Alexander Morrison, New College, Oxford
Vienna, Monday 24th October 2022
I have mixed feelings about delivering a lecture reflecting on what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might mean for historians of Central Asia. Unlike in the 1860s, it is not Tashkent or Khujand which is under Russian artillery and rocket bombardment, but Kyiv and Kharkov. Beyond this, seeking to connect our perennially marginalised academic field to the big story of the day seems in very questionable taste, a desperate hankering after ‘relevance’. But we all know that events on these battlefields thousands of miles away have had a profound effect on all the former Soviet Central Asian republics, whether in economic or political terms, and are transforming what had been a fairly warm relationship with their former imperial ruler into something much colder and warier. We also know that in many ways our field will be fundamentally changed by this, at least in the short term - whether because of the lost access to Russian archival collections that we had learnt to take for granted over the last three decades, or because viewing Central Asia from the old imperial centre now seems repugnant in political and unsound in scholarly terms. Some would go further and say that the war requires us to completely reconsider the place of the Russian state and of the Russian language in our research. Calls to ‘decolonize’ are rife, picking up on a term that has been current in the Anglosphere for a decade or more, but which has rarely been applied to either Central Asian or wider ‘Eurasian’ studies. In a powerful essay in response to the Bucha massacre the Ukrainian novelist Oksana Zabuzhko wrote that ‘Many Slavists have recognized a need to decolonize their field in the wake of Russia’s invasion’, arguing that the reverence with which Russian literature is held in the West has blinded us to the violence and oppression of the culture and society which produced it.[i] It was in 2014, not long after the annexation of Crimea, that a statue of Mikhail Dmitrevich Skobelev, the most notoriously bloodthirsty of the Russian generals who conquered Central Asia for the Tsar, was erected on Vernadskii Prospekt in Moscow – the need to ‘decolonize’ would thus seem equally applicable to our field. As Botakoz Kassymbekova and Erica Marat recently wrote in a widely-circulated PONARS article entitled ‘Time to question Russia’s Imperial Innocence’: ‘From Ukraine to Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, decolonial discourse is rapidly expanding into the mainstream’, and ‘the Russian invasion of Ukraine could start the painful process of decolonizing Russia’. While I think some of us have been questioning Russia’s ‘imperial innocence’ for at least two or three decades, I don’t disagree at all with their condemnation of official Russian distortions of Imperial and Soviet history, or with their account of the rejection of these lies in former Soviet republics since the invasion of Ukraine. However I am not sure ‘decolonial discourse’ is a good way to describe the latter, or that ‘decolonizing’ – with all its many meanings – is the right approach for the field of Central Asian history.
On the ‘Study of Islam in Central Eurasia’ blog Paolo Sartori has pointed out the various different intellectual agendas being put forward under the ‘decolonizing’ slogan, and the ways in which the writing of Central Asian History might already be said to be ‘decolonized’. I don’t disagree with him either, but I’d like to dig a bit deeper into the intellectual origins and meaning of these terms. These are hinted at in another paper on that same blog by my friend and former colleague Danielle Ross, where she asks ‘What does a Decolonized Field look like and how do we get there?’. Like Sartori she thinks a lot of progress has been made, but that there is still a long way to go. Ross understands the process of ‘decolonization’ largely as one of changing the unequal institutional relationship between Central Asian and Russian history within the academy, a goal I heartily endorse. However she also talks about the unwitting reproduction of old hierarchies of knowledge – and it is the deeper implications of this insight that I think advocates of ‘decolonizing’ Central Asian studies often fail to appreciate. The demand is not just for ‘diversification’, whether of perspectives, sources, languages or areas of study. It is not even primarily about how power or funding are distributed within the academy – it is a fundamental, and in my view misguided epistemological critique of the whole edifice of so-called ‘western’ knowledge. I will lay my cards on the table here and say that I do not think that form of ‘decolonization’ can do anything but harm to the study of the history of Central Asia, and our horror and indignation at the Russian state’s criminal war in Ukraine should not lead us to cry slogans we only half understand.
