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Central Asian Survey

ISSN: 0263-4937 (Print) 1465-3354 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccas20

Understanding Stalinism in, from and of Central


Asia: beyond failure, peripherality and otherness
Botakoz Kassymbekova
To cite this article: Botakoz Kassymbekova (2017) Understanding Stalinism in, from and of
Central Asia: beyond failure, peripherality and otherness, Central Asian Survey, 36:1, 1-18, DOI:
10.1080/02634937.2016.1228609
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02634937.2016.1228609

Published online: 14 Sep 2016.

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Date: 13 January 2017, At: 10:36

CENTRAL ASIAN SURVEY, 2017


VOL. 36, NO. 1, 118
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02634937.2016.1228609

INTRODUCTION

Understanding Stalinism in, from and of Central Asia: beyond


failure, peripherality and otherness
Botakoz Kassymbekova
Department of East European History, Humboldt-Universitt zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany

Stalin never personally visited Central Asia, yet the region underwent major transformations during the period of his rule. This special issue is not devoted to Stalins personal
ideas about the development of Soviet Central Asia. Rather, it is an attempt to understand
those who experienced and co-shaped that period in various Central Asian contexts and
how those experiences figured in the Stalinist regime overall. Shifting the focus away from
the study of Moscows ideological ambitions and top-down national construction, the
authors explore the everyday experiences on the ground in order to (re)discover the
place of Central Asia in the larger map of Stalinist governance.
The contributors to this issue challenge the view of Central Asia as a detached or unique
imperial backyard, where central policies and projects largely failed (or never even aimed)
to achieve transformative goals.1 Challenging Central Asias role as different or exceptional, the authors propose to understand Stalinism itself as a rule based on exceptionality,
flexibility and adaptation, which involved the differentiated treatment of various social
groups and specific projects. Special settlers, special projects, special biographies,
special administrative units, special membership, extraordinary circumstances, and changing categories and policies constituted the Stalinist system and hence rendered experiences of and in Central Asia both particular (when treated as a category of practice) and
ordinary (as a category of analysis). Such a shift in focus elucidates the complexities, inconsistencies and dynamism of the mosaic of Stalinist governance, which are sometimes overlooked by readings framed in terms of state vs. colonial or allochronistic modern vs.
traditionalist binaries. Instead of a static, fixed and coherent regime, the contributors
portray aspects of governance that involved inconsistencies, ruptured continuities and
ongoing reinvention based on personal and administrative struggles, as well as submissions and adaptations on the part of those who were responsible for instilling Stalinist
projects and those who were its subjects.
Despite a wealth of historical works on Stalinism, the authors suggest that we still know
very little about how it evolved in the region and what role the region played in Stalinist
governance. Yet, rather than developing a regional subdivision within Soviet studies or reifying the imperial distinction between the modern metropole and a backward periphery,
the present collection seeks to understand how regime and region shaped each other and
under what conditions the separation between the two was installed, maintained and
dissolved.
CONTACT Botakoz Kassymbekova
2016 Southseries Inc

kassymbo@cms.hu-berlin.de

B. KASSYMBEKOVA

There are two main reasons for focusing on Stalinism. The first is better archival access
to the documents of this period, compared with later periods. The second has to do with
the regimes claim to have radically transformed diverse territories and to have installed
one regime in all the regions of the Soviet Union, also known as the great break (Stalin
1929) or the revolution from above (Tucker 1977). But the period should not be mistaken
for the entire Soviet past. While focusing only on the period between ca. 1929 and 1953,
the volume aims to lay the ground for a nuanced historical periodization of, differentiation
between, and comparison among the immediate post-revolutionary, Stalinist, post-Stalinist and late-Soviet periods, but also different periods within Stalinist rule itself. The
focus on a specific period does not exclude asynchronic developments for various
groups and contexts, continuities, and breaks within and between various periods.
Neither, and this is a major proposition, was it designed to be equally experienced everywhere by everyone.

Stalinism reconsidered
Stalinism remains a field of tensions for historians. Numerous studies have appeared in
the last decades, providing a variety of perspectives on how we should understand this
period of dreams and nightmares. They have challenged and revised the Western
totalitarian cold-war perspective on Stalinism as a one-man tyrannical rule over a backward society by means of ideology and terror. Starting in late 1960s, some Western historians, dissatisfied with exclusive concentration on Stalins and the centralized
Communist Partys policies and proclamations, empirically revised the antagonistic
state against unwilling society model (Fitzpatrick 1986, 2000). Pushing
Stalins persona from centre stage and proposing that no single person could subdue
a population of millions by his own will, revisionists tried to understand the social
forces and dynamics that evolved, supported and subverted Soviet governance
during Stalinism.
Shifting the methodological focus from political to social history and claiming that no
regime functions in a social vacuum, they drew attention to the social origins of Stalinism,
noting that Stalin had a vital interest not only in close loyal followers, but also in a wide
range of Soviet citizens believing in, supporting and co-running the Soviet project
(Dunham 1976; Fitzpatrick 1979; Kuromiya 1988). Historians have pointed to a high
level of social mobility within Party ranks (Fitzpatrick 1979) and revealed reasons for
societal support of the regime (Lewin 1976; Von Laue 1983). They have also pointed out
the limited, rather than excessive, scope of central states authority over its own subordinates (Manning 1984; Rittersporn 1984; Getty 1985), physically and socially mobile groups,
and individuals, as well as open resistance within the population (Viola 1986). Revisionists
have uncovered the flexible and improvisational nature of Soviet policies and arrived at
the conclusion that the Stalinist regime was all too human (Manning 1984, 45); i.e. it
was made up of individuals who took decisions and relied upon constant rearrangements
and negotiations of their own and each others positions. Rather than disregarding Stalin,
they attempted to assess his personal role in the development of wider society (Manning
1987). These insights influenced by the Annales Schools shift from official to social and
everyday history, but likewise by destalinization in the Soviet Union itself, its samizdat literature and the critical voices of the perestroika period laid the methodological and

