Death of a Travelling Merchant: A Weimar Ghost Story

by Jesko Schmoller

Schmoller_op150What happened to Izomshoh, the wealthy merchant from Bukhara that fateful night in the early 1920s when he arrived in Berlin, the capital of the Weimar Republic? Was he the victim of an accident or did he become a target for the Soviet secret service by interfering in the political affairs of the young state? His family today would still like to know. The account I hear comes from my colleague Zufar Ashurov, a lecturer at Tashkent State University of Economics and the great-great-grandson of Izomshoh. According to family history, the latter left his native soil on a mission by Fayzulla Xo’jaev, head of the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic. He was supposed to financially support a group of Central Asian students in Germany but his premature death prevented him from accomplishing this task. Before Izomshoh left Bukhara, he told his wife that his destination was Hamburg in Northern Germany (my colleague deduces that he travelled by train to Moscow and Petrograd, and then took a ship for the final part of his journey). So why would the family assume that he ended up in Berlin?

Here I must introduce my second source: A series of six articles written by Nusratillo Naimov, author of several historical publications, and printed by the Uzbek newspaper Buxoro Haqiqati between 10 December 1997 and 14 January 1998. A paragraph mentions the arrival of an economic delegation of three men from Bukhara at Berlin Central Station, where they are met by a mysterious stranger who drives them to a guesthouse on the outskirts of the city. In the morning, they are found dead in their beds. Nobody woke up during the night when the room filled with gas from a leakage in the kitchen. Or was it not a leakage? One also wonders why they did not take a taxi to a hotel in the city centre, as originally planned. Only the spirits of the dead would be able to relate what actually happened. It seems unlikely that we are ever going to know whether Izomshoh was part of that delegation. Since the events are connected to a serious conflict from the early days of the Soviet empire, however, we can speculate about a motive for murder. In order to better depict the background of this conflict, I make additional use of a third source: The book Turkestan Struggle Abroad by the Istanbul-based historian Ahat Andican.

Berlin in the 1920s  (Credits: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z1012-0330 / CC-BY-SA)

Berlin in the 1920s
(Credits: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z1012-0330 / CC-BY-SA)

One of Fayzulla Xo’jaev’s concerns in the brief period during which the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic existed was its economic development. Even though the republic had begun exporting products such as grain, cotton, wool, dried fruit, karakul and silk, the industry was in poor condition. Since the Soviet government seems to have been reluctant to dispatch a group of specialists to Bukhara, Xo’jaev and other modernist reformers decided to send a number of young people to Germany to acquire specialist knowledge there. And because most parents were opposed to the idea of sending their children abroad, it was mainly orphans who were chosen to take part in this venture. According to the statistics, 40 children were of Turkestani nationality, six were Tatar and four Jewish, and there was also a small segment of older students from the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, who were partly Uzbek and Kazakh. Together with this group of young people, Xo’jaev set out for Germany in September 1922. Abdulvohid Burhonov, an intellectual and former head of the reformist movement’s conservative fraction, and two doctors who had served in the Emir of Bukhara’s palace accompanied them. Upon their arrival in Germany, the children were placed in host-families to develop their language skills. They attended secondary schools, while the adolescents began studying at teacher training and technical schools as well as at universities in Berlin, Dresden, Heidelberg and Darmstadt. As the Soviet government consolidated its control of the southern republics, it increasingly regarded potential contacts between the Muslim population and anti-Bolshevik Russians or pan-Turkic Turks as worrisome. Beyond the Soviet borders, it was impossible to contain the spread of ideas challenging the socialist system. An emissary was sent to cancel the children’s school registrations and bring them home. The older students were permitted to continue their studies but were reminded of their loyalty to the Soviet Union and warned not to make the wrong friends.

The Order of the Red Star, a remnant of the short-lived Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic (Credits: Бухарская НСР)

The Order of the Red Star, a remnant of the short-lived Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic
(Credits: Бухарская НСР)

The above-mentioned economic delegation from Bukhara was supposed to establish trade relations with Germany, which would in turn help to finance the students’ expenses. Could this have been seen as a threat to the Soviet Union’s solidity and therefore constitute a motive for murder, as Naimov suggests in his article and my colleague from Tashkent believes? Fact is that all the older students who later returned to the newly created republics in the Soviet South were arrested in the 1930s, imprisoned and exiled, leaving only one of them to survive. In that way, they shared the fate of practically all reformist-minded intellectuals in Central Asia – they became a chorus of ghosts to haunt the living.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Jesko Schmoller is an anthropologist and received his PhD from the Central Asian Seminar of the Humboldt University Berlin. Topics of interest to him include work, youth, the state and subjectivities. As a board member of the Central Eurasian Scholars and Media Initiative, he pursues the goal of a more effective cooperation between academia and journalism. He is currently involved in the development of the museum project Berlin Palace / Humboldt-Forum.