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.

An Analysis of Soviet Economic Policy in the Periphery: Tajikistan in Context

Below is a copied and pasted version of a paper I published on (here) in which I examine the economic relationship between Tajikistan and the Soviet Union.

The economic relations between the Russian Soviet federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) (the centre) and the Soviet Union’s peripheral republics has frequently been described as ‘colonial’.

Nowhere is this colonial narrative more common than when discussing Tajikistan. The least industrially developed of the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics, there is no shortage of literature describing Tajikistan as a Soviet colony. According to Jesse Driscoll, “Tajikistan was never more than a frontier cotton colony.”[1] Similarly, Robert Strayer describes how the “imposition of a single-crop, cotton-growing economy on large parts of Central Asia during the Stalin years had created a highly dependent, almost colonial relationship with the more developed regions of the Soviet Union.”[2]

The theory of Tajikistan’s de facto status as a Soviet colony is attractive to scholars of Central Asia due to the civil war that engulfed Tajikistan between 1992-97. For decades scholars have debated the various factors that contributed to the outbreak of violence: regionalism, Islamic militancy and the spillover of the war in Afghanistan (one of the most famous mujahideen warlords, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was a Tajik), the overthrow of the Soviet Union, etc.[3] Yet, as Idil Tunçer-Kılavuz notes, none of these factors, collectively or individually, explain why Tajikistan experienced civil war, since all these factors also existed in Uzbekistan, including the existence of a powerful Uzbek warlord in Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, with cross-border connections.[4] “Uzbekistan resembles Tajikistan in many ways,” writes Tunçer-Kılavuz:

Unlike the other Central Asian countries, the territories of today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have long been home to sedentary societies. The literature on Central Asia describes their societies as having been influenced by Islam to a greater extent than the other Central Asian countries. They have similar social cleavage structures in terms of salience of regional identities and the prevalence of Islamic sentiment. Both their economics are based on agriculture. They share the legacy of the same Soviet past, having lived under the same Soviet institutions and policies, and then separated from the collapsed state. Economic factors stated as the causes of civil war in Tajikistan were valid for Uzbekistan as well. Both countries suffered from poverty, and the end of subsidies from the Soviet Union. They had similar social structures, with largely rural societies. A large degree of intermingling between their populations has taken place.[5]

Continue reading “An Analysis of Soviet Economic Policy in the Periphery: Tajikistan in Context”

Marxism and the National Question: Nagorno-Karabakh in Context

Below is a copied and pasted version of a paper I published on (here) in which I attempt to apply Marxist dialectics and Lenin’s theory of the right of nations to self-determination to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. For the full bibliography, please visit my page.

(Featured image source:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, social disintegration and political instability caused by the overthrow of the Soviet Union sparked numerous ethnic and territorial conflicts in many newly independent Soviet republics. Some of these conflicts never ended but became “frozen” (a slightly misleading but frequently used term) due to stalemate, leaving some regions de facto independent for the last several decades.

Among these “frozen” conflicts is that which involves Nagorno-Karabakh (officially known as the Republic of Artsakh). Between 1988-94, Karabakh Armenians, with the support of the Armenian SSR (later the Republic of Armenia), fought a brutal war against the Azerbaijani SSR (later the Republic of Azerbaijan). The war killed an estimated 20,000, and displaced another 1.5 million, making it one of the bloodiest post-Soviet conflicts[1]. In April 2016, fighting erupted between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, in which “dozens of Armenian and Azerbaijani tanks ‘squared off against one another in open battle.’”[2]

On the one hand, Karabakh Armenians, supported by Armenia, argue that Nagorno-Karabakh has the right to self-determination. On the other, Azerbaijani leaders, supported by the U.S. and most Western countries, Turkey,[3] and Israel,[4] argue that Nagorno-Karabakh’s secession violates the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

What can Marxism and Lenin’s theory of the right of nations to self-determination tell us about the conflict vis-à-vis Nagorno-Karabakh? This is more than an exercise in semantics; Nagorno-Karabakh is the “most dangerous unresolved conflict in wider Europe,” writes Thomas de Waal, with the potential for a new “catastrophic war”[5].

