This time, we present the knowledgeable Emily Canning and her review of a new book about Central Asia titled "Restless Valley Revolution Murder and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia," by Phillip Shishkin, who spent 10 years as a correspondent for "The Wall Street Journal."
Emily Canning is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University currently writing her dissertation on language and ethnic identity in southern Kyrgyzstan. She conducted 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Osh, which culminated in a Fulbright Fellowship from August 2012 to June 2013.
She is also a member of CESMI (top entry under “Sites We Like”).
To introduce his chronicle of recent events in the Ferghana Valley, journalist Philip Shishkin asks readers to “imagine a region so rife with tensions and intrigue” that it contains the elements of a “thriller” stranger than fiction: murder, massacres, drugs, and “corruption schemes so brazen...they would be hard to invent.” (ix) The work delivers in its promise, painting a dramatic portrait of Central Asia’s “heart.” For a general reader, one’s interest in the region becomes vindicated. Scholars, however, face a dilemma. Is it worth fanning the flames of Central Asia’s “discourse of danger” to generate greater interest in this understudied and increasingly underfunded region? Although I address the book’s glossing-over of issues that merit a more nuanced approach, "Restless Valley" nevertheless fills important lacunae in the sparse literature on these subjects. While not every monograph that fuels fear-inducing rhetoric benefits the study of Central Asia, "Restless Valley’s" capacity to elevate enthusiasm for the region ultimately outweighs its flaws.
Shishkin’s enthusiasm and expertise is palpable throughout his stories. Those episodes that he does not recount directly from his own experience, he gleans from interviews and research. Claiming the Ferghana Valley as his locus, he chronologically recounts tumultuous episodes from recent history: Kyrgyzstan’s revolutions, heroin smuggling in Afghanistan, the Andjian massacre and human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, money-laundering schemes in Bishkek, and the June 2010 violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. Given that the area in question is no larger than the state of California and the time period merely a decade, the intensity of the episodes make the region appear especially “hot.” On the other hand, this dynamism is confounded by the author’s simultaneous characterization of the region as evocative of the “Middle Ages” or “frozen in time.” (60) Although the author invokes the medieval era to describe Afghanistan’s lack of infrastructure and a time capsule to convey Tajikistan’s Soviet kitsch, such depictions are nevertheless redolent of “Silk Road” travel writing.
Most chapters remain thrilling and informative, but the one that lent its title “Restless Valley” to the book leaves the most to be desired. By focusing on the murder of Maktybek Suleimanov, a Kyrgyz policeman who was killed in Bazar Korgon during the violence, in conjunction with the plight of Uzbek human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, who unjustly languishes in prison for the policeman’s death, Shishkin personalizes the violence with a human face. We can see photos of Suleimanov’s parents and vividly imagine Askarov’s brutal treatment at the hands of local police. However, this vignette gives us only a narrow frame of a much larger picture in which several hundred people died and thousands of homes were destroyed. The author largely ignores the events in Osh, the epicenter of the violence, only recounting a discussion with the town’s Russian Orthodox priest well before the fighting began in June.
Though the portraits in the “Restless Valley” chapter allow readers to grasp the complexities of competing narratives between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the causes of the conflict are insufficiently explored. For instance, Shishkin quotes 19th-century Russian orientalist Vladimir Nalivkin at length. Nalivkin describes Kyrgyz and Uzbeks as harboring historically deep disdain for one another, which is rooted in their settler versus nomadic modes of production. This ethnographic anecdote makes more recent historical developments appear primordially legitimized. While characterizing the border-drawing of the 1920s as Stalin’s personal project, he neglects the Soviet role in entrenching previously murky or nonexistent ethnic affiliations by referring to the Soviet era as a “big melting pot” where “distinctions became blurred, and a relative calm in interethnic relations held sway for decades.” (237) This assessment following Nalivkin’s observation seems to imply that the Soviets brought order to Central Asia’s inherent instability and that it was only upon the Union’s dissolution that their wild natures reemerged. Shishkin concedes that political and economic disparities between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks contributed to the violence, but his depictions of ethnic differences seem to, as Madeleine Reeves wrote, “ethnicize” the conflict rather than pinpoint the stark intraethnic, as well as interethnic, inequalities underlying its outbreak.
Although scholars would tell these stories in the timbres of their own disciplinary style, ultimately Shishkin deserves accolade for his compelling rendition. Ethnographers focus more on mundane moments of daily life, providing a valuable context for understanding a place but lacking the sexiness that sells. Thus my own perspective as an anthropologist living in Osh for two years, including during the June 2010 violence, is that tranquility triumphs over intrigue. In fact, I would argue that everyday life in the Ferghana Valley is less chaotic, and even less violent, than life in the United States. Yet as long as we who write about the region do justice to our interlocutors by faithfully rendering their stories as they tell them, our readers can ultimately decide which version of Central Asia they choose to imagine: one mired in perpetual chaos or one steeped in a calming pot of chai on the tapchan. After all, perhaps there is truth in both tranquility and intrigue.