Ongoing and Future Approaches to Central Asian Studies

Ongoing and Future Approaches to Central Asian Studies

Alun Thomas, Staffordshire University; Stephan Rindlisbacher, Viadrina Center of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)
Frankfurt (Oder)
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
12.03.2024 -
Aleksandr Korobeinikov, Osteuropa-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin

The online workshop “Ongoing and Future Approaches to Central Asian Studies” sought to explore ongoing research and evolving perspectives within Central Asian Studies. Particularly in light of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the workshop aimed to examine recent shifts in the field. Divided into four panels of two presentations each, the workshop provided a platform for researchers to share their insights. The workshop was notable for its bilingual approach, with discussions conducted in both English and Russian. This format facilitated broader engagement and enriched the discourse within the scholarly community focused on Central Asia.

BEATRICE PENATI (Liverpool) opened the first panel on Economy with a comprehensive analysis that situates Central Asia within a global economic framework, thereby reshaping historiographical trends in both economic and regional studies. Drawing on contemporary historiography of global economic history and scholars such as Robert Allen, Tirthankar Roy, and Giorgio Riello, Penati argued for the integration of Central Asia into broader discussions of economic history. She emphasized the importance of understanding imperial and colonial economic practices in a global context, challenging the dominant Eurocentric perspective. Penati illustrated Central Asia’s central role in global economic circulations, citing examples such as cotton production, which involved German technology and European labor, and Central Asian horses, which facilitated the silver trade. This underscored the region’s importance in commodity frontiers and resourcification themes increasingly explored in recent historiography. Penati also delved into the study of Central Asian industrial trade within the framework of the “material turn,” examining the production and distribution of various goods. Besides, she raised questions about the regional dimension of Central Asia within global economic practices, emphasizing its position as a nexus of diverse economic spaces. The presentation concluded with a discussion that touched on topics such as the export of Central Asian coral and the Soviet Union’s approach to cotton production in the postimperial space.

RUSLANA BOVHYRIA (Berlin) presented current trends in the maritime history of the Caspian Sea during the second session of the panel. Highlighting the historical importance of the sea in various economic spheres of the Russian Empire, Bovhyria emphasized the need for comprehensive research on its history. She outlined the scientific exploration of the sea, merchant networks, and environmental and technological developments as essential areas of study. Specifically, Bovhyria focused on the fishing industry in the Caspian Sea basin, viewing it as a microcosm of the imperial economy in Central Asia. The fishing industry, she argued, not only influenced the economic landscape but also shaped social and ecological dynamics in coastal areas. The presentation sparked a lively discussion, covering topics such as environmental issues related to fishing practices, deforestation in the Caspian basin, settler colonialism and migration patterns in the region, and the state of archival resources in Tashkent, where Bovhyria conducted her research during the workshop.

The second panel on Nation and Nationality began with a presentation by ROBERT KINDLER (Berlin), who shared insights from his forthcoming book, “The State in the Steppe: A Short History of Kazakhstan”. Kindler outlined his intention to explore the history of Kazakhstan over the past 250 years, with a focus on the challenges and disputes arising from imperial rule. Central to his narrative is the conceptual question of how to write the history of Kazakhstan within a postcolonial, decolonial, and global historical framework. Kindler identified several key issues he is grappling with, including the lack of comprehensive introductions to Central Asian history and the task of introducing readers to the unfamiliar context of Kazakhstan. He also questioned the starting point of Kazakhstani history and how to avoid essentializing narratives. In addition, he emphasized the importance of a postcolonial and global perspective, highlighting Kazakhstan’s historical connections and the need to analyze oppression under empire while amplifying authentic voices. Workshop participants offered valuable suggestions for the spatial and temporal framing of the project, delving into the emergence of the idea of the “history of Kazakhstan” in the Soviet Union and considering migration patterns and trans-regional movements in the lives of Kazakhs across empires.

Continuing the panel discussion, ALUN THOMAS (Stoke-on-Trent) and STEPHAN RINDLISBACHER (Frankfurt (Oder)) shared insights into their book project exploring the spatial history of Soviet Kyrgyzstan. Drawing parallels with Robert Kindler’s endeavor, Thomas and Rindlisbacher highlighted the limited existing research on Kyrgyzstan and the accessibility of state archives, which proved advantageous for their narrative. They discussed the impact of settlement colonialism in Kyrgyzstan, noting its intersection with debates on decolonization and its spatial element inherited from the Russian Empire. Kyrgyzstan underwent territorial demarcation in the 1920s, resulting in fluctuating administrative formations influenced by agricultural development and resource struggles. The presentation outlined plans to chronicle the evolution of administrative-territorial structures until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Discussion followed, focusing on the relationship between dekulakization (demanapization) and territorial change in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the importance of the “raion” concept in studying economic and national regionalization within the Soviet Union.

In the following panel on Groupness and Memory, MIRLAN BEKTURSUNOV (Hokkaido) presented a paper examining the social dynamics of early Soviet Kyrgyz society. Bektursunov emphasized the importance of lineage as a dominant feature, despite its modern neglect in the nation-state paradigm, for understanding how the Soviet order was perceived by the population. By delving into the intricacies of Kyrgyz society within the Soviet system, Bektursunov revealed complex relationships between individuals and tribal groups, moving beyond simplistic state-society dichotomies. He highlighted the state’s strategic support of small tribal groups such as the Manap and Bukara as proxies for oppressed classes, revealing a stratification by clan rather than traditional class divisions. Bektursunov also addressed the challenges of using genealogical data to create a comprehensive history of Soviet nomads in Central Asia, including overcoming biases in chronology and representing the voices of “Soviet losers.” The paper sparked engaging discussions, with participants questioning Bektursunov about his research journey and source availability and exploring the pre-revolutionary activities of groups such as the Manaps, shedding light on their “autonomy” within the Russian Empire and imperial officials’ attitudes toward them.

