Review: “The Formation of the Uzbek Nation-State: A Study in Transition” – Anita Sengupta

Anita Sengupta’s “The Formation of the Uzbek Nation-State: A Study in Transition” is a highly theoretical examination of nation-state formation. Unlike Adeeb Khalid, Adrienne Edgar, Arne Haugen, and other Central Asia scholars, Sengupta’s primary focus is not on the actual establishment of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic, nor Soviet nationalities policy, but how the transformation of Uzbekistan, first from the Emirate of Bukhara (1785-1920), then to a Soviet Socialist Republic (1924-91), and finally to an independent state (1991-present), challenges orthodox theories of state formation.

Sengupta’s thesis is that the process of state formation is not a “one-time affair, but a continuous process of transition” (p. 277). She arrives at this conclusion through examining the dialectics of Uzbekistan’s various transitions, emphasizing the continuities and discontinuities. Each transformation of Uzbekistan, “from the Emirate structures that existed in the region, into becoming the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan and finally the Uzbekiston Republikasi,” cannot be so simplistically understood as a “break” from the previous state formation. These transitions were not linear ones, as the “new state structures embodied numerous elements of the previous states but [were] also determined by the political circumstances of [their] birth” (p.xxii). Soviet and non-Soviet scholars alike have “generally asserted” that in the conditions of the Emirate of Bukhara and Russian Turkestan, “the October Revolution broke out in the region and transformed the politics of the area. Yet, it has been seen how this simple model of transition is problematic because it ignores the dialectic of indigenousness and modernity, at the turn of the century, which can be traced clearly to the advent of the ‘new way’ — the Usul-i-Jadid” (p.278). In other words, the establishment of Soviet rule can not so easily be characterized as a fundamental break with pre-revolutionary politics in Turkestan since the Soviets sanctioned and supported the pre-revolutionary program of the Jadids. Neither does such a simplistic model of transition characterize Uzbekistan’s transition from a Soviet Socialist Republic to an independent state. “It was the old Soviet-trained elites who found themselves as leaders of the new sovereign state. As a result there was an almost total carryover of the older structures to the new state. The Communist Party of Uzbekistan changed its name to become the ruling People’s Democratic Party, the First Secretary of the Uzbek SSR became the first President of the Republic. The continuity of structures in the course of the ‘break’ again proved crucial” (p.282).

Sengupta’s thesis — that state formation is a continuous process of transition and not a singular event — struck me as somewhat unusual. I agree with Sengupta’s conclusion; states are always in a process of continuous transition (isn’t everything?). But it shocks me that anyone would seriously argue that “states” or “nations” as they exist under conditions of capitalist modernity have assumed their ‘final’ or ‘ultimate form’! Perhaps this is because I am not as well read on theories of state formation, but it nonetheless seems absurd to me.

This book was a challenge to read — and very difficult to start. I had hoped for a more comprehensive, Adeeb Khalid-style study of Soviet nationalities policy in Central Asia and the establishment of Uzbekistan, not a book challenging orthodox theories of state formation. I’m glad its done!

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