Later Central Asia economy
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Central Asian Economy

Steppe with cattle

In 1500 AD, most of Central Asia was grassland, where nomads rode horses and tended big herds of cattle. Only in the western part of Central Asia people were farming wheat and barley and rye. But gradually over the course of the next 500 years, Russian rulers encouraged farmers to take over more and more of Central Asia, until a lot of it was being farmed.

At the same time, the traditional wealth of Central Asia from the Silk Road was destroyed by the invention of new sails and new travel aids like compasses that made it possible to sail in boats from Europe to India and China.

About 1800 AD, traders brought potato plants from South America to Central Asia, and people in Central Asia began to grow potatoes as an important part of their food. About the same time, the invention of the cotton gin suddenly made cotton the most common cloth for clothing, and the Russian government forced huge parts of Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia to start growing cotton in virtual slavery.

Starting after the Russian Revolution in 1917, Russia began to use tractors and machinery to farm all over Central Asia. Instead of nearly everybody farming, today only about 15% of the people in Central Asia are farmers (while 70% of people in China and 72% of people in India are farmers, and about 2% of people in the United States). But people's farms were collectivized, and most people worked on government farms. The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of that century meant that many of those farms came back under private control, but the situation remains complicated and messy. Meanwhile, very few people own the land they work on, and many continue to be subjected to forced labor in the cotton fields.

Bibliography and further reading:

Main Central Asia page


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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