Connecting the dots around the XUAR Camps: bringing together a year of diverse research, by Rune Steenberg (University of Copenhagen)

Scholarship and advocacy

It has been a good year since the international media and organisations world wide have begun to pay increased attention to the internment camps in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. With the Chinese state clouding the issue in secrecy, even the most basic facts about the camps have become grounds for contestation. This ranges from contesting the number of detainees and types of camps and their actual conditions, to debating the intended purpose of the mass internments and their place in contemporary Chinese politics, to still farther discussing the contextualisation of the camps within global political economic structures and which historical comparisons are adequate or even permissible. The debates call to mind the late Elliot Sperling’s brilliant NYT opinion piece “Don’t know much about Tibetan history,” in which he reminds us that simplistic narratives of complex processes rarely stand the test of facts. This does not mean, however that the truth is necessarily to be found half way between the two extreme versions, nor does it mean that the accounts of the victims should be disregarded. On the contrary, they should be listened to attentively in detail.

Uncannily graphic testimonies of violence and abuse in the camps and beyond have been supported by ample evidence. Likewise the purge against Uyghur elites and the surveillance and indoctrination in XUAR more broadly have been convincingly documented. The death sentences of top ranking academics with a history of supporting party politics like Tashpolat Tiyip,[i] Sattar Sawut,[ii] and Halmurat Ghopur,[iii] are but some of the most obvious demonstrations of political motivation and ethnic targeting in the courts. It is beyond doubt that crimes are being committed and great wrong has been done in XUAR, but our analyses and understanding of the situation is still fairly fragmented. Many of our attempts at reaching a larger picture, include extrapolations and estimations based on overly limited information. The still much needed testimonies and other evidence do not always fit neatly together to form a coherent whole. This does not mean that any of it is wrong. It means that we are missing pieces in the puzzle. Denying access to information, as the Chinese state does on XUAR, is a mighty tool of those in power and one that works well with an international media-scape dominated by profit-based outlets. To counter it we need fact focused, critical methods that make maximum use of the limited information available – including those sources we prefer to dismiss.

Political teaching rally in southern Xinjiang. This is not in a camp. Image circulated publicly on Chinese social media spring 2019

If we want to approach a deeper understanding of what has happened, is happening and might come to happen in XUAR, serious scholars working on the issue need to meticulously hold on to two methodological principles: 1) Keep explicitly distinct established facts from estimations and extrapolations. 2) Bring together our results and as far as possible share the data from which they derive. This does not mean that scholars have to stop advocacy. After all, we are not instruments but human beings with a political conscious that we need to express and follow. Most of us have our reasons to choose to engage with certain issues and not others that reflect our political convictions. Yet, it means that we do not let those convictions obscure our methods when moving from empirical data via analysis to conclusions and the honest presentation of those conclusions.

Sources of information

The past year has been impressively productive in terms of research on the camps, policing, surveillance and various issues of labour in XUAR. It is no easy task to bring all of this together, and I harbour no illusions of being able to do it justice here. Not least because the methods used and the scholarly backgrounds of those involved have varied so broadly. Yet this also provides a great chance: that of triangulating and double-checking conclusions reached by one approach with those of others. The connecting link is the reality as it is now playing out behind the veil of CCP propaganda and restrictions on access and reporting. This veil has been perforated by many different means over the past year and as a result we have come to feel several different parts of the elephant behind it.

Government propaganda poster promoting ethnic unity, Kashgar 2016, by author.

In spring 2019, a Central Asian Survey Special Issue[iv] on the situation in XUAR convincingly portrayed the ongoing securitisation of the region. Uyghur diaspora activists and the Uyghur journalists at Radio Free Asia have likewise provided invaluable information even if their analyses sometimes require earnest source criticism. The website shahit.biz run by Gene Bunin has documented an impressive 4800+ testimonies about people detained or disappeared in the Chen Quanguo-era and also provides statistics. The testimonies have been collected in large part with the help of the Almaty based advocacy group Ata Jurt and Uyghur voices are still underrepresented. Based on his cases, Bunin has recently argued that we need to pay less attention to camps and more attention to prisons. Camp inmates are being transferred to prisons in massive numbers, as has also been reported by the New York Times.[v] The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who provided satellite imagery evidence of massive camp extension[vi] in 2017-2018, is according to a Twitter-thread[vii] by Nathan Ruser preparing a new report. He has already concluded that many facilities are being downgraded in terms of security levels and other sources report that schools and other institutions that had come to serve as camps have in part been transformed back to their original functions.

Gate of an early small-scale re-education camp.  Photo August 2016 in Karakash by author.

These reports should not be hastily interpreted as either the problem being solved due to international pressure or as lies and pure cosmetic maneuvers. Rather they should be brought together with other information, such as the transitions of inmates from internment or re-education to forms of coerced labour, recently reported by Adrian Zenz and others.[viii] This also applies to the announcement in late July by XUAR governor and Uyghur face of Chen Quanguo’s reign, Shohret Zakir, that most camp inmates had been released and 90% of those had found work (in many outlets mistranslated as 90% having been released). Instead of whole sale dismissing such a statement as propaganda lies unworthy of our time, we need to consider what it may mean. What is it intended to show and what kind of distorted information does it carry if read critically against the grain of its speakers intent? The camp landscape in XUAR is evidently changing, with inmates being transferred to prisons with an extensive history of forced labour and to sweatshop-like factories. Signing a contract looks voluntary, but is for many the only way out of camp. Read in this light, Zakir’s words sound darkly cynical rather than fabricated and the security downgrading looks less like a solved problem than an obscured one.

Generally the economic aspects have begun to receive increased attention. This includes the involvement of western companies as exposed in the work of Benjamin Haas[ix] and on the website ChinaFile.[x] Yet, the full connection to China’s more general economic strategy, including the Belt and Road Initiative that has continuously been mentioned as a motivating factor for mass detentions in XUAR, has to my knowledge not yet been convincingly established. Again, this does in no way mean that it does not exist. It is merely another one of many bricks in this giant puzzle that is still not in place. The same is true for connecting the XUAR camps to global trends of forced labour, mass incarceration and surveillance more generally. Such contextualisations provide fruitful fields for further study.

The flag raising ceremony, since 2016 a weekly event for most Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang. Image circulated publicly on Chinese social media spring 2019

It is important to stress that honest uncertainty about details or numbers does not imply a general questioning of the unlawfulness and violence of the detentions. The same is true for calling out the political motivations of involved actors: US condemnations of China on the issue of XUAR and their sanctions put on individuals and companies[xi] involved in the securitisation of Xinjiang, welcome as they are, seem to come at a conveniently opportune moment for the White House and others intent on retaining US domination of markets and political spheres of influence. To recognize this fact certainly invokes skepticism towards particular “facts” and numbers presented without evidence or as CIA intelligence by an administration infamous for its strategical relation to the truth. But it in no way implies that the atrocities committed in XUAR do not take place. This is one of the factors that makes critical, scientifically committed research on this issue, independent of governments, companies and other actors with vested interest in it so crucially important.