In this paper I will attempt to argue, using Marxism and Lenin’s theory of the right of nations to self-determination under specific conditions as my basis, that Nagorno-Karabakh should cede from Azerbaijan.

Continue reading “Marxism and the National Question: Nagorno-Karabakh in Context”

Soviet Nationalities Policy and Territorial Delimitation: “Divide at impera” or something else?

Have you ever looked at a map of Central Asia and the Caucasus? If you answered ‘yes’, then you have more than likely wondered why the borders of many of the now independent states in these regions of the former Soviet Union are so confusing and seemingly irrational. The strategic and fertile Ferghana Valley, for instance, appears to be haphazardly divided between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, while in the Caucasus Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan are de facto independent, and Nakhchivan is totally separated from Azerbaijan by Armenia.

Most authors attribute this confusing patchwork of borders to the sinister ‘divide-and-conquer’ policies of the Soviet Union, specifically Joseph Stalin.

This explanation is attractive to many Western authors for a number of reasons: 1) it transforms the Soviet Union’s nationalities policy into a simple Good vs. Evil narrative; 2) it serves to demonize the Soviet Union as an oppressive empire no different than its tsarist predecessor; 3) it has long been the policy of empires, whether ancient like King Philip II of Macedon (359-226 BC), in which the phrase “divide at impera” (divide and conquer) is usually attributed to, or contemporary, such as the colonial empires of Britain, France, Belgium, and other European colonial powers.

Yet a serious examination of Soviet nationalities policy and the delimitation of national territories disproves the ‘divide-and-conquer’ narrative of the origins of many of these now independent states.

A question that is almost never asked by those proponents of the Soviet ‘divide-and-conquer’ narrative is why the Soviet Union would have sought to divide and conquer subject peoples?

Most proponents of the ‘divide-and-conquer’ narrative, implicitly if not explicitly, attribute these policies to the Soviet Union’s empire-like aspirations. Despite its attractiveness to Western writers, however, empire is a poor explanation of alleged Soviet machinations. As Michael Parenti writes, “empires do not just pursue ‘power for power’s sake.’ There are real and enormous material interests at stake, fortunes to be made many times over.” The existence of empire is predicated on a socio-economic system “whereby the dominant investor interests in one country bring to bear their economic and military power upon another nation or region in order to expropriate its land, labor, natural resources, capital, and markets-in such a manner as to enrich the investor interests,” that is, imperialism.

Was the Soviet Union imperialist? “The answer should be clear enough,” writes Parenti. If “imperialism is a system of economic expropriation, then it is hard to describe the Soviets as ‘imperialistic.’ They own not an acre of land, not a factory or oil well in the Middle East or Eastern Europe. Moscow’s trade and aid relations with other socialist countries are decidedly favorable to those countries, contrary to the imperialist pattern in which wealth flows from the client states to the dominant nation.” Thus, according to Parenti, the Soviet Union can’t be described as an ‘empire’, since it wasn’t imperialist. Since the Soviet Union wasn’t imperialist, it is hard to imagine the Soviet Union benefiting from dividing and conquering subject people. [1]

Even if one rejects Parenti’s analysis and falsely claims the Soviet Union was an imperialist state, the ‘divide-and-conquer’ narrative of the Soviet Union’s nationalities policy and national territorial delimitation ignores a crucial historical detail: there was no unity to be divided.

