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Asian Studies Review
ISSN: 1035-7823 (Print) 1467-8403 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/casr20
State-building in the Soviet Union and the Idea of
the Uyghurs in Central Asia
To cite this article: Petr Kokaisl (2020): State-building in the Soviet Union and the Idea of the
Uyghurs in Central Asia, Asian Studies Review, DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2020.1738337
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10357823.2020.1738337
Published online: 26 Mar 2020.
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State-building in the Soviet Union and the Idea of the
Uyghurs in Central Asia
Czech University of Life Sciences
Nationalists usually emphasise the timeless and primordialist origins
of the nation, but states also make conscious eﬀorts to construct
nations. Drawing on the case of the Uyghurs, this article shows how
states support certain nationalist tendencies and use them –with
varying degrees of success –to advance particular ideologies. In the
1930s, as a consequence of Soviet national policy, diﬀerent ethnici-
ties joined a new Uyghur nation. The state therefore constructed the
Uyghurs (together with other ethnic groups) through a political deci-
sion. In doing so the state emphasised the primordial aspect of
Uyghurdom, however, whereby the nation should have existed
from time immemorial and its attributes should be stable and ﬁrm.
After World War II, both the Chinese government and Uyghur leaders
in Xinjiang ﬁghting against that government adopted this Soviet-
inspired concept of a united Uyghur nation, and it was also adopted
by Uyghurs in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. States have
the capacity to construct new nations, but other factors (geographic,
political, cultural and intercommunal) can nullify or amplify these
eﬀorts. This is evident in southern Kyrgyzstan, where coexistence
with Uzbeks has led to the assimilation of the Uyghurs, while in the
north the Uyghurs have maintained their cultural characteristics.
Uyghurs; Soviet national
policy; Central Asia;
ethnic identity; nationalism;
The Constructivist Role of States in Nation-building
The main objective of this article is to assess the extent to which perceptions of belonging
to a particular ethnicity are stable. The Uyghur ethnogenesis during the 20
shows this is not a search for a place on an axis delimited on the one side by primordial
theorists and on the other by constructivist theorists. The article demonstrates –with
emphasis on the Kyrgyz and Kazakh Uyghurs –how a state can assume a constructivist
role in the formation of a nation, while at the same time imposing, through its ideology,
an entirely antithetical theory: the nation as an age-old and stable category.
The second objective is to illustrate –through the example of Uyghurs living in two
geographically and culturally diverse areas of Kyrgyzstan and a compact Uyghur ethnic
minority in Kazakhstan –the impact of state intervention on the formation of ethnic
identity. The example of the Kyrgyz Uyghurs demonstrates the strong inﬂuence that the
state had on the formation of the nation while also showing that such interventions may
have completely diﬀerent manifestations within a given society. Drawing on the example
CONTACT Petr Kokaisl firstname.lastname@example.org
ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW
© 2020 Asian Studies Association of Australia
of Kyrgyzstan, it is possible to explain how the policy towards the Uyghurs changed, how
members of the Uyghur ethnic group responded to this policy, and how there were
completely diﬀerent manifestations of Uyghur ethnicity within given societies. The
Kazakh example shows how a united ethnic group with the ethnonym Uyghur is
internally diﬀerentiated based on its cultural ties to Xinjiang.
Data were obtained from ﬁeldwork with the Uyghur ethnic group in China during
2006 and 2007, northern Kyrgyzstan (in 2013 and 2015), and southern Kyrgyzstan and
Kazakhstan (in 2016 and 2017). During the research, the emphasis was on the use of
qualitative methods (semi-structured interviews). A total of 113 respondents took part in
the interviews. Among the ﬁrst participants contacted were the chairmen of Uyghur
associations in Ulugchat and Kashgar (China), Bishkek and Kashgar Kishlak (northern
and southern Kyrgyzstan) and Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan). Through these, other respon-
dents were then recruited (snowball-sampling procedure). However, because some
Uyghurs were not organised into associations, additional respondents were recruited
through Uyghurs working in Uyghur restaurants and in areas where Uyghurs worked
and lived (such as bazaars and villages). Most respondents (48) were of working age,
while 37 were of retirement age (60+) and 28 respondents were under 20. The male to
female ratio was approximately 60:40.
Research on the Uyghurs, their ethnogenesis and their cultural characteristics is fre-
quently informed by ideology. Political repression of the Uyghurs in China means that
several authors (Uzbekov & Kurmanov, 2014, p. 148) consider it necessary to help this
oppressed nation by pointing out the ancient origins of Uyghur ethnicity. They thus use
various historical constructs to highlight the bravery of Uyghurs. This continuity between
the ancient and modern Uyghur people is, however, highly controversial. Consequently,
some scholars, although unequivocallyrecognising the ancient Uyghur people, prefer to use
geographical aﬃliations such as the Turfan people (Dittrich, 2000, pp. 26–27).
Other scholars seriously distort the Uyghur question. For example, Kozhirova (2014,p.3)
quotes statistics from Zarubin (1925) claiming that 100,516 Uyghurs, comprising 60,988
Taranchis and 39,528 Kashgars, lived in Tsarist Russia in 1917. However, scrutiny of statistics
pertaining to the Tsarist period shows that the ethnonym Uyghur is never mentioned
(Troynitskiy, 1897). Moreover, Zarubin clearly states that, in the 1917 census, only
Kashgarlik/Kashgartsy and Taranchis were counted. According to Zarubin (1925,p.19),it
was only in 1925, after the oﬃcial Soviet creation of Uyghur nationhood, that the Taranchis,
Kashgars and Sarts accepted the common name Uyghur –although this claim still requires
When legitimising the demands of the Uyghur state, some current Uyghur leaders
point to a (controversial) connection between old state units in the present-day territory
of China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) and the Uyghur nation. For present
Uyghur national movements, it is often less important that they were Pan-Turkist (not
Uyghur) movements with distinctive elements of extremist Islam involving the execution
of “unbelievers”and converts (Wingate, 1950).
