Soviet Orientalism & Politics in Central Asia


A review of Settling the Past: Soviet Oriental Projects in Leningrad and Alma-Ata, by Alfrid Bustanov.

Researchers in the Caucasian and Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union are faced with a paradox: the various centers of “oriental” studies are dedicated to the study domestic history, alongside that of foreign countries considered to be sufficiently “Eastern.”  In Russian the term for Orientalism (vostokovedenie) literally refers to the act of examining the “East,” but in practice the concept is entirely metaphorical in the Central Asian context, since local orientalists look not only east, but also south, west, north, and – most to the point – at the ground beneath their feet. In a sense, therefore, Alfrid Bustanov’s important dissertation is the story of how Kazakh orientalists became embroiled in the scholarship of their own “Eastern” backyard (as defined by their colleagues in Leningrad) in the service of a uniquely Soviet nation building project.

The marriage between politics and orientalist scholarship that went into the construction of national histories in the different Soviet Socialist Republics was not unique to Central Asia, but there was certainly something unprecedented about the scale and the wholesale implication of the Soviet orientalist establishment.  The study of Soviet nation-building has enjoyed an efflorescence in the past two decades and Bustanov situates his study next to works by Terry Martin, Francine Hirsch, Adrienne Edgar, and Douglass Northrop, as well research on Soviet orientalism published by members of his dissertation committee, including Michael Kemper and David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye.  While these scholars touch upon the participation of orientalists in the Soviet nation-building project, they do not offer a systematic examination of the mechanisms and discourse by which these political-academic works were produced – which is where Bustanov’s research comes in (p. 15).

Bustanov advances a number of related arguments through the course of his four substantive chapters.  In the first chapter, he puts to rest any ambiguity about the flow of power relations between the headquarters of Soviet Orientology in Leningrad and the SSR-level branches, showing that “the group of Orientalists who worked in Kazakhstan was de facto a branch of Leningrad classical Oriental studies and archeology” (p. 19).  This is an important segue into his second argument (elaborated in Chapter 2), debunking the myth that Leningrad orientalists were somehow apolitical, thinly cloaking their honest scholarship in communist garb.  This chapter is set mostly in the 1940s and 1950s and documents the emergence of Soviet academic projects which set the stage for scholarship in the region to the present day, such as the active collection of manuscripts in the Arabic script throughout the USSR, the publication of critical editions of classic texts deemed important for the various Soviet nationalities, and early efforts to write official histories of the SSRs.  (In addition to Kazakhstan, Bustanov provides important comparative accounts of parallel trajectories in other republics, such as Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.)  This was the moment when orientalist scholarship was Sovietized, following the trajectory of other government programs – even to the point of producing five-year plans for academic output.

Chapter 2 picks up chronologically where the previous one left off, adopting a more exclusive focus on the Kazakh SSR.  This chapter in invested in exposing the inherent mutual dependence between politics and scholarship by tracing the genealogies of several ideas at the core of Kazakh national historiography, such as the point of ethnogenesis, the Kazakhs’ place in regional history, and their socio-economic categorization in Marxist theory.   These controversies were not mere footnotes in an intellectual standoff: scholars rose and fell based on how successfully they navigated the party line, and failure was sometimes fatal (p. 137).  For instance, early scholars who weathered the imperial-Soviet transition, such as the titan Vasilii Bartol’d, took all of Central Asia – including the Kazakh steppe – as the relevant unit of analysis (p. 109).  This viewpoint came to be considered “cosmopolitan” in the 1930s and 1940s and the regional approach was censured in favor of histories drawing thousand-plus year continuity for Soviet-sponsored nationalities, only to be partially rehabilitated in the late 1950s as a means of combatting the entrenchment of power at the SSR-level (pp. 175-183).  Other scholarly-political innovations included: theoretically differentiating between the formation of an ethnicity and the appearance of that ethnicity’s name in the historical record in order to extend a given nationality’s origin into  antiquity (pp. 138, 157); characterizing tsarist domination as having a progressive influence on the primitive Kazakhs justified the ongoing relationships within the USSR (pp. 145-147); and defending the Kazakh-ness of urban civilization, thus combatting the characterization of Kazakhs as fundamentally nomadic (and hence primitive, in the Soviet view) and justifying contemporary sedentarization campaigns.

