Language Policies in Central Asia

by Nathan Hamm on 9/29/2004 · 5 comments

I want to eventually do a post on the relationship between Soviet language polices and the division of Soviet Turkestan, but that will have to come another day when I have more time or am not trying to make my way home in the midst of hideous, destructive rainstorms during which public transportation and taxis won’t go to my neighborhood (last night…).

In the meantime, language hat has a post on language in Central Asia that points to a couple of posts at Language Log that deal with matters Turkic. The one of most relevance to the post I intend to do is this one, which points to a 1989 paper on Soviet language policy in Central Asia.

I highly recommend that final link, particularly the section on alphabet reform, which indicates that the drawing of borders in Turkestan in the 1920’s most certainly did have something to do with exaggerating differences between Turkic groups. To me, that sounds more than a little like “divide and rule.”

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Asror September 29, 2004 at 5:33 pm

Hey, Nathan,
Could you check this link:
It seems here is a new avenue in Uzbekistan called “Massachusetts”.

By the way, you added my name as the authors, oh man. How can I be an author of this page? no idea:)

Asror September 29, 2004 at 5:35 pm

Sorry, actually this link has no relations to the post above. Just I found it in geocities.

Tatyana September 29, 2004 at 10:31 pm

Nathan, when you eventually change into something dry (and have a cup of green tea), could you tell us how this Bolshevik “divide and rule” policy is different from formation of national states in the rest of Islamic world, f.ex., in Arab lands (if you think it’s different, that is.)
I’ve read that the borders between UAE, Kuwait, Saudis, etc are considered subjective (oh, what’s the right word?)and, generally, is criticized as “divide and rule” colonial policy by Western powers by certain circles.
Personally, I think it’s a positive result of negative (and sometimes even racist) politics: Europe went thru the process of formation of city-states, than consolidation of them into nation-states; it was a necessary step from medieval system to the capitalist. On that stage nationalistic mentality is a good thing, it builds secular society vs. theocratic one.
I’d appreciate if you share your thoughts on this.

Nathan September 30, 2004 at 9:48 am

Well, I think that the Soviet-drawn borders in Turkestan are less subjective than those in and around Arabia and are probably about as subjective as those in Eastern Europe.

The difference with Soviet nationalities policy though is that there are also the language policies to go along. This makes an Uzbek a lot more different from a Kyrgyz than was a Sart from a Kirghiz (which, of course, included Kazakhs at the time). In the book I’m reading now (Hunted Through Central Asia), it’s hard to tell if the Kyrgyz referred to would now be considered Kyrgyz. It seems like, at least the point I’m at now, any Turk living in rural areas around Tashkent is considered to be Kyrgyz. That’s certainly not the case now.

Not that I necessarily think that the results of the policies is too terrible. Uzbeks are, for better or worse, Uzbeks now. Kazakhs are Kazakhs. Etc… What was somewhat artificial in the past is now real. I look at the whole thing now as value-neutral.

Laurence September 30, 2004 at 10:17 am

Nathan and Tatyana, you might find the work of Olivier Roy of interest in this respect, he argues that Soviet nationalities policy has created distinct nationalities, and there is no “going back” to Turkestan (which might have been a bit of orientalist or pan-turkic wishful thinking in the first place, given the history of battles between different khanates, prior to Russian expansion into Central Asia…).

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