SVETLANA GORSHENINA (Paris) continued the panel with her study of the capture of the fortress of Gek Tepe in present-day Turkmenistan by the Russian army in January 1881. This event marked a significant chapter in the Russian Empire’s conquest of Turkestan and was accompanied by the transformation of the Gek Tepe landscape. By examining the iconography captured in diaries and maps, Gorshenina elucidated the military strategy and aftermath of the assault. Her analysis of the military campaigns of 1878–1881 and subsequent commemorative efforts revealed a mixed response to the museumization of the fortress. She raises poignant questions about the fate of imperial monuments in the Soviet Union and their marginalization in Central Asian studies, shedding light on overlooked historical aspects and the role of Turkmenistan’s first president. This study underscores the complex interplay between conquest, memory, and the evolving landscape of Central Asian studies. The discussion after the presentation reflected on the destruction of imperial monuments in the Soviet era, the challenges of understanding Central Asian studies amidst such “white spots,” and the role of art history marginalization and political bias in shaping narratives of conquest and memory.

The final panel of the workshop on Studying Central Asia began with a presentation by SERGEI ABASHIN (St. Petersburg), focusing on the development of migration studies with a special emphasis on the migration of Central Asians to the Russian Federation. Abashin considered whether the changing nature of migration warrants the exploration of new questions and topics. Tracing the historical context of Central Asian migration, Abashin emphasized its global significance and the artificial constraints imposed during the 20th century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asian migration surged along with the emergence of Central Asian studies as a distinct discipline. Despite being a significant aspect of global migration since the 1970s, Central Asian migration remains understudied, although interest in the region is growing. Abashin expressed concern about the impact of current events on the relevant research infrastructure and warned of potential ideological biases in future studies. He also discussed potential shifts in migration patterns during conflict situations and raised questions about the future of migration research amidst global political changes, emphasizing the importance of maintaining the integrity of Central Asian studies as a whole. Abashin’s insights shed light on the complexities of migration dynamics and the challenges facing scholars in the field.

The workshop concluded with a presentation by MOLLIE ARBUTHNOT (Cambridge), who discussed her research on the politics of art production in early Soviet Central Asia. Arbuthnot examined discourses of visuality, representation, and the institutional frameworks of art schools, museums, and heritage organizations in the region. She explored the experimental art workshops established in Uzbekistan in the 1920s and 1930s, shedding light on how artists and makers in Uzbekistan adopted, adapted, or rejected concepts from the history of Soviet art to assert their localized modernity. Reflecting on the challenges of archival research, Arbuthnot discussed the advantages and limitations of an art and institutional history approach to understanding early Soviet Central Asia, emphasizing the complexities of cultural production and modernity. She also emphasized the importance of propaganda posters in Uzbekistan in the 1920s and 1930s, highlighting their role in visual literacy and their depiction of ethnic diversity and power dynamics. Arbuthnot’s examination of heritage, museums, and materials science revealed that Uzbekistan’s heritage was forged through artist-education workshops and the use of ceramics collected during this period, presenting craft as a form of alternative modernism and anti-colonial practice. Despite the limited success of the workshops, they sparked critical discussions about Central Asia’s role in early Soviet state-building. The issues raised during Arbuthnot’s session prompted a deeper exploration of cultural production beyond state-sanctioned institutions, examining the expertise and pre-Soviet traditions that influenced ceramic production in the region.

In their concluding remarks, Thomas and Rindlisbacher articulated key questions regarding the negotiation of historiographical trends and methodologies, reflecting on the potential merits of integrating an economic perspective to counterbalance conventional national-centric approaches to historical analysis. They also highlighted the challenges of addressing ongoing conflicts in regions such as Armenia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the context of historical research. Collectively, the workshop presentations offered insights into contemporary trends and challenges in Central Asian studies, underscoring the imperative for the field to remain responsive to modern research agendas while taking into account the broader political and socio-economic dynamics that shape historical narratives, particularly in regions beset by military conflicts and political tensions.

Conference overview:

Panel I: Economy

Beatrice Penati (Liverpool): Central Asia in Global Economic History

Ruslana Bovhyria (Berlin): The Sea of Abundance. Towards a Maritime History of Central Asia

Panel II: Nation and Nationality

Robert Kindler (Berlin): The State in the Steppe. A Short History of Kazakhstan

Alun Thomas (Stoke-on-Trent) / Stephan Rindlisbacher (Frankfurt (Oder)): Staggered Decolonisation. A Spatial History of Kyrgyzstan

Panel III: Groupness and Memory

Mirlan Bektursunov (Hokkaido): Seeing the Soviets Through Lineage

Svetlana Gorshenina (Paris): The Assault and Capture of the Fortress of Gëk-Tépé: Death and Commemoration in the Vanished Landscape

Panel IV: Studying Central Asia

Sergei Abashin (St. Petersburg): Izuchenie Tsentral’noi Azii za peredelami Tsentral’noi Azii. Rekonstruktsiia migratsionnykh isslednovanii v Rossii

Mollie Arbuthnot (Cambridge): Beyond National Form? Challenges for Studying Artistic Production in Early Soviet Central Asia

Concluding Remarks

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Englisch, Russisch
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