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Unsettled Deep in Asia

Unsettled Deep in Asia

Ali Igmen (left) of CSU Long Beach and Arash Khazeni of Claremont McKenna College discuss ethnic identity in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, descriptions of Turkmen nomads from Persian sources, and other Central Asian topics. (Photo by Kevin Matthews)

With a film screening and a panel discussion, the UCLA Asia Institute and partners launch a Central Asia Initiative. The goal is to understand societies and cultures long on the fringes of study. Anticipating a UCLA conference in October 2008, historians on the panel ask what changed on the steppes of Central Asia as states acquired the means to move and deport whole peoples, and as nomads increasingly stayed put.

It is futile to argue that any part of the world has its own autonomous history.

By Kevin Matthews, Senior Writer

With a panel discussion on migration and mobility in Central Asia and the Los Angeles premiere of a documentary about the legacy of Stalin's mass deportation of ethnic Koreans to the region, UCLA on Wednesday, May 14, 2008, launched its first formal, interdisciplinary effort to study the societies and cultures of Central Asia. About 90 people attended the two public events, sponsored by the Asia Institute, the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, and the Center for Korean Studies. Y. David Chung, co-director of the documentary, Koryo Saram: the Unreliable People, spoke to both audiences.

The UCLA Central Asia Initiative will include annual conferences, speaking events, and public outreach. This summer, faculty members from the Asia Institute, CEES, and other universities will lead two weeks of training for 6th, 7th, and 10th grade history and social studies teachers. The first one-day academic conference, to be held on October 18, will focus on the mobility and governability of peoples in the region. Defined broadly, this extends from the Caspian Sea to eastern Mongolia, including most of the steppes of Eurasia and at least touching Russia, China, India, and Iran.

On Wednesday, Chung, a visual and performance artist who directs Korean studies at the University of Michigan, explained that the deportation of Koreans from Far East Russia was part of a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing under Stalin and represented an administrative and logistical "feat." In 1937, the engineers of this cleansing caused essentially all of the 200,000 Koreans—the group had immigrated in the 19th and early 20th centuries—to be loaded onto trains for a 3,700-mile westward journey and then dumped on unsettled portions of the steppes. With recovered footage and interviews of Koreans in Kazakhstan, the award-winning film follows the story to the present day.

At the afternoon panel discussion, historians presented aspects of an initiative that will involve anthropologists, geographers, archaeologists, and others. Its steering committee is chaired by Nile Green, a new associate professor of history at UCLA who writes about Islam and South Asia. In introductory remarks, Green noted that the Central Asia Initiative "is explicitly not a domain just for specialists." Frequently, in economic and military and other histories, the region has been looked at as a space between civilizations, with scholars sometimes lingering on its herders, traders, raiders, and pilgrims in order to understand the reach of faraway bureaucracies.

That tradition is likely to continue in some self-conscious form, in part because many source materials on Central or Inner Asian come from the surrounding empires. At the panel, Arash Khazeni of Claremont McKenna College used Persian sources to talk about Turkmen pastoral nomads in the 18th and 19th centuries. He acknowledged that those writings treat the Turkmen as "untamed inhabitants of a wild landscape." From the audience, Adrienne Edgar of UC Santa Barbara observed that Russian writers regarded the Turkmen in much the same way, also emphasizing their role in the region's slave trade.

Another historian, Ali Igmen of CSU Long Beach, shared findings from his research into the maintenance of Kyrgyz ethnic identity under the Soviets, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. He said that the Kyrgyz used local Soviet "clubs," which had been set up as venues for Bolshevik ideology, as "houses of culture" to negotiate "Kyrgyz-ness within the limits of Soviet citizenship." Their public performances, for example, nearly always incorporated local traditions.

Serving as respondent at the panel, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Doshi Professor of History at UCLA and director of the Center for India and South Asia, sought to describe some of the goals of studies of Central and Inner Asia such as Khazeni's and Igmen's. Citing another historian (and explicitly rejecting the notion that Central Asians are "not civilized"), Subrahmanyam said that the basic problem scholars face is how to tell the stories of "areas not defined … as civilizations."

To nods from the panel, he said that the solution is probably not to attempt to construct a history of Central Asia "on its own terms, with its own wellsprings, with its own internal logic." Rather, the challenge is to get past the idea of civilizations and tell a world history that is genuinely interactive, with influences brought to bear from many corners and with the actors in the story given their due.

"It is futile to argue that any part of the world has its own autonomous history," remarked Subrahmanyam.

The UCLA International Insitute will support the Oct. 18 conference on Mobility and Governability in Central Asia with a $10,000 grant. The conference will be cosponsored by the Asia Institute and CEES.

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Published: Monday, May 19, 2008