Paul Georg Geiss introduces his book as a socio-historical analysis of the political structures of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century Central Asia, focused on the study of the construction and development of regional political systems. An ambitious project indeed, since the author aims at studying the whole territory of nowadays Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. All through the book, his analysis concentrates on notions of “communal commitment” and of “patrimonialism”, the author showing that both are bases of the structural systems operating in pre-Tsarist times. How have these socio-political systems been treated when the Tsarist administration was working on their reform? To what extent do they attest of a specific political and social thought? And did they perpetuate in some way? These are the central questions P. G. Geiss has tried to tackle in the present work. Quite obviously, the author shows more interested in nomadic and tribal societies than in the sedentary ones (the urban and agricultural populations of the Emirate of Bukhara, of the Khanates of Kokand and Khiva), which are dealt with more briefly, and serve mainly as comparison points. Basing his argument on varied bibliographical data (with a strong preference for Russian primary sources) that are presented in the introduction, the author explains the working of tribal political entities through kinship, solidarity and egalitarianism. The main part of the work is made of his description of their different evolutions under Russian dominance, through the processes of Islamicisation and sedentarisation, and through the interactions between the tribal populations and pre-modern Central Asian states. The author thus aims at standing apart from other studies on tribalism, in analysing tribal societies structures linked to their state organisation.
The introduction and the first chapter of the book are devoted to a review of terms and notions called for analysis. P. G. Geiss redefines different types of political entities and of the current acceptations of the word ‘tribe’, which he himself defines as a “community of law and peace.” He comes back on socio-political concepts of solidarity and kinship, and stands on notion of state in tribal societies. The second chapter analyses the way a community define itself territorially, in connection with politico-legal policies. Here appears the significance given by P. G. Geiss to Islamic law, opposed through this work to the principles of socio-political equality and solidarity governing tribal entities. The third chapter sketches a differentiation of the respective political organisation of different tribal societies: acephalous power among the Turkmens; the despotic, but decentralised power of the manap or of the khan among the Kyrgyz, the Karakalpaks, and the Kazakhs. The fourth chapters is devoted to the organisation of power in patrimonial states (the oases of Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand) functioning with an established administration. In the two following chapters, P. G. Geiss describes and analyses the Russia’s conquest and colonisation of Central Asia, the institution of the protectorates, and the establishment of an administrative system in charge of the integration of the populations into the Empire. The author notably insists on the political and juridical transformations, and on the gradual settlement of the tribal populations (the “detribalisation”) and their “Islamisation”. The last chapter considers the contemporary political situation in Central Asia, through an analysis of change since Perestroika. The historical breakthrough which tries, quite clumsily, to connect the pre-Tsarist political managements to those observed today, appears however little convincing.
Through a political historical sociology, Paul Georg Geiss has tried to draw the structural principles of power management in seventeenth- to nineteenth-century Central Asian societies. His effort at a historical summary is laudable, and the book is a good introduction to the political history of tribal societies and the issues of their administration by the Tsarist Empire. The consideration of territorial and ecological factors attests of a vision that takes into account the most diverse social dimensions. However, the argument seeking to link the global to the local stays most of the time at the level of historical description, and the reader can only remain unsatisfied by the author’s more than elliptic perspectives on the contemporary implications of the traditional modes of social organisation. The vastness of the concerned geographical area and the relatively narrow typology of primary sources involved have brought the author to ignore some of the region’s essential dimensions. Some are even been reduced to mere schemes—such as Islam, presented as the factor for the introduction of individual property and responsibility in opposition to the collective and egalitarian Eden of the tribal societies, whence the Tsarist policy is credited by the author with the introduction of modern-day Islamic fundamentalisms.