The cover of Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present, with its photo of the massive walls of the Ark Fortress in Bukhara, is something of a bait and switch. The book flies through that period implied by picture: the “imperial conquests” of the subtitle are not those of Genghis Khan or Timur, but rather the later ones by China and Russia: conquests of Central Asia, not by.
One is quickly disabused. In his first paragraph, Adeeb Khalid dismisses conventional commentary on Central Asia which evokes
vast, undulating grasslands filled with nomadic horsemen, the minarets and cupolas of medieval architecture, and natives in folkloric costumes… At its best, exoticism romanticizes Central Asia and places it beyond the reach of history. At its worst, it can render the region a blank slate on which one can inscribe anything one wishes.
Khalid, who was studying for a PhD when the Soviet Union fell apart, opening up heretofore inaccessible archives, emphasizes history that leads to the here and now. Indeed, the primary takeaway of the book is that today’s Central Asia grew out of its conquest which
marked a rupture with the past, which grew less important and less helpful in understanding the new era. Empires have been the most common form of political organization in human history, and there had been plenty of empires in Central Asia’s history. The conquests of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were different, however. They brought Central Asia under the control of large empires based outside the region. They completed the enclosure of the steppe that had been ongoing since the seventeenth century and reversed the long-term relationship between the region and its neighbors.
This in turn drives Khalid’s geographical definition of Central Asia as
encompassing the five post-Soviet states and the Xinjiang region of the PRC. This Central Asia encompasses those predominantly Muslim societies that came under the rule of the overland empires of the Romanovs and the Qing from the late eighteenth century on.
For his is a primarily a political history:
The historical contingency that the Russian conquest stopped at the Amu Darya River accounts for the radically different path that Afghanistan took in the twentieth century. For this reason, it does not belong in this story. For similar reasons, my Central Asia does not include the lands of the Tatars and Bashkirs, which are geographically connected to the steppe zone of Central Asia and inhabited by Turkic-speaking Muslims, but which have a much longer connection to the Russian state. I exclude Mongolia and Tibet from my purview for similar reasons. They are culturally quite different from the region that is the focus of this book, and their political histories have little in common with its history in the modern period.
The second takeaway is that those parts of Central Asia under Chinese and Russia/Soviet rule, despite certain similarities, developed quite differently. This seems, in retrospect, self-evident, but the trajectories of the parts of the region criss-crossed several times, even in the relatively recent past:
In 1989, Soviet Central Asia was economically much the stronger of the two parts of Central Asia, with substantial heavy industry and a robust infrastructure, but now Xinjiang has become the economic motor of the region. Chinese goods and people, shut out of Soviet space by the closed border, have become dominant in the countries of post-Soviet Central Asia, with Xinjiang playing a major role in the trade. The relationship between the two halves of Central Asia has been reversed.
Although the book is long—500 pages without notes, index, etc.—and dense, so jam-packed with facts, players and analysis that one might even go so far as to consider it definitive, it is a remarkably easy read: Khalid is a very good writer. Never let it be said that rigorous, academic content is inimical to stylish prose.
The amount of material in the book resists summary; but some topics deserve highlighting. One is the human and cultural interchange that existed between Russia/Soviet and Chinese Central Asia until the border was sealed in 1962. Uprisings against Qing and Republican rule were often led by leaders who originated from outside; many of Xinjiang’s early political intellectuals were educated in Tashkent. Large numbers—tens of thousands—of people would cross the border, arbitraging on political and economic conditions. Another is that the national-ethnic terms in use today, from Uzbek to Uyghur and Kyrgyz are largely developments of the early part of the 20th century, as are the identities that now accompany them.
The book is in addition an end-to-end compendium of interesting thoughts and perspectives. One example is Khalid’s explanation as how the Russian empire handled its diversity:
The Russian empire was a dynastic empire of conquest that took difference for granted and sought to accommodate it. The empire incorporated new territories and groups on specific terms inscribed in charters or legislation unique to each new conquest… Ethnic Russians did not enjoy any privileges as a result of being Russian… The empire was run by a multinational noble elite that served the dynasty. The elites of each new territory could be inducted into the Russian imperial nobility, which in addition to Russians included Baltic Germans, Poles, Georgians, Ukrainians, and not a few Tatars and Bashkirs. Loyalty to the dynasty, not ethnic belonging, was the key here.
The consequences could be counter-intuitive:
Under the protectorate, Bukharan emirs had far greater control over their territory than their predecessors had ever enjoyed when they were independent.
Or on the nature of extraterritoriality in Qing-era Xinjiang:
What was unusual about Xinjiang was that for both the Russian and the British empires, the beneficiaries of extraterritoriality were imperial subjects who were racially and culturally distinct from the imperial rulers. The Russian subjects who operated in Xinjiang were largely Tatars in the north and “Andijanis” in the south… The British subjects who traded in Xinjiang were all Indian, and most of them were Hindus.
Indeed, by the end of the 19th-century, the ruble was in widespread use and “even Chinese goods traveled to Xinjiang on Russian railways” via the Trans-Siberian. It was Russian infrastructure, not Qing, that provided postal connections to the outside world. This imbalance extended onto the Post-War Communist period:
Soviet experts, many of them Central Asian, played a significant role in Xinjiang, where often they were the only experts who could speak with the local population: their Han Chinese counterparts, with no knowledge of Turkic languages, were reduced to communicating with hand gestures and facial expressions.
Khalid’s own view of his subjects is nuanced and, in large part, sympathetic:
It is easy to scoff at it all [Kazakhstan’s new capital Astana] and dismiss it as an autocrat’s folly, but we should remember that Washington is also named after a first president and has a strikingly grandiose and pompous plan.
The Soviet past has been more of a blessing than a curse for the independent states of Central Asia. The Soviet infrastructure of education and transportation helped the new states negotiate the path to sovereignty, while the language of the nation, another key Soviet legacy, provided a source of stability and a legitimizing principle. The Soviet elites who retained power after independence were also an element of continuity.
Khalid brings the story up to the present day, only a few months behind current troubling headlines. A review such as this usually ends with a line about how the book in question is “required reading for an understanding of the region”, but that makes it sound like an obligation and a chore. Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present is, however, endlessly erudite and fascinating.