When the Soviet cartographers sliced and diced Central Asia in the 1920s, someone must have said, “The Kyrgyz. Aren’t they all nomads? Let’s give them the mountains.”
Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube
Before the Soviet era, there were no national borders between the peoples of the region, and identity was defined by religion, family, clan and place. The Soviets feared that such muddled loyalties could help Islamic, social or political movements gain popular support, as Pasha’s rebellion had shown. Educated Central Asians and religious leaders still talked privately of a Greater Turkestan or a Central Asian caliphate. The Soviets attempted to counter pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic tendencies by constructing nationalities, giving each a defined territory with national borders, along with a ready-made history, language, culture and ethnic profile. Your loyalty was no longer to your tribe, village or faith, but to your nationality as a Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen or Uzbek and to its Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).
The Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs were created in 1924, the Tajik SSR in 1929. It took the Russians longer to sort out the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, who share similar physical features, traditions and language. Indeed, in the 19th century, they were all referred to as Kyrgyz. As ethnographic research began to reveal differences, the mountain tribes became known as Kara-Kyrgyz (black Kyrgyz) to distinguish them from the steppe-dwelling Kazakhs, who were called simply Kyrgyz because “Kazakh” sounded too much like the name of another group, the Cossacks. Although the Russians seemed confused, the Kazakhs knew perfectly well who they were, and that they were not Kyrgyz. They were members of a tribe that was part of either the Great, Middle or Little Horde, each of which had its own khan. In 1926, most of present-day Kyrgyzstan became the Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) and a full Kyrgyz SSR in 1936. In the same year, the Kazakh SSR was formed. And so, through the miracle of Soviet ethnic engineering, the Kara-Kyrgyz were no longer black but true Kyrgyz, while the people who had been called Kyrgyz for over a century turned out to be Kazakhs after all.
While promoting new national loyalties, the Soviets realized that too much nationalism could be dangerous. In a parallel effort to solidify control, they shifted around ethnic groups to ensure that none was dominant in a specific area. Thousands of Central Asians were moved to other parts of the Soviet Union. Russian and Ukrainian farm and factory workers were settled in Central Asia, while Volga Germans, Chechens, Koreans and other ethnicities were deported to the region. The policy of divide and rule, intended to suppress ethnic unrest and militant Islam, created artificial borders between ethically-mixed SSRs. The medieval cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, historically major centers of Tajik culture and with large ethnic Tajik populations, ended up in the Uzbek SSR. Osh was a classic case of ethnic gerrymandering. As Central Asia scholar Madeleine Reeves points out, if the Soviets had drawn boundaries exclusively along national lines, the nomadic Kyrgyz would “end up with a Kyrgyz republic that had no cities of its own: a worrying prospect for a state preoccupied with thrusting ‘backward’ populations into Soviet modernity.” Their solution was to make Osh, with its predominantly Uzbek population of traders and arable farmers, the republic’s southern city.
Independence came suddenly to all Soviet republics. Unlike liberation struggles in Asia or Africa, there was no army emerging from the mountains or jungles to be cheered by flag-waving crowds, no government in exile, no heroes or martyrs to freedom. Citizens of each SSR suddenly found themselves citizens of an independent country.
Achieving independence is one thing; creating national identity is another. At independence, ethnic Kazakhs were a minority (albeit the largest one) in Kazakhstan, making up about 41 per cent of the population. At the same time, almost one quarter of Tajikistan’s population was ethnically Uzbek. With the possible exception of Turkmenistan, all republics have a rich, but potentially volatile ethnic mix. The region, noted the New York Times, looked like "a medieval map" where power is defined by ethnicities and clans, not by borders. Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously referred to Central Asia as “the Eurasian Balkans.”