The best books on modern Central Asia

Who am I?

I am a historian of Russia and Eurasia at Hamilton College. I teach courses on Russian history, Central Asia, and the modern Middle East. We usually think of these as separate regions of the world, but in fact they are all connected across the vast Eurasian continent. Russians, Turks, Iranians, Mongols and more have been intertwined with each other throughout their histories. My formal research specialty is Soviet Central Asia. I have written on Stalin’s attempt to destroy Islam, on education and creating a historical narrative for Uzbekistan, and on cotton and manual labor under Khrushchev.

Many people are fascinated by the ancient Silk Road, but don’t know much about how we got from there to the “Stans” that emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These books showcase the most recent scholarship on how Central Asia was gradually taken over by the Russian and Chinese empires, and how the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were created, as well as Xinjiang Province in the People’s Republic of China.


I wrote...

Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence

By Shoshana Keller,

Book cover of Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence

What is my book about?

Russia and Central Asia provides an overview of the relationship between two dynamic regions, highlighting the ways in which Russia and Central Asia have influenced and been influenced by Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This readable synthesis, covering early coexistence in the seventeenth century to the present day, seeks to encourage new ways of thinking about how the modern world developed.

Shoshana Keller focuses on the five major "Stans": Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Cultural and social history are interwoven with the military narrative to provide a sense of the people, their religion, and their practices – all of which were severely tested under Stalin.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan

Shoshana Keller Why did I love this book?

The Kazakhs suffered a devastating famine 1928–1932 that was caused by Stalin’s collectivization campaign. Because the Kazakhs were nomadic herders, the first step was to “modernize” them by forcing them to become settled farmers. Cameron uses Russian- and Kazakh-language sources to show how Soviet communism’s obsession with creating modern nations led to near-genocide.

By Sarah Cameron,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Hungry Steppe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Hungry Steppe examines one of the most heinous crimes of the Stalinist regime: the Kazakh famine of 1930-33. More than 1.5 million people, a quarter of Kazakhstan's population, perished. Yet the story of this famine has remained mostly hidden from view. Sarah Cameron reveals this brutal story and its devastating consequences for Kazakh society.

Through extremely violent means, the Kazakh famine created Soviet Kazakhstan, a stable territory with clear boundaries that was an integral part of the Soviet economy; and it forged a new Kazakh national identity. But ultimately, Cameron finds, neither Kazakhstan nor Kazakhs themselves integrated into Soviet…


Book cover of Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present

Shoshana Keller Why did I love this book?

Since the 19th-century control over Central Asia has been split between Russia and China. This makes it extremely difficult for historians to write a coherent narrative of the region as a whole, but Khalid has pulled it off. His book is aimed at general readers while drawing on sources in multiple languages, including Uzbek and Uyghur. Khalid considers comparative imperialism and modernization.

By Adeeb Khalid,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Central Asia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A major history of Central Asia and how it has been shaped by modern world events

Central Asia is often seen as a remote and inaccessible land on the peripheries of modern history. Encompassing Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and the Xinjiang province of China, it in fact stands at the crossroads of world events. Adeeb Khalid provides the first comprehensive history of Central Asia from the mid-eighteenth century to today, shedding light on the historical forces that have shaped the region under imperial and Communist rule.

Predominantly Muslim with both nomadic and settled populations, the peoples of Central Asia…


Book cover of The Bukharan Crisis: A Connected History of 18th Century Central Asia

Shoshana Keller Why did I love this book?

This lively historiographical essay (yes, there is such a thing) blows up the old story of a stagnant Central Asia cut off from world trade by the maritime empires of early modern Europe. Levi looks at the economic, environmental, and military causes of dynastic collapse in Bukhara to show that the region was deeply connected to global currents even as it careened from one political crisis to another. This is a must-read for anyone interested in early modern world history.

By Scott C. Levi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bukharan Crisis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the first half of the eighteenth century, Central Asia's Bukharan Khanate descended into a crisis from which it would not recover. Bukharans suffered failed harvests and famine, a severe fiscal downturn, invasions from the north and the south, rebellion, and then revolution. To date, efforts to identify the cause of this crisis have focused on the assumption that the region became isolated from early modern globalizing trends. The Bukharan Crisis exposes that explanation as a flawed relic of early Orientalist scholarship on the region.


Book cover of The Russian Conquest of Central Asia: A Study in Imperial Expansion, 1814-1914

Shoshana Keller Why did I love this book?

Morrison’s book is the first in-depth account of Russia’s military campaigns in over 50 years. It is both a good read for fans of military and imperial history and an important corrective to the image of the “Great Game” between the Russian and British empires. Morrison not only gives readers extensive and telling quotes from Russian military and diplomatic documents, but from Bukharan and Khoqandi sources as well. No other historian has written such a comprehensive history of the conquest.

By Alexander Morrison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Russian Conquest of Central Asia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Russian conquest of Central Asia was perhaps the nineteenth century's most dramatic and successful example of European imperial expansion, adding 1.5 million square miles and at least 6 million people - most of them Muslims - to the Tsar's domains. Alexander Morrison provides the first comprehensive military and diplomatic history of the conquest to be published for over a hundred years. From the earliest conflicts on the steppe frontier in the 1830s to the annexation of the Pamirs in the early 1900s, he gives a detailed account of the logistics and operational history of Russian wars against Khoqand, Bukhara…


Book cover of Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia's Aral Sea Basin

Shoshana Keller Why did I love this book?

Since the 1960s Central Asia has been the center of the largest man-made water crisis in history with the drying up of the Aral Sea. Peterson’s book, based on work in Central Asian and Russian archives, provides a long-term environmental history of irrigation and its effects in the imperial and Soviet periods up to World War II. She includes a profile of the eccentric Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich Romanov, who set himself up as a local “sultan” near Tashkent, and rich material on the steep challenges that irrigation engineers faced.

By Maya K. Peterson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pipe Dreams as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The drying up of the Aral Sea - a major environmental catastrophe of the late twentieth century - is deeply rooted in the dreams of the irrigation age of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time when engineers, scientists, politicians, and entrepreneurs around the world united in the belief that universal scientific knowledge, together with modern technologies, could be used to transform large areas of the planet from 'wasteland' into productive agricultural land. Though ostensibly about bringing modernity, progress, and prosperity to the deserts, the transformation of Central Asia's landscapes through tsarist- and Soviet-era hydraulic projects bore the…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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