Chinese historiography presents a remarkably uniﬁed impression of the events sur-
rounding the migration of the Turkic population from the present-day Uyghur
Autonomous Region into the territory of Tsarist Russia (and later the USSR): the
separatist movement acted against the wishes of all ethnic groups. In the 19
the population was referred to as the Uyghur, although this ethnonym was later used
both oﬃcially and unoﬃcially in the USSR and China. The reason for leaving these
inhabitants within the territory of the Tsarist Empire, Chinese historians claim, was not
China’s persecution but “Russian aggression”(e.g., Xing, 2012).
Taiwanese authors, however, have no problem describing the population living in the
ﬁrst half of the 20
century in the territory of modern-day Xinjiang as Turkish Muslims.
According to Taiwanese authors, the founding of the ﬁrst Turkestan Republic is asso-
ciated with right-wing Muslim nationalists, while the founding of the Second Republic in
1933 is linked to left-wing Turkish Muslim nationalists supported by the Soviet Union.
This increase in nationalism is attributed to the arrival of the Chinese population and the
strengthening of China’s control over Xinjiang (e.g., Wu, 2006).
Answering the National Question in the USSR: Two Phases
Unlike Western Europe, the former Soviet bloc, especially Central Asia, has experienced
the ethnogenesis of nations with numerous diﬀerences. In Europe, the basic formation of
most nations primarily took place in the Middle Ages. In Central Asia, new ethnic groups
emerged from lineages in the 19
century and, quite often, also in the 20
Accounts by travellers and historians have chronicled that some Central Asian people
were often labelled with a uniform ethnonym on the basis of their external appearance, or
alternatively on the basis of geography.
Immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the founding of the USSR in
the 1920s, the theories of Lenin and Stalin were also applied in Central Asia to answer the
national question. It is diﬃcult to identify the true author of the Stalinist concept of the
nation, for there is considerable similarity in the writings of Austrian Marxists such as Klaus
Kautsky (Fadeitcheva, 2012, p. 336). Lenin and Stalin considered the issue of nationalism to
be extremely important in building a socialist multinational state. Their primary goal,
however, was always the proletarian revolution, which had priority over questions of
national identity. In 1922, Lenin proposed the establishment of the USSR as a free associa-
tion of national states, each with a considerable degree of autonomy; he emphasised, for
instance, the use of distinct languages. Stalin criticised this approach and preferred the
complete unity of the population. However, in the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution,
a European model for solving the national question was adopted: political units should
bring together people of the same language and nationality (ethnic origin).
This model was also adapted and applied to education. Increasing literacy among non-
Russian peoples created a strong link between language and nationality/nationhood. The
government then built up new nationalities, with their own administrative units, and
codiﬁed the relevant standard languages. This change occurred after 1938, when Russian
was strongly preferred (Bahry et al., 2017, p. 3). The administrative units were centrally
established and had diﬀerent degrees of autonomy, from autonomous districts to union
It was assumed that the development of the nation could only take place within its own
political unit. According to Ingeborg Baldauf (1991, pp. 91–92), the impact of this policy
on the inhabitants of Central Asia and other areas of the USSR was crucial, because it
created a completely new understanding of the nation (natsiya). In the pre-Soviet era, the
term “nation”in Central Asia was perceived geographically, while in the Soviet period it
was deﬁned as “persons associated by language, customs and race”.
ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW 3
The second phase of answering the national question in the USSR did not build on the
ﬁrst; on the contrary, it completely contradicted it. From the late 1930s, any hint of national
characteristics had begun to be described as a nationalist deviation, for which a number of
top Soviet oﬃcials at the head of autonomous national units were executed. At the same
time, most autonomous national units were abolished. Disagreements over the proposed
answers to the national question did not upset Stalin. He felt that answers to the national
question provided by the bourgeoisie were always wrong, whereas if they were provided by
a Soviet government, the question was answered correctly (Stalin, 1925). It was only after
Stalin’s death that Soviet scholars began to develop new theoretical concepts of ethnicity.
The USSR in the 1950s was an arena for political liberalisation where representatives of
most Soviet republics sought to increase their autonomy.
Whereas in the early 1930s the rapid and artiﬁcial creation of a new national identity in
Central Asia had been documented, the concept of transnational Soviet identity had been
enforced since the late 1950s. In the USSR, the term ethnos, introduced in the 1920s by
S. M. Shirokogorov, was used for ethnic groups. More salient, however, was the introduc-
tion of this term by Y. V. Bromley (1983, p. 212, p. 294, p. 338), who claimed that ethnos
varies according to geographic conditions and is fundamentally inﬂuenced by whether
ethnic processes are formed in capitalist or socialist conditions. Soviet identity was origin-
ally associated with the Soviet state, Soviet ideology and Soviet patriotism (the creation of
a Soviet man), within which a lower layer of identity could also include ethnic identity.
In the 1980s, several signiﬁcant theories of ethnicity appeared that were unacceptable to
the Soviet school. The work of J. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (1983) introduced the concept
of the “invention of tradition”which completely contradicted the Soviet understanding of
the nation –although the Soviet regime was very inventive in creating new traditions.
Soviet ideology attempted to apply a primordialist approach to the study of nations as
Soviet leaders did not want to be inﬂuenced by other concepts that had a substantial impact
on the understanding of ethnicity in the West. For instance, Benedict Anderson’sconcept
of “Imagined Communities”emphasised the transience and volatility of communities, and
was applied to both ethnic groups and nations (Anderson, 1983). Gellner, however, justiﬁed
not accepting Western concepts of ethnicity in the Soviet Union for ideological reasons. He
presented a parallel with 19
-century research conducted by Western anthropologists,
some of whom favoured the study of “savages”and “primitive societies”. Similarly, Soviet
scientists studied society before the socialist revolution which, in a scenario the reverse of
that today, was the period when communist society was built. According to Gellner, “a
Soviet ethnographer (the Russian term used in place of ‘anthropologist’)isalso,roughly
speaking, a student of pre-capitalist social structures”(Gellner, 1975, p. 595).
