Book Review: The Resurgence of Central Asia

The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism by Ahmed Rashid. Published in 2016 by Zed Books

I have recently been fascinated by Central Asia and this book is a fantastic review of that region immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union. The book itself is a piece of history and, although I bought the newest edition, it only covers the period from the Russian invasion in the 1800s to 1994. So, while it will not provide an examination of modern Central Asia, it provides a great insight into how the Soviet Union shaped Central Asia and what people expected from that region in the 1990s.

The book was originally published in 1994 and it provides an interesting insight into people’s mindsets regarding the fall of the Soviet Union and the future. It was definitely more optimistic then current events have warranted. It is also enraging because a lot of the issues that that region of the world is currently deal with, where obvious in the 1990s and it seems like things fell apart out of mere negligence and a refusal to face reality. Given hindsight, the title seems a little misleading as I don’t know if the region ever ‘resurged’.

Honestly, an alternative title would have been: Horrors of the Soviet Union: Central Asia Flavor. While the Russian Tsar was never kind, Stalin’s efforts to ‘sovietize’ the people of Central Asia destroyed their culture, history, religion, and economic. They turned the Central Asia into a dumping ground for the unwanted citizens of the Soviet Union and a source for slave labor and exploitation. The Soviet Union’s efforts to mine the region degraded their environment. Their need for cotton ruined the nutrients found in the soil and desalinated the plants. By trying to route the source of waters, the shrank the Aral Sea, creating an environmental disaster. Additionally, the Soviets conducted several nuclear tests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, ruining the people’s health to this day. That’s not even touching the political and economic disaster the Soviet Union implanted in the region.

The book is organized into in depth country overviews, while the last few chapters deal with larger themes like the resurgence of Islam, economic and environmental legacies, and the future. The country chapters are the most engaging as it was the first time I was able to gain an understanding of the differences between the five countries: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. The last few chapters are not as condense or engaging, but they are interesting because they really allow the reader to understand how the book fits within the greater conversation.

This is easier to say in hindsight, but Ahmed tried to argue that nationalism and the resurgence of Islam were two different developments. However, because the Soviet Union tried so hard to kill Islam, claiming it wasn’t ‘Russian’ or ‘Communist’ while also claiming that the people had to ‘Russify’ and destroyed their historical accomplishments, they combined nationalism and Islam together. I think a better argument wouldn’t be Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam OR Nationalism, but Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam AND Nationalism.

Overall, it was an interesting and well written book, that not only provided information on an area I don’t know a lot about, but also served as a great insight into the theories of the 1990s.

Pro: Provides a great overview into how the Soviet Union devastated the region, leaving a complicated legacy of ‘modernization’ and unholy terror and severe loss.

Con: It is old, so the information is no longer ‘modern’. Additionally, it’s argument needs to be updated to catch up with the times as it no longer seems to be a choice between Islam and nationalism, but a combination of the two.

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