Asking the right questions: Testimonies in Context

I have myself been involved in the collection of testimonies of former detainees of centers and camps in XUAR. I have personally interviewed about a dozen camp survivors now residing outside of China and read or seen testimonies of about as many more. Some of these testimonies offered hours of embarrassingly minute detail. The picture they provide, cross-verifying details repeated by people who did not know of each other and lived on different continents, documents a very sophisticated and highly government-controlled system of abuse around the so-called re-education camps.

From inside the camps we know as established fact that torture and abuse take place. We cannot say for certain how wide-spread or frequent it is across the camps and in time. We also know of camps where such abuse was not experienced by particular inmates during their months of incarceration. We know that many inmates were given pills on a regular basis and that several have reported experiencing memory loss and halting of their menstrual cycle. We cannot establish a proven causal effect between these facts. We also know of suicide attempts and that many former inmates suffer from post-traumatic stress. We know of deaths in camp by both old and young inmates but mostly we do not have reliable data on their exact causes. We know that almost every corner of camps, homes and neighbourhoods is surveilled, but we also know that many arrests and interrogations still take place on the basis of personal denunciations and that even inmates in their cells have managed to outsmart the guards to a degree. We know that in many camps the inmates were forbidden to communicate with each other and speak their native languages, Uyghur or Kazakh. But we also have ample testimony of inmates who could relay long and detailed stories of those they shared a cell with, and we know that Uyghur and Kazakh in some camps were used as languages of instruction.

This does not mean that the testimonies contradict each other or are invalid! It means that things are complex and more research is needed. A big part of this is to connect the information we already have, as we are closing in on being able to ask the right questions. The most effective strategy is not to try to consolidate our various attempts at extrapolation but to connect the actual data and thus test and continuously revise our understanding of the larger picture.

Family members visiting detainees in an unknown facility in Xinjiang. Image circulated publicly on Chinese social media spring 2019

As a small contribution, I would like to share with you some of the lesser discussed facts I have come to know through interviews. While nightly raids had been common in many parts of XUAR since 2014, in early 2017 a new element was added. Instead of merely searching the house, family members were taken away for hour-long interrogations at night and brought back before sunrise. Questioning often took place in regular government offices that had been equipped with a so-called “black box” of iron inside which the person was handcuffed onto an iron chair. In the months before, high ranking cadre had been informed about the re-education facilities in secret meetings. In several villages neighbours disappeared one by one until many places were left half empty.

Nathan Ruser has described different security levels of camps, but in our interviews we also heard of the inmates being sorted into different levels of security within the same compound. Depending on behavior they could be shifted up and down the ladder. While in some camps rote learning of propaganda and regulations was examined in multiple-choice tests, in others the teaching was very informal being administered by a chosen prisoner with good language skills who was made responsible for a cell of 30-50 people. Here most teaching and examination happened orally amongst the inmates themselves. In several facilities, methods reminiscent of behavioristic cognitive psychology were used such as excessive repetition of one sentence for a full hour, morning routines involving expressing loudly the three gratitudes (to the party, to Xi Jinping and to the country) and three wishes (long life for Xi Jinping, prosperity of the country and – ironically – ethnic harmony) as well as daily rehearsals of self-criticism and repentance.

Much effort seems to have been spent on erasing paper trails from the camps. Much crucial communication took place orally and we have reports of papers being routinely collected and burnt. Still, many inmates report signing documents with camp rules and regulations when entering, policy papers explaining the purpose of the camps were shown to its teachers, and we also have reports of archive files about each interned person. So far the most important p aper traces from the camps reaching us are release certificates and three published letters written by inmates to their relatives. More is likely to appear and serve as central points of reference for analysis.

Some of our interviews suggest that camps of the type shown to foreign journalists on the carefully curated government guided tours really do exist, though actual dance or art classes have not been described. Vocational training also seemingly takes place to prepare inmates for their transfer to factories. This in no way legitimates any of the camps. Even under acceptable conditions, internment is still a traumatising experience and most all have stayed in overcrowded detention centers previous to the camps. We need to recognize all the evidence we can collect – even the parts that do not at first sight fit with our own understanding of the larger picture or our political inclinations – in order to reach at a picture that is complex enough to be trustworthy. A differentiated picture created in genuine effort to understand the situation in all its aspects, besides being closer to the truth is also much more solid and less easily dismissed than those based on selective evidence and estimations.

The scientific method may prove to be a sharper tool than the various shades of propaganda regularly put forth by all sides, as well-meaning as some of them may be.

[i]  https://www.centraleurasia.org/2019/statement-concerning-disappearance-and-sentencing-of-tashpolat-tiyip-former-president-of-xinjiang-university/; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-49956088

[ii]  https://sinopsis.cz/en/appeal-to-stop-the-execution-of-three-uyghur-intellectuals/

[iii] https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/sentence-09282018145150.html 

[iv] https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ccas20/38/1

[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/31/world/asia/xinjiang-china-uighurs-prisons.html

[vi] https://www.aspi.org.au/report/mapping-xinjiangs-re-education-camps

[vii]https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1175353408749891584.html

[viii] https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/8tsk2

[ix]   https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/opinion/xinjiang-business.html ; http://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/features/which-european-companies-are-working-xinjiang

[x] http://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/features/here-are-fortune-500-companies-doing-business-xinjiang

[xi]  https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/08/business/us-china-xinjiang-black-list-intl-hnk/index.html; https://www.state.gov/u-s-department-of-state-imposes-visa-restrictions-on-chinese-officials-for-repression-in-xinjiang/

Call for Papers: The Eighth Annual Doctoral Research Workshop on Central Asia, Royal Holloway and the University College London

Call for Papers: The Eighth Annual Doctoral Research Workshop on Central Asia
Senate House, London, WC1E 7HU
Saturday, 25 January 2020
History and Historiography of Central Asia
Convened by Dr Harun Yilmaz and Dr Gai Jorayev
Organising Committee: Dr. Gül Berna Özcan, Dr. Katherine Hughes, Dr. Gulzat Botoeva and Rosa Vercoe

The history of Central Asia has shown a dynamic character with substantial movements of different civilisations in various directions. From Zoroastrianism and Shamanism to Buddhism and Islam, all major religions and beliefs have influenced and crystallised in this vast geography. The influence of ancient Iranian and Chinese civilizations, the waves of Turkification, the rise and fall of the Silk Roads and ancient trade cities, the Great Game in the nineteenth century, and the Soviet modernization are some of the isolated episodes that can be counted from this rich history.