Comaroﬀexplored the diﬀerences between Western and Soviet scholars regarding the
deﬁnition of nationality. He argued that both groups deal with similar problems, such as
the causes of ethnic conﬂicts; however, the fundamental diﬀerence between them lies in
their understanding of nationality. For Soviet scholars, nationality is a typical primordi-
alist notion, in that nations have had their own identities since time immemorial and
their development follows similar historical patterns (Comaroﬀ,1991).
It cannot be said that Anderson’s concept of nationalism is easier to apply to Soviet
conditions than Gellner’s (or vice versa). In this respect it is necessary to keep in mind the
completely diﬀerent Soviet concept of scientiﬁc and political discourses. The Soviet
Union was undoubtedly a totalitarian state where ideology was centrally directed. It
was not the task of scientists to prove or refute the validity of various theories through
their research. These theories –and not just in the case of the national question –were
deemed unquestionable facts. The task of scholars was therefore to ﬁnd and publish facts
that were in line with the centrally presented ideology. To resist doing so was perceived as
an attack on the state and would mean the end of their professional careers. Thus, it was
not the task of scholars in the totalitarian Soviet Union (especially during the reign of
Lenin and Stalin) to seek answers to questions and reconcile reality with current thinking.
These answers were assumed to have already been found by political leaders, and scholars
would acknowledge this in their research. Thus, if the Soviet ideology included a theory
on the evolutionary development of nations from pre-capitalist through to capitalist and
then socialist society, research results had to be presented in accordance with this.
An example of this is a protocol from the meeting of the Scientiﬁc Committee of
20 September 1924,
where one of the points concerned the task of creating Kara-
Kyrgyzstan history with the help of professors Brodskiy and Bartold. In the case of the
Uyghurs, it did not matter that the decision to use their ethnonym was taken by the central
government, which was clearly a constructivist element of the formation of the nation, at
the beginning of the 20
century. The task of scholars was to create this nation’s ancient
history –a primordialist element of the origin of the nation –in accordance with the
evolutionary development of the nation from primitive to socialist society. Thus, from
seemingly contradictory principles (constructivism and primordialism), Soviet leaders
were able to create the idea of a transformation from pre-socialist to socialist nations.
In this respect, the methods of today’s Central Asian regimes are similar to those of the
Soviet era. Representatives of the Central Asian republics speak of their independence as
“achieving the millennial desire of nations”(Kokaisl & Kokaislová, 2009,p.49).Thisispart
of an eﬀort to ensure leadership of the state for members of titular nationalities. There is
thus a preferred primordial conception of the nation, along with references to Soviet
historians of the 1920s and 1930s (such as V. V. Bartold) who created the glorious history
of the Central Asian nations, which corresponded to the newly established union republics.
Although the Soviet constitutions declared the equal rights of all peoples of the USSR
and guaranteed their ability to use their native language, the actual situation was some-
what diﬀerent. The creation of the union republics often solved nationality questions for
the primary nationality only, while members of other nations became lower-ranking
citizens. This could also aﬀect members of “prestigious”nations if they lived in other
republics. The Uyghur situation in the USSR was even more complicated in this respect
because Uyghurs did not have a state of their own, and their living conditions were
closely tied to Soviet policy towards China.
A New Uyghur Nation in Central Asia
The situation in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s could appear to external observers as
agenerousoﬀer of support for the cultural development of nations through the granting of
political autonomy. The reality, however, was often very diﬀerent, as ethno-demographic
processes in the 1920s and 1930s led to a preference for selected nations only. In parallel,
there was a strong and controlled assimilation of nations that, as a result of political
decisions, were identiﬁed as undesirable. For example, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Azerbaijanis
ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW 5
in the 1930s intensively assimilated smaller Muslim nations in their periphery (Maksudov,
1999, pp. 763–796).
Although the USSR Constitution of 1924 referred to the “Turkish-Tatars language”
throughout Turkestan (CIK SSSR, 1924), the concept of a single Turkish-Tatar nation in
Soviet Central Asia was soon abandoned and new ethnic groups came into existence
under the leadership of Moscow. For example, when the Uzbek SSR was formed, only
Uzbeks were counted. Sarts were not, despite being more numerous. Because this was
a settled population (Štolfová, 2014), they could not boast as much military success as the
Uzbeks (for example, as the pillar of Tamerlan’s troops). In the 1926 census, roughly
1.5 million Sarts (from the previous census) vanished from the statistics. Sarts, along with
other Turkic ethnic groups (such as Kurama), received the Uzbek ethnonym and became
part of the new Uzbek nation. The ethnonym Uzbek also began to be used retroactively
for ethnic people who had lived in Uzbekistan in the past (Hejzlarová, 2014). Some Sarts
accepted Uyghur nationhood.
The ethnonym and origin of the Uyghurs
The ethnonym “Uyghur”is of ancient origin, but until the 19
century was used only for
ethnic groups that had lived in the past. Information about the Uyghurs often mirrored
the assumptions of the authors. For example, Kuropatkin (1877), the Russian oﬃcer and
Governor-General of Turkestan, associated the ancient Uyghurs with the Huns in his
historical description of Kashgaria. Other scholars, meanwhile, equated the Uyghurs with
the Ugric peoples, and saw the Uyghurs as relatives of Finno–Ugric peoples. The
Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (Arsen’ev, 1907) described Uyghurs as an
East-Turkish nation mentioned in Chinese annals in the 4
century AD. Early in the 20
century, several Turkish nations used the ethnonym Uyghur to describe separate
families/lineages. For ethnic groups, the Uyghur ethnonym was used only on the border
of Tibet. Otto’s encyclopedia, which was also produced at that time, describes Uyghurs as
an extinct nation that gave rise, for example, to the Uzbeks. For Otto, they were a branch
of the Turkish Uyghur tribe, which completely crumbled and merged with other peoples.