For many years now the leading theorist of ‘decolonial’ approaches to knowledge has been the Italian-Argentinian Duke University professor Walter D. Mignolo, who argues for a process of ‘epistemic reconstitution’ of forms of knowledge which he claims were destroyed by European colonialism, something he sees as a key stage on the road to dismantling both global capitalism and the modern bourgeois form of western state governance.[ii] His work is in my view notable both for its incoherence and its profound historical ignorance – I once heard Mignolo describe Gandhi as the perfect example of a ‘decolonial’ thinker who mobilised indigenous knowledge to oppose colonialism, seemingly oblivious of the degree to which Gandhi drew on Ruskin and Tolstoy[iii] - but leaving that aside, Mignolo’s conception of the ‘decolonial’ certainly cannot be separated from his anti-capitalist, anti-western political agenda. Advocates of the ‘decolonial’ do at least need to think about whether this is something they would happily endorse. Similar if even more obscurely-expressed ideas are found in the work of his erstwhile collaborator Madina Tlostanova, who argues against ‘a full dependence of models of thinking, seeing and interpreting the world on universalized norms, created and imposed by/within euromodernity’ [sic], often referring more specifically to the Post-Soviet world, where she seems to view with regret the passing of what she describes as ‘Socialism’ (by which she apparently means Soviet tyranny).[iv]
Their general hostility to the disciplinary structures of ‘western’ knowledge mean that these decolonial critiques often take aim squarely at history as a discipline: in Decolonizing the University, a manifesto-like volume published by a collective of radical scholars in 2018, the LSE geographer Dalia Gebrial writes that ‘the epistemological insistence on history as a positivist endeavour functions as a useful tool of coloniality in the institution, as it effaces the power relations that underpin what the “production of history” has thus far looked like.’[v] Here and elsewhere in this widely-cited volume the assumption of the authors is that the past has no ontological existence beyond what historians make of it, which in turn has always been decisively shaped by power relations in the present – decolonizing history, then, is about replacing these older, oppressive ‘colonial’ narratives with new, progressive ones, rather than using specifically historical research methodologies to find new sources or topics. Meanwhile the Cambridge-trained South African philosopher Veli Mitova calls for ‘reversing epistemicide’, claiming that ‘Colonialism has set up a single perspective as epistemically authoritative’, while decolonization ‘requires us to acknowledge more than one kind of knowledge system as epistemically authoritative’ and ‘requires at a minimum treating all epistemic perspectives as equal’,[vi] something she accepts will lead to a relativistic and subjective understanding of truth, but nevertheless considers to be a moral imperative.
Advocates of ‘decolonizing’ scholarly fields thus take what one might call a Social Darwinist approach to understanding how knowledge is created, constituted and accepted – their argument is that the rise of European colonial power in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the domination of European forms of knowledge at the expense of indigenous knowledge systems in Asia, Africa and the Americas. They would reject the notion that the success or failure of forms of knowledge has anything to do with their inherent truth or utility, or that the knowledge we seek and teach in modern universities is universal and draws on multiple geographical and cultural sources. Following Foucault, power determines all in this bleak view of the development of human civilization.
You don’t have to think about these ideas for very long to realise how intellectually nihilist and self-defeating they are, a complete negation of any notion of scholarly endeavour. They bear a disturbing resemblance to Kremlin propaganda, which also relies heavily on the postmodern knowledge principle that truth is merely a matter of power and perspective.[vii] And they are based on some fundamental misconceptions about how disciplinary structures and the pursuit of knowledge have evolved over time, which has always involved many strands, influences and ideas from beyond Europe and colonial centres of power.[viii] While there certainly have been ways in which colonialism shaped some disciplines, you will not find eugenics or phrenology on university curricula today. Forestry and Anthropology may have their origins in colonial settings, but they have been interrogating the colonial roots of what they do since at least the 1950s. In Anglophone – if more rarely in Russophone – historiography, assumptions about racial hierarchies or the essential benevolence of European colonialism have been subjected to sustained and effective critiques for decades now. Neither colonialism nor racism are or were as powerful, all-embracing or omnipresent as decolonial theorists suggest, nor is the ‘colonial matrix’ as vital to the production or nature of knowledge as they claim.