The workshop aims to provide a platform for historians who conduct original research on the history of Central Asia. The research papers can cover any subject from ancient history to the contemporary period until 1991. The subject of history can be political, social, cultural, juridical, gender, religious, ideological, or intellectual. We also invite historiographic papers examining and comparing national or regional narratives or constructions of the past. Very often modern borders do not overlap with the political or cultural frontiers in history. That is why, the geographical scope of the workshop covers not only Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, but also Afghanistan, Xinjiangand Tibet regions of China, Mongolia, southern Siberia and north Caspian territories of Russia, and northern Iran.

The organisers will give priority to the paper proposals that are part of a PhD or postdoctoral research.

Submission details:
• Author’s name, institutional affiliation and e-mail
• A 300-500-word paper summary
• A 100-word bio

Deadline for Submission: 15 November 2019
All submissions should be sent to Dr Gai Jorayev (g.jorayev@ucl.ac.uk)

The Unyielding First Secretary, translated by Balzhan Suzhikova (KIMEP)

Editor’s introduction:

This special blog post, translated and shared with us by Kazakhstani Fulbright Scholar and Associate Director at KIMEP University Balzhan Suzhikova, outlines the experience of her grandfather Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov as a Soviet party leader in the Republic of Kazakhstan.[i] The original version of this article in Russian  was published in Novaya Gazeta on 24.07.2019, and was written by Professors Abdijalel Bakir (Doctor of Political Science) and Sagymbay Kozybayev (President of the Academy of Journalism of Kazakhstan), who also detail their efforts to recover archival and newspaper records to support Suzhikov’s own writings and interviews in order to offer this historical biographical perspective.

Suzhikov’s story centers on two primary themes.  The first of these takes place in the context of the history of ongoing Soviet nuclear testing in the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan.  As First Secretary of that region’s party committee, Suzhikov bore witness to the physical damage, pathological radiation effects on health and ecology, and military displacements there; while many others stayed silent in the face of military and KGB authority, Suzhikov chose to report a warning.  The second major theme is the subsequent dismissal of Suzhikov from his post, which was speciously blamed on his failure to meet agricultural quotas, and the State’s public characterization of Suzhikov as a troublesome ‘nationalist.’  Such testimonies serve to rhetorically counteract assumptions (or accusations) of complicity.  But further, this biographical narrative also sheds light on how the very category of ‘nationalist’ is historically structured as oppositional or problematic within the communist party structure itself (a genealogical precursor of the anti-nuclear (ethnic, ecological) nationalisms of the early post-Soviet period) and thus informs well then broader critical studies of power, and governance in (post) Soviet Central Asia,[ii] as well as the historical and ethnographic contexts of the nuclear history and legacy in Kazakhstan.

Suggested readings:

Johnston, Barbara R., ed. 2007.   Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War.  School for Advanced Research Press.

Kassenova, Togzhan. 2017. “Banning nuclear testing: lessons from the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site” in The Nonproliferation Review 23(3-4): 329-344.

Stawkowski, Magdalena E. 2016. “I am a Radioactive Mutant”: Emerging Biological Subjectivities at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site” in American Ethnologist 43(1):144-157.

2017 “Life on an Atomic Collective: The Post-Soviet Retreat of the State in Rural Kazakhstan” in Études Rurales 200(2):196-219.

***

A cry from the heart about the dire consequences of nuclear explosions at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was first heard sixty years ago.  At that time, M. A. Suzhikov wrote a secret letter to N.S. Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, and to N.I. Belyaev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Most of our compatriots do not know about this document, even the leaders of the well-known as the “Nevada – Semey” movement do not mention it.

M.A. Suzhikov in 1938 – Chairman of the Volodarsky District Executive Committee of the Astrakhan Region (all photographs used with the permission of B. Suzhikova).

In 1947, the Soviet Government turned the ancient Kazakh land into a nuclear test field. And the first to raise the alarm was Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov, who in 1959 was elected First Secretary of the Semipalatinsk regional party committee. One morning, Suzhikov came to work and could not believe his eyes: in the building of the regional committee there was not a single window left – all of them were broken. Employees of the regional committee, in contrast to the newly appointed First Secretary, knew the reason and spoke secretly about it: this was the result of another nuclear weapons test.

Suzhikov later received strictly secret results (available to him as to the member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan) of a study by radiologist Saim Balmukhanov, on the effect of radiation on the human body. So he met with the scholar, who told him about such diseases as leukemia and cancerous tumors that were rapidly spreading among the population of the Abay, Makanchy and Urdzhar districts.

M.A. Suzhikov with participants and delegates from the Volodarsky district of the Stalingrad region to the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, Moscow 1939.

Decades later, S. Balmukhanov, a member of Academy of Sciences, said in his article entitled “My View of the Nuclear Test Site” that when this meeting took place at the Semipalatinsk regional party office, a representative from the nuclear test site had given Suzhikov outdated information, indicating that the main cause of symptoms and syndromes identified in patients was vitamin deficiency.  The most complex types of brucellosis and tuberculosis in the local population were also explained in this way, thereby ruling out the effects of nuclear testing.

However, Suzhikov did not accept this conclusion. He traveled personally to all areas of the region and thoroughly studied this problem, which revealed a very troublesome picture.  Subsequently, a scientific expedition was organized by Balmukhanov to study the effect of nuclear tests on the local population was able to find out that the radioactivity of air and food in the settlements of Sarzhal, Kaynar, and Karauyl was significantly higher than base levels elsewhere in the country (compared to the Shubartau district and the village of Aktogay in Karaganda region). Then it became known about the excess contamination of all meat and dairy products from the Semipalatinsk region. Suzhikov supported this expedition and created a special commission at the Academy of Sciences, but unfortunately, under pressure from above, the expedition was soon dissolved.

“The more I learn about the situation, the more my internal anxiety increases. Not only were hundreds of people in the region exposed to excessive radiation, but the products of one of the country’s largest Semipalatinsk meat processing plants, including children’s hematogen, are sold throughout the country in infected state,” – these words of Mukhamedgali Suzhikov are recalled in the article “A Bomb for the Third World War,” published in “Kazakhstanskaya Pravda” on July 20, 1991.

At a session of the Supreme Council of the USSR in May 1959, M. Suzhikov specifically met with R. Malinovsky, who served as both the USSR Minister of Defense, and the Marshal of the Soviet Union. Suzhikov told the Minister that residents of the Abyraly and May districts were forced to leave their homes, being ousted by military personnel.  At the same time, those displaced did not receive any assistance from the military forces, and had to face severe problems on their own, being left without a place to live. Malinovsky was also informed about the results of Balmukhanov’s expedition. The military dictatorship was so strong that even though Suzhikov was the First Secretary of the party’s regional committee (of the territory where the nuclear training ground was located), was forced to ask for permission of the Minister of Defense to visit that training ground and to familiarize himself with the activities there.

