Construction sites are seen through the heavy smog over Almaty, Kazakhstan, February 2011.
Shamil Zhumatov / REUTERS

More so than at any other point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the countries of Central Asia seem poised for a major economic transformation. Chinese investment is tying the region together through its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative and reviving long abandoned industrial and extractive projects. Uzbekistan’s opening up under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in power since the death of dictator Islam Karimov in 2016, has removed one of the key obstacles to regional integration, and there are many other reasons to be optimistic. There are also signs, however, that the projects currently being pursued will repeat the worst mistakes of the Soviet era without restoring the standard of living and income security that the majority of the region’s population enjoyed in the final decades of the Soviet Union.

Understanding the Soviet development legacy in Central Asia is crucial for two reasons: many of today’s

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