Between Tsars and Soviets: Conflict and State-Building in Early Soviet Semirech'e

Project: Monitored by Research Administration

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Project Description

My study will focus on Semirech’e, a borderland region in Central Asia, which linked – and separated – Russia and China, to examine how the frontier position as well as ethnic diversity of Russia’s Asian borderlands shaped both imperial and Soviet projects of state and nation-building. The empire-colonial experience is a common one – whether it be Britain and Australia, France and Africa, or others. What makes the experience of Central Asia unique, and research into its history empirically valuable, is that it was a region under two fundamentally different ideologies: the increasingly nationalist Tsarist autocracy and the ostensibly multicultural, egalitarian Soviet government. Yet the questions at the heart of my project reach beyond the immediate geographical focus of my research: Are all empires fundamentally alike? Is modernization impossible in the colonial context? And in the relationship of the imperial centre to the colonies on the fringe, does ideology matter?

Formerly a protectorate of the Qing China, Semirech’e was annexed by the Russian empire in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, Semirech’e emerged as one of the prime destinations for agricultural colonization. In 1916, the forced recruitment of the native population of Semirech’e into labour battalions amplified the long-standing grievances over the continuing seizures of land by European colonists, sparking a popular revolt of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh nomads. Although the rebellion was ultimately suppressed – at the expense of driving off tens of thousands of nomads to China – violence against the native population continued after the February and October revolutions. The civil war in Semirech’e took on a form of ethnic and social conflict, pitting the nomadic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs against Russian colonists and Cossacks.

The return of the region into the Soviet fold in 1920 saw the implementation of new policies targeted at the “national liberation” and emancipation of Soviet Russia’s minorities, leading many scholars to conclude that the Soviet state shed the colonial practices of its predecessor and sought to mobilize and modernize its national peripheries. Yet, the response of Semirech’e native population to the Soviet policies was often unequivocal and raises serious questions about the nature of social and economic transformations wrought by an outside power.

The purpose of my research is two-fold. On the one hand, my research aims to explore the political history of Russia’s Asian borderlands from the perspective of its indigenous population. On the other hand, my research proposes to reframe some of the long-standing assumptions about the relationship between geopolitics, colonialism and development. Semirech’e provides an excellent case study of the many contradictions of colonial and post-colonial rule that continue shape the region. By drawing attention to Semirech’e strategic location between Russia and China, my research will revise the conventional view of the Marxist-Leninist ideology as the primary driver of the Soviet state-sponsored programme of nation-building. I will show instead that the development of minority nationalities in Soviet Central Asia was prompted by the region’s position as an intermediate space between Russia and China and the imperial rivalry that this position engendered.

My research will also challenge the anti-colonial ethos of Soviet project of state-building. Drawing on socio-economic data, my study will show that the distribution of resources strongly favoured the European population of the region. Furthermore, I will argue that the agricultural settlement of Central Asia with Russian colonists was supported by the Bolshevik leadership, perpetuating the race-based hierarchies entrenched by the former government.

Finally, my research will show that what historians of Europe call “the continuum of crisis” – the “prolonged European civil war”, which spanned the period between 1914 and 1921 – was not confined to Europe and encompassed the Asian borderlands of the Russian empire. Despite Central Asia’s absence from the discipline of international history, the region was a part of the global crisis in the first half of the twentieth century and experienced civil wars, ethnic cleansing and regime change. I hope to unearth the lived experiences and the ideological transformations that the region has undergone, hopefully providing a broader understanding of how societies experiencing extensive upheavals today might navigate them successfully.
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