The third chapter focuses on numerous efforts to establish centers of oriental studies in Alma-Ata (Almaty), capital of the Kazakh SSR, during the post-WWII period.  Soviet scholars were never entirely successful in this regard, an the Institute of Oriental Studies only emerged in the 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Kazakhstan suffered from a chronic shortage of scholars trained in the secular orientalist tradition (the numerous scholars trained in the pre-Soviet madrasas were ineligible [p. 193]) and a perceived lack of local manuscript sources (a perception Bustanov debunks), which stymied multiple attempts to establish oriental departments of various bureaucratic flavors.  In 1962 the Kazakh Institute of History successfully set up a “Sector of Oriental Studies,” but it was at first devoted almost exclusively to the history of East Turkestan (p. 204), which meant that most studies of pre-revolutionary Kazakhstan were scattered throughout numerous other departments (such as the “Sector of Prerevolutionary Kazakhstan”).  From 1960 to 1982 two exceptional managers of the Kazakh Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography managed to assemble a cohort of skilled orientalists, but this team did not outlast the tenure of its progenitors (p. 382).  This institutional incoherence was unified by continued subordination to the Leningrad Institute of Oriental Studies, though – tellingly – ties with neighboring SSR-level institutions (even the formidable Institute of Oriental Studies in Tashkent, located within easy driving distance from Almaty) were almost nonexistent.  However, Bustanov’s analysis exposes not only the political constraints imposed on academia, but also the possibilities for innovation and experimentation within the Soviet system, however limited.  For instance, in the 1970s Begedzhan Suleimanov spearheaded an expansive project collecting Kazakh lineages, both from oral and written sources, which implicitly challenged the Soviet nations framework in favor a genealogical/Islamic one (p. 246).  True, the project was shut down before completion, but it nevertheless demonstrates the agency of Kazakhstani scholars who shaped and enabled Soviet modernity just as they were molded by it.

Chapter 4 shifts is geared somewhat towards telling the parallel story of Kazakhstan’s archaeological establishment.  (Bustanov uses the term “orientalist” narrowly to refer to philologists and historians of the pre-colonial “East,” which does not include archaeologists [p. 13].)  Though there was some continuity with tsarist archaeological expeditions, institutionalized investigations emerged in the 1930s, and were linked politically to forced sedentarization policies and cotton monoculture.  Early orientalists had characterized the few substantial remains of historic cities found in southern Kazakhstan as Sogdian colonies, suggesting that urban civilization in Kazakhstan was an Aryan import.  By the 1950s, this controversy had been firmly put to rest, “replac[ing] the nomadic stereotype by the new dogma that the history of Kazakhstan was determined by the long development of cities that were inhabited by Turkic-speaking populations” (p. 281).  Central to this debate were the ruins of Otrar, a city archaeologists speciously mythologized as having been annihilated by the Mongols (pp. 297-298), and the excavation of which was devoted to finding artifacts that would prove the authenticity of Kazakh urban development (p. 301).  As in previous chapters, Bustanov deftly tells the stories of individual scholars whose careers rose and fell in tandem with their ability to navigate party ideology.  In many cases, this analysis is informed not only by archives, but also by Bustanov’s personal interviews with the orientalists themselves, which enhances his narrative considerably.

Bustanov’s research is already under contract for publication and will soon receive the wider readership it deserves (though the fourth chapter on archaeology will be published separately rather than as part of the monograph).  For a preview of his next project, see “The Remarkable Life of Zainap Maksudova: Alfrid Bustanov on his New Research Project” (link is here).

James Pickett
Department of History
Princeton University

Primary Sources

Archive of the Orientalists of the Institute of Eastern Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Russia (Arkhiv vostokovedov Instituta vostochnykh rukopisei RAN)
The Joint Departmental Archive of the Committee of Education and Science of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Almaty (Ob’edinennyi vedomstvennyi arkhiv komiteta obrazovaniia i nauki ministerstva obrazovaniia i nauki respubliki Kazakhstan)
The Archive of the Institute of Archaeology of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Almaty (Arkhiv instituta arkheologii ministerstva obrazovaniia i nauki respubliki Kazakhstan)
The Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Almaty (Tsentral’nyi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv respubliki Kazakhstan)
The Manuscript Fond of the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia (Rukopisnyi fond Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha)
The Manuscript Archive of the Institute of the History of Material Culture of the Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg (Rukopisnyi arkhiv instituta istorii material’noi kul’tury RAN)
Numerous interviews conducted by Alfrid Bustanov

Dissertation Information

University of Amsterdam. 2013. 397 pp. Primary Advisor: Michael Kemper.


Image: Main entry to the medieval city of Sauran, Southern Kazakhstan. Photograph taken by Alfrid Bustanov in 2010.

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