To give one very simple example: it is perfectly true that Charles Darwin’s Galapagos expedition was made possible by Britain’s global projection of power through the Royal Navy in the early nineteenth century. It is also true that some of his ideas would be twisted and abused by eugenicists or the likes of Herbert Spencer and later used to justify forms of white supremacy. But this has no bearing on whether or not the theory of evolution is correct. While the additional historical context is interesting, and perhaps explains why the discovery was made by an Englishman, it is not relevant to the truth or falsehood of evolution as a biological theory. We have to distinguish between the origins of particular forms of knowledge and their truth, value or utility. It does not follow that the latter are determined by the former.
By the same token, however understandable it might be in emotional terms, it is wrong to say that the war means we must reject Russian literature or the history of the Russian state as irredeemably tainted, any more than we might reject Goethe or eschew writing histories of German unification because of later Nazi crimes. Zabuzhko is correct to say that many Russianists have been so wrapped up in their research that they watched the poisonous nationalist rhetoric and increasingly aggressive actions of the Putin regime evolve over the past twenty years without fully understanding its nature or the threat which it posed – in an interview for Meduza my Oxford colleague Andrei Zorin freely admitted as much, and I am certainly guilty of this too. Having returned to Moscow in March 2014 to find the reading room of the Military-Historical archive festooned with St George’s ribbons and its director wearing a ‘Donetskaya Respublika’ T-shirt, I’m afraid I simply shrugged at the unpleasantness and got on with my work. This was not though because I thought the glories of Russian culture excused this behaviour or because I was overcome with reverence for my subject-matter at the time – the Russian conquest of Central Asia – but because I thought that research all the more important in light of what was happening. Still, like many others I believed that the Putin regime was essentially a kleptocracy without deep ideological convictions, whose elites were largely interested in hanging on to their ill-gotten gains and living the good life on their yachts and Sardinian estates, and that Russia’s conflict with Ukraine would continue to grind on at a level carefully calibrated to avoid any united or serious western response. I was wrong, and so was much of the Russianist academic establishment across the western world.
Even so, I cannot agree with the next stage of Zabuzhko’s argument, which is to claim that Russian literature and culture is complicit in or helps to mask the crimes of the Russian state. Some of the strongest and most effective critiques of Russian colonial and Soviet crimes and of nationalist myth-making have always come from literature in Russian – Zabuzhko cites selectively from War & Peace to make her point, but it is hard to read the same author’s Khadzhi Murat as anything other than a searing critique of Russian colonialism and of the Russian state more generally. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is not just a great war novel, but a brilliant portrayal of Soviet academic politics, and the intellectual corruption produced by malleable and politically expedient ideas of truth: in contrast he insisted repeatedly in this and other novels that ‘there is only one truth – there cannot be two truths’.[ix] And is there a more prescient account of what Russia is becoming before our eyes today than Sorokin’s Den’ Oprichnika?
Beyond this, it is important to recognise that, as one Kazakhstani Russian poet once said to me, Russkii iazyk ne prinadlezhit’ Putinu. We must not accept the Putinist argument that to speak, read or write in Russian is an expression of loyalty to his regime, and constitutes a claim by the Russian Federation to sovereignty. Today English belongs as much to India or Nigeria as to the United Kingdom, French to Algeria or Senegal as much as to France. There is a Russian-speaking world beyond Russia which rejects Putin’s politics while maintaining its claim on the Russian literary legacy – Kazakhstan and Ukraine in particular are a part of this. There are reports that Russian literature is being removed from school curricula in Ukraine, while what is often meant in practice by ‘decolonization’ in other former Soviet states means attacks on the use of Russian in public life, institutions and cultural production. However understandable at the moment, in the long term I am convinced this would be a mistake. The current Russian regime needs to be decisively defeated on the battlefield. Purging Russian cultural legacies in the name of ‘decolonization’ will not bring that one day closer, and will only lend credibility to the Putin regime’s crazed assertions that the West hates Russia and wants to destroy it, or that Russian-speakers in ex-Soviet republics are vulnerable and entitled to the Russian state’s protection. Meanwhile some of the most powerful resources for criticising and opposing the Russian regime come precisely from within Russian culture – just as Gandhi or C. L. R. James used ideas from British and wider European culture to fight against British colonialism.
