Central Asian Colonialism

A Map of Imperial Russian Expansion into Central Asia

Today’s post requests some feedback, so don your thinking caps please.

Russian control over Central Asia, understood as what are today Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, expanded over the course of about 150 years starting in the 1730s and culminating in the Imperial capture of Merv in southern Turkmenistan in 1884. From this time until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, no one seriously challenged Russian dominance over this territory. Even during the Great Game, Britain’s objective was to keep the Russians out of Afghanistan, not to dislodge them from their new territories.

It is commonplace for Anglophone scholars, at least, to refer to the presence of Imperial Russia in Central Asia as “colonialism.” See, for example, Martha Brill Olcott’s Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise and Svat Soucek’s The History of Inner Asia, both of which are good introductions to Central Asia in many respects. According to these author’s, Imperial Russia’s expansion is a textbook case of colonialism: Russia acquired territory either through conquest or the voluntary abrogation of sovereignty in the face of overwhelming military might. Once in control, Russia encouraged ethnic Slavs to settled the land, forced some nomads to become sedentary and established administrative protectorates. They also built forts along the changing periphery; Fort Verny (now Almaty) was built in 1854 after the Russian’s took Semirechye.

However, the Russian Empire did not last long after the completion of Imperial expansion; in 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution swept in a new political leadership and ideology. Marxist-Leninism decried the colonial subjugation of Central Asia’s Muslims and vowed to liberate these people. Thus Moscow established Soviet Socialist Republics for certain major ethno-linguistic groups, such as the Kazakh SSR in 1934. In theory, each of the 15 SSRs were independent nations and members of the Soviet Union by choice. It was, in fact, the evocation of rights associated with the SSRs’ theoretical sovereignty that accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Of course, in practice the SSRs were hardly sovereign or autonomous. They could not have exercised the right to secede from the USSR, and Moscow’s dominance was never in doubt. Therefore, few non-specialist scholars distinguish between Russian Imperial and Soviet colonialism, treating the latter simply as a straight-forward continuation of the former. This being the case, it presents a historically unique instance of political revolution in the colonial center leaving control over the imperial possessions unchanged. (Thinking time! Please tell me if you know of another example.)

Soucek forcibly argues this point, citing the suppression of nationalism and national identity, the subjugation of local Communist Parties to the metropole’s (Moscow’s) Communists, and the exploitation of natural resources as his prima facie evidence for continued colonialism despite, as he notes, a few hopeful years when things seemed uncertain immediately after the 1917 revolution. The case for colonialism in Kazakhstan is strong: the intellectual class was obliged to speak in Russian, not Kazakh; Moscow used the SSR’s vast tracts of land for dangerous nuclear testing, extensive mining activities and unsound agricultural practices on an unimaginably large scale; and the population had little, if any, say over their political leadership. These are, as Soucek argues, the hallmarks of colonialism as we understand it from the French in North Africa and the British in India.

I would not question this characterization of Russian dominance in Kazakhstan except that few Kazakhs except the label of “colonialism” to describe the Soviet (as distinct from Imperial) dominance of their land. I’ve had well-educated Kazakhs tell me point-blank that they were not colonized, their arguments being that: Kazakhs and Russians were treated equally under the broken system; life in Russia outside the metropole was no different from life in Kazakhstan; and lastly, the Soviets may have taken much from Kazakhstan’s land, but they also reinvested heavily in the republic’s infrastructural and human capital. In light of these denials, I am faced with the decision either to accept the Kazakh’s understanding of their Soviet, “brotherly” relations with Moscow or (condescendingly) dismiss their point of view as “brainwashed,” as not a few foreigners have suggested with regards to this and related topics.

From the point of view of political science, whether we understand Kazakhstan has having been a colonial holding or not under the Soviets has implications for our expectations of subsequent, post-independence development. Therefore, it is at least theoretically important to have a clear perspective on whether the term “colonialism” and its implicit relationships is applicable here. Which brings us again to thinking time! What, in your opinion, are the hallmarks of colonialism? How do we know it when we see it?

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9 comments
  1. Gordon said:

    I’m not sure the investment in infrastructure precludes this case from colonialism. Think of the money Britain poured into the new world in an effort to extract natural resources for their domestic manufacturers. The investment in human capital also isn’t convincing. Had significant money and time been devoted to improving the skills of the workforce, maybe, but it seems closer to indentured servitude.

  2. Kenneth said:

    May i know what’s your view in relating the modernity of Kazakhstan (or at least Almaty) to the UNESCO site of Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly? Am working on the research on it to see any tension/assimiliation on this aspect. Thanks!

  3. agc said:

    Answer to thinking time : the French revolution briefly started a movement of reform of colonial power in its carribean colonies and Senegal but never really went through with it. The French Liberation in 1945 also did not change the colonial relationship… The Chinese revolution actually sped up the reconstitution of Chinese imperialism in Mongolia and Tibet.

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