Chris Harman


Unlocking the prison house

(July 1994)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.177, July/August 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or nationalism?
Ahmed Rashid
Zed £14.99

This fascinating book stands in stark contrast to virtually anything else you are likely to read about the southern belt of the former USSR. Writers from the left, like Eric Hobsbawm and Boris Kagarlitsky, as well as the new breed of Russian nationalists, have portrayed the region as irredeemably backward. Its peoples were apparently only raised out of barbarism by the Russian presence, which supposedly encouraged national rights and provided the region with material benefits. Any nationalism today is presented as a result of manipulation by corrupt ‘clan’ leaders put in place during the Brezhnev years. And the revival of Islam is the ultimate evil that has to be combated.

The real picture is very different, as Rashid shows. Cities like Bukhara, Samarkand and Merv were centres of civilisation, with some of the world’s most advanced literature and science, centuries before Moscow was founded. They declined from the 16th century onwards, as the great trade routes through central Asia lost their old importance. But the region was far from ‘backward’ until its conquest by Tsarist Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The conquest brought wars which decimated the population, and Russian settlers who treated the local peoples as racial inferiors. It was followed by a pillaging of resources, with the local population forced to pay enormous compensation for the ‘crime’ of resisting Russian rule, and the destruction of local agriculture in the interests of producing raw materials, especially cotton, for Russian industry. By 1916 conditions were such as to produce a string of uprisings against Russian rule through the region, under the flags of both pan-Turkish nationalism and Islam.

Stalinism continued what Tsarism had begun. Cotton production spread relentlessly at the expense of foodstuffs to feed local people. ‘Collectivisation’ was used to break any resistance from peasants. Huge gulags were built to hold those who protested. And no attention was paid to what pollution, salinisation and depletion of water resources were doing to the land fertility and health.

When the truth came out in the late 1980s, it revealed that 15 to 25 percent of people were unemployed throughout the region, that wages in the cotton fields were a quarter of the USSR average, that most hospitals did not have running water and that infant mortality rates were as high as 10 percent.

But it was not only in its material exploitation that Stalinism copied Western imperialism. It did so too in the political structures it imposed, designed to cut the colonised peoples off from any knowledge of their own history or culture.

So Stalin replaced the Arabic alphabet, in which all previous literature had been written, first with the Roman alphabet and then, in 1940, with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. He executed virtually the whole of the local intelligentsia, including the active Communists, during the great purge of the mid-1930s. He put Russian bureaucrats from Moscow in all the key positions of power. And he divided the region into different republics, with borders designed to divide and rule.

Brezhnev continued with the essentials of Stalin’s policy, but amended it slightly so as to get a layer of local figures to identify with Russian rule. Individuals, usually descended from the pre-Russian ruling classes, were brought in to front the local party and state machine.

A whole superstructure of oppression, corruption and nepotism grew up on the base of state capitalist exploitation. In the background the Soviet armed forces remained available to crush dissent, as with the bloody reprisals against the demonstrations in Kazakhstan in 1986.

The political structures in each republic were rigid enough to survive, virtually unchanged, as the rest of the USSR was swept by protests and demonstrations during the glasnost years of the late 1980s.

But beneath the surface the discontent bottled up under Tsarism and Stalinism was beginning to find outlets. The whole region was the frontline in the USSR’s war in Afghanistan. As that war went wrong, the region’s peoples were increasingly influenced by those speaking similar languages across the border. For the first time since the early 1920s people had the chance to learn about their own history and to explore the political and religious ideas of their forebears.

The process has been full of contradictions – sometimes bloody ones. The old traditions in Central Asia mean Islamic traditions, and so groups influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Wahabism and the Iranian republic have all been able to grow. But Islam, like Christianity or Hinduism, is as easy for the rulers to adopt as the oppressed.

The Islamic revival has not produced a unified movement against the old rulers. Nor has the growth of nationalist ideas. Again the rulers have been quick to don the nationalist garb, and, as with religious ideas, the nationalism divides as well as unites, turning the different ethnic groups within each republic against each other.

Above all, neither the religious revival nor the nationalism offers an answer to deepening economic crisis, an answer which depends on the workers and collective farmers learning to fight a class battle against both the Russian and local wings of the ruling class.

How the two wings can fight together to smash an uprising of the oppressed has been shown bitterly in Tadjikstan. The democratic and Islamic opposition groups rose together against a government which had remained virtually unchanged from Brezhnev’s days. What began as peaceful, carnival-like demonstrations ended up in bitter gun battles.

The old regime survived by arming those clans to whom it had traditionally provided patronage and then calling on Russian and Uzbeki troops to ‘restore order’. About 50,000 people were killed.

Rashid tells the story of the awakening of nationalism and Islam in this region brilliantly. His book does have a few faults. It equates Leninism and Stalinism, and so sees the genuine mistakes of revolutionaries in the years 1917-21 as being of the same order as the systematic crimes that came later. It shares the fashionable view that privatisation and the market can solve the crisis of state capitalism. Its early chapters stress the peaceful character of change in the region with the collapse of the USSR, while its later chapters bring out how chaotic and bloody the future can be. But none of this should stop anyone interested in the future of much of Asia from buying, reading and learning from the book.

Last updated on 18 December 2009