In Central Asia, according to Adeeb Khalid, the Soviet Union wasn’t 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.” [2] 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.” [3]

Khalid’s conclusions are supported by Adrienne Lynn Edgar in her study of Turkmenistan. “In creating national republics in Central Asia,” Edgar writes, “Moscow did not divide a unified region, but merely institutionalized” the divisions that already existed [4]. According to a 19th century Russian officer quoted by Edgar about the Turkmen people, “The hatred of the various Turkmen clans toward each other is scarcely less than their hatred toward other peoples.” [5] Moreover, as part of Soviet Union’s larger nationalities policy, Central Asia was not singled out for delimitation, as new “national territories were springing up everywhere in the Soviet Union in the 1920s,” such as those for Ukrainians, Tatars, etc. To exclude Central Asia from this process “would have been tantamount to admitting that they were too ‘backward’ to travel the path of other Soviet peoples and become modern Soviet nationalities.” [6]

In the Caucasus, another volatile region, the Soviet Union found itself in a similar situation. In his study on the origins of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, Arsene Saparov describes how “The Bolsheviks inherited a region [the Caucasus] plagued by ethno-political conflicts which now became their problem.” [7] Indeed, the Caucasus had experienced widespread inter-ethnic violence before the Bolsheviks ever came to power, such as the Armenian-Tatar massacres, which left hundreds dead.

As a tactic used by an imperialist power to weaken a rival power to exploit the latter’s land, labour, and resources, the ‘divide-and-conquer’ narrative is inapplicable in the Soviet context. The Soviet Union was not an imperialist power and, even if it were, the regions it allegedly sought to ‘divide-and-conquer’ were already thoroughly divided.

What, then, explains the cartographic nightmare that is the borders of the various states in Central Asia and the Caucasus?

The answer to this question, according to the above cited authors, is in Soviet efforts to promote socialist development and stability in regions inhabited by non-Russian minorities. “As the sole power in the entire Caucasus,” notes Saparov, “the Bolshevik leadership needed to resolve those conflicting issues that prevented the establishment of stable governance.” [8] The solution adopted by the Soviet leadership was to create “territorial republics based on ethnic criteria and promoting ‘national cultures’ within them,” encouraging political stability and socialist development through fostering “national consciousness and incipient national statehood among its [Soviet Union’s] numerous non-Russian minorities.” [9] Thus, Soviet nationalities policy and territorial delimitation “was not some deliberate attempt at long-term manipulation, but rather a practical, albeit clumsy, compromise to contain violent conflicts.” [10]

Non-Russian minorities, if not always eagerly than begrudgingly, participated in the territorial delimitation, a fact often overlooked by proponents of the ‘divide-and-conquer’ narrative. The creation of Uzbekistan, writes Khalid, was “the triumph of an indigenous national project,” not sinister Soviet machinations [11]. Edgar’s study regarding Turkmenistan concurs with Khalid’s conclusions about the role of indigenous elites in Soviet territorial delimitation. While Moscow’s role in the territorial delimitation was “undeniably important,” notes Edgar, “the crucial contribution of local elites in shaping Soviet nations has not received enough attention. In Central Asia, members of the cultural and political elite had their own ideas about nationhood and socialism,” which often “differed substantially from those of the authorities in Moscow.” [12] Neither were local elites “passive recipients of central policies” in the Caucasus, according to Saparov, having “played a critical role in shaping Soviet policies.” [13]

The fact that the Soviet Union, in the words of Edgar, “served as midwife to the separate states that emerged” in 1991, discredits Conquest’s claim that the Soviet Union was a ‘breaker’ of nations, while providing an important historical lesson in how only with the victory of socialism can all nations experience free and equal development [14].

[1] Page 191, The Sword and the Dollar, Michael Parenti

[2] Pages 88-89, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR, Adeeb Khalid

[3] Page 46, ibid.

[4] Page 47, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Adrienne Lynn Edgar

[5] Page 17, ibid.

[6] Page 47, ibid.

[7] Page 172, From Conflict to Autonomy in the Caucasus: The Soviet Union and the making of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno Karabakh, Arsene Saparov

[8] ibid.

[9] Page 2, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Adrienne Lynn Edgar

[10] Page 172, From Conflict to Autonomy in the Caucasus: The Soviet Union and the making of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno Karabakh, Arsene Saparov

[11] Page 258, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR, Adeeb Khalid

[12] Page 5, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Adrienne Lynn Edgar

[13] Page 6, From Conflict to Autonomy in the Caucasus: The Soviet Union and the making of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno Karabakh, Arsene Saparov

[14] Page 2, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Adrienne Lynn Edgar