The incoherence of the ‘decolonial’ approach to knowledge is nowhere better shown than by the prominent role that Marxism played in anti-colonial liberation movements across Africa, Asia and Latin America in the 20th century, despite the fact that it is a quintessential product of the European enlightenment.[x] For me Mignolo-style ‘decolonialism’ has horrible parallels in Soviet forms of thinking which our own advocates of ‘decolonizing’ claim to be trying to escape, which attributed truth, value and utility to knowledge according to its class origins, or its conformity with an ever-changing party line. It was the USSR that produced Marrism in linguistics and Lysenkoism in biology, both attempts to re-mould a supposedly ‘imperialist’ scientific consensus in favour of a more politically acceptable socialist alternative. This is not something we want to return to, and yet the subordination of the pursuit of truth to progressive politics – which is what ‘decolonization’ all too often means – will produce the same results.
If ‘decolonization’ might unwittingly lead us back to the very worst intellectual legacies of the USSR, it also creates pressure to reject some of its best. Much scholarship on Central Asia of lasting value was produced in both Tsarist and Soviet times, particularly in the field of Oriental Studies, a discipline whose complicity with empire has often been exaggerated, to put it mildly. Is this to be decolonized as well? To put this in concrete terms for our field – ‘decolonizing’ would mean that the next time I meet Bakhtiyar Babajanov, I’d need to recommend that he abandon all the scholarly techniques and philological skills he acquired through his training as a vostokoved in the late Soviet period, because they are tainted with colonialism – Bakhtiyar was once a boxer, and whilst I’d like to think our long acquaintance would restrain him from punching me on the nose, I can’t be sure. Not only would Barthold have to go, we would need to discard the life’s work of the late Irina Erofeeva on Kazakh aristocratic elites, and that of the late Timur Beisembiev, which has been fundamental to all those working on the history of Khoqand, because that is also a product of this Soviet – Russian Imperial and ultimately Germanic tradition of Orientalist scholarship. Do any of us seriously think that Veniamin Iudin and Iuliya Baranova, who trained Beisembiev and other Kazakhstani scholars through their Persian-language kruzhok in Almaty in the 1970s and 80s, can be reduced to Soviet stooges peddling ‘colonial’ forms of knowledge? I am sure Danielle Ross would not say so – it would mean rejecting precisely the intellectual tradition of vostokovedenie which provides the vital training in Central Asian languages that she rightly insists upon. And yet in its Central Asian setting it is unquestionably at least partly a ‘colonial’ legacy.
As these examples indicate, while there are clearly continued power imbalances between scholars working on Central Asia in the West and those from the region, I think these are more to do with the dominance of English as an academic language, funding, salaries and the relative wealth of our institutions than with the relative weight we attach to each other’s scholarship. Our field has a long history of mutual respect and scholarly collaboration on equal terms with scholars from Central Asia which goes back at least to the pioneering research trips undertaken by Devin DeWeese and Jurgen Paul in 1980s Uzbekistan, where they worked closely with scholars such as Bori Akhmedov. Nobody in our field gets away with ignoring Central Asian scholarship published in Central Asia – and it is also worth noting that the crucial medium which allows it to be read and cited across the borders of the different republics is still Russian, though with a new generation it may one day become English. This also underscores the fact that nowadays the dominant figures in Central Asian History are not Russian scholars, nor do the bogus Russian narratives about the relationship between Russia and Central Asia – the denial of colonialism, dobrovol’noe prisoedinenie and all the rest of it – have any serious scholarly traction, however prominent they continue to be as public discourses in Russia, where we know from bitter experience that there was little we could do to shift them even before the invasion – that revolting Skobelev statue on Vernadskii Prospekt is a sad testimony to this. The centre of gravity for our field is in European and North American institutions and increasingly in Central Asia itself, not in the universities of the former colonial power, most of which even before the war were drowning in intellectual corruption. Those Russian scholars who are taken seriously both in the West and in Central Asia are precisely those who are not afraid to call Russian colonialism by its proper name, and are often now taking serious personal risks through their public opposition to the war and to the Russian regime.
Another reason for eschewing the language of ‘decolonization’ is that I think ‘colonialism’ is simply inadequate to describe what modern Russia has become and what it is doing in Ukraine, or indeed the nature of the Soviet past. To put it bluntly - there are worse things than colonialism, or at least the relatively weak 19th-century variety practised by the Russian empire in Central Asia, which depended heavily on collaboration with local elites. Its Soviet successor was a high modernist, developmentalist project, which ditched many colonial characteristics – the gradient of differential rights which had existed between European Russia and Central Asia in the Tsarist period disappeared with the introduction of universal citizenship, while the principle of nationality was recognised. During the Cold War this was widely dismissed in the West as mere window-dressing, but as we know the opening of the Soviet archives after 1991 revealed that, far from destroying nationalities, the Soviet Union had often done a great deal to create them through active policies of korenizatsiya, which in the 1920s reached quite radical, one is tempted to say even decolonial heights.[xi] Although Russian language and culture were often privileged and taken as synonymous with Soviet modernity, Russians as an ethnicity were not necessarily economically or politically advantaged in the USSR – indeed the flow of development funds was mainly outwards from the Russian metropole to the largely Asian periphery. As such Adeeb Khalid and others have argued, rightly in my view, that the early Soviet regime had more in common with the equally ruthless and energetic developmentalist regimes of Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah Pahlavi than it did with its Tsarist predecessor, or with contemporary European colonial regimes, none of which had this level of state power and ambition.[xii] At the same time, as Botakoz Kassymbekova and Aminat Chokobaeva have pointed out in a recent article, for ideological reasons the USSR inflicted death and misery on Central Asians on an unprecedented scale, destroying and distorting the region’s many cultures in ways that no amount of ‘development’ could compensate for.[xiii] Nothing the Tsarist colonial regime in Central Asia did or omitted to do came close to generating the levels of mortality seen during the Kazakh famine – not even its brutal repression of the 1916 revolt, whose wartime methods did nevertheless foreshadow some of the Soviet terror that was to come. This is before we even consider the innumerable lives that were blighted by Soviet ideology, such as the notion of the ‘wrong’ kind of class status as a form of hereditary sin which clung to people from generation to generation, the effective enserfment of collective farm workers, the censorship of the press, scholarship, literature, art and music, the omnipresent secret police surveillance, the environmental catastrophes of the Semipalatinsk Polygon and the Aral Sea, and the growing economic stagnation which resulted once the spur of terror was removed. While the USSR may have entered what one Kazakh friend of mine calls its ‘vegetarian phase’ after Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956, all these more subtle forms of intellectual repression endured until its very last years, when glasnost’ saw some of them dismantled – and their key role in sustaining the system then became clear as it collapsed. These are dismal legacies – but to call them ‘colonial’ is to only partially understand the nature of Soviet oppression and of the Soviet state. Its utopianism, and belief that it could transform human nature through ideology, are much more salient to understanding the cruelties it inflicted.
Many pundits and news outlets have suggested that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is motivated by a desire to resurrect the Russian empire or the Soviet Union (or both), and the same assumption underlies the rhetoric of ‘decolonizing’ to rid ourselves of the legacies of these imperial polities. I would suggest that what we have seen emanating from the Kremlin – that is the motivations Vladimir Putin and his ideological henchmen have themselves laid out in speeches and officially-endorsed articles – indicate that we are dealing with something even nastier, which rejects key elements of both the imperial and the Soviet heritage. There is little trace of Tsarist imperial elite cosmopolitanism in Russian state ideology today – it is hard to imagine a Bagration, a Lieven or a Mannerheim serving the current Russian regime in the way they served the Romanov dynasty, although it is true that Russia’s invading army is ‘imperial’ in the sense that non-Slavs – Buryats, Bashkirs, Chechens and Daghestanis from the Russian Federation’s poorest peripheries – have suffered disproportionate casualties. Meanwhile in his pre-invasion speech of the 22nd February Putin explicitly denounced Lenin and Stalin for creating a Ukrainian SSR in the first place, and Khrushchev for handing it Crimea in 1954.[xiv] Putin considers the USSR to have weakened the grip of the Russian people over the state that was their rightful inheritance, and the only portion of its legacy which is enthusiastically embraced by his regime is the commemoration of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, which has attained new heights of distortion under his rule. His 30th September speech on the annexation of four Ukrainian provinces is even darker and more deluded than his previous emissions, but sticks to this line: ‘There is no Soviet Union anymore; we cannot return to the past. Actually, Russia no longer needs it today; this isn’t our ambition.’[xv] The ideology of the current Russian regime is not a revival of Tsarist-era colonialism or of Soviet high modernism, but an expanded, maximalist and revanchist form of Russian nationalism, one which is indeed partly rooted in nineteenth-century Karamzinian historiography which both spuriously linked the Tsardom of Muscovy with the legacies of Kievan Rus’ across the Mongol divide, and asserted the essential unity of Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians. Its intellectual genealogy includes the ultra-nationalist politics of the Union of the Russian People and the Black Hundreds of the late Tsarist period (elements of which later fed through into Nazism)[xvi] but this was not the ruling ideology of the Tsarist regime itself, for all that Nicholas II unwisely sought to co-opt these tendencies in support of his regime after the 1905 revolution. It also draws heavily on the writings of anti-Semitic, Russian nationalist White émigrés such as Putin’s favourite philosopher Ivan Il’in, who is also quoted in that September 30th speech.