CENTRAL ASIAN SURVEY

theoretical ground for the current historiography of Stalinism, also recognizable in the
contributions to this special issue.
Yet, while revisionists have offered critical perspectives on the Stalinist period, those
studies have concentrated on Russian examples. Central Asia has continued to be
treated within a totalitarian paradigm as essentially Islamic and traditional suppressed
colonies (e.g. Stahl 1951; Kolarz 1952; also see excellent overviews by Myer 2002; Jones
Luong 2004). What was described as totalitarian in the case of Russia was understood
as colonialism in the case of Central Asia. However, a curious difference from the
Soviet European territories and population was seen in its Islamic nature, which was
treated as the single most potent challenge to the hegemony of Marxist-Leninist ideology
within the USSR (Myer 2002, 2). Even those scholars who accepted the positive and modernizing effects of Soviet domination of Central Asia still treated the region as occupied
non-European territories and compared them to French and British overseas colonies
(Nove 1967).
The demise of the Soviet Union generated a whole set of new questions and further
puzzles. Although newly accessible archives provided a great amount of material regarding Stalinist horrors that could have proven the totalitarian model correct, many former
Soviet citizens perceived the past regime not as oppressive, but as positive (Keep and
Litvin 2009; Abashin et al. 2014). In the Central Asian context especially, the totalitarian
model could not explain the initial popular aspiration to stay in the Soviet Union in the
form of a new federation2 and why ordinary people (as historical agents) have largely
abstained from denouncing the horrific totalitarian and colonial despotism.3 Moreover,
the postcolonial moment of deconstructing colonial knowledge seemed to be missing in
Central Asia (Adams 2008; Heathershaw 2010), and Central Asian Party archives remained
largely inaccessible to scholars. Scholars often had to turn to archives in Moscow to learn
about Central Asias Stalinist past. Paradoxically (or perhaps reasonably), senior officials in
Moscows academic institutions were among the first to lead a serious critical epistemological revision of Soviet concepts and their academic hierarchy (Tishkov 1992; Spivak
et al. 2006). Instead of defending the imperial knowledge machine, some leading
Russian academics questioned the basis of their own expertise, cooperating with
Western colleagues.4 At the same time, Soviet-trained scholars in Central Asia have continued Soviet-era historical narratives of the ethno-national past (Suyarkulova 2013) and progress, appropriating these for new national post-Soviet narratives (e.g. Masov 2014). In
some cases, when certain scholars in Central Asia attempted to present alternative
national narratives, they were accused of uncritically (and unethically) copying inadequate
foreign imports.5 Attempts to discuss the Central Asian regions postcoloniality came from
Western scholars rather than from within (Kandiyoti 2002; Dav 2007; Adams 2008). This
further implied the comparison of Central Asia to other colonies, even if the Soviet
regime figured in their comparisons as more radical and interventionist than Western colonial powers. Soviet Central Asias experience remained a sensitive topic for Russian historians, who abstained from colonial or postcolonial paradigms and further re-narrated the
Soviet view that Moscow was a fair distributor, an equal among the other republics (e.g.
Chebotareva 1995), or, most recently, that Russia itself can be analysed from a postcolonial
perspective (Gerasimov and Mogilner 2015).6 The process of thinking about the Stalinist
past in Central Asia was complicated by the fact that scholarship is underfunded and politicized as the new states search for their roots and legitimacy. For much of the Central

