Soon after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets took control of Central Asia, forming five new republics: Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Turkmenia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The imposition of Soviet power proved highly disruptive to the traditional ways of life in these republics, which had been dominated for centuries by Muslim beliefs and practices. In the absence of an indigenous proletariat as the support base of the new regime, it was the region’s women—their activities and rights severely restricted by Sharia law and local tradition—who were chosen to play the role of the “surrogate proletariat.” The so-called emancipation of Central Asia’s women, whom Vladimir Lenin saw as the “most enslaved of the enslaved, most downtrodden of the downtrodden,” became a central pillar of the Soviet effort in the region.

The road to liberation that Central Asian women traveled proved to be a long and difficult one. They frequently encountered resistance from their communities and families. As elsewhere in the USSR, women’s new roles as professionals and builders of Communism did not fully supplant their traditional duties as daughters, wives, and mothers, forcing them to carry the double load of public and family obligations.

Still, the reforms promoted by the Soviets gradually took root. The propaganda photographs in this exhibit, taken in the late 1940s, show a radically transformed Central Asia. Though artificially upbeat, sometimes obviously staged, and often disguising the harsh realities of collectivization, these photographs nonetheless capture a mood of genuine buoyancy. The “liberated,” successful women and girls seen here are real. So are the optimism and self-respect they radiate in the face of newfound equality and opportunities.