The article analyzes discourses and practices of historical monument preservation in Early Soviet Central Asia. Already at the turn of the twentieth century, Russian activists and scholars engaged in preservation work regarded Turkestan as the main archaeological treasury of the empire. In the sources they analyze the authors debunk a widely accepted view of the preservation work as a rare venue for apolitical cultural activity of the intelligentsia that tried to disengage itself from ideological service to the regime. The authors claim that, contrary to this view, the Soviet regime in Turkestan made preservation of the ancient Islamic architecture one of its most important instruments of propaganda and population mobilization. In this regard, the regime broadly relied on experts who had been involved in this work well before the revolution.
The article compares discourses and practices of monument preservation in the late imperial and early Soviet periods, and studies the influence on them of broader European debates at the time about “historical heritage” and its reconstruction. This comparison shows that preservation work was always perceived in the region as part of imperial and then Soviet integrationist projects, and as such provoked multiple conflicts both locally and in the capital. The turning point in the ideological reappraisal of the role of monuments of Islamic architecture came neither with the Revolution of 1917 nor after the official establishment of Soviet power in Turkestan in 1920. Not until the beginning of the process of national delimitation in Central Asia in 1924 did local interest in cultural preservation gain momentum. Between 1928 and 1931, national committees for monument preservation were established in every newly founded Central Asian republic. This development institutionalized the profound transformation of transnational cultural imagination that had been formed by the early twentieth century into a new, ethnocentric understanding of “culture.”