot for instance place an ad in the paper seeking descendants of the nineteenth-century Polish political prisoners and exiles. We do not know whether they retained their Polish identity or not, and to what extent they have been intimidated by all too many factors in the history of Russia and the USSR. The only possible way to reach them is through personal contacts.

What is the history of Polish ethnic communities in Turkmenistan? Tsarist policy toward Poles drafted into the army was to dispatch them as far away from Polish lands as possible. Before World War I, 50 percent of soldiers and 15 percent of officers in the Russian army stationed in Turkmenistan were Polish. The first wave of civilian Poles consisted of political prisoners sentenced to hard labor after the failed 1863 rising. They built 700 kilometers of railway which connected Krasnowodsk and Aschabad. The second wave of forced laborers came in 1903. They built a glass factory in Aschabad and were subsequently employed there. In 1908, Aschabad's Polish population was 8 percent (5,000 out of 60,000). In 1910, the number of Poles in Turkmenistan (then called the Caspian oblast') was between 10 and 20 thousand. The amount of disruption that their imprisonment and exile caused in Poland can only be imagined. Their labor profited the Russian empire.

Eventually, their descendants made a living for themselves. They built homes and planted vineards. Last but not least, they built five Catholic churches in Aschabad, Krasnovodsk, Chardou, Kyzych-Arvat and Mary. Under Soviet rule, these churches were mostly destroyed.

(To be continued in the next issue)

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