Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Soviet National Delimitation in Central Asia

"All to the elections!" declares this Soviet propaganda poster from 1957. A couple reads a newspaper called "Soviet Tajikistan" while a banner over what is presumably the polling place reads "Welcome" (Thanks to Masha Kirasirova for the translation). Soviet policy in Central Asia sought to create states that were "national in form, Soviet in content." In the eyes of critics, this meant getting to wear your Tajik cap while reading a Soviet newspaper or use traditional Tajik instruments to celebrate a rigged election. 

Today we are publishing the first in a new series of short articles designed to highlight work that because of its focus, style or reliance on visual sources are unsuitable for standard academic journals. We welcome contributions, map related or otherwise, and hope that we can serve as an outlet for exciting compelling work that wouldn't get seen otherwise. The first of these papers offers a brief look at how the Soviet Union went about creating the states that constitute Central Asia today. It's a subject of both controversy and confusion, as well as a source of curiosity for anyone who has ever looked at a map of the region (left). I hope this paper can offer the clearest possible overview of the complicated transformations that occurred in the region between Czarist conquest in the 19th century and the official political reorganization that occurred under Stalin's direction in the 1920s. You can download the essay as a PDF or view it after the break. But first, in addition to the remarkable propaganda poster above, the second of our two maps, showing Central Asia before the Soviet national delimitation.

An Overview of Soviet Nationality Policy in Central Asia:  
the transformation and suppression of identities in advance of delimitation.

“The [Pan-Islamists] want to create one Muslim millat by joining together the [various] Muslim millats…. Generally, is it possible to unite the millats? No!... To create a millat in an artificial form is impossible.” -- Alash Orda leader Jihanshah Dosmaghembet-uli, 1917 (1)

 “The Turkish tribes of Turkestan who aspire to unite have been split up into separate “nations” and in place of national self determination there took place inter-tribal demarcation within one nationality.” -- Former President of the Khokand Autonomy Mustafa Chokayev, 1931 (2)

There are two principle views of the Soviet national delimitation process in Central Asia. The first holds that the Soviets suppressed the Central Asians’ true national identity by dividing them into invented “nations,” as part of cynical plan to divide and conquer. The second holds that the Soviets made an earnest effort to build new nations where none had existed, and acted in accordance both with their own scientific logic and, to a lesser extent, the wishes of indigenous elites. (3)

An examination of the events leading up to the delimitation shows that there is truth to both claims. As the above quotes demonstrate, the Central Asians themselves were divided on how to incorporate their diverse pre-modern identities into a world where nation-states had a growing monopoly on international legitimacy. There is no way to know how they would have resolved the issue if left to their own devices. Given the Soviets’ desire to control Central Asia, and given the way they applied their nationality policy to the rest of the former Czarist Empire, it is inevitable that the they would have intervened decisively in this debate to create nation-states where none had existed before. In trying to understand why the Soviets intervened in the way that they did, it is important to look not at the delimitation itself but at the events leading up to it. By 1920, the decision to suppress Pan-Turkic identity – the defining aspect of the delimitation for its critics – had already been made and the broad features of the delimitation already rendered inevitable.

Before the arrival of the Russians in Central Asia, political power was generally exercised by the leaders of clans or tribes whose membership was determined by real or imagined genealogies. In the south, the Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara, Kokhand and Mir were organized along dynastic lines and ruled Emirs who pledged to uphold Islamic values and exercised power over whoever’s obedience he could compel.

Within this broad political structure, a wide range of personal identities existed. First and foremost among these was the religious one. With the exception of a small number of Jews, Nestorians and Manicheans, almost all the native inhabitants were at least nominally Muslims. Because Islamic identity was so widespread, it had little use as a basis for political organization before the arrival of Russian soldiers and settlers during the 19th century. For many Muslim Central Asians, Russian colonial expansion in the 19th century was seen in religious terms, with the outsiders being thought of interchangeably as Russians, Christians and non-Muslims. Nonetheless, there is little evidence of religious rhetoric in any of the major anti-imperial movements that occurred before the First World War.

Another important form of pre-national identity was rooted in the split between sedentary and nomadic societies. Amongst nomads, the term sart was used to refer settled populations, whatever their tribal or ethnic origins. In this way, if a Turkmen or Kyrgyz tribe took up agriculture, its members would also become sarts. The tribal and clan-based political units into which much of Central Asia’s population was divided seldom transcended this split, though the city-based Khanates occasionally extended a limited degree of control over nomadic groups living on the fringes of their domains.

