Description of the Case

In the 1920s, after winning battles throughout Central Asia, the fledgling Soviet power set out to establish control over these territories by designing and implementing a specific law and order framework. The creation of separate national republics by means of ‘national territorial delimitation’ (natsional’noe razmezhevanie) was designed to provide an opportunity for each nation to develop within their own respective ‘national’ territory. This was perceived as a tool for solving problems arising from ethnic identification in the region given that each national republic was primarily founded on specific ethno-linguistic configurations. According to most Soviet scholars writing on this period, the process of self-determination, accompanied by the formation of national territories, was the foundation from which these peoples would transition toward a socialist form of governance. The national delimitation program was also seen as a plausible solution to the practical problem of establishing socialism in a region where the majority of the populations were either nomadic or rural and, thus, the area lacked the necessary proletariat social class (Rywkin 1998). Moreover, it was an attempt by the Soviet regime to define an alternative to the imperialistic model of colonization (Hirsch 2000).

 The Turkestan was conquered by Tsarist Russia in 1850-1876 and, thereafter, colonized. The peasant incomers from European Russia were encouraged to settle in large numbers in the two northern provinces (now part of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). In the south of Turkistan, Europeans, mostly military personnel, administration staff, or businessmen, settled in towns and cities. The local administrators, educated by Russian power, began promoting colonial policies toward the local populations. However, local leaders did not assimilate with the European population and Europeans did not mix with local peoples, which served to segregate these two larger groups (Kamp 2002).

Soviet power inherited the “orientalistic view” of the ethnic groups of Central Asia, developed during Czarist Russia (Igmen 2004). The Central Asian people were depicted as exotic strangers, wild barbarians, and underdeveloped, but heroic and brutish. Many Soviet officials had a notably basic understanding of the differences between the ethnic groups of Tatars, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazaks, Turkmens and others. The peoples of Central Asia were included in the officially established list of ninety-seven “culturally backward” nationalities (Martin 1999).

The major challenge to the national delimitation plan was the peoples in Central Asia had not established a form of national identity or meaning of nationhood (Cornell 1999). Instead, the most salient identities were tribal or regional as well as overarchingly Muslim. Thus, the involvement of the titular elites in the process of territorial division was critical for the success of the national delimitation project. Europeans had little understanding of the complexities of ethnic divisions in Central Asia and often could not make informed decisions.

The “Korenizatsiia,” or indigenization process, was presented as an affirmative action policy for local populations because it sought to promote local languages and cultural traditions. This empowered members of the indigenous populations to emerge as regional political leaders. It required placing members of the regional ethnic nations in governmental administrator positions for their regions (Martin 2001). “Using the newly established or refashioned ethnic national traditions, vernaculars, and histories, the Soviet leadership trained and appointed indigenous Bolshevik cadres as the leaders of the officially designated ethnic Nations” (Jones 2010, 163). The participation of local leaders led to the rise of multiple ethnic conflicts in the region. “The border demarcations were largely decided in accordance with the power balance between political groups, nationalities, and regions; and sometimes even in line with the personal interests of Central Asian local rulers” (Laruelle 2012, 218).

 The national delimitation plan had the effect of politicizing ethnicity. Ethnicity became intertwined with control over agricultural land and resources, and the administration of territory. It created the perception of a national territory belonging to only one ethnic group and served to create an understanding of national identity as an ethnic concept (Korostelina 2007), which promulgated the view of national minorities as unwelcomed foreigners. As Bolsheviks aimed to promote anticolonial policies, they tried to reverse the massive land seizures by Russians that occurred in 1916-1919. A decree, passed by the ninth Turkestan Congress of Soviets in September 1920, “called for the removal of illegal settlers, the equalizing of native and European land holdings, and the prohibition of future settlement from without Turkestan” (Martin 1999, 549). This decision led to the Central Asian land reform policy of 1921-1922. Accompanied with cruelty and revenge on the part of local populations, this policy resulted in the mass expulsion of Russian settlers and Cossacks. The Kazakh government created the principle of “ocherednost'” or “standing in line,” which provided Kazakhs with absolute priority when it came to the distribution of agricultural lands. The Central Soviet government ended this policy of decolonization in 1922 because it threatened the equality of the proletariat and peasantry that made up each of the ethnic groups. However, the decision of the local governments affected ethnic relations in the years to come: European peasants were subjected to “punitive taxation, false arrest, cattle theft, armed seizures of land, the trampling of crops, and armed attacks with the goal of driving the attacked from their homes.”(Martin 1999, 548). Local leaders continued to position European settlers as aliens and guests who should return home. It produced a lot of resistance from the side of European peasants and fostered strong incentives for revenge.  As ethnic conflict increased in intensity, the Central Soviet government tried to intervene by creating specific Russian territorial units in 1927-1928. Taking their revenge, European settlers organized several pogroms, which targeted the local Kazakh population (Martin 2001)

In addition, the Soviet authorities faced numerous problems, including resistance to the traditional hierarchical system, a decade of insurgency by formed bands of Basmachi, and corruption by the newly-appointed Soviet and Party officials tempted by the resource rich region. Abuses of power and embezzlement became the everyday reality. “In the end, societal disintegration and violence corrupted nearly everyone: while the outsiders had betrayed their secular principles of justice and equality, many local Muslims had forsaken the laws of Islam” (Vladimirov  2010, 129).

Thus, the relationships between European outsiders and the local populations during the national delimitation process demands special attention, particularly because their understanding of the process provides rich theoretical insights pertaining to current ethnic conflicts in the region. An examination of these intergroup relations requires the application of an analytical framework that takes into consideration the complex and interconnected relationship between identity, power, and legitimacy. 

Description of the Case