Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | March 10, 2008

National territorial delimitation I

It needs to be made clear, that Central Asia just over a hundred years ago looked differently and was called differently and had absolutely different form of division. Important events for Central Asia are late 19th-century occupation of Central Asian region by Russian forces and Russo-British relationships at those times, as they negotiated the outer borders of present five-post-soviet ‘Stan-Republics’. The 18th-century map of Central Asia would show only three state-like organisations in southern part of present Central Asia, namely Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand Emirates, which Dadabaev prefers calling ‘multiethnic city-states’ (Dadabaev 2004: 132). Obviously there were no boundaries, as linear divisions between these Emirates/Khanates. But I would assume this wasn’t much necessary because these emirates were separated by deserts, and formed three distinct oases. I have to make these assumptions driving from my own experience, as I could not find any information about the nature of frontiers of Central Asian Khanates of 19th century. Dadabaev, for instance, in his subsection on ‘pre-revolutionary borders and frontiers’, does not mention anything about the nature of frontiers in pre-Russian period. It is quite misleading as the name of the section suggests that the main focus is in pre-revolutionary borders, where they were and if there were any. But all he mentions is the first penetration of tsarist Russia took place in 1860s and that was the time when the real delimitation of the region begins (Dadabaev 2004: 132).

Prior to the Soviet intrusion the Central Asian map looked differently too. Major changes occurred when in the end of 19th century Tsarist Russian forces occupied the region, leaving behind Bukhara and Khiva Khanates (Emirates) reduced to a status of vassal city-states and Kyrgyz steppes in the north transformed into Turkestan Governorate-General (Dadabaev 2004: 132). According to Dadabaev, the region was thereafter administered by Russia (ibid.). The 1917 October revolution provoked further changes in territoriality of Central Asia, namely new autonomous republics appeared on the map. In 1918, “following Bolshevik militarygains in southern Central Asia, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the Turkistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (TASSR)” (ibid. 133). Shortly thereafter (1920), Khiva and Bukharan People’s Soviet Socialist Republics were established, which were then, later renamed into Khorezmian and Bukharian Soviet Socialist Republics, respectively (ibid.).

In 1924 Moscow decided to restructure the region through dividing it into different Soviet republics along the ethnic lines (Bergne 2007: 39). Both Bergne (ibid. 40), and Sengupta (2002) agree that the region was divided into nation states in order to provide ‘counter weight’ to ever growing popularity of Pan-Turkism in the region. As Bergne puts it: “What subtler way to frustrate the influence of the pan-Turkists than to create new ‘nationalities’, each with its own language, which might indeed be of Turkic origin, but whose differences from Turkish could be emphasised in the linguistic engineering of Soviet philologists?” Indeed, as Oliver Roy notes “territories, borders, capitals and even languages, at least in written form, are the invention or the fiction of the Soviet regime in the years 1920-1930” (O. Roy, in Alimov 2005: 253). Moreover, Sovietisation was seen as a solution for ethnic pluralism and potential tensions. According to Bergne, Georgiy Safarov, a member of the Turkestan Commission, suggested that “the only way to get rid of the ethnic tensions which were endemic in the region was “Sovietisation” through the creation of autonomous republics for the different ethnic groups” (Bergne 2007: 41).


  1. Interesting stuff, and while Bergne is certainly one of the only authors who has written solely on Tajikistan, I’d be careful about using his work. It is poorly cited and poorly edited, with confusing contradictory references to territorial definitions, etc., throughout the book. On borders in pre-colonial times: my sense from reading is actually that borders between the khanates were not well defined; there was enough smalltime warring back and forth between the Bukharan emir and his subordinate khans, and also the Afghan rulers south of the Panj river, that territory was shifting back and forth from ruler to ruler quite often. And of course this all is in line with pre-nation-state thinking about territory: not only identity but statehood was much more fluid in this line of thinking.

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