International History
19 November 2018

Reorienting the Nation: Perspectives from Soviet Central Asia in the 1920s

Vsevolod Kritskiy aims to reorient the nation as a label by examining how it was used by Central Asians in their interactions with representatives of Soviet power during the time when the nations were being imagined.

In his recent PhD thesis, Vsevolod Kritskiy aims to reorient the nation as a label by examining how it was used by Central Asians in their interactions with representatives of Soviet power during the time when the nations were being imagined. As he explains below, Central Asians were able to quickly understand Soviet motives and use that to their advantage in negotiating their positions.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

In coming to this topic, I focused first and foremost on the national delimitation of Central Asia in the 1920s, an under-researched process that I was certain had global significance. In researching this period, I realised that the delimitation can be interpreted from a wide variety of angles, especially when one applies a transnational approach. Having been interested in the ways in which the systems that govern us today were established, I saw that the national delimitation was not only under-represented as an important chapter in broader Soviet history, but could also shed a light on how the nation-state form spread to the colonial world during the interwar period.

Can you describe your thesis and its major findings?

My thesis explores the interactions between representatives of central Soviet power and Central Asians during the 1920s, a time of intense revolutionary changes in the region. I focus on three key aspects of this period: first, I analyse early Communist International (Comintern) activities in Central Asia, specifically the failure of local Comintern agencies to stop the invasion of Bukhara by the Red Army in 1920. I link this failure to the unwillingness of the central Soviet authorities to support revolutionary action, in contrast with the revolutionary rhetoric of the Second Comintern Congress and the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, both held in 1920 but driven by Asian Communists and Central Asian Bolsheviks rather than the top Soviet brass.

Second, I explore how nations were constructed and deployed as labels by the local elites after the invasion, in the lead-up to and during the national delimitation in 1924 as they sought to negotiate their positions with Soviet power. I find that not only were the local elites instrumental in the delimitation itself, initiating and driving it while central Soviet authorities and their representatives in the region took a back seat, but that they also came to define the boundaries of the new Central Asian nations during this time.

Third, I examine the post-delimitation struggles to define national borders, including an analysis of how the nation framed internal administrative border changes in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and an in-depth case study of the unexplored dispute over the Khujand region between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Most importantly, I find that local authorities and the people occupying the borderlands took an active role in determining the borders, and quickly understood how to use the nation in their interactions with regional and central authorities to their advantage.

Finally, my last chapter links this Central Asian history with the global spread of the nation-state form in the colonial world during the interwar period. Specifically, I contextualise it within the Soviet acceptance of Socialism in One Country in 1926, which signalled the death of world revolution, and I embed national delimitation within the spread of the nation-state driven by the League of Nations. Considering that the League as an actor legitimised the nation-state as the unique and exclusive form of self-determination on the international arena, the 1920s in Central Asia becomes a crucial chapter in this process.

My dissertation is based on the premise that the past should be treated as a site of open possibilities, not yet defined by its future, countering linear and progressive interpretations of history. In doing so, I reorient the nation as a label, moving away from nation as a community, allowing me to shift the analysis from the emergence or imagination of nations to the specific mechanics of how nations were deployed and used by the people who claimed to represent them.

In doing so, my thesis reaches the emphatic conclusion that Central Asians, whether elites within the Bolshevik party, local officials or inhabitants of borderlands, were not only heavily involved in national delimitation and determining borders, but also drove and decided these processes. Furthermore, I finish the thesis with an epilogue that seeks to situate these histories within non-Eurocentric global histories and find a distinct absence of Central Asia from such narratives. I hope that this thesis will spur on further research into the region, but also into the transnational threads that permeate its interwar experience.

Can you give us an example of a topical issue on which your research might help shed a new light?

One of the key issues in Central Asia today is water management between upstream and downstream states, something that frequently causes conflict and tensions. My work shows that the borders were created with the full participation and direction of Central Asians, contradicting the longstanding assumption that Moscow determined the borders in the Fergana valley specifically to ensure future tensions. This knowledge can empower efforts seeking to reform border management in Central Asia to create a more integrated regional approach.

More broadly, this dissertation seeks to show that projects such as the national delimitation, and the broader spread of the nation-state form, cannot be described as external exports of alien models. Rather, my research, in line with recent work on the Middle East for example, shows that local interests, influences, identities and relations interact and fuse with the nation-state, enabling it to exist. In today’s parlance, this underscores the need for local communities to not only participate, but to lead development efforts, recognising the importance of grassroots campaigns over template-based programming.

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Vsevolod Kritskiy defended his PhD thesis in International History on 28 September 2018. Professor Davide Rodogno presided the committee, which included Professor Gopalan Balachandran and Professor Alessandro Monsutti, thesis co-directors, and Associate Professor Ali Igmen, from the Department of History at California State University.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Kritskiy, Vsevolod. “Reorienting the Nation: Perspectives from Soviet Central Asia in the 1920s.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2018.