Off the Silk Road, beyond the Great Game: Histories of Modern Central Asia

Charles Shaw is an assistant professor of Soviet history at Central European University in Budapest whose research examines the Uzbek experience of World War II.

Terms like “Silk Road” and “Great Game” have done a great service in attracting readers to Central Asian history. However, these phrases—both coined by outsiders—have done little to advance an understanding of the societies they describe, one implying an inert timelessness, the other merely a rocky theater for European imperial rivalry. And the emerging habit of adding “new” to these terms when describing contemporary politics and economics in the region suggests that modern writers are not doing any better.

So how can we understand modern Central Asia on its own terms?

The reigning and still undefeated champion of obscurity, modern Central Asian historiography has come into its own in the last decade. The region can be loosely defined as the five former Soviet -stans—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—plus China’s Xinjiang “Uyghur Autonomous Region,” though the best recent histories have emphasized transnational ties with neighbors Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Travelers’ accounts used to dominate the narrative in the West, freighted with Orientalist assumptions about local superstition, nomadic brutality, and Islamic fanaticism. Soviet-era travel and archival restrictions cloaked the region behind another curtain of mystique, which alternated between Soviet martyrdom and a supposedly latent pan-Turkic solidarity. Then came the good days of the 2000s, which might be closing as quickly as they opened, as today’s regimes have asserted new control over archival access, compelling historians to seek novel sources and approaches.

The newest generation of Central Asian historians has crafted more sensitive narratives for the region’s modern history. At their finest they incorporate local voices to explore how Central Asian people have been players, not pawns, in fending off, responding to, and redefining the imperatives of tsarist and then Soviet transformation. In the process, they have helped to answer some of the most compelling questions of Soviet history: How was a Communist revolution made in a land with no proletariat? How did nations emerge where tribe, clan, and faith formed the traditional core of identity? How did Islam weather the successive rounds of attack and co-optation from a nominally atheistic state? And how will the region’s Soviet legacy color its relations with neighbors like Iran and Afghanistan after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the removal of closed borders?

Places to Start

McChesney’s work is an eloquent classic and still the best introduction to Central Asia before the modern era, focusing on questions like the Mongol political legacy and Islamic institutions, especially shrines. Although its tiny print run makes it an expensive purchase, it’ll give you a reason to visit your local library!

So you’re determined to read about overland trade nevertheless? Then let Scott Levi be your guide, in a work that synthesizes his various monographs on Indian merchant networks throughout the region. The “Silk Road” in the title reflects his publisher’s hopes to sell books, not the author’s approach, which helps to challenge the old canard that the rise of European trade in the Indian Ocean killed overland trade and led to Central Asian isolation.

Khalid’s book is a handy guide to the region’s Soviet history with special attention to the Communist Party’s religious policies of extermination and subsequent accommodation. It is eloquent yet polemical in its defense of local Islam as on the continuum of modern iterations of the faith, despite the region’s relative lack of madrassas and the preponderance of local hosts eager to share a shot of vodka with their guests.

Digging In

This introduction to the modern era from a political and ecological perspective tells of the decline of the region’s last nomadic empire, the Zungars, at the hands of the Russians and Chinese in the 18th century. The decline of the Zungars was a “world event” that closed a last frontier and paved the way for competition between two great empires.

This textured portrayal of the unlikely creation of a socialist nation among the Turkmen nomads depicts locals not as victims but opportunistic, feuding, and crafty partners, employing Soviet language and concepts to create a Turkmen homeland. Edgar shows that especially in Turkmenistan the twin Soviet projects of nation-building and socialist construction worked at cross purposes and produced contradictory results.

Kamp’s book relies upon Uzbek-language sources and interviews to make a clear and compelling intervention into the debates about Communist Party campaigns to unveil Muslim women. Rather than cast the campaigns as an exogenous shock led by an outsider state, Kamp follows the progressive Uzbek women who allied with the Party and championed unveiling to reach their own reforming goals.

New Moves

This exemplary and ambitious anthropology was written independent of the archives, yet is a sustained musing on the nature of history and an archeology of the various layers of history-writing in the Xinjiang oases that ring the Tarim basin. Thum lingers over manuscripts, shrines and their caretakers, oral recitations, contemporary novels, and tomb graffiti, everywhere emphasizing local particularity rather than simple narratives of resistance to or domination by China.

Voices and Lives

If you must read a nineteenth-century traveler, let it be Vambery, master of the genre, an atheistic Jewish Turkologist from Budapest in disguise as an Istanbul effendi disguised again as a Sufi dervish on pilgrimage to the saints’ tombs of Central Asia just before the Russian conquest. Although suspicions about his identity abounded, the self-aggrandizing writer nonetheless found audience with local rulers and commented on Teheran (where the “East” began for him), the barbaric ways of the Turkmen, and his “bitter disappointment” with the architectural merits of Samarkand, which include Tamerlane’s tomb and the Registan square. Absolutely prodigious yet completely a creature of his time; you will enjoy traveling at his side.

Platonov’s little novel is an ambivalent vision of Communism set in the Turkmen desert: a native son of the fictional dzhan people returns home from Moscow to save them from a fate of wandering poverty and discovers they have no desire to be saved. This haunting work of fiction is also a sort of Soviet traveler’s account, as Platonov conceived of it while on a Soviet writers’ brigade to Turkmenistan in 1933, though it was only published posthumously. It will leave you gasping.

A rare piece of Central Asian autobiographical writing to have been translated into English, Shayakhmetov’s memoir covers events that are woefully unfamiliar outside of the region: the ethnic Kazakh famine of nearly genocidal proportions during collectivization and the Kazakhs’ brave and proud service in World War II—the first time Central Asian men fought side-by-side with Russians in the phenomenally diverse Red Army.

Three chapters of Hughes’ autobiography take place in the Soviet Union, one of which recounts his 1933 visit to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which serve as a foil to the segregated American South. Hughes visits collective farms on the Iranian border, gleefully recounts the discomforts of his erstwhile travel companion, Arthur Koestler, and ruminates on the comparative freedoms of Soviet Central Asians as opposed to American blacks. Hughes’ account provides a gateway to the growing scholarly field on socialist internationalism and the affinities between the Third World, the Soviet South, and African-Americans.

Although not as well-known as Aitmatov’s (significantly longer) novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, this sparse but lyric novella depicts rural Kyrgyz culture bending under the weight of World War II as forbidden love breaks out between the child narrator’s sister-in-law and a decommissioned soldier. Equally Kyrgyz and Soviet, the region’s most acclaimed novelist embodies modern Central Asia’s conflicted relationship with its Soviet past, whose achievements and great violence often run in the same current.