- Central Asian History as Soviet History
In a spring 2015 forum in this journal, a group of established scholars discussed Central Asia’s place in the field of Russian and Soviet history.1 Are scholars of Central Asia, they asked, marginalized by—or worse—marginal to the broader profession? The current collection of essays helps answer this question. Here four young historians present research on Central Asia that is not only valuable as Central Asian history but also addresses questions that are absolutely central to the history of the Soviet Union. What did it mean to be “national,” to be Soviet, to be both national and Soviet? How did World War II transform Soviet citizens and their relationship to one another and to the Soviet state? How did Soviet experts conceive of modernity and economic development? How did the Soviet Union represent itself at home and abroad?
Each of these essays uses valuable, hitherto underutilized sources: soldiers’ letters from the front, written in Uzbek and other non-Russian languages; republican archives in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; the writings of Tajik economists; a trove of photographs from the Sovinformbiuro; oral history interviews. Timothy Nunan and Artemy Kalinovsky focus on topics scarcely explored in Soviet Central Asia—visual culture and political economy. Charles Shaw and Moritz Florin approach the more established topics of ethnicity, nationality, and Soviet identity in innovative ways. All four of these essays investigate the wartime and postwar years, crucial periods in Soviet Central Asian history that have only recently become the object of sustained attention. The essays offer a wealth of material for discussion, but I focus here on three themes that make particularly significant contributions to the field of Soviet history, in my view: World War II as a turning point in the transformation of Central Asia (and, by extension, the Soviet Union as a whole); the evolution of identities in Central Asia during and after the war; and the place of Central Asia in the intersection of Soviet domestic and foreign policy during the postwar era. [End Page 621]
World War II as a Turning Point
The first post-Soviet generation of Western scholars in the 1990s and 2000s focused mainly on the period between the revolutions and World War II, for understandable reasons. A wealth of untouched archival materials and indigenous-language sources existed for the 1920s and 1930s that was richer and more diverse than that of the later Stalinist era. From a strictly practical point of view, it made sense to gain an understanding of the early Soviet period before turning to the later decades. These early post-Soviet works focused primarily on nation making, gender, and Islam—all topics that had attracted attention from scholars well before the post-1991 “archival revolution.”2 Taken together, these monographs suggested that the Soviet transformation of Central Asia in the interwar period was incomplete. Indeed, in some ways it had scarcely begun. At the beginning of World War II, mass education continued to be rudimentary, and few Central Asians knew Russian. Most Central Asians remained mystified by, if not completely unfamiliar with, the main tenets of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Efforts to transform the status of women and “backward” family customs had met with limited success. Historians working on the 1920s and 1930s knew—or surmised—that the war and early postwar years were crucial in making Central Asia Soviet, but we did not yet have the evidence to demonstrate this. The next wave of scholarly work turned to the wartime and postwar periods, and dissertations and books dealing with this period have begun to appear in recent years.3
Charles Shaw and Moritz Florin emphasize the war as a turning point in the transformation of Central Asia and its integration into the Soviet “imagined community.” First and most obviously, the war transformed the [End Page 622] young Central Asian men who served in the Red Army. As Shaw shows, Uzbek soldiers learned Russian, adapted to Soviet frontline culture, and learned to present themselves in new ways. They also mastered the Soviet culture of frontline letter writing, which included the very non-Uzbek practice of writing to girls they had never met. (In...