The name Uzbeks was generally used to describe nomads, while inhabitants of the cities
were called Sarts. The Uzbeks’closest relatives were the Kashgars residing in China’s East
Turkestan (Otto, 1907).
Owen Lattimore (1973, pp. 233–242), who visited China in 1927, after World War II,
and again in 1972, asserted that Uyghurs were labelled as Sarts by Russian travellers. At
the same time, he noticed that even after World War II, Turkic inhabitants living in
Chinese territory did not deﬁne themselves as Uyghurs but in terms of the oases from
which they came –Kashgars or Turfans. In Tsarist Russia –in the region of Russian
Turkestan –this Turkic Muslim population arrived from modern-day China along with
other ethnic groups seeking a safer life.
Xinjiang was not previously politically or culturally uniﬁed; the northern area
(Dzhungaria) was inhabited by Mongol-lingual nomads and Tibetan Buddhism was
widespread. In the southern part of the Tarim Basin, there was a relatively settled
Turkic Muslim population. This area was called Altishahr (six cities, the list of which
varies) or Kashgaria. In the mid-18
century, China had gained direct authority over
both regions. Kuropatkin, for example, states that approximately one million people
were involved in the Dzhungarian massacre. At the same time, large population
movements were beginning: the Chinese established a military crew of Mongolian
families and invited poor Chinese to settle in the region. Also at this time, according
to Kuropatkin (1877), Chinese Muslims (Dungans) arrived in Dzhungaria. A number
of rebellions were carried out against the Chinese administration, which, despite
occasional but partial success, were always suppressed, with a large number of residents
having to leave their homes.
In the 1820s, after a suppressed Jahangir Khoja revolt, a large number of Kashgars –known
as Taglyk (mountaineers) –came to Tsarist Russia. They primarily colonised the Fergana
region. Valikhanov (1985,pp.11–12) reports that there were 70,000 families that, with further
emigration, grew to reach 300,000 in number. Rebellions by the Muslim population against
the Chinese government also moved beyond the boundaries of modern-day Xinjiang. The
brutal liquidation of the Dungans’uprising in Gansu between 1862 and 1869 is mentioned by
Przheval’skiy (1946, p. 232), who visited the area.
The declaration of the independent Ili sultanate (1864–1871) also provides evidence
for the fact that ﬁghting took place between the people of East Turkestan and China, and
also occurred frequently among the local population. The Russian army exploited the
instability in the area and, in 1871, initiated an occupation under the pretext of protecting
the sultanate against the Chinese. Based on agreements between the Russian and Chinese
governments it was stipulated in St Petersburg on 24 February 1881 that sovereignty over
the territory would again be assumed by the Chinese. Taranchis (the ethnonym for the
settled Turkic-Muslim population from China, later sometimes referred to as the Ili-
Ujgur) and Dungans were permitted to migrate to Russia within one year. The Russian
government, through immigration, sought to boost its border areas and thus weaken the
Chinese side. Taranchis left whole villages in China, travelling to their compact settle-
ment in Russia. Another wave of Chinese immigrants then came to Central Asia in
connection with the uprising in the early 20
Into the Soviet Period
The uniform designation of the Uyghur ethnonym to previously separate groups, espe-
cially the Kashgars and Taranchis, dates back to 1923 when, in an extraordinary session,
representatives of the Central Asian Communists adopted a special resolution on the
nationwide use of the ethnonym Uyghur (Khoshamberdi, 2007, p. 355). Like several
other Central Asian nations, the Uyghur ethnonym ﬁrst appears in the Soviet census in
1926. Statistics on Tsarist Russia in the 1897 census did not indicate Uyghur nationhood,
only the nationhood of the Taranchis (56,469) and the Kashgars (14,938) (Troynitskiy,
1897). However, in the next population census (1939), references to the nationality of the
Taranchis and Kashgars disappeared, replaced by the Uyghur ethnonym. The more
unreliable data becomes on the association between the ethnonym used in the past and
the current Uyghur ethnic group, the more it becomes possible to exploit diﬀerent
historical views for political reasons. Thus, when the USSR recognised the Uyghur
nationality in the 1920s, the ideological exploitation of this nationality began.
Because the Marxist ideology presented by Stalin regarded language as the main
attribute of nationhood, the USSR established Uyghur schools in the ﬁrst phase and
provided assistance for teaching in Uyghur. This care for ethnic minorities encompassed
ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW 7
not only the Uyghurs but also numerous national minorities. There was another reason
for the emphasis on language: its new codiﬁcation and an increase in the literacy of the
population meant that ideological writings could be disseminated among wider popula-
tions. Given the general diﬃculty in objectively determining the level of education
(Kolman, Rymešová, & Michálek, 2012), it was much easier to use education as a tool
of propaganda: actual knowledge was secondary to ideological inﬂuence. Overall,
88 per cent of the population of Central Asia was illiterate; among Kashgars, the illiteracy
rate was even higher, at 94 per cent (CSU SSSR, 1928).
Within the framework of building autonomous units on a national basis, Uyghurs in
the USSR had their own autonomy. In the ﬁrst half of the 20
Uyghur villages were established in the territory of present-day Uzbekistan and, in 1934,
the Uyghurs gained two autonomous districts in the territory of present-day Kazakhstan:
Shonzhy and Shelek in the Alma-Ata region. With the continuation of the rebellion of
people (of diﬀerent nationalities) in East Turkestan against the Chinese government
(1931–1934 and 1937), support for Uyghurs and Uyghur culture in the USSR became an
increasingly political issue.
These uprisings in Chinese territory and then the First East-Turkestan Republic (less
than 10 per cent of the territory of modern-day Xinjiang) were quelled by the united
Soviet–Chinese troops. It is also important to note that the word Uyghur was not
incorporated into the name of this republic because the eﬀorts of supporters of the Pan-
Turkism movement prevailed over the fragmentation of the Turkic population among
the new ethnic groups. According to numerous scholars, this state did not function in
most respects, but the commemoration of its existence later became an important part of
the Uyghur national movement, while at the same time China tried to ignore any
mention of its existence (Klimeš,2015, pp. 123–124).
