A Scholar Looks Back to the Future of Central Asia

When Adeeb Khalid was growing up in Lahore, Pakistan, neighboring Soviet Central Asia did not seem like a land next door but a distant, exotic place. Although his work as a historian has taken him about as far as can be from where he started, he has become a leading scholar on Central Asia and its recent history.

Khalid, 46, a Pakistani American and a professor of history at Carleton College in Minnesota, has begun six months of rare scholarly luxury in Washington. As a visiting scholar at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, he is freed from the duties of preparing and teaching classes, mentoring students and meeting with faculty colleagues, not to mention shoveling the snow of another Midwestern winter from in front of his house. (His son, now 14, is big enough to take that over, he says.) Instead, he has immersed himself in the resources of the world’s largest library to finish a history of Central Asia in the first 15 years of Soviet rule after the 1917 Russian Revolution, a pivotal period he describes as one of nationalistic and idealistic hope turning to disappointment and fear.

Khalid is tracing the careers and concerns of that era’s Central Asian intellectual and political leaders. He said they yearned to remake Central Asian society in a progressive way, to teach its citizens “literacy, science, the scientific method, hygiene — so they could act like modern, civilized people of the 20th century. That included changing the place of women in society, doing away with forced marriages, child marriages, polygamy, all of those. So it’s a huge cultural agenda.”

What’s more, Khalid said, the Central Asian leaders wanted an economic revolution for their region of small farmers and nomadic herdsmen, bringing not only irrigation and other improvements in agriculture but “doing away with the inequalities of colonialism so that Central Asia would acquire an industry.”

“In 1917, Central Asia was a distant colonial periphery of the Russian Empire,” Khalid said as he sat in his Library of Congress office. “It was culturally, religiously, ethnically completely different, as different from Petersburg and Moscow as India was from England. And in many ways, it was run as a colony and not as another part of the empire.”

So Central Asians embraced the first Russian Revolution of 1917, which made all Russian subjects equal citizens — “a very, very progressive, universalizing” move, Khalid said. And eight months later, many embraced the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviets’ utopian vision of equality. They became Central Asia’s homegrown Soviet administrators and had “a mind of their own,” he said — which by the early 1930s made them untrustworthy in the eyes of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as he consolidated power.

In writings by Central Asia’s elites of the 1920s, including Communist Party members, Khalid said, the objections to policies from Moscow are clear: They lament that Central Asia is treated as “a cotton colony.” Their language becomes more guarded as the years go by. “The rhetoric of the ‘30s is just so grotesque, whereas in the ‘20s people would still say what they wanted,” Khalid said. “So I find the ‘30s less interesting. It’s also dismal because all the people I’m [researching] all get shot.”

Even the purges of the 1930s, to the historian, show the dramatic leaps Central Asia took in that time. Khalid said that one of the men he has studied, Abdurrauf Fitrat, was born in the Khanate of Bukhara in 1886, just 10 years after it had become a Russian protectorate, and was executed in 1938. “You go in one lifetime from the Genghis Khan’s political tradition to modern totalitarianism,” Khalid said.

Khalid said he has been researching this book for years. Some of the most valuable material for the book popped up at the Library of Congress, and it fills several shelves in his office: cream-colored volumes, the covers and spines blank, published in the Turkic languages of Central Asia in the 1920s and 1930s and quickly acquired by the library, shipped to Washington, bound and put aside without even being catalogued. The edges of the pages have yellowed slightly, but the volumes have the smell and feel of books never before opened.

“People know in the field that there is this stash of books here,” Khalid said. “So I went up to the reading room, and they pulled out all the books and they said, ‘You take all the ones that you find interesting.’” He said they cover “all topics under the sun,” from beekeeping to physics, and he has been reading those on political and literary topics. When he’s done with the materials — before his six-month stay at the library is up — the books will return to their permanent shelves.

Khalid portrays the Central Asia of the 1920s as a place of possibilities. As Turkey was undergoing its transformation from a remnant of the defeated Ottoman Empire to a modern, secular nation-state, Central Asia sought to do much the same. The cultural modernization was largely a success, Khalid said, and the Soviet Union fostered the rise of “these ethno-national identities” with the creation of the Central Asian Soviet republics.

Yet the central government showed a lack of respect for local culture. “One case is about Eastern music,” Khalid said. “The Central Asian intellectuals basically wanted to create a canon of classical Central Asian music. From Moscow came down the line: ‘No, there’s only one single, universal tradition of classical music, and what you have is Eastern music, and that’s well and good, but we need to civilize it, and we need to write symphonies based on themes from that music. But really, it’s not a separate tradition.’”

The early Soviet legacy also shows in the Islam of Central Asia, the subject of Khalid’s last book. (His previous book was on the politics of Muslim cultural reform, or Jadidism, under the Russian Empire, and he has written more than a dozen scholarly articles on the past 150 years of Central Asia’s history.) To some extent, he said, Central Asia’s ethnic identities supplanted religious identity as the Soviets imposed “a massive, sustained campaign against Islam” and “the forced secularization” of society, especially from 1927 to 1940. “I call it the disestablishment of Islam as a source of moral authority. No one said they are not Muslim, but it just means something different.”

As a result, he said, “Islam is part of the national cultural inheritance but doesn’t necessarily dictate things … as opposed to, say, in Pakistan, where you don’t have this language of national and cultural heritage and then Islam is the only thing left, and people using Islamic rhetoric can dictate and there’s nothing that can hold them back.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. )

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