Central Asia

Dealing with the Past in Central Asia [Frederick Corney]

Like the EstoniansLithuanians, and Latvians in the Baltic region, but unlike the ‘small peoples’ of the Russian North or the formerly nomadic groups of the steppe, the ethnic groups of Central Asia, marked by a range of often overlapping linguistic borderlines, achieved independence, indeed nationhood, after 1991, this time without the stern gaze of their Great Russian ‘betters.’ The particular approach of each new nation-state, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, to the past 75 years of their Soviet past was complicated enormously by the Soviet policy of indigenization [korenizatsiia] that had already helped to foster national identities inside Central Asia based on linguistic and ethnic homogeneity. This policy of indigenization had been both helped and hindered by the prevalent place of orthodox Islam in Central Asia, as well as the more liberal, reformist Jadidist movement. That much of this process had been  sacrificed under Stalin in the name of the protection of the Soviet Rodina (motherland) and replaced with the suppression of individual and national rights, persecution of former proselytizers of Central Asian nationalisms, and outright deportation or transplantation of entire peoples, merely made their relationships to the recent past even more fraught. In search of useable pasts that might sustain them on the international stage, elites of the five Central Asian republics, notably under such cultish and authoritarian figures as President Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) of Turkmenistan, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, and President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, seek to construct new national narratives that mythicize certain individuals, moments, or institutions from a more distant past. In so doing, they are constructing new national metanarratives of the Kazakhs’, Kyrgyz’, Tajiks’, Turkmen, and Uzbeks’ ancient strivings for national coherence and statehood, strivings that are thrown into sharp relief by moments of brutality, repression, and oppression by ‘alien’ overlords or invaders. That the state of ethnic or national identities that existed within these groups in Central Asia prior to the Soviet period contradicts this argument is not regarded as a major impediment to the construction of separate national identities of long standing within Central Asia. The Soviets themselves had engaged in something similar some forty years earlier, when prerevolutionary Russian colonial policy in Central Asia had undergone something of a rehabilitation (Schwarz, 488). At play in this rewriting of the pasts of Central Asia have been, among many examples, the invoking of ancient ‘ancestor states,’ such as the Mongol Empire, or the various hordes and khanates that branched off from it, as well as the invoking of certain mythicized strong leaders such as Chingiz Khan, Tamerlane, Ögüz Khan, among many. Other examples have included the revolts of the Kazakhs from 1837 to 1846 under Kenesary Kasimov; the struggle for national independence ascribed the veil and Soviet attempts particularly in the Uzbek SSR to unveil the Uzbek women (Hujum), or the Basmachi revolts in Central Asia between 1916 and 1923. Since independence, these efforts have been parts of focused and orchestrated Islamicist projects, such as the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRP) or theIslamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). While the articulators of these projects may change over time, the project remains essentially the same: to construct a useable, usually national, past of long standing, in the service of the present.

Ethnic and Linguistic Composition [Max Gordon]

The Turkic languages comprise one of the most widespread linguistic families in the world, covering a huge portion of Eurasia. Though the most obvious example is Turkish, the Anatolian peninsula is only the very eastern edge of the territory inhabited by Turkic peoples. Speakers of the Turkic languages stretch from Eastern Europe across Central Asia, and out to the uppermost regions of eastern Siberia. The origins of Proto-Turkic are somewhere in the vast expanses ranging across Central Asia and Siberia, traditionally placed in the Altai Mountains.

The Huns and Xiongnu are some of the earliest people thought to be speakers of a proto-Turkic language; however, this is still debated by linguists. The first to specifically call themselves Turks were the Göktürks, who established a Silk Road empire in the mid-500s C.E. Islam was first introduced to these Turks (and the Turks at large) upon allying with the Muslim Emevis against China in 851 (Barbarossa). Other Turkic political entities began to appear in Central Asia during these few centuries. Among these were the Uyghurs, whose empire occupied much of Mongolia during the 8th and 9th centuries, and who were then conquered by the Kyrgyz, another Turkic tribe (Britannica).