In connection with the change in the USSR’s national politics in the 1930s, all Uyghur
cultural and educational centres in the territory of present-day Kyrgyzstan were closed.
A total of 67 Uyghur schools in Kazakhstan were reorganised as a result of a government
regulation in 1938 so that Uyghur ethnic school sections would disappear. The dissolu-
tion of national education aﬀected 377 schools of 20 diﬀerent nationalities in Kazakhstan
(Shmidt, 2004, p. 145).
The USSR sought to maintain its inﬂuence in Xinjiang after the announcement of the
Second East-Turkestan Republic in 1944, this time in the territories of the Chinese
prefectures of Ili, Tarbagatai and Altai. This republic received both military and eco-
nomic aid, as well as its ideological background, from the USSR. The emergence of the
People’s Republic of China and the collapse of the East-Turkestan Republic (with
substantial aid from the USSR) then led to a decline in the support for Uyghur studies
in the Soviet Union, which were realised mainly in the Kazakh SSR. According to Wang
(1999, pp. 321–336), the Ili regime was a strong feudal Muslim nationalist regime that
was supported and controlled by the Soviet Union only because it had similar goals to the
Soviets and, ultimately, the Chinese Communist Party.
At the end of the 1950s, the “Great Leap Forward”policy and the construction of
village “communes”that took place in China (including in Xinjiang) had consequences
even more terrible for the inhabitants than the tragic collectivisation in the 1920s and
1930s in the USSR (Kokaisl, 2013, pp. 127–128). During September and October 1958,
cooperatives were merged into communes that were created as paramilitary units.
Everything, including dishes, was owned by the communes. Slave labour and hunger
caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. At that time, the central govern-
ment began relocating Chinese peasants from Inland China to Xinjiang while locals
moved to desert areas. Many Uyghurs were accused of nationalism, and consequently
about 200,000 people migrated from East Turkestan to the USSR.
During this period there was signiﬁcant development of the Uyghur culture in the
USSR, not only in the Kazakh SSR, where most Uyghurs lived, but also in Kyrgyz SSR.
According to Uyghur respondents in Kyrgyzstan, this wave of refugees from China made
a signiﬁcant contribution to the culture of the Kyrgyz Uyghurs, who had lived for more
than a generation in the USSR; knowledge of the Uyghur language and customs was
renewed. However, the newly arrived Uyghurs had to deal with completely diﬀerent
conditions, as well as not being able to speak Kyrgyz, Kazakh or Russian. Moreover, most
had only a limited education. Diﬀerences were wiped out over one generation, although
some Kyrgyz Uyghurs do not consider higher education to have a high value, preferring
employment in, for example, restaurants. Nevertheless, scientists and cultural ﬁgures
emerged among Uyghurs.
The Idea of a Uyghur Nation
The number of Uyghurs in China increased from 3.6 million in 1953 to 11.6 million in
2010, representing 96.8 per cent of all Uyghurs worldwide. Kazakhstan is home to
250,000 Uyghurs, and Kyrgyzstan to 60,000 (Uyghur, 2019), showing that contemporary
Uyghur ethnicity is well established. Uyghurs are unequivocally opposed to surrounding
ethnicities, and, in all respects, they fully meet the criteria of nationhood. It is remarkable
that the formation of this ethnic group took place in the relatively short period of about
one generation. Through state intervention in the USSR to create a new nation and
historical myths, linkage to an ancient ethnic group with the same name was established,
and thus the new nation managed to anchor itself historically.
This procedure was similar to the creation of other “Soviet”nations (Uzbeks, for
example): the unequivocal support of a new nation and total assimilation of the sur-
rounding ethnic group. The concept of a united Uyghur nation then supplanted the
USSR after World War II, among both China and representatives of the anti-Chinese
movement in Xinjiang. From a relatively diverse ethnic and geographical group, a united
group of Uyghurs, recognised by both opposing parties –the Chinese government and
representatives of the Uyghur Movement abandoning the Pan-Turkism idea –emerged.
However, Mao Zedong’s concept of the nationdiﬀered in some ways from that proposed
by Stalin. For instance, Stalin posited the evolutionary sequence of ethnos, natsya, narod
(nation) while Mao created the uniﬁed and egalitarian concept of minzu. Stalin also deﬁned
the nation in terms of components, all of which must be present, whereas Mao approached
the identiﬁcation of components ﬂexibly and did not require all of them to be present.
Furthermore, Stalin deﬁned the nation as a product of capitalism, which he saw as an
essential prerequisite, whereas capitalism as a prerequisite of minzu was completely ignored
by Mao. Another important diﬀerence is that Stalin unequivocally excluded religion as
a sign of ethnicity (nation), whereas Mao deﬁned some minzu as based on just and purely
religious diﬀerentiation. Finally, Stalin understood the nation to be a historical community
while Mao perceived it as an entity based on kinship (Horálek, 2011, pp. 79–80).
ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW 9
Dru Gladney, an expert on China’s ethnic minorities, regards Chinese ethnic groups
(minzu) as artiﬁcially created through political decisions. He argues that there were no
references to a collective group known as Uyghur in the reports of travellers and
researchers from the 16
to the 20
century. Even Islam, one of the important cultural
elements of the Uyghurs, is seen as a product of the current orientation of Chinese
politics. At the beginning of the 1950s, China sought to establish good relations with
Muslim Middle Eastern countries to break free of international isolation, and Uyghur
Islam was generally supported. However, from 1957 to 1978, China adopted the opposite
policy, according to which Islam was a source of backwardness, feudalism and local
nationalism. This resulted in the “exoticisation”of the Uyghurs in Chinese society. The
leading role of the Chinese nation in shaping the identity of other ethnic groups is
therefore indisputable (Gladney, 1992).
