Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Transgressing the Boundaries: The Migration of Uighurs into Soviet Central Asia after World War II

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Transgressing the Boundaries: The Migration of Uighurs into Soviet Central Asia after World War II

Article excerpt

As Chinese newspaper headlines continue to promise the successful implementation of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), each bordering country still presents a number of challenges to this endeavor. The former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are an important hub through which the multiple routes of the BRI pass. Yet, on both sides of the border, a Muslim minority, the Uighurs, are considered to be a destabilizing factor in the relationship.

By the mid-1960s, with the Sino-Soviet split under way, the Uighurs who crossed the border to the Soviet side found themselves surrounded by an atmosphere of distrust, where their existence was perceived as a potential security threat. Nowadays, despite the emergence of similar concerns, the BRI, with the unprecedented scale of exchange of people and commodities that it entails, if successfully implemented, could become an important incentive not only to bring the Muslims on the Chinese and post-Soviet sides of the border closer but also to open a pathway to resolving the issue of separatism in China. It could transform Xinjiang into a wealthy borderland that both enjoys cultural proximity to its close neighbors and also supersedes them in terms of economic development, thereby directly benefiting those remaining in China.

The Uighur diaspora remains scattered all over the world. In the aftermath of World War II, some Uighurs moved to Taiwan along with the Guomindang government, while others proceeded to Afghanistan and Pakistan. From there a group moved to Turkey and the Middle East, thus building a strong Uighur community presence in the Muslim world and beyond (Jacobs 2016). One of the most important destinations for the escapees, however, was Soviet Central Asia. While all other Uighur enclaves abroad managed to stay engaged with one another and create cross-boundary ties, the Uighurs of the Soviet Union (USSR) were isolated. Their lives revolved around the necessity of adapting to the changing policies of the Soviet government as well as the unstable nature of Sino-Soviet relations.

Related academic research remains scant, and the scope and chronological framework of existing work is quite often limited. Some studies revolve around the history of Uighurs only in China or in certain enclaves abroad (Jacobs 2016; Millward 2007); others explore earlier periods of Uighur history (Brophy 2016; Thum 2014). In this article, therefore, I attempt to shed light on the life of Uighur immigrants in a more recent period within the geographical confines of Soviet Central Asia.

Sean Roberts (1998) identifies three sub-ethnic groups of Uighurs residing in Kazakhstan: yerliklär ("locals," those Uighurs who were born in Kazakhstan and whose families have lived there since at least 1900); kegänlär ("newcomers," those Uighurs whose parents or who themselves came to Kazakhstan in the 1950s and 1960s); and khitailiklär ("from China," those Uighur sojourners presently coming to Kazakhstan from China to work or trade on a temporary basis). Roberts points out that the yerliklär and the kegänlär maintain different perceptions of what it means to be a Uighur than those of the khitailiklär and, therefore, struggle with the issue of national identity.

In this article I focus on the changing Soviet policies toward the second group, kegänlär, expanding Roberts's terminology both chronologically and geographically and thus including the Uighurs of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan who arrived in the USSR between 1945 and 1972. I examine the conditions in which the diaspora was shaped at the time and argue that the way the immigrants were accepted into Soviet Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan directly correlated to the state of Sino-Soviet relations.

Chinese "Defectors," 1945-1953

By the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had suffered an enormous population loss, which in turn had a tremendous effect on the Soviet labor force, which the USSR needed so desperately in order to rebuild its postwar economy. …

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