Farther west was Khazaria, a Judaic khaganate on the Pontic and Kuban steppes which reached as far into Europe as the future Kiev and southward to the Caucasus. South of Khazaria, in the Volga Basin, lay the Bulgar khaganate (Hosking, 30). The Seljuk Turks moved into Anatolia in the 11th century, laying the foundations for the Ottoman Empire, though they did not take Constantinople till the 15th century. So early in history, such polities were not synonymous with what we would today call nations, but rather loose tribal confederations. These migrations out of East-Central Asia and into these areas comprised a greater period of Turkic expansion out of Central Asia and into Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia (including Siberia).

Many Turkic peoples would one day come into the fold of the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union in the 20th Century. The first major Slavic contact with the Turks was with the Pechenegs and other nomadic steppe tribes. These were people who engaged in both peaceful, trade-oriented relationships and violent conflicts with the settled Slavs of Kievan Rus’ (Sunderland, 13). The invasion of the Mongols into Rus’ and other parts of Eastern Europe created an influx of the Tatars – another Turkic people(s) of the Eurasian steppe – many of whom had joined the armies of the Mongol khans. These were the Tatars of the Golden Horde, the westernmost part of the Mongol Empire. They established great khanates in Kazan’, Astrakhan, and the Crimea, and continue to inhabit these areas today. Tatar populations currently reside in many parts of both Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Poland, Russia) and Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan).

As the Russian Empire pushed east, it encountered many more Turkic peoples: the Taimyr Dolgan and the Tofalar in Siberia (Slezkine, 3); the Nogay, the Karachay, and the Kumyks in the North Caucasus (Wikipedia); the Azeris (of modern-day Azerbaijan), “related to the Ottoman Turks by language and to the Persians by faith” in the South Caucasus (Sunderland, 89). Most revealing, however, about the structures of Turkic societies, however, were those peoples encountered in Central Asia, in the area formerly known as Turkestan. Long considered the crossroads of East and West, this region was home to such great centers of Silk Road trade and Islamic thought as Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Khiva, and populated by many people both settled and pastoralist (Evthuhov, 124).

What is so revealing about this region is the various manifestations of nationality, or rather, lack thereof, in response to Russian and Soviet policies. Currently, the lands of Central Asia are divided into the nations of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan (though the Tajiks and the Tajik language are Persian, not Turkic). During the 19th and 20th centuries, an era when nationalism began to grip the peoples (or at least the intelligentsias) of Europe, no similar movements or flowering of national consciousness emerged in Central Asia (Evtuhov, 195). Rather, traditional territorital borders were non-existent; the territories which any particular group occupied were temporary and fluid.

With the exception of the handful of urban centers, Turkic Central Asians were largely organized into nomadic tribal groups, often focused around clan relations. Historian Adrienne Edgar posits that maps were not territorial, but genealogical, with loyalty directed toward one’s ‘kin-group.’ Moreover, no accurate means existed of classifying these particular groups into larger super-categories. The only real common factor between these peoples was adherence to Islam. “Language and descent,” notes Edgar, “did not necessarily coincide; some people declared themselves to be Uzbeks although they spoke Tajik as their first language” (Edgar, 20). To be “Turkmen” had nothing to do with either language or territory; but rather with one’s descent from Oguz, a legendary Turkic warrior of old. Thus, when the Soviets initiated their nationality policy, many could not answer what nationality they were (at least in any way satisfactory to the Soviets, who were themselves unsure how to define nationality). What these nationality policies served to do, then, was to constrict and limit the patterns of an ancient way of living, rather than to define any sort of unnamed divisions that were already in place. As such, claims Evtuhov “the presently existing states of Uzbekistan, Turkmenia [Turkmenistan], Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan were entirely a creation of twentieth-century Soviet bureaucracy” (Evtuhov, 198).

This may be a somewhat simplified view, however, and one that does not provide the Central Asians themselves with much agency. As stated earlier, Central Asians shared an adherence to Islam, a factor that contrasted with both Russian Orthodoxy and Soviet atheism. Prior to the invasion of these outside forces, Islam was under no threat, and therefore was not the unifying force that it came to be. As is so often the case, there had been little pressure for national consciousness until it had to be articulated and defined against something else, until was an outsider existed, against which differences in culture could be emphasized, and by which existing internal differences within to be overlooked. Though it is true that the Soviets are responsible for the laying down of the present borders of the ‘stans’, the consciousness which comes with those borders as some form of nationalism came in great part from the Central Asians themselves. If it was influenced by Russian/Soviet nationalism, it certainly was influenced by Persian, Turkish, Islamic, and other cultures as well. Thus, though it may not have developed without the presence of Russian and Soviet power as a foil, national consciousness was not both a creation and a conscious response to the tensions caused by the disruption of age-old ways of life, a means of reasserting control.

