The Necessity of Both National and Denational Approaches to Central Asian Studies

Working within a global governance system constrained by the bounds of the nation-state, scholars of Central Asian studies are often confronted with the tension that exists between national and denational approaches to their academic work. On the one hand, there is a long-standing predilection to structure intellectual inquiries into Central Asia around the borders that the Soviet Union created in the 1920s and 1930s, and the significance that those borders continue to hold in the region today. On the other hand, scholars of Central Asia must also remember to consider both the historical continuities that define the region as a whole and the various interconnections that exist between the borders of Central Asian countries. To invite scholars to become more aware of the lenses they apply to their research in the encouragement of more innovative scholarship, this work will evaluate the necessity of both national and denational approaches to Central Asian studies.

            The necessity of a national approach within Central Asian studies is clearly seen in the large amount of research concerned with how the nation-state became the organizing structure of the region. A litany of works including Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire, Ronald Grigor Suny’s The Revenge of the Past, and Francine Hirsh’s Empire of Nations explain that the Soviet Union used a series of social tools and cultural practices to formulate national borders and promulgate a collection of national identities within those borders while bringing Marxist-Leninist doctrine to newly established Soviet territories.[1] Books like Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia by Douglas Northrop, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR by Adeeb Khalid, and Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan by Adrienne Edgar are examples of how this theme applies to the creation of Central Asian nations.[2]

Though the tenor of the Soviet Union’s nation-building shifted throughout the twentieth century, the national identities carved out in the empire’s early years held strong. As Rawi Abdelal writes, “national identities were social facts” during Central Asia’s experience of Soviet rule and productive scholarship has been done to explain how and why national identity became such a large part of Soviet Central Asia.[3]

 By 1991, national identities had permeated so deeply into the group consciousness of the USSR’s individual republics that nationalism was, as David D. Laitin writes, “considered to be the greatest threat to the integrity of the Soviet Union.”[4] When the Soviet Union did collapse, spurred along by movements increasingly mobilized by national identity, it dissolved, predictably, along national lines. Works such as Mark Beissinger’s Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State aim to explain this period of nationalist energy while thinking critically about the force that nationalism has played in independence movements throughout Eurasia.[5] Diana Kudaibergenova’s “The Archaeology of Nationalizing Regimes in the Post-Soviet Space” and Rogers Brubaker’s “Nationalizing States Revisited: Projects and Processes of Nationalization in Post-Soviet States” are two noteworthy examples of works that describe how the newly independent states of Central Asia played a role in solidifying the weight held by national identities, as elite leaders used aggressive nationalizing projects to bolster their power and legitimize their rule.[6]

            In the present day, national affiliation continues to be a critical identity for citizens across Central Asia and the nation-state remains a valuable framework for reading the region’s contemporary politics. The crucial role that national approaches play in understanding the region today is observed in analysis of the numerous border disputes that have taken place throughout the region’s post-Soviet history. These most notably involve conflicts between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in the Ferghana Valley.

As important as national understandings of Central Asia may be in explaining the region’s historical and contemporary standing, there is also much to be gained by approaching the region through a denational lens that highlights continuity over difference. A denational approach is particularly useful for critically deconstructing contemporary Central Asian states’ national narratives of history. Kazakhstan, for example, pushes forward the belief that the Kazakhs are descendant of the Scythians, an Eastern Iranian nomadic people that originated in Central Asia in the 8th century.[7] Uzbekistan, on the other hand, professes its direct connection to the Turkic-Mongol military conqueror Tamerlane, and Tajikistan has laid claim to Central Asia’s Persian influence.[8] Though these countries all have legitimate reasons for creating national narratives associated with these specific moments of history, scholars should be wary that nationalized readings of the past do not overwhelm the fact that the ancient histories in question existed outside of the national borders drawn upon the region today.

