Conference Talk: Soviet Development Thought and the ‘Central Asian Consensus’

Another day, another talk! Today saw me off to London, where I presented an early draft of some dissertation work at the 2012 Eurasia Studies Society Conference. It was a stimulating day: many, many, many presentations on nationalism and national identity in Central Asia today, a talk on the reception of … Mexican telenovelas in Kulyab, Tajikistan, and – my two favorites – the drug economy in a village in Issyk-Kül Oblast’, Kyrgyzstan and another talk on the ideology between kosh architecture in Samarqand. (Koshs are, roughly, ensembles of three buildings forming more or less an isosceles triangle between them – hard to describe but look up the Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarqand for a start.)

I also gave a talk at the event, titled ‘Soviet Development Thought and the “Central Asian Consensus,” c. 1953 – 1991.’ In the West today, I think we’re becoming more and more familiar with the intellectual history of economics and development thought on our side of the Iron Curtain. Scholars, if not the broader lay public, are more aware of policy intellectuals like Walt Rostow, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Anne Krueger, and others whose diverse thoughts on fiscal and monetary policy, and the direction that developing countries had to head in for prosperity had a huge effect on 20th century history. But when we think of the Soviet Union, our analysis often tends to be more superficial. We describe it as a Marxist-Leninist state, which it was, but there’s a rich history of Soviet economics (which had reform movements within it) that remains underresearched, in my view. But the USSR was also in the business of making predictions about how economic development and modernization would play out in the Third World: newly-independent countries like Vietnam, India, or Kenya were supposed to follow the Marxist plan of moving from feudalism to capitalism to socialism to …

Or were they? In reality, of course, the situation was more complicated. Many states or regions of the world didn’t have a strong legacy of slavery or European-style feudalism, which seemed to disprove the universalist claim of Marxist-Leninist development theory. Modifications had to be made. More than that, as China became an ideological and strategic competitor, Soviet intellectuals had to find ways to explain what was actually happening, or supposed to happen, in post-colonial Africa in such a way as to discredit Chinese Maoist concepts of permanent revolution, re-education, and romantic revolution (as opposed to the Soviet model of ‘bureaucratic socialism’). Central Asia was often presented as the model that countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq, or Chile could follow – and not China or the US – as they looked to become more modern and prosperous.

What’s more, ideas about how development worked percolated out into the way other Soviet intellectuals – historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists – did their work. Given the larger focus of my dissertation on modernization, development, and governance in Cold War Afghanistan, it’s fascinating to see how in the years before the Soviet invasion, Soviet Afghanists (i.e. people who studied the country) used these development paradigms to help themselves understand what was going on in the country. Many excellent and sophisticated works on the Afghan economy and its institutions were published – but as far as I can see, almost none of this intellectual legacy was actually used when it came time to … invade and occupy the country.

You can view the talk here; I also recorded the talk as an MP3, which is available here. Because of the aforementioned timing issues and my wish not to steal time from other presenters, I had to blow through much of the Afganovedenie material really, really quickly and at a superficial level. I’ll be giving a revised version of the talk at another Eurasian Studies conference in the UK in about a month, though – that time with more preparation behind me and – I hope! – with a more polished version.


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