Accepting as a vocation the “problematic and thorny [p. 25]” task of achieving the preparation of the present book (after the resignation of an initial Editor discouraged by the complexity of that endeavour), the actual Editors of this volume—the sixth and last of a series initiated by the UNESCO in 1980—have given birth to a model of international scientific cooperation and, at the same time, to a monument bearing testimony of a state of research that was prevailing among Western as well as Soviet scholars during Perestroika and in the early independence period (the footnotes and the bibliography at the end of the volume rarely refer to publications posterior to the 1980s, and many remain limited to classical Soviet references). Prepared in the course of twenty years, this beautifully printed and carefully edited volume remains unfortunately, for its most part, alien to the boom of publications and to the deepest methodological changes that have marked the period since the dissolution of the USSR and the relative opening of China to foreign research. Often conservative in its content, the volume is also conspicuous by the fuzzy contour given by the UNESCO to the very notion of Central Asia, limited by some authors of the present volume to the territory of former Soviet Middle Asia (in particular in historical chapters), but extended by others to a good half of Asia, including the whole Iranian plateau and a substantial part of the Indian subcontinent.
These approximations notwithstanding, it goes without saying that the volume remains an interesting and recommendable reading, dotted with significant, sometimes innovative contributions that save the overall project from conceptual collapse. (The articles dealing with Iran, Pakistan and Northern India will be let aside of the present review.) The first part, under the neutral title “Continuity and change,” consists of a series of overall essays on the political and social history of Central Asia (in the restrictive meaning of this denomination) from the Russian conquest and colonisation to the first years of the Soviet period. It is continued by a second part made of monographic articles on state-formation in the present nation-states of former Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan and Mongolia, as well as in Xinjiang and in the Sayan-Altai Mountain region of south-eastern Siberia from the eighteenth century to the dissolution of the USSR. Indeed, most argue that early modern and contemporary developments contribute to shape the present statehood of Central Asian states—except for Xinjiang, it goes without saying. These historical chapters are followed by a substantial third part (pp. 491-936) with varied contributions on environment, society and culture. The rich appendixes comprise a series of eight maps, a bibliography (including a very limited amount of publications posterior to the 1980s), a glossary, and an index. Numerous illustrations, including postcards of the Russian colonial and early Soviet periods, contribute to enrich the texts—reinforcing also the idealized images given by some.
The chapters of general history are oriented mainly towards the reconstruction of the main steps of the Russian conquest and colonisation of Central Asia, and the British attempts of penetration from the Raj. The article on the Russian expansion does not forget a paragraph on Xinjiang in the 1870s-80s (Fourniau V. & Poujol C., “The States of Central Asia (Second Half of Nineteenth Century to Early Twentieth Century),” 29-50), and the contribution by the same authors on trade and the economy includes paragraphs on aspects to which they have devoted in the past substantial personal research, like the construction of the Trans-Caspian Railway and its impact upon vernacular societies, or the role of Central Asian Jews in the economy and intercultural contacts during the colonial period (Poujol C. & Fourniau V., “Trade and the Economy (Second Half of Nineteenth Century to Early Twentieth Century),” 51-78). The chapter on social structures of early modern Central Asia (Tabyshalieva A., “Social Structures in Central Asia,” 79-102), based on secondary sources, focuses on the wide typology of kinship structures among Central Asian peoples, stressing the differences between sedentary and nomadic populations, though discussing the real significance of ancient military units among Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, Karakalpaks and Mongols after the transformations laid down by the Tsarist administration of the Steppe and Turkistan territories.