B. KASSYMBEKOVA

Asian population, too, poverty and instability made the Soviet past seem secure, on the
one hand, or irrelevant, on the other, as people were stuck in the present in their everyday
struggle to survive (Ibaez-Tirado 2015).
The complicated picture of post-Soviet legacies thus provided no clear-cut explanations
for totalitarian, modernist or colonialist paradigms, and necessitated the search for new
concepts and languages to describe Soviet (and post-Soviet) realities. The cultural turn
of the 1990s (most strongly influenced by Clifford Geertz (1973)) played a critical role in
such reassessments. It not only promoted new interpretations of how societies function,
but also historicized humans, their cultural contexts and their behavioural options, and,
importantly, fostered a critical and self-reflexive approach to academic assumptions
about the social world. The new approach treated culture not as a static given but as
dynamic, multiple and constantly contested webs of meanings according to which
people structured their social worlds. Historians learned from ethnographers, while ethnographers and (some) political scientists increasingly turned to study historical change (e.g.
Jones Luong 2004; Collins 2009; Abashin 2015). Learning from each other, social scientists
increasingly argued that no truths were eternal or detached from social action and negotiation. Now, closer attention was paid to frames of reference and situated knowledge,
while action and speech were set in historical contexts. The new cultural history shifted
attention from positivist measures such as economic statistics and laws as reflections of
reality to social and cultural practices. Property could now be read not as an obvious
solid good but as a site of cultural, political and social struggles (Verdery 2003); theatre
performances were interpreted as not simply propaganda machines but also social
spaces to create and transmit notions of socialist justice (Cassiday 2000); state celebrations
were now seen as spatial, temporal and symbolic scenarios of power and rituals of state
citizen interaction (Petrone 2000; Rolf 2006); and bureaucratic documentation could be
read as stately redefinition of citizen categories and personal strategies for identity (re)
construction (Fitzpatrick 2005). In this special issue, too, historians use ethnographic
insights to understand historical transformations (Roberts, Blackwood), and ethnographers
discuss the historical nature of cultural adaptation and change (Abashin).
Another paradigmatic epistemological shift came from post-structuralist thinkers, with
Michel Foucault becoming especially influential on historians of the Soviet past. Foucaults
major works (1976; 1991; 2006 [1972]) suggest that surveillance, ideological domination
and repressive disciplining lie at the core of Western states repertoires of power.7
Modern citizens, then, were not autonomous from state control and individualized, as theories of enlightenment and democracy proclaimed and the totalitarian model of the Soviet
past implied. Rather than reading the Stalinist regime as an anti-European, anti-modern
traditional order, post-structural theory provided a lens to set it within the broader European turn to modernity, or at least one version of modernity (for discussion of multiple
modernities, see Eisenstadt 2000; for a comparison of Nazi and Stalinist regimes beyond
the totalitarian paradigm, see Gyer and Fitzpatrick 2008). Stalinist policies, such as the
control of movement and the passport regime, were now seen as modern stately practices
to shape and control populations. Even terror was no longer an unplanned consequence
or (distorted) mental condition of state leaders, but a conscious, planned and well-controlled modern technique (Holquist 2003).
The post-structural and cultural turns in Soviet studies produced several important
shifts. First, historians interpreted the Stalinist project not as an archaic despotic system

CENTRAL ASIAN SURVEY

of repression detached from and against the population, but rather as a modernization
project that worked and depended upon the human condition (Kotkin 1995; Hoffmann
and Kotsonis 1999; Hoffmann 2011). Stephen Kotkin (1995), for example, demonstrated
on the basis of the industrial showpiece project Magnitogorsk that the Soviet state actively
promoted modern ideals such as welfare, class equality and socialist justice, and hence
was a hypermodern venture. The Soviet state, then, not only repressed its people, it
also turned them into the central goal of its project. Even the human suffering that
accompanied the Soviet construction, according to Anna Toporova (2015), was the
focus of Soviet cultural and civic construction, presented as the repayment of a debt for
state provisions and hence a legitimate and even positive citizen experience. Rather
than a violent repressive machine, the Soviet state thus figures in this account as a
modern cultural factory, which sought wide participation by and support from its citizens.
Second, historians now more consciously and explicitly focus on the micro-level processes of how Soviet individuals internalized or related to the Soviet regime. Defining
modernity as a condition in which individuals become subjects through acquiring a political project (Wittrock 2000, 4749), some argued that the Soviet people indeed internalized the Soviet ideal of modernity and imagined themselves in political terms (Halfin 2006;
Hellbeck 2006; Studer and Haumann 2006). This mental placement, historians showed, was
also physically structured by the Soviet state: good and modern citizens were to live in
exemplary cities (Kotkin 1995); bad citizens and traitors to the Soviet project were to be
removed (Hagenloh 2009; Shearer 2009) and contained in isolated conditions (Alexopoulos 2003). The castigated learned, experienced and, as Blackwood and Scarborough
suggest in this issue, accommodated, even if they did not fully accept, the language
and practices of stately disciplining.
Third, historians now take seriously the study of non-Russian domains (Suny and Martin
2001) in order to understand how the regime dealt with the question of colonialism and
cultural difference. Historians who have studied Stalinist Central Asia have argued that the
Bolsheviks spent a great amount of energy, time and resources to study, classify and
develop non-Russian nation-states and modernize their societies (e.g. Keller 2001; Edgar
2004; Hirsch 2005; Kamp 2006). Non-Russian Soviet nationalities, then, were not simply
backward static peripheries kept as cultural inferiors and others, but were the targets,
means and spaces of the Bolshevik project. Yet these historians also contended with a
paradox: that the modern project bore imperial dimensions as it aimed to preserve and
potentially expand the territories of the former Russian empire (Martin 2001) and was in
part compromised by political or economic central goals (Kandiyoti 1996, 2007). Moreover, although Bolsheviks used ethnic peculiarity to allow non-Russians in certain cases
to become active participants in their novel national futures (Khalid 2015), they also eradicated many of these same elites and ignored grievances of the local population (Payne
2001; Ohayon 2008; Kindler 2014).
Fourth, and most recently, historians have returned to the figure of Stalin himself, confirming the revisionists argument that he could not exercise power exclusively on his own
by means of terror and ideology. Historians showed that Stalin was not simply a bloodthirsty tyrant but also a committed communist until his death, even if on his own terms
(van Ree 2002; Montefiore 2007). Using archival materials from Russian regions, historians
demonstrated that, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Party officials supported Stalin not
out of fear but because they felt that he served their interests (Harris 2005) and that, during

