Soviet Industrialization and the Building of the Great Fergana Canal (1939) by Andrew Grant

1930’s in the Soviet Union: The Historical Background the Canal was built in
The Soviets during the 30’s underwent many drastic changes, increased industrialization and great progress was achieved, but at a great cost of human lives. One of the great achievements of this era, was the construction of the Great Fergana Canal, it became a testament to efficiency and the scale of Soviet industrialization that was achieved during the era. Despite the many obstacles to the vast construction projects conducted in this era, such as famines and widespread disease outbreaks, these projects were completed and reforged the Soviet Union into an industrial power that could begin to start competing with the capitalist nations of the West and with the new Fascist nations that posed an increasingly threat. The Soviet Union in this Stalinist era not only went many changes in regards to its industry, but we could see a move in its foreign policy towards “socialism in one country” and a change in domestic policy towards a more conservative family oriented society.

Building Socialism one block at a time : Background of Soviet Massive Construction Projects and the building of the Canal
In the 1930’s, unlike the Capitalist nations of the West, the Soviet Union was experiencing rapid economic growth, in large part due to the vast construction projects conducted during the era. The 30’s marked the implementation of the Second Five Year Plan, it was focused on pursuing technological innovation to keep up, construction had been the focus of the first, the second attempted to master efficiency through harsh discipline and seek ways for more effective management of labor. There was a shift in the cultural outlook as well, Stalin wanted to alter society to make it effective and disciplined, he thus pursued a more traditionalist society, one that encouraged growth and discipline, the traditional family was encouraged, legalized abortions and homosexuality, and other progressive reforms of the Lenin era, were repealed, in the aim of achieving an effective, disciplined, and homogenous worker’s society (Freeze 358-361).

The Soviets inherited the backwards and agrarian society that had dominated Russia for centuries before them, they attempted to drastically alter society and the economy and gear it towards industrialization, urbanization, and collectivized farming. All the lands of the Soviet Union started seeing drastic changes, even in the remote and sparsely populated areas of the Steppes of Central Asia. The Great Fergana Canal was built to supply water to the locals in Central Asia, in turn to help make new arable regions for growing cotton, necessary for the growing textile industries in the Western “heartland” of the Soviet Union. The goal was ultimately to bring about more self-sufficiency with industry, by growing the cotton in the Soviet Union itself, instead of needing to import it from the western capitalist nations like the US or Britain

In a source by Paul Stronski on the growth of the Soviet city of Tashkent from the 1930’s to 1966 he documented the importance of the Canal by bringing up how “On September 17, 1939,Pravda Vostoka declared that the construction of the Great Fergana Canal fulfilled the ‘centuries-long’ dream of supplying the people of Central Asia with water. The Soviet government’s investment in the region, the expansion of the local transportation infrastructure, and the ‘voluntary’ and ‘heroic’ efforts of thousands of ordinary Uzbek Soviet citizens transformed a former Russian colony into a ‘flowering garden’ and the center of Soviet life in Asia”(Stronski).

A photograph of Uzbek collective farmers watching the first waters of the Syr-Darya river entering the sluices of the great Fergana canal which they helped to build, taken in the 30’s or 40’s, by an unknown photographer:

Building the Canal: A testament to newfound Soviet efficiency and Industrialization
The canal was 270 kilometers, and was completed within 45 days. The project, unlike many others large construction projects conducted during the era was conducted by local workers, not through forced gulag labor (Siegelbaum). The construction was done in 1939, it finished right near the beginning of the Second World War. Over 160,000 Laborers, from the collective farms in the region, were involved in the construction (Encylopedia). The canal, a massive project built in such a short time, although not extremely well known, services as an example to the ability of Soviet engineeering and to the efficiency of their modernization. They managed in this period to go from a backwater, to one of the preemminent industrial powers of the world. In the 40’s they were producing Tanks and Ammunition on levels comparable to the US, a production-level.

The Primary Source Image (at the beginning of the blog) of the Construction; what is happening in it and what does it showcase?
The image showcased at the front of my blog is an image of the construction of the project. We can see in the image many Uzbek workers. They are working in large numbers, on the canal, there were over 100,000 workers employed in the construction of the canal. We can see that there is no standardized uniform for the workers, they are farmers wearing whatever clothes they had, it appears, from the image, that some of the workers are shirtless, due to the heat and arid nature of the region in which they were conducting their work. They are agrarian peasants, who worked at collective farms, they were poor and worked in rather miserable conditions. The giant horns are seemingly announcing a new workday, we can see hundreds of workers, walking in masses off to work, digging ditches to build up the canal system.

