TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 8.12. Framed Knowledge as an obstacle for creativity and transition of societies
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Farhad Atai (University of Tehran)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Forging Soviet Identity in Central Asia

Farhad Atai (University of Tehran, Iran)



The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was a turning point in the history of the 20th century. Collapse of empires has always been accompanied by major upheavals. That of the Soviet Empire was no exception. It came about as a result of external pressures, such as the rivalry and arms race with the West, as well as internal forces. But, the internal forces were mainly in the western republics of the empire neighboring Europe. Central Asia is one of the regions which was most affected by the Soviet collapse. The fact that Central Asian peoples of the Soviet Union had almost nothing to do with the breakup of that empire means that these peoples had not anticipated independence. They were, thus, catapulted, without preparation, into the international system of the 20th century based on interaction of nation-states. 

One and a half decade later, Russia has managed to pull itself together, and seems to be on the path of becoming a major regional, if not global, power again. Thanks to extensive energy resources, Russia has redefined its economic relations with the outside world and its neighbors, especially with Western Europe. Even though major problems persist in its southern republics, such as Chechnya in the Caucasus, Moscow has been able to put Russia back on its feet after the Soviet Empire's collapse in the early 1990s. The same could not be said about the newly independent Central Asian Republics. After their unexpected independence, these countries have started moving along the arduous path of redefining their identity, finding their place in the international community, and starting the long and complicated process of nation-building.

Nation-building, in its modern sense, is a European phenomenon that emerged out of Europe's experience in the Renaissance, and with the French and industrial Revolutions. Nation-building, as the name suggests, however, entails an attempt to "build” such a community, rather than taking it for granted. While essential elements for building a nation, such as common language, history, and geography, could be objectively defined, some other elements of it are subjective. Thus, a people making a nation needs to create their own legends, national heroes, etc., which would distinguish them from other peoples and societies. The long history of Central Asia, the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual character of the region, in addition to the seventy-year rule of communism, have made nation-building even more complicated.

Soviet Identity in Central Asia

Central Asia was introduced to a particular version of ethnic-based nationality under the Soviets in the 1920s. The question over the true nature of 'the people' (narod) had derived largely from German Romanticism (the idea of the Volk). It took on a Marxist character after the 1917 Revolution. It was suggested that 'the people' was "a natural ethnic entity, in the process of becoming and defined principally by its language.” (1) The year 1924 saw the dissolution of all the preceding administrative entities and a complete rewriting of the map of Central Asia, on the basis of 'one ethnic group, one territory'.” This was the first time that a colonial power forged not only countries, but also languages, national histories, folklores and literatures. "The ethnic group in question was not first defined by scientific analysis and then given administrative status. On the contrary, first it got its status, and then it was up to the experts to find it a post facto scientific foundation.” (2)

In theory, any people defined by a language constituted a 'nationality' (natsionalnost), which was granted an administrative status in keeping with its level of development. Peoples that had reached the level of nation (natsya), because they have a capitalist mode of production and a market, were given the status of soviet socialist republic (SSR). Less developed peoples were given, in descending order, the status of autonomous soviet socialist republic (ASSR), autonomous region (AR, or oblast) and national territory (NT, or okrug). (3)

Therefore, during the Soviet Union, it was that Central Eurasia saw the most comprehensive attempt by the State to redefine the peoples' sense of identity as members of such a grand political unit. This was arguably the most ambitious project in human history, where, based on a totalitarian ideology, the State attempted to forge a new and common identity among millions of peoples in an empire. At the heart of this endeavor was the attempt to create a Soviet citizen conscious of his "distinct” ethnic identity while maintaining his political loyalty to the Soviet State. This two-pronged attempt had as much to do with Marxist-Leninist ideology of the State as with the idea of romantic nationalism that had emerged in 19th century Europe and continued through the 20th century. In Central Asia, in particular, it seems to have served an important purpose. The emergence of unifying ideologies of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism in the region undermined the Soviet Marxist agenda of bringing all the peoples under the umbrella of the socialist state. Emphasizing the ethnic "distinctions” of each people undermined its tendency towards Islam or Turkish identity.

