Eugene Huskey on the Soviet Legacy in Central Asia

Eugene Huskey, a 1979 graduate student at London School of Economics, was offered the chance to study the Soviet legal system for a year. He left after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the United States announced that they would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics.

Huskey joined a group of American scholars who were studying Soviet Republics during the USSR’s collapse under the leadership of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Huskey, one of the few Western academics to have visited Kyrgyzstan after the Soviet Union was disbanded in recent history, met with its members and became a member of the Western Academics Association.

Huskey, a professor emeritus in political science at Stetson College in DeLand (Florida), is the author 2018’s An Encounter at the Edge of The Muslim World: A Political Memor of Kyrgyzstan (Rowman & Littlefield). He was speaking to ReasonMike Riggs of’s Mike Riggs spoke September 17th about his studies in Soviet Moscow, and the political situation in Central Asia following communism.

Q: Have you felt in danger when studying in the USSR in any way?

A: No. It’s actually quite the opposite. There had already been three previous visits before 1979. I might be on the street at 3 a.m.—not very often, but occasionally—and I felt completely safe.

Soviets taught fear to me. A young girl, psychologist by birth, entered my dorm at Moscow University. She immediately switched on the water and took out a pen. Then she stuck the pencil in our phone and started playing music.

Q: What conversation did you have with her? 

A: That is what it means to be an authoritarian government. The boundaries of acceptable discourse may not be clear. All things are uncertain. You worried about everything during Stalin’s era. Everything could be used against you. The situation was clearly more transparent when I was at the peak of the [General Secretary Leonid]Brezhnev was the period but people didn’t really know if they crossed or not.

Q: What awareness were the Kyrgyz leaders of notions like civil liberties and negative rights when you visited Kyrgyzstan independent?

Q: The concepts you are referring to were very difficult for most people. Their heritage was grounded in dialectical materialism as well as the history of working class. They came from Soviet Union’s upper party schools.

Q: Did they find these ideas exciting? 

R: It was disorienting for many. And if you come forward and advocate the idea of fair play, economic competition, political competition, hiring with no favoritism and no cronies—all that is so deeply ensconced in the system that the ideas we’re talking about are a threat.

Q: What is fair play? 

A: In places like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and even Azerbaijan, what you have is a family empire where sons, brothers, sometimes cousins are given key positions in government and access to rents, as the economists call them—you know, unfair profits. People can’t compete with this. It’s impossible to compete with that.

Q: In a postcommunist world, how do head of state maintain power?

A: They depend on this kind of cult; they rely also on legal devices like courts, elections, constitutions, but they also rely heavily on elites that are part of a sort of pyramid with the leader at its top. They are part of an elite network who support the leader, whether they have jobs or rents or some other means.

An exchange relationship is in place which I believe is very important and crucial to these regimes’ stability. However, they have to be able to elect the right people and make them seem legitimate. They also need to keep in touch with their vast client network so that things are going smoothly.

This interview has been edited to style and clarify.