Jul 29, 2006

Book Review: The Modern Uzbeks: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present


The Modern Uzbeks Allworth, Edward A.

Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1990, 410 pages

Allworth is Emeritus Professor of Turco-Soviet Studies at Columbia University, and he was the director of the Center for the Study of Central Asia as well as director of the Program on Soviet Nationality Problems. The Modern Uzbeks considers the historical origins of the Central Asian people, and discusses their efforts to pursue autonomy and independence under the Soviet system. While the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 might make this text appear outdated, Allworth’s synthesis remains the definitive source for a historical and cultural overview of the Uzbek nation.

The Uzbeks are a Turkic-language people of Central Asia who comprise the majority population of the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, and significant Uzbek populations can be found in Afghanistan, Tajikstan, and other Asian nations. Allworth first focused on the controversy involving the historical origins of the designation Uzbek as a term of self-identification and as a term used by outsiders for group identity. While the people who make up the modern Uzbek population can trace their roots back several millenia, the term Uzbek itself began to be used by Tatar tribesmen in the fourteenth century; they were followers of a descendant of Ghengis Khan, Ghiyath ad-Din Muhammad Uzbek Khan.

Allworth notes, however, that some historians and linguists argue that Uzbek might actually be derived from a combination of the Turkic reflexive pronoun öz (self) and the noble title of bek, creating a new term that could be translated roughly as “one’s own master.” More problematic for historians, however, is the historical tendency of Central Asian people to self-describe according to the name of the leader at a given time, and the use of Uzbek as an eponymous group identity has varied since the fourteenth century. Even more confusing for historians is the fact that the term Uzbek was used by Persian scribes as a general pejorative to describe foreign invaders, much the way that Europeans used the word "barbarian" in the medeival and early modern eras.

Allworth argued that one of the most important leaders of the Uzbeks was Abul-Fath Muhammad Shaybaniy Khan, who ruled from 1451-1510. Shaybaniy fought successful campaigns against Zahir-ud-din Mohammad Babur, founder of the Mogul Empire. In 1505 he captured Samarkand, while taking Herat in 1507. More importantly, the military, political, and cultural contributions of the Uzbek leader created the enduring idea of an Uzbek nation, which survived until the presnt day.

Allworth traced the relationship between the Russians and the Uzbeks to a series of trade missions in the late 16th century. Within a few generations of Shaybani Khan's death, the Uzbek state had split into three major khanates centered in Bukhara, Khiva (Khwarazm), and Kokand (Qoqan). The Russian tsars, however, did not view the Uzbek khanates as “equals” in the way that they accepted the Persians and Turks, and over the next two centuries became increasingly hostile toward the Uzbeks. Furthermore, the rise of Russia as an imperial state under Peter the Great coincided with a period of decline in the Uzbek khanates, and by the 1730s, argued Allworth, Uzbek leaders “subsisted on fantasies of grandeur from a more glorious past.”

Uzbekistan mapLeft: Map of modern Uzbekistan

Allworth places the eventual defeat of the Uzbek khanates not on the might of the Russian imperial army, but rather in the hands of Nasrullah Bahadur-Khan, amir of Bukhara. He described Nasrullah as “universally hated and feared,” and saw as pivotal in the decline of the Uzbek khanates Nasrullah’s destruction of Kokand in 1841-42. In additon to his ill-designed imperial moves, Nasrullah appointed foreigners to positions of authority in the government while attempting to reestablish traditional tribal leaders in outlying areas, thus increasing the “vulnerability of the periphery to outside incursions.” Nasrullah’s “most negative legacy,” according to Allworth, may have been his son Muzaffar, who “combined stupidity and stubbornness to his father’s cruelty.”

The author devoted several chapters to the disintegration of khanate structures during the imperial Russian and Soviet eras, as well as to the imposition of new, externally-created social, political, and economic structures. Reform-minded Uzbeks initially embraced the post-1905 creation of the state Duma, at least until setas for Turkistan were revoked in 1907. This prompted the new khans in Khiva and Bukhara in 1910 to begin a process of aligning more closely with the tsar in an effort to create a unified authoritarian Russian empire, and reformists slowly built support that culminated in the creation of a Khwarazmian state on April 17, 1917.

The newly-won independence of a democratic Uzbek, however, was short-lived; by 1917 the Soviets had created an all-encompssing Autonomous Turkistan Republic (ATR), which contained dozens of ethnic groups and stretched across much of the southern steppe. This proved to be unwieldly, and the Soviet government created the Uzbek SSR in 1924. Allworth argued that this proved to be both a blessing and a curse for Uzbek intellectuals, who were able to recreate a sense of a unified Uzbek nation while simultaneously finding themselves a constituent segment of the Soviet Empire. The Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic (UzSSR) began its existence as a theretical framework into which the politicians of Moscow expected the leaders in Samarkand and the other principal cities to fit appropriate content.

The Soviet era, thus, became one in which state-decreed ethnicities were imposed upon groups, irrespective of whether the people in that particular geographic region self-identified in the “official” manner. Efforts to preserve the cultural heritage found in literary languages such as Chaghatai became seen as counterrevolutionary acts, and intellectuals who deviated from the state-imposed Uzbekistani language, culture, and history were rooted out and imprisoned; some notable figures, such as professor Abdalrauf Fitrat, were executed. Allworth, writing from 1987-90, noted that the Soviets never “solved” the problem of ethnicities, and astutely predicted that regional ethnicities would eventually reasset themselves.

Abdalrauf FitratLeft: Uzbek intellectual Abdalrauf Fitrat

The author drew from a tremendous amount of archival material, pulling from Arabic, Persian, Soviet, Chinese, Hindu, Turkish and European sources. It appears that Allworth has written fluency in more than a dozen languages, and his ability to not only translate but to pick up rhetorical subtleties is simply phenomenal. Readers, though, need to be prepared to keep up with the wide-ranging material that crosses not only sub-fields in history but also incorporates archaeology, linguistics, and anthropology in its efforts to capture the essence of the Uzbek peoples.

Allworth arranged the material in thematic fashion, but readers should be forewarned that regular textual detours are taken by the author throughout the book. Sections that appear to be devoted to narrative history suddenly find Allworth exploring the historical writings of Safavid scribes, or Timurid commentary on the Uzbeks as “enemies and immigrants.” The author also devoted a significant portion of the text to the writings of Shaybaniy Khan, who was also a poet and trained in an Islamic madrassah. Passages such as the following were used to illustrate the historical influence of Shaybaniy on later Uzbek leaders and philosophers:
O shepherd, even if thy enemy be the hero of the age,
Perturbations will be lifted with good deeds.
Thou didst not wrong the Timurid princes.
The Lord surely will not wrong the tribes who are good.
Thy goodness with Yunus Khan’s progeny was proper,
For they acted wrongly and finally found retribution.
The Modern Uzbeks is no simple chronological examination of the history of the Uzbek people, and Allworth frequently delved in challenging analysis of the intellectual history and literature of Uzbekistan. Prior knowledge of Asian history, Islamic culture, and linguistic studies are helpful in understanding this text. For those readers willing to travel down such arcane intellectual pathways with Allworth, the journey is rewarding.

1 comment:

historymike said...

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