Citizenship in Soviet Uzbekistan

A review of Implementing a Vision of Citizenship in Soviet Uzbekistan: Theory, Social Issues and Education, by Sevket Chevy Akyildiz

Beginning in the late Brezhnev era, some prominent Western scholars anticipated that the largely Turkic and Islamic population of Central Asia could mobilize and articulate societal demands which would ultimately weaken the Soviet Union. Despite these expectations, the populations of the five republics of Central Asia were remarkably quiescent during the Gorbachev-era protests which spread across much of the rest of the state. This observation raises at least two linked queries: 1) why did some Western observers anticipate Central Asian mobilization; and 2) why did the waves of mobilization that arose elsewhere in the Soviet space not reach Central Asia?

In his dissertation, Sevket Chevy Akyildiz credibly suggests that we cannot answer these queries without a nuanced understanding of Soviet moral and political education. He argues that moral and political education successfully encouraged mass compliance in (at least) the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Furthermore, he contends that scholars who anticipated mass mobilization in the Central Asian republics, a group he dubs “dis-integrationists” (e.g. Alexandre Bennigsen and Marie Broxup, The Islamic Threat to the Soviet State. London: St. Martin’s Press, 1983; Boris Rumer, Soviet Central Asia: A Tragic Experiment. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989; Michael Rywkin, Moscow’s Muslim Challenge: Soviet Central Asia. Armonk, N.J.; London: Sharpe, 1990), were overly reliant on Western assumptions of the tendency for Islamic populations to chafe under the rule of colonial powers as well as Cold War tropes regarding the inadequacy of Soviet domestic policies. Given these frames of reference, these scholars were unable to adequately assess how successful Soviet citizenship education efforts had in fact been in the region. He contrasts the analysis of the “dis-integrationists” with the approach a group he labels the “non-disintegrationists” (e.g Shirin Akiner, Cultural Change and Continuity in Central Asia. London: Kegan Paul in association with Central Asia Research Forum, School of Oriental and African Studies, 1991; Karen A. Collias, “Striving for Homo Sovieticus: Making Soviet Citizens: Patriotic and Internationalist Education in the Formation of a Soviet State Identity,” in Henry R. Huttenbach ed. Soviet Nationalities Policies/Ruling Ethnic Groups in the USSR. London: Mansell, 1990, pp. 73-93; Nancy Lubin, Labour and Nationality in Soviet Central Asia: An Uneasy Compromise. London: Macmillan in association with St. Antony’s College Oxford, 1984) who on the basis of fieldwork “argued that regional social reality and integration was more nuanced and that the CPSU had to radically rethink its policies to influence and co-opt Muslim youth” (p. 27).

In his first chapter, Akyildiz lays out an impressively interdisciplinary approach which weaves “history, political philosophy, sociology and the history of ideas” (p. 39) together in order to uncover the practice and outcomes of Soviet moral and political citizenship education in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (hereafter Uzbek SSR) between 1980 and 1991.  This chapter establishes the author’s plan to investigate these practices through a project that utilizes “theoretical analysis and critical review of secondary historical literature” (p. 39).

The second and third chapters are devoted to establishing the respective historical and theoretical frameworks that form the backbone of the dissertation. Chapter 2 offers a succinct and precise overview of critical moments in the establishment of the Uzbek SSR such as korenizatsiia (the process of indigenizing socialist rule) and hujum (the assault on Islamic practices such as veiling). The author also provides an accurate overview of the Uzbek SSR’s role as a raw cotton producer in the all-Union economy of the Soviet state.  In Chapter 3, Akyildiz establishes that his investigation of citizenship policies is rooted in the constructivist approach to nation building. In particular, Akyildiz utilizes Rogers Smith’s work on the political construction of peoplehood (Roger Smith, Stories of Peoplehood: the Politics and Morals of Political Membership. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).  This theoretical leverage provides the author with the means to investigate how the Soviet people-building efforts, which included efforts to inculcate both the “right” values (through moral education) and the “right” politics (through political education) “were designed to legitimate the CPSU by winning hearts and minds” (p. 91). As a result of these educational agendas, a unique citizenship model was forged in the Soviet Union, which celebrated both social equality and multiculturalism.

In Chapter 4, the author addresses the nature of the civic values that the Soviet Union linked to citizenship. Through an overview of Soviet education policies and the USSR constitution, Akyildiz uncovers that core values formally emphasized by the state included an embrace of enlightenment rationality, patriotism, collectivist duty, and a respect for gender and ethnic equality. These values were projected to Soviet citizens in order to engender “[p]olitical obligation, trust and love of the political system” ultimately producing “active acquiescent citizens” (p. 128). In this chapter, the author also shows that the application of these values to the Uzbek republic produced a complicated and potentially paradoxical identity in which Uzbek cultural nationalism was celebrated within the confines of pan-Soviet patriotism: “The Soviet model appears at first glance complex and nuanced, and can best be described as allowing an Uzbek youth to be part of the Muslim world, a resident of Samarkand, a socialist, a Central Asian, and a Soviet Citizen, an Asian, a Europeanized Asian, a proletarian, a student, worker, and much more besides (depending on circumstance and situation)” (p. 119). But as Akyildiz illustrates, these potential paradoxes are not necessarily any more stark than those faced by citizens in most modern states: “It is rather like a native child in contemporary Manchester, England learning in their geography class about their locale, Salford; their region, Lancashire; national identity, English – all encased within British citizenship” (p. 119).

