Quest for Civilization and the Question of Colonialism or Modern Mobilization

In his article “Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective,” Adeeb Khalid addresses the problematic use of colonialism when discussing the government of the Soviet Union. Khalid argues that the Soviet Union’s control over its territories in Central Asia should not and cannot be discussed in terms of colonialism. Using the Turkish Republic as a comparison, Khalid demonstrates that in both cases the state wielded its power to create a universal standard within the nation’s culture that forced all citizens into a new, modern era. The states of the Turkish Republic and the Soviet Union sought to universally civilize their people, where as the colonial empires focused on perpetuating the differences between themselves and their newly conquered peoples.[1] As with any nation building exercise, language and education played a central role in the mission of these “modern mobilizational states,” as Khalid refers to them.[2] It is the Soviet Union and the Turkish Republic’s nationalizing efforts that separate them from contemporary colonial empires, such as Britain and France.

However, how different are colonialism and modern moblizational states? Both oppress ethnic groups under their control and impose their own culture onto the conquered populations. Is one policy better than the other?

The question of the Soviet Union’s role as a colonial power or a modern mobilizational state is of great importance when determining its historical legacy. As Khalid shows, the Bolsheviks did not want to only modernize Russia proper they also sought to create a universal culture and nationality amongst all of the territories under Soviet control. In order to do so, they established secular, state operated schools and Latinized all languages within the Soviet Union. They imposed their radical notions of language, women’s rights, and legal operations onto those indigenous peoples of Central Asia. By bringing all cultural institutions under the control of the state, they collectively modernized the Soviet Union and its territories in Central Asia. They created a standardized culture and ideology throughout the Soviet Union that served as the foundation for the country’s new nationalist identity. In contrast, colonial powers allowed their conquered peoples to retain aspects of their traditional culture while infusing it with their own ideology. This led to the establishment of a separate national identity from that of the colonial power. In this fundamental way, modern mobilization differs from colonialism.

The question still remains, is one policy better than the other? Should they even be compared?

[1] Abeed Khalid, “Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective,” Slavic Review, 65.2 (2006): 232, 250.

[2] Ibid., 232.