Magnus Marsden and Benjamin D. Hopkins
Afghanistan has long been conventionally regarded as a remote space peripheral to the wider world. Yet scholarship produced in the 2nd decade of the 21st century suggests its multiple connections to a wide array of regions and settings. Such connections are especially visible when viewed through the lens of the trade networks originating from the territories of modern Afghanistan. Scholars have come to recognize that Afghan traders have long been active players in many contexts across Asia and beyond. Such traders and the networks they form play a critically important role in connecting different parts of Asia with one another, including South Asia and Eurasia, as well as East and West Asia. The connective role performed by Afghan caravanners and religious minorities in the trade between India and Central Asia are especially well documented by historians. Increasingly so too are the activities of Afghan merchants in Ottoman territories. The trading networks Afghan traders have participated in are historically dynamic. Their orientating values shift across time and space between various forms of religious, ethno-linguistic, and political identity. The capacity to adapt to changing circumstances is helpful in understanding the continuing relevance of Afghan traders to 21st-century forms of globalized capitalism, in contexts as varied as the former Soviet Union, China, and the Arabian Peninsula.
In the 19th century, the Emirate of Bukhara was one of three independent Uzbek principalities known as khanates. Ruled by the Manghit amīrs, Bukhara was the biggest and most important of the southern Central Asian polities and one of the major power centers in the wider region. To the readers of 19th-century European travelogues, Bukhara was known for the despotism of its rulers notorious for their cruelty and strange tastes. From a geopolitical point of view, the Bukharan Emirate was part of an anarchic transition space between Central and South Asia made up of half a dozen petty principalities without centralized power structures. While the bulk of the 19th- and 20th-century secondary sources stress the despotism of its amīrs and its isolation in view of the declining caravan trade on the Central Asian caravan routes, Bukhara and other urban centers such as Samarqand and Qarshi were embedded in transregional religious and trading networks. As a crossroads of commerce and an important religious center, Bukhara in particular and other Transoxanian towns as well attracted flows of goods and people from all directions and was well connected to other places and areas such as Siberia, China, India, and Persia. In the second half of the 19th century, the Emirate of Bukhara and its neighbors north of the Āmū Daryā River came into the focus of Russia. After a series of military defeats in 1868, Bukhara was turned into a Russian protectorate, which finally became a People’s Republic after the Bolshevik conquest in 1920. This political entity was absorbed into the emerging Soviet Union in 1924.
Pre-modern Central Asia saw a lot of violence and wars that had religious underpinnings or originated from genealogical claims. The colonial and Soviet reforms brought about reconsideration of cultural diversity in the logic of ethnic division. In the 20th century, reference to ethnicity became the main language of spontaneous violence escalation and explanation. With the weakening of Soviet rule, the region saw a series of heated conflicts. The most massive of them were the 1989 pogroms against Meskhi Turks in Uzbekistan and the 1990 clashes in Kyrgyzstan that took the shape of ethnic confrontation between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority. Lesser disturbances also emerged in the borderlands and in mixed-ethnicity villages.
After the collapse of the USSR, the 1990s saw an increase in social and religious violence in Central Asia. However, despite the violence being different in character, Central Asia had already gained a reputation of a very conflict-ridden region precisely in the ethnic sense. Many experts and politicians listed manifold potential ethnic conflicts about to break out in the region. In 2010, one of these predictions came true in the south of Kyrgyzstan, where a clash erupted between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. These expert assessments were also borne out by occasional conflicts over land and water arising between communities that live in the border areas.
Nevertheless, the label of ethnic conflict does not always explain the reasons for violence. The conflicts in Central Asia arise and develop as a variety of local actions, which have different sequences, logic, and motivation. These actions are performed by very different agents—people, groups, and institutes that have their own interests and dispositions. Social and political slogans sound during the events, while the line of confrontation lies between local communities and particular groups of people, not between “nations” or “ethnic groups.” The label of ethnic conflict simplifies all these entanglements; there is usually a political interest or a certain intellectual tradition behind it, which essentializes and historicizes the reasons for aggression.
