Research Notes

Paying Tribute to the “Last of the Great Masters of Central Asian Studies, “ Edward Allworth

Orhan Babakurban, a New York-based banker with roots in Central Asia, recently launched a tribute website to Edward Allworth (1920-2016), a legendary professor who worked on Central Asia throughout his career. Allworth was Professor Emeritus of Turco-Soviet Studies at Columbia University, where he taught for much of his career. The Allworth Memorial site presents an extensive photo gallery and other documents about Allworth’s life. We spoke to Orhan about his wonderful tribute to Professor Allworth.

You have created such a beautiful tribute to Professor Allworth. How did you become interested in his work? How did you know him?

The first time I heard about Professor Allworth was while I was an undergraduate when I read one or two of his books. For my graduate studies, I was accepted to Columbia University’s Department of Political Science. When I toured the campus, I visited Allworth’s office. He welcomed me and told me about his Central Asian Seminar, which I joined. After graduating in 1992, I went to Uzbekistan and I lost touch with Professor Allworth. Through a friend in the Uzbek-American community here in New York, we reconnected in 2009. Allworth wanted to write a final book based on his archives, but needed an assistant. So he brought me his archive, a treasure trove of notes, correspondence with key figures in Central Asian studies and within Central Asia. Every two weeks I would visit him on a Sunday and we would go through everything for at least two hours. But unfortunately, Janet his wife passed away, so the project was put on hold. And later on he had his own health issues and so the project remained incomplete.

And what was the book going to be about?

It was going to be about the intellectual history of Central Asia with a focus on the Jadid movement.

What inspired you to create this website?

About a week after Allworth’s passing, Bruce Pannier wrote a very beautiful tribute to Allworth, calling him the “last of the great masters of Central Asian studies.” And a few weeks later another former student Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh penned another tribute to him. What I remember from these is the importance of the teacher-student interaction, in Uzbek it is called ustod-shogird. Professor Allworth cared deeply about the intellectual development of his students, but also cared about them on a personal level. Bruce’s obituary contained another interesting fact: he was a veteran, a paratrooper. This was something I did not know. We had a gathering when his son Clark came to make the arrangements for the funeral. We  were reminiscing about Allworth, discussing how he became interested in Central Asia and one person said that he had met a Bashkir-Tatar prisoner of war in France. So I went home and started searching online for more about his military record. It turns out his father, also named Edward, was a recipient of the Medal of Honor during World War 1. Professor Allworth himself was a recipient of the Bronze Star. So I just thought this was such as fascinating story. Here is a farm boy from Oregon, who served his country in World War II and left such a legacy on Central Asian Studies. So I thought to myself, I have to do a memorial for him. I wanted to release it by December 1, 2020, as this would have been his 100th birthday. I originally thought I would do an article. But as Clark opened up his family archive to me, I realized we needed an entire website.

As you said, Bruce Pannier called Allworth “the last of the great Masters of Central Asian studies.” What made him stand out from the other well-known Sovietologists and historians who focused on Central Asia at the time such as Alexandre Bennigsen, Enders Wimbush and Marie Broxup?

His language skills were key to shaping his understanding of Central Asian history and culture. But I think Allworth also steered away from politics, which was especially important during the Cold War. While figures like Bennigsen have their place in Central Asian studies, they were reliant on Russian-language sources and focused on political issues and Islam, seeing the region as the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union, an area for the West to exploit. He was an emigre himself from Russia and his family had fought with the Whites. This may have conditioned his approach and desire to influence policy. Similarly, Enders Wimbush was active in the policy community working at RAND and Radio Free Europe.

Allworth stressed the importance of studying history and culture at a time when many academics focused on the Soviet Union placed emphasis on strategy and current events. How important do you think this message is today?

I think this is hugely important. History and culture are fundamental building blocks for helping us understand the region. And there are many opportunities to conduct further research building from Allworth’s legacy, especially as archives open and new local language sources become available.

Allworth authored a number of classic works within the field, such as The Modern Uzbeks: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present (1990), Central Asia: A Century of Russian Rule (1967) and The Nationality Question in Soviet Central Asia (1973). What is your favorite book written by Allworth?

I think Central Asia: A Century of Russian Rule was his most significant. It is an important introductory guide to the region for students. He edited the book and it has chapters on topics ranging from economics to architecture and music. That book itself was republished three times and the last edition was retitled One Hundred Thirty Years of Russian Dominance, reflecting the transition to independence. He added new chapters to that edition, including a chapter on the need for modern leadership, which still rings true today. My personal favorite though is Uzbek Literary Politics (1964), which was based on his PhD research. It looks at the emergence of intellectuals and writers in cities like Bukhara and Samarkand, and how the Soviet Union repressed these independent traditions by 1937-1938. These are just two. But of course there are many more.

He is perhaps most famous for his books, but he was also a translator. He was the first to translate The Patricide written by Mahmud Khoja Behbudi, a leading Jadid, into English. What is the significance of this play?

As we discussed, Allworth’s focus was on the intellectual history of Central Asia and the Jadid movement in particular. For the Jadids, the main agent of change was education. Behbudi was from Samarkand. He was a prolific writer, who edited many journals. He authored the first modern play written in Central Asia, Padarkush, is about the tragic fate of a rich merchant who refused to take into account the advice of intellectuals to educate his son. It was written in 1913 and performed for the first time in Samarkand in 1914. During that time the literacy rate was very low, so theater offered a new medium to enlighten the masses. In 1996, an Uzbek newspaper article titled “The ‘Spy’ who Acquitted Behbudi”, explained how  Sharqiy Yulduz, which means Eastern Star, wanted to publish “The Patricide”. But shocking as it is, they couldn’t find a copy. So they actually contacted Professor Allworth and asked for his copy. The ‘spy’ in the article refers to rumors that Allworth knew too much and could be a spy but Allworth’s objective interpretation of Behbudiy’s play put these rumors to rest. Allworth felt passionate about Uzbek literature, stating that it was on a par with world literature. I think he would have been proud of recent efforts, such as Mark Reece’s translation of O’tkan Kunlar by Abdullah Qodiry, to present Uzbek literature to the world.

What can people to who want to become involved in your project?

This is an active website. There is a section for contributions. I hope that we can find more of his former colleagues and students so they can contribute photos and stories that they would like to share. There are also interesting documents in his archive, which I hope to upload soon. But the more tributes we have, the more contributions, the better we can do justice to his life and legacy.

Orhan Babakurban is a first-generation Uzbek-American born in the United States. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a M.A. in Political Science from Columbia University. He was a student in Professor Allworth’s Central Asian seminar in the early 1990’s. After the independence of Uzbekistan, he taught at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent. His interests include the history and politics of Central Asia.