In a sweeping symposium that connected geography, power, belonging, and the exchange of ideas and goods, the Hamilton Lugar School hosted four scholars of Central Asia as they shared their cutting-edge research to a diverse group of attendees.
The event, “Famine, Conspiracy, Orphans, and Ancient Apples: Perspectives on Central Asia,” highlighted the dynamism of the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, which, for over fifty years, has made IU a national leader in programming, library collections, academic resources, and outreach opportunities in Central Eurasian Studies.
The remarkable, millennia-long history of Eurasia’s heartland was brought into focus through the symposium’s presentations on Soviet-era famines, conspiracy thinking in the modern political era, the adoption of children into radically different cultures, and the history and spread of the apple.
Sarah Cameron, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, started the afternoon by looking at the causes and ramifications of the famine in Kazakhstan from 1930-1933 as a way to demonstrate how Stalin’s policies affected local people’s lives and identities. Cameron pointed out that scholars haven’t fully integrated the Soviet East into the history of the Soviet Union, so the famine in Kazakhstan is little studied despite its status as one of the worst crimes in the Stalin era. The famine, far from being a result of natural causes, began due to Stalin’s push to boost agricultural production by forcing peasants onto collective farms as part of the first Five-Year Plan. In Kazakhstan, this policy massively disrupted people’s way of life since they were culturally and economically nomadic herders who traveled long distances with livestock to make the best use of the often arid land. But, after some debate, the Soviet government decided that geographical and climatic limitations could be overcome through technological solutions and industrial farming techniques, in addition to forced collective labor. They were wrong.
When the famine began in 1930, Moscow had given local cadres power in order to shatter old allegiances and construct a modern Kazakh identity based on Soviet-approved values and social arrangements. This organization of power separated nomadic herders from their traditional way of life and, over time, led to a 90% decrease in livestock production in the area—the exact opposite of the intended goal of forcing Kazakhs to sell their meat on the market. The development of grain as a staple crop also failed to materialize. Stalin ignored warnings about the dangers of collectivization, and as the famine deepened, he made decisions that worsened the situation, including preventing affected Kazakhs from travelling to different parts of the country. By the famine’s end, roughly a third of Kazakhstan’s population had died—1.5 million people—and many others had fled to neighboring republics, creating a refugee crisis. Stalin accomplished his goal of engendering a new form of national Kazakh identity, but at a terrible price, and Kazakhs found ways of resisting top-down cultural power by celebrating the value of nomadism.
In his talk, “Cynicism and Sense-Making: The Logic of Conspiracy Thinking in Kazakhstan and Georgia,” Scott Radnitz, who is associate professor of international studies at the University of Washington, analyzed how common conspiracy theories are today as citizens try to understand their world. Using focus groups to gather data about regular citizens’ political beliefs in Kazakhstan and Georgia, Radnitz found that conspiratorial thinking is a commonplace way for people to make sense of elite politics and global orientations that affect their daily experiences. Focus group participants regularly displayed significant cynicism about the motivations of their leaders, who they believed were insatiable in their quest for money and power and did not care about the public interest. Many also believed that politicians themselves were not really the ones in charge and instead shadowy actors were working behind the scenes to control events. But when asked who these people were, participants could not identify them. “It seems to me that we are controlled by people whom we don’t see and don’t hear about on TV,” one participant said.
Radnitz found that propagating conspiracy theories was in fact a respectable venture to peers in the focus groups. And, by comparing citizens from both Georgia and Kazakhstan, he was able to determine that conspiracy theories are widespread yet are also affected by the style of national political discourse. The prevalence of conspiracy thinking indicated that people have difficulty telling the difference between truth and fiction, but also that they use their own experiences and extrapolate them as a form of resistance speech to those in power, whom they distrust.
A PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Zukhra Kasimova presented on adoptions during World War II, in “Uzbek War-time Adoptions on Display: Multinational in form, socialist in content?” Kasimova analyzed the historical trend of families, especially in the Soviet East, adopting children from the Soviet West during the war and focused on one Uzbek family in particular that adopted fifteen children. Though the family still lived in the Soviet Union, the children experienced significant changes when they moved to Uzbekistan as they adjusted to different terrain and a new culture, religion, and language. The local press and central press covered this family differently, with the local press in Uzbekistan focusing on the kindness of the parents and the central press in Moscow drawing attention to the cultural differences the children encountered, relying on stereotypes about Central Asia. Kasimova concluded by contrasting this family’s experience with that of a man in Moscow who also adopted a large number of children.
The final talk of the day belonged to Elizabeth Brite, clinical assistant professor and director of engaged learning at the Honors College of Purdue University, who expanded the scope of the symposium by exploring how the diversity of Central Asia and movement of ancient Central Asians affected agricultural production on a world historical stage. She used the origin of the apple, the world’s fourth-most consumed fruit, as a way into this crucial story.
The Tian Shan Mountains in southeastern Kazakhstan are the home of the largest diversity of apple phenotypes in the world, and recent genetic studies have confirmed that wild apples originated there. But domesticating the apple, rather than just foraging for it, required significant human intervention through the use of grafting and creating hybrids of different apple strains. Evidence suggests that the first hybridization occurred in northern Iran in the first millennium BCE, before it moved to Europe, and the question is how the apple arrived there from the Tian Shan Mountains. The obvious answer is the Silk Road, the network of trading routes connecting East Asia, India, Central Eurasia, and the Mediterranean, but Brite questioned the dominance of the Silk Road narrative in explaining these sorts of exchanges. She hypothesized that human agency might not play the determining role we sometimes believe it does and suggested a reimagined sort of Silk Road, predicated not just on conscious exchange but also unconscious, incidental, slow transmissions of phenomena that nonetheless profoundly affect culture.
A question-and-answer session allowed attendees and participants to elaborate points and synthesize information as they considered the critical themes of identity, environment, and historical ruptures. A breakfast before the event and a dinner afterward also provided opportunities to interact with the speakers on these topics and others related to Central Asia. Events such as this symposium show why the US Department of Education has recognized the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center for its robust programming and opportunities. Its contributions to the Hamilton Lugar School are manifold.
The Resource Center partners with the Hamilton Lugar School’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies to provide instruction in a diverse array of languages including Finnish, Kazakh, and Tibetan, among many others. Faculty pursue historical and contemporary analysis of the region by studying history, folklore, political science, and anthropology, plus other topics, and recent classes have covered Islamism in Turkey, contemporary Finnish literature, shamanism and folk religion of Mongols, and Central Asia in Soviet times.
On February 29, the Association of Central Eurasian Students will host its 26th annual conference at the Hamilton Lugar School, a major event that will draw participants from all over the country to address a variety of topics crucial to understanding Central Asia and its relationship to the rest of the world.