The Ismailis are one of the largest Muslim minority populations of Central Asia, and they make up the second largest Shiʿi Muslim community globally. First emerging in the second half of the 8th century, the Ismaili missionary movement spread into many areas of the Islamic world in the 10th century, under the leadership of the Ismaili Fatimids caliphs in Egypt. The movement achieved astounding success in Central Asia in the 10th century, when many of the political and cultural elites of the region were converted. However, a series of repressions over the following century led to its almost complete disappearance from the metropolitan centers of Central Asia. The movement later re-emerged in the mountainous Badakhshan region of Central Asia (which encompasses the territories of present-day eastern Tajikistan and northeastern Afghanistan), where it was introduced by the renowned 11th-century Persian poet, philosopher, and Ismaili missionary Nasir-i Khusraw. Over the following centuries the Ismaili movement expanded among the populations of Badakhshan, reaching a population of over 200,000 in the 21st century. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ismailis suffered a series of severe repressions, first under local Sunni Muslim rulers and later under the antireligious policies of the Soviet Union. However, in the decades since the end of the Soviet period, the Ismailis of the region have become increasingly connected with the global Ismaili community and its leadership. While many aspects of the history of Ismailism in the Badakhshan region remain obscure and unexplored, the discoveries of significant corpuses of manuscripts in private collections since the 1990s in the Badakhshan region have opened up wide possibilities for future research.
The Khojas of Kashgar name a Sufi lineage, which became a ruling dynasty in eastern Turkestan or present-day Xinjiang in western China. Founded by the Samarkandi spiritual master Ahmad Kāsānī (d. 1542), a member of the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order strongly implicated in politics, the lineage divided into two competing branches, one led by Ishāq Khoja (d. 1599) and the other by Āfāq Khoja (d. 1694). Both leaders were influential at the court in Yarkand and engaged in frequent proselytizing missions among Turkic, Mongol, Tibetan, and Chinese populations. Yet, only Āfāq Khoja and his group of followers, the Āfāqiyya, with the support of Zunghar Mongols, created a kind of theocracy whose religious capital was Kashgar, and which was based on Sufi organization, practice, and ideology. Venerated as Sufi saints (īshān), the Khojas embodied a politico-religious form of Islamic sanctity (walāya) while promoting a doctrine of mystical renunciation. Paradoxically, although the regime did not survive internecine conflicts and the Qing conquest in 1759, the Khojas of Kashgar, including the Ishāqiyya sublineage, continued to be very active in the long run. They conducted insurrections throughout the Tarim basin and created short-lived enclaves until their complete neutralization in 1866 with the forced exile of the last great Khoja, Buzurg Khān Töre (d. 1869). In Xinjiang, the Khojas have remained venerated figures of the past until now, although collective memory kept a contradictory picture of them, oscillating between holy heroes and feudal oppressors. Descendants of the exiled Khojas in eastern Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan formed communities that still preserve relics and oral as well as written traditions.