For many Russian and European observers, though, the most interesting and important forms of identity were the supposed racial or ethnic categories that were later transformed into Soviet nationalities. (4) 19th century travellers and ethnographers each divided Central Asia’s population in a slightly different way, but their classifications were almost always drawn from the following list of terms: Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Tajik, Uzbek, Sart, Turk, as well as smaller groups like the Kara-Kalpaks and the Kurama. Given their unique history and the importance they would take on, each term requires an explanation of its own. The Kazakhs (who he Russians originally called Kyrgyz, or sometimes Kazakh-Kyrgyz to avoid confusion with the Cossacks, but who later became simply Kazakhs), the Kyrgyz (originally the Kara-Kyrgyz, later simply the Kyrgyz after the Kazakh-Kyrgyz became Kazakhs) and the Turkmen were all tribal confederations that defined themselves according to myths of common ancestry. (5) Though the Turkmen, for example, all claimed descent from a common ancestor, Oghuz, they were divided into a number of tribes such as the Tekes, Salirs and Yomuts. These tribes, though subdivided into smaller family units, served as the primary units of political organization and often fought against one another. (6) Similarly, the Kazakhs were divided into the Great, Small and Middle hordes, with these hordes in turn made up of smaller tribal groups. (7)

Among the settled population principally located between the Amu and Syr Darya, the situation was even more complex. Some ethnographers assumed that sart was an ethnic/racial category and tried to identify their defining linguistic and physical features. More frequently, however, the population was broken down between Tajik and Uzbek or alternatively Tajik and Turk. This classification could be based on either linguistic or racial features, with the Tajiks being either Persian speakers or those of Persian descent, and the Uzbeks/Turks being Turkic speakers or those of Turkic descent. Either definition caused considerable confusion, as not only had Turkic and Persian tongues considerably influenced one another, but many individuals were themselves bilingual, with Persian being more prevalent among the urban and educated. In rural areas, where tribes often carried fixed ethnic identities, it was possible to find Persian-speaking Uzbeks, while city dwellers without tribal identities often became Tajiks by default. (8) The term Uzbek could be used interchangeably with “Turk” to designate all those who spoke a Turkic language and were not marked as being a member of one of the tribal confederations discussed above. Conversely, the terms could also be used separately, with the term Uzbek referring to self-proclaimed descendants of the Uzbek tribe which had conquered the region in the 15th century, and “Turk” referring to those already living in the area at the time. In this sense, the Emirs of the southern Khanates, and even occasionally the leaders of Turkmen tribes, referred to themselves as Uzbeks, since it implied descent an earlier ruling elite.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these pre-modern identities were transformed and reconfigured. Some indigenous leaders began to think of their ethnic identities in nationalist terms while others developed a new Pan-Turkic national identity that often merged with the increasingly politicized Islamic identity that had emerged. Many of these new forms of identity became the basis of short-lasting political entities during the turbulent years of the Russian Revolution.

Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism developed together as part of the Jadid movement, a religious-political reform effort spearheaded first by Tatar intellectuals and later embraced Central Asians as well. Jadidism, to the extent that it had a coherent doctrine, encouraged educational reform and Islamic piety with the aim of creating a new form of Western-oriented Islam that would help liberate Central Asians from the subordinate status they suffered under Russian colonialism. In the early years of the 20th century, Jadidism became increasingly anti-colonial, demanding greater autonomy for the people of Central Asia and an end to the oppressive land appropriations that had brought hardship to many Kazakhs.

 By the end of the 19th century, the Jadidis became increasingly aware of a number of trends taking place in the world around them, including the rise of nationalist ideologies in Europe and the spreading colonization of Muslim lands. This led to the revival of the traditional concept of the Muslim Umma as a political unit whose shared needs could be achieved through united action. Simultaneously, the growth of European Turcology and the rise of Turkish nationalism in the Ottoman Empire made it possible to imagine a new shared identity for all those with a common Turkic language and culture. Given the considerable overlap between Turkic culture and Islamic faith in the Russian Empire, these two identities were by no means exclusive when use, as they generally were, within a limited geographic context. To facilitate education, communication and unity among the people of Central Asia, the Jadidis set out to create a common standard Turkic language. In the 1880s, the Crimean Jadidi Ismail Gaspirali promoted a simplified form of Turkish called the “unified” [tawdid] or “common” [umumi] language. (9)

Many Central Asian Jadidis embraced this “middle dialect,” [orta shiwa] but for others it became a source of resentment. In the Kazakh steppe, where Tatar intellectuals had been active for most of the century, resentment had gradually developed against the perceived condescension with which the Tatars viewed the local Kazakhs. Leaders like Akmet Baytursin-uli argued for a more local form of nationalism in which the Kazakh nation would develop its own language, based on the dialect spoken amongst people on the steppe, not people in Crimea or Anatolia.

