Dr. Ali Igmen Delivers 26th Annual Nava'i-Nalle Lecture: The Threat of Nomadism in Soviet Central Asia

By: Rebecca Ruhl, MAERES 2017

On Thursday, January 29, Dr. Ali Igmen of California State University - Long Beach delivered his talk, “The Threat of Nomadism in Central Asia" for the 26th Annual CERES’ Nava’i-Nalle Lecture. The yearly lecture is made possible by a gift from the Alfred Friendly Foundation in honor of David Nallel. It is dedicated to promoting public and academic interest in Central Asian affairs and encouraging the work of younger scholars in the field.

Dr. Igmen, a historian, spoke on nomadism as a threat in Soviet Central Asia, focusing on the effect this dynamic had on the lives of four Soviet Kyrgyz actresses. This topic will be the focus of Dr. Igmen’s upcoming book.

Dr. Igmen began his talk with a discussion of the historical relationship between nomadism in Central Asia and the great empires that surrounded it. The Ottoman and Iranian Empires, Dr. Igmen argued, had a collaborative relationship with nomad populations. The Russian Empire, however, came to see nomadism as a threat to its quest for modernization. Noting that modernity has often been used as a weapon in cultural struggles, Dr. Igmen argued that the Russian Empire’s expansion and subjugation of nomads intersected with its modernization and looking to the West for reforms. Nomad culture was anathema to the Russian concept of modernity, and in order to control the nomads they adopted the colonializing methods of the West.

The targeting of nomads for cultural reform did not begin in earnest until the mid-1800s, and the goal of cultural reformers was to “wipe out” the nomadic tradition. This included an effort to convert Central Asian nomads to Islam as well as a focus on hygiene, women, and children. These efforts continued throughout the early Soviet period, and nomads became conceptualized as “class enemies” in that they were non-participants in Soviet society.

Finally, Dr. Igmen turned his focus to the lives of four Kyrgyz actresses who came of age in the Soviet Union. Through interviews, Dr. Igmen found that these actresses saw themselves both as Soviet citizens and as well inheritors of the Kyrgyz nomadic tradition “in their blood.” These actresses, Dr. Igmen argued, found ways to insert Kyrgyz culture into Soviet culture, blending indigenous traditions into modern arts such as opera, film and theater.  These efforts at times resulted in essentialization or romanticization of nomad culture. These actresses, however, were grateful for the Soviet theater system which had produced them. Ironically, these women would not have had the chance to represent Kirgiz culture without the opportunities provided to them by the Soviet Union.

Dr. Ali Igmen is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Oral History Project at California State University - Long Beach. His research interests include Central Asia, Eurasia, Russia, Soviet Union, Turkey, the Middle East, China, theater and oral history. His book Speaking Soviet with an Accent: Culture and Power in Kyrgyzstan, was published in July 2012. He has previously published "Four Daughters of Tököldösh: Kyrgyz Actresses Define Soviet Modernity," "Kyrgyz Houses of Culture, 1920s and 1930s," "No Tulips This Time, But Hope: Where Did the Tulips Go?" and "Reconstructing the House of Culture" in such publications as Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and Middle East (CSSAAME) and Central Eurasian Studies Review