The Khanate of Khiva, one of the Uzbek khanates of Central Asia, refers to a political entity in the region of Khorezm from the early 16th century until 1920. The term itself, which was not used by locals who instead used the name vilayet Khwārazm (“country of Khwārazm”), dates from 18th-century Russian usage. Khorezm is an ancient center of sedentary civilization with a distinct culture and history that came under Uzbek rule as the latter migrated southward from their pasturelands on the steppe beginning in the early 16th century. In contrast to the related dynasties in Transoxiana, the Khanate of Khiva retained a greater degree of pastoralism, though the state was still fundamentally built on sedentary agriculture. Though no doubt affected by historical variations in the volume and routes of the overland caravan trade, Khiva remained a key center for transregional trade throughout its history, especially with the growing Russia Empire to the north. Political structures in Khiva remained weak and decentralized until the 19th century, when the Qongrat dynasty succeeded in transforming the khanate into the most centralized state in the region. Among the legacies of the khanate is its promotion of a distinctive Turkic literary culture, which interacted fruitfully with the dominant Persian culture of neighboring regions. As with other states in Central Asia, by the second half of the 19th century Khiva became a target of the expanding Russian Empire, which conquered Khorezm in 1873. While the tsarist state initially preserved a portion of the khanate under Qongrat rule as a protectorate, after the Bolshevik Revolution this state was soon dissolved and absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Precipitation and elevation shape land and water usage in Central Asia, distinguishing the southern irrigated oases from the steppes, deserts, and prairies, where instead nomadic pastoralism (sometimes rain-fed agriculture) is economically rational. The former was included in Russian Turkestan, the latter in the Steppe provinces. The colonial state recognized land usage rights of the nomads; while not formally admitting land property among the settled population, it allowed them to enjoy it within Islamic law. Nomads paid a capitation; at first tilled land continued to be taxed as a share of the real harvest. Land-assessment works from the 1890s, though, imposed a tax based on the estimated harvest value, initially on irrigated land and then, with some differences, on rain-fed land. Irrigation was paid for eminently through corvées. The increase in the share of land under cotton did not derive from state coercion but from factor endowments and absolute and relative prices. Subsidies, in the form of import duties and, above all, a growing tax break contributed to this. Despite political claims, new irrigation had a limited impact under the tsars. While the “cotton boom” altered the landscape and local economy of the oases, in the Steppe and Semirechie (now south-eastern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) the natives lost land to settler peasants from European Russia. The latter received land that statisticians and surveyors had deemed excess for the nomads and former nomads. Conflicts around land, water, and forests coalesced in the 1916 uprising, which in turn initiated a cycle of violent retaliation between Russians and natives that would last until the early 1920s. With the establishment of Soviet power, a first land reform “decolonized” former resettlement areas; in 1925 and 1927 another land reform aimed at reducing landlessness in southern Central Asia, while restoring pre-war output levels and cotton procurement mechanisms.
The Armenian people entered the modern era with their historic lands of more than three millennia divided between two empires—the Ottoman and Persian empires. The Ottomans ruled the western and larger part, while the Persians ruled the eastern lands. Ottoman rule extended from the fourteenth century to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The latter inherited the historic Armenian lands as a successor state to the Ottoman Empire. The Persian Empire ruled Armenian lands in the east until the signing of the Treaty of Turkmenchai in 1828, which, in the aftermath of the Russo-Persian wars, fulfilled Russian imperial expansionist objectives into the Caucasus by replacing Persian rule. For centuries, therefore, Armenians experienced the various aspects and phases of modernization—the Enlightenment, the emergence of capitalism, urbanization, nationalism—as a subject people. They did not achieve modern statehood until 1918 as the Ottoman and Russian empires collapsed under the weight of the First World War.
Modern Armenia emerged when the Republic of Armenia was established as a sovereign state in May 1918, after centuries of foreign rule but in the midst of war and the ongoing genocide by the Young Turks ruling in Constantinople (now Istanbul) against its Armenian population. The fragile Republic of Armenia could not withstand the calamitous consequences of war. Moreover, thousands of Armenian refugees generated by the genocidal policies of the Young Turk regime arrived in the republic. The new government lacked the resources necessary for a functioning economy and polity, and the unfolding military conflicts led to its demise and sovietization after the Bolsheviks consolidated power in Yerevan in 1921. The Communist regime established a dictatorial system in Soviet Armenia and across the Soviet Union, but the severest brutalities were experienced under Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, as his government forced agricultural collectivization and rapid industrialization at the expense enormous human sacrifices. Despite the political difficulties, Soviet Armenia registered successes in the areas of economy and culture in the long term. Armenians benefited from the cultural development witnessed in the 1950s and 