Central Asia as a whole, not just Uzbekistan, is a huge blind spot for me in terms of history and politics, so I wanted a good look at the whole region – especially since it’s all so intertwined. Adeeb Khalid is a Pakistani-born academic and expert on the region, and Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present is intended to give a comprehensive understanding. It’s quite the tome, at 500 pages hardcover, and is extremely up to date – it was just published earlier this year.
Khalid looks at the territory that would become the five “Stan” countries, as well as Xinjiang, starting in the mid-18th century and leading up to the present day. He looks at how the region was split between Russian and Chinese influence, the internal power struggles and the colonial nature of Tsarist and Qing rule, replaced eventually by new governments in Moscow and Beijing. The bulk of the book focuses on the Soviet era in the “Stans” – how the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was seen from Central Asia, how it affected local ideas of governance, nation, religion, and culture, followed by the damage to all these ideas by Stalin’s purges and the reforging of Soviet life during and after WWII.
Khalid delves deep into how national identity was established – the idea of Uzbekistan with a majority Uzbek population and power structure but incorporated into the USSR was very different from older ideas of empire and governance. The book touches on the comparative flourishing of economy and identity (including as Soviet citizens) in the Brezhnev era, then the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was not wholly welcomed in places like Uzbekistan), and the recent post-Soviet history of the five countries.
Khalid also intersperses the Soviet story with what was happening in parallel in Xinjiang – how Chinese control was only nominal until the Communist Revolution and how Xinjiang has been dealt a very different fate as part of the PRC. Instead of a level of autonomy and identity as a nation under a larger whole, as in the USSR, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang became a small ethnic minority in a united China, wholly governed by and part of the Han-majority nation, and subject to Sinicization (as well as the human rights abuses we see today).
I’d definitely recommend Central Asia as a great primer for the region – it’s helped me understand the larger scope and scale of the history of the region, and Khalid makes a point to show how the “Stans” are not a homogeneous whole. I’ve also learned the weight that Uzbekistan carries throughout the region – the large population, the value of its economy, but most importantly, the intellectual, religious, and political movements that have come out of cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent.