A Critical Reader in Central Asian Studies
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A Critical Reader in Central Asian Studies

40 Years of Central Asian Survey

Rico Isaacs, Rico Isaacs

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A Critical Reader in Central Asian Studies

40 Years of Central Asian Survey

Rico Isaacs, Rico Isaacs

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About This Book

Central Asian Survey has remained as the premier world-leading peer-reviewed journal for Central Asian studies for four decades. To mark the 40th anniversary of the journal, this volume is intended to be a reader of selected essays from the journal over the last four decades.

This book is not just a mere collection, but also a critical reflection on the field over that time. Each of the nine sections in the book feature a critical appraisal of the selected excerpts by young scholars who analyse the reproduced excerpts and the contribution they make to advancing our understanding of the field. The nine sections encapsulate prominent themes in Central Asian studies: history, identity and nationalism, Islam, governing and the state, informal institutions, contentious politics, gender, everyday life, and regional and global perspectives. The book is not just intended to reflect on the role of Central Asian Survey in the development of Central Asian studies, but also the aim is for the volume to be used as a teaching resource where the different sections in the collection could correlate to specific teaching weeks in courses on the region. The different contributions cover many case studies from across a range of countries that have featured in the journal over the years, and thus is not just restricted to the Central Asian republics but also includes Mongolia, Azerbaijan, and Xinjiang.

This book will serve as a great resource for researchers and students of Central Asian history, politics, culture, society, and international relations.

