A Land Divided: The disappearance of an artificial border in Central Asia is plausible for the first time in 70 years


A Land Divided: The disappearance of an artificial border in Central Asia. is plausible for the first time in 70 years.

In their passion to define strict borders and discrete nationstates, the imperial powers of the twentieth century have divided indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia, separated families and friends, and split fragile cultures already endangered by industrialization and environmental decay. The modern borders of the Soviet empire isolated many peoples from their regional and cultural relatives. Thus, in the southeast of the South Union, the border with China divided two culturally similar Islamic regions that together encompass over 2 million square miles, replacing a centuries-long pattern of interchange in Central Asia.

While recent events have made the world more aware of the ethnic mix of the Soviet Union, Westerners still ignore the indigenous peoples of Central Asia. Nevertheless, the fate of Central Asia is more important than ever, and the region faces a watershed. For the first time in decades, the political situation holds some hope for a rebirth of traditional cultural and economic contacts across orders. The chance for independence even means that the disappearance of the Sino-Soviet border, or at least its loosening, is plausible after 70 years of forced seclusion.

However, decades of separation and isolation have already done much damage of the region's culture. This damage may preclude either a union of Central Asia's two halves or a rebirth of its interplay of cultural influences.


Despite a cultural affinity among the people of Central Asia, the most distinguishing feature of this frontier regional is diversity. Central Asia, whether as a whole or when separated by the Sino Soviet border, is hardly homogeneous. The Soviet portion held the Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tadzhik Soviet Socialist Republics. The Chinese section is known as the Uighur Autonomous Province, or Xinjiang. Most of the area's over 58 million people are Muslims speaking various Turkic languages, though the Tadzhiks, who straddle the border, speak an Iranian language and live on both sides of the border. Even the Turkic dialects of different towns or nomadic groups are often only nominally mutually intelligible. Many local traditions also split the area, the nomadic and settled peoples have historically been divided. A long history of outside imperial and economic influences has further added to the variety of cultures.

Still, the traditions of Soviet and Chinese Central Asia long grew together, even if the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains create a natural boundary between them. Thus, the Tadzhiks have a long relationship with Central Asia's Turkish people, and nomads and settled peoples adopted and shared each other's traditions throughout the centuries. As a result of these interdependent influences, there is no one Central Asian culture but rather an association of traditions. By contrast, the idea of nationalists and nation-states emerged here only recently; instead, people have long identified with a local oasis or a nomadic tribe. Even today, Central Asian rugs are identified as Bukharan or Khotanese, signifying the oasis where they were produced.

On either side of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains, the marketplace was the arena for sharing, uniting Central Asians and allowing the traditions of each town and the region as a whole to flourish. As oases on the Silk Road, one of civilization's greatest trade routes, these towns were centers of cultural transmission. In the bazaars of the oases, the region's various people traded and sold arts and crafts among each other and with foreigners. The market allowed many Central Asians to survive for centuries as tradespeople, weaving rugs and silks and working with pottery, embroidery, and jewelry. Others fed and maintained their families by selling agricultural products in the bazaar.

The long-established trade routes also allowed Central Asians to travel between towns, which made trading more lucrative. In the bazaars of Xinjiang were merchants from oases across the mountains, and traders from what is now Chinese Central Asia would visit the marketplaces of Samarkand and Bukhara on what later became the Soviet side of the border.

This loose association of cultures prevented the total assimilation of the peoples of Central Asia even while they were ruled by foreign empires from Greece, Persia, Greater Arabia, China. The atmosphere of diversity prepared Central Asian to maintain most of their traditions without threatening foreign invaders or the traditions that came with them. At the same time, Central Asians could synthesize their own traditions with those from the outside. Thus, the influence of Chinese, Persian, Arab, and Indian traditions are evident in the wares at the bazaars, as well as in religious and cultural rituals. But the final products always bore the unique ethnic influences of the region.


Free trading between oases continued well into the twentieth century. Even after the Bolshevik revolution, when the border became gradually more fortified, people from both sides continued to visit each other, trading and sharing cultural and religious practices. Only the relatively recent control by the Soviet Union and Communist China raised the possibility of isolation, threatening the loose association of traditions in Central Asia more than have centuries of rule by other empires.

During the few decades when Soviet and Chinese Central Asia have been isolated from each other and the rest of the world, the two governments have gone to great lengths to destroy centuries-old traditions of trading and artisanship. Both governments condemned artisans and merchants as bourgeois and stopped admitting cross-border traders. In the political sphere, the Soviets and Chinese tried to instill the Western tradition of the nation-state instead of interdependent local traditions.

Other aspects of the region's culture were attacked as counter to Marcist ideas of progress. At times, Islamic institutions were prohibited on both sides of the border, and only a few state-run mosques and Muslim schools were allowed to function. Large collective farms, relying on intense irrigation, replaced the small family farms that had been sustained in the desert for centuries by carefully engineered irrigation (see "Culture and Water" on page 49).