B. KASSYMBEKOVA

the revolution and prior to Stalinism, he exercised a much more central role than has
been acknowledged so far (Kotkin 2015, 19294; 53032). While still highlighting Stalins
personal role in shaping the system, some argued that there was no one Stalin, but
many Stalins, and that his views, strategies and actions changed over time and according
to context (Naimark 2002). Historians have also showed that he relied significantly upon
various networks and individuals, both to force through campaigns and policies, and
also to maintain his personal legitimacy and that of the state (Rees 2002; Davies and
Harries 2005; Fitzpatrick 2015). His team or inner circle, but also a wide range of bureaucrats in various branches, could act semi-autonomously, defending their own and their
branchs interests, allowing open resistance in the early 1930s (Gregory 2001; Harris
2005). Stalins actions and those of his officials, then, should not be understood in the
context of perpetual fear, ideological dogmatism, full submission, and powerlessness in
the face of the Party apparatus. Rather, Stalins rule should be understood as a series of
flexible, self-correcting and pragmatic attempts to centralize power in key fields, but maintain the overall system by relying upon, and also rearranging, his core team and other officials throughout the Soviet Union (Gorlizki and Khlevniuk 2004).

Stalinism and its tensions


While these shifts have been influential in revising conceptualizations of Stalinism, Stalinism still remains a field of tensions, especially in regard to its transition to universal modernity and in relation to non-Russian peripheries. First, while most agree that Stalinist
aspirations were of a modern nature (for a recent overview see David-Fox 2015), many
historians abstain from categorizing the Stalinist order as a modern European-like
polity, pointing out that it failed to make the transition from personalized to institutional
power, and was based upon such pre-modern or traditional practices as patronclient
relationships, the use of arbitrary violence outside the legal realm, and arbitrariness (Fitzpatrick 1999, 2000; Martin 2000; Baron 2007; Getty 2015). This tension is closely connected to the next unresolved issue: i.e. whether the Stalinist transformation of Central
Asia was a (neo)colonial or a modern state-building endeavour. While some argue that
the Stalinist state was based on the concept of universal citizenship and mass mobilization (Khalid 2006), others have pointed to a politics based on difference and differentiation between civilized metropole and backward periphery (Northrop 2004). While
categories such as neo-traditionalism (Martin 2000) or internal colonialism (Loring
2014) constitute attempts to define a system between modernity and traditionalism
or between intentions and consequences, they are still caught between the grand narratives of two systems (modern state vs. colonial empire) as if they developed from unrelated, if not opposite, premises. But the binary opposition between colonialism and
modernity can pose serious limitations, in that it often treats imperialism/colonialism
and modernity as static, clear-cut, coherent systems, ignoring not only their entangled
connectedness but also the inconsistencies and dynamism within and between them.
They can inspire ahistorical analysis and overemphasize agentless abstractions
(Cooper 2005, 17), tempting scholars to look for evidence to fit the argument. This
can divert us from understanding the choices people made and the actions they took
in concrete situations, as well as how they pursued, corrected, or distanced themselves
from them.

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Rather than making a normative statement and reproducing the dichotomy between
modernity and colonialism, the current volume attempts to shift the focus from these
top-down concepts to an actor-based approach. The attempt to overcome the dichotomy
is meant to lend the study of Stalinism open-endedness, which could allow depicting trajectories, tactics and ideas that perhaps seem incompatible and confusing within rigid divisions. Similar to Abashins (2015, 4752) locality (lokalnost) approach, which in turn relies
upon Geertzs thick description (1973) and Appadurais (1996, 198) concept of locality as a
constantly produced social practice, this approach attempts to evade meta-narratives and
holistic explanations, highlighting flexibility and the contingency of social, political and
cultural processes. Distanced from fixed normative dichotomies, this approach stems
from the observation that the Stalinist system was profoundly actor-centred, localized
and diversified, and yet centralizing and comparable within and between regions. It
views Stalinist policies and realities as based on the ideas of difference and universal citizenship, mobilization and exclusion. The contributions to this issue provide insights not
only for exploring how those were planned or imagined, but also for understanding
how they related to each other in practice.
The authors in this volume suggest that the Stalinist regime was marked by its ambition
for maximal individual and group involvement by means of differentiation. Individuals and
groups were expected to co-run the Stalinist project throughout the Soviet Union, as they
were considered a source of transformation. But involvement was not the same for all citizens, and was based on a politics of ongoing reconfiguration and redefinition of status
groups (Burbank 2015, 11). Differentiated systems of privileges and punishments meant
that Soviet citizens were involved in the construction of the Soviet Union under variegated
terms and conditions, depending upon their status, location and relation to the state. As a
result, their involvement could be voluntary or based on force and violence, inclusive or
exclusionary, depending upon their status and interests in various localities. The combination of mobilization and differentiation, so the general proposition goes, addressed
the realities of a diverse polity and diverse centralization goals. This wide open-endedness
and flexibility allowed co-option of difference (for some sooner, for others later) into the
system. But the system of co-option and mobilization was itself based upon and produced
the concept of and governance by differentiation.
Understanding Stalins rule as a rule of special treatments, statuses, regions, projects,
groups and individuals allows us to separate otherness as a political strategy of rule practised throughout the Soviet Union from the production of cultural otherness of Central
Asia as a region. While constructing regional otherness certainly played some role, otherness (or differentiation as governance) exceeded and, ironically, relativized the region as
different. While these two practices were connected, the works in this special issue
suggest that othering was a universal resource in the Stalinist states repertoire of governance within and beyond republican borders, and hence othering integrates Central Asia
into the general logic of Stalinist special treatment regime.8 Moreover, the special treatment regime crossed ethnic, republican and class borders by means of extraordinary situations, mobilization campaigns, and violence. While nation-state building can imply
homogenization, in the Stalinist context, it also meant diversification, uprooting and mobility. This system was grasped and skilfully appropriated by individuals and groups in and
outside Central Asia, both indigenous and newly settled. Since governance depended
upon differentiated involvement and reorganization, we need to analyse how it influenced