[xvii] While there is no doubt that the term is over-used in current political discourse, there is clearly a case for following Timothy Snyder and calling this Russian fascism.[xviii] Too often this is equated with Nazism, as in a recent book by Marlene Laruelle which argued that Russia was not fascist on the basis of this comparison. There is indeed a lack of ideological coherence in what Russia is now doing in Ukraine, where soldiers fight and die under a meaningless ‘Z’ symbol, while Lenin statues are re-erected in newly-conquered regions, despite Putin’s denunciation of Lenin’s nationality policies.[xix] Apart from death and destruction the Putin regime has nothing to offer Ukrainians but postmodern emptiness and vague, revanchist nostalgia – it lacks even the limited degree of ideological consistency which Mein Kampf gave to Nazism, as well as the latter’s capacity to mobilise society through terror and indoctrination. But Nazism is of course not the only form which fascism has taken historically – and what we see in Russia does indeed resemble the original Italian or weaker Spanish forms of fascism: as Umberto Eco wrote in a famous essay;
Italian fascism was certainly a dictatorship, but it was not totally totalitarian, not because of its mildness but rather because of the philosophical weakness of its ideology. Contrary to common opinion, fascism in Italy had no special philosophy.[xx]
This certainly sounds like Putinism. If we take Eco’s well-known fourteen-point list of the characteristics of fascism – the cult of tradition, the rejection of modernism, irrationalism, the definition of disagreement as treason, the fear of difference, the appeal to a frustrated middle class, the obsession with plots and conspiracies, the sense of humiliation before richer enemies, the idea that life is lived for struggle, popular elitism, the cult of heroism, machismo, a populism that crushes individual and democratic rights, the use of Newspeak – all of these were amply present in Putin’s Russia even before it unleashed war on Ukraine. It succumbed to fascism precisely because of the assumption that Russia must be immune, since, to quote Laruelle, ‘Fascism is considered a uniquely Western-Produced phenomenon, totally foreign to any Russian traditions, and one that can only appear on Russian soil as an import from the West’.[xxi] And one area where Russian fascism does resemble Nazism, in intention if not, so far, in execution, is that Russia’s plans for Ukraine are indeed genocidal.[xxii] Apart from Putin’s own speeches, the clearest evidence for this is a widely-circulated article on the official RIA Novosti agency website which quite simply equates Ukrainian identity with Nazism, and states that de-Nazification will require the forcible re-education of the entire population to eliminate that identity.[xxiii]
So Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is something worse than colonialism, since its goal is not simply the subjugation of Ukrainians to Russian rule, but the elimination of Ukrainians altogether – not necessarily through physical extermination (though God knows there has been enough of that) but through forcibly turning them into Russians and eliminating Ukrainian identity. While these ideas have their roots in 19th-century Russian nationalism, White émigré ideas and European fascism, the parallels to be drawn are not so much with the Soviet or Russian imperial past, but with current Chinese Communist policies in Xinjiang, which similarly seek not merely to subjugate the Uyghurs (something that was achieved long ago) but to prevent them from being born and nationalise those who are left into Han through hideous mechanisms of surveillance, imprisonment and control.[xxiv] Thankfully Russia does not appear to have either the military or the technical capacity to do the same to Ukrainians, but the intent is the same. We might also seek a parallel in the Armenian genocide, where physical extermination was accompanied by comprehensive attempts to turn orphaned Armenian children into Turks.[xxv] What these cases have in common is that they are nationalising empires, seeking to impose homogeneity on what had been a heterogeneous imperial population. If the 20th-century horrors produced by the utopian ideology of communism may now be behind us, atavistic forms of nationalism – fascism – clearly still have plenty of life in them, and have taken on new and horrifying forms and capabilities in the digital age. Even if it were intellectually coherent, ‘decolonizing’ our scholarship or curricula seems a pretty feeble response to this threat.