Cultural and Economic Shifts brought about by Canal Construction
The construction of the canal brought irrigation to a previously arid region in the Steppes of Asia, and thus not only dramatically altered the climate of the region but the society and the work in the region. Much of the region had previously had small scale farms, which became increasingly collectivized. New industries like textiles started emerging in the area, and soon the Fergana valley became one of the densest areas in the Central Asian region. (“Start of the Construction of Great Fergana Canal”).

The society, as a result, was forever changed. Farming transitioned to a more collectivized model and the region transitioned from small-scale agriculture to industrial-scale agricultural production and to a new manufacturing hub. The canals became a political symbol as well, many Uzbeki communists were purged during the period, and the canal started to emerge as a symbol of nationalism for them (Siegelbaum).


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009. pg. 358-361

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Great Fergana Canal.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Michigan State University, 3 Oct. 2015,

“Start of the Construction of Great Fergana Canal.” Start of the Construction of Great Fergana Canal | Environment & Society Portal, Environment and Society,

Stronski, Paul. “INTRODUCTION.” Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City, 1930–1966, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa, 2010, pp. 1–15. JSTOR,

9 Replies to “Soviet Industrialization and the Building of the Great Fergana Canal (1939) by Andrew Grant”

  1. Hi Andrew! This is a really interesting topic, I had never heard of this canal before! It’s really interesting to me that the canals became a symbol of Uzbeki nationalism because they were purged during the time. I also really like how you broke the blog up into sections, it flowed really nicely. Good job!

    1. Thank you, I broke up the blog into sections so that it was easy to read and follow along, with what was stated in the following paragraphs. Though some of these large projects became symbols of nationalism due to the purges conducted surrounding them, most of these large projects were conducted using forced labor, and had little connection to the locals. This was one of the rare projects that was built by the locals that lived in that area, which contributed to it having a unique national symbolism, while others did not.

  2. Andrew, your post about the Great Fergana Canal was a very cool read and the way you structured your post made it easy to follow. I’m amazed that its construction only took 45 days! Russia’s ability to create a canal of that size in no time at all reveals it’s persistence to its goal to not lag behind other industrial powers and to close the gap between them.

    1. Thank you very much. The project is reminiscent of the building of the Suez Canal. Both were built in very hot and arid environments, though of course the Suez took longer and had more issues it being one of the first of its scale done, but many of the same difficulties with building the canals and the massive amount of labor that was utilized in building them, was rather similar. Both are testaments to engineering, although this canal, despite its size, is not as well known as many others, particularly due to its location.

  3. I love the image you used as a jumping off point for this analysis (So much so, that I used it for a slider image on 17 Moments)! Like the fact of the canal’s construction in 45 days, the photograph speaks to the scope and complexity of socialist construction in such powerful ways.
    Your discussion of the Fergana canal makes for interesting juxtapositon with Ben’s post on the Moscow metro and Kayt’s on the reconstruction of Moscow — both much better known aspects of the transformation of the built environment, but neither as significant, in many ways, as engineering projects like the Fergana canal.

    1. Yes, this project is not as well known, largely because of its location, Moscow is a major metropolitan hub, and their subway system sees billions of customers every year, this canal was in Central Asia, no where near as densely populated or as internationally connected as Moscow, it is rather a shame though that this canal is not very well known, since it certainly was one of the biggest projects conducted during that period.

  4. I really thought this blog was put together very well, but also the fact that a canal like this was built in 45 days really goes to show what can be done when a country really puts its mind to something. Kind of a large contrast to the immense amount of time that it takes for modern highways to be built in todays day and age.

    1. Thank you very much Micheal for your comment. Yes we are far more inefficient with road construction in this day and age. I remember in high school (I went to Christiansburg High school), they spent several months just renovating one little road, near the entrance to the school, it caused traffic issues and the school had to implement a policy allowing students to arrive later to the first class because busses frequently ran late. It caused an enormous amount of trouble for the school system, even more than snow normally would, I ran late a few times, though it wasn’t my fault for that, I started leaving earlier in the morning though. Yes the motivation and intentions matter, for projects to get done, the construction company had little motivation, they were taking their time, the school was frustrated, but there was little that could be done.

  5. Andrew, I enjoyed reading your post. This was a huge undertaking by the Soviets. It was hard for me to comprehend how they could organize a project to this scale with the chaos going on between the lower class and the government. If the Soviet Union had focused on peace and construction instead of annexation they may have produced something really special.

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