The Great Fergana Canal and Uzbekistan


Uzbeks working on the irrigation canal


In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of workers began working on massive irrigation projects in Uzbekistan.  The purpose of this construction was to cultivate and water agricultural fields in Uzbekistan, in order to grow crops, especially cotton.  Cotton requires large amounts of water in order to produce enough product to yield a significant amount of cotton, hence the need to build long irrigation canals.

The Great Fergana Canal project began in mid-1939 as part of this movement.  Newly collectivized Uzbek and Tajik peasants were used as the labor force.  The project was hailed as, a “people’s construction project,” by the Soviet propaganda, denoting that the the canal was to be built by local volunteers.  According to Nikolai Mikhailov, the peasants undertook the project on “their own initiative.”  Unlike many other Soviet projects of the era, there was little emphasis on the use of mechanized vehicles, such as tractors.  The workers manually dug trenches to bring water from the Syr-Darya River to the cotton fields of the Fergana Valley.  It took approximately 160,000 workers 6 weeks to build 170 miles of canal, bring water to what had been “desert” before (Mikhailov).


Badge awarded to NKVD Guards at the Great Fergana Canal


The famous “horns” of the Fergana Canal, calling workers to dig












The construction of the canal had some negative aspects.  It contributed to the degradation of Aral Sea, which has caused many ecological issues since the Soviet era.  Also, there was the presence of guards from the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), represented by the badge above.  The fact that there were NKVD guards at the work sights casts doubts of the amount of “volunteers” that were part of the 160,000.

The construction of the Great Fergana Canal was an impressive operation.  It used the “enthusiasm” of workers to rapidly build a long irrigation canal.  This allowed the Fergana valley to be better irrigated, therefore created more farm land, and allowed cotton production to flourish.  Despite the doubtable “volunteer” status of these workers, there is no doubt that the project was completed quickly and had benefits for the locals and the Soviet Union as a whole.



Seventeen Moments in Soviet History:

  • Pictures –
  • Nikolai Mikhailov: Uzbek Land and People –
  • 1939: Great Fergana Canal –

Freeze, Gregory L.. Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.


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