Earthquake Devastates Ashgabat and Kills Up to 100,000 People Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A magnitude 7.3 earthquake leveled Ashgabat, the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic—now Turkmenistan—killing between 70,000 and 100,000 people. The scope of the disaster remained unknown outside Central Asia until 1973, when archival records were unsealed by local officials.

Summary of Event

Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, lies at the foot of the Kopet-Dag mountain range near the border with Iran, in a geologically unstable, earthquake-prone area. Ashgabat was founded as a czarist outpost in 1881 and grew without reference to local conditions. During World War II, evacuees from the war zone swelled the population to an estimated 150,000 people, most of whom lived in hastily built single-story houses of unreinforced brick and stone, with heavy roofs of packed clay. Schools, hospitals, and other public buildings also suffered from shoddy construction during wartime. Existing seismic standards, seldom met, greatly underestimated the earthquake danger. A 1929 quake had caused significant property damage, but the fault zone had been unusually inactive, a sign, perhaps, of an impending catastrophe. Earthquakes Ashgabat, Soviet Union [kw]Earthquake Devastates Ashgabat and Kills Up to 100,000 People (Oct. 6, 1948) [kw]Ashgabat and Kills Up to 100,000 People, Earthquake Devastates (Oct. 6, 1948) Earthquakes Ashgabat, Soviet Union [g]Asia;Oct. 6, 1948: Earthquake Devastates Ashgabat and Kills Up to 100,000 People[02640] [g]Soviet Union;Oct. 6, 1948: Earthquake Devastates Ashgabat and Kills Up to 100,000 People[02640] [g]Turkmenistan;Oct. 6, 1948: Earthquake Devastates Ashgabat and Kills Up to 100,000 People[02640] [c]Disasters;Oct. 6, 1948: Earthquake Devastates Ashgabat and Kills Up to 100,000 People[02640] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 6, 1948: Earthquake Devastates Ashgabat and Kills Up to 100,000 People[02640] Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;disasters Batirova, S. Niyazov, Saparmurat

Disaster struck at 1:17 a.m. on October 6, 1948. The few people awake at this time heard an ominous rumbling from the mountains, followed immediately by violent vertical shaking. Two strong shocks seconds apart reduced Ashgabat to rubble. No one had time to escape from collapsing buildings. Many of the survivors, conditioned by propaganda in the acute early phase of the Cold War, thought that the city had been hit by an American atomic bomb.

The quake severed all communications with the outside world. Hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies lay in ruins. In the first few hours, surviving uninjured members of the city’s emergency services struggled heroically in darkness to render aid. Doctors, many of whom had served in war, retrieved equipment from the ruins and set up an emergency station in Karl Marx Square. By afternoon, reinforcements and supplies arrived from Tashkent and Baku. The sheer number of casualties, however, and the inherent difficulty of evacuating gravely wounded people, meant that aid came too late for many. Half of an estimated thirty thousand people with life-threatening injuries died from lack of prompt attention.

Immediately after the quake, city workers converged on the damaged central headquarters of the Communist Party, where after hastily consulting with the party’s first secretary, S. Batirova, they commandeered an undamaged automobile and drove northward to a functioning telephone line. Soldiers stationed at the airport used an aircraft radio to contact Baku and Sverdlovsk. It was many hours before any details reached areas from which aid could be dispatched. Once aid was forthcoming, multiple impediments hindered delivery. The railway station was in ruins, tracks were blocked, the airport control tower was destroyed, and the airport and roads could not handle heavy traffic.

The precise death toll will never be known with certainty. Estimates range from a low of 400, postulated by Nature magazine in 1948, to a high of 110,000. The dead were buried in mass graves, and were not counted or identified. There were roughly 50,000 survivors, suggesting a death toll of 80,000 to 100,000, or about two-thirds of the population.

Like the enormous initial death toll, an inadequate emergency response was probably unavoidable in the poorest part of a country just emerging from long years of war. As days progressed, however, the response from the rest of the Soviet Union became more and more problematic. On October 7, Pravda printed a brief article stating only that geologists at the Russian Academy of Sciences had detected a strong earthquake. Subsequently, there were reports of supply shipments and of the evacuation of the wounded, but no mention of the scope of devastation or the number of casualties. The international press used Pravda’s limited and incorrect reportage about the quake as the source for their own news reports.