This ﬁts with the concept of the Soviet nation. Most of the Soviet population had long
been identiﬁed with Soviet culture, in which membership of a nation or geographic
location was secondary. This was expressed, for example, in a once-popular song: My
address is not a house or street, my address is the Soviet Union. However, these identities
were tied tightly to a speciﬁc state body. Once the state had ceased to exist, the previous
state-ethnic identity disappeared. What came ﬁrst is therefore important: if ethnic
consciousness had been created earlier and the state arose later, the ethnic identity of
the creation of the state was strengthened. If a state (for example, the USSR) came into
existence ﬁrst, and (Soviet) ethnicity then derived from this, it was more or less bound to
the existence of that state and thus, after the dissolution of the USSR, the Soviet nation
ceased to exist.
Stable ethnicity thus depends greatly on the degree of state intervention. However, if
ethnicity is derived directly through a particular state, ethnic consciousness is potentially
unstable. The following sections illustrate this point by considering the case of the
Uyghurs in various parts of the former Soviet Union.
Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz Uyghurs provide a good example of the variability of an ethnic group: drawing on
their example, it is possible to show other inﬂuences shaping ethnic identity. The Kyrgyz
SSR was founded in 1936 but was culturally divided into two diﬀerent areas: north and
south. The north of the country was signiﬁcantly closer to Russian culture and the
adoption of the Russian language, whereas the south was much more traditional due to
the strong inﬂuence of the culture of settled farmers and the use of Uzbek as
a predominant language.
The Turkic-speaking Muslim population arrived in the territory of modern-day
Kyrgyzstan from Xinjiang in a similar way to other Central Asian republics: in the ﬁrst
incoming wave, it was still Tsarist Russia. The arrival of Turkic Muslims/Uyghurs in the
territory of present-day Kyrgyzstan at diﬀerent times led to the formation of distinct
groups that can be diﬀerentiated by the form of writing used. The oldest generation of
Uyghurs (and also the Uyghurs who came to the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s) used
Arabic writing, through which they became much more culturally interconnected with
Xinjiang while at the same time largely isolated from Russian and European culture.
10 P. KOKAISL
Through writing, there was also a signiﬁcant cultural division between the Soviet and
Chinese Uyghurs (Ibragimov & Baudinova, 2008).
In Kyrgyzstan, the number of Uyghurs continues to rise: in recent years, the annual
growth rate has been more than 2 per cent. This trend also applies to other Turkic
peoples in Kyrgyzstan, whose populations have above average growth: Turkmens, Turks,
Kyrgyz and Uzbeks (with Tatars being the only exception).
Uzbekisation in southern Kyrgyzstan
The territory of modern-day southern Kyrgyzstan was previously a speciﬁcarea where
the populations of various ethnic groups, with a large number of languages and con-
siderable religious diversity, were mixed. For many centuries this area has been called
“the Babylon of Central Asia”. During the Soviet period, the speciﬁcity of this territory
was reﬂected in, for example, education. It was an area that was oﬃcially Kyrgyz and the
largest ethnic group of Uzbeks did not have any autonomy. However, education was
paradoxically conducted in both Russian and Uzbek. The Uyghurs therefore did not
learn the Uyghur language in schools; nor were there any subjects in which they could
learn about national history or Uyghur characteristics.
The Uzbekisation of Uyghurs in southern Kyrgyzstan began in the 1920s. According
to the Uyghur respondents in the Osh region, which I visited during my ﬁeldwork in
2016, the main event associated with Uzbekisation was the establishment of the Uzbek
SSR in 1924. Most of the Turkic-speaking population of southern Kyrgyzstan spoke the
Chagatai dialect, but nationhood in relation to papers/passports became important. The
prestigious status of Uzbek nationhood was not only evident in the Uzbek SSR but also in
southern Kyrgyzstan, where (apart from the Slavic population) most of the scholars or
executives were Uzbeks, who were often referred to as Sarts.
The Uzbek group, however, was not isolated from the rest of society. On the contrary,
the Uyghur respondents reported that oﬃcials persuaded and coerced members of ethnic
minorities to register as Uzbeks, which many did. This could have allowed them to play
a greater role in the ruling party and to obtain other social beneﬁts. Travel documents
and passports that identiﬁed the holder as a registered Uyghur were often negatively
received. In recent decades, some Uyghurs have adopted Uzbek nationality to avoid
political repression; many people were executed in the 1930s for their involvement in, or
mere sympathy –real and presumed –towards, the Uyghur rebellion in China, which the
USSR helped to liquidate. Respondents from southern Kyrgyzstan cited instances of
relatives who were devoted to the Communist Party as well as to the revival of the Uyghur
nation or Uyghur statehood. Some of these activists, who corresponded with Uyghur
activists in China, changed their nationality from Uyghur to Uzbek after 1945.
The Uyghurs living in southern Kyrgyzstan had their own national societies.
According to representatives of these societies, however, they have largely disappeared
but would have been more distinct from their surroundings and in most respects
resemble the Uzbeks –apart from an awareness of belonging to Uyghur nationhood.
In southern Kyrgyzstan, most Uyghurs live in the Osh region, which is home to 11,181
Uyghurs, or 23 per cent of the total for Kyrgyzstan. Most of the Uyghurs (93 per cent) in
Osh live in the Kara-Suu district. One of the most signiﬁcant features of the Uyghur
population is that it is rural: 94 per cent of people in the Uyghur Osh region live in
ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW 11
villages. The Uyghurs in this region, together with the Uzbeks or Turks, belong to ethnic
groups with a below-average educational structure; only 4.4 per cent of Uyghurs have
received a higher education. By contrast, Tatars and Russians have a signiﬁcantly higher
than average educational structure; the proportion of Kyrgyz people who have under-
taken higher education is slightly above average (Abdykalykov, 2010).
There are 3,271 Uyghurs in the Jalalabad region, representing 6.7 per cent of all
Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan. The population in this area is also predominantly rural, whereas
almost a third of Uyghurs live in cities. Most of the Uyghur population (59 per cent)
report their native language as being Uyghur (Abdykalykov, 2010).
