Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

What We Have (Not) Learned about Twentieth-Century Central Asian History

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

What We Have (Not) Learned about Twentieth-Century Central Asian History

Article excerpt

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Central Asian regimes drastically reshaped their narratives about certain periods of the Soviet century while simply eliding other stretches of history. The replacement of Sovietera ideological assumptions about national identity and the role of titular populations in governing institutions with new ideas sparked revisionist tendencies among the post-Soviet leaders. In the local narratives, some historical figures were rehabilitated while others were pressed into the shadows. New sites of memory emerged and educational systems were adapted to conditions of independence.

Each state elaborated diversified and evolving strategies regarding the Soviet past. Turkmenistan repudiated the entire era stretching from Russian colonization to independence. Uzbekistan developed a discourse centered on the victimization of the Uzbek nation by the Russian-Soviet oppressor. In the other three states, readings were more positive, and reflected contrasting opinions on the role of the Soviet Union in transforming their societies.

Access to Central Asian archives also directly impacts the comprehension and re-writing of the Soviet experience and legacy. At one end of the spectrum is Turkmenistan, which has refused to open its archives to both foreigners and locals. Uzbekistan declassified its pre-Revolution archives but remains very cautious about allowing access to those from the Soviet era. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have allowed access, but only up until World War II. Still, the partial opening of various Central Asian archives-combined with the persistent fieldwork and research of local and foreign scholars-has enabled an assessment of the processes of reconstructing the Soviet chronicle from the eyes of the Soviet southern periphery. What have we learned and what questions remain unanswered?

The Role of Central Asians in Building their Republics and Defining their Borders

To begin with, the archives have discredited the widespread idea that the zoning of Central Asia into nationalities and republics was the personal work of Stalin, presumably reflecting Moscow's Machiavellian desire to divide and conquer by creating artificial and non-viable borders. Available documents show that the titular elites were closely associated with the process of territorial division and that their many conflicts were echoed at the level of the central ruling bodies in Moscow. The border demarcations were largely decided in accordance with the power balance between political groups, nationalities, and regions; and sometimes even in line with the personal interests of Central Asian local rulers.

The Tajik elites, for example, made loud and strong claims for the inclusion into the Tajik republic of Bukhara and Samarkand, as well as part of Surkhandaria, while the Tashkenti elites laid claim to the Uzbekness of these zones, lobbying Moscow for them. Some Uzbek leaders from the Fergana Valley wanted their natal villages to be included in Uzbekistan and not in Kirghizia, a feat they managed by creating Uzbek territorial enclaves on Kyrgyz territory. The archives show that the Moscow-based Communist leaders often leftsuch initiatives to the titular elites to solve. Such practices were a matter of necessity in some cases because frequently local conflicts overwhelmed the central Communist leaders and they had difficulty taking decisions.

Another half-myth was that zoning was imposed from above (whether by Moscow or local elites) onto passive populations. Local communities themselves petitioned the authorities for areas of land, stretches of valley, rivers, or territories of transhumance. Some villages collectively requested to have their identity changed in order to be incorporated into a neighboring republic or to obtain a specific resource advantage, as so-called sedentary nationalities were given rights to arable lands at the expense of others. With the activation of the Commission of National Delimitation for Central Asia (1924), several villages based in the Uzbek Republic declared they were Kazakh and denounced the repression of their identity by Tashkent. …

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