Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia; The Orient Within: Muslim Minorities and the Negotiation of Nationhood in Modern Bulgaria

In This Review

Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia

By Douglas Northrop
Cornell University Press, 2003
416 pp. $57.50

The Orient Within: Muslim Minorities and the Negotiation of Nationhood in Modern Bulgaria

By Mary Neuburger
Cornell University Press, 2004
248 pp. $42.50

Few doubt that Central Asia labors under a Soviet legacy, but precisely what that legacy is remains elusive. Northrop goes a long way toward reconstructing a key piece of it: the history of the Bolsheviks' effort to uproot the old and impose the new on the Muslim population of Uzbekistan between 1917 and 1941. The Soviets came as twentieth-century colonialists, bearing "the white man's burden" as much as their nineteenth-century British predecessors had. This time, however, that burden came with a twist. The Bolsheviks aimed not just to raise up the native, but also to turn him into a new Soviet man. Or woman -- the focus of their effort was as much women's liberation as it was class liberation, in particular the elimination of the veil and its extended social meanings. This was, of course, easier said than done, and Northrop's basic message is that such lofty goals gave ground to subtle and not-so-subtle resistance on behalf of old ways.

Neuburger shares with Northrop more than an interest in the fate of Muslim populations in socialist states. Both stress the complex way in which a dominant population's efforts to mold the identity of minorities forms an integral part of those minorities' own struggles for identity. Neuburger chooses Bulgaria, where the Orient and Occident meet head on, freighted with the memories and campaigns of the past. They meet not only in the relationship between the Slavic Bulgarian population and the ten percent of the country that are Turks and Pomaks (Bulgarian-speaking Muslims), but also in the striving of the Bulgarians to escape the "Orientalism" to which much of Europe historically consigned the Balkans. Where Northrop's nexus is "gender, power, and empire," Neuburger's is "agency, resistance, and collaboration." This is, however, simply the flip side, because like Northrop, Neuburger carefully explores how Muslim minorities sometimes resisted, sometimes diverted, and sometimes accommodated the modernizing schemes of those in power.

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