Is Central Asian History Peripheral?
Modern day Central Asian countries, namely Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been referred to as the heart of Asia and the heart of the Silk Road(s). These countries are located in Eurasia, a region straddling Asia and Europe which comprises roughly 36.2% of the Earth’s surface. There are 93 countries that make up Eurasia, making it home to more than half of the world’s population. Yet, the heart of (Eur)Asia has come to represent a passage to and from China and Europe as in the case of the Silk Road(s) or as pawns in a Great Game (old and new).
Perceptions of Central Asia from the outside have informed historical writing on the region for centuries. Broadly speaking the written history of Central Asia has been recorded by their (largely) sedentary neighbours (Chinese, ancient Greeks, Persians and Russians). This gave rise to narratives of Central Asian peoples from the perspective of the outsider in most cases, especially with regards to Central Asian nomads. Furthermore, from the beginning of the 16th century, European colonisation brought a very specific understanding of history and knowledge production that cast nomadic and semi sedentary civilizations and peoples, especially in the East, as barbaric and uncivilised. This has created a lasting hierarchy for what is considered peripheral. Peripheral is defined as relating to or situated on the edge or periphery of something. That something is the centre and/or the context with which the periphery can be understood. This is where it becomes both interesting and confusing, if Central Asian countries are peripheral, where is the centre located? The centre has moved through time and space in this particular geographic region. From the 6th century BC, China and the Persian Achaemenid Empires played a central role in Eurasia. After the arrival of Islam at the beginning from the 8th century AD, the region became part of the Muslim world with the Caliphate as the centre. Finally, beginning in the 17th century, Russia dominated the region in the form of the Tsarist Russian Empire, and later Central Asia became subsumed under the Soviet Union.
In the post-1991 world, Central Asian nation-states have had to divide their shared histories of centuries into separate, national accounts. The place of Eurasia, let alone modern day Central Asian nation-states, has thus been either appropriated or made piecemeal in ways which have stripped them of meaning and significance. This continuous reproduction of the region as being acted upon preserves a colonial understanding of (Eur)Asia. The heart of Asia, as seen and understood by 19th century Europeans, had become largely frozen in imagination as a thoroughfare.
Yet, anyone studying the Mongol World Empire of the 13th century and Wallerstein’s world system approach cannot but pause and question the perceived peripherality of this region. More recently, scholarly works have tended to shift the arc of history away from both sedentary and European centeredness. David Christian’s use of Inner Asia (nomadic Central Asia) as a unit of world history juxtaposed with Outer Eurasia (China, Russia) is a worthy attempt at shifting the historical lens. He not only directs the reader’s attention away from the sedentary to focus on the nomad and the steppe, but also provides a detailed explanation of the political coherence of Inner (Central) Asia. Similarly, Neuman and Wigen have expanded on the importance of the influence of nomadic institutions on even the sedentary European state. The modern day nation-state is presented as a European and mainly sedentary construct, which they argue does not do justice to the lasting imprint of nomadic institutions.
The history of Central Asia has an additional stumbling block, the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War is seen as an ideological victory for capitalism and the countries in Western Europe. The world struggles to see the Soviet Union as anything other than a Russian experiment and Central Asians fail to see their own reflection in any of it, rendering them yet again invisible for a large part of the 20th century. This has meant that the achievements of the Soviet Union (a superpower) have been disavowed, signalling yet another loss for Central Asians. Today, the Eurasian Economic Union continues to be seen as a Russian (read Putin’s) project. In light of this, Eurasia and any Eurasian idea of the region becomes closely associated with Russia (and the revival of the Soviet Union) and so the cycle continues despite the fact that the idea of a Eurasian Union along with a number of other projects aimed at reconnecting the region have originated in Central Asia.
From early migrations to the earliest forms of civilizations, nomadic and semi-sedentary, Central Asians have been the protagonists of these stories unfolding in this space. The impact of these groups on their sedentary neighbours and thus all of Eurasia makes the lure of applying the term Eurasian histories to them both significant and accurate. It is necessary to recognise the role of Central Asian empires and Khanates,  especially nomadic empires, in the proliferation of trade on the Silk Road(s) that formed the basis of a world system, since at least the 13th century if not earlier. This in addition to oral histories and inscriptions that provide insight into the forms, meanings and institutions of the nomadic and semi sedentary groups that populated Central Asia from their own perspective further the historical understanding of the region as a whole. The modes and meanings of the Eurasian space are unable to be understood in any significant way if Central Asia and the role it played in history is ignored. It is impossible to understand the rise of Muscovy and Beijing without looking to the Mongol Empire.
Eurasia encompasses a diverse set of peoples, ideas, civilizations and religions. While Russia has tried (and failed) to appropriate Eurasia and China has no need to be subsumed within a category as enormous as Eurasia, Central Asian nation-states are looking to make their mark on the world stage. The shared history of Central Asian nation-states requires a lens which can accommodate multiple belongings and understandings: cultural, political and economic. It might be time for historians of Central Asia to take the reins and rightfully claim Eurasian history.
Prajakti Kalra is an Affiliated Lecturer with the Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge and a Research Associate with the Cambridge Central Asia Forum, Jesus College, University of Cambridge. She is currently working on the United Kingdom Research and Innovation
(UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund COMPASS Grant ES/P010849/1. She has trained as a historian, political scientist and a psychologist. Her interests are in the areas of the history of Eurasia, specifically the Mongol Empire and Central Asia. She has worked extensively on regional and international organisations (OSCE, OIC, SCO, Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative) in the present day. Her monograph 'The Silk Road and the political economy of the Mongol Empire' (1st. ed., Routledge studies on the Chinese economy) came out in 2018.
Her most recent publication is: “Pax Mongolica: Trade and Traders in the Mongol Empire.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Series editor: Scott C. Levi. Oxford University Press, 2016. Article published November 19, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.013.493.
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