I’m aware that this has been a very negative lecture – I have criticised a range of intellectual responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but haven’t put forward any vision of my own. This is because with the best will in the world I don’t think what we as historians of Central Asia write and say in response to it will have any effect on the outcome of the war, while it clearly will affect what happens to our field: if we allow ourselves to think ‘decolonial’ approaches are the cure, they will turn out to be worse than the disease. It would certainly be a pity if the scholarly reaction to the war meant that we just replaced Soviet and Imperial Russian frameworks with national ones. Those of us who work on Central Asia after the Russian conquest cannot simply excise the Russian state or Russian-language sources from our work, though losing access to Russian archives might tempt us to do so. Even those working on earlier periods will still need to draw upon a living tradition of scholarship on Islamic and pre-Islamic Central Asia that until recently was largely written in Russian. This of course is not enough – but then it never has been. It would be extraordinary if it had taken the Russian invasion of Ukraine to alert us to the importance of using sources in Central Asian languages, of seeking perspectives which were not just those of the Russian colonial or of the Soviet state, or of questioning self-serving Russian imperial and nationalist narratives – as Paolo Sartori argues, almost all scholars working on Central Asia in the ‘West’, and a small but brave minority in Russia have been doing precisely that for the past thirty years or more. Our only coherent intellectual response to the invasion of Ukraine as historians of Central Asia is to continue doing so. There are of course many other things we can do as citizens of our respective countries that might help to hasten Russian defeat or mitigate Ukrainian suffering.
With Danielle Ross I think a by-product of the invasion may be to make it clearer that our field is not just a sub-discipline of Russian and East-European studies. I can’t be the only person to have noticed that while those working on Central Asia have always had to do research in the old imperial centres as well, and to keep abreast of the latest developments in Russian and Soviet historiography, the reverse was not generally true for the much larger group who focused on korennaia Rossiia, or who studied the Soviet Union’s power structures from the centre. We are now in a situation where the archives in Moscow and St Petersburg are pretty much as inaccessible to westerners as they were before perestroika. A major difference however is that while in Soviet times European and American Russianists had to rely on émigré collections and the library holdings in Helsinki, researchers can now instead head to Tbilisi, Almaty or Tashkent – and the largest and most important repositories of accessible imperial Russian or Soviet documents are now those in Central Asia. The same applies to anthropologists who want to conduct fieldwork, political scientists who want to carry out interviews, or sociologists who want to run surveys. Russia is closed, while apart from Turkmenistan Central Asia is more or less open. Given the importance of cutting your teeth on primary research in the region of study, I think we can expect to see a substantial influx of graduate students from Europe and North America switching their focus to Central Asia. This will have pitfalls of course – they may be supervised by Russianists with a superficial knowledge of the region, and arrive with unhelpful preconceptions – but I think we now have the scholarly networks and publications to put them on the right path. I also think it will become much more difficult to write histories of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union as a whole which either ignore Central Asia or consign it to the margins – if this is where all your best and most original material is coming from, sheer self-interest dictates you give it greater prominence. There might even be the odd additional academic job specifically in Central Asian history, and perhaps more Soviet and Russian imperial jobs will go to Central Asianists. Meanwhile the research of our Central Asian colleagues, who can still travel more or less freely to Russia, will become all the more important. These things may or may not materialise, and in the face of the suffering in Ukraine and the atrocities committed there by Russian forces, there is something ghoulish in trying to see a silver lining for Central Asian history. There are much more important things at stake in this conflict than the future of our field.
