Background and Scope of the Project

For many, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was viewed as a positive event, and one which in essence would unshackle millions of people and multiple communities that for so long had been strictly controlled and ruthlessly repressed under Russian domination. The sense by the global community during the early 1990s was that the newly “liberated” people and independent states that emerged out of the Soviet rubble would finally have an opportunity to transition towards healthier forms of political and economic life. While the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Soviet Union certainly brought a wave of reconfiguration to the international and regional systems, it clearly did not lead to an instantaneous wave of positive change for the former USSR’s immediate neighborhood. Constituent republics that used to be part of the Soviet Union, particularly those in Central Asia, were left to contend with artificial borders and populations that were byproducts of the state-building enterprise of the Soviet Union and its social-engineering endeavors. The new borders had limited historical basis, while the populations they contained were extremely heterogeneous in terms of culture, language, and ethnicity. The predicament the young independent republics of Central Asia found themselves in was how to build these newly assigned territories and people into viable sovereign “nations.” In addition, at independence these nascent states also faced a number of structural challenges and legacies left over from the Soviet era, such as autocratic governance practices and institutions, faltering economic conditions, a lack of both practical and moral support from the international community, a dearth of popular enthusiasm for nation building within their own territories, as well as a lingering political culture prone to authoritarianism.

As part of a wider strategy to expand its research boundaries to areas east of the Middle East, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) launched a new research project to examine some of the central questions relating to nation-building processes as they have unfolded in Central Asia. A foundational underpinning to this research effort is an interest in examining how the Central Asian states have navigated their early dilemmas, what their path towards nation building over the past thirty years has been like, and what the consequences for particular strategies adopted for the different states have been. Among other things, through this project CIRS hoped to broaden and deepen academic understanding of how these young states launched efforts to build their unified, modern nations, in what ways they have managed to establish political and social cohesion, and how they have engaged in the processes of administrative and institutional consolidation.

The Soviet Union embarked on nation-building projects in Central Asia to defeudalize the indigenous communities that lived in the region. These projects, driven by Marxist-Leninist principles, aimed to transform these indigenous communities into “tactical nation-states” adopting socialist ideology. Such nation-states would serve the Soviet aspiration for a centralized, supra-national Soviet State. Almost three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union and their independence, the resource-rich states of Central Asia continue to consolidate their national identities but this time by de-Sovietizing their identity and promoting their respective titular cultures and languages through symbols and re-written glamorized ethnohistories. However, the consolidation of national identity has contended with intricate state-society relations. States in Central Asia did not evolve from the composition of their respective societies. They are rather a byproduct of the machination of international governmental organization and transnational actors who intervened significantly in the building of state-capacity and in the domestic politics of the post-Soviet Central Asia. This provokes questioning: how successful have the young republics of Central Asia managed their pluralistic societies and articulated common national identities that are notably different from the Soviet identity?

Germane to this discussion, the Soviet Union exerted significant effort to revolutionize the role of women in the patriarchal societies of Central Asia. This is to integrate women into the labor-force of sectors that used to be taboos for women, and to mold the culture of Central Asian indigenous communities into the Soviet ideals. After independence and with the urge for de-Sovietizing Central Asia and the “return” to the titular cultures, states in Central Asia have been trying to yet again change the role of women in society. What role do states in post-Soviet Central Asia aspire for women?  And what are women’s reactions to such aspirations and to states’ policies?

Moreover, territorial/ethnic conflicts prevailed during the demarcation of borders by the Soviet Territorial Commission, such as in drawing the borders between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Both states claimed ethnies such as Kurama, Turki, and Kipchak, and while some of these communities etymologically, anthropologically, and genealogically relate to one country, in terms of lifestyle they belong to another. With regards to Tashkent, the urban population identified more with Uzbekistan while the rural population identified with Kazakhstan. Although the Territorial Commission settled these disputes, are such communities and populations still contending with these issues of belonging? If so, how are states managing such populations that do not identify themselves fully with the state?

