Sunday 3 March 2013

Reassessing Stalin’s legacy in Central Asia

Last April, when I was in Almaty, I attended a conference at Kimep University in which researchers presented their ongoing projects and some of their findings. Among many interesting seminars I had the opportunity of watching there was a presentation by a young Kazakh post-graduate student. She was researching Stalin. More specifically, she was researching how Stalin’s image was subject to distortions – how almost everything said about the Soviet leader was absolutely negative, painting him as a monster, more or less in the same fashion as Hitler. Even before considering her arguments, I laughed in contempt. Who on Earth would consider Stalin anything but a monster? Who would dare to consider Stalin anything but a monster? But, then, I stopped for a while and wondered: maybe my own reaction shows a preconception that is not 100% true. Obviously, I am not saying that Stalin was good old Uncle Joe, a joyful leader with a nice and pleasant personality. But that presentation made me wonder to what extent all the bad things said about the leader are true, or to what extent we tend to exaggerate his bad legacy. Are all problems in the former Soviet Union result of Stalin’s policies? Are all problems in former Soviet Central Asia the result of Stalin’s legacy? This week, it will be 60 years since Stalin’s death. Maybe this is a good moment to reflect on those questions – without any intention of acquitting Stalin of his crimes against humanity.

There are at least three of Stalin’s core policies that are often mentioned when one talks about his bad legacies in the former Soviet countries of Central Asia. And they indeed created an awful lot of pain and are undoubtedly regrettable – no one here is disputing that. The first one is the drawing of “artificial” borders in 1924-1925, hastening the creation of separated ethnic identities in places where the people certainly had not developed such identities. The drawing of the borders in Central Asia was conducted after an investigation of where different languages where spoken, but also taking into consideration local politics. Then, Uzbeks and Tajiks were separated, even though, for centuries, they lived together, performing different tasks in their society. It is widely accepted in the West that some of the most important Uzbek cities – Samarkand and especially Bukhara – are actually more Tajik than Uzbek. Stalin ended up giving Samarkand and Bukhara to the Uzbeks due to the cunning influence of Faizulla Khojaev, the father of modern Uzbekistan, who led the rebellion against the last Emir of Bukhara. On the other hand, Khojand, a Fergana Valley city whose population has been for centuries Uzbek, ended up under the control of the Tajik SSR. So two things can be said here – yes, Stalin divided to conquer: it was ultimately his the decision to draw the map the way he did, separating Tajiks and Uzbek, who could not properly be separated without leading to tensions. But he was also manipulated by the local political intrigues (Faizulla Khojaev) and showed some sort of twisted balance mentality by giving one important Uzbek city to the Tajiks. Moreover, the formation of different ethnic identities in the region is not solely the result of Stalin’s policies. There were different identities for Uzbeks and Tajiks even before the Tsarist conquest (the Uzbeks, originally nomadic, the Tajiks, descendants of the sedentary Persian population) of the region and, during the colonisation in the 1800s, started to grow more noticeable. The colonization brought the ‘other’, the Russian settlers, to the region. By mirroring the other, the local peoples fast realized what made then different. Then there was the advance of the press in local languages with the Jadids, reinforcing the ‘we’ and ‘they’. Stalin divided the territory, but not created the divisions.

Other of Stalin’s often mentioned bad legacies was created by the exile of thousands of people from other regions of the USSR to Central Asia. Chechens, Ingush, Volga Germans, Koreans, Ukrainians and Meskhetian Turks were just some of the peoples who were forcefully removed from their homelands and settled in the steppes and mountains. The process was conducted with extreme brutality and blatant disregard for the well-being of the exiled. Thousands and thousands died in the process, not only due to the appalling transport conditions, but also due to the lack of any support once they reached their final destination. After Stalin, Khrushev allowed the return of these settlers to their homelands, creating problems there (since of course their land had been occupied by different people – an example is the Ethnic conflict between the Ossetians and the Ingush in the East Prigorodny district of the Republic of North Ossetia in 1992). But many remained, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Nationalism, the stage was set for ethnic conflicts (an example was the riots between Meskhetian Turks and Uzbeks in Uzbekistan in 1989). My view is that Stalin is guilty as charged of all the suffering of the resettled peoples. And he is guilty of creating the condition for the ethnic conflicts to happen – yes, he set the Ethnic time bombs. However, he did not detonate the time bombs. Who detonated them? Nationalists, who, with the weakening of the Soviet grip over multi-ethnic regions, took advantage of the situation and found in radical ideas a way of climbing to power. In other words, the conflicts were set by Stalin, but to say he is the sole responsible for them seems too much of a generalisation. Ethnic conflicts occurred and might still occur in Central Asia because of specific conditions – the lack of strong state institutions, poverty, opportunities of funding for armed groups. Furthermore, one can argue that the exile of peoples in Central Asia was good for the five Stans: the exiled peoples enriched the local cultures, helped to develop their economies, allowed the Central Asians to develop a more cosmopolitan view of the world and are now, after so many generations, undeniably citizens of the Central Asian countries. The important contributions of these peoples to the current Central Asian countries cannot be overestimated.

Finally, the forced collectivisation of farms is usually described as a tragedy for Central Asians and Soviet peasants in general. Millions died of starvation during the process, conducted with the Stalinist characteristic disregard for human life. In Central Asia, it is said that the Collectivisation was the final blow on the old Nomadic ways and eliminated the remains of the old rural elite. What is often left out when analysing Stalin’s guilt here is that the transformation of the Central Asian society, the elimination of the old ways, was started not by him, but by the Tsars. Thousands had already died during the settlement of Russians in the Kazakh steppes during the 1800s. And also, during the collectivisation, many Central Asians supported the changes and actively helped in the process. The Soviet machine could not have worked without the support of locals, who became the newly-formed Soviet elite in Central Asia. Stalin was not alone here. Central Asians themselves helped him to enforce the collectivisation and other bloody policies.

In sum, I believe that Stalin was, indeed, a “monster” in many ways - the way he enforced his policies, the terror he caused. But he was also the product of his environment. The agency is most important here, his personality undeniably led to the huge number of casualties; but I guess the debate is much more complex and, now, 60 years after his death, we have a good opportunity to review his legacy.

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