Stalin’s Giant Pencil: Debunking A Myth About Central Asia’s Borders

EurasiaNet Commentary

Few parts of the world are the subject of as much sustained journalistic ignorance as Central Asia. News from what are patronizingly known as the ‘stans’ rarely makes it into mainstream news outlets, except in connection to Islamic terrorism, authoritarianism, and ethnic and religious tensions.

Joseph Stalin Mass Murderer
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

While all three are certainly problems in Central Asia, these ‘discourses of danger‘ crowd out any nuance or perspective from much reporting and supposedly ‘strategic’ analysis. If there is one thing we should have learned in the last few years, it is that Molenbeek is a more likely source of Islamic terrorists than Uzbekistan, and yet Islam Karimov’s death in September immediately had commentators reaching for unsubstantiated clichés about a growing Islamic threat.

Authoritarianism is certainly a curse in Central Asia, but there are important distinctions between Turkmenistan’s closed neo-Stalinist system, Tajikistan’s kleptocracy, Kyrgyzstan’s fragile parliamentary liberalism and Kazakhstan’s dictatorship of technocrats. As for ethnic and religious tension, the real wonder is that it is relatively contained, given the diversity of the region: nothing comparable to the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, the Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria, Turkey’s war against the Kurds, Pakistan’s Sh’ia/Sunni conflict and persecution of Christians, or the Balkan wars of the 1990s, has ever happened in Central Asia.

Yet on one of the rare occasions when political violence became ethnicized in Central Asia – in particular the Osh events in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 – we were treated to a full range of lazy assumptions about ‘ancient, ineradicable ethnic hatreds,’ reminiscent of Robert Kaplan’s ‘Balkan Ghosts‘ explanation for the violent collapse of Yugoslavia.

One particularly persistent trope is that the region is a dangerous powder keg because of the legacy of Soviet borders. As the BBC’s Edward Stourton wrote in the Guardian at the time of the Osh violence: “The question of what really lies behind Kyrgyzstan’s problems is in truth easy to answer; the way Stalin designed the region ensured that it would regularly be shaken by inter-ethnic violence. When he drew lines on a map to form new Soviet republics in the 1920s, he created minorities that were bound to make them unstable.”

Peter Zeihan for Stratfor similarly wrote of Osh that “Stalin drew his lines well,” while the Economist’s analysis of the violence was simply entitled: “Stalin’s Harvest.” The image of Stalin sitting in the Kremlin with a giant pencil, malevolently drawing lines on the map of Central Asia to ensure that the region would remain unstable if it ever found itself outside the Soviet Union seems to be ineradicable. Despite strong criticism at the time, most notably from Sean Guillory and Madeleine Reeves, this lazy, essentialist and above all ahistorical explanation for Central Asia’s woes has proved remarkably persistent.

Philip Shishkin’s book on Ferghana – Restless Valley – blames most of the region’s problems on Stalin’s supposed “divide and rule” policies. A recent security analysis also refers to “Stalin’s Machiavellian ethno-political management” in drawing borders in the Ferghana Valley “irrespective of ethnic grouping.” Stratfor’s recent historical profile of Uzbekistan alleges that “Stalin made sure that the borders were drawn to mix populations further and maintain ethnic tension,” while Shaun Walker’s otherwise thoughtful December 2016 profile of the Central Asian republics 25 years after independence asserts that “the wavy, overlapping borders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are hangovers from the Soviet borders, and often appear as if drawn at random by a drunkard holding a pencil.” At least here Stalin is apparently not to blame.

Why is this a problem? Firstly, it suggests that Central Asians are prisoners of their past, with no agency of their own that might allow them to escape it. Secondly, it grossly misrepresents that past. Central Asia’s borders might be complex, and they might be problematic, but they were not drawn at random, or without reference to ethnicity. And, above all, they were not imposed unilaterally from Moscow.

One of the major developments in the historiography of the USSR since Soviet archives opened after 1991 has been a series of in-depth studies of Soviet nationalities policy in non-Russian regions, and particularly in Central Asia. The work of Yuri Slezkine, Ronald Suny, Terry Martin, Arne Haugen, Francine Hirsch, Sergei Abashin and many others has revealed that, far from being a “Breaker of Nations,” as Robert Conquest had it, Stalin was responsible for giving them territorial and institutional form when he was Commissar for Nationalities in the 1920s. This was not a cynical divide-and-rule policy, but a response to the strength of nationalist movements that had emerged in many parts of the Russian Empire during the period of the revolution and civil war. It led to a sincere, if perhaps misguided, attempt to create nation-states where none had existed before, and this in turn was because both Lenin and Stalin believed that “backward peoples” could never attain socialism unless it came within a nationalist framework.

This was not a top-down process driven by the Central Party organization in Moscow. In the 1920s, the Soviet regime in Central Asia was fragile, and badly in need of local allies. As Adrienne Edgar has shown for Turkmenistan, Paul Bergne for Tajikistan, Ali Igmen for Kyrgyzstan, Adeeb Khalid for Uzbekistan and Dina Amanzholova and Tomohiko Uyama for Kazakhstan, the new national units grew out of an often uneasy political alliance between local nationalist intellectuals and the Soviet state – most importantly the so-called Jadids in Uzbekistan and the Alash Orda in Kazakhstan.

Local communist organizations, which had significant numbers of local cadres, played a key role in negotiating the new national boundaries with Moscow and with each other. Unlike in Africa – where at the 1884 Berlin Congress, European colonial powers really did just draw lines on the map, or in the Middle East, where the Sykes-Picot agreement paid little or no attention to local political desires – the borders that emerged in Central Asia were not drawn at random, even if at times they often seem to defy geographical logic. They were a product of late-Tsarist and early-Soviet census data, ethnographic and orientalist scholarship, and also in part of the process of raionirovanie – identifying supposedly rational and viable economic units, and ensuring that each new state met minimum criteria for becoming a full-blown Soviet Socialist Republic: these included a population of at least a million, and a capital city connected by rail.

Inevitably, the process of drawing national boundaries in a region where these borders had never existed before, where bilingualism and multi-layered identities were common, and where divisions of language and ethnicity often fell along the rural/urban divide, created many anomalies. Among the sedentary population, a wide range of older identities – Sart, Khwarazmi, Ferghani, Samarqandi, Bukharan – were subsumed under the label of “Uzbek,” which, before 1921, had only referred to particular tribal groups. Tashkent and Shymkent were both cities with a mixed population of Europeans and Uzbeks, surrounded by a hinterland populated largely by Kazakhs. The former ended up in Uzbekistan, the latter in Kazakhstan. Tajik-speaking Bukhara and Samarkand were surrounded