After some time, the military commander directly involved in testing the nuclear bomb at the test site, arrived to Semipalatinsk, and Suzhikov accompanied him to the city of Kurchatov – the center of the nuclear test site. Suzhikov, together with a representative of the military-industrial complex, visited the storage site of the weapon referred to only as “The Product,” and he spoke to scientists and to officers there. Unfortunately, his questions were answered under the strict control of the military commander. But even with the highest level of secrecy, something became clear to the head of the region.

Upon his return from the training ground, Suzhikov gathered the members of the regional committee bureau, and informed them about the results of the expedition with Balmukhanov, as well as about the results of the meeting with Marshal Malinovsky, and explained what he saw at the training ground. It turned out that the members of the bureau of the regional party committee knew about the social situation of people evicted from their homes.  They also knew about a large number of cases of leukemia and other oncological diseases, and about an increase of the number of babies being born underdeveloped and with pathologies. However, several members of the party’s regional committee (including the second secretary of the regional committee and the chairman of the regional executive committee) said they would not intervene in these matters: “These are not our problems – the KGB and the military elite are in charge of this area. For us, the case is hidden under the heading “Top Secret,” let the big bosses decide for themselves.”[iii]

M.A.Suzhikov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (bottom row 3rd from left), pictured with Zhumabay Shayakhmetov, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Kazakhstan  (1st row in the center); collective photo of delegates to the congress in 1951.

As a result, the unyielding Suzhikov sent a secret letter, titled “On the dire consequences of testing nuclear and thermonuclear weapons at the Semipalatinsk test site” to N.S. Khrushchev – the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU and to N.I. Belyaev – the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Only after this letter did the Council of Ministers of the USSR adopt a secret resolution aimed at providing financial and medical assistance to the population of the Semipalatinsk region, even if for quite an insignificant sum. This was the first state act on social rehabilitation and assistance to citizens of the region in ten years from the moment of starting the nuclear tests at the test site.

We searched for this secret letter for a long time, yet we could not find it in the republican archives. We sent a request to the directors of the Russian State Socio-Political Archive and of the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History. But we only received answers about absence of such a letter.

When one of the authors of this article, Abdijalel Bakir, was in Moscow in 2009, the head of the department of the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History told him: “Perhaps these documents are kept under the “Secret” mark in the Presidential Archive. This is not in our hands”. Thus, so far there is no hope of finding this letter. But its existence was mentioned by Balmukhanov – his words were referred to in the “A Bomb for the Third World War”, as well as in the “Ana Tili (The Native Tongue)” newspaper in an interview with Suzhikov entitled “Why I wrote a letter to Khrushchev” dated August 23, 2001.

Unfortunately, back then the top heads both in Moscow and in Alma-Ata perceived this letter sent to Khrushchev and Balyaev extremely negatively, which subsequently affected M.A. Suzhikov’s career. These affects could already be seen by 1959: when Semipalatinsk region reached top levels in producing and selling meat and other agricultural products, Suzhikov’s merits were marked only with a medal, although other regional officials were awarded orders of various degrees. (Usually, for such achievements, the First secretary of the regional party organization received at least an Order of the Red Banner of Labor.)

Of course, Suzhikov knew that this very letter to Khrushchev about the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site could decide his fate, but he could not remain silent, could not help doing something about what he had seen, and knowing the situation of the local population.  However as a result of this action, both Moscow and Alma-Ata were waiting for an opportunity to remove the stubborn First Secretary of the regional party committee from his position.

M.A. Suzhikov discusses with architects their diarama plans to build a publishing center in then Alma-Ata, 1968.  

M.A. Suzhikov, the Chairman of the State Committee of the KazSSR for print media, hosts foreign guests in 1968. 

Such an opportunity appeared due to unrest in Temirtau, where the construction of a Kazakhstani “Magnetic Mountain” began.[iv] Thousands of people were brought there from all over the country – convicts and the parolees. They were put in arduous conditions, not only having not enough food, but even craving for drinking water. Unrest and riots began in the city, for one whole week Temirtau was in the hands of the rebels who robbed all the shops, restaurants, and food stores.

The tragedy of Temirtau was discussed in 1960 behind the closed doors at a special plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan “On the State of the Construction of Karaganda Metallurgical Plant”. M. Suzhikov, speaking at the plenum, sharply criticized the bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan for not having political foresight in resolving the fundamental issues of construction, and for considering the secondary problems before the priority ones.

The next day, urgent information “regarding nationalism” of the First Secretary of Semipalatinsk regional committee reached Moscow. A week later, instructors of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, arriving expeditiously, called the “nationalist” to account, and visited all of his previous work places in Aktobe and Kyzyl-Orda regions. Their audit lasted for three months, and as a result, not even a single fact that could have served as grounds for public accusation or for the removal of Suzhikov was revealed. In all the places the inspectors visited, people spoke warmly about Suzhikov and about the results of his work. For instance, while working during the post-war years in Aktobe, Suzhikov, seeing how the whole region was starving, immediately wrote a letter to Moscow asking for food aid, and managed to get it, thus saving many people. And in Kyzyl-Orda region, Suzhikov resolved cadre issues, thus stimulating the development of regional economy and culture.

Instructors from Moscow and the leaders in Alma-Ata discussed the issue endlessly, but could not find any violations in Suzhikov’s work. They had no choice but to accuse him of non-fulfillment of socialist obligations in agriculture.

Indeed, both the summer of 1959 and the winter of 1960 were unfavorable in this sense. Hot weather in summer prevented the districts to ensure the compete preparation of hay for the winter. As a result, a large loss of cattle occurred. It would have been even larger in scale if Suzhikov had not taken action in time. He constantly met with herders, brought in the needed professionals, helped the population, making every possible use of all the internal capabilities of the region. But despite all his efforts, the increase in livestock at the time of the audit was lower than was planned.  All these facts were taken into account during the audits; however, there were still no sufficient reasons for dismissing Suzhikov from his post.

M.A. Suzhikov, Chairman of the State Committee of the KazSSR for print media in 1970.

Then, the “Pravda” newspaper – the main press organ of the Central Committee of the CPSU, published an article titled “Words Do Not Match Actions,”[v] which was a kind of sentence in Suzhikov’s life and track record. Much of what was published about him was untrue. But there could be no turning back. During those years, if the article was published in “Pravda” no one could refute it. This was a reality of communist party discipline.

