- Beyond Colonialism?Agency, Power, and the Making of Soviet Central Asia
Perhaps unsurprisingly, questions of colonialism keep coming up in scholarship on the history of Central Asia. In fact, only few authors outside Russia doubt that tsarist rule in Central Asia was colonial, and we can thus hardly escape the question as to whether Soviet rule was colonial, too. Douglas Northrop, for example, has argued that "the USSR, like its Tsarist predecessor, was a colonial empire. Power … was expressed across lines of hierarchy and difference that created at least theoretically distinct centers (metropoles) and peripheries (colonies)."1 To Adeeb Khalid, in contrast, this appeared to be "a world turned upside down," because unlike "modern overseas colonial empires," the Soviet state did not attempt to perpetuate [End Page 827] differences but instead sought to "homogenize populations in order to attain universal goals."2
The three new books under review contribute to the ongoing debates about Soviet colonialism. At the same time, they remind us of the futility of any attempt to accept or deny unequivocally the colonial nature of Soviet rule in Central Asia. Botakoz Kassymbekova argues in her new book on Soviet Tajikistan that all rigid attempts to classify the Soviet case as a "modern state" or "colonial empire" are "somewhat misleading, since they treat both as separate and unrelated systems of governance, as if they developed historically on opposite premises" (15). According to Abashin, it is precisely the fact that many Central Asians did not perceive the Soviet Union as a Red Empire that should make us wonder about the colonial content: "Looking at colonialism not so much as a sum of certain selected traits but instead as a particular type of narrative and even identity leads to the question why a notable if not predominant part of Central Asian society did not (and does not) think of itself as (post)colonial" (44). Even Adeeb Khalid somewhat softens his earlier argument in his new book, arguing that Soviet attempts to engineer society "have no parallels in the colonial empires of the era" (emphasis mine) and that the Soviet state could never "completely vanquish the habitus of empire" (10).
Although the three authors remain ambivalent about the nature of Soviet rule in Central Asia, their books do reveal the relevance of issues of coloniality and power in writing histories of Central Asia. Arguably, the most defining characteristic of colonial rule does not lie in its antiuniversalism or tendency to perpetuate differences but instead in its foreignness. According to one definition, under colonialism the fundamental decisions about the lives of an indigenous majority are made and implemented by a foreign minority.3 Questions about the cultural foreignness of colonial rule are crucial not only in colonial studies but also for the three books under review. From where did local elites in Central Asia derive their power to influence the course of events? Did it arise from their own society or from the center, from Moscow? How much power did convinced reformers such as the Jadids derive from the support and "enthusiasm" of the local (indigenous) population? And how significant is the cultural gap between rulers and ruled for our interpretation of Central Asian history? [End Page 828]
Questions about the modernity of Soviet rule and about its homogenizing impact should continue to preoccupy historians of Central Asia and the Soviet Union. But the books under review also show that this debate should be disentangled from the attempt to answer the question of whether Soviet state building in Central Asia was colonial or not. The significance of the study of Soviet Central Asia does not lie in assigning labels such as "empire" or "colonialism," but instead in adding a new perspective to debates on...