Moritz Florin. Kirgistan und die sowjetische Moderne: 1941–1991. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015. 309 S. ISBN 978-3-8470-0313-7.
Reviewed by Claire Pogue Kaiser
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (April, 2016)
M. Florin: Kirgistan und die sowjetische Moderne
“Even in 1917, there was no Kyrgyz nation,” (p. 33) so how and to what extent did such an entity become Kyrgyz, Soviet, and modern by the end of the Soviet experiment? This question drives Moritz Florin’s important new work, “Kirgistan und die sowjetische Moderne, 1941–1991”, which takes seriously not only the nation-building capacities of the Soviet empire, but also the transformational processes of the postwar years and the leading role of what he calls “public intellectuals” with regard to the process of nation-building in that period. Florin asks, “To what extent did the Kyrgyz of the time view themselves in this period as victims of ‘the Russians’ or as forging their own fortune? In what sense did they distinguish between Russification, Europeanization, and universal modernity?” (p. 19) The main protagonists are not Kyrgyzstan’s party leaders, but rather the intellectuals, writers, and filmmakers who defined the contours of what it meant to be Kyrgyz in a modernizing outpost of the Soviet empire.
Florin’s work sheds light on a period and a locale that has received scant attention from historians. Recent work on early Soviet nation-building in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere has provided rich and granular narratives not only of the intentions of korenizatsiia, but also of the tensions unearthed in its implementation. Florin’s work builds on this body of scholarship to examine subsequent generations’ encounters with the Soviet and the national, and the ways in which these concepts were increasingly intertwined in the postwar period. This study contributes in important ways to an emerging body of scholarship on nationality in the postwar USSR.
Florin’s main narrative is bookended by what he describes as two universalizing Soviet experiences: the Second World War and perestroika. His discussion of prewar Kyrgyzstan in many ways tells a familiar korenizatsiia story, in which Soviet officials invented nations and languages, drew borders, cultivated titular cadres and intelligentsias, and promoted literacy. Yet there were some notable distinctions in the case of Kyrgyzstan: nearly the lowest percentage of titular nationalities; comparatively late introduction of higher education institutions; the brutal – and ethnicized – experience of settling nomadic populations; and the lowest proportion of executions (by Order no. 00477) during the Terror than in any other Union or Autonomous Republic.
The Second World War, in Florin’s account, was the turning point when Kyrgyz individuals began to identify as Soviet patriots – as was the case for so many Soviet citizens during the war. This process occurred not only through shared experiences in combat or a sense of a shared enemy: for Kyrgyzstan, like other areas of Central Asia, the war brought millions of forced deportees and evacuees from throughout the USSR. While Frunze (now Bishkek) could not be considered a “Kyrgyz” city at that time, the wartime population only reinforced that point, with Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, and others leading the political and intellectual life of the republican capital. In Florin’s words, “Many of the conflicts between center and periphery, between nation and Union, and between (neo)traditional and modern foundations of Soviet rule which should have emerged during the ideological campaigns of late Stalinism right up to perestroika, had their very basis in the Second World War,” (p. 43).
The main thrust of the book maps a cultural and intellectual history of postwar Kyrgyzstan onto a familiar, Moscow-led narrative: late Stalinism, the Thaw, the Khrushchev- and Brezhnev eras, and perestroika provide the political, temporal framework for Florin’s account. Yet while Florin successfully makes the case that Kyrgyzstan became Soviet through sharing in the larger experience of the Soviet project, Kyrgyzstan’s exceptions remain more revealing. For instance, Florin shows how the Thaw “for Kyrgyzstan meant the solution (via relocation) of smoldering interethnic and social conflicts since the Second World War,” (p. 89). Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaigns assumed an ethnic tint in Kyrgyzstan, as Uzbeks were regarded as representative of Muslims and Russians of Orthodox believers in the country (p. 105). The evolution of religion as a component of the “everyday” and corresponding increase in significance of ethnonational (rather than religious) categories among the republic’s populace came into being in the postwar era alongside the migration of titular citizens to urban areas – a process not unique to Kyrgyzstan, but one with local distinctions, to be sure. Furthermore, while perestroika may have been a universal experience for Soviet citizens, “for many Kyrgyz functionaries and intellectuals” Gorbachev meant not liberalization, but rather a continuity with Andropov’s intervention in republic affairs (particularly when viewing Kazakhstan’s leadership changes in 1986 and attendant public protest, pp. 213-4).
Florin emphasizes that, while Kyrgyzstan was not home to dissident movements seen elsewhere in the Union, debates about Kyrgyz identity took place among “public intellectuals” instead, enabled by the Union’s modernizing cultural institutions. Chief among these figures was Chinghiz Aitmatov, whose writings and own evolution embodied the larger Kyrgyz encounter with the Soviet experiment – and whose voice spoke not only to Kyrgyz readers, but to a Union-wide audience. Florin’s extensive treatment of Aitmatov (and others, including writers Tugolbai Sydykbekov, Aaly Tokombaev, and Mar Baizhiev and filmmakers Melis Ubukeev, Tolomus Okeev, and Juz Gershteyn) carefully traces the development of debates about history, language, prose, and nation among these members of Kyrgyzstan’s intelligentsia. Considered alongside oral histories, Florin’s examination of “public intellectual” contributions to modern Kyrgyzstan is perhaps the work’s greatest strength.
This is a book about Kyrgyzstan, not exclusively about a Kyrgyz nation. Such a distinction is important, as Florin emphasizes Kyrgyzstan’s diverse population across time. The mass migration of Kyrgyz kolkhozniki to multiethnic cities such as Frunze and Osh in the late Soviet period on the one hand showed the success of Soviet privileges for the titular nationality, yet on the other, created a society increasingly identified along ethnic lines, setting the stage for violence in Osh in 1990, for example (p. 236). Moreover, the intellectuals Florin chronicles are primarily concerned with building a Kyrgyz Soviet nation – centered on the Manas epic, speaking Kyrgyz and Russian. That they came to articulate explicit criticisms of Soviet modernity by the 1970s and 1980s likewise reveals the realization of Soviet efforts to promote a Kyrgyz nation.
Florin’s integration of a range of Russian- and Kyrgyz language archival holdings with oral history accounts, literature, and film provides a nuanced lens into the perspectives of Kyrgyzstan’s diverse populace in the postwar era. Yet surprisingly, the overall narrative and periodization follows a familiar teleology emanating from the Union’s center – an approach adopted by many scholars of the Soviet periphery. This is Kyrgyzstan as viewed from the paradigms of late Stalinism, the Thaw, the Brezhnev era, and perestroika (even if Florin does problematize the “Thaw” and “stagnation” labels) rather than one structured through indigenous or local temporal categories. For instance, did “the Brezhnev era” or “the Thaw” have more meaning to Kyrgyzstani residents than thinking in terms of Razzakov’s or Usubaliyev’s periods (1950–1961 and 1961–1985, respectively) at the republic’s helm (akin to Shelest’s Ukraine or Mzhavanadze’s Georgia)? Or, are there further social or cultural points of reference that better depict the ways in which Kyrgyzstan’s citizenry understood their lives and place in the Soviet collective? Further reflection on these questions would only strengthen an already valuable work that sheds new light on the spectrum of national experiences across the Soviet empire.
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Claire Pogue Kaiser. Review of Florin, Moritz, Kirgistan und die sowjetische Moderne: 1941–1991.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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