Subsequently, at the meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan held on August 27, 1960, after considering the letter “On unsatisfactory work of the party committee of Semipalatinsk region in increasing agricultural production, as well as in fulfilling the socialist obligations undertaken by collective and state farms of the region for 1960” and after reviewing letters from the staff of the apparatus the Central Committee of the CPSU on this issue, Suzhikov was dismissed from the post of First Secretary of the regional committee of Semipalatinsk region for ‘significant violations and deficiencies in agricultural management.’

It should be noted that unsatisfactory assessment of Suzhikov’s work of fulfilling socialist obligations was far-fetched. Literally three months later, the republican and regional newspapers reported the early fulfillment of socialist obligations by the Semipalatinsk region, the grounds for this being in fact set by the leadership of Suzhikov.

In fact, Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov was sacked from the position of the regional head not for his “sins” of not fulfilling the socialist obligations, but because he was courageous enough to be the first to openly oppose the high-handedness and unaccountability of leaders of the central bodies of Soviet Union as when creating the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and conducting nuclear tests on it, or as when conducting the construction of the Karaganda Metallurgical Plant. The opinion of local population, its social well-being, and lifestyle were not taken into account in state level decision making.  Suzhikov was worried least of all about his own personal well-being; rather, he put the interests of people of Saryarka and Abai’s native land above all, therefore the cliché of a “nationalist” was attached to him.

The truth, though late, ultimately triumphed. When Suzhikov passed away in 1999 at the age of 89, the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan noted his merits: “During the Great Patriotic War, Suzhikov organized the construction of defensive structures and formed fighter battalions from militias in the Stalingrad Region. After the war, M.A. Suzhikov worked as the secretary of the regional party committee in the regions of Astrakhan and Kostanai, as the first secretary of the regional party committee in Aktobe, Kyzylorda, and Semipalatinsk, and was elected secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. For many years, he also led the State Press Committee of the Republic. Working in such positions of responsibility, he was able to clearly express his active citizenship, and the mastery of a skilled organizer. He made a huge contribution to the development of culture and economy of Kazakhstan” (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, 14 August 1999).

After 60 years, at the initiative of the local leadership, the secondary school in Kyzylorda region was named after Muhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov.”

In 2017 a school was named in Suzhikov’s honor and a new monument erected.

The granddaughters of Suzhikov Balzhan and Sherin, as well as his neice Almira, at the opening of his monument at the school in Kyzylorda in 2017.

[i] Биография Сужикова М.А. (Ашимбаев Д. Р. Кто есть кто в Казахстане. Биографическая энциклопедия. Алматы, 2008)

Член ВКП(б) с 1932 г. В 1929 г. окончил педагогические курсы при Народном комиссариате просвещения РСФСР, в 1948 г. — Высшую школу партийных организаторов при ЦК ВКП(б), Высшую партийную школу при ЦК ВКП(б).

  • 1929—1938 гг. — заведующий школой колхозной молодёжи, директор Володарского рабочего факультета Астраханского рыбного техникума,
  • 1938—1943 гг. — председатель исполнительного комитета Володарского районного Совета (Астраханский округ),
  • 1943 г. — секретарь Астраханского окружного комитета ВКП(б),
  • 1944—1945 гг. — заместитель секретаря Астраханского областного комитета ВКП(б) по животноводству,
  • 1948—1949 гг. — секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана по кадрам,
  • 1949—1950 гг. — секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана,
  • 1950—1951 гг. — первый секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана,
  • 1951—1954 гг. — секретарь ЦК КП(б) — КП Казахстана,
  • 1954—1958 гг. — первый секретарь Кзыл-Ординского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1958—1960 гг. — первый секретарь Семипалатинского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1960—1963 гг. — заместитель председателя Комиссии государственного-советского контроля СМ Казахской ССР,
  • 1963—1965 гг. — председатель казахского республиканского комитета Профсоюза работников культуры,
  • 1965—1967 гг. — секретарь Кустанайского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1967—1971 гг. — председатель Государственного комитета СМ Казахской ССР по печати.

Награждён орденом Трудового Красного Знамени, двумя орденами «Знак Почёта».

[ii] Recent collections of critical studies of governance in (post) Soviet Central Asia include:

Isaacs, Rico and Abel Polese. 2015.  “Between ‘imagined’ and ‘real’ nation-building: identity and nationhood in post-Soviet Central Asia” in Nationalities Papers 43(3): 371-382.

Kassymbekova, Botakoz. 2017.  “Understanding Stalinism in, from, and of Central Asia: beyond failure, peripherality, and otherness” in Central Asian Survey 36(1): 1-18.

[iii] Л. Вайдман, политический обозреватель «Казахстанской правды»  «Казахстанская правда» 20 июля 1991 г. Статья « Бомба для третьей мировой»

[iv] Kotkin, Stephen.  1997.  Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. University of California Press.

For a recent overview of the place of Central Asia in Science and Technology Studies, please see:

Van der Straeten, Jonas.  Borderlands of Industrial Modernity Explorations into the History of Technology in Central Asia, 1850–2000

[v] Editor’s note:  the editor and translator were unable to locate the precise date of this article’s publication.

Author Interview: On the Threshold of Eurasia: Revolutionary Poetics in the Caucasus, by Leah Feldman (University of Chicago)

In this fourth and final installment of our author interview series, we are pleased to welcome Bruce Grant (New York University), in conversation with the winner of this year’s CESS book prize, Leah Feldman (University of Chicago) for her work On the Threshold of Eurasia: Revolutionary Poetics in the Caucasus.

From the Cornell University Press website:  “On the Threshold of Eurasia explores the idea of the Russian and Soviet “East” as a political, aesthetic, and scientific system of ideas that emerged through a series of intertextual encounters produced by Russians and Turkic Muslims on the imperial periphery amidst the revolutionary transition from 1905 to 1929. Identifying the role of Russian and Soviet Orientalism in shaping the formation of a specifically Eurasian imaginary, Leah Feldman examines connections between avant-garde literary works; Orientalist historical, geographic and linguistic texts; and political essays written by Russian and Azeri Turkic Muslim writers and thinkers.

Tracing these engagements and interactions between Russia and the Caucasus, Feldman offers an alternative vision of empire, modernity, and anti-imperialism from the vantage point not of the metropole but from the cosmopolitan centers at the edges of the Russian and later Soviet empires. In this way, On the Threshold of Eurasia illustrates the pivotal impact that the Caucasus (and the Soviet periphery more broadly) had—through the founding of an avant-garde poetics animated by Russian and Arabo-Persian precursors, Islamic metaphysics, and Marxist-Leninist theories of language —on the monumental aesthetic and political shifts of the early twentieth century.”

