Review: “Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR” – Adeeb Khalid

Adeeb Khalid’s “Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR” is a landmark study of the creation of the state of Uzbekistan and national territorial delimitation in Soviet Central Asia.

The haphazard and seemingly irrational borders of the five Central Asian republics — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan — has often been attributed Soviet (i.e., Stalin, since we all know it was impossible for anyone to do anything in the Soviet Union without Stalin personally having approved of…each…and…every…single…thing…) efforts to ‘divide-and-conquer’. Although I think this is a very crude interpretation of the Soviet Union, there are legitimate questions about the makeup of Soviet Central Asia. For instance, why were Bukhara and Samarkand, which were historically centres of Persian/Tajik culture, given to Uzbekistan and not Tajikistan?

Khalid demolishes the anti-Soviet idea that the origin and delimitation of Soviet Central Asia was due to “Stalin simply drawing lines on the map”. While far from being sympathetic to socialism or the Soviet Union, Khalid, like Arsene Saparov and Arne Haugen in their books on the south Caucasus and Central Asia, respectively, argues that the creation of Uzbekistan and the delimitation of Soviet Central Asia was far more complicated than what most scholars seem to think.

Firstly, Khalid argues that “No account of the delimitation [of Soviet Central Asia] has paid adequate attention to the role of Central Asia’s indigenous elites in the process or placed the delimitation in context of the rise of national movements in the region” (p.14). This is very much the same argument made by Arne Haugen in his study of Soviet Central Asia (which I also own!). The Soviets, both Khalid and Haugen argue, didn’t have the resources to unilaterally impose their will in Central Asia. The Centre (i.e., Moscow) was dependent on local actors, in this case the liberal Muslim intelligentsia known as the ‘Jadids’.

Secondly, while mistakes were made and no doubt conflict existed, Khalid argues that the wars in Central Asia were not one of a unified, independent people resisting Soviet colonialism. Central Asia was already divided and rife with conflict. “Much of the bloodshed that took place in Central Asia was the result of the extension into the region of the Russian civil war” (p.88), while “the Basmachi insurgency was…a Central Asian civil war, fought out amongst Central Asians. Instead of being a heroic resistance against outsiders, the Basmachi was a sign of deep divisions within Central Asian society” (p.88). The Soviet Union was not confronted “by a unified, cohesive local society, but a bitterly divided one. Conflicts within Central Asian society were just as important as conflicts between Europeans and Central Asians in the early Soviet period…As historians, we should rid ourselves of the phantom of Central Asian Muslim unity and look at Central Asia as an arena of multifaceted conflict” (p.88). For this reason, Khalid argues that “We should therefore be wary of claims of a primordial unity of the people of Turkestan that was shattered by Soviet machinations. Turkestan was quite literally a creation of the Russian conquest, and it encompassed no unity” (p.46).

The creation of Uzbekistan was not a consequence of alleged Soviet ‘divide-and-conquer’ machinations, Khalid writes. Uzbekistan’s creation was “the triumph of an indigenous national project” (p.1). Khalid examines at length Turkic Muslim modernists in Central Asia and how they conceived of the ‘nation’ as a means of achieving their vision for Central Asia. “For the Jadids…the main inspiration [for Uzbekistan] was the rise of Turkism in the decades preceding the [October] revolution, which resulted in the ethnicization of the confessional-territorial vision of the nation (‘Muslims of Turkestan’) that had underpinned the political imagination of the Jadids before 1917” (p.286).

A fantastic scholarly work that seriously challenges mainstream Western historiography!

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