Communist Colonialism and Development: Extractive Labor Origins of the Progressive Public Goods in Eurasia, 1920-2020

In 2022, as the Supreme Court of the democratic United States voted to remove federally guaranteed abortion access, the authoritarian former Soviet states maintained state-subsidized abortion, formal legal workplace benefits for women, and many public goods that seemingly address unpaid household work, the services which are considered progressive in advanced democracies. Nonetheless, gender-based violence and gendered attitudes towards females are prevalent across former socialist Eurasia, as their political inclusion remains low. This observation holds stable across various economic, natural, cultural, and legal endowments. What explains this occurrence?

Indeed, the three signature Soviet social policy legacies on women’s emancipation, inter-ethnic cohesion, and mass public goods provision are often studied as developmental or ideological inputs. It is puzzling how to this date, the post-Soviet space exhibits egalitarian gender and minority attitudes on paper but hardly boasts of good quality education, healthcare, and women’s rights in practice. Under what conditions and how do authoritarian regimes advance progressive public policies? What are the effects of coercive institutionalization on governance and societies? 

I argue that the Soviet Union’s signature social policies were influenced and maintained by the system of the state-sponsored and mixed-gender agricultural forced labor, a previously overlooked colonial institution.

My book-length dissertation project, titled Communist Colonialism and Development: Extractive Labor Origins of the Progressive Public Goods in Eurasia, 1920-2020 contributes novel theoretical frameworks that explain (1) why and under which conditions non-democratic and repressive regimes establish their progressive social policies, and (2) how gender-inclusive forced labor mutated into an instrument of long-term political repression and extractive governance, undermining long-term and genuine progress.

My research traces the effects of historical forced labor institutions in diverse social, cultural, and economic environments that continue to impact the lives of over 200 million people today. In doing so, I propose a colonial institutionalist framework for communist rule whose social policy legacies were shaped by exploitative interests rather than ideology or developmental commitments alone.

Where the authoritarian regimes benefited from mass labor mobilization, they established previously overlooked mixed-gender, -class and -ethnic labor environments maintained by what I term progressive public goods, along with gender rights, and inter-ethnic cohesion to serve the state’s regime-strengthening agenda. Gender-inclusive legislation, descriptive political quotas for women, and the redistribution of progressive public goods emerged and continued despite the absence of democratic elections or representation. The authoritarian state co-opted social policy and gender equality outcomes, making progressive concessions to achieve its political and economic goals. The state used the latter to justify political violence. Over time, the state-sponsored forced labor policy outgrew its limited economic rationale to become a powerful and lasting tool of ideological mobilization and repression, advancing the careers of extractive leaders, creating a false sense of collective responsibility for economic outcomes, and symbolic citizen engagement in state-building where it did not exist.

I begin my book project with a chapter where I describe my theory. Then, I present the first part with three historical chapters with rich archival and textual data analysis. Many archival files that I analyzed were not studied since 1970s and many will be reviewed for the first time in literature. In chapter two, I present new evidence from the National Archives of Uzbekistan for the period of 1870-1960 to describe the origins of the gender-indiscriminate mass labor mobilization in agriculture in the Russian and then the Soviet empires - my independent variable (or the causes) that I investigate. I use the General Cotton Committee (GKhK) to illustrate this policy. GKhK was the Soviet Union's corporate entity with significant autonomy. It oversaw all cotton and related operations, sometimes curating significant infrastructure investments (such as railways), industrialization, and social policies between 1920s-1932. I provide evidence on the early debates in the Soviet Union on how to manage former Russian imperial colonies. While some argued in favor of wider self-rule and industrialization, others maintained the critical natural resource and raw material roles in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Cotton, sugar, tobacco, and later wheat were considered essential to support manufactures and industrial labor in the Slavic-core of the new empire. 

However, the armed and religious opposition to the Soviet rule, state-mandated monopoly with price controls, and other policies resulted in the resistance of mostly male landowners and peasants. I illustrate this in chapters three and four where I describe the outcomes of my interest. I set the context with my analysis of the hundreds of political speeches and publications by the ruling Soviet elite and institutions of power (over 2 million words) using text-as-data quantitative approach. 

Next, using the Committee on the Improvement of the Livelihoods of Working Women (and later Female Peasants and Workers, or KUBT), I illustrate how the Soviet political elite framed their economic need for female labor ideologically. First time formed in what the Soviet power center described as "culturally backward peoples," KUBT soon mutated into a governmental instrument of pro-regime feminist public policy. I demonstrate how the Soviets’ provision of progressive public goods and highly progressive political agenda was tied directly to women's workforce participation and measured by how successful female labor mobilization in agriculture was. As response, the Soviets rapidly introduced forced secularization (including the removal of and banning female religious covers and male religious attributes - commonly described as unveiling) and socialist construction campaigns to involve women in labor force. These campaigns were accompanied by significant violence both by the local communities and through the state's coercive capacity. Environmentally, socially, and economically unsustainable, these forced labor policies damaged the performance and perception of public services in future.

In the second part, I test my arguments empirically in three more chapters with data from 1920s-1930s and then the post-Soviet period of 1990s-2020.  For this, I employ a natural experiment design relying on exogenously determined soil quality to grow labor-intensive crops at the sub-national level as an instrument that predicted the use of labor-intensive crops. In chapter five, I demonstrate statistical evidence on the provision of the progressive public goods in 1920s-1930s across different areas, both rural and urban. In addition to unique data on the number of nurseries, daycare facilities, public and literacy schools, health consultancies, I investigate the statistics of court filings and outcomes undertaken to protect women's rights and access to those progressive public goods by municipality in Central Asia. 

In chapter six, I test my theory's empirical micro-foundations on the rapid withdrawal of the state-sponsored forced labor in Uzbekistan, the country that arguably suffered the most from traceable agricultural forced labor in the Soviet times. Using unique micro-level panel dataset on women's labor participation, business activities, income levels, and social benefit needs across all micro-districts in Uzbekistan, I test how the exposure to forced labor predicts women's welfare through behavioral outcomes in modern day. This dataset will be introduced to the literature for the first time. I extend my analysis using primary local public service (n=5,000) and household surveys on gender policy outcomes (n=1,200) in Uzbekistan.

In chapter seven, my last empirical entry, I review modern data on social attitudes. The recent and gradual abolition of the forced labor practices in post Soviet Eurasia allows the rigorous examination of the forced labor-affected communities. To design my treatment and control groups, I use geocoded agricultural and agronomic data from seven culturally, demographically, and economically diverse former-Russian Empire and Soviet Union territories encompassing Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. To measure dependent variables, I use a large panel dataset of geocoded household survey (n=30,000). I do not register any positive side effects of forced mixed-gender labor socialization, contrary to some recent literature. To explain this, I revisit historical comparative analysis and introduce oral histories of the state-sponsored forced labor participants to describe how forced labor system created a gendered oppression of its own, perpetuating - instead of eradicating - gendered power dynamics.  

In my last chapter, I conclude with the discussion of the external validity of my theory and arguments, and how far it travels to both non-democratic regimes and non-democratic progressive public goods provision practices.

My fieldwork in 2021-2023 included extensive and immersive research in multiple archives (using the Soviet term - over 420 in-person human days in the archives), fielding original surveys, obtaining quantitative data through governmental agencies that will be presented in academic literature for the first time, and conducting primary qualitative research. In 2023-2024, I am working on my book project at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University.