B. KASSYMBEKOVA

not only individual and group choices but also state-building. Cadres decide everything
was Stalins strategic formula for measuring individuals and mobilizing their actions but,
the contributors ask, what and how did they decide? Visions of how various actors constructed and used opportunities to shape their role, agency and vision of the state is
the major focus of this special issue. By examining mechanisms of governance in economic, cultural and political spheres, the issue suggests moving debates on Stalinist
Central Asia beyond the lenses of periphery, failures and cultural otherness that have
long been informed by our imagery of a rigid separation between colonialism and modernity, historically nurtured and natured in Eurocentric and Stalinist discourse.

Beyond failures
The story of Stalinism is often told as a story of failures. If Sovietologists argued that Stalinism did indeed instil a totalitarian order by use of force and ideology, the revisionists
showed that failures and dissatisfaction with a lack of achievement equally constituted
Stalinism. Paradoxically, the story of failures is also omnipresent and plays a central role
in Soviet archives and historiography. For one, the Stalinist leadership institutionalized
the fear of failure and sought out failures (often by means of control commissions and
the secret police) to be corrected by the central agencies (Baron 2007). Unachievable
plans were also interpreted as a political economy of fear in order to disempower peripheries and hence force through the policies of the centre (Werth 2010; Teichmann 2016).
Second, Soviet leaders and historians have used a narrative of failures to tell the story of
Soviet progress. A multitude of failures, not the total failure of the system, highlighted the
hardships and difficult realities of early Soviet state-building, whose leaders heroically
despite the failure of roads, nature, finances and educated personnel found their way
to success. Failure was the reverse side of the Soviet state narrative of success. But
how do we go beyond the narrative of politicized failures in our historical investigation?
What has been achieved, and how were these achievements experienced and perceived
by local and central actors? Moreover, who measures successes and failures in our
revised historical narratives?
Taking an economic history of the development of Vakhshstroi, an irrigation project for
cotton production in southern Tajikistan, Patryk Reid tells a story of unexpected achievements in the midst of Soviet narratives of failures. Identifying two parallel yet interconnected
infrastructural projects Vakhshstroi and the Vakhsh railroad Reid concentrates on the
material and economic dynamics of their development in relation to each other, but also
to larger economic and transportational needs of the Vakhsh Valley. He argues that the railroad became a mediator of the developing geography of Soviet mobility in southern
regions of Tajikistan in ways that were not envisioned by state planners. Reid draws attention to the temporal dimensions of infrastructural development in order to understand how
the state of flux offered and produced resilience with respect to unplanned material and
economic demands. He redirects focus from the cultural history of Soviet institutions as Kulturtrger (culture carrier) so as to highlight that they were in certain contexts primarily
decision makers (Entscheidungstrger), whose choices were reactions and adaptations to
local needs and realities, rather than central expectations and plans.
Concentrating on Leninobod Region in northern Tajikistan, Flora Roberts provides an
alternative view on how we might read an episode of regional infrastructural failure

CENTRAL ASIAN SURVEY

during World War II. Roberts problematizes the narrative of Soviet collapse in the peripheries during WWII by pointing to the fact that this failure can be read differently, depending on who is addressing the narrative to whom. If, according to Roberts, infrastructural
isolation of a single region during the war was symptomatic of the centres failure and
the peripherys backwardness in the eyes of republican officials, for local actors it might
as easily be read as a moment of empowerment, in which they could structure society
according to their understanding of an appropriate communal arrangement. Taking
local festivities a tui as a lens for reading local adaptations to situations of physical isolation from the Soviet centre, Roberts demonstrates how failure for the centre could also
be read as a modus vivendi for local actors, who could now take decisions on food production, access to agricultural land and distribution of goods. The local dwellers had the
opportunity to improvise the local order by means of traditional festivities, which entailed
a ritualized process of distribution of goods and status inscribed in tradition. Describing
the war years as a turning point in northern Tajikistans relationship to Moscow, Roberts
sees how opportunities emerged to co-opt Stalinist policies and traditional means of
expressing status and power.
Marianne Kamp and Russell Zanca similarly question the reading of the Stalinist past as
a history of failures. Using an oral-history approach, they ask why so many people in postSoviet rural Uzbekistan remember the experience of collectivization as positive and
empowering, rather than simply as oppressive colonialism. Kamp and Zanca concentrate
on the concrete memories of survivors regarding entering and forming a kolkhoz (collective farm), rather than resistance and flight. They argue that material benefits and social
mobility, as well as violence and fear of repression, equally inspired and forced peasants
to collective farms. Although most had no freedom of choice in the late 1920s and
early 1930s, the majority of contemporary eyewitnesses, who are also survivors of the Stalinist collectivization, remember it as an opportunity to climb the social ladder and
improve ones material condition. Collectivization involved varying incentives and experiences, resulting in varying readings of its past.

