Jul 17, 2006

Book Review: Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union

Islamic Peoples of the Soviet UnionAkiner, Shirin

London: Kegan Paul International, 1983, 462 pages

Akiner is an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and teaches at the University of London, specializing in Central Asian Studies. Akiner also found herself in an uncomfortable media spotlight in 2005 for a report on the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan, in which she shifted blame away from the government of Islam Karimov. The author developed Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union in order to address the need for a comprehensive, encyclopedic reference text for scholars working in fields related to the history of Russia, Central Asia, or the Soviet Union. While the fall of the Soviet Union might, at first glance, make this text seem outdated, Akiner’s text remains an excellent source for detailed information about the dozens of ethnic groups included in the regions that made up the former USSR.

Akiner used the political boundaries of the various government entities of the former Soviet Union as logical categorization units, grouping peoples first by presence in Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR), Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSR, or nations that had limited autonomy within the main Soviet republics), Autonomous Provinces (AP, or oblasti), and Autonomous Regions (AR, or okrugi). The author dedicated the first section of the book to a thorough summary of the political organization and demographics of the USSR, making the later chapters considerably more accessible to general readers who lack previous familiarity with the complicated structure of the former Soviet Union.

The author provided linguistic analysis for each of the ethnic groups profiled in the text, describing linguistic families, related languages, and demographic analysis of the extent to which the language was used by a given group. Data was also assembled for any second languages – such as Russian – spoken by members of the group. In the case of the Karachai, for example, Akiner noted that the language belongs to the West Turkic group, the Kipchak-Polovtsian sub-group, and that Karachai is most closely related to the Kumyk and Nogai languages. The text also contains information on dialects, written scripts, and the extent to which a given language is used in print and broadcast media.

Akiner included historical summaries for each group profiled in the text. The length of the various histories varied with the relative importance of each group as well as the availability of source material; groups with long literary traditions, such as the Uzbeks, received fairly lengthy narrative coverage, while smaller groups for which little historical information exists, such as the Godoberins, have little in the way of historical narrative. Also included in the text was a lengthy chronology of Russian, Central Asian, Caucasus, and Siberian events, which would be quite helpful for a reader unfamiliar with the history of these regions. The author drew from Russian, European, Central Asian, and Chinese sources for the text, and used a cross-disciplinary approach that included material from fields as diverse as economics, education, and linguistics.

Map of Islamic peoples in the former Soviet UnionLeft: Click on map for larger image

Perhaps the area in which this book most excels is in the sheer volume of well-organized demographic information, much of which is produced in a table format for simplification. Drawing from Soviet and (where they are extant) Russian census material, Akiner assembled an impressive collection of statistical information about the profiled ethic groups. In addition to basic literacy figures, for example, the author broke down educational data by sex, primary schooling, secondary schooling, higher education, and the rates of literacy in Russian versus indigenous languages. Demographic information was collected regarding the relative distribution by region and SSR for each group, as well as percentages of population for each group in relation to the total population of the SSR/AP/AR. In areas where demographic data might have overlapped, Akiner was quick to note the discrepancies and make adjustments to the tables. The author, for example, noted that the Krjasheny were included as “Tatars” in Soviet censuses conducted in 1959, 1970, and 1979, and backed out these population totals for tabular accuracy.

Map of Islamic peoples in the former Soviet UnionLeft: Click on Central Asian map for larger image

In keeping with its focus on Islamic ethnic groups, the text provides detailed information about the religious composition of the profiled groups. In the book’s introduction Akiner incorporated a concise overview of Islam, and readers need not worry about possessing a background in the historical Muslim world. Not only are the Sunni and Shia demographics tabulated, but the text delves further into the subdivisions of the diverse jurisprudential schools – such as Jafari, Hanafi, and Shafi – that exist within the various branches of Islam. Demographic information is provided on the number of mosques that existed in each area during the period of Soviet dominance, as well as information on the organizational structure of both the state Spiritual Directorates and the community of believers. The author included additional narrative about groups in which the historical presence of the Sufi movement was notable, such as the Daghestanis.

Non-Muslim Turkic peoples of the former Soviet Union are described in a lengthy appendix, and the author also went to great effort to estimate the numbers of people in various ethnic groups who happened to live outside the Soviet Union in nations such as Iran, Turkey, and China. Akiner also described the historical origins of the arrival of Islam to the various groups, offering traditional historical summaries as well as – where available – oral historical information from representatives of the faith communities.

Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union does suffer from a few minor flaws. As a work that first appeared in 1983, Akiner’s text was unable to make use of the enormous amount of archival material that was locked away from Western researchers during Soviet rule, as well as important secondary studies by Soviet historians. Newer transliteration standards are not incorporated, leaving readers to grapple with alternate spellings such as “Tadzhik” for “Tajik” or “Azerbaidzhani” for “Azerbaijani.” In a revised, post-Soviet edition, Akiner might want to include more detail on the social history of the various groups, as too often the summaries are limited to discussions of agriculture and industry.

Yet the book remains a fascinating collection of information about the wide variety of Turkic-, Iranian-, and Caucasian-speaking peoples who comprised the umbrella category of “Islamic” ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union. This reviewer, for example, knew of the forced relocation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944, but nothing of the simultaneous deportation of the Chechen, Ingush, and other ethnic groups who were collectively accused of being traitors in World War II, despite participating in the campaigns against the Germans.

Akiner also served Western readers well by supplying modern geographic equivalents for outdated Greco-Roman terms such as Transoxiana or Bactria, which still find their way into historical discourse. While one will hardly become an expert after finishing this text, the book serves researchers well as a ready reference to the complexity that is the history of Islam in the Russo-Soviet Empire. Finally, in an era in which the Central Asian, Transcaucasian, and Siberian territories of the former Soviet Union play an increasingly important role in geopolitics, Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union can serve as an excellent primer for an understanding of the diverse ethnic groups who occupy regions that contain the world’s most treasured resource: oil.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a useful book, Mike.

Hooda Thunkit said...

"Sounds like a useful book, Mike."

Especially in today's world...

Anonymous said...

SOAS Academic Shirin Akiner is Uzbekistan regime agent

Watch the video and complain to her boss!



Her boss:

Professor Paul Webley, Director and Principal of SOAS

Email Address: pw2@soas.ac.uk
Telephone: 0207 898 4014
Fax: 0207 898 4019

intro to video:
Lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, Dr Shirin Akiner has been condemned by human rights groups, liberty campaigners and Craig Murray (ex-UK Ambassador in Tashkent) as an apologist for brutal Uzbek dictator President Karimov. This short report on the Andijan massacre concludes with an interview with Dr Akiner in which she attempts to downplay and justify the horrific murderers by Karimov's regime.