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  • The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations
  • Najam Abbas (bio) and Nandini Bhattacharya (bio)
Olivier Roy , The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000). xxiii + 222 pp. ISBN: 978-184511-552-4.

Spread over ten short and informative chapters on Central Asia's historical evolution to date, this book offers interesting insights and vivid examples of how, despite divergence in ideology and variance in aims, there are some interesting parallels between the Russian conquest of Central Asia vis-à-vis the French colonization of Africa and British pursuits on the Indian subcontinent.

Olivier Roy, a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris, offers examples of how the Russian colonization of Kazakhstan and the conquest of Transoxiana were similar to diverse patterns of colonial settlements used by other Western powers in different contexts: (1) settler colonization in Kazakhstan, with the infiltration of colonists into the territories of the indigenous peoples (the American model of colonization of the Far West, and the French model in Algeria); (2) direct military administration of Transoxiana, involving the development of industrial culture, but without intervention in traditional society (the British model in Egypt and North India); and finally (3) indirect rule through the establishment of protectorates over conservative Muslim dynasties (Bukhara and Khiva) (P. 27).

The line of demarcation between the parts of cities inhabited by Russian colonial personnel and the quarters homogeneously populated by Muslims reminds one of British colonial settlements of the whites, who lived separately from the brown inhabitants of the same cities. Similar to other European colonies, Russian economic exploitation left a number of indigenous peasants pauperized by the development of the industrial-scale production of cotton. It is argued that in Turkestan, as well as the rest of Russian-occupied Central Asia, the distance between Russian authorities and the local peoples, whether old elites or those newly educated and influenced by the Russians, continued to widen through the decades. In Kazakhstan, there were attempts to break the tribal networks in the semi-nomadic Kazakh territories.

The chapter on the Sovietization of Central Asia takes up issues such as the creation of ethnicities, new administrative units, and the birth of new nations, noting that the "invention of national identities was by no means a phenomenon restricted to the USSR. It was a major characteristic of the nineteenth century in both Europe and Latin America" (P. 74). [End Page 506]

This project of social engineering that the Soviets were keen to pursue envisaged a major reordering of society. Traditional society came under attack on three levels. "The first was pure and simple destruction - by war, famine, purges, the arrest [of local political leaders], the closure of mosques, and finally by collectivization. The second was the use of the law against traditional Islamic customs such as veiling and polygamy. The third was the embedding of a new ideology by means of schooling and propaganda" (P. 79).

The book also underlines some distinctive features of Russian expansionism noting that from the annexation of Kazan in 1552 to the capture of Bukhara in 1920, there was a continuity in the Russian confrontation with Muslims. Hence, the Russian conquest of Central Asia between 1865 and 1920 was the outcome of a centuries-long process of the Russian Empire's expansion to the detriment of the region's Muslim civilization. At the same time, Roy points out that the two spaces, Russian and Muslim, have always been territorially continuous and overlapping. The Russian Empire mostly chose to incorporate its Muslim population rather than expelling them as the Spanish did. "This incorporation took place in a variety of ways, depending both on the strategic context and the 'culture of the era': conquest and forced conversion in the sixteenth century, political treaties in the eighteenth century, and granting Islam an official status; settler colonization, indirect administration and protectorate status at the end of the nineteenth century; and division into 'nationalities' during the Soviet period. The aim has always been integration, either by assimilation or by co-optation" (P. 26).

Furthermore, an element of continuity can be noted in the Russian imperial design that the Soviet system...


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