Russian and Soviet Nationality Policy and Central Asia [Laura Tourtellotte and Vadim Shneyder]

In contrast to previous incursions into Central Asia, 19th century Russian expansionism took on a different character than merely “conquest” or strategies of “gathering the lands.” Thus, instead of the use of steppe politics and a pragmatic and flexible approach, Catherine II and her predecessors took an increasingly Eurocentric stance in the following centuries, widening the distance between Russia (now identified as European) in contrast to its Asiatic “colonies.” The rhetoric which the Russian Empire used to conquer Asia thus became that of an European Empire: its mission civilisatrice was stressed as was its goal to Christianize and enlighten its pagan and barbarian vassals. New laws were passed to govern these inorodtsy (foreigners) and separate them from (Russian) settlers. During this time period, the Russian Empire made conquests on all fronts as it pushed its borders out, mostly to the West in a stepwise advance across the Asian continent, then down through Middle South Asia. Russian incursions continued into the Far East and Americas, as well, but these were eventually curbed by the presence of other Asian powers, as well as the British and Americans.

Russia’s expansion into the Kazakh steppe was initially undertaken as a logical step in the “gathering of the lands of the Mongol horde,” but later transformed into a more imperial policy. The Kazakhs were largely pastoral nomads who practiced seasonal transhumance. Their religion was nominally that of Islam, but more influenced by local beliefs in shamanism and ancestor worship. In the 1400s, the Kazakh clans split from the Uzbek khanate to the south and formed the tribal federations which persist today as a means of identification: the Lesser Horde (in the west), the Greater Horde (in the east), and the Middle Horde (between the two). In accordance with steppe politics, various of the hordes had at different times made oaths of allegiances to the Russian tsar for support against one another or other foreign incursions, but these oaths were, in the Kazakh’s minds, at least, temporary and easily broken. Following the tightening of Imperial control on the region in the 19th century, however, these lands were incorporated as units of the Russian Empire. The Kazakhs were thus labeled as inorodtsy, and were forcibly settled, having to give up their nomadic lifestyle (and with it a great deal of tribal structure). In addition, Tatars were brought in to “educate” the Kazakhs, which would later result in an Islamicization of the region. The destruction of the Kazakh’s lifestyle, the persistent rebellions, and conflicts they experienced with settlers were all promises of future conflict and nascent nationalism.

Upon expansion into Southern Middle Asia, the Russian Empire encountered ancient, settled, agrarian societies with established Islamic traditions. In contrast to the Kazakhs’ paganism and nomadism, these peoples were arguable already “civilized” – they had their own societal structures, agriculture, and religious educational systems. The Russian Empire’s conquest of this region was spurred by economic, as well as political and strategic concerns. Due to the American Civil War, Russia had been experiencing a shortage of cotton and was in search of a new venue for obtaining it. In addition, Russia had begun to run into conflicts with the British Empire, and as a result acted defensively against this perceived threat by encouraging further expansion to defend itself. In order to conquer these lands with already established administrative and judicial structures, Russia left those intact and established protectorates in the area as well as redirecting trade toward Russia. The single most damaging aspect of Russian colonial rule became its imposition of a cotton monoculture upon the region, which further heightened its dependency on Russia for trade. This cotton monoculture as well as the environmental repercussions involved in fostering it were to have dire consequences in the future.

The dominant rationale behind early Soviet nationality policy generally and in the case of Central Asia in particular was the idea that, in accordance with a teleological interpretation of Marxist historical materialism, societies could lie at various points along the temporal continuum which terminated in communism. If communism was the end of history, then socialism had to precede it, and before that – industrial capitalism and imperialism. In this developmental hierarchy, the societies of Central Asia existed at a pre-capitalist and even pre-national level. That is not to say that there were no nations, per se, in Central Asia, but that these nations were latent and perhaps ill-defined, while the local people chose to identity themselves as members of kin groups, tribes, or religions, rather than grasping the commonalities within, and distinctions between, their nations. Insofar as this national consciousness was considered a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of intra-national class conflicts and, by means of a dialectical resolution, the purging of enemy classes and the emergence of a classless socialist society, it was necessary to consolidate the Central Asian nations.