Additionally, a denational approach to studies of Central Asia may also help to encourage scholars to ask newer and more creative questions that do not fit within the bounds of contemporary nation-states. This is especially true when considering the conditions and possibilities presented by our increasingly globalized world. Mark von Hagen in “Empires, Borderlands, and Diasporas: Eurasia as Anti-Paradigm for the Post-Soviet Era” addresses some of the options that emerge out of a denational approach to intellectual inquiries of Eurasia as he considers the kind of academic work that “might and might not fit” as a result of the social, political, economic, and cultural transformations that occurred alongside the dissolution of the Soviet Union.[9] Von Hagen writes that scholars should take advantage of the immense change associated with the creation of newly independent states in the region to look at the effects that cross-border empires have played in Eurasia; pay attention to the borderlands of the region and the “myriad economic, cultural, and ecological interchanges” that have characterized their history; and focus on the cross-national mobility of the region’s many diasporic movements.[10]

The academic world of Central Asian studies is lucky that a promising vanguard of scholars has begun to light the intellectual torch inspired by denational invitations like von Hagen’s. For example, Adeeb Khalid’s recent Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present presents a comprehensive reading of the region that emphasizes the factors that “knit Central Asians into global exchanges of goods and ideas.”[11] Mélanie Sadozaï addresses von Hagen’s desire for renewed attention to borderlands in her ethnographic research on cross-border activities between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in the Pamir mountains, and Madeline Reeves similarly thinks about the permeability of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in “Fixing the Border: On the Affective Life of the State in Southern Kyrgyzstan.”[12] Exciting work on diasporic communities in Central Asia is being carried out by scholars like Alsu Tagirova, who in “Transgressing the Boundaries: The Migration of Uyghurs into Soviet Central Asia” looks at how and why Uyghur communities transplanted to Central Asian countries in the decades following World War II.[13]

The scholars mentioned above are just some of those representing what may be considered a general trend toward the denationalization of intellectual inquiry into the Central Asia region. Breaking out of nation-states’ borders also has the potential to elucidate even more questions that are yet to be explored, especially relating to the cultural, linguistic, political, and social differences that exist within the bounds of contemporary Central Asian nations.

Yet, a study of the variability that defines different communities inside Central Asian countries once again requires working within the region’s national borders, bringing scholars back to the necessary role that national approaches play in studies of the region. Though individual theoretical frameworks die hard and paradigm shifts may be difficult to come by, scholars of Central Asia must be aware of the approaches they bring to their work as they research in pursuit of a more nuanced, thoughtful, and comprehensive understanding of their subject of study. Both national and denational approaches are required of this aim, and gaining a deeper awareness of the worlds that exist between them is a productive place to start.

[1] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nation and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Cornell University Press, 2001); Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford University Press, 1993); Francine Hirsh, Empire of Nations (Cornell University Press, 2005).

[2] Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Cornell University Press, 2004); Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR (Cornell University Press, 2015); Adrienne Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton University Press, 2006).

[3] Rawi Abdelal, “Memories of Nations and States: Institutional History and National Identity in Post-Soviet Eurasia,” Nationalities Papers 30, no. 3 (2002): 460.

[4] David D. Laitin, “Review: The National Uprisings,” World Politics 44, no. 1 (1991): 44.

[5] Mark Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[6] Diana Kudaibergenova, “The Archeology of Nationalizing Regimes in the Post-Soviet Space: Narrative, Elites, Minorities,” Problems of Post-Communism 64, no. 6 (2017); Rogers Brubaker, “Nationalizing States Revisited: Projects and Processes of Nationalization in Post-Soviet States,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 34, no. 11 (2011).

[7] Anuar Galiev, “Mythologization of History and the Invention of Tradition in Kazakhstan,” Oriente Moderno 96, no. 1 (2016).

[8] Marlene Laruelle, “National Narrative, Ethnology, and Academia in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan,” Journal of Eurasian Studies 1, no. 2 (2010); Muriel Atkin, “Tajik National Identity,” Iranian Studies 26, no. ½ (1993).

[9] von Hagen, “Empires, Borderlands, and Diasporas,” 445-456.

[10] von Hagen, “Empires, Borderlands, and Diasporas,” 445-456.

[11] Synopsis for Adeeb Khalid, Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2021).

[12] Mélanie Sadozaï, “Central Asia in the Taliban Era,” Kennan Institute Scholars Spotlights, (accessed November 29, 2023); Madeleine Reeves, “Fixing the Border: On the Affective Life of the State in Southern Kyrgyzstan,” Society and Space 29, no. 5 (2011).

[13] Alsu Tagirova, “Transgressing the Boundaries: The Migration of Uyghurs into Soviet Central Asia After World War II,” Asian Perspective 42, no. 5 (2018).