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Section 1History

DOI: 10.4324/9781003200338-2

Introduction: critical appraisal, Mikhail Akulov1

Historians know only too well that however much they strive to avoid the pitfalls of presentism, the results of their research are bound to reflect the very moment of the articulation. For the historiography of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union – and, by extension, of the region which used to encompass its Central Asian realm – the year 1991 assuredly marks a sharp dividing line. The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) compelled scholars to think beyond paradigms rooted in Cold War realities and mentalities. For historians of this region, this development gained great practical impetus from the “archival revolution” (Fitzpatrick 2015) and growing intellectual exchange, with researchers from the hitherto opposing camps discovering unprecedented opportunities for open discussions, internships, and collaborations.
Taken in isolation, each of the five articles excerpted below is valuable in its own right, making an important contribution to the study of Central Asia and its history. Yet, spanning nearly four decades, they also reflect the impact of historiographical changes. The mental trajectory constituted by them testifies to the emergence of methodologically sophisticated concepts in place of more simplistic Cold War-era approaches; furthermore, this trajectory suggests multiple new avenues for subsequent development. Hence, after offering a schematic review of the major points raised in the articles, this introduction will proceed to the discussion of general questions representing, so to speak, resources for future research.
Appearing in the early 1980s, at the time of the last spike of the Cold War, Mehmet Saray’s article on the Russian conquest of Central Asia sets out, in a rather positivist spirit, to attain “a true picture of the events.” In broad strokes, it paints a picture of Russia’s expansionism going all the way back to the sixteenth century, although, surprisingly, it omits important milestones in the story of imperial advance such as Abulkhair’s 1731 submission (see Bodger 1980), Kenessary Kassymov’s uprising (Sabol 2003), or the ill-fated 1839 Khivan expedition (see, most recently, Morrison 2021; Werth 2021). Still, this criticism notwithstanding, the article undertakes the important task of incorporating Central Asian polities into the narrative, thereby turning them into historical subjects. Drawing mainly on diplomatic dispatches of Russian, British, and Ottoman provenance, the author presents a process which is anything but streamlined and coordinated. Thus, one sees a Russian imperial frontier dominated by unruly and aggressive military figures, often acting without the prior endorsement of Saint Petersburg; presented with a fait accompli, the imperial centre resolved to abandon its initially cautious stance and was drawn ever more powerfully into that scramble. The other important geopolitical players – above all Britain, but also Turkey – showed remarkable reluctance to engage Russia, preferring, as did the British statesmen, to trust assurances of Russia’s peaceful intentions issued by Prince Gorchakov, head of the Russian Foreign ministry. Finally, and most important, threatened by their northern neighbour, the rulers of Kokand and Bukhara demonstrated unexpected deftness in negotiating their way through gnarled international relations. As Saray shows, that they ultimately failed to meet that threat with adequate force was not for lack of trying; neither was it, as the colonial authorities alleged, due to their isolation from the “global civilized community.”
The article by Steven Sabol on the 1924 national delimitation is the earliest among those discussed to appear after the Soviet Union collapse. Characteristically, in its exploration of the Soviet nationality policies, it endeavours to move beyond the strictures of the so-called Totalitarian school encapsulated, most pertinently, in the works of Richard Pipes (1964) and Robert Conquest (1991). Sabol implicitly denies that the establishment of boundaries between Central Asian republics was arbitrary – an idea occasionally referred to tongue-in-cheek as “Stalin’s giant pencil theory” (Morrison 2017). Furthermore, he subscribes only with reservation to the “divide and rule” logic, which some earlier scholars of Soviet nationalities were so prone to employ in explaining the underlying motives of the Kremlin authorities, to the exclusion of other factors. The “totalitarian” influences, though, are not entirely gone from the analysis; they become particularly prominent in Sabol’s insistence on the instrumental character of the Bolshevik promotion of the self-determination principle – notwithstanding, in fact, the presence of unequivocal non-Russian nationalists in their ranks. In the Central Asian context, the principle was used to accommodate the region’s Muslim population, which, having seen itself disenfranchised from revolutionary politics, was drawing closer to the anti-Bolshevik forces (basmachi or kurbashi above all). In the end, however, in their efforts to quell interethnic conflicts and endear the regime to the natives, the Bolsheviks made use of self-determination only “to deliver socialism” as they understood it, even “on the end of a bayonet.” With the colonial nature of the Bolshevik modernizing undertakings brought thus into light, the story of the 1920s, with all the nation-building that it involved, merges nearly seamlessly with the dynamic of the “Revolution turned upside down” (la rivoluzione capivolta) exposed by Marco Buttino (2007).
Exemplifying, in many ways, post-Cold War Central Asian scholarship in its mature stage, the 2007 article by Adrienne Lynn Edgar also focuses on visions and contradictions of Soviet modernity. It tackles them through the prism of an underexplored phenomenon – that of mixed marriages in late Soviet Central Asia. By analysing the discourse generated around such marriages, Edgar divulges the dual functions that they were purportedly serving – namely, as vehicles of “cultural advancement” (a shorthand for Russification/Europeanization) and engines of anticipated “fusion” (sliianie) of the peoples into one Soviet nation (sovetskii narod). She argues that this celebration of interethnic unions went together with an ostensibly opposite development towards an evermore rigid institutionalization of ethnic boundaries between the peoples inhabiting the USSR. On closer inspection though, the two trends appear interrelated, with the statistics on mixed marriages inadvertently sanctioning the reality of separate ethnic entities with clear-cut lines between them. This paradox perfectly jibes with the findings for the Stalinist period made by Terry Martin, who observes how passpartization changed the initially ascribed or acquired national characteristics into inheritable “primordial” traits (Martin 2000, 169–170).
The importance of Edgar’s article does not stop here. Juxtaposing the Soviet celebration of mixed marriages with discourses on interracial or interethnic intimacy elsewhere, she finds remarkable and unexpected parallels and successfully challenges the idea of the uniqueness of the Soviet case. Moreover, although not explicitly spelled out by her, the subject matter chosen as well as her approach allow one to recognize crucial continuities across the rigid periodization resulting from a nigh-exclusive engagement with the Soviet political history.
An aspiration to overcome rigid periodization becomes manifest in the important article by Botakoz Kassymbekova on population resettlement from Tajikistan’s mountainous interior to its lowland border zone. She shows how the ethnic thinking operative since the very foundation of the Soviet Union coupled with ever-growing security concerns resulted in the mass population transfers of Tajiks to territories populated partially by semi-nomadic Uzbeks and Lakais. Accompanied by violence, those transfers call into question the neat dichotomy of the “golden Twenties” and dark and repressive “Thirties” (Kappeler 2001, 373–382). In an analysis reminiscent of the works of Terry Martin (2001) and Oleg Khlevniuk (1995), Kassymbekova demonstrates the primacy of Soviet border anxieties, although, as she herself recognizes, the dichotomy between economic and political factors has its limits. In a qualified contrast to Saray’s narrative, the Soviet empire is shown here as temporarily operating in a defensive mode, although by framing Central Asia as a showcase of decolonization, it readied itself to extend its clout further south and south-west – to Afghanistan and Iran in particular.
The article is an illustration of the fruitful use of post-structuralism in the Central Asian setting. Proceeding from the assumption that discourse constitutes reality as much as it is constituted by it, Kassymbekova dwells at length on the role of contemporary demographic and ethnographic knowledge. Her focus is on the binaries – some more familiar, some less – whose combination led to the institutionalization and territorialization of the Tajik ethnicity. Noteworthy is the attention that the author pays to the role that the nomadic/sedentary divide played in the resettlement blueprints. Mapping this onto tropes of productivity, loyalty, and predictability, she uncovers patterns later elaborated in Alun Thomas’ book (2018).
Gulmira Sultangalieva, a historian from Kazakhstan, produced an article which allows one to appreciate the distance travelled from the early 1980s. Thus, whereas Mehmet Saray focuses on the persistence of “great personalities,” making their careers first in the conquest of North Caucasus and then continuing with great panache in Turkestan, Sultangalieva is preoccupied with the transfer of technologies of rule and their subsequent evolution under the impact of new circumstances. Her principal characters – all the pristavs appointed by high imperial authorities – were rather “small,” yet, the changing functions with which they were charged are both revealing and consequential. Imported in the 1820s into the Kazakh Steppe from the Caucasus, the institution of pristavstvo initially did not entail much more than making observations of the Kazakh elites and serving as informal custodians to the khans. With time, however, pristavs became veritable mediators, called on to impress the idea of Russia’s grandeur on the steppe elites, while facilitating their co-optation into the all-imperial ruling caste. With the resumption of the imperial advance into Central Asia in the early 1860s, the institution was transformed into a borderland territorial unit, representing, as Sultangalieva writes, a “transitional system of governance.” Regarded as a whole, the institution sheds light on the imperial understanding of the colonial order – and of the means necessary to maintain it. Although the author does not establish the connection clearly, pristavstvo is the story not only of changing imperial objectives but also of the Empire’s changing self-perception – from a piebald alliance of diverse elites to a bureaucratic machine evermore susceptible to the powerful impulses of centralization and Russification.
This brings us to the first broad theme broached and developed in these articles: that of empire-building. As mentioned earlier, Saray’s approach is wanting somewhat in sophistication. For him, as for other coeval historians of Central Asia (D’Encausse 1966; Olcott 1987), empire is entirely a by-product of conquest, an overwhelming force subduing all signs of resistance in its path. Yet, as more recent studies have shown (Kappeller 2001; Suny and Kivelson 2016), native elites often played key roles in the expansion, negotiating deals with imperial emissaries designed to strengthen their presence in their localities. Aligned with this recent scholarship, Sultangalieva demonstrates the importance of regional specifics in shaping institutions and technologies of rule. Dubbed by Suny and Kivelson as “rule through difference” (2016, 4), it ren...

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