The best books on modern Central Asia

Shoshana Keller Author Of Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence
By Shoshana Keller

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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Sarah Cameron,

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

Why 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.


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

By Adeeb Khalid,

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

Why 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.


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

By Scott C. Levi,

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

Why 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.


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

By Alexander Morrison,

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

Why 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.


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

By Maya K. Peterson,

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

Why 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.


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