Central Asia. A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present

Khalid, Adeeb
Anzahl Seiten
576 S.
$ 35.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Gero Fedtke, Professur für Europäischen Diktaturenvergleich, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena

Central Asia, understood here as the five post-Soviet republics and the Chinese region of Xinjiang, has been subject to Russian, Soviet, and Chinese imperial expansion and rule since the 18th century. Adeeb Khalid’s book is the first to tell the complex history of Central Asia between the two Empires from a Central Asian perspective. He argues that Central Asia is no remote and exotic region, as it is often perceived by most of the rest of the world but has—as a “crossroads of history”—witnessed all the developments of the modern age and is worthy of being studied in its own right (p. 6). He comes to the laconic conclusion that “there is nothing exotic about Central Asia. In fact, its history is depressingly normal” (p. 497). Khalid manages to narrate an enormously complicated story—again, this is normal—in a very accessible way.

Central Asia is a vast and diverse region more than half the size of the continent of Europe. Its inclusion in the imperial systems of the Russian (later Soviet) and Chinese empires brought about fundamental transformations. Khalid’s aim is to trace the agency of Central Asians in their dealing with these. At the same time, his comparative perspective provides interesting insights into the ways the two empires functioned. Khalid scrutinizes the main developments in the areas of colonialism, anticolonialism, development, social revolution, nationalism, state-led modernization, and social engineering, providing a comprehensive narrative that at the same time addresses the heterogeneity of both Central Asia and the two empires.

The book is divided into four main parts: Empire, Revolution, Communism, and Post-communism. These are preceded by an introduction to Central Asia before the conquests. While empires as such were nothing new for the region, which had been central to the Timurid Empire, for instance, Khalid argues that the conquest by the Russian and Qing (Manchu) Empires, which were centred outside Central Asia, introduced new political arrangements and concepts of understanding and shaping the world, human communities, and the self. Manifold manifestations of modernity and national identifications are therefore the guiding topics of his book.

Khalid’s account is roughly chronological, but it can perhaps best be viewed from the present. The five former Union Republics have been independent nation-states since 1991, while the indigenous population of Xinjiang (e.g. Uyghurs, Kazakh, Kyrgyz) is now subject to a repressive Sinicizing policy that qualifies as cultural genocide (p. 495). Khalid demonstrates how this difference came about. The imperial conquests of the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in Central Asia’s states becoming colonies of the Russian and Qing Empires—not fundamentally different from the overseas colonies of European powers. Colonial rule meant the recognition of difference between the centre and the colony—in terms of civilization, ethnicity, and race—with the colony seen as inferior and backward. While the imperial power declared its intent to civilize the colony, its actual politics aimed at perpetuating this difference (pp. 98–100).

Russia’s and the Qing Empire’s rule had much in common in this respect. They were both diverse empires the rulers of which clearly understood themselves as different from their subjects, who displayed a large variety of languages, religions, and modes of life. While this is a view generally accepted among scholars, it runs counter to the official concept of the history of China, which claims Xinjiang to have been an integral part of a Chinese nation-state that has existed for at least 2000 years. The closer Khalid comes to the present, the more he has to address this concept and its consequences. The concept itself is an outcome of Chinese modernity: the understanding of China as a Han nation state developed in the late 19th century and became pivotal to the conceptions of all central governments since the Chinese revolution of 1911.

The Soviet Union, to the contrary, was always a multinational empire, in which the so-called titular nations “owned” their republics and their autonomies. The dominance of Russian language and ethnic Russians notwithstanding, the Soviet Union never conceived of itself as an ethnic Russian state. It was always possible to be an Uzbek and a Soviet patriot at the same time. Khalid’s conclusion that “the Soviet past has been more of a blessing than a curse for the independent states of Central Asia” (p. 474) may seem surprising, but it can only be agreed with. When the Union ceased to be, the national republics could inherit its infrastructure, building upon the established “language of the nation” as a source of legitimacy; thus, they have proven to be far from “failing states”. The comparison with China makes this even more obvious: it was never possible to be Uyghur and Chinese at the same time, and the culmination of this is the current Chinese government policy of trying to turn Uyghurs into Han Chinese (p. 499).