With varying degrees of zeal and success, the Chinese and Soviet governments tried to force Han and Russian cultural traditions on Central Asians. For decades, Soviet Central Asians were forced to study Russian language and history. Likewise, in Xinjiang, people had to learn Chinese language and history. Both the Chinese and Soviets also created national histories and even written languages for various groups. This campaign in part attempted to advance the region toward a communist ideal, but it also effectively divided the vast area's population. And whatever the purpose of creating national identities, the newly established national identities, the newly established national histories, literary traditions, and written languages were founded not on actual history and traditions, but rather fulfilled the political agendas of the Soviet and Chinese governments. In creating artificial and differing national traditions for Soviet Central Asia and Chinese Xinjiang, the Communist governments erased much of the region's culture (see "From Marx to Muhammad" on page 41).

While Soviet and Chinese attacks on Central Asia's cultural legacy were similar, each government employed its own method, producing regions that now differ from each other more than ever before. This development - furthered by the closing of the Sino-Soviet border when political and ideological disputes divided China and the Soviet Union in the 1960s - threatens the survival of regional traditions. As the two areas have become isolated from each other and from trading partners in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, the role of the marketplace in fostering a diverse association of cultures has diminished. Without cross-border exchanges, local trades have become less lucrative, diminishing the number of people engaged in traditional occupations such as rug weaving, ceramics, and silk production.


The trend today appears to favor renewed contact across the Sino-Soviet border, which was reopened to trade and limited travel in the mid-1980s. With rapid changes in the Soviet Union, as well as slower ones in China, Central Asians have established cross-border contacts among local independence movements. If the new local governments attain a significant degree of self-determination, the status of the border is likely to change again. In early January 1992, the Republic of Turkmenia established diplomatic ties with China, a sign of the times.

Nevertheless, an enforced border and the changes already incurred will contribute to a continued decay of shared traditions on both sides of the Pamirs and Tien Shan. Even if all Central Asians gain independence in the near future, they may not be able to - or even want to - renew contact. The changes of the past 70 years have been so great that Chinese and Soviet Central Asians may be irreversibly alienated from each other.

A 1990 visit to both sides of the Sino-Soviet border showed me the great differences that two generations of isolation and strict control have produced. Although I met many Soviet Central Asians traveling to Chinese Xinjiang and many Chinese visiting their Soviet relatives, the political division and the changes that it had engendered overwhelmed the bonds of common blood. All the travelers shared a disappointing sense of alienation. Soviet travelers found the Chinese side dirty, poor, and culturally backward. Chinese visitors found the Soviets lacking in tradition and spiritual worth. The short period of isolation had devastated centuries of shared traditions, and the hopes for rejuvenating them seem lost in the face of twentieth-century border fortifications and the influence of the nation-state.

On the Chinese side of the border, poverty is pervasive. On the outskirts of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, squatters live in dirty mud nuts on a hillside. The Chinese have isolated Xinjiang from trading and artistry, and it is evident that if any goods are sold to foreign countries, the sales yield no hard-currency profits to local people.

The Chinese have also done little to develop Xinjiang. The Soviet government at least integrated Central Asia into the national economy and wouldn't have tolerated Xinjiang's poverty. Isolated from both the global economy and the fruits of the Chinese economy, the people of Xinjiang maintain only a meager living through local trade in the bazaars.

This poverty and social neglect is aggravated by nuclear-weapons testing near Lob-Nor in the nearby Taklamakan desert. Along with Chinese strip mining for minerals and poor irrigation techniques, these tests threaten the people of Xinjiang with environmental tragedy.

On the other hand, neglect means that the past is more alive in Xinjiang than in Soviet Central Asia. Family-run restaurants are everywhere, and the trading practices in Xinjiang bazaars are much more fruitful than in Soviet Central Asia, where the marketplace sells more cheap local imitations of Western goods than Central Asian crafts. In the Chinese city of Kashgar, merchants at the Sunday bazaar sell everything from sheep to hand-made jewelry, silk, wool carpets, and traditional clothing.

Similarly, religious worship, mostly Islamic, is more evident in Xinjiang, where every neighborhood has a mosque and it is common to meet a Haj who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Chinese Central Asians read the Koran and understand the tenets of Islam, whereas few Soviet Muslims know much of the religion of their parents and grandparents.

On the Soviet side of the border, the standard of living may be better, but artisanship and trade are all but gone. Soviet "forced employment" in government-created jobs gave Central Asian youth little time to master traditional trades. Early purges of tradesmen as "petty bourgeois" also greatly diminished traditional trades, and only a few people could work as artisans, supported - and regulated - as "national artists."