This necessitated, first of all, the collection of ethnographic data to ‘discover’ the national differences that were held to exist, if latently, among the various tribes and multi-national polities of Central Asia. It may be that ethnography constructed just as much as it revealed, but in any case, the end result was the delineation of nations based largely upon language and the various practices of everyday life. In this sense, the ethnographic investigation of Central Asia was inseparable from the consolidation of Soviet power over the region; knowledge of the social, demographic, and economic conditions of the region was a prerequisite for their administration and optimal utilization. In the process of incorporating and transforming Central Asia, the Soviet authorities naturally required the cooperation of locals. Unfortunately, there was no proletariat to be recruited from among the pre-industrial population. In searching for a ‘surrogate proletariat’ (Massell), Soviet authorities found the Central Asian woman – for their purposes, an oppressed minority who could be mobilized to counterract the forces of the local elite. At the same time, the ethnographers, in searching for the characteristic features of different Central Asian nations, looked to daily life, and, in particular, to the daily lives of women, who came to function as “the normative figures for each nationality,” representing “the inner domain of family, home, and spirituality, where the roots of cultural identity were taken to lie” (Northrop, 50). The veil, a target of Western fascination since the 19th century, came in a sense to represent Central Asian nationality, with different veils indicating different nations.

However, the veil was not merely a characteristic feature of Central Asian nations and a means of differentiating between them. It was also the most physical and unavoidable symbol of women’s oppression in the unenlightened, patriarchal social order of the primitive Muslim societies of Central Asia. As such, the veil came to represent both Central Asianness and its inadequacy. Insofar as Soviet ethnographers and policymakers understood Soviet progress to entail the emancipation of women, the veil signified women’s subjugation, and was the underlying justification for the hujum (assault on the veil), launched by party activists in Tashkent on 8 March 1927.

To the extent that Soviet modernity was associated with health and hygiene, the veil came to represent a physical threat to women, barring their access to modern medicine, discouraging bathing, encumbering physical movement, and generally leaving the woman with “a flaccid, sickly body; weak lungs; difficult births; infertility and children sick from syphilis and gonorrhea; and an early, bitter old age” (Northrop, 64). If morality was on the side of Soviet reform, then the veil became reprobate: “spiritually harmful, morally unjust, and indeed fundamentally evil” (Ibid.) In effect, the veil became the shadow of repressive ignorance blocking the sun of socialist truth.

At the same time as Soviet ethnographers were documenting veiling practices and constructing differentiated nations around them, local Central Asians were adapting and responding to Soviet power and Soviet ideas. The language of national consciousness made an impact upon local elites interested in opposing the Soviet project. In fact, the consolidation of national consciousness aided local opposition to Soviet power by providing them with a concrete locus of opposing values rooted in a supposedly primordial and naturally local tradition. The veil became an effective symbol not just for the oppression of Central Asian women but also for the traditions endangered by Soviet reform. Consequently, a woman’s decision to discard the veil now acquired nationalistic and religious dimensions, and those opposed to de-veiling for any reason could articulate their interests in the new and evocative language of primordial and orgnanic nationalism. The hypostatization of Central Asian nations in the image of the veil meant also the metastasis of opposition to Soviet power from decentralized and essentially reactionary positions into a thoroughly modern invocation of nationalism.


Works Cited

  • Catherine Evtuhov and Richard Stites, A History of Russia Since 1800: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).
  • Central Asia: The Rise of the Turkic Peoples, comp. by Hayreddin Barbarossa (Historyfiles, UK, 2004). http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/FeaturesFarEast/TurkicIntro.htm
  • Britannica: http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9074113
  • Adrienne Lynn Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
  • Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia, 1919-1929 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974).
  • Douglas T. Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).
  • Solomon M. Schwarz, “Revising the History of Russian Colonialism,” Foreign Affairs 30, no. 3 (1952), 488-93.
  • Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Belknap Press, 2003).
  • Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).
  • Willard Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

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