Khalid guides the reader through a complicated and violent history, the meanings and roles of Islam, the Revolutions (be they from Above or Cultural), the First and Second World Wars as well as the Cold War and their consequences, and the role of the British and Ottoman Empires and the USA. He recognizes achievements as well as opposition, victims, and catastrophes, human and ecological. The agency of Central Asians and the development of their nations is central to his narrative: Central Asians in the Russian Empire devised and discussed ideas of fundamental reform of their own societies, which they conceived of as nations in need of awakening and development. The nationalities recognized in the Soviet Union and the national republics installed were the result of genuinely Central Asian projects (pp. 200–206). The same holds true for the Uyghur nationality, which became an official category in China in 1935 (p. 407). Chinese governments, however, suppressed several attempts at setting up a republic of East Turkestan (pp. 242–264, 281–300) and never conducted the “affirmative action” of the Soviet Empire.[1] When the “Uyghur Autonomous Region” was established in 1955, Uyghurs and other “minorities” had no claim to it (p. 362).

With respect to early Soviet Central Asia, Khalid even underestimates the agency of Central Asian Communists, both Muslim and Settler. The establishing of the Turkestan Soviet Republic in 1918 was less driven by the centre than presented in his account (pp. 165–166), and the same goes for the decolonizing project called land reform which started in Jettisuv in 1921 (pp. 178–179).[2] “The Party” appears as an opaque actor in his account, hence it remains an open question which role Central Asian Communists actually played in the decision-making processes.

However, these are but minor desiderata. The synthesis Khalid provides of his own work[3] and the vast bulk of literature, both scientific and belles-lettres in various languages, is unparalleled. While the last decades have seen impressive research on various aspects of Soviet and Chinese rule in Central Asia, a general account has not been provided so far, and Khalid’s is the first to bring the divided histories of east and west together. It can be read as an introduction to this history, and the author provides an overview of recommended literature for further reading. That said, it will also provide new insights to the specialist.

Throughout the book, Khalid highlights the normalcy, or non-exoticness, of Central Asian history, whether he is addressing the development of national ideas and movements (pp. 208–209), ecological catastrophes resulting from over-ambitious projects (p. 305, 330), recent phenomena such as the Kazakh capital being a planned city named after the country’s first president (p. 439), or the conditions under which the newly independent states function: “The new states are authoritarian and corrupt according to narrow definitions of the terms, but […] the authoritarianism and corruption are closely tied to global phenomena.” (p. 474). The same holds true even for the forced labour Uyghurs are subjected to in China proper, which “is part of the supply chains for numerous global brands from Amazon […] to Volkswagen.” Khalid states that “what is taking shape in Xinjiang is a twenty-first-century security state that may well be the future of other places in coming decades.” (p. 496).

A mere three weeks before Russia attacked Ukraine, president Vladimir Putin and China’s president Xi Jinping signed a joint statement about the world “entering a new era.”[4] Putin’s definition of the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians and his denial of a Ukrainian right to self-determination is frighteningly close to the way the Chinese state interprets the relationship between Han Chinese and Central Asian nationalities like Uyghurs. We should watch Central Asia carefully to understand the “new era” Xi Jinping and Putin aim to bring about for the world. This book provides the optimal basis for doing so.

[1] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire. Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939, Ithaca 2001.
[2] Gero Fedtke, Roter Orient. Muslimkommunisten und Bolschewiki in Turkestan (1917–1924), Wien 2020, pp. 271–283, 313–338.
[3] Most notably: Adeeb Khalid, The politics of Muslim cultural reform. Jadidism in Central Asia, Berkeley 1998; Adeeb Khalid, Islam after communism. Religion and politics in Central Asia. With a new afterword, Berkeley, Calif. 2014; Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan. Nation, empire, and revolution in the early USSR, Ithaca 2015.
[4] “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development”, (22.06.2022).