Mobility, Exchange, and Revolution: Introduction to Modern Central Asian Historiography

Course Description: 

More so than other regions, the steppe and oases between the Caspian Sea and the Altai mountains – a.k.a. the modern “’stans” – has been shaped by the circulation of humans and the exchange of goods and ideas. Some of these movements – like nomadic migration, sufi networks, religious pilgrimage, and trans-regional trade – were primarily initiated from below, whereas others – colonization, evacuation, deportation, and cultural diplomacy – were central prerogatives to imperial states, such as the Mongols, Timurids, Russians, and Soviets. However, movement most frequently results from the interplay between popular and state initiative, making it a fascinating window for comparing eras and polities, and lending itself to social and transnational approaches rather than state- or nation-driven narratives. Students of other empires and borderlands should find much that is provocative and useful for their own studies.

Although this course is driven by some of the central debates in Central Asian history – especially of the tsarist and Soviet empires – it is also a regional introduction and thus prioritizes a wide variety of primary sources, including film, literature, photography, and an array of “travel literature,” and will hopefully spur students to future study. One of the course’s main premises is that these narratives not only recorded but enabled mobility, interaction, and conquest; the writers were not only observers but participants. Thus we will routinely ask how the sources are embedded in states’ regimes of mobility or reflective of popular repertoires. Thus the careful pivoting between secondary literature and primary sources will also be one of the course’s primary aims.  

Learning Outcomes: 
  • The ability to read and prepare for discussion complex readings across disciplines and familiarize oneself with key themes of Central Asian history such as nomadic-sedentary relations, religious networks, overland trade, colonization and empire, Islamic modernism, revolution, irrigation and the environment, Soviet border- and nation-making, mobilization and war, Cold War internationalism, and post-Soviet migration.
  • An understanding of key historiograpic debates such as the early-modern “decline” thesis, the success or failure of tsarist Russia’s Islamic policy, and the nature of Soviet empire in Central Asia.
  • The ability to think critically about movement and exchange as social phenomena and elements of state power; about the connection between narrative and politics; to be able to make comparison within eras of central Asian history.
  • To present their analyses and arguments clearly and concisely in accordance with the scholarly conventions of historical writing and oral presentations 


Students must write three short reading review essays (2-4pp.) over the course of the semester – either historiographical or by considering a primary source in light of a secondary one. Students are expected to participate vigorously in discussion. Each student will lead the class discussion at least once by briefly introducing the texts and providing the initial guiding questions. At the end of the semester each student will write a historiographical essay (10-12pp.) on a relevant theme of their choosing. Students should consult with me before both their oral presentation and the final paper. 


Three review essays                                        30%

Class participation (incl. presentation)            20%

Historiographical essay                                   50%