Book review of Rywkin

Book Reviewer: Sevket Akyildiz

Rywkin, Michael (1990), Moscow’s Muslim challenge: Soviet Central Asia (Rev. edn.; Armonk, N.J.; London: M. E Sharpe) pp. 181. ISBN 0-87332-613-X. ISBN 0-87332-614-8 (pbk.)

Michael Rywkin’s “Moscow’s Muslim Challenge” (1990) is a set text for studies on the study of Soviet Central Asia. Rywkin was a Soviet émigré who had been a refugee in Samarkand during the Second World War. The focus of the book is upon the work of Soviet social transformation of Central Asian society and Soviet nationalities policies. As a Cold War text – and this is important – it reflects the mainstream view of Western thought of the time. This makes it an interesting read as it highlights some of the perceptions that Western academics had on the viability of the CPSU social intervention programme, the Soviet people-building project, and the degree of social and cultural integration of the Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Tajiks and Kazakhs. Indeed, it is full of argumentation on issues such as the nature and purpose of Moscow’s control of the region and its peoples, and contains maps and tables of information. However, the reader should be cautious of some of Rywkin’s arguments because during the Soviet era (1) Western academics had very limited access to conduct fieldwork in Central Asia, (2) often these Western authors used Soviet newspaper articles to construct their criticism of Soviet society, and (3) Cold War perspectives often encouraged the author to make predictions based on insufficient primary evidence. Overall, this book is worth the reading time, and the reader gets an indication in the first pages of Rywkin’s view the viability of social integration of Muslim Central Asians into Soviet society early in the text “Moscow’s efforts may have succeeded in putting some distance between Soviet Muslims and their foreign coreligionists, but an even greater gulf remains between the Russians and their Muslim compatriots” (p. viii). This sets a theme in this work on Moscow’s attempts to build the Soviet people in Central Asia and its notable weaknesses “He [the Central Asian] has acquired enough Soviet traits and Russian habits to make him distinctive. But in his opposition to the Russian Homo sovieticus he truly remains Carrere d’Encausse’s Homo islamicus” (p. 106). With hindsight of the post 1991 period we can make our judgements about such academic observations and critique Rywkin’s text (as a document of the Cold War). Still, his quote above makes a significant point as today’s Muslim communities (and some Muslim individuals) are criticised in Europe for supposedly ‘resisting’ elements of state-civic integration. This is a moot point, and there is no substantial evidence to prove it to be the case. It seems regardless of historical regime or ideology this argument rears its head again and again.