Is Central Asia post-colonial or not?

by Ahad_Abdurahmon on 11/19/2009 · 17 comments

Is Central Asia post-colonial or not?

Can post-colonial theory be applied to post-Soviet region?

Laura Adams raises this question and generally comes up with a positive answer here (PDF pp 2-7).

The current CESS President Edward Lazzerini responds with an interesting approach. I learned from his response was that the Sankt Peterburg library contains a catalogue of all Turkic-language works published during the Soviet time.

He is essentially saying that post-colonial lens obscures the nature of real events. Although he does not provide exactly how researchers should proceed with their works without post-colonial prism, I feel that he raised some important points by his examples. I will try to sum them up.

The Central Asian region and its people underwent several stages of socio-political transformation under the Soviets:

  1. The local feudal rule was forcibly ended.
  2. Local ethnicities have begun to consolidate around the concept of a nation.
  3. First, regionalist (Turkistan) movement was prevalent, but later gave way to different nationalist movements (Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, etc).
  4. Completely new, which did not exist in the past, nations were formed.
  5. Completely new official languages emerged by replacing Turkiy with Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, etc and Forsiy with Tajik.

Therefore, in my opinion, the following fundamentally important factors must not be neglected in the study of Central-Asia:

  1. Despite the fundamental contradiction with Marxist-Leninist theory, the Soviets supported and nurtured this process of nationalism in order to sink the increasing popularity of emerging Turkistan regionalism.
  2. The Soviets first of all created these new nation-states and then incorporated them into the Union as equal members. This is fundamentally different from what the British and other colonial powers handled their colonies, where colonized nations were subordinate and inferior.
  3. The colonial powers worked to prevent the possibility of the emergence of a local nation-state (in which they flatly failed). The Soviets, on the other hand, not only permitted, but also supported the formation and emergence of new nation-states with only one condition: as a Marxist-Leninist nation-state within the USSR.

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Prithvi November 19, 2009 at 8:45 pm

If one were to define an empire as a central political core dominating peripheral regions (which are not necessarily adjacent, e.g. the British Empire), it’s not unreasonable to define the USSR as an imperial power.

Most empires tend to leave legacies such as a language, a way of doing things, or other tangible and intangible cultural artifacts. The Roman legacy to Europe (as well as the Middle East) or Spanish rule in the Americas.

But in Central and Eastern Europe there has been a violent reaction against the imperial Soviet legacy, even in former SSRs like the Baltic states, Georgia, and even Ukraine. The inhabitants have consciously turned from the Soviet ways of doing things and the Soviet ethos and have toppled the monuments of their former masters.

Except for the residual (yet still prominent) Russian populations, Russian as a language is being abandoned as the prestige tongue in favor of German and English. Even the Indians were far more generous to the British imperial legacy.

Yet this does not seem to be the case in Central Asia. The Soviet way of doing things has been tweaked, but even the market reforms seem a logical progression from perestroika than the turbulent liberal reform that occurred in Poland. The political structure seems unchanged in most of the Stans, where a lot of the old faces simply changed hats and switched their allegiance from the Party to the Watan. The elites also seem in no hurry to abandon Russian, at least as a technocratic language.

Prithvi November 19, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Actually, re-reading what you say makes sense in consideration to the attitude of the Central Asian successor states to the USSR. Poland, Georgia, etc were legitimate nation states prior to Soviet domination, whereas if Kazakhstan is something of a Soviet construct, then there is less of a desire to reject the Soviet legacy.

Alex Visotzky November 20, 2009 at 1:06 am

Don’t forget to mention the zany borders of Central Asia, which were drawn specifically with the purpose of aggravating ethnic tensions.

The borders of places like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are still just reflections of a colonial power’s administration and make little sense today, much like the borders of the post-colonial states of the Middle East and Africa.

Turgai Sangar November 20, 2009 at 4:40 am

One characteristic of a colonial empire that was certainly there (at least vis-à-vis Southern Eurasia), is the nature of the centre-periphery relations: the economies of the southern peripheral republics (with the exception of Georgia with its diverse agriculture and high living standard and of North Kazkahstan with its defense and machinery industry) were harnessed in the production of one or two raw materials (e.g. cotton in Turkestan and later the Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen SSR) which were then treated in the industrial centers in the USSR’s core while most finished goods and indeed most economic and political cadres (at least those in key positions) went from the centre to the periphery.

