The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations by Olivier Roy. Pub: I. B. Tauris Publishers, London, UK, and New York, USA, 2000. Pp: 222. Pbk: £14.95 / $23.50.
The five Central Asian Muslim countries — Kazakhstan, Turk-menistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kirghizstan — dropped out of the Soviet belly almost by accident after Gorbachev’s reform of the old Soviet Union. At the time, a few naive, over-optimistic Muslims saw their ‘liberation’ as another sign of the rise of Islamic civilization after the lean years of the twentieth century, along with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the defeat of the US and Israel in Lebanon. Instead of which what we actually got were five more post-colonial Muslim nation-states that have proved little different from other Muslim states, and which have slotted as smoothly into the international nation-state system as though they had always been there.
All this is despite the fact that the Central Asian states are even more artificial than most other Muslim countries, their borders having been laid down by the Soviet authorities after the Communist Revolution, and being specifically designed in some areas — such as the Ferghana Valley — to divide coherent areas and communities rather than to ensure their survival. The broader object of the project was to break up the large linguistic and cultural blocs in which the Muslims of Central Asia lived. The ways in which the policies of the Soviet empire effectively — if inadvertently — prepared the states for independent nationhood is the main subject of Olivier Roy’s book The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations.
Roy begins by pointing out that the Soviets had a very different understanding and experience of nationhood from that of other empires. While in most European empires nationalism emerged as an unwelcome reaction to imperial rule, in the Soviet Union the existence of ethnic nations was viewed as an objective reality and was the basis of political organization. For Stalin, "every national political entity had to have its corresponding titular nationality, defined as an ethnic community which had preserved an identity founded on language throughout the whole of its process of history. Such peoples were presented as living natural facts which developed independently of any political construct or personal choice among their members."
Such an understanding was of course totally alien to Muslim Central Asia, where people identified themselves in religious and cultural terms. Here, therefore, "the Soviet authorities worked in reverse. In 1924, they decreed the creation of Soviet republics to which titular people were then attributed. It was then left to anthropologists, linguistics experts and historians to explain how these virtual peoples had been waiting for centuries for their political incarnations to be achieved."
The Soviet republics thus created were deliberately given all the trappings of independent statehood — "a political apparatus (the Communist party), a state structure (Council of Ministers and head of state), a national language, a university and an academy of sciences" — while in fact being integral and dependent parts of the ‘international’ Soviet Union. Roy’s argument in this book is that "it was thus the Soviet system that implanted the model of the nation-state into a region where it had previously been unknown. The Soviet system forged the conceptual instruments (historical, ethnographic and linguistic) which provided the Muslim republics with the elements of their legitimacy and their self-definition."
In other words, while Roy basically accepts the mainstream understanding of nationalism as an "imagined community" as developed by Benedict Anderson and others, he argues in this book that the imagination that produced the nations of Central Asia was not that of Central Asians themselves but of the central authorities of the new Soviet State. In order to support this argument, Roy emphasises the role of political space, forms and structures in the shaping of political attitudes:
A Soviet republic is an empty frame which produces the effect of reality. The existence of institutions and an administrative apparatus results in the generation of a political class, a bureaucracy and an intelligentsia which owe the fact of their social being to that framework. The fact of having a national territory, national symbols, a language and references in school to the existence of a national culture, however superficial it may be, result in the implementation of a vision of the world which is not so much nationalist as simply national. Nationalism here is not an ideology, it is a habitus, a way of being which is internalised and which accords well with the actual ideology of communism, inasmuch as this latter does not question the functioning of the national framework.
Although Roy begins his study of the region with the Russian conquest of Central Asia during the Tsarist period, the bulk of the book is a study of the impact of this restructuring of the political institutions of Central Asia, both on the existing social structures and community institutions of the region, and in the emergence of a new class of ‘national’ bureaucrats and leaders operating within the Soviet system of state-based administration. Roy also says that members of this new class responded to the changes in the Soviet Union during the 1980s, under Andropov and Gorbachev, and how they came to inherit power as the leaders of newly independent nation-states as the Soviet Union fell apart.
Roy also looks in particular at the changing position and role of Islamic institutions during the communist period, including the emergence of ‘parallel’ Islamic institutions to cope with the official suppression or subversion of established Islam, and at the resurgence of Islamic sentiment in the newly-independent Central Asian countries after 1991. He points out, however, that the official systems of control remain in place and that there is little more space for Islam in the politics of the new states than there was during the Communist period.
For those with limited knowledge of Central Asian politics over the last century, and particularly during the communist period, this is a usefully brief survey and analysis of the period, focusing on social and political experiences and attitudes rather than dates and events. It provides a useful introduction to the emergence and realities of the Central Asian states as they now exist, and why they are as they are, when many Muslims expected a strong reaction against the Soviet institutions in what were once some of the heartlands of Islamic civilization.