Something for Everyone: reviewing Russia and Central Asia by Shoshana Keller7 min read
Have you ever read a book that was so good you couldn’t put it down? What about an academic text? That’s how I felt about Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence by Shoshana Keller. Academic texts are meant to be references but Keller does such a masterful job making Russia and Central Asia readable and naturally flow that I read the book from cover to cover.
The first time I heard about Russia and Central Asia was on the New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies podcast from the New Books Network. On the podcast, Keller shared her experience in undergraduate studying Russian. History courses on the “Soviet Union” typically only cover Russia, with brief mention of Ukraine under communism. Despite the geographical expanse – from the Ural Mountains to Pacific Ocean, from the Caucuses and Kopet Dagh mountains to the Arctic Ocean – Central Asian countries that were also a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were rarely discussed in her history of the Soviet Union classes. Keller’s anecdote mirrored my own experience studying Russian history as an undergraduate student. I wondered why Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are given so little attention in Slav-centric university curriculums when they were so crucial to the development of the Soviet Union and Russian Empire.
On the podcast, Keller also talks about how simply being a woman in Eurasian studies is an anomaly. She wrote her book to change the perception of Central Asia to outsiders who may already be associated with Russian studies through their university, specifically people who know this region as “the stans”. Russia and Central Asia reads like a conversation from a well-read friend that is eager to answer any questions, not an archaic history lecture.
Through the eyes of an educator
Writing a monograph that covers a region’s history is daunting. Do you focus on history through the lens of migratory patterns? Farming? Trade routes? Religious influences? Ecological disasters? Thankfully, Keller does it all in Russia and Central Asia. Because of that, people reading the text are free to decide which parts speak to them the most. As a teacher, the sections about early education in Central Asia spoke most to me.
While reading Russia and Central Asia, I was fascinated by how Keller recorded the trends in literacy and education over time. Education often reflects the true aspirations of a people.
In the early eighteenth century, Central Asians received education in the form of a maktab, a five-year school that taught rote memorization of the alphabet, prayers in Arabic, and poetry in Turki and Farsi. Literacy was not required to fill typical social roles of farmer or merchant, though pockets of exceptional literary creativity flourished, as seen through the legacy of Nodira (1792-1842) and Dilshod (1800-1905), who were both women teachers and writers.
In response to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, many Muslims agreed that adopting European science and technology was necessary to resist further European colonization. By the 1880’s, there were movements in Egypt, India, and Central Asia to modernize Islam, which were followed by reactionary opposition movements. This debate played out in part on the pages of reformist newspaper Terjuman, which was founded by Crimean Tatar Ismail bey Gaspirali with the goal of creating a unified and phonetic Turkic language. Schools soon began using this script in expanded curriculums including geography and arithmetic, while traditional religious studies continued to use a simplified Arabic script.
In the early Soviet period, there were attempts by the Communist Party to “reform” education. The Bilim Yurt was a project to try to train the first generation of secular female teachers in Uzbekistan but only graduated fourteen. The party tried to reach nomads in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan through mobile “red yurts” that taught reading, but they were mostly unsuccessful. In Uzbekistan, traditional Islamic schools predominated because there were not enough funds to build Soviet schools. Simultaneously, movements to adopt the Latin alphabet and then the Cyrillic alphabet for Turkic languages really impeded any progress. As Keller writes, “language modernization was just one of the many areas where Soviet policy tripped over itself”.
By the mid-1960s, the number of primary schools in rural Central Asia had doubled from the pre-war period, though Soviet statistics may have been doctored. They may reveal how many schools were built, but not how many students actually attended school. Collectivization and cotton quotas forced young people to “voluntarily” pick cotton in the “spirit of patriotism”, but as one Tashkent medical student wrote, “we lost so much, both knowledge and strength, during this period”. Kyrgyz grade school students had to spend entire semesters working the fields.
Even if you aren’t interested in education, Keller writes in an engrossing yet nuanced way that makes all aspects of Central Asian history interesting to the reader. Keller makes a compelling argument that the collapse of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union both started in Central Asia and were solidified when the state mismanaged Central Asian people and their needs. After reading Russia and Central Asia, I wholeheartedly agree.
Central Asia was not colonized by Russia. Perhaps the complexity of how Central Asia came to be a part of the Russian Empire is why it gets ignored in history courses. For centuries there were trade agreements and intermarriages. Historians may prefer to downplay their familiarity for a clean-cut label of colonization. Keller writes, “Central Asia cannot be easily slotted into the familiar categories we use to understand history, which reminds us that these categories are intellectual constructs that reflect historical reality imperfectly… Political scientist Mark Beissinger suggests that we adopt a more flexible interpretation of the word ‘empire’ and consider it as a way of structuring authority rather than a specific set of political practices”. In the context of colonization, Russia saw Central Asians as partners to be mobilized, rather than passive subjects, more similar to the state modernization projects in Turkey and Iran in the 1930’s than the British Raj.
The role of race
Another aspect that history courses often gloss over is the role of race in both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. While scholars may portray the Soviet Union as a multiracial religion-less society, Keller’s descriptions of Russian immigration patterns into the region suggest otherwise. There were few leaders from Central Asian states in the Politburo. While representation in the leadership may provide only one glimpse into the hierarchy between Slavs and Turkic peoples, it does offer a counter-narrative to the colorblind State fantasy. The high number of purges directed at ethnic minorities and brash mismanagement of Central Asia’s resources to the point of famine and extinction also prove otherwise. In the 1930’s, Moscow gave the republics political autonomy, but routinely destroyed their leaders. Central Asians’ labor was firmly roped to Moscow’s needs, but the central state did not always allocate enough, if any, funds for Central Asian schools, healthcare, and modern infrastructure.
Keller writes, “the Soviet policies of korenizatsiia and proletarian dictatorship were on a collision course with each other in Central Asia. Workers were always first in line for places in medical schools and access to care, but the few Central Asians who were literate enough in Russian for medical training were pretty much by definition class enemies. Class preference automatically turned into a national preference for Europeans over Central Asians. Korenizatsiia required that instruction be conducted in local languages, which would have corrected this problem except that Europeans flatly refused to learn Central Asian languages” and the same lack of understanding is seen in war efforts prior to German invasion.
Instead of a fight for representation that is seen in many multiracial societies, the modern day struggle for Central Asia may be for self-actualization.
As a teacher, I am interested to know how modern day Uzbek students are affected by schooling taught by Saudi Arabian, Iranian, and Turkish private Islamic schools, brought in by Karimov in the 1990’s. Turkish Gulen schools have caused quite the stir in other parts of the world.
Shoshana Keller’s Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence is a book I couldn’t put down. Anyone curious about Central Asia from a Russian history background would benefit from her unassuming prose. Whatever your interest, there will surely be an aspect of Central Asian and Russian history that will tickle your fancy. The University of Toronto Press publishes some of the most powerful books that demystify this shrouded region and lesser-known history, opening the doors so that any student can begin learning about the richness of these societies.
Book details: Keller, Shoshana, Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence, University of Toronto Press, 2020. It is available to buy here.