The quantitative (if not necessarily qualitative) eruption of books and articles on modern Central Asia, both in Russia and in Western countries, has created a obvious need for historical reference works devoted to the region. In this regard the decision of the Scarecrow Press to include several of the Central Asian republics, including Turkmenistan, in its series of historical dictionaries—and Rafis Abazov’s willingness to author the volume—can only be welcomed. For all the boosterism in Central Asian studies that is encountered nowadays, it remains a marginal area in Western scholarship overall. And Turkmenistan, for a variety of historical and political reasons, remains perhaps the most marginal area of Central Asian studies.
Abazov’s historical dictionary is divided into four main sections. The first is a historical chronology, (xxvii-xlvi) rather vague and impressionistic for the period before Russian rule, but progressively more detailed for the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. The second is a broad introduction (xlvii-civ) of Turkmenistan’s demography, economy, and history. The third section is the historical dictionary proper (pp. 1-174), with about 300 separate entries. The fourth section (pp. 175-240) contains an appendix with selected statistical data and a bibliography of works that is both wide-ranging and generally comprehensive. The publisher indicates that the work’s focus is primarily the twentieth century and describes it as a “concise overview of the historical development of Turkmenistan.” This description is accurate if “Turkmenistan” is understood as a twentieth-century phenomenon. The dictionary is intended primarily for non-specialists, including, we are told, “international consultants, NGO activists, and policymakers.” Generally non-specialists interested in modern Turkmenistan will be well served by Abazov’s book, particularly his attention to the influence of Soviet institutions and society on modern Turkmenistan, which with the passing of time may be less and less familiar to Western non-specialists. Those more familiar with Central Asian history and especially with the Islamic history of the Turkmens will surely be happy to see entries briefly covering ahuns, hojas, Oghuz Khan, the Oghuznama, Sufism, and Islam. However, they are bound to be disappointed by several omissions, even appreciating that major omissions are inevitable in a work of such concision. Particularly unfortunate in a historical dictionary of Turkmenistan is the absence of an entry devoted to Islamic historiography that might have included Abu’l-Ghazi Bahadur Shah and his works, particularly the Shajara-yi tarakima, or Mu’nis’ Firdaws al-Iqbal. Similarly the absence of an entry on Muslim hagiolatry, despite an extensive Russian-language literature on the subject, is regrettable, all the more as it remains an aspect of modern Turkmen religious life that any but the most casual visitor in Turkmenistan cannot fail to notice.
Besides such arguably pardonable errors of omission, there are also some errors of commission, some of which in fact risk supplying the user with incorrect information. In this regard the work’s main weakness is its treatment of the Turkmen language. The dictionary suffers throughout from an inconsistently applied transcription system of Turkmen words. Abazov at times transcribes some Turkmen letters on the basis of the new Turkmen Latin alphabet, and other times appears to be transcribing from the Cyrillic using Russian conventions, for example, sometimes the Turkmen letter “h” appears so, and other times in the Russianised form “kh.” Perhaps more serious is his discussion of the Turkmen alphabet, where Abazov appears unaware of some of the most distinctive aspects of Turkmen phonology, such as in most dialects, and in the literary language, the letter “s” is pronounced “th” as in the worth “theatre” and the letter “z” is pronounced “th” as in the word “the.” However, given the dearth of secondary materials on Turkmen history, and the complete absence of accessible reference materials, Abazov deserves recognition for having synthesised a solid general treatment of twentieth-century Turkmen history.