In the case of mixed marriages, there is some assimilation. If Uyghur women marry
Kyrgyz men, it is common for their husband’s family to exert pressure on them to speak
Kyrgyz. These Uyghur women may be proud of their national cultural attributes (history,
cuisine and traditions) but do not have much opportunity to engage in them.
Nevertheless, in their everyday lives, they describe a constant combination of various
Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Uyghur cultural elements. In the case of marriages between Uyghur
men and Uzbek or Kyrgyz women, the situation is diﬀerent. If the father emphasises his
Uyghur nationality, the children are automatically considered Uyghur, although due to
the mother’sinﬂuence they also adopt a number of other customs, including the use of
However, certain changes are taking place in the use of the Uyghur language in the south
of Kyrgyzstan. According to the 2009 census, the majority of Uzbeks in the Osh region use
Uzbek as their ﬁrstlanguage,butthediﬀerence is not great (52 per cent). A total of
45 per cent of Uyghurs declared Uyghur to be their native language. Regarding
the second language, Kyrgyz (41 per cent), Russian (29 per cent) and Uzbek (28 per cent)
are most commonly used (Abdykalykov, 2010). However, many people use up to ﬁve
languages –Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian and Turkish –although not at the same level.
Even though the Uyghur ethnonym is used quite commonly by both the Uyghur
population and the Kyrgyz authorities, it is still possible to meet people using the original
ethnonym Kashgars/Kashgartsy (mostly members of the middle and older generations).
Although the main waves of Uyghur migration into the territory of modern-day
Kyrgyzstan date back to the 19
centuries, the oral tradition of the local population
in the village of Kashgar Kishlak claims that Uyghurs came to this area 200 or 300 years ago.
Uyghurs in northern Kyrgyzstan
In northern Kyrgyzstan, the Uyghurs predominantly live in rural areas: more than
80 per cent of Uyghurs live in the villages of the Chui region. The diﬀerence in the use
of the Uyghur language between Uyghurs from northern and southern Kyrgyzstan was
already evident in Soviet times. If the political situation allowed, the Uyghurs from North
Kyrgyzstan placed a great emphasis on Uyghur-language education. This emphasis in the
northern part of Kyrgyzstan is also evident from statistics: there are 15,276 Uyghurs
(31 per cent of all Kyrgyzstan, most in the Ysyk-ata and Alamudun districts) living in the
Chui region. Of these, 93 per cent stated that Uyghur was their ﬁrst/native language.
There are 13,380 Uyghurs (28 per cent of all Kyrgyz Uyghurs) in Bishkek, the capital,
90 per cent of whom use Uyghur as their native language (Abdykalykov, 2010).
12 P. KOKAISL
Such high ﬁgures are in sharp contrast to the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan. In
northern Kyrgyzstan a question about knowledge of the Uyghur language is often con-
sidered to be inappropriate among respondents: “Of course I speak Uyghur, I am Uyghur!”
Another immense diﬀerence from South Kyrgyzstan concerns those Uyghurs who speak
multiple languages: 88 per cent of them commonly use Russian. Language is not the only
attribute of Uyghur culture; aside from an awareness of the Uyghurs’historical unity,
Uyghur cuisine, which is highly valued by other ethnicities, is also important.
A comparison of the Uyghurs’situation in northern and southern Kyrgyzstan shows
that the inﬂuence of the state and a uniﬁed state policy has a substantial impact on ethnic
expression, but local factors have to be considered when determining the extent of state
intervention. While there was massive Uzbekisation supported by local Uzbek represen-
tatives in the south of the country, Uyghurs in the north continued to use the Uyghur
Uyghurs in Kazakhstan
The Uyghurs in Kazakhstan are the ﬁfth largest Kazakh ethnic group, with a total
population of 256,295. Their proportion of the total population of Kazakhstan is not
high (1.45 per cent), but due to the compactness of their settlement –96 per cent live in
Alma-Ata and surrounding suburban districts –they constitute a signiﬁcant ethnic
minority. There is a fundamental diﬀerence from the situation in Kyrgyzstan: the
Uyghurs either make up an absolute majority in some districts (e.g., Uyghur district,
57 per cent) or a signiﬁcant proportion (e.g., Panﬁlov, 28 per cent; Enbekshikazakh,
18 per cent) of the total population (Demograﬁya, 2016).
Some Uyghurs consider these places to be part of the great Uyghuristan and, during
occasional inter-ethnic clashes, Uyghurs opposed to Kazakh use the slogan “the state is
maybe yours, but the country is ours”. While in Soviet times inter-ethnic conﬂicts did not
occur often, the situation changed after the collapse of the USSR. Traditionally, minority-
Muslim nations felt solidarity with the Kazakhs in defending their position against the
Russians or Ukrainians. However, after proclaiming Kazakh independence, these nations
found themselves in opposing positions due to the rise of Kazakh nationalism.
The Kazakh Uyghurs do not, however, currently form a homogenous ethnic group.
Within the ethnic Uyghurs, it is possible to determine roughly three groups, according to
the time of emigration to the territory of modern-day Kazakhstan: yerliklar (locals), who
were born in Kazakhstan and whose families have lived in the area since 1900; kelganlar
(incomers), who migrated from the 1950s and 1960s; and khitailiklar (Chinese), who
come to Kazakhstan from China to work or trade.
There are conﬂicts and disagreements between these groups because the descendants
of the ﬁrst wave of emigrants are more closely identiﬁed with Kazakhstan than with
Xinjiang. Migrants from the 1960s and their descendants, however, were active agents of
Xinjiang’s push for independence and the creation of a Uyghur state (Kozhirova, 2014,
p. 4). These disagreements have been evident since the 1990s and have been manifested in
a large number of Uyghur national societies in Kazakhstan. The focus of these societies is
broad, from cultural issues only (e.g., maintaining and strengthening Uyghur culture in
Kazakhstan) through to political aims, such as the non-violent attainment of autonomy
or the creation of a separate Uyghur state. At the extreme end, this has led to the
ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW 13
formation of militant groups, which have vowed to ﬁght for change in the current
arrangement by all means possible (Syroezhkin, 2003, pp. 486–552).