The following essay, devoid of critical apparatus, deals with the British penetration attempts in Iran, Afghanistan, and Xinjiang from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century (Palat Madhavan K., “The British in Central Asia,” 103-24). A very panoramic chapter on Russia in Central Asia devotes a special paragraph on Islam, curiously stressing the impact of coercion and repression, in a mood characteristic of Central Asian historiography of the early 1990s (Abdurakhimova N. A., “Tsarist Russia and Central Asia,” 125-54). Characteristically also, the early Soviet period is tackled first through the autonomist movements in Russian Turkistan, then through the coups organised by the Bolsheviks against the Khanate of Khiva and the Emirate of Bukhara, and through the ‘national-territorial demarcation’ of Central Asia (Radjapova R. Y., “Establishment of the Soviet Power in Central Asia (1917-24); basing her study on the Russian- and Turkic-language vernacular press of the revolutionary period, and of the official history of the Communist Party of Turkistan, the author focuses on the latter’s evolution during these eventful years, often limiting her research to the comment of official declarations and resolutions, in a mood that was for long that of contemporary history practised in the USSR. The last contribution of this section is an article, also based for the most part on Soviet secondary sources, on the intellectual renewals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through a series of short biographical notices of its prominent figureheads among the nomads and in the oases of Central Asia—classically postulating, without arguing it, an essential difference between the two (Ashurov G., “Intellectual and Political Ferment,” 185-212).
Such is the foundation stone on which the second part of the volume developed, with historical arguments on state-building in nowadays independent states of Central Asia. A first, panoramic essay provides a global overview of political constructions in countries and regions with a totally different political history: Iran, Afghanistan, the British Raj, and Central Asia from wwi to wwii, with a general conclusion on the domination of the political landscape of that period by nation more than by religion or any other ideological system, though no unique model of nation-state could be imposed during those years upon this extremely vast region (Palat Madhavan K., “The Evolution of Nation-States,” 213-24). The bulk of this part of the book is made of monographic chapters on state-building in every modern-day Central Asian republic—including Mongolia—from colonisation or Sovietisation to independence (Alimova D. A. & Golovanov A. A., “Uzbekistan,” 225-46; Nurpeis K., “Kazakhstan,” 247-62; Tabyshalieva A., “Kyrgyzstan,” 263-88; Dinorshoev M., “Tajikistan,” 289-304; Annanepesov M. & Moshev M., “Turkmenistan,” 305-28; Noelle-Karimi C., “Afghanistan from 1850 to 1919,” 439-46; Maley W. & Saikal A., “[Afghanistan] from Independence to the Rise of the Taliban,” 447-60; Nakami T., “Mongolia from the Eighteenth Century to 1919,” 347-62; Batbayar Ts., “The Mongolian People’s Revolution of 1921 and the Mongolian People’s Republic (1924-46),” 363-70; Boldbaatar J., “The Mongolian People’s Republic: Social Transformation and Its Challenges,” 371-8).
In the wake of the Soviet tradition of contemporary history writing as it has been eloquently analysed by Marc Ferro, most authors insist on the continuous and eventless political, social, and cultural progresses resulting from the creation of national republics from 1924 onwards, with light shades of meaning, Perestroika-style, as to the over-centralised character of the Soviet administration. A special article on the Altai region and south-eastern Siberia provides some elements of demographic, economic and political history of the region’s main national groups and territorial entities in the Tsarist and Soviet periods, as well as on the main orientations of vernacular historiographies: Khakassia, Tuva, Altai, Buriatia—with particular interest in the ephemeral developments of the civil war period (Vasilev D., “The Sayan-Altai Mountains and South-Eastern Siberia,” 329-46). As to the chapter on Xinjiang (Qin Huibin, “Western China (Xinjiang),” 379-404), it has the merit to provide the international readership with a cut and dried piece of Chinese official historical discourse on this region since the first establishment of Qing authority—with definitive sentences on the “invader” Ya‘qub Beg (“Agbor” for Chinese chroniclers), “a bandit from the Khanate of Kokand,” on the struggle of the “peoples of Xinjiang” against Russian intruders, on the role of “opportunistic mullahs” and other “traitors” in the Muslim republics and kingdoms of Eastern Turkistan during the Republican period . . . : majestic and sinister like a proletarian opera.