From a different perspective, in Central Asia, this project was of particular significance as it ran contrary to the long history of that region's cohabitation of cultures and identities. For centuries, Central Asia was one of the major centers of human civilization and a nexus for international trade. It boasted a fascinating civilization and a rich cultural heritage. Art and culture had flourished in Central Asia in a process characterized by close interaction with the art and culture of the neighboring peoples. Central Asia has been unique in its history of extensive intermingling and productive interaction among its cultures. This marvelous coexistence of various cultures has been the hallmark of the region since ancient times. It was in this region that both sedentary and nomadic lifestyles, various religions and ideologies, (from Islam to Shamanism) and numerous ethnicities (Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, ...) and major civilizations and languages (Turkic, Persian, ...) lived together benefiting from each other, enriching the culture of the region as a whole. (4)

It was the division of the region into distinct ethnic-based national entities in the 1920 that laid the foundations for the emergence of independent nation-states after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. Yet, throughout the Soviet period loyalty to and citizenship of the Soviet Union superseded local and ethnic loyalties and these divisions were merely administrative tools within the empire. (5)

State-Managed Art and Culture

A critical element in the Soviet project was the creation of a comprehensive system of control over artistic and cultural activities throughout the Soviet Union. This state-managed apparatus was to inculcate in the people the sense of Soviet identity. During seventy years of communist rule, an elaborate system was created with its own institutions to centrally manage, support, and direct art and culture in the Soviet Empire. A unique outlook provided the basis for the development of a comprehensive system of artistic and cultural activities throughout the Soviet Union. An important feature of the system was its uniformity, with similar institutions in each republic and central control from Moscow.

During seventy years of socialist rule there was substantial state support for artistic and cultural activities. The support was universal, covering both indigenous and Western art and culture. Western classical music, opera, ballet, theater, and cinema were introduced to the region in the 1930s. Students were sent to conservatories in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. Others were trained under Russian masters in their own republics. Indigenous art and culture, too, received attention; systematic study of folklore was undertaken and traditional songs and dances were recorded and performed professionally. Russian choreography was incorporated into traditional dances, and elements of Western music, such as orchestration and harmonization, were introduced into the traditional music. 

There was one exception: religious art was forcefully opposed. Thus, calligraphy, Islamic architecture, and the maintenance of historical monuments of religious significance suffered tremendously under the Soviets. Furthermore, the changing of the alphabet to Cyrillic in the 1930s dealt a severe blow to the languages and literatures of the Central Asian peoples, bringing about the eventual weakening of those languages. 

The Status of Artists in Society

The Soviets created a solid infrastructure and specific criteria for artistic and cultural activities. Within this framework, professional artists enjoyed a privileged life. The State - the sole patron of art - commissioned their work and rewarded them liberally with bonuses, vacations in seaside resorts and trips throughout the Soviet Union and abroad. Obviously, producing art congruent with the state ideology was the precondition for receiving such benefits. A very important element of the system was the job security granted to artists, freeing them from anxieties concerning unemployment and the retirement years. 

Under the Soviet system accomplished artists were granted honorary titles. In addition to prestige, the titles brought them extra pay and privileges. The honorary titles were as follows:

The procedure was as follows: Each year, artistic groups (orchestras, theaters, etc.) nominated one or more of their members. Upon approval of the Artists' Association, the nominations went to the ministry of culture. The ministry in turn introduced the nominee(s) to the office of the president that confers the honors. There was a similar system for honoring accomplished writers and poets. 

For seventy years, artists were born to a system in which the state acted as the "elder brother”, providing them with housing, money, and job security. The "elder brother” was responsible for planning, budgeting, and overseeing artistic and cultural activities. 


Major Institutions of Art and Culture

Artistic and cultural activities took place in various institutions, the most important of which were the Filarmoni, the state radio and television, the houses of culture, the artists' and writers' associations, academies of science, public libraries, and museums. The ministry of culture and the executive committees in each town and village were responsible for the administration of such activities at the macro and micro levels, respectively.