In contrast to Kyrgyzstan, there is much more opposition to the Uyghurs among the
Kazakhs. There are a variety of arguments made (e.g., because Uyghurs have come to
the Kazakhs’country, they must adhere to Kazakh customs), but even the name of one
of the areas where Uyghurs live –the Uyghur district, which was adopted in Soviet
times –has caused controversy. Some Kazakhs in this area call this a “second Kosovo”.
Conversely, a large number of respondents oppose the national divide, which only
creates artiﬁcial hostility among people in Kazakhstan. Opponents of Kazakh nation-
alism argue that the border between peoples was created by China and the Soviet
Union. Previously, residents from the territory of Kazakhstan and Kashgar made
frequent reciprocal visits and inhabitants were welcomed with the words “Good day,
my brother”. To weaken the indigenous population, the people were divided into new
artiﬁcial nations. Yet, when the “red terror”in the USSR began, entire villages went to
Kashgar “to theirs”. When the persecution began in China, people went in the opposite
direction, but again “to theirs”.
According to the census, the characteristics of Kazakh Uyghurs include being largely
a peasant population (57 per cent live in villages), a relatively high use of Uyghur as
a mother tongue (85 per cent), almost universal knowledge of the Russian language
(96 per cent), and largely being adherents of Islam (98 per cent). In contrast to
Kazakhstan as a whole, only about half of the Uyghurs have received higher education
The Uyghurs in Kazakhstan provide a good example of the combination of diﬀerent
inﬂuences on the formation of ethnic identity. All Uyghur groups adopted the Soviet
(and later Chinese) construct of the creation of a uniﬁed Uyghur nation. However, while
emphasising national characteristics, we can observe rather large diﬀerences between
Uyghur groups: some derive their ethnicity from a geographic and historical point of
view and feel primarily bound to Kazakhstan. In terms of culture, they consider them-
selves to be much more local Kazakh than Chinese Uyghurs. Other groups of Kazakh
Uyghurs, however, often build their ethnic identity through solidarity with the Uyghurs
in China and identify with their eﬀorts to gain independence. There is little consensus,
however, on how to achieve this independence, as is reﬂected in the high degree of
fragmentation at the level of national societies.
Based on the case of the Uyghurs, this article has illustrated how state interventions can
signiﬁcantly shape the ethnogenesis of a given nation. First, the USSR decided to create
a Uyghur nationality, thereby extinguishing the nationality of the Kashgars and Taranchis.
In a relatively short period of time, this concept (the creation of a uniﬁed Uyghur nation)
was adopted by most of the former ethnic groups, whose ethnic consciousness was weak
because they were tied to the geographical area from which they came.
Soviet national politics was able to connect two conﬂicting approaches in
practice –primordialism and constructivism. The nation was thus constructed
by a political decision but in its manifestations the primordial aspect, according to
which the nation had existed for a long time and its attributes were stable and
14 P. KOKAISL
ﬁxed, was emphasised. For members of the newly formed nation, it was not
diﬃcult to accept these new explanations; this was true not only for Uyghurs,
but also for many other Soviet nations.
The newly-formed Uyghur nation, however, was not supported in some areas of the
USSR, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan. For instance, in areas where members of the
new Uyghur nationality and members of the Uzbek nationality lived side by side, the
Uyghurs were largely assimilated by taking on Uzbek nationality, which was considered
more prestigious or “more appropriate”. In present-day Kyrgyzstan, diﬀerences in
respecting Uyghur cultural traditions and the use of language among Uyghurs living in
the north and south are also evident.
In southern Kyrgyzstan, it was enough for Uyghur ethnicity to be exposed to the
inﬂuence of the neighbouring Uzbek ethnicity, and most Uyghurs adopted Uzbek nation-
ality, language, culture and habits. In contrast, in northernKyrgyzstan the Uyghurs (despite
russiﬁcation in the Soviet era) retained most of their national characteristics, including the
use of their own language. In Kazakhstan, where Uyghur connections exist on both sides of
the border, there has been a signiﬁcant division among Uyghurs: for some Uyghurs the
culture of their Chinese co-ethnics is remote and foreign, while for others these Chinese
Uyghurs are considered to be of “the same blood”.
The Soviet approach to the oﬃcial formation of new nations was also adopted by
China after World War II, and the concept of a united Uyghur nation was included
in both its legislation and its national policy. In China, other ethnicities also joined
a state recognised by the Uyghur nation. The subsequent persecution of the Chinese
Uyghurs, which followed the earlier Pan-Turkistic tradition of struggles for libera-
tion from the Chinese government, resulted in their mass migration to the USSR.
These emigrants, however, often became part of another cultural tradition due to
the Soviet way of life, and cultural diﬀerences began to emerge between them and
the Chinese Uyghurs.
The case of the Uyghurs in China and the Central Asian republics shows that the
state is powerful, but not omnipotent, in the creation and destruction of national-
ities. It has the means to create new nations, the subsequent development of which
may support the state. How far such development (or strong assimilation) extends,
however, depends on other factors, such as geography, politics, culture and
1. Such distortions are not new in Central Asian historiography. For example, on the anni-
versary of 2,200 years of Kyrgyz statehood, the oﬃcial Kyrgyz historiography highlighted
that records of the “Grand Historian of Chinese”Sima Qian mentioned the Geguns, who
should allegedly be Kyrgyz (Kokaisl & Kokaislová, 2009, p. 10).
2. Available from Central State Archive of the October Revolution of the Uzbek SSR, 34/1/2114/56.
This work was supported by the IGA PEF ČZU under Grant No. 2019MEZ0007.
ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW 15
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