The government-run economy also led many Soviet Central Asians to give up their language in favor of the advantages of knowing Russian, one of the most blatant signs of the assimilation of Central Asians into the Russian-dominated soviet culture. With recent political developments, this trend toward assimilation is declining, and many Russified Central Asians are hastily learning their native languages. However, in abandoning Soviet culture, many young Soviet Central Asians are turning more to Western materialism and capitalism than to their own past. The attraction to Western ways has already greatly devalued Central Asian culture in the bazaars, where blue jeans are valued more highly than hand-made local crafts. The old artisans, who could have trained another generation in their skills, have almost disappeared. In Tashkent, Soviet Central Asia's largest city, the government is even building a mall-like indoor market where a traditional outdoor market has thrived for centuries.


As the former Soviet Central Asian republics join a commonwealth of states, the Chinese government must worry about the independence of its own Central Asian minorities. Newly independent Soviet Central Asians can't help but feed the hopes of Chinese Central Asians for their own autonomy. Indeed, Central Asian independence is a strong possibility on both sides of the border.

Given such a possibility, Central Asia's who halves might from a union or at least renew their strong ties, but the changes that already have occurred on each side of the Sino-Soviet border will make cultural and economic reunion much more problematic than that of Germany. In addition, years of domination by the Soviet and Chinese military-industrial complexes have left the region's economy and environment with little to contribute towards an independent state. In both China and Soviet Central Asia, the natural environment is rapidly decaying.

Such conditions make Central Asia easy prey for the type of Western economic aid that produces its own form of colonialism. It will also be vulnerable to the ever dangerous offers of Western businesses that come seeking only cheap labor and exploitable markets. Likewise, the threat of a Western cultural invasion jeopardizes local hopes for renewing indigenous traditions.

One influence that may help Central Asian culture survive is the rebirth of Islam. While it isn't indigenous to Central Asia and often contradicts the notion of equality, the presence of Islam on both sides of the border makes it attractive to many independence movements that seek to revive traditional values. On the other hand, the declining image of the Iranian revolution abroad diminishes the power of Islam to challenge Western influence. Moreover, modern Arab and other Asian states could be as expletive and destructive to an Islamic Central Asia as Western nations would be. In fact, Asian businesses have already been quicker than Westerners to capitalize on Central Asian markets.

Another regional phenomenon that could promote native culture is the tendency of many Central Asian nationalist groups to evoke pre-Islamic traditions. For example, a movement of intellectuals in Tadjikistan claims to be Zoroastrian, which was widespread in Central Asia before the Arab invasion and may even have originated here. However, this movement, and others like it, are essentially nationalist and could ultimately divide Central Asians.

Unfortunately, the creation of defined nationalities under the Chinese and Soviet governments has so altered Central Asia that ethnic tensions are now the paramount regional issue. If Central Asia emerges as a conglomeration of ethnically based nation-states, the region will be neither prosperous nor self-sufficient. It is more likely to mimic Azerbaidzhan and Armenia or Serbia and Croatia, devolving into long, bloody civil wars. A political organization in Soviet Kazakhstan that advocates reuniting the Uighur people across the Sino-Soviet border illustrates the divisiveness of nationalist politics. While this organization seeks to establish better ties among Uighurs, it also opposes the sovereignty of the Kazakhs, another Turkic and Muslim group that inhabits the same geographic area as the Uighurs. As the former Soviet Central Asian republics form new governments based on ethnic territories, it appears that nationalism will influence trends in the region for some time to come.

If Central Asia's traditional cultures are to survive, one thing that must change is the global insistence upon the institutions of the nation-state and fortified borders as a way to order peoples and regions. These Western concepts are incompatible to many regions that were forced to adopt them during two centuries of colonization.

Likewise, Central Asians must devise alternatives to the nation-state and other forms of isolation if they are to preserve their traditions and identity. A failure to develop their own options to these divisive institutions could mean wars and poverty into the next century.


Westerners can play only a minor role in preventing the cultural demise of Central Asia, in part because no large international groups advocate the region's cultural rights. Still, those concerned with the survival of indigenous cultures can find out more about the region and reflect upon its dilemma as steps toward creating political groups that promote Central Asian self-determination and oppose the automatic export of Western-style democracy.

While few English-language materials give extensive, up-to-date information on Central Asia, several American and British scholarly networks exist. The starred (*) groups publish newsletters.

Association for the Advancement of Central Asian Research*

University of Massachusetts

Box 2321

Amherst, MA 01004

Association of Central Asian Studies*

4225 Humanities Building

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Madison, WI 53706

Central Asian Studies Association*

School of Oriental and African Studies

University of London

Thornaugh St.

Russell SquareLondon, England WC1HOXG

China and Inner Asia Council

c/o Pamela K. Crossley

Dept. of History

Dartmouth College

Hanover, NH 03755

Harvard Students for Inner Asia*

9 Kirkland Pl.

Cambridge, MA 02138

Kazakh/American Research Project

c/o Jeannie Davis-Kimball

2424 Spaulding Ave.

Berkeley, CA 94703

Research Institutie for Inner Asian Studies

Indiana University

Goodbody Hall

Bloomington, IN 47405

Soviet Cultural Studies Group

Department of Anthropology

Columbia University

New York, NY 10027

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