Ministry of Culture

The ministry of culture was the most important institution involved in artistic and cultural activities. It was responsible for planning, budgeting, administration, and coordination of all such activities. Because of the absence of the private sector, the ministry was the main employer of artists. Since independence, certain activities in the private sector are being experienced in some republics. This is by no means the norm, however, and such activities will continue to be in state hand for a long time to come. There were amateur musicians, dancers, and artists in villages and small towns, but even their activities were facilitated and supported by the state. Ministries in each republic acted as branches of the ministry of culture of the Soviet Union. Most planning, budgeting and coordination was done in Moscow.

The ministry had various directorates general and departments charged with overseeing and administration of a wide range of activities. Typically the ministry of culture had departments in charge of people's productions (handicrafts, and traditional arts produced in small towns and villages), museums and public libraries, amusement parks, orchestras, and dance groups.

Houses of Culture

Houses of culture were the cornerstone of Soviet cultural policy. They were founded in every town and village as centers for social gathering and meeting, where state-sponsored activities could take place. Houses of culture varied in size and in terms of the facilities they offer. A house of culture had one or more auditoriums for amateur performers, meeting room(s), a vocational training center, and a library. In the villages, amateur actors and musicians could borrow costumes and musical instruments during their performance at the house.

State Filarmoni

The State Filarmoni was a unique institution found in all the republics. It housed various orchestras, music ensembles, and dance groups - both traditional and Western. It was the main center for performing art. Typically, the Filarmoni was situated in a majestic building in the capital, and had facilities for rehearsal and performing of art.

State Radio and Television

The state radio and television occupied a critical position in the Soviet Union. It was an invaluable tool at the hands of the state in shaping public opinion and influencing people's culture. It remains an important institution in the newly independent states. In most republics the state radio and television had its own orchestras and dance groups, which occasionally performed live concerts. Because of the importance attached to this institution, the state radio and television was always independent of the ministry of culture, being directly under the supreme council and receiving its budget from the military and communications establishments. The president of the state radio and television had the status of a minister. 

Academies of Sciences and State Universities

Academies carried out research in various fields whereas state universities were primarily responsible for education.

Artists' and Writers' Association

These associations were in effect parts of the government, playing a critical role in regulating the activities and lives of the artistic and literary community. The associations' dual role as both advocate of the literary and the artistic community and as the state's censoring agency was particularly interesting. In the post-Soviet era each independent republic's Association remains an important institution and is likely to remain so for a long time to come

Implications for the Future of Central Asia

Central Asia today is undergoing an unprecedented transformation and is dealing with a range of pressing issues, from religious extremism to narcotics trade. Among these, the project of defining new national identities undertaken by the post-independence regimes of the region merits particular attention. The way this project is handled will have a decisive bearing on the future of Central Asia. Forging of new national identities in Central Asia, on the other hand, is closely linked to the region's past, especially to the Soviet period when every aspect of artistic and cultural activities of the Empire was "managed” by the State. In a way, the current nation-building project undertaken by the region's nationalistic leaders is a continuation of what was initiated in the 1920s. The difference is that it is now devoid of the Soviet element and is based on ethnic identity instead.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to an end the extensive cooperation and exchange in art and culture that existed under that empire. The trend in the region of the past decade since gaining independence has been placing emphasis on differences between the nations and reiterating the uniqueness of each country. This is a trend strongly influenced by nationalist tendencies, rather than the shared historical experience and culture of these peoples, mentioned above. Boundaries marking the various republics within the empire, which only served as administrative divisions under the Soviet system are fast becoming rigid national borders excluding others and inhibiting interaction and travel among people.

