- Nomads and Soviet Rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin by Alun Thomas
Marxist theory provided little blueprint for dealing with nomads. Communist agents, whether in Moscow or in Central Asia, had little experience or knowledge in nomadic ways of life. Nor were they interested in understanding or supporting it, as Alun Thomas's book on Soviet policies towards Kazakh and Kyrgyz nomads during the New Economic Policy period (1921-1928) shows. The study is elegantly written and provides important insights into early Soviet attempts to institute Communist justice in the region. The author analyzes top-down visions, policies, and debates around nomadism, focusing on questions of sedentarization, allocation of land, and tax and cultural policies. He shows that decolonization, that is, the return of land taken by Russian and Cossak settlers to Kazakhs, was a short-lived strategy for consolidating power (p. 58) and that, already prior to collectivization, nomads (again) lost their best lands to settled European peasants. Taxation and land allocation were key instruments for dealing with and eradicating nomadism during the New Economic Program (NEP), while collectivization served the same end during the First Five Year Plan.
Thomas characterizes Bolshevik thinking about nomadism in the 1920s as "indifference, intellectual superficiality and ignorance" (p. 31). Rather than discerning local complexities, Bolsheviks imposed their own categories to fix Tsarist rule, which they saw as deeply oppressive and unjust. Since Marxist critiques of capitalist oppression contained little advice on how to solve the (post) colonial question, Bolshevik leaders based their thinking about decolonizing and developing the nomads, oddly but logically, on Tsarist colonial practices, knowledge, and goals. This contradictory rejection and reestablishment of Tsarist classifications and policies was at the core of the Bolshevik dilemma to emancipate colonial subjects yet force them into a new form of governance, economy, and culture against their will. [End Page 253]
In the first chapter, the author analyzes the Bolsheviks' imperial and ethnographic gaze over the region, pointing to continuities in St. Petersburg's (later Petrograd's) preoccupation with ethnic categorizations of colonial subjects. Although Bolsheviks collected information about nomads, Thomas shows that the centre had little interest in nomadism. This is because they considered nomads to be agriculturally unproductive and disturbing for Russian settlers, who were more productive and useful for the Soviet economy. Although in the early 1920s there had been attempts made to return the land taken by Russian settlers prior to the revolution to nomads, this effort did not last long. The act of decolonization (chapter 2), Thomas argues, was based on the belief that the (semi)deserts were not of agricultural value (p. 61). Yet, reinstating historical justice for the nomads would mean keeping land intact for them to use as pastures in different seasons, which the Bolsheviks considered a waste of vast agricultural resources. Sedentarization of nomads was the only feasible and attractive option for the Bolsheviks already by 1924, prior to collectivization. Moreover, the nomads' mobility was disruptive, and thus, as the Russian Tsars had learned earlier, they were difficult to administer.
As chapters 3 and 4 show, already in 1924-1925, the Party offered privileges in the form of tax reductions or exemptions to those nomads who decided to settle. This produced competition for resources among nomads for land and water. Those nomads who settled denounced those who did not as bais and kulaks, in accordance with Bolshevik categories, in hope for more privileges. The 1925 land reform, furthermore, privileged Russian peasants who worked on arable land and further disempowered nomads and semi-nomads, who were now characterized as oppressive and unruly despots. Thomas shows how Soviet land rulings, although initially proclaimed to break with the Tsarist land and settlement practices, actually resumed them (p. 70). As a result, the Soviet agents fostered further Russian settlement in the Central Asian region, providing them, as the Tsarist administration did prior to them, with the best lands. While the Tsarist administration did that in the name of civilization, the Bolsheviks opted for a rhetoric of emancipation. Both told themselves that they were ultimately...