Central and North Asia, 1900 A.D.–present

  • Central and North Asia, 1900 A.D.–present



Russia’s conquest of Central Asia ends in 1885. This finalizes the establishment of czarist Russia’s southern borders. The region is unified under the name of the “Turkestan Government-General” with Tashkent as its capital and Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman (1818–1882) as its first governor. Until World War I, Turkestan is governed by a civil bureaucracy modeled on that of Russia. Although Russified, it retains its Islamic system of jurisdiction, education, and local administration. The Russians are relatively benevolent colonizers and do not interfere significantly in local religious practices. The main spheres of change under the Russians, however, include the economy and infrastructure. The region is increasingly used as a market for Russian industrial products and a supplier of raw materials, particularly cotton. Trade with Russia has its consequences. Local crafts now have to compete with Russian trade goods, diminishing their popularity and marketability. Crafts, such as metalwork (2008.579.3), woodwork, weaving, and embroidery, are altered to suit export, and thus craftsmen do not take the same care in producing objects as before, leading to a decline in quality.

After the fall of the Russian czarist monarchy in February 1917, city governments and executive committees are set up as organs of the Provisional Government of Russia. Shortly after, political authority falls into the hands of the councils of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. The Muslims of Central Asia do not really participate in the revolutionary events. In Turkestan in 1919, the power of the soviets (councils) is concentrated in Tashkent and hardly penetrates other areas, but eventually Moscow takes firmer control of the greater region, instituting a socialist order and new policies. By the 1920s, the khanate of Khiva and emirate of Bukhara come under Soviet control and Turkestan becomes an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic governed by a totalitarian ideology. In 1928, Stalin imposes the First Five-Year Plan: collectivization of agriculture, mechanization of the cultivation of cotton, industrialization, and the exploitation of natural resources. After the 1920s, atheism is imposed, mosques and religious schools are closed, courts secularized, religious foundations confiscated, and veiling actively discouraged. The Arabic script is replaced first by the Latin script and subsequently by the Cyrillic alphabet in 1940. Meanwhile, the Russians make serious attempts to battle illiteracy and improve health and hygiene. In the 1940s and ’50s, Soviet scholars, linguists, anthropologists, and ethnographers conduct research in the traditional arts, languages, and folk traditions of Central Asia. The Soviets also devote significant attention to the preservation of architectural monuments and historical sites. The traditional crafts of the region, which had undergone significant changes under the czarist regime, are further transformed under the Soviets. Craftsmen are now workers and craft guilds become professional unions. With the introduction of modern machinery and equipment, the professional unions are eventually converted to factories. The result is a compromise in the delicacy, refinement, and quality associated with the crafts of the region.

The October Revolution of 1917 radically affects the arts of the region and by the mid-1920s, the new Soviet art overshadows anything that came before. The subject of this art is the dynamic of change under the new regime. Art is used increasingly as a powerful tool to convey new political ideas and essentially comes to serve the state. As a result, the traditional arts suffer as propagandistic qualities outweigh artistic values.

In 1986, during perestroika (reform), opposition builds against the Soviet central government. In 1990, sovereign rights are demanded from the Union, and in 1991 the republics of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan are declared independent states.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, artists of the new independent republics become active in producing creative work that is socially and politically critical—one that expresses their unique concerns. Emerging from 140 years of Russian rule, Central Asian artists begin to come to terms with their role in a changing global community and grapple with issues of the reintroduction of religion, gender, their Islamic and pre-Islamic origins. They work in a multitude of media, including installation, painting, photography, and video.

The history of Afghanistan during this period takes a different path. Britain grants Afghanistan full independence in 1919 and Amir Amanullah (r. 1919–29) introduces various modernizing reforms. During the cold war, Muhammad Zahir (r. 1933–73) develops close ties with the Soviet Union, accepting extensive economic aid. He is overthrown by Muhammad Da’ud in 1973, who in turn is ousted in a coup by Nur Muhammad Tarah’ki (1917–1979) and his successor Babrak Karmal (1929–1996) shortly after. Armed insurgents oppose Karmal and fight to create an Islamic state in Afghanistan. In order to defend his government and save it from collapse, Karmal calls for Soviet military backing. Thus, Moscow carries out a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

A fierce resistance builds to the Soviet presence, primarily led by guerrilla forces called the mujahideen, who call for jihad (holy war) to expel the invaders. The United States then intervenes by providing arms to the resistance. This results in civil unrest between factions. The Soviets do not withdraw until February 1989, and in 1992 Islamic rebels finally end Soviet rule. This leaves a power vacuum and fighting breaks out among competing factions, one of which, the Taliban, seizes control of Kabul in 1996. The Taliban impose fundamentalist laws in every sphere of life. Afghan women are particularly affected and many refugees flee the country to Pakistan and Iran. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden (1957–2011) is sheltered by the Taliban and finances terrorist training complexes in the country. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States, bin Laden emerges as the prime suspect in the tragedy. In response, the United States and its allies begin air strikes against the Taliban military establishment in December 2001. The Taliban regime collapses, as the United States and its allies maintain a military presence in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai (born 1957) is named the leader of Afghanistan’s interim government, and in June 2002 he becomes president. The U.S. and fifty other countries pledge billions of dollars to rebuild the war-torn country.

The unstable political situation since the early 1970s is not conducive to the development of the arts in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban particularly, artistic expression is overtly discouraged and decrees are issued forbidding art, music, dance, and photography. With the postwar rebuilding efforts and greater freedom of artistic expression, there is a rebirth of cultural life in the country. The National Gallery reopens, and serious attempts are made to locate treasures missing from the National Museum and to restore the country’s cultural heritage.


“Central and North Asia, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11&region=nc (October 2004)