Central Asia was subjugated over the 18th and 19th centuries: it furnished tsarist Lebensraum, cotton and a buffer against the British. After the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin urged the “Muslim toilers” of the east to “organise your national life freely and without hindrance.” But things turned out differently. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, and the five republics, themselves Soviet inventions, achieved independence, they had been shaped by Communist planning and Russian assaults on their local cultures (mostly a hybrid of Islam and steppe shamanism).
When former Communists took control of the newly independent republics, they found themselves grappling with existential crises. One Uzbek teacher told Mr Hiro that her colleagues had grown up “citing Lenin every five minutes. Now they have lost the very centre of their thinking. They don’t know how to fill that big hole.”
The story of this endeavour is the subject of Mr. Hiro’s book. The favoured political model, authoritarian state capitalism, has not worked and the efforts of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to exploit hydrocarbons have been slowed by corruption. Islam Karimov, the veteran leader of Uzbekistan, the most populous of the five, has kept his country secular and relatively stable at the cost of shocking human-rights violations. The attacks on America in September 2001 were timely for the region’s strongmen. Uzbekistan provided airbases and help in extraordinary renditions, in return for which America turned a blind eye to atrocities and increased its military and economic aid. This, too, was the pattern in other republics which also have land borders with Afghanistan. Since then, however, some of the stans have been wooed back into Russia’s embrace.
For a region that came to nationalism relatively late—until recently, millions of Central Asians defined themselves primarily as Muslims—ethnic conflict has been widespread. One reason is the proliferation of manufactured nationalisms. From Tajikistan’s President Imomali Rakhmonov, with his celebration of Tajikistan’s Aryan, pre-Islamic past, to Uzbekistan’s adoption of Tamerlane as the nation’s founder (even though he was not an Uzbek), these efforts have proved divisive. In the case of Turkmenistan, the search became a consuming malaise. In 2000 its late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who liked to call himself “Father of the Turkmens”, changed the names of the months, calling April after his mother. He also replaced cinemas with puppet theatres, which apparently are more authentically Turkmen. Niyazov attached such importance to his own epic account of the Turkmen nation that questions on the text appeared in the national driving test. Readers acquainted with Mr. Hiro’s prolific writing about Asia and the Islamic world will be unsurprised to learn that “Inside Central Asia” is a conscientious guide to the region, full of dependable history-telling and analysis."