Until the First World War, the impact of Pan-Turkist and Pan-Islamist thought was frequently confined to the pages of a number of sporadically published journals that struggled to overcome the dual threats of Czarist censorship and insolvency. Kazakh nationalists made similar efforts, publishing a string of journals and gazettes with such earnestly nationalistic titles as Kazakh Gaziti, Kazakhstan, and Kazakh. (10) Between 1905 and 1906 the Jadidis took more concrete political action, convening three All-Russian Muslim congresses in order to protect the “religious and cultural” rights of Muslims through the “quasi-constitutional means allowed by the October Manifesto.” (11) After a period of repression, a Fourth Muslim Conference was convened in 1914, but very few Central Asians attended.

 The situation changed dramatically with the power vacuum that followed the February Revolution in 1917. The revolutionary groups that seized power in Tashkent and Orenburg (capitals of the Czarist administrative territories covering Turkestan and the Kazakh Steppe respectively) were largely composed of Russian soldiers and workers. At a time of devastating famine, these new governments were chiefly concerned with feeding the Russian settlers and were quick to requisition food from the natives whenever necessary. In response to these conditions, a group of Jadidis convened the Fourth Extraordinary Regional Muslim Congress in Khokand, where, on November 17th, they proclaimed an autonomous government of Turkestan (the Khokand Autonomy) “in union with the Federal Democratic Russian Republic.” (12) Its hurried efforts to procure arms, funds and soldiers, as well as its appeal for support from the Soviet government in St. Petersburg, came to naught when forces from the Tashkent government took Khokand in February of the next year. A similar fate awaited the Turcoman National Committee, organized by nationalist intellectuals and military leaders in Transcaspia under the guise of providing aid to native famine victims. When the Committee set out to create a Turcoman National Army in February 1918, it too was crushed by a military detachment from Tashkent. Kazakh nationalists fared only slightly better. In 1917, the Alash Orda, a political party founded by Kazakh Jadidis in 1905, established a native government and joined the Whites in fighting against Bolshevik authority in the Kazakh step. (13) In late 1919, when their military position became precarious, the Alash Orda accepted a reconciliatory offer from the Bolsheviks and soon allowed their territory to be incorporated into the Moscow government as an autonomous region.

Though the actions of the revolutionary governments that took power in Turkestan and the Steppe provoked native resistance, many of the Jadidis were sympathetic to Bolshevism on an ideological level. Many also felt that autonomy under Russia control would be preferable to independent states under the control of the conservative clergy, who had themselves become increasingly active in regional politics. Pursing the same tactic it would use with the Alash Orda, the Moscow government sought to play to these sympathies and increase its control over Turkestan by incorporating educated natives who may have at first opposed the Bolsheviks into the Russian Communist Party. The Jadidis responded enthusiastically, though not always in the way the Moscow government had hoped. In May of 1919, the first conference of Muslim Communists of Central Asia, convened under the leadership of Turar Ryskulov and Tursun Khojaev, spoke out against the Bolshevik’s attitude toward the indigenous people, saying they were treated as “subjects.” (14) Over the next year, the party’s ranks swelled with Muslim members. In January of 1920, at the Fifth Regional Congress of the Communist Party of Turkestan, these Muslim communists passed a resolution renaming the Turkestan Autonomous Republic the Autonomous Turkic Republic, with Ryskulov explicitly comparing the autonomy he was demanding to that previously sought by the Khokand Autonomy. (15)

The Soviets responded vigorously. The Moscow government, having already received a telegram from their emissary Mikhail Frunze warning that “concessions made to the Muslims would encourage the anti-Soviet Basmachi movement,” (16) decided in June of 1919 to purge Ryskulov and his followers from the party, accusing them of nationalist deviations and supporting the Basmachis. The regional Muslim Bureau, which had come under the control the Muslim Communists, was dissolved. In 1921, the Tenth Party Congress denounced Pan-Turkist thought as a deviation, and in 1923, Stalin launched an “all –out campaign against Turkic nationalism,” in which Sultan Galiev, then the leading Muslim National Communist, was arrested.(17) Despite the Muslim National Communists protestations of loyalty, the Moscow leadership had decided that their commitment to Islam and nationalism was more sincere than their commitment to communism. (18) The historic continuum between Jadisism, Pan-Islamism, Pan-Turkism and anti-imperialism, coupled with the ongoing calls for Pan-Turkic autonomy, was threat that the Bolsheviks would not accept. (19)

