Paper Mountains | Malika Sughdi | The Hypocrite Reader

Malika Sughdi

Paper Mountains


Al-Musafir, sign near the Tajik-Kyrgyz border reading “The People of Gorno-Badakhshan Greet You,” 2006, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Kaghaz-bazi!” exclaimed Gulandom1 in exasperation when I encountered her at a Tajik-Uzbek border checkpoint a few years ago. A mother of five, she worked as a nurse in the Tajik city of Panjakent during the week and spent the weekends with her family in Samarkand, across the border in Uzbekistan. A frustrating paper (kaghaz) chase (bazi)—necessitating her Tajik passport, Uzbek border stamps, health certificates, and payslips—made a complete, permanent reunification with her family nearly impossible, while frequent border closures due to changing political moods and health crises added barriers to an already complex route between her familial homes. “This piece of paper is my existence,” she said as she showed me her blue passport. It had long since run out of blank pages, forcing her to add new ones. Now the once-slim booklet was a hefty memorial to her weekly trips across an uncertain and fickle national boundary.

The existence of a border between the cities of Panjakent and Samarkand, or indeed between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is a recent phenomenon, part of the geopolitical reconfigurations that took place in Central Asia over the past two centuries. While various political entities ranging from grand empires to city-states, from khanates to emirates, existed within this region before the 19th century, the borders between them remained porous, and people’s travels were rarely regulated by authorities. Individuals and groups moved for various purposes: scholars heading off to study at prominent madrasas; traders leading caravans of textiles, metals, and paper to the next market; pious travelers visiting shrines, not least Mecca and its scattered constellation of “Second Meccas.”2 Pilgrims from Namangan3 might pass through Afghanistan and British India to the Ottoman domains, while aspiring students from Kashgar would make their way to Bukhara the Noble (Bukhoroi Sharif), crossing paths as they did so with Indian merchants carrying heavy loads of silks on camels bound for Samarkand. Nomadic pastoralists relied on the regular movement of their communities across different geographical areas. Such societies played a critical role in shaping and reshaping power, often in the form of dynamic nomadic empires. And there were those who mixed these ways of life, incorporating elements from and fluctuating between nomadism and sedentism.

But the mid-19th century—and the arrival of European imperial forces—marked a fundamental shift in Central Asian ways of life. Beginning in the 1830s, tsarist forces began an aggressive push into the region, part of a broader pattern of European expansion that relied on the language of civilizational superiority and imperial grandeur. Russia’s designs on Central Asia were spurred onward by a variety of geopolitical considerations. Dmitrii Miliutin