Forty years ago, when most of northern Central Asia was strapped into a Soviet straitjacket, most of eastern Central Asia was isolated behind Mao’s Bamboo Curtain, most of southern Central Asia had been absorbed into India and Pakistan, and Afghanistan was a forgotten mountain fastness, a zone unto itself, William O. Douglas, the Supreme Court justice and intrepid traveler, pointed out an abiding truth in his book Beyond the High Himalayas (1952): all these parts of Central Asia, no matter in what jurisdiction they may happen to lie, “are one world.”
It is, in fact, primarily a Turkic world, one that with recent political dislocations throughout Eurasia is beginning to re-emerge. If a fluent Turkish-speaker were to set out overland from European Turkey, with several exceptions he could communicate with everyone he met along the way from the Balkans to a point a thousand miles inside China, where the Turkic Uighurs still use the Arabic script, as in the days of the Ottoman Empire. That is because Turkish is part of a subfamily of closely related languages called Turkic, whose reach extends to the northern parts of Iran and Afghanistan, all the former Muslim Soviet republics save Tajikistan (where Persian is dominant), and China’s Xinjiang Province. Sir Auriel Stein and other great Central Asian travelers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used Turkic languages everywhere, at a time when the whole region was known simply as “Turkistan,” a word that is quickly coming back into vogue. “There is one cultural world based on the Turkic languages,” says Almaz Estekov, a Kazakh and a former Soviet dissident. “Turkey, having achieved modern nationhood, is the head of this world. The Crimean Tatars and the Azeris are the neck and shoulders. The Kazakhs are the heart. The Uzbeks and Turkomens, with their nomadic traditions, are the legs. Though the body is torn apart, the old roots and languages are still there.” Estekov and others explain how the creation of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and the “autonomous regions” of the Karakalpaks and the Crimean Tartars was just the Stalinist method of divide-and-rule, whereby “nationalities” were ordained out of tribal and linguistic subgroups of the same Turkic people, most of whom once shared a common literary language.