Of course, that does not imply that Soviet citizenship education policies did not produce tensions in Central Asian society. In Chapter 5, Akyildiz discusses the catalyzation of anti-Moscow sentiments in response to the humiliating central portrayal of the republic as a bastion of corruption following the Cotton Scandal (the 1983 revelation that for years the cotton output of the Uzbek SSR had been falsified). As Akyildiz rightly notes, criticism of a regime is not the same as “anti-system mobilization”: “we should see this criticism as a sign of a questioning of government policies and is common to all modern societies undergoing moments of self-doubt and ideological and structural changes” (p. 131). He shows that despite the initiation of movements like Birlik which articulated Uzbek cultural and environmental grievances, support for Soviet Union as a whole remained widespread, with Uzbeks dutifully serving in the military during the Afghan War (pp. 153-6), massively supporting the Communist Party in the open 1990 Republican Supreme Soviet elections (p. 148), and overwhelming voting to preserve the Union in the March 1991 referendum (p. 150). Akyildiz maintains that these unionist orientations are evidence that the Soviet citizenship education efforts had successfully legitimated Communist Party rule.

The next four chapters represent a deep and nuanced investigation of how these unionist orientations were constructed through what Akyildiz labels the four “primary socialization channels in Soviet society” (p. 41). Chapter 6 accurately identifies the educational system as “the dominant channel for the building of the Soviet identity and the Soviet people” (p. 192). Although by the 1980s it was clear that efforts to promote Russian bilingualism and encourage Uzbek youth to participate in inter-republic student migration were not meeting ideal targets, Akyildiz presents evidence that demonstrates that the universalized and centralized system effectively socialized an impressive number of students and improved the material quality of life for many in the republic. Chapter 7 focuses on the Soviet Union’s use of civic ceremony, such as those surrounding all-union holidays like Victory Day, International Women’s Day and Soviet Army Day, and hero worship of Cosmonauts, Olympians and soldiers to propagate socialist values and encourage moral behavior. In this chapter, Akyildiz shows that the veneration of all-Union and Uzbek-specific heroes and the public celebration of all-union holidays co-existed with the private practice of pre-Soviet and religious holidays such as Nawruz and Ramadan. Akyildiz rightly points out that the co-existence of private and public celebrations did not necessarily undermine the Soviet efforts to establish a “state-civic” consciousness; in fact he argues that “[i]t was this fusion of civic and national cultures and identities that brought meaning and worth to the Uzbeks and engendered social stability” (p. 223).

Akyildiz examines the instrumentation of youth organizations such as the Young Octoberists, Young Pioneers and the Young Communist League (Komsomol) in Chapter 8 as a means of socializing Soviet and especially Uzbek citizens. Despite party-level criticism of the effectiveness of the Uzbek Komsomol in advancing certain Soviet values such as gender equality and scientific atheism, Akyildiz shows that the Komsomol members were effective in building many aspects of Soviet society, for instance by serving as local agents in the literacy campaign and in assisting to rebuild Tashkent following the devastating 1966 earthquake. In Chapter 9, Akyildiz turns his attention to the role of physical culture in advancing Soviet values, especially through encouraging internationalist friendship. The author’s attention to this important, yet oft-neglected element of mass socialization is laudable, and certainly the subject for fruitful further research.

In the final chapter, Akyildiz reviews his main conclusion “that Soviet people-building and state-civic socialization was successful in creating Soviet political and economic frames of reference amongst Uzbeks and they accepted state institutions and processes” (p. 301). According to the author, problems observed in the republic related to issues like limited labor migration and the growing desire for additional cultural recognition does not undermine Soviet successes in crafting “a practical, rational hybrid identity” (p. 307). He writes that compared to more restive republics, in the Uzbek republic, “the mix of Soviet citizenship, the material benefits of modernity, the social opportunities available and the acknowledgement of the monopoly of violence by the state ensured proactive acquiescence by the citizens” (p. 309).

Overall, this dissertation contributes to the academic understanding of the tremendous social transformation of Central Asian societies by the Soviet state. The perspective it offers helpfully demonstrates that these transformations were not solely top-down; by highlighting the gaps and problems with citizen education in the Uzbek republic, Akyildiz reminds us that Uzbeks themselves actively shaped the effectiveness of the Soviet Union’s policies. Furthermore, Akyildiz’s interdisciplinary approach focused on the transference of moral values reveals the thinness of many rational and materialist conceptions of identification. Without taking account of the ideas and values which are embedded in identities, materialist-focused scholars of identity risk missing out on the very things that make meaningful and powerful and thereby worthy of scholarly investigation in the first place.

Brent Hierman
Virginia Military Institute

Primary Sources
Translated Soviet Legal, State and Policy Documents
Translated Soviet Constitutions
Translated Newspapers
Photographs, Images and Propaganda Posters
Field Work Conducted in Uzbekistan

Dissertation information
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 2011. 367 pp. Primary Advisor: Shirin Akiner.

Image: Soviet statue, State University, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, April 2009, taken by Sevket Hylton Akyildiz.

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