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Cambridge Central Asia Forum


Cambridge Central Asia Forum in collaboration with the Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge invites you to a 

Roundtable on 'Place-Making and the Administration of Nomadic Peoples from the late Russian Empire to the early Soviet Period' 


Aleksandr Korobeinikov, Central European University, Budapest and Vienna, ‘From Nomads to Peasants: Natural Resources and the Transformation of the Yakut Population in Early Soviet Russia’

Stephan Rindlisbacher, European University Viadrina, ‘Soviet Modernisation in the Soviet South Caucasus and the End of Traditional Nomadism, 1922-1936’

Alun Thomas, Staffordshire University, UK, ‘Rejecting the Mountain Oblast: Locating Nomadism in Debates over Kyrgyz Territory, 1920-1922’


Date: 20 May

Time: 11am-1pm

Venue: Room S2 (Alison Richard Building)

Online: Zoom Registration


(Organised in collaboration with Peripheral Histories curated by Alun Thomas, Staffordshire University, UK)



Aleksandr Korobeinikov, From Nomads to Peasants: Natural Resources and the Transformation of the Yakut Population in Early Soviet Russia

The reforms of Mikhail Speransky (the Charter “On the Management of Indigenous Peoples” of 1822 and others) defined the beginning of the “short 19th century of Siberia”, which until 1917 can be called the century of reforms’ expectation. Speransky not only created a special (evolutionary) form of governance of Siberia and its population but also left no room for the substitutability between established categories (sedentary, wandering, nomadic) of indigenous peoples (inorodtsy). In this regard, it is noteworthy that already in 1924, the early Soviet government of the Yakut ASSR considered the Yakuts (who, according to the Charter of 1822, were a nomadic people) as settled agriculturalists. The conjuncture of the early Soviet “state-sponsored evolutionism” and the Soviet nationalities policy, in general, was only a part of the story. Local Yakut intellectuals – Maxim Ammosov, Platon Oynsky, Isidor Barakhov – played a decisive role in the transformation of the Yakut population from nomadic to sedentary. They attempted not only to redefine the old image of Yakutia for the USSR but also to promote new functionality for the Yakuts themselves. The opening of the Aldan gold mining sites (the South of the Yakut ASSR) in 1924 became the reason why the Yakut intellectuals sought to turn Yakutia and its Yakut population into a new industrial republic of the Soviet Union. How was it possible to turn the nomadic population of one of the northernmost territories – Yakutia – into a sedentary one in such a short time? What role played the evolutionary paradigm in this case? What colonial was about the early Soviet Yakutia with its natural resources and population? These and many other questions will help me trace the peculiarity of the imperial situation in Yakutia, as well as demonstrate a deeper understanding of the post-imperial subjectivity of Yakut actors and early Soviet economic and social policy in the regional dimension.


Stephan Rindlisbacher, Soviet Modernisation in the Soviet South Caucasus and the End of Traditional Nomadism, 1922-1936

The Bolshevik government promoted and strengthened nation states as a part of its social development strategy. The division of the population alongside well-defined national lines would enable economic growth and social progress. People without a defined home who regularly crossed national borders put such plans of “state sponsored evolutionism” easily into jeopardy. The conflicts between the sedentary Armenian and the non-sedentary Turkish-speaking population on land use provide a insightful case study. Documents of the Transcaucasian state and party institutions can shed light on practices of Bolshevik conflict management. After numerous attempts for arbitration had failed, the Armenian institutions saw the collectivisation campaign after 1929 as window of opportunity to exclude Turkish-speaking herdsmen from using pastures in Armenia. The latter had to settle down and join collective farms in Azerbaijan. However, forced settlement and collectivization led to a state of utmost chaos and civil unrest. A famine afflicted the South Caucasus in the years from 1932 to 1934, but due to specific regional factors the outcome was not as terrific as in Kazakhstan, the Kuban region or Ukraine. In 1934, Lavrentii Beriia, the party’s strong man in the South Caucasus, allowed the dissolution of failed collective farms. Socialist construction should take a longer time in the region. Theoretically, herdsman from Azerbaijan could now rent again summer pastures in Armenia, but they had to follow now certain bureaucratic procedures. This proved particularly difficult for mostly illiterate people. Thus, the share of cross-republican pasture rent did not re-rise significantly after 1934. Changing attempts in dealing with the challenges of traditional nomadism and increasing bureaucratic control resulted in a national segregation and led to the fading of transhumant forms of economy.


Alun Thomas, Rejecting the Mountain Oblast: Locating Nomadism in Debates over Kyrgyz Territory, 1920-1922

Although nomadism was a key component of identity in Central Asia its role in defining political and economic identities in the Soviet era was ambivalent. Indigenous and Russian Bolsheviks sorted nationalities by rough association with nomadic practice but the Bolsheviks’ hierarchy of development – which portrayed nomads as backwards – meant that identification with nomadism could also be pejorative and had to be carefully balanced against the new imperatives of modernisation. Although it is often claimed that Soviet conceptions of development and national delimitation were mutually reinforcing, nomadism presented administrators every day with a difficult choice: respect nomadic practice on the grounds of national difference, or disincentivise migration and jeopardise the Bolsheviks’ claims to be different from the Tsar. Elite discourses, whether of imperial ethnography or local nationalism, were of little use to the put-upon tax-collector or the local land commission. In fact, nomadism can help us to distinguish between two forms of national delimitation, one constitutional and macro-political, the other administrative and ad hoc.

This paper will re-examine some of the earliest Soviet administrative struggles in Central Asia, particularly debates over short-lived proposals for a Mountain Oblast to the east of the Turkestan Republic, and ask how nomadism did or did not impinge upon decision-making. The paper will argue that where nomadism was proximate to nationality in constitutional matters, it came as an abstraction, a loose means of distinguishing between groups. Where nomadism was proximate to the administration of national republics, painful contradictions became manifest and nomadism’s role in defining national identities proved tokenistic.



Everyone is welcome.

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Friday, 20 May, 2022 - 11:00 to 13:00
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