A conspiracy of silence followed the destruction of Ashgabat. Most histories and almanacs of natural disasters omit the quake entirely. Soviet propaganda of the 1950’s praised reconstruction efforts that used designs lacking seismological standards. A Soviet journalist who visited the city in 1953 later described being forbidden to photograph the omnipresent ruins or to report a march of weeping survivors to the mass graves on the outskirts of the city. Only in 1973, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event, did officials in Turkmenistan begin to open sealed archives and acknowledge the terrible calamity.

The silence accompanying the earthquake and its devastation is puzzling. The earthquake occurred during an acute phase of the Cold War, when both sides were eager not to expose their strategic vulnerabilities. However, the destruction of Ashgabat neither compromised the Soviet Union’s defense system nor revealed grave internal weaknesses. Silence did nothing to improve domestic morale in Russia, and it created widespread resentment in Central Asia. Internationally the Soviet Union could have gained propaganda points by publicizing the disaster and then criticizing the lack of response from the West.

Soviet officials lived in fear of initiative-taking in 1948. Joseph Stalin’s iron grip on the country, secured by sweeping purges, rewarded silence and timidity. The people responsible for aid to Ashgabat could not act on their own, and they risked incurring the deadly displeasure of a dictator if they approached him with a problem that could reflect badly on socialism and Stalin’s leadership. The timidity surrounding the disaster snowballed; no one was willing to admit publicly that national response to an overwhelming natural disaster was so inadequate. Until Stalin’s death in 1953, referencing the event was considered a dangerous move.

Soviet Central Asia—isolated, predominantly Muslim, with no history of emigration—had no advocates in the Western world. Consequently, even when the region became open to Westerners during perestroika, there were no efforts to raise awareness of the catastrophe nor to obtain the financial aid that undoubtedly is still needed decades after the disaster.

Silence translated into slow reconstruction. Having learned a bitter lesson, local planners insisted on seismologically sound building practices. Because they were in effect building a new city, planners could be innovative, if allowed to be. Reconstruction, however, would be expensive. The central Soviet government assigned low priority to erasing the scars of a disaster it never fully acknowledged. Substantial portions of the city remain in ruins, and a significant portion of the population still lives in temporary, or inadequate and unsafe, dwellings.

Turkmenistan’s independence in 1992 brought a totalitarian government, which seems to be erasing or stalling what social and economic progress was made in the country under Soviet rule. Were an earthquake of comparable magnitude to strike the region, cities, structurally, would be far less vulnerable. The social infrastructure, however, especially emergency medical response, remains seriously weak after more than a decade of misadministration by the new government.

Significance

The physical destruction and loss of life in the Ashgabat earthquake stunted development in the Turkmen Republic for decades. The psychological effects of not only the event but also the long period of silence and denial that followed shaped Turkmen national consciousness in ways that are difficult to quantify but undoubtedly significant.

A feeling of abandonment and lack of recognition fed the extreme, paranoid nationalism of Turkmenistan’s dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov lost his entire family in the 1948 earthquake; one can only speculate how years of living in denial of the central tragedy in one’s life while being educated in Russia helped shape the leader. Earthquakes Ashgabat, Soviet Union

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abazov, Rafis. Historical Dictionary of Turkmenistan. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005. The entry on Ashgabat devotes a half page to the quake and reconstruction, and lists the death toll at thirty thousand.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bolt, Bruce A. Earthquakes. 5th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2004. A standard textbook with descriptions of the geophysics of earthquakes and principles of antiseismological structural engineering. The Ashgabat earthquake is omitted from a table of worldwide historical disasters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nikonov, A. A. Ashkhabadskoe Zemlietriasenie: Problemy I Reshenie Polvieka. (The Ashkhabad Earthquake: Problems and Resolutions of Half a Century). Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, 1998. http://www.scgis.ru/Russian/cp1251/dggms/2-98/nikonov2.htm. Discusses casualty estimates, faulty construction, reconstruction efforts, and means of avoiding future disasters. The author is a seismologist specializing in earthquake prediction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Khronika Ashkhabadskoi Katastrophy. (Chronicle of the Ashkhabad Catastrophe). Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, 1998. http://www.scgis.ru/Russian/cp1251/dggms/2-98/nikonov1.htm. A chronological account of the disaster, with quotes from eyewitnesses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skosirev, P. Soviet Turkmenistan. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956. Propaganda notable for referring to reconstruction but omitting all other mention of the disaster. Useful historical background.

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