Another, and in my opinion very important, factor is that of the creation of native compradore elites withing the party during the process of korenizatsiya in the 60s and 70s (it happened also, but the process gained impetus during that time). To various extents, this happened also in the various European colonies. In fact, like in former European colonies, many of the compradores or at least their families and kin groups, are still in power. The way these native party elites were formed and recruited depended largely on local condictions and dynamics but was often based on who and what was considered to be more loyal and/or receptive towards ‘Socialism’ and often co-opted clanic and tribal realities too (cf. the process in Tajikistan where Kulyabi and Leninabadi dominated the SSR’s native party cadre at teh detriment of ‘Highlanders’ and Garmi). This happened in many European colonies too, be it that the desired or expected loyalty was for the British or Belgian crown, to the French republic or considered receptiveness to ‘European civilization’. A regular pattern in European colonies was to favor ‘more reliable’ local Christian communities (e.g. in the French Sahel colonies) or certain local ethnic-racial groups that were considered superior to others (e.g. Hamito-Semitic peoples in Rwanda which the Belgians considered superior to the Bantu populations).

Yes, at least officially, all peoples were equal in the USSR. Many European colonizers did not even bothered to pretend this and in some cases even enshrined discrimination in the law. But wasn’t it de facto a such, that ideologically, Sovietism had an element of Great Russian chauvinism that put Russia in the role of a big brother and assumed that most ‘Oriental’ subject peoples (in particular native Siberian peoples, Mongols and Muslims) were too backward to civilize themselves?

And as often happened, colonialism and the colonial legacy in Southern Eurasia is a mixed bag. It did brought progress in a number of fields indeed: literacy, infrastructure, … Other colonial empires did that as well (e.g. on the eve of independence, Belgian Congo had good road and railway infrastructure and a health care and primary education network for the native population all of which have been squandered and destroyed in the meantime).

Yet one can not deny that it brought complete disaster in other fields: colossal environmental destruction; the elimination of native intelligenstia during the Great Terror; and especially the creation of rapacious and parastical compradore classes that did not only undermined the very USSR that created them but which still hold sway over several Southern Eurasian countries.

Turgai Sangar November 20, 2009 at 6:37 am

A few more comments, directly relaetd to Adams’ interesting article…

First, regarding the fact that the Soviets, like the reformers in Turkey and Iran) penetrated much more in the private realm of their subjects than ‘classical’ European colonisers did… (p. 3, column 2).

I agree that the Brits, the Portuguese in Africa and the Dutch in Indonesia did it more subtle or did not cared much in that field. Others (or at least certain ineterst groups) did though, especially in the later phase of European colonialism. The French, for example, were keen to ‘plant’ the ideals of the Revolution and the Enlightment in the colonies (although they did made a distinction between the more ‘advanced’ cultures in Indo-China and the Islamic World on one hand, and Africa and the Sahel on the other), mostly by sending natives to study in the métropole.

Belgium, an another example, had an obsession with ‘civilising the natives’ in Belgian Congo and Rwanda-Urundi through the évolué programme (a programme whereby native Africans could gain the status of ‘evolved’ by learning how to dress and behave correctly –doesn’t this ring a more recent bell?) and the Catholic missions.

Also, the US were much more keen to ‘americanize’ the natives in the Philippines and the Southern Pacific in all aspects much more than their European predecessors in those areas did. I agree though, that all three never went as far as the Soviets did.

Second (p. 5 bottom of second column), reg. the “Central Eurasian countries independence at times of globalisation”, following which “from Riga to Almaty, post-colonial desire fixates not on the fallen (Russian) colonizing former power but on the glittering beast of (Euramerican pop and consumption culture)”.

This was certainly the case in the 90s and still apllies to some parts of the population and in the Baltics. But make no mistake: over the least five to ten yeras Russia *has* become the object of post-colonial desire and fixation, e.g. as an economic lifeline (cf. the tens of thousands of Southern Euraisan labour migrants do not go to America or Europe but to Russia), as a political role model by many (cf. the often heard comment ‘if only we had our own Putin to put things in order here’), etc…

David M November 20, 2009 at 11:21 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/20/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Jim Kelly November 20, 2009 at 11:57 am

Good piece.