Beyond otherness
Questions of ethnicity, religion and gender those that mark and were marked as
symbols and qualities of the Central Asian others have played a special role in recent
studies of Soviet Central Asia. These scholarly works have been crucial to our understanding of Soviet policies towards Central Asia and how they were received and adopted on
the ground. But the contributors to this issue ask whether difference in cultural production also means difference in Stalinist governance between the centre and periphery. While acknowledging the wide diversity of cultural, economic, political and
geographic contexts in which the Stalinist regime functioned and which it created, the
authors question the degree to which we can trace the common characteristics that constituted Stalinism. In what sense was Central Asia Stalinist, and in what ways was it related
to the general Stalinist project? The contributors to this issue not only present diverse
experiences of Stalinism within Central Asia; they also ask whether instituting differences
was itself part of the regimes mechanisms. Moreover, if Stalinism is to be described as
intrinsically diverse and to be replaced by Stalinisms, how can we grasp its universal
logics? How did Soviet leaders, bureaucrats and individuals conceptualize and integrate

10

B. KASSYMBEKOVA

particularism and difference into their own personal projects, but also into Soviet
project(s) overall?
Rather than seeing a dilemma between particularism and universalism, Niccol Pianciola draws attention to how particularism was integrated into the general Soviet economic scheme. Shifting the focus from the cultural to the economic field, Pianciola
points to the new spatial hierarchy that was produced in relation to and within early
Soviet Central Asia. Taking the mechanism of economic regionalization (ekonomicheskoe
raionirovanie) as his focus, Pianciola argues that economic specialization was consciously
produced and integrated into one centralized system, according to which each region was
accorded an economic plan and specialization that did not necessarily coincide with
national delimitation. That system constituted hierarchical relationships between the
centres and regions and can explain the differences among peripheries themselves.
It explains, for example, how inclusion in different economic units, but similar sedentarization efforts, among Kazakhs and Kyrgyz produced different results. It also explains how
different economic regions related to elite regime cities, producing an overall Stalinist
economic and social spatial pyramid, which provided the planned economic context
for the Kazakh famine.
Isaac Scarborough examines the experience of Chechen and Ingush deportees in the
Kazakh SSR to understand the terms and processes of their survival and accommodation
as political, social and political others. Scarborough demonstrates that the deportees categorization as others was based not only on political terms as enemies of the people, but
also on an administrative bureaucratic categorization as special resettlers (spetspereselentsy). In official Soviet vocabulary and practice, this category entailed neither their
total isolation from Soviet society, nor their exclusion from interaction with the state.
On the contrary, deportees were closely monitored and had to interact more often with
state agencies than many other citizen groups. More importantly, the terms of their interaction were not based exclusively on isolation, violence or forced labour. Nor did those
exiled fully adopt the role of victims. Both officials and the exiled interacted according
to different terms, roles and functions: the political police observed the political mood;
the relocation administration was responsible for deportees livelihood, and local party
officials for their integration in their new locations. The central state figured both as a victimizer and supporter. That dual relationship, Scarborough contends, was not exclusive to
deportees, but can be applied generally to all Soviet citizens. This is not only because
Soviet citizenship was a constant process of accommodation and survival, but also
because accommodation was itself also part of the Soviet state structure, which, rather
than producing total control, relied upon the interaction and integration of various
diverse needs and claims in a differentiated and diversified citizenship regime. The resulting mosaic of differentiated treatment and experiences produced a specific kind of interaction to navigate, challenge, claim and demand similarly differentiated treatment based
on official Soviet categories.
Maria Blackwood scrutinizes the example of a local exile, Fatima Gabitova, in the Kazakh
SSR to understand how she, as the wife of an enemy of the people, interpreted and dealt
with her status during Stalinism and beyond. Blackwood provides an alternative trajectory
to understanding how the category of the other functioned at the individual level. While
top-down categorization isolated Gabitova physically and politically, she used this categorization as a personal strategy for empowerment in order to retain and produce a feeling

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of personal worth and dignity. This ambivalent use of social categorization produced an
ambiguous relationship towards the Soviet state and highlighted the dynamics of
Soviet transformations. By using the concept of innocence, Gabitova was able to powerfully select and instrumentalize such positive and empowering Soviet categories as a
mother-hero and educator to both denounce those responsible for her role as an outsider,
and also integrate her biography into the larger political and social Stalinist context. Gabitovas otherness thus leads her to understand the Stalinist period not as an impersonal
system, but rather as a personalized project in which individuals played a key role. Blurring the boundaries between the private and the public, and the national and the universal, Gabitovas experience of Stalinism consisted of individuals who made responsible
choices. In exposing, analysing and remembering them, as did the main protagonist of
Blackwoods story, one can understand that these were not abstract systems and ideas,
but in fact real people with concrete destinies.

