January 28, 2016

The Threat of Nomadism in Soviet Central Asia

On January 28, the Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) hosted the annual Nava'i-Nalle Lecture, in honor of David Nalle, a former diplomat who served on the Advisory Board of the Alfred Friendly Foundation.

This year’s talk was delivered by Dr. Ali Igmen, associate professor of Central Asian history at California State University–Long Beach, who addressed the complex interplay between the governed and the ungoverned, the sedentary and the nomadic, and the secular and the religious that still maintains a profound influence in today’s Central Asia. Igmen suggested that this complicated relationship is not only a legacy of Russian and Ottoman imperialism, but something that still resonates among residents in a post-Soviet era.

Igmen highlighted how the imperial Russian state sought to manipulate its subject populations in the empire’s southern peripheries. Soviet security managers and central planners inherited this task following the Bolshevik Revolution, attempting to instill “modern” and “civilized” values on diverse, mainly Turkic populations. Yet the ambiguous meaning and implications of modernity, and indeed “civilized,” were understood differently by different groups. Drawing on a vast collection of oral histories, he illustrated how state actors struggled with containing, pacifying, and integrating nomadic populations from the late nineteenth century and into our modern era.

At the root of these actions were colonial mandates, early attempts in human development, and classical security concerns. The effects of state-led modernization have had lasting effects on nomadic communities. Igmen cited examples of residents of today’s Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan increasingly jettisoning their Soviet bloc apartments in favor of reconnecting with their nomadic roots, while conversely he noted that a number of Central Asian women credit modernizing reforms with women’s emancipation from the conservative Islam of the village.

This delicate tango between tradition, modernity, Islam, the state, and the stateless continues to challenge and confront us in the modern era. Situated at a pivotal geopolitical crossroads, the people of Central Asia, and the way in which their states govern, will continue play a crucial and burgeoning role in East-West economic development, security management, and environmental stewardship. Policymakers and practitioners would do well to consider the steps, and missteps, taken by empires and governments past when approaching this under-appreciated region.