Review: “The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia” – Arne Haugen

“The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia” by Arne Haugen is the Das Kapital of Soviet nationalities policies, especially in Central Asia. Haugen, a Norwegian scholar, methodically and scientifically examines Soviet national territorial delimitation in Central Asia.

In this book Haugen examines many of the issues raised in Western scholarly works on Soviet national territorial delimitation…

Stalin the Omnipotent was Responsible for National Territorial Delimitation

According to Haugen, the thesis that ‘Stalin drew the borders’ is a “misleading oversimplification.” The Central Committee — i.e., “Moscow” — as a rule approved the decisions of the Central Asian Bureau, based in Tashkent, which as a rule approved of the decisions of the Territorial Committee. “Only in a few, but obviously important, cases did the Central Asian Bureau change the decisions of the Territorial Committee, and it was equally rare that the Central Committee ignored the decisions of the Central Asian Bureau.” National territorial delimitation must therefore be examined primarily “on lower rather than upper institutional levels.” At the very least, writes Haugen, who is by no means a supporter of Stalin, “in the political situation of 1924, Stalin was tending to more important matters than border disputes between the various Central Asian political entities.”

In his analysis of the many and often bitter negotiations between representatives of the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen, and others and the Territorial Committee, Haugen finds that, contrary to the Stalin-drew-the-borders thesis of Western scholarship, “local forces were able to influence the project to a much greater degree than has usually been acknowledged.” Haugen examines the negotiations that led to the delimitation of such controversial regions such as Ferghana, Tashkent City, and others. He concludes that, far from being an authoritarian, Moscow-imposed restructuring, “the process of border making involved a high degree of consensus building. My analysis suggests that, for the central Soviet authorities, a main ambition was to achieve consensus between Central Asian communist representatives of the various national groups. The Soviet authorities were looking for compromises that all groups could accept.” Consensus was achieved on the delimitation of the Uzbek-Turkmen and Uzbek-Kyrgyz borders, without the intervention of central Soviet authorities. Only when consensus proved impossible, such as the delimitation of the Uzbek-Kazakh border, did central Soviet authorities directly intervene and impose a solution.

National Territorial Delimitation as a ‘Divide-and-Rule’ Tactic

In the correspondence between the Central Asian Bureau in Tashkent and the Central Committee in Moscow, Soviet authorities describe Central Asia as extremely divided. One such correspondence cited by Haugen between the Central Asian Bureau and the Central Committee is a report by Karklin in 1924:

“The national relations represent a very serious problem in Khorezm. I have never seen antagonism taking on such a severe form as here. If for instance an Uzbek appears on a horse in Tashauz, no doubt his horse will be taken and the Uzbek attacked. And if a Turkmen woman appears in Khojeilin, she will most certainly be attacked in all ways, only because she is a Turkmen among Kirgiz [Kazaks]. The same attitude to the Turkmen is found among the Uzbek.”

In other correspondence Soviet authorities expressed concern at the marginalization of some minorities. Regarding the Turkmen, the Central Asian Bureau reported: ‘‘It must openly be said that the Turkmen communities here represent a hotbed of counter-revolution. Turkmen population are increasingly alienated from the general leadership, and thus disappear from our view.”

After examining this and other correspondence between the Central Asian Bureau and the Central Committee, as well as the history of ethnic revolts in Central Asia, Haugen concludes that “it is difficult to interpret the national delimitation as an instrument for the division of an originally united societal elite. Rather, national mobilization on the part of the Soviet regime might well be seen as an attempt to avoid a situation in which entire groups remained outside the Soviet orbit. In contrast to Tsarist Russia’s policy of segregation, Soviet thinking on this point represented ambitions of integration.” Moreover, “one might very well argue that if the intention were to divide and rule, maintaining the status quo might have been more conducive” than a reorganization of Central Asia.

Haugen also takes aim at what Western scholars frequently cite as examples of ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics: the Soviets alleged favouring of the Uzbeks, the lack of attention paid to the Tajiks, and the sudden existence of previously unknown nationalities, such as the Karakalpak.

While there is no denying that the Uzbeks were the main beneficiaries of national territorial delimitation, as Haugen concedes, it is nonetheless wrong to interpret this as an anti-Tajik bias or as an example of ‘divide-and-rule’. Rather, since “delimitation must be understood in this context of perceptions of national and sub-national fragmentation, and the central authorities’ hope that the establishment of national republics might end or at least reduce the fragmentation,” what appears as Uzbek favouring was in reality Soviet efforts to reduce Uzbek intra-ethnic conflict. According to Haugen, “the records of the Central Asian Bureau suggest that Soviet authorities were particularly concerned with the divisions between Uzbeks, and that the authorities considered these intra-Uzbek divisions particularly harmful.” In Haugen’s opinion, Soviet authorities found it expedient to favour the Uzbeks to bring about an end to intra-Uzbek conflict.

As for the Tajiks, who received ‘mountain tops’ as their republic, Haugen argues that this was not due to an anti-Tajik, pro-Uzbek bias, much less ‘divide-and-rule’. “Many of those who, in 1924, consented to the Uzbek–Tajik delimitation, by 1929 represented a quite radical Tajik nationalist position.” According to Haugen, those “same Tajiks who in 1924 had accepted the delimitation without uttering a word of protest” and then “completely rejected the boundaries of the Tajik people” had initially identified as Uzbek. Their newfound Tajik nationalism was a response to changes in how national identities were perceived in Central Asia after delimitation. “The period of the delimitation,” writes Haugen, “was a time when concepts and identities were in flux, not least those of ‘Uzbek’ and ‘Tajik’. When later Tajik nationalists in 1924 seemed to have had few objections to the Uzbek project, it was because they identified with the Uzbeks. When, nevertheless, many of them later became Tajik nationalists, the main reason was that political developments had failed to meet their expectations. The Uzbek identity had moved in a different direction.”

Prior to delimitation “Uzbek” was intimately connected to the settled-nomadic and urban-rural dichotomies. “In this sense ‘Uzbek’ was not what one would characterize as an ethnic community. Rather than visions of, for example, common descent or a linguistic community, it represented the sedentary and urban civilization in the Central Asian region.” This sedentary and urban civilization is what the Tajik nationalists of the 1920s identified with. After delimitation, ‘Uzbek’ became more ‘Turkified’, and ‘Turkic-Iranian’ replaced the sedentary-nomadic and urban-rural divisions of earlier. “As a result, people who only a few years earlier seemingly preferred to live within an Uzbek republic rather than join with their ‘co-ethnics in the mountains’, now represented the opposite position. Now, the idea of a community of the carriers of an Iranian culture and language grew increasingly important. This community included urban Tajiks and mountain Tajiks alike.”

As for groups such as the Karakalpak, which did not express any nationalist sentiment prior to the delimitation process, their nationalist demands were not artificially created by Soviet authorities to ‘divide-and-rule’ Central Asia. Rather, Haugen argues that “it was the delimitation project itself that appears to have triggered Karakalpak nationalist demands,” as “Central Asians who identified as Karakalpak found that the Karakalpak framework might be politically expedient.”

An excellent book on the subject, albeit not the easiest to read.