The most innovative part of the volume, the third one, is made by a collection of articles by specialists of different disciplines on environment, society and culture: Shukurov E., “The Natural Environment of Central and South Asia,” 493-528 (reviewed in supra 148); Alimova D. A., “The Status of Women in Northern Central Asia,” 529-38—in this essay, contrary to the Soviet postulate of the liberation of women after the October Revolution, the author underlines the feminist preoccupations of many theoreticians of the early-twentieth-century ‘Jadid’ movement in Russian Turkistan, and their influence upon initial emancipation measures in the early 1920 (though the essentially paternalist nature of this trend among Jadid male authors is not assessed). D. Alimova also properly stresses the essentially totalitarian and brutal character of the “assault (Hujum)” against the wearing of the veil by women in Central Asia, in the years preceding collectivisation. The essay eloquently illustrates the essentially ambiguous nature of the response of local societies through the example of these party officials conducting their wives to public veil-burning sessions, and obliging them to put it back on the following morning; at the same time and in the same subtle mood, the article underlines the acquisitions of the Soviet period from the viewpoints of women’s literacy and employment, as well as resistances to their professional and social promotion, Perestroika and transition from socialism finally contributing to an overall reinforcement of patriarchal attitudes, and to the spectacular degradation of the status of women that could be observable everywhere in Central Asia in the course of the last decades.
In the same iconoclastic mood, the following contribution casts light on the modernist trends that have characterised the Afghan monarchy and state from the late nineteenth century to the Soviet occupation of 1979-89 (Kian-Thiébaut A., “Women’s Movements and Changes in the Legal Status of Women in Iran and Afghanistan (1900-90),” 539-48—). Allusions to Afghan feminism, through the Anjuman-i rifah-i zanan (“Society for the Prosperity of Women”) created in 1946 for promoting women’s access to education and employment, or through the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Organisation of Afghan Women instituted in 1965, insist on the weak impact of these movement emanating from a nascent urban middle class on the traditional patriarchal order of the global society. As to the change promoted under the Communist regime, the author properly notes the overall resistance to them in both urban and rural areas. The improvements of the employment rate among women and of their social integration that were brought about by the Soviet occupation were to be annihilated after the Mujahid occupation of Kabul in 1992—a situation still considerably aggravated during the Taliban period, and slowly reformed since the installation of the Karzai administration, two periods of time not treated in this otherwise convincing synthesis. The last article of this sub-section is a very short panoramic study of the parallel development of educational institutions, medias, and health services in the Indian subcontinent and in Russian, then Soviet Central Asia, and in Iran from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s (Patnaik A. K., “Education, the Press and Public Health,” 563-86). If the author traces interesting comparative perspectives between countries with radically different experiences of European dominance, it shows poorly interested in the exchanges that took place in these matters, for instance between the British Raj and Russian Central Asia during the whole nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The other relevant articles are: Floor W., “Science and Technology,” 587-622 (infra 354); Khakimov A., “The Art of the Northern Regions of Central Asia,” 623-94 (infra 366); Li Sheng & Xu Jianying, “The Art and Architecture of Xinjiang,” 695-718 (infra 367); Rozi R. G., “Uighur Vernacular Architecture,” 719-30 (infra 361); Adams L. L., “Cinema and Theatre,” 809-18 (infra 383); Azzout M., “Architecture and Urban Planning in Northern Central Asia from the Russian Conquest to the Soviet Period (1865-1990),” 819-58 (infra 355); Javadi H., “Literature in Persian,” 859-75 (infra 536); Javadi H., “Literature in Dari,” 876-82 (infra 536); Alimardonov A., “Literature in Tajik,” 883-6 (infra 536); Hasnain I., “Literature in Other Indo-Iranian Languages,” 887-912 (infra 536); Dor R., “Literature in Turkic,” 913-20 (infra 564). In all, though it is not an easy task to draw overall conclusions from such a “contrasted” reading, as the Editors would have put it, it remains that tribute must be paid to such a monumental undertaking, even if its main peculiarities—first of all the spectacular and highly discussable extension of the geographical scope of Central Asia—have not brought about the comparative dimension that the readers were entitled to wait from its very project.