Staunton, June 12 – It is not only nations that are imagined communities; larger regions are as well. And the terms people use for these regions play a key if on occasion implicit role in defining how both those who live within these regions and those who study or interact with them from the outside behave.
One of the regions among the post-Soviet states that has had the most difficulty in reaching a consensus on nomenclature for it is the territory occupied by five post-Soviet countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all but one of which (Tajikistan) are predominantly Turkic linguistically and culturally.
Various people both in the region and outside are pressed their own terminology on this group of states, and now, a Kazakh writer is urging the adoption of the old toponym “Turkestan” in place of what he says is the “ambiguously defined” “Central Asia” and “the unwieldy toponym “Kazakhstan and Central Asia” (regnum.ru/news/polit/2429990.html
Marat Shibutov argues that Turkestan has “more powerful historical roots, clearly identifies a territory, and is quite convenient to use,” even though he admits that “in geography nothing is ever completely lost. Traces of everything remain and everything can be replaced and returned including geographic names.”
In a Regnum news agency article today, he argues that the study and understanding of the region is hindered by the lack of agreement over what that area should be called. “The main argument here is between the terms Central Asia [Tsentralnaya Aziya] and Middle Asia [Srednyaya Aziya].”
The former was promoted originally by German geographers Alexander Humbolt and Ferdinand Richthoten, Shibutov says, to designate a huge area extending far beyond the territories of what are now the five post-Soviet states there. Russian geographers before the revolution generally followed their lead.
But over time, first Russian and then Soviet writers divided Central Asia into three sub-regions, Central Asia as initially understood, Middle Asia, and Kazakhstan, to reflect the Mongolo-Turkic, Turkic-Iranian and Turkic divisions.
In Soviet times, this region was generally divided into two regions, Kazakhstan which included the Kazakkh SSR, and Middle Asia, consisting of the Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Turkmen SSRs. That division was behind both the economic and military district divisions that the Soviet system imposed.
Indeed, Soviet officials always referred to the region as Central Asia and Kazakhstan, highlighting the differences between the Muslim majority republics of the former and Kazakhstan which then had a Russian plurality but now as a Muslim Turkic one. As a result, the Soviet nomenclature has fallen into disuse.
(Although Shibutov doesn’t mention it, the tsarist Turkestan Military District continued to exist throughout the Soviet period for the southern four republics in this region, the only tsarist MD to survive into Soviet times, with Moscow then establishing a Kazakhstan MD for the northern republic.)
UNESCO and some Western scholars have tried to redefine Central Asia to include more than just what was within that term in Soviet times either to involve these newly independent states with neighboring countries or out of a belief that the five more properly fit within a broader cultural or political areal.
Turkestan, however, as a designation for the five has been making a legitimate comeback in the last few years, Shibutov says. This term which means “the land of the Turks” is referred to in Arab and Persian documents dating to the seventh century CE, the Kazakh scholar continues. Problems with it began later.
In the nineteenth century, following the Russian conquest, St. Petersburg carefully distinguished between “Western or Russian Turkestan,” which included part of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, and Eastern Turkestan, which included what is now the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Republic of China.
The term finally passed out of general use, the Kazakh scholar says, after the 1917 revolution not only because the Bolsheviks “did not want an association with the Russian Empire” but also because they “did not want to alarm the Chinese concerned about the Uyghurs in Eastern Turkestan” or any manifestation of “Pan-Turkism.”
Even though Tajiks are linguistically an Iranian group, Tajikistan fits into this category because there is a large share of Turkic peoples –Uzbeks and Kyrgyz – in its population and “everywhere there is a powerful mix of Turkic-Iranian culture with the former being predominant,” Shibutov says.
What is most intriguing about this proposal is that is emanates from Kazakhstan, one more indication that that country, now that it has a Kazakh majority, is increasingly positioning itself as a Central Asian state rather than something standing between Central Asia and Russia. That a Kazakh should make this argument and that it should appear in a Russian publication will certainly alarm some in Moscow – and perhaps Beijing as well.