Beyond periphery
Rather than treating Central Asia as a Soviet periphery par excellence, the contributors
reverse the focus from a region (as periphery) to the system (as peripheral) and ask
where, how and on what terms and conditions the Soviet regime was peripheral or
central in Central Asia. They also seek to understand where those boundaries were
installed, how they were maintained and under what conditions they dissolved. These
contributions show that Central Asian Stalinist peripherality was not a natural fact but
rather a process of formation that both was based on and necessitated engagement, on
the side of those who represented the centre as well as those who stood for the periphery. The contributions suggest various ways to understand peripherality: as a material condition, as a measure of the states abilities and structures, and as a discourse of
legitimization for involvement. Yet, rather than reifying these concepts and their realities,
the contributions look at the microdynamics of grasping, instituting, ignoring or dealing
with them. These microdynamics, in turn, problematize and complicate the dichotomy
between centre and periphery, or the rulers and the ruled, pointing to their interdependencies and mutual influences.
In his contribution, Sergei Abashin looks at the dynamic and changing role of a mediating agent between the centre and periphery, proposing that a concept of locality allows
us to observe the interaction of central projects and peripheral realities in the context of
one locality. By focusing on the construction and transformation of a single Soviet kolkhoz
in northern Tajikistan, Abashin unfolds the dynamics of formal (central) and informal (local)
practices of governance from the 1930s until the mid-1950s. Abashin shows that, in the
1930s, local rais (kokhoz chairs) were the main agents of collectivization, but also acted
as political intermediaries, navigating between local traditional power structures and
the demands of regional Party officials. This social and political structure changed with
the transition to the cotton economy in the 1950s. The kolkhoz chair received more political weight, as now he was no longer a subordinate of a regional Party leader, but a
more independent manager who answered directly to the centre. Abashin elucidates
the dynamic relationship between centre and periphery, which was neither predictable
nor necessarily top-down. By outlining the centres difficulties in finding a suitable kolkhoz
rais in the late 1940s and early 1950s who could transform and lead a large kolkhoz cotton

12

B. KASSYMBEKOVA

economy, for example, Abashin shows that central aims depended upon local individuals
and the resources available at hand. He also explains that traditional and local were not
by-products or failures, but basic constituents of Soviet kolkhozes in the 1930s.
While the state attempted to transform the periphery and Sovietize all the regions of
its vast territory, Claus Bech Hansen shows how the legacy of World War II hampered
central state interests related to economic and political recovery during the late-Stalin
years in the Uzbek SSR. Analysing late-Stalin repression in the Uzbek SSR, Hansen shows
that while central economic interest was the main driver of late-Stalin party purges, the
concept of backwardness remained a prominent element of the repression unleashed
in Central Asia. Hence, while the evolution of the purges suggests that state action primarily aimed to reassert control over the basis of production, the repression of the Uzbek intelligentsia shows that central leadership worried that wartime leniency in the ideological
sphere had exacerbated the tension between the celebration of national culture and
Soviet identity. Backwardness became part of the repressive policies because it was a
mechanism to suppress local interpretations of nationalism (and cosmopolitanism) but
also patronage relations and local cultural practices. After WWII, the Uzbek periphery
was to be produced and defined by the centre, without local interpretations. Moscows
critique of the Uzbek intelligentsias literary works and its analysis of them as nonMarxist and backward served to legitimize interfering with and reshaping local structures.
The purges crystallized and reproduced the centreperiphery power hierarchy, resulting in
the Moscow Politburos trespassing on Uzbek sovereignty by sending non-native functionaries to seek out local enemies, while transferring powerful local agents to Moscow.

Stalinism: prospects for future research


There are three general directions that the contributions of this special issue suggest for
the study of Stalinism generally, but also for its investigation in Central Asia. The first is
the need to understand Stalinism as a regime of differentiated treatment, policies and
tactics that was based on mobility and reconfiguration. This implies that there are no
fixed, homogeneous realities and experiences of Stalinism, but rather that the production
of difference and of differentiated categories was itself part of the Stalinist mechanism of
rule. Stalinist governance was based on the active, but not necessarily stable involvement
of a wide variety of groups and individuals under diverse conditions, which could potentially be altered and reconfigured. Even those who could be considered isolated and marginalized retained a relationship to the state, based not only on the experience of violence
and force, but also through techniques of provision and integration. Recognizing the
dynamic nature of Stalinist policies allows observing inconsistencies and contradictions
in grand narratives, but also applying longue dure insights beyond the arbitrary dichotomy that divides history into traditional (backward, identifiable, old) and contemporary
(modern, legitimate, objective, timeless) regimes (Todorova 2015). This approach distances itself from the deterministic assumption that traditional empires necessarily dissolve into modern states and that these two formations (empires and modern states)
are non-synchronous polities. It allows for overlaps and asynchronic developments
(Todorova 2015) and revises the allochronistic gaze, i.e. treating others as if they function
within and according to distinct solid colonial or modern temporalities, overlooking
actors own understanding of rhymes and change. This is useful for a field that is still

