The Concept of Ethnogenesis in Central Asia: Political Context and Institutional Mediators (1940-50)

Article excerpt

The Stalin era is traditionally identified with the "return" of Russian nationalism, which was denigrated by the Bolshevik regime in its early years but later became an increasingly important element of its official discourse in relation both to the other Soviet peoples and to the "brother countries" of the Eastern Bloc. Unlike other authoritarian regimes that were less ideologically oriented, the Communist Party claimed to embody the movement of history and emphasized the interdependence of political action and scientific development: historical discourse, and related disciplines such as ethnology or archaeology, came under powerful ideological pressure and were subjected to frequent outside meddling. From World War II until the death of Stalin in 1953, the historiographies of the USSR's various federal entities were subjected to abrupt changes. However, despite the domination of Zhdanovism, the national historiographies--at least in Central Asia--were able to retain an interpretation of history that valorized the titular nation. The research conducted in the different republics' academies of sciences can therefore be seen as one of the matrices that permitted the symbolic justification and appropriation of the state and its territory: in its choice of historical reference points, the resulting shared sentiment of national identity would never be called into question during the entire second half of the 20th century, not even after the fall of the USSR in 1991.

Autochthonism as a political and narrative matrix for the identities of the Soviet peoples is a well-known subject. Terry Martin has shown how much the Soviet Union was built on the principle of "positive discrimination" toward minorities, who were granted cultural and linguistic rights according to their administrative status as union republics, autonomous regions, and so on. Francine Hirsch's work on the role of ethnologists and local elites in the construction of identity referents, as well as Ronald Suny's on primordialism in Soviet national identities and Yuri Slezkine's on "ethnophilia" in Soviet science, have shed new light on the tight bond between the political environment, the development of the social sciences, and the articulation of discourses on identity. (1) Those studies, however, are mainly concerned with the 1920s and 1930s. The war, the postwar era, and the post-Stalinist upheavals after the mid-1950s remain little known in their impact on Central Asia. Yet it was at just this time, after the large-scale violence of Stalinism had ended, that the elites in the union republics could achieve stability, benefit from greater autonomy in publishing, and take advantage of the institutionalization of the academies of sciences. Autochthonization took shape in the form both of people--through the preference given to the titular nationality in hiring decisions in the human sciences--and of ideas, with the creation of discourses to legitimize the new republican entities.

The historiographic autochthonization of the 1940s-50s that I discuss was made possible when the "archaeological patriotism" available to each republic joined with the conceptualization of the principle of the "ethnogenesis" of eponymous peoples to anchor the notion that there existed an authentic connection among a people, its territory, and the state. This ethnogenetic discourse emerged within the specific context of the late 1930s and was advanced by historians, mainly Russians, who sought to apply in the Central Asian republics the autochthonist principles that had emerged in Russian history. Their discourse had its hour of glory in the last decade of the Stalin era and is considered even now as orthodoxy in the area of ethnogenesis. After a brief introduction on the specific political context of Zhdanovism, this article discusses the diffusion of the concept of ethnogenesis in Central Asia, the carriers of this discourse, and their social space--the republican academies of sciences--before concluding with a consideration of how certain meanings have shifted through the rewriting of history by more nationalist historians in Central Asian academia. …