I think it’s worth looking back before Soviet times especially in the context of the treatment of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Soviet policy was very much informed, I think, by Imperial policy towards these regions.

As to the pieces you linked to, I haven’t had a chance to read them yet but look forward to it. Scanning the first few pages of the Adams piece she speaks of the challenges in comparing African and South Asian postcolonialism with Central Asia’s experience. Perhaps it’s stating the obvious, but this is a challenge because their “colonial” experience was so different. The Russian and later Soviet Empires were contiguous land empires (if we ignore the brief stint in the Americas). I think this distinction is important, as it informs the attitudes they had in administering these areas. Related to this, the fact that they didn’t develop extensive colonies in distant lands says something about where their priorities lay, and it wasn’t colonialism, at least not for the sake of colonialism (which some argue is what traditional European colonialism was about as the economics really kind of broke down).

At any rate, I look forward to reading the two linked pieces, thanks.

oldschool boy November 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Were Hungary and other Eastern European Countries colonies of Austria? Is there black and white? What is categorizing for?

Laurence Jarvik November 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Ahad, Thank you for this post as well as the Lazzerini response in CESR. I wish we had heard more earlier from Lazzerini along these lines, in this regard…

Prithvi November 20, 2009 at 6:02 pm

I would argue that from the Hapsburg conquest of the Magyar regions from the Ottomans until 1848, Hungary was effectively an Austrian colony.

anan November 20, 2009 at 6:44 pm

“from the Hapsburg conquest of the Magyar regions from the Ottomans until 1848, Hungary was effectively an Austrian colony.”

I don’t agree. Rather I would say that Hungary was the Nizam of Hyderabad to Austria’s Moghul Empire. Hungary was the junior partner in a confederacy. Many of the bureaucrats and influence centers in the Austria Hungarian empire were Hungarian.

Often ancient federal empires were really confederacies of allied nations lead by a particular nation. Each of the nations inside could wield substantial influence within the broader empire.

This was true of the later Roman Empire, Holy Roman empire, Austrian Hungarian empire, Moghul empire, most Persian empires from Cyrus to the present, Hellenistic empires, Mauryan empire, Mongol Empire, etc.

From this description this also appears to have been true to some degree for the Russian/Soviet empire.

Prithvi November 20, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Yes, Hungary was a junior partner after 1848 and especially after 1867 when a weakened Austria was forced to compromise with the native Hungarian political leadership. The Hungarians demanded political autonomy in exchange for recognizing the authority of the Hapsburg monarchy.

The Austrians effectively dominated Hungary from the early 18th century despite Rákóczi’s great rebellion and treated it like a subjugated realm until 1867.