CENTRAL ASIAN SURVEY

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emerging, as it should maintain opportunities to historicize subjects, i.e. understand their


point of view, not ours, before generalizations based on empirical and comparative investigations can be made. The focus on unfixity (without essentializing it) shows that Central
Asia was not simply an isolated region separate from the Soviet European centre or a
home for Muslims or Asian ethnicities, but also an exile, profession, technical
project, cultural project, social ladder, or new home for different groups in different
times and contexts.
Second, the articles in this collection suggest that while the shift away from the colonial-vs.-modern dichotomy and ethno-national history aims to highlight differentiation,
dynamism and diversity, this does not entail deconstructing Stalinist rule as a postmodern phenomenon without specific characteristics, as if nothing was fixed and fluidity
was everywhere. Fixity, e.g. through passport regimes, economic regionalization, historical
narratives and exile practices, was crucial but not stable, as rules and categories were
rearranged and negotiated according to the particular context. The question of violence
requires further elaboration, something that has been somewhat omitted in this issue,
in part due to the authors aspirations to write about nonviolent dimensions and things
that worked. It remains a challenge to understand how violence functioned and what it
meant in various Central Asian contexts, both physical and social, and to integrate an
analysis of violence into the mechanisms of Stalinist governance. Was violence perhaps
not only a technique of a modern state that aspired to homogenization and clarity, but
also a mechanism to differentiate and hierarchize (Baberowski 1998, 115)? Moreover,
what was physical violence in the hands of people, as opposed to the state, and how
far did it structure behaviour and ideas? The question of violence also raises a methodological limitation of not being able to read (and this is what historians usually do) voices
that did not have the ability to speak. By concentrating on diaries or the narratives of survivors, we are biased by our sources, as Kamp and Zanca mention in this issue. How do we
integrate the experiences of those who perished?
Third, just as the view from Central Asia revises our understanding of Stalinism, so too
our nuanced examination of Stalinism can modify our understanding of Central Asias
location in the Stalinist past, and more generally, how we think about its history. While
increasing interest in area studies has developed the geographic and political map of
Central Asia into a separate academic field, a more nuanced understanding of Stalinism
and how it figured in Central Asia can point to the mosaic and dynamic nature of
Central Asias past, which can be understood only within a general picture of the Stalinist
Soviet Union. Rather than a fixed periphery with a fixed centre, it was a part of a general
system of unfixity, which aimed to produce interdependencies, uprooting, movement and
flexibility, even if framed in essentialist terms. The Stalinist mosaic experience was set in a
context of global rivalry and exchange, which has yet to be analysed and explored with
regard to the development of Stalinist Central Asia as a region (both movable and
fixed) to reveal the analytical and practical interconnectedness of the imperial, modern
state, and national formations.

Notes
1. As Pauline Jones Luong (2004, 5) suggests, the study of clans, tribes and pre-Soviet traditions
has been based on an assumption that Central Asian republics are inherently more resistant

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B. KASSYMBEKOVA

2.
3.

4.

5.
6.

7.
8.

to Soviet rule and thus their pre-Soviet identities, beliefs, and practises were virtually untransformed. For a recent argument that the Soviet Union did not transform the core of Central
Asian societies, see Collins (2009).
For a nuanced analysis of discussions of sovereignty on the eve and during the disintegration
of the Soviet Union see Suyarkulova (2011).
In Central Asia, Uzbekistans official post-Soviet historiography has been the most articulate in
accusing the Soviet rule of colonializing Central Asia (Abashin 2007). In the case of Kazakhstan,
which experienced the strongest population decline during collectivization, although some
local historians labeled the hunger caused by sedentarization policies genocide, most do
not present the Soviet past as colonial and instead stress its modernizing effects (Cameron
2010, 291; Thomas 2015, 207).
Examples of cooperation include the internationally edited book series on Stalinism by
Moscows ROSSPEN (Rossiiskaia Politicheskaia Entsiklopediia), which published Russian and
international research on the topic of Stalinism in the Russian language; the bilingual
journal Ab Imperio: Studies of New Imperial History and Nationalism in Post-Soviet Space,
which publishes the latest research on the topic of new imperial history by international
and post-Soviet scholars; and hundreds of other collaborative research and publication projects, including archival collections.
See e.g. the discussion of Etnicheskii Atlas Uzbekistana edited by Alisher Ilkhamov (2002) and
debates about it in Ab Imperio, April 2005.
Gerasimovs and Mogilners suggestion is a reaction to Timothy Snyders (2015) proposal to
view RussianUkrainian conflict as a struggle for a new world order, in which the Soviet
Union is equated with Russia, which in turn is equated with a neocolonial invader. The Ukrainian revolution of 2014 is interpreted as an attempt by Ukraine to set itself free from its colonial past and the recently re-emerged neocolonial present.
For a discussion of Foucaults own opinion of the Soviet regime and the application of his
views by Russian and Soviet historians, see Plamper (2002).
This term is inspired by Jane Burbanks concept of the Russian imperial rights regime, a form
of legal culture in which the states assignment of rights and duties (2006, 400) is differential
to variously defined groups (402). This arrangement, according to Burbank, created conditions for including even lowly subjects in basic practices of governance (400).

Acknowledgement
The Fritz Thyssen Stiftung kindly supported the organization of the authors workshop, Re-thinking
Colonialism and Modernity beyond the Cultural Turn: The Case of the Early Soviet State in Central
Asia, which took place 1819 March 2016 in the Department of East European History at Humboldt
Universitt zu Berlin, which enabled the authors to meet and discuss the articles included in this
issue.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

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