[i] Oksana Zabuzhko ‘No guilty people in the world? Reading Russian literature after the Bucha massacre’ Times Literary Supplement 22nd April 2022.
[ii] Walter Mignolo The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
[iii] His most recent repetition of this idiotic assertion can be found in Walter D. Mignolo «Parce que la colonialité est partout, la décolonialité est inévitable», Multitudes, 2021/3 (n° 84), pp. 57-67.
[iv] See for instance Madina Tlostanova ‘Beyond conservatism and radicalism: a decolonial glimpse into the post-truth world’ in Africa's radicalisms and Conservatisms: Volume 1. Politics, poverty, marginalization and education ed. Edwin Etieyibo, Obvious Katsaura & Muchaparara Musemwa, (Leiden: Brill, 2021) pp.11-30.
[v] Dalia Gebrial ‘Rhodes Must Fall: Oxford and Movements for Change’ in Decolonizing the University ed. Bhambra, Gebrial & Nişancıoğlu (London: Pluto Press, 2018), 24.
[vi] Veli Mitova ‘How to Decolonise Knowledge without too much relativism’ in S. Khumalo (ed.) The South African Epistemic Decolonial Turn: A Global Perspective. (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2021)
[vii] Peter Pomerantsev Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. Adventures in Modern Russia (London: Faber & Faber, 2015).
[viii] Most recently see James Poskett Horizons: A Global History of Science (London: Allen Lane, 2022).
[ix] Vasily Grossman Life and Fate trans. Robert Chandler (London: Alfred Knopf, 2022) p.664
[x] This point was made eloquently by Aijaz Ahmad in his brilliant critique of Edward Said: ‘Orientalism and After’ In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992), 159-219.
[xi] Niccolò Pianciola “Décoloniser l’Asie Centrale? Bolcheviks et Colons Au Semireč’e (1920 -1922)” Cahiers Du Monde Russe 49, no. 1 (2008): 101–43.
[xii] Adeeb Khalid ‘Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective’ Slavic Review 65/2 (Summer 2006): 231-251.
[xiii] Botakoz Kassymbekova & Aminat Chokobaeva ‘On writing Soviet History of Central Asia: frameworks, challenges, prospects’, Central Asian Survey (2021), 40:4, 483-503.
[xiv] Putin’s pre-invasion ‘history lesson’ can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQDrFG5Ynf0
[xv] Translation at http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/69465
[xvi] Michael Kellogg The Russian Roots of Nazism: White émigrés and the Making of National Socialism, 1917-1945. New Studies in European History. (Cambridge: CUP, 2005).
[xvii] Timothy Snyder ‘Ivan Ilyin, Putin’s Philosopher of Russian Fascism’ New York Review of Books 16/03/2018.
[xviii] David Patrikarkos has also made this argument, and noted a widespread reluctance to employ this terminology: ‘Vladimir Putin’s Fascist Fetish’ UnHerd 22/07/2022
[xix] ‘Back in the USSR. Lenin Statues and Soviet Flags reappear in Russian-controlled cities’ The Observer 23/04/2022
[xx] Umberto Eco, ‘Ur-Fascism’ New York Review of Books 22/06/1995
[xxi] Laruelle Is Russia Fascist?,2.
[xxii] Timothy Snyder ‘Russia’s Genocide Handbook’ Substack 08/04/2022
[xxiii] Timofei Sergeitsev ‘chto Rossiya dolzhna sdelat’ s Ukrainoi’ RIA Novosti 03/04/2022. An English translation can be found here: https://ccl.org.ua/en/news/ria-novosti-has-clarified-russias-plans-vis-a-vis-ukraine-and-the-rest-of-the-free-world-in-a-program-like-article-what-russia-should-do-with-ukraine-2/
[xxiv] Adrian Zenz: ‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang, Central Asian Survey, 38:1 (2019), 102-128; & Adrian Zenz: ‘End the dominance of the Uyghur ethnic group’: an analysis of Beijing’s population optimization strategy in southern Xinjiang, Central Asian Survey, 40:3 (2021), 291-312.
[xxv] Ronald Suny They can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else. A History of the Armenian Genocide (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015).