Your book suggests a clear pleasure in sharing long overlooked works of art and literature with readers. What was the impulse in bringing together these particular authors and doing so in the ways that you did? 

From my start in comparative literature, it was not hard to be struck first by the over-canonization of Slavic studies—embodied in the cult of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol, and beyond—and on the other hand by the lack of anglophone scholarship on non-Russian literatures from former Soviet spaces in general. I always told myself I would never write about Pushkin, and yet I can’t seem to escape his legacy.

I resolved then to walk the reader through “canonicity” itself, bringing into Bakhtinian dialogue or Saidian contrapoint, a “peripheral” vision of the Russian tradition from the vantage point of the Caucasus as a way of decentering a Russian-Soviet conception of Soviet or Eurasian literature. But I also very much want readers to question the privileging of an “avant-garde.” A remarkable number of progressively minded critics, who see themselves as being maximally inclusive about world literatures, nonetheless reserve the category of “avant-garde” solely for the European greats. “It is true,” they might say for example, “that X (famous Russian writer whose name they can’t remember) spent a significant amount of time in Baku in the 1920s?”  But they don’t know why these writers went there, or who may have been surrounding them? It is as if there is a structural blind spot to the possibilities of equally compelling traditions, with their own aesthetic trajectories, and frankly even an active resistance. I think we need to move away from wrote reliance on formalist readings (particularly popular in the resurgence of Historical Poetics in Slavic studies) that ground literary and art criticism so concretely in arguments about form, which often rather reflect certain reading practices that privilege a hegemonic vision of Euro-American modernity.

Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the Azeri Red Pens (photo used with permission of L. Feldman)

I think my selection of Azeri texts was to a certain extent determined by the odd path I took to finding them. I learned about Celil Memmedquluzade first when I was studying Azeri at UCLA. We had the great fortune of having a Fulbright scholar, the historian Altay Goyushev, as our teacher. Goyushev is a well-known historian and public intellectual, but I am not sure if he had had ever taught language classes before. He took up the assignment with such grace and enthusiasm. His approach was experimental and refreshing. We had no textbook and no dictionary. He said most of them were terrible so instead he taught us using cartoons from the newly latinized transliterated copies of Molla Nasreddin that were being issued at this time during the early 2000s. My understanding of Azeri language and literature was always to a certain extent shaped by the elliptical and philosophical teachings of Memmedquluzade, which would be something like learning French through Derrida. That was a lucky start.

Huseyn Cavid and Iranian theater troops (archive photo used with permission of L. Feldman)

For all of Memmedquluzade’s importance, however, I still wanted to know: Why could so much attention flow in his direction when another key writer such as Huseyn Cavid is largely ignored? This became a crucial focal point later on in framing the project around questions of secularism, vernacularization, and geopolitics.

What does it mean to you to have spent so much time in this world area, as you were researching the project, beyond the obligations to be there for archival work and conversations with authors? Does the Caucasus of today still speak to the world you want readers to know more about? 

Before studying Azeri, I had been studying Arabic, but had to discontinue those studies due to a conflict with a TA-ship that paid the bills. With the  advising of one of my mentors Professor Azade-Ayse Rorlich who had generously taken me on as a student in a reading course, I decided against a more conventional choice to enroll in Turkish and instead took a chance on an Azeri class offered by a visiting scholar. There was no contest: I immediately fell in love with our unorthodox “textbook” Molla Nasreddin.

Cartoons from the satirical journal Molla Nasreddin (used with permission of L. Feldman)

Then I received a Fulbright to go to Azerbaijan, so off I went. At the time I was visiting my parents who now live in San Antonio, Texas, so I took the regular Houston to Baku flight full of oil men in tight suits with glossy boots. When we arrived, I watched a few large stringy tumbleweeds waft across the burning tarmac and thought first for a moment that we had not left. I always joke that a few years living in Texas always prepared me for Baku, well accustomed to gender-segregated parties, vast shopping malls, and glittering and monstrous postmodern glass and concrete towers.

However, the Caucasus taught me so much. I learned about the failings of nationalist and post-secularist claims to a transcendental romantic original, about the ways in which forms of diversity can be used to hide an empire, about forms of continuity in Soviet political and cultural institutions that continue to structure post-Soviet society, about the ways in which the trauma of surveillance were still felt, about  creative and innovative strategies for evading censorship and alternative community-making, about art not only surviving but thriving conditions of war and economic precarity, and about the powerful violence of nationalist attempts to erase and remake the past.

Photograph of the author en route (used with permission by L. Feldman)

What I will always remember most of all, and what will continue to impress and inspire me every time I return to the Caucasus are the incredible acts of hospitality that have I have been shown over the years, from the patience and wisdom of my language instructors to those who risked their own safety to speak with me, or help me with an archive. Traveling in the mountains on the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia was perhaps most inspiring, watching all the ordered arrangements between national language, religion and custom break down into surprises, warmth and stories. I remember once traveling in a small rural town in the mountains near Zagatala. A young boy, perhaps in his late teens, was walking a cow behind me and overheard me say something in English to a friend whom I was traveling with. He asked me if I could help him with a translation. His family welcomed us and he led me to the back porch, lit a candle and pulled out a worn English copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. “We haven’t got internet yet” he explained, “and I can’t find some of the words in that dictionary.” The Caucasus never ceases to surprise me.

In your work you draw on the writings of Russian, Azeri, modern standard Turkish, and Persian authors for this single place called a Caucasus “Eurasia.” Are there ways you have found by which different area studies traditions are looking at similar issues in different ways? 

I think both one of the greatest obstacles and advantages of studying the Caucasus or Central Asia, particularly through literature, theater, art and film, is that Eurasia is somehow both a part of and on the margins of Slavic and Near Eastern Studies. This makes working on and in the region both more challenging in terms of legibility within academia, and yet more rewarding in terms of the capacity of the material to take to task field and disciplinary conventions.

Near Eastern Studies scholars have primarily taken up the work of the Turkic diaspora, rendering visible encounters, ideas and movements across the Ottoman and Russia/Soviet empires. However, the story of the formation of the Soviet empire in the Caucasus can also enrich these narratives, and in particular the growth of Muslim communism complicates Turkic visions of secularism that inform discourses of enlightenment reform and scientific modernity. The work of Azeri writers and thinkers in the Caucasus also crucially intervenes in studies of empire in Slavic studies. In particular, I am thinking of the ways in which Soviet Orientalism has focused on Russian Soviet exceptionality vis-à-vis European empires, a discourse that I think has unfortunately contributed to obscuring the voices of Muslim writers and thinkers who worked for the colonial apparatus and who shaped the very conception of the Eastern International that was central to the architecture of the empire. Attending to Turkic and Persian language writings within Slavic studies can crucially render visible forms of cultural hegemony that sustained the empire and has continued to promote a Russian canon in Slavic departments today.