The mass exodus from Central Asia to Russia after the fall of Soviet Union also deserves further study. Huge numbers of mainly male labor migrants left Central Asia due to economic conditions, conflicts, and ethnic identity claims. How has this affected the demographics of the post-Soviet Central Asia? And how have states reacted to this mass migration of labor? How has the mass migration from Central Asia impacted family dynamics and lives of women and children that were left behind?

The capacity of a state to engage in a process of nation-building is closely tied to its ability to establish strong institutions that serve to meet its aspirational and developmental goals. State institutions serve in multiple ways as the critical vehicles for nation-building projects, from the development of military and defense apparatuses, educational and health systems, taxation mechanisms, to fostering a coherent national culture reflecting local norms and customs. Among other things this project aims to understand how different Central Asian states have built the institutional capacity to effectively develop and support their nations. For example, post-independence the young republics of Central Asia have incorporated military themes in their new ideologies. To do that, they had to replace the Soviet character of their military institutions with more nation-centric identity. Not only did this mean inventing new symbols, medals, uniforms, flags and emblems, and ranks, but also national heroes and patriots. These endeavors contributed to the spread of nationalist ideas through the depiction of epics of national patriots in cinema and literature. The post-Soviet military institutions also served as a melting pot to homogenize the different ethnic identities into a nation-centric identity.

With regards to language and education, the Soviet constitution perceived education as a right, and guaranteed children an education in their respective language. However, all children across the Soviet Union had to study the same curriculum and same textbooks, translated in the various languages spoken across the Soviet territories. The education system was not only concerned with teaching how to read and write, but also to form children’s social, moral, and political values and ideas. This meant that after independence, the Central Asian states had to enforce educational reforms to de-Sovietize their populations, and implant new nation-centric values and ideas. In terms of cultural production, it has been strongly politicized in the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. The “theatre states” of Central Asia have adopted a top-down ideologized way of producing culture as part of their nation-building projects. Since the state intruded culture, which is inherently a societal endeavor, how has been state-intelligentsia relations in the post-Soviet Central Asia?

The position of Islam in the post-Soviet Central Asia is also worth studying. Although the Soviet Union was intolerant towards doctrine and practices of Islam in Central Asia and dismantled the ulema class in the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet modernism valued the culture, traditions, and heritage of the indigenous communities that lived under the realm of the Soviet Union. As a result, while Islamic rituals could not be publically practiced and Islamic texts were banned, Islam survived in the region through its oral traditions and as a space for practicing culture and maintaining traditional heritage. With the attempts to rediscover Islam during Gorbachev’s era and following post-independence, Islam in the region grew increasingly politicized. The post-Soviet states of Central Asian have found themselves in a predicament in which they felt compelled to embrace Islam as part of developing their national identity projects, but at the same time wanted to reduce any threat of political Islam manifesting itself amongst the population. In essence many of these states today have adopted policies of promoting the “right Islam” versus the “wrong Islam.” In this current project, we hope to examine the evolving role of Islam in shaping national identity in post-Soviet Central Asia.

States practice hegemony over their constituencies through relying on a variety of features, including among others: the idea of a historic homeland, common myths and historical memories, and mass public culture. These features are often reflected in the development of urban space, symbols, art and cultural production, sports, and cuisine. How do urban space and architecture inculcate a common national identity in Central Asia? And how have the Central Asian states’ sports policies complemented their national identity projects?

CIRS’s research initiative “Nation-Building in Central Asia” adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, examining a broad range of political, economic, social and geographic variables. A small number of scholars will be invited to take part in in-depth, critical analysis of the nature of the post-Soviet Union nation-states in Central Asia. Through identifying gaps in the current literature, the aim of the Working Group is to articulate original research questions and define critical areas of focus and analysis. Building up on this Working Group meeting, CIRS published a special issue of a journal with the Muslim World that addressed the issues concerned.


Click here to read more about another related CIRS research initiative, “Pluralism and Community in the Middle East.”


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS