Russian expansion into the Central Asian region, a ‘gathering of the lands of the Golden Horde,’ had more explicitly colonialist motivations than any previous expansionary endeavors. The distinct cultural separations between Russia and the Central Asian
nomads, led the Tsar to enact unique administrative policies, hitherto unseen in the Northern or Caucasus regions. While the Soviets would overturn some of the Tsar’s policies, clear parallels persisted between how the Tsarist and the Communist governments treated the Central Asians. The legacy of the Kyrgyz people under these two different administrators demonstrates the variations and similarities between Imperial and Soviet strategy in Central Asia, as well as the lasting effects of colonization on Kyrgyzstan’s development.
The Kyrgyz were a primarily nomadic tribe in the Central Asian region, whose culture and history was primarily shaped by various invaders, notably the Arabic forces that brought Islam to the area in the eighth century (Khalid, 25). While Islam was not embedded into Kyrgyz society to the extent that it was in the more settled cultures of the area, it became an important force later in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras (Kappeler, 192). Prior to Russian incursion, the Kyrgyz were under the control of the Khanate of Kokand, one of the three Uzbek ruling groups in Central Asia (Kappeler, 192).
When the Russian Empire conquered the Khanate of Kokand, it became part of a larger administrative unit called Turkestan, which led to greater intermingling of the various Central Asian tribes (Kappeler, 195). At times, this merging of the tribes led to conflict over land, which would carry over into both the Soviet period and after independence in 1991 (Khalid, 48). The Empire’s attitude towards its Central Asian subjects displayed the obvious difference between this area and the other conquered parts of the Russian Empire. Unlike with other territories, the Russians did not use established elites to administer the acquisitioned area. Instead “the inhabitants of Middle Asia remained colonial peoples segregated from the Russians” (Kappeler, 198). Russian rulers also banned Russification practices in the area, and called for religious tolerance towards Islam (Khalid, 36). While these policies helped preserve the cultures of the Kyrgyz and other tribes, they also propagated the idea that Russians were superior to the Kyrgyz people. The Soviets attempted to distance themselves from this form of Russian chauvinism, but their policies too reflected the divisions between Russians and the Central Asians.
The Soviet’s first major break with Tsarist policy toward Central Asia involved the creation of political boundaries. For the Soviets, set national divisions made the area easier to administer and, they believed, would decrease ethnic conflict among the different tribes (Khalid, 67). Previously, the Empire had paid little consideration to ethnicity. This inattention was revealed in the Russian Empire’s classification of its subjects. In a highly confusing manner, the Kazakh people were referred to as Kyrgyz, whereas the original Kyrgyz people were called Kara-Kyrgyz (Kappeler, 186). Little effort was made to understand the differences between each nationality or ethnic group. The Soviets, however, saw Central Asian nationality as a way to not only foster the spread of Communism, but also as a way to differentiate themselves from imperial Russia.
Bolshevik ethnographers were tasked with creating homogeneous nations based on the major Central Asian ethnicities. This was a difficult task, as ethnic and national identity was underdeveloped amongst the Central Asians. Much confusion existed about a person’s ethnic identity, and this heightened the arbitrary nature of the Soviet delineation process (Edgar, 61). More developed ethnicities, like the Turkmen and Uzbeks, were granted control over large territories. These groups were able to lobby the Bolshevik government for their rights to certain land. Since the Kyrgyz were a nomadic, relatively underdeveloped nationality, it was more difficult for their elites to organize and petition Moscow for land. They were therefore relegated to a smaller nation. At first, this nation only had autonomous status in the Soviet Union, unlike the republic status of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Only ten years after Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were the Kyrgyz admitted into the Soviet Union, when Kyrgyzstan became a Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) (Edgar, 69). Despite their weaker position relative to the Turkmen and Uzbek, the Kyrgyz nationality during the Soviet era was much stronger than it had been under Tsarist rule.
The second major difference between Soviet and Tsarist policy was in the realm of religious tolerance. The atheistic Soviet state could not allow the Islamic religion to remain in Central Asia, not just for ideological reasons, but also because of the potential political threat Islam posed. The Soviet Union launched several political campaigns to erode the power of Islam in Central Asia, banning religious texts and portraying Islam as a political practice (Khalid, 83). These anti-Islam policies, however, had the opposite effect on the Kyrgyz. Islam previously had a tenuous grasp on Kyrgyz culture, but its importance grew as a symbol of anti-Soviet sentiment. Turning to the traditions of Islam was a method for the Kyrgyz to voice their dissent for the Soviet Union. The Soviets had helped solidify Kyrgyz as a nationality, which only made it easier for Islam to become entrenched amongst the people. This high regard for Islam is still present in Kyrgyzstan today, and the vast majority of the population are practicing Muslims (US Central Intelligence Agency). The case of Islam demonstrates that even though the Soviets succeeded in creating the Kyrgyz nationality, they failed in controlling how the nationality developed.
The Soviets’ main goal in Central Asia was to avoid the role of colonizers that had been adopted by Tsarist Russia. However, the Soviets failed to treat the Central Asians as equals, and therefore replicated the imperial actions of the Russian Empire. Specifically, the Soviet government appeared to award preferential treatment to the European ethnicities in Central Asia. While each republic’s titular nationality received high regional positions in the local administration, very few were recruited into the Soviet center in Moscow. These central positions were almost exclusively staffed by ethnic Russians or other European groups (Edgar, 102). Central Asian communists remained in the periphery, creating a feeling of isolation in Central Asia, as had occurred during Tsarist rule.
Once Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, the nation for the first time had full control over its national narrative. For centuries the Russian Empire and to a greater extent the Soviet Union, dictated to the Kyrgyz people what it meant to be Kyrgyz. The fact that Russia helped shape the Kyrgyz identity is a difficult obstacle in establishing a sovereign state. The fact that the Empire and the Soviet Union both championed, whether directly or indirectly, the superiority of Russians over the Kyrgyz, has also hampered Kyrgyzstan’s maturation as a state. Russia and Kyrgyzstan remained locked in an unbalanced relationship stemming from the former’s role as a colonizer of the latter. Any further development in a Kyrgyz national narrative post-independence will require a rewriting of that relationship between themselves and the Russians.
- Adrienne Edgar, Tribal Nations: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
- Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History (New York: Longman, 2001).
- Adeeb Khalid, Islam After Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
- United States Central Intelligence Agency. Kyrgyzstan. CIA World Factbook, April 2009. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kg.html