Ironically, Europe that introduced nationalism to the world is moving toward integration and lowering of national boundaries. This process is further enhanced - both in Europe and the rest of the world - as a result of globalization. Thus the enthusiastic embracing of romantic nationalism by the central Asian region comes at a time when the rest of the world is moving in the other direction. The outcome of the trend that appears to gain momentum in the region remains questionable at best. It would indeed be regrettable if Central Asia abandoned its time tested and rich tradition of dialogue and intermingling among its cultures in favor of an exclusive national agenda. Aside from the predictable political consequences, the rich culture of the region is bound to suffer.



Incidentally, it is the very domain of cultural activities that can, while preserving the national identity of each republic, play a critical role in continuation and promotion of dialogue and interaction among the New Independent States, preventing these countries from drifting apart. History has shown that maintaining contact between peoples enhances understanding among governments and reduced causes for tension and conflict. In Central Asia today culture becomes relevant in a peculiar way. This has to do with the way culture was "managed” for seventy years by the State under the Soviet system. Never in the history of mankind had culture been planned, financed, and executed by the State in such a large scale. (6)

Within that system, art and culture ran across the Soviet republics benefiting every citizen of the empire. Regular tour of artistic groups and performing arts in the Soviet Union were organized. Close cooperation existed between conservatories and other schools throughout the region. Students from the whole region, and indeed the Soviet Union, were accepted to and graduated from art schools, and conservatories in the empire.

What is of importance is the institutions of culture that have remained in the republics as a legacy of the Soviet rule can be used as a means of promotion and continuation of cultural exchange. Moscow's central control has vanished, but the system with its institutions continues to operate in the newly Independent States. (7) With varying degrees, the same philosophy underlies artistic and cultural activities in the Central Asian republics, albeit within national borders. Similar institutions, shared (Russian) language, the common background and training of those involved in art and culture provide a favorable environment for extensive cooperation and exchange between Central Asian countries.

* Paper presented to the Conference on Knowledge, Creativity and Transformations of Societies, INST, Vienna 6-9 December 2009



1 This ethnic approach had first appeared in Russia in the 19th century, under the Tsars. The first step was the recognition of a Tatar language and culture for Tatars who had converted to Orthodoxy; the Russians created a Cyrillic Tatar alphabet for their use (whereas the Muslim Tatars used an Arabic alphabet). A Tatar 'nation' was thus recognized. See Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia; the Creation of Nations, London, NY, 2000. p. 54
2 Ibid., p. 61
3 Ibid., pp. 64-65. "Each of these levels had a matching administrative status. The SSRs had all the external signs of statehood: a head of state (the president of the soviet), a minister of foreign affairs (after 1944), a flag, a national anthem etc. The ASSRs had a soviet, whose president was not a head of state, a cabinet that dealt with technical matters, but no minister for foreign affairs; they had a national language which was used in primary and secondary schooling, but not university in that language, and their academy of sciences was only a sub-section of the academy of the soviet republic which includes them, in the same way that their local communist party is a branch of the 'national' party”.
4 See Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge, 1989, pp. 414-437.
5 For more on national and ethnic identity in Central Asia under the Soviet Union see Lewis, Robert A., Rowland, Richard H., and Clem, Ralph S., "Modernization, Population Change and nationality in Soviet Central Asia and Kazakhstan”, in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Vol. XVII, Nos. 2&3, Summer and Fall 1975, pp. 288-293. Also see Ro'I, Yaacov; "The Soviet and Russian Context of the Development of Nationalism in Soviet Central Asia”, Cahiers du Monde russe et sovietique, XXXII 910, janvier-mars 1991, pp. 123-142.
6 For an in-depth look at how art and culture were managed under the Soviet system, see "State-Managed Art and Culture; the Case of Central Asia under the Soviet Union”, by the author in Culture, Society, and Politics in Central Asia and India, N. N. Vohra ed., Delhi 1999.
7 See "Post-Soviet Art and Culture in Central Asia” by the author in The Anthropology of East Europe Review (Special Issue: Out of the Ruins: Cultural Negotiations in the Soviet Aftermath), Vol. 16, No 2, Autumn, 1998.

8.12. Framed Knowledge as an obstacle for creativity and transition of the societies

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