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  • Central Asia, Russia, and the Deficiencies of European Models
  • Shoshana Keller
Gulnar T. Kendirbai, Russian Practices of Governance in Eurasia: Frontier Dynamics, Sixteenth Century to Nineteenth Century. 232 pp. New York: Routledge, 2020. ISBN-13 978-0367196752. $160.00.
Scott C. Levi, The Bukharan Crisis: A Connected History of 18th Century Central Asia. 192 pp. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020. ISBN-13 978-0822945970. $32.00.
Maya K. Peterson, Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia’s Aral Sea Basin. 422 pp. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. ISBN-13 978-1108468541. $32.99.

The study of Central Eurasian history poses many challenges, of which one of the knottiest but most interesting is that the familiar Western models of nation, state, and empire do not apply. While historians have long studied nations and empires as products of Western development, and the connections between their rise and the rise of history as a modern intellectual discipline, it takes confrontation with profoundly different sociopolitical systems to see just how hard it is to restructure our thinking. When considering relations among Eurasian polities, positing Russia as a European imperial power that colonized Central Asia seems commonsensical, with some modifications to the model. However, as these three fine books show, even a modified imperial model oversimplifies Eurasian relations. Another strength of these books is that they look beyond strictly political relations to consider economic, environmental, and social factors in the shifting balances of power across Eurasia. While they consider different periods and topics, these books share several [End Page 410] underlying themes: the histories of Eurasian peoples must be studied in connection with each other, even as modes of rule changed; economic relations are key to understanding politics; a government does not have to be competent to effect major changes; and water, soil, and climate may have the last word.


Gulnar Kendirbai’s slim but dense book offers an unusual perspective by treating the Russian government as a Eurasian power operating within the long-standing Eurasian political system, rather than as a European power that expanded into Asia. She draws some of her analysis from post-Soviet work by Russian and Kazakh historians and uses material from Kazakh and Russian archives.1 While most historians have focused on conquest of the Turkic Kazakh and Uzbek khanates, Kendirbai spends more time on Russian relations with the Mongol Kalmyk and Jungar nomads. This helps fill a gap in our understanding, as the Mongol groups were more aggressive toward Russia than were the Turkic peoples. Kendirbai shows in detail how relations among Russia, the Kalmyks and Jungars, and the three Kazakh hordes were shaped by each group’s internal political dynamics, even as they shared some principles about how political power worked.

The central principle was the Turko-Mongol idea of ulus (appanage or patrimony). Ulus was a broad term that defined a ruler’s authority to grant people access to land, but it could include the people themselves. Ulus was not a fixed territory; it was a mobile power, which a ruler could flexibly use or could easily lose, especially if his people became dissatisfied and left his sphere of authority. In the Kalmyk confederation—nomadic state?—this political world is so different that the historian gropes for an adequate noun, but English provides none. The Kalmyk taishas (rulers) depended on their subjects for tax and tribute income. In exchange they offered military protection, although they treated their subjects so harshly that groups running away to a rival taisha’s ulus were a regular problem. In the mid-17th century the taishas forged a close alliance with the monarchical lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, which provided a legal and moral system to enforce obedience. The three Kazakh hordes (from the Mongol orda, camp) had a less coercive relationship between “white bone” aristocrats, who claimed direct descent from Chinggis Khan, and “black bone” commoners. Kazakh khans also received tribute in [End Page 411] exchange for protection, but they controlled their own large herds and did not depend on tribute or taxes for regular income. The loose “partnership” (Kendirbai’s term) between elite and ordinary Kazakhs struck some Russian observers as more anarchy than freedom...