Remarkably enough, this weighty monograph makes up just one third of Svetlana Gorshenina’s recent doctoral thesis, the remaining portions of which have yet to be published. It is a detailed study of the ideological preconceptions and political processes which lay behind the establishment of state frontiers in Central Asia, first those of the Russian empire, and then of the Soviet Union. The section dealing with the former is much longer, something welcomed by this reviewer, as the Tsarist period has a tendency to be neglected in much recent Central Asian historiography in favour of the more glamorous modernising and mobilising projects of the USSR. The principal archival sources used are from the Central State Archive of the Republic of Uzbekistan, principally (for the Tsarist period) material from the unpublished volumes of A. G. Serebrennikov’s Sbornik Materialov po istorii Zavoevaniya Srednei Azii.
Drawing on the work of the French geographers Paul Guichonnet, Claude Raffestin and Michel Foucher, Gorshenina’s central thesis is that in Central Asia, as elsewhere, frontiers did not appear ‘naturally’, or even necessarily as a result of pragmatic considerations or ‘rational’ political and military competition, but were heavily inflected by ideological preoccupations. Chief amongst these was the idea of the ‘scientific’ or ‘natural’ frontier, whose chief exponent on the Tsarist side was the military geographer Mikhail Veniukov. Thus particular geographical features, usually rivers or mountain ranges, were plucked out of their human and environmental context to become ‘lines on a map’, even if the process of rendering these frontiers more than merely notional was often fraught. Gorshenina is surely correct in insisting that we need to understand the mental world which these ‘frontier-drawers’ inhabited, and her approach does yield some fascinating insights. The chapter on the Kuldja crisis of 1871, and the subsequent ten-year Russian occupation of the Ili valley (pp.95 – 132), which makes the fullest use of the Serebrennikov documents, is particularly good, and shows clearly how ideas about the ‘naturalness’ of a mountain frontier interacted with Russian prejudices about ‘fanatical’ Islam and the desire to conciliate the Chinese.
However, Gorshenina’s chosen chronology is somewhat problematic: for reasons which are never fully explained she begins her study in 1870, and thus omits some of the most crucial phases of the Russian advance into Central Asia, notably the initial construction of a Sino-Russian frontier along the West Siberian line of fortresses, and the doomed attempt to turn the lower Syr-Darya into a ‘firm state frontier’ in the 1850s. The subsequent debates about where and how these two frontier lines should be united, and the vexed question of the reasons for the capture of Tashkent cannot be understood in isolation from this earlier phase of expansion. Veniukov’s most important surveys were carried out in the Tian-Shan and the Chu region in the 1850s, and some of the most interesting debates over what constituted a ‘natural’ frontier came in the early 1860s, when the Russian leadership was trying to decide whether to ‘unite the lines’ along the summits of the Qara-Tau, the line of the River Arys, or through Tashkent, something Gorshenina only touches on in passing (pp.169-170). By the time the Russians were advancing beyond Tashkent, at the beginning of Gorshenina’s narrative, their patterns of thought regarding Central Asia, its frontiers, and the best routes for territorial annexation were already well-established.
There are also some problems with the ways in which Gorshenina handles sources. With the exception of the Ghulja chapter (and even here she could have consulted the originals of many of the documents which Serebrennikov had copied, as these are in Almaty), she actually uses rather little archival material which would shed light on the debates over where frontiers should run which were current amongst statesmen and officers at the time when Russian expansion was actually taking place. Instead Gorshenina makes very heavy use of retrospective judgements from the early 1900s, notably works by A. N. Kuropatkin and A. E. Snesarev, which were written with hindsight and seek to impose a smooth rationality on what was usually a rather messy and contested process. She also relies rather extensively on an 1888 travel account by Napoleon Ney, whose judgements regarding Russian motives were not always reliable. Finally, and perhaps most seriously, there is no material whatsoever from any Russian archives apart from that cited in a 1998 edition of documents from RGIA by Dyakin. Given that this book is really a study of Russian official attitudes and policies, which were primarily determined in the War and Foreign Ministries in St Petersburg, this is a serious omission.
The second section on Soviet frontiers concentrates on the process of national delimitation, where Gorshenina does a good job of demonstrating how, unlike in the Tsarist period, in the 1920s and 30s Central Asians themselves began to play a role in determining where the new frontiers which (at first nominally) divided them would run (pp.287, 300). Gorshenina blends material from the Tashkent archive with recent English-language scholarship by Haugen, Hirsch, Martin, Bergne and others, producing a narrative account which is much superior to anything else available in French at the moment: it will be particularly useful to those who do not have access to these works in the original. The book concludes with an epilogue on frontiers in Central Asia today, reflecting on the sudden salience Soviet-era ‘national’ divisions acquired after 1991, and on the lack of flexibility shown by local elites in mitigating the problems this has caused for ordinary people.
Overall then, Asie Centrale is a useful if slightly disappointing work: one gets the sense that Gorshenina’s thesis required more editing in order to produce a really satisfying book, as there are lengthy sections based primarily on secondary works which could have been axed before publication. This also suggests that the author could not quite decide if she were writing a research monograph or a more general narrative.