1960s, largely as a result of Nikita Khrushchev’s reform oriented policies. By the 1970s, however, the economy had grown stagnant under Leonid Brezhnev, and his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, in the early 1980s failed to ameliorate the conditions, while the Soviet regime experienced a political legitimacy crisis. In the meantime, nationalism had emerged as a powerful force across the Soviet Union, and calls for secession from Moscow grew louder. Mikhail Gorbachev’s experimentation with perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) could not reverse the loss of legitimacy, a situation further exacerbated in Soviet Armenia in the aftermath of the earthquake in December 1988 and the escalating military conflict in Nagorno-Karabagh. The Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, creating an opportunity for a second declaration of independence for Armenian sovereign statehood in the 20th century. Although independence from the Soviet Union energized the Armenian people and gave rise to expectations concerning their economic and political well-being in post-Soviet Armenia, the country became mired in the twin crises of recovering from the earthquake while at the same time surviving an undeclared war with Azerbaijan, the latter being supported by Turkey. The economic blockade they imposed on Armenia further exacerbated the situation. Since independence, the Republic of Armenia, under its four successive leaders—Presidents Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharyan, Serge Sargsyan, and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan—has struggled to develop its economy and infrastructure and to address the chronic problems of poverty and unemployment. The country lacks the economic and financial ingredients necessary to develop a modern, competitive productive basis for competition in global markets. Further, systemic corruption has obstructed efforts to improve the situation, while various government agencies have routinely engaged in violations of human rights. Efforts by nascent civil society to advance civil and political rights and democratization in general have been undermined by state policies, including gross violations of citizens’ rights in time of elections. The experiences gained after twenty-five years of independence pose major challenges for economic development while offering little hope for democratization. It remains to be seen whether the “velvet revolution” (March 31–May 8, 2018) led by Nikol Pashinyan can introduce fundamental changes in the Armenian political system. Former opposition activist and member of the National Assembly, Pashinyan emerged as the country’s prime minister after the “velvet revolution” forced the resignation of Serge Sargsyan on April 23, 2018.
Tajikistan became an independent country in 1991, but it also owes its existence as an arbitrary creation to the central Soviet authorities. Since the Soviet era the term “Tajik” has been applied to identify speakers of Persian and several Eastern Iranian languages in Central Asia. Political and cultural leaders in Tajikistan have grappled with the meaning of Tajik identity in relation to Persian speakers beyond Central Asia, as well as other identities among Tajiks within Central Asia. During the Soviet era, Tajikistan was faced with several projects, such as modernization and “internationalization” of society and the economy, as well as its mistrust of nationalism and ties to kindred peoples within and outside of the Soviet Union. At the end of the Soviet period and in the early years of independence, Tajikistan was wracked by a power struggle between coalitions of factions that wanted to depart from the old Communist authoritarian rule and the neo-Communist elite who tried to maintain power. This escalated into a civil war (1992–1997), which was costly in terms of lives being lost and economic damage to the country. Since the civil war, Tajikistan remains a poor country with an authoritarian government.
The Uyghurs comprise a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim nationality of China, with communities living in the independent republics of Central Asia that date to the 19th century, and now a global diaspora. As in the case of many national histories, the consolidation of a Uyghur nation was an early 20th-century innovation, which appropriated and revived the legacy of an earlier Uyghur people in Central Asia. This imagined past was grounded in the history of a Uyghur nomadic state and its successor principalities in Gansu and the Hami-Turfan region (known to Islamic geographers as “Uyghuristan”). From the late 19th century onward, the scholarly rediscovery of a Uyghur past in Central Asia presented an attractive civilizational narrative to Muslim intellectuals across Eurasia who were interested in forms of “Turkist” racial thinking. During the First World War, Muslim émigrés from Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) living in Russian territory laid claim to the Uyghur legacy as part of their communal genealogy. This group of budding “Uyghurists” then took advantage of conditions created by the Russian Revolution, particularly in the 1920s, to effect a radical redefinition of the community. In the wake of 1917, Uyghurist discourse was first mobilized as a cultural rallying point for all Muslims with links to China; it was then refracted through the lens of Soviet nationalities policy and made to conform with the Stalinist template of the nation. From Soviet territory, the newly refined idea of a Uyghur nation was exported to Xinjiang through official and unofficial conduits, and in the 1930s the Uyghur identity of Xinjiang’s Muslim majority was given state recognition. Since then, Uyghur nationhood has been a pillar of Beijing’s minzu system but has also provided grounds for opposition to Beijing’s policies, which many Uyghurs feel have failed to realize the rights that should accord to them as an Uyghur nation.