We find multiple registers of the idea of “Eurasia” in motion in this book — some narrators are inspired by traveling ashiqs across the countryside, others see regional unity in their extended families moving between Constantinople, Tebriz, and Moscow, while others (perhaps the most famous) are the metropolitan Caucasus playwrights reading Gogol, offering their own subtle disruptions of dominant expectation. Did your thinking on the concept of Eurasia shift as you worked on this book?

This is in many ways what I learned most while writing this book. The book began in some ways as an attempt to, in the Saidian mode, trace a “voyage in” or contrapuntal answer from the periphery in Baku and Tbilisi back to the metropole in Moscow and Petersburg. However, as I wrote, I realized that the discourse of Eurasianism was not some historical appendage of an empire that has since collapsed, but the very motor reviving new forms of authoritarianism in the post-Soviet moment. I began to realize that what I was reading historically as a linguistic movement and a geopoetic frame for Soviet imperial identity not only had a strange resurgence within the new right movement in Russia in the work of Alexander Dugin, but also that neo-Eurasianism had resonances across global populist movements more broadly. It turned out Eurasianism was not only one of the Soviet Union’s most valuable domestic products, but also a potent post-Soviet export, a discursive monster just baggy enough that it could accommodate the French Nouvelle Droit’s critique of liberal egalitarianism, and American claims to dismantle the welfare state, building violent forms of ethno-nationalism in its stead. This poses a problem for, on the one hand, expanding the scope and coverage of Slavic Studies and developing continuity with Near Eastern Studies, while on the other remaining critical of the political use of the term to signify a form of ethno-linguistic nationalism that often operates as a form of white hegemony. When I rewrote my introduction, I had this in mind. However, since publishing the book, I have devoted much time to working on the global rise of the right including teaching a course at Chicago and co-editing a volume of boundary2, on the topic. This has been truly important if soul-wrenching work for me, yet it also presents the possibility of new audiences for thinking about the imperial legacy and am excited about those prospects.

One of the most striking things about this book is the different valences of “revolution” that move across time and place. On the one hand, we have the well-known political movements that surround it: from dramatic changes in the Russian empire in 1905, to the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, the Young Turk Revolution of 1907, and beyond. Yet as we know, their ambitions varied widely: some wanted to shift the loci of power in a nationalist sense, while others wanted to completely upend existing social orders. Do you think that there was a shared voice of a kind, a shared momentum?

I really like this idea. For better or worse, I think my tendency skews toward thinking critically about forms of domination, ruptures, misconnections, and even failures rather than celebrating connections or a revolutionary ideal. I wonder sometimes if growing up in the San Francisco Bay area amidst the neoliberal tech boom gave me some kind of allergy to utopian discourses. But I am attracted to revolution for its messiness. I have hopes for momentum today, as much as I see some threads of possibility glimmering in the literary, poetic and theatrical projects of the early twentieth century. I think it is possible to see a momentum across these revolutions that was not visible as a movement at the time, and I like to think it is something we can peek into through missed connections or failed encounters and collect in the traces of revolutionary poetics they left in a certain commitment to upending genre, script, language, and form to fashion spaces between Soviet and nationalist totalities. Mikayil Refili’s dedication to Lenin on his death, which opens the book, is one I am particularly fond of: “Sən komsomol, mən – ‘bitərəf’ / Fəqət mənim qəlbim sənin” (You’re Komsomol, I’m “nonaligned”/But my heart is yours). This non-alignment, which the quotation marks further displace, offers a call to the kind of revolution I think this momentum tracks. It is one that is as personal as a declaration of comradely love, as it is awkwardly outfitted to an abstracted Lenin, who is maybe a Soviet cause, but one Refili notes is already lost. This revolution in the name of a possibility that recognizes loss is, I think, something important. It doesn’t trace an institutional alignment across these series of revolutions, of which certainly there were many historical threads, but rather it renders legible a poetic mode of inviting revolution through forms of interpersonal solidarity that are inscribed in the very gift of the poem itself as an act of hospitality. This reminds me of your book, The Captive and the Gift, which so inspired the writing of mine. I hope too that the momentum of our field will be directed toward such expressions of solidarity for revolution in non-alignment.

Author-Interview: Slavery and Empire in Central Asia, by Jeff Eden (St. Mary’s College of Maryland)

In this third installment of our series highlighting the books short-listed for this year’s book prize, we welcome Sergey Salushchev (University of California, Santa Barbara) who interviews Jeff Eden (St. Mary’s College of Maryland) about his book Slavery and Empire in Central Asia.   

From the Cambridge University Press website: “The Central Asian slave trade swept hundreds of thousands of Iranians, Russians, and others into slavery during the eighteenth–nineteenth centuries. Drawing on eyewitness accounts, autobiographies, and newly-uncovered interviews with slaves, this book offers an unprecedented window into slaves’ lives and a penetrating examination of human trafficking. Slavery strained Central Asia’s relations with Russia, England, and Iran, and would serve as a major justification for the Russian conquest of this region in the 1860s–70s. Challenging the consensus that the Russian Empire abolished slavery with these conquests, Eden uses these documents to reveal that it was the slaves themselves who brought about their own emancipation by fomenting the largest slave uprising in the region’s history.”

The introduction of your book introduces slavery in Central Asia as a long-forgotten phenomenon. Why, in your opinion, has the historiography of the region ignored this important issue?

I would love to offer a “savior” tale here about how I was a whistleblower amid a conspiracy-of-silence on slavery, or saved manuscripts from a shipwreck, or was simply “in the right place at the right time” to make a huge discovery (possibly on camelback amid nomads). The reality involves far less in the way of personal glory, but—in its own way—it’s even more exciting.

First, to clarify: there has been no mass conspiracy—let alone a watery grave—hiding the primary sources on Central Asian slavery. Information on slavery is “hidden in plain sight” in practically every travelogue and memoir from nineteenth-century Central Asia, whatever the language. There is also some excellent work on Central Asian slavery by Turgun Faiziev, Yuan Gao, Scott C. Levi, G.I. Semeniuk, Elena Smolarz, and others (please see references below).

That said—and as some of these colleagues have likewise noted in their work—there has been a remarkably small amount of research on Central Asian slavery overall. Compared to many other regions in which slavery was historically prevalent, Central Asia’s slave trade seems forgotten: unknown to most who study slavery in other contexts, and little-known even to many Eurasianists.

Since there is no shortage of accessible information, nor any conspiracy against revealing it, I suspect that the relative shortage of research here may best be explained by a relative shortage of Eurasianists working on pre-Soviet Central Asia. To be sure, there has been rapid development on that front in the last decade or so. But here too is the exciting part: there are still many huge, epoch-spanning, relatively unexplored topics in Central Eurasian history simply waiting for motivated writers to pick up the threads.

