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Accepted Paper:

Precarious routes: the episteme of mobility in Central Asian modernities  
Anel Rakhimzhanova (New York University)

Abstract:

Slowness frames Turkestan and Hungry Steppe as dekhans wait for scarce water to arrive at the dry fields and the nomadic caravan loses the carried “white gold” to the harsh desert storm. Whereas the forging of the railways sets up the rhythm and choreography of soviet modernity’s entrance into Central Asian landscapes. The montage of Victor Turin’s renowned documentary “TurkSib” (1929) builds a recognizable narrative of the industrial conquest of nature and with it “the primitiveness” of the indigenous populations. As Maya Peterson puts it, “the film also seemed to imply that the railway itself could bring water to the cotton fields. Building a railway, however, could not make the deserts bloom.” (“Pipe Dreams”,2019) Yet policy-wise in the early Soviet Anthropocene, the intensity of the grand transformation of nature and people in the region was embedded in their proximity to the railroad and water needed for cotton manufacturing.

Tsarist and early Soviet systems of power envisioned their “mission civilisatrice” in the region in making arid topographies bloom by transferring the flows of rivers and its “unpredictable and uncontrollable inhabitants” to which they attributed the fickle nature of Central Asian water. The Soviets' success in these topographic interventions was both the forced and encouraged campaigns for mobilizing people. Thus, railway tracks mark not only the vectors of agricultural projects, some turned into contemporary ecological disasters, but also trace the routes of mass displacements, the sedentarization of nomadic populations, and labor migration in the making of Central Asian modernities.

This paper unpacks the cultural history and human geography of (Post)Soviet Anthropocene in Central Asia. I propose to consider the grand environmental transits through politics and memories of precarious human mobilities – moving and being moved in the reimagined industrial relationships between groups of people and land.

Drawing on archival sources, visual culture, and memory studies, I unfold the repertoire of moving along the Turkistan-Siberian Railroad, framed as the tangible and symbolic socialist subjugation of nature and people. The complex interplay between infrastructure development, environmental change, and precarious human routes allows us to consider the uncertainty of mobility as a generative condition of being “modern” in Central Asia. Taking the traces of historic “unsettlements” as a theoretic and geographic blueprint, I conduct ethnography across the railroad's contemporary state. I face the ruins of past transits and encounter the (im)mobilities at the new “Silk”/war/water routes, that shape the current notions of movement and displacement.

Panel CULT02
(Post-)colonial and Decolonial Attitudes in Central Asian Culture
  Session 1 Thursday 6 June, 2024, -