The Contribution of Central Eurasian Studies to Russian and (Post-)Soviet Studies and Beyond
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The Contribution of Central Eurasian Studies to Russian and (Post-)Soviet Studies and Beyond

I was slightly surprised when the editor of Kritika commissioning this piece wrote that some people in the field of Eurasian studies, especially Central Asian studies, are dissatisfied that the field still seems marginalized in the larger profession, which they view as excessively focused on Russia and the USSR. When I decided to study Central Asia in 1988, this was truly a rare and unusual choice for university students, but many specialists in Soviet/Russian studies had already recognized the need to study this region, and my teachers welcomed my choice. The number of students of Central Asian—or more broadly, Central Eurasian—studies rapidly increased in the late 1990s and the 2000s, and I have never felt my field marginalized during the last 15 years.1 The renaming of a number of research institutes and associations to include the word “Eurasian”—such as the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, and my workplace, the Slavic–Eurasian Research Center at Hokkaido University—reflects the importance attached to Central Eurasia in post-Soviet studies. To my knowledge, there are more people worried about the marginalization of Russian/Soviet/post-Soviet studies in the social sciences and humanities more generally than there are about Central Eurasian studies in particular.

However, I do recognize the risk that Central Eurasian studies may be marginalized in the near future for three reasons. First, Central Eurasia is [End Page 331] seldom a focal point in world politics. Despite some predictions right after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Central Asia would become a region with permanent conflicts (and indeed some did occur), fortunately it has been relatively stable compared with the Middle East, Afghanistan, and even eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang), a historically integral part of Central Asia. More serious conflicts in the Caucasus also have become less visible recently. A number of authors write about the “New Great Game” in Central Eurasia, but the main battlefield of the power game between Russia and the West—at least for the moment—appears to be Ukraine rather than Central Eurasia. Second, although I do not have any statistics, the number of graduate and undergraduate students majoring in Central Eurasian studies seems to be decreasing, at least in Japan. There can be many explanations for this, but I would like to point out a difference of experiences between generations: while specialists in this field now in their 40s and 30s, having heard news about perestroika and the independence of the former Soviet republics when they were students or schoolchildren, had an image of Central Eurasia as a region with an interesting future, current students have rarely heard news that would evoke a vivid and positive image of this region. It should be added, however, that it is easier than before to access information about Central Eurasia, and opportunities to communicate with people sometimes do excite interest among students. Third, although Central Eurasian studies greatly advanced in the past 20 years, fewer pathbreaking works have appeared recently, a point I explore in greater detail below. From this perspective, at least at the moment, study of the region is not providing as much “buzz” as it has in the past.

Taking into consideration the state of affairs mentioned above, in this essay I try, first, to summarize the contribution that Central Eurasian studies have made to Russian/Soviet/post-Soviet studies; second, to demonstrate the merit of Central Eurasian studies in comparative area studies and, specifically, comparative imperial history; and third, to contemplate ways of preventing the marginalization of Central Eurasian studies in the future. This essay is written from the perspective of a Japanese specialist in the modern history and politics of Central Eurasia (especially Central Asia), with special attention to Central Eurasian studies in the West and Japan (with an emphasis on the latter), not in post-Soviet countries. I do this only to make the story simple, although I attach great importance to collaboration with scholars in Central Eurasia and Russia.

A conspicuous feature of Central Eurasian studies...