Trying to research and understand the lived experiences of enslaved individuals and communities is a notoriously difficult and epistemologically daunting task. What motivated you to research the history of slavery and the slave trade in Central Asia?

Researching slaves’ lives can be challenging, especially given the scarcity of sources on slaves’ experiences in many parts of the world. Central Asia—like the American South—is one of those rare regions where reconstructing slaves’ lives seems thrillingly possible, thanks to an abundance of sources from many different perspectives. We have so much: memoirs by former slaves, interviews with slaves and former slaves, manumission documents, legal manuals, ambassadors’ letters, eyewitness travel reports, and more. These sources span several languages, including Persian, Turkic, Russian, English, and French. Diverse sources means diverse questions about source-specific biases, genres, and motivations, and addressing these questions is a constant epistemological challenge. Sometimes the challenge is a pleasure, and sometimes it feels like a burden. In any case, this is a topic for which the “burden” of too much evidence is undoubtedly a blessing. It was the visceral impact of the sources—some are heartbreaking, some are breathtaking—that initially motivated me to work on the subject.

View from the city walls, Khiva (wikimedia commons opensource image)

The title of your book suggests an intricate, if not integral, link between slavery in the Central Asia and the Russian imperial project in the region in the nineteenth century. In what ways does the Russian presence in the region illuminate the history of slavery in Central Asia? In what ways might it obscure it?

These are great questions. Some of the most detailed eyewitness information on slavery is provided by Russian travelers, soldiers, and officials. These sources are crucial. However, there are at least two ways in which major aspects of the slave trade are obscured or distorted in some Russian reportage.

First, Russian official sources say relatively little about the enslavement of Iranians in the region, an oversight that creates a warped picture of slavery’s demographics. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire repeatedly used the presence of enslaved Russians in Central Asia as one pretext to dispatch envoys and armies. By mid-century, there were very few Russian slaves to liberate. There were, however, tens of thousands of Iranian slaves, and they were the focus of much less Russian diplomatic engagement. In short, there is a risk of obscuring the main victims of the slave trade—Iranians—while exaggerating the prevalence of enslaved Russians. Taking advantage of diverse sources helps to balance the picture here.

Second, Russian official sources tend to overlook the persistence of the slave trade after the Russian conquest of the region. The Russian government lost interest in the region’s slave trade after the conquests, despite convincing evidence that the trade was ongoing. (To make this very point, an American traveler named Eugene Schuyler personally purchased a child slave in Bukhara!) The most likely explanation for Russia’s indifference to slavery in the post-conquest period is that the empire’s pre-conquest “abolitionism” had largely been a pretext for war. After the conquests were accomplished, there was little incentive to acknowledge that slavery still existed in Central Asia, let alone to help combat it.

Can you describe what have been the biggest challenges of conducting the research and writing the manuscript of your book? Did you encounter any major issues in gaining access to the archival sources in the region?

Most of the archival sources used in my book are held in Almaty, in the Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan. I ventured here thanks to the advice of my kind colleague Alexander Morrison, who suggested that I might find manuscripts on slavery in these collections. Kafkaesque anecdotes about former-Soviet archives constitute a venerable literary genre in our field, but I have no tragicomic tales to pass on from this archive. It is simply a wonderful place to work. The archive director and archivists were efficient, welcoming, and knowledgeable; the reading room was comfortable even in late summer; the neighborhood is leafy and pleasant; Almaty is lovely; and every folio I requested was freely available.

One of the chapters in your book attempts to dispel the myth of Russian abolitionism in the region. Your assertion has important implications for understanding Russian imperial expansion in Central Asia in relationship to slavery, as it challenges a well-entrenched perception of Russian benevolent abolitionism in places like the Caucasus and Central Asia. What archival discoveries allowed you to reassess the role of Russian imperial authorities in ending practices of slavery and the slave trade in the region? 

One of the most striking discoveries, for me, was the Khivan Slave Uprising of 1873, which is described both in a manuscript source and in published eyewitness accounts. These events—among others—seriously call into question the Russian “abolitionist” enterprise in Central Asia. This is the gist of the events:

On the eve of the Russian conquest of the town of Khiva in 1873, a massive slave rebellion erupted in the region. Evidently, these courageous slaves either expected the Russians to liberate them, or calculated that the chaos of the invasion would be an opportune moment to rise up. If the Russian “abolitionist” program had been sincere, one might expect the Russian military to support the uprising. Instead, the Russian general in charge of the invasion ordered rebelling slaves to be hung from the gallows in a public square, their bodies left to rot in plain view as a warning to others. It seems that he preferred to conquer a town filled with quiet, frightened slaves rather than deal with the “mess” of immediate emancipation.

“At the Fortress Wall: Let Them Enter” painting by Vasilii Vereshagin, 1871. 

The most interesting source describing these events is a local history from Khiva, written in Arabic-script Turkic. This manuscript is held in Tashkent, a city I have never visited; I received a copy of it from Paolo Sartori, another kind and generous colleague. I am planning to translate and publish this remarkable source later this year.

Exciting new revelations about Central Asian slave rebellions have continued to emerge from the archives. Just last month, my colleague Ulfat Abdurasulov shared with me a major discovery: another local history of slavery in the region, likewise in Arabic-script Turkic, which describes a series of slave rebellions that erupted before the Khivan Slave Uprising of 1873. (Abdurasulov and Nuryoghdi Toshov have translated and transcribed this manuscript, and their work was published just a few weeks ago.) This local history, based in part on interviews with former slaves (!), reveals an ongoing pattern of resistance among the slaves of Central Asia. With many Russian and Central Asian archives more accessible now than ever before, I look forward to further revelations on Central Eurasian slavery in the months and years to come.

References:

Artykbaev, Zh.O. ed., Raby i tiulenguty v kazakhskoi stepi. Astana: Altyn kitap, 2006.

Faiziev, T. Buxoro feodal jamiyatida qullardan foydalanishga doir hujjatlar (XIX asr). Tashkent: Fan, 1990.

Gao, Yuan. “Captivity and Empire: Russian Captivity Narratives in Fact and Fiction.” M.A. thesis, Nazarbayev University, 2016.

Levi, Scott C. “Hindus Beyond the Hindu Kush: Indians in the Central Asian Slave Trade.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12/3 (2002), 277-288.

Smolarz, Elena. “Speaking about Freedom and Dependency: Representations and Experiences of Russian Enslaved Captives in Central Asia in the First Half of the 19th Century.” Journal of Global Slavery 2 (2017), 44-71.