After the decision to suppress Pan-Turkism had been reached, it was hardly surprising that the sub-Turkic ethnic identities that had been identified before the revolution became the basis of the post-delimitation Soviet republics. In the case of the Kazakhs, the transformation from ethnic to national identity had already occurred indigenously, as it had to a lesser extent amongst the Turkmen elite. After trying to unite Turkestan’s sedentary population within the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, (which was dominated by Young Bokharan Jadidis, whose sense of national identity had already begun to cohere within Emirate of Bokhara and the Bokharan People’s Soviet Republic (20)) the Soviets then took the alternative approach in 1929 of creating an independent Tajik SSR based on the same ambiguous ethnic and linguistic criteria that had been used to distinguish the Tajiks as a race in the 19th century. Some decisions, for example creating a full republic for the Kyrgyz but not the Kara-Kalpacks, could have been made differently, but the overall impact would have been similar. (21) There was, in short, nothing particularly Machiavellian in the way the Soviets divided Turkestan, only in the fact they divided it at all.


1 Quoted by Edward Allworth, “The ‘Nationality’ Idea in Czarist Central Asia,” 247. From Butun rosiya mulumanlarining 1917inchi yilda 1-11 mayda maskawdaumumi isyezdining protaqollari (Pterograd: “amanet” Shirkati Matbu’asi, 1917)197.
2 Mustapha Chokaiev, “Turkestan and the Soviet Regime,” in the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, 18 (1931), 414.
3 In the article cited above, Mustapha Cokaiev presents this view based on his first hand experience of the events in question. More recently, Oliveir Roy gives a post-Soviet variant of the argument in The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations. Baymirza Hayit’s Some Problems of Modern Turkestan History, discusses the Soviet-era historiographical debate over this and related issues with some passion. For the other side of the argument, Adrienne Edgar’s The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan gives the best account.
4 See, for example, K. K. Pahlen’s Mission to Turkestan, or Annette Meakin’s In Russian Turkestan.
5 Adeeb Khalid, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform, 188.
6 In The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Adrienne Lynn Edgar calls them “primary sources of solidarity and mutual assistance.” Edgar, 21.
7 Martha Brill Olcott, The Kazakhs 9-16.
8 Khalid gives the most concise explanation of this, though Guissou Jahangiri’s article on “The Premise for the Construction of a Tajik National Identity, 1920-1930” in Djalili, Grare et al.’s Tajikistan: The Tirals of Independence, is perhaps more thorough.
9 Allworth, “The ‘Nationality’ Idea…” 238.
10 Allworth, “The ‘Nationality’ Idea…” 244.
11 Khalid, 231.
12 Khalid 275.
13 Alash was the name of the legendary common ancestor of all three Kazakh hordes. Hence the name “Alash Orda,” (meaning the Horde of Alash) reveals how traditional genealogical ties could be reconfigured into national identities.
14 Helene Carrere d’Encasse, “Civil War and New Governments,” in Allworth’s Central Asia, 233. 15 Khalid, 296.
16 D’Encasse, 234.
17 Symour Becker, “National Consciousness and the Politics of the Bukhara People’s Conciliar Republic,” 165.
18 For more on this point, see Bennigsen and Wimbush, Muslim National Communism in the Soviet Union, particularly chapter 3, or for a contemporary account Joseph Castagne’s Le Turkestan Dupuis la Revolution Russe.
19 This was not a case of divide and rule per se. The idea of a territorially united Turkestan was not seen as inherently problematic, rather it was the historic and political connotations that idea carried among its native advocates.
20 Timur Kocaoglu, “The Existence of a Bukharan Nationality in the Recent Past,” 151 – 157.
21 Roy, for example, cites the complexity – perhaps squigglyness is the better word – of the Central Asian borders as evidence of malign Soviet intentions. In fact, such borders are likely to occur whenever states are created by a central authority trying to divide ethnic groups along “scientific” lines, instead of through warfare, which often dictates more “natural,” defensible boundaries. Edgar, by contrast, makes much of the fact that the borders of the Central Asian republics were drawn with the participation of local leaders, who often fought vigorously on behalf of their newfound nationalities. This was no doubt true, but all it proves is that if the delimitation was part of a policy of divide and conquer, it was effective.


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    -- The Modern Uzbeks. Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1990.

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