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 21, 2009 at 11:44 am

Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts about the topic.
I understand that post-colonial prism is a well-established one and it is more or less possible to fit the Central Asia case into that prism.
But in this case the usefulness and universal applicability of the post-colonial method will be severely undermined.
Such theoretical frameworks are intended to fully encompass the topic and facilitate the transfer of relevant empirical findings into the general knowledge base of the theory. [I]So, we must limit our cases only to those cases that fully fit the post-colonial prism instead of forcefully fitting that theory into a certain field even if it doesn’t really fit the case. [/I]
I have read a lot of examples comparing CA with other colonial countries and likening the USSR with other empires. However, (if we decided that every world power was an empire) there is only one empire comparable to it: the USA. Here are my basic points of comparisons.
First of all take their names before talking about anything. The United [B]STATES[/B] of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist [B]REPUBLICS[/B]. They are both a caucuses of STATES a certain types of states. In the USSR case they are [B]SOCIALIST[/B] states that are explicitly written in its name. In the USA case they are [B]DEMOCRATIC[/B] states even though it is not expressly spelled out in the name of the Union.
Second, these two states shared something in common that other states originally did not. [B]They were/are both EMPIRES DRIVEN BY IDEOLOGY.[/B] The founding fathers started a new chapter in statehood by creating an idea-driven state. Before the emergency of the USA with its [I]’city on the hill’ [/I]agenda, only religious states were idea-driven. It was the first secular idea-driven state. Of course, the British, French, etc were making some concessions in favor of democracy, they were not states created for the sake of an idea. Later, the Soviet Union emerged as another idea-driven state.
So, the world had two idea-driven states where a [B]certain type of ideology lay at the core of the STATE INTEREST[/B]. This is is fundamentally [B]different from the other types of world powers in which self-interest or the interest of the elites lay at the core of the state interest[/B], who were mainly concerned with making themselves even more rich, powerful, and glorious.
The British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spaniards, Germans, Turkish, etc gave up their colonies once it became unprofitable to sustain them. So, they colonized for profit. The USA and the USSR, on the other hand, colonized for idea. The USA took over the Confederation and the Mexican states mentioned in the ‘Zimmermann Telegram’ in the name of an idea. The USSR took over Turkestan, the Caucasus and the Baltic in the name of an idea. The USA patronized and fought for several other states (the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc) in the name of an idea and so did the USSR (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc). From the profit/interest-driven states’ point of view, their actions can be labeled as irrational but it was perfectly rational for idea-driven Soviets to sustain deficit-generating Socialist countries and it is perfectly rational for the USA to subsidize certain states that cannot sustain themselves.
The USSR and USA developed arranged their economies in such fashion that every republic/state did/does what ideally suits them in terms of climate, resources, location, security/defense considerations etc. Those arrangements are not designed to ‘exploit the periphery’ and make profits for the center. In most cases the center actually gives more to such regions (Central Asia in USSR and the South in the USA) than it takes from them.
[B]Therefore, it is problematic to call the Post-Soviet Central Asia Post-colonial because it would mean that certain regions and states of the United States ARE COLONIES even though they are not.[/B]

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 21, 2009 at 11:45 am

sorry for the mess with html coding.

Prithvi November 22, 2009 at 6:39 pm

I dunno, it seems that some of the Soviet projects in Central Asia were quite exploitative or at least totally wrong headed, such as the Virgin Lands scheme.

Even the cultivation of cotton had ecological costs, as the region was more susceptible to famine, salinization and toxicity in the soil increased, and the Aral Sea was practically drained into slush.

Matt November 22, 2009 at 9:07 pm

I’ve encountered the “Central Asia was never a colony” argument a number of times and I always find it interesting. The British colonized very differently than the French did: for instance they had totally different attitudes to local elites (in many, but not all of their colonies, the French made assimilation of the elite an important short-term goal– i.e. everyone can and should become a Frenchman). And even within empires of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were huge differences– Britain in East Africa did not have the same colonial policy as it did in India. But nobody pretends that these differences mean that the British were colonists in East Africa, but not in India.

The “Nation Building” that was engaged in was a rather naked attempt by Stalin (first as Commisar of Nationalities, then as General Secretary) to divide and conquer and to think it had something to do with actually building a national consciousness is, I think, generous. He wrote about “big brother” nations and “younger brother” nations and that “younger brother” nations could skip capitalism and proceed directly to socialism if helped by a “big brother” nation. The Central Asian republics were never admitted as equals. Social institutions such as common law courts and waqf were more or less forcibly replaced with institutions with European roots, Russian language was made into the only avenue for advancement. Central Asia is not “ideally suited” to growing cotton. Much of it is “ideally suited” to fruits and vegetables, which are more valuable than cotton when sold fresh anyway, but the Soviet Union needed an industrial crop it could sell for hard currency. Yes there was a socialist coloring to the colonialist policy, but the goal was feeding the center and eventual assimilation (a colonial attitude in many ways similar to that of the French). The goal was homo sovieticus– essentially a Russian who wore a do’ppa, ate plov and played a slightly different stringed instrument.

The comparison of the US and the USSR is a bit rich, as it conveniently ignores the huge difference in the political systems, the history and scale of political repression, the GULAG, etc. The European empires of the 19th and 20th centuries also had ideological foundations. Ahad, if you were referring to the history with the Native Americans, then the correct comparison would be Russian Siberia– where the colonizers essentially wiped out the natives and then themselves formed a more or less consentual union.

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 23, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Matt, thank you for your comments. You made several interesting point, which I would like to address. First, despite all the possible variations, including those you mentioned, the French, British, Spanish, Dutch, etc colonizers fits the category described in Machiavelli’s Prince. The British and French colonialism may not have been identical, and it may well be true that the French wanted to impose French nationalism on others, but I think they still were ‘for-profit’ colonies with racial prejudice, like any others. You claim that earlier colonial empires also had ideological FOUNDATIONS. If those were anything but religion and racism, I would love to be enlightened.
I wrote about the overall nature of the regime and in this case the misdeeds of a particular political figure are not enough to refute the overall nature, design, and impact of the regime. However evil Stalin might have been, he was a player in a new game ‘ideology-driven’ game, which was different from the ‘profit-driven’ game. He himself was non-Russian, so it is a little bit of overstretch to suspect him on Russian chauvinism. Besides, the Soviet government opposed not only waqf in Central Asia, but any kind of private property outside the household chores. They replaced not only the ‘common law’ (not sure what you meant by that) in Central Asia but any other law of any origin with the Soviet law driven from Communistic ideals. Communism did take shape in Europe, but it would be ridiculous to call it ‘eurocentric’.
Yes, the Russian was favored as the primary means of communication. Indeed, for communism, language is hardly anything more than means of communication. Communism does not attach ethnocentric value to language because it is not concerned with ethnocentrism of any kind, it is working class-centric. In idea-driven states, people of many ethnicities had to settle down on one language to communicate with each other, in the US case it was English, in the SU case it was Russian, and the EU is stilling vacillating over it and will continue doing so for a very long time because they are facing more serious challenges from ethnocentrism than the US and the SU did.
I firmly believe that the US, the SU, and now EU represent a new type of governments in our history. They are not the same with the previous ‘for-profit’ types of governments. They are ‘idea-driven’ governments and therefore, they should be treated and studied separately, even if one does not exist today. You said their goal was ‘homo-soveticus’, which is essentially a Russian. I know it is easy think in that direction, but it opens up a path to describe other two, one remaining (US) and one emerging (EU) idea-driven states in a similar fashion. If you say ‘homo-soveticus’ is essentially Russian, then it will be possible to claim that ‘homo-americanus’ is essentially English.
Although the US and the SU shares so many similarities, they became archrivals precisely because of these similarities. They were not enemies before Kennan’s telegram and the adoption of NSC 68. They even fought against Fascist Germany together in what was thought to be the last convulsion of ethnocentric empirebuilding. However, both democracy and communism had a worldwide agenda and they had only one world, so the US and the SU interests inevitably clashed with each other because their ideologies were fundamentally at odds with each other.
I don’t believe the idea of communism and democracy permits selective and ill-intended imbalance in either country’s economy. Ideally, the both sides attempted to specialize each region of theirs to certain types of economic and military tasks that suited them relatively well than the other regions. For example, the southernmost regions in each country specialize primarily in agriculture, the wide-open steppe (Kazakhstan, Siberia) and prairie (Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, etc) specializes in nuclear/space sites and the other areas feature more or less diversified economy. Of course, there might have been cases when the prejudice of certain individuals with decision-making powers undermined the optimal implementation, but they are just imperfections of the design rather than the venture itself. The Center did not depend on cash crops for hard currency, it had enough oil and gas to profit from. It was giving more than it took to Central Asian republics.
I never referred to Native Americans in my earlier posts and as you correctly noted, they are best comparable with micro nationalities within Russia, they are even ethnically related to each other. It is not a good idea to demonize either the US or the SU for oppressing and colonizing these nations because they were too small to create their own states located in too important places. I sympathize to these nations and at the same time I acknowledge that the both states tried to secure these indigenous people from extinction.
I was comparing the US’s overtake of the Southern states, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to the SU’s overtake of the Central Asia and Caucasus. The US took shape in former British colonies and put its utmost efforts to keep control over the entire former colonies and even expanded it. Similarly, the SU emerged supplanting the Tsarist Russia, so they attempted to consolidate their power within the whole territory governed by the previous regime. I think it is natural for an idea-drivel political group that aims to order the whole world according to its own ideals to overtake as big of a territory as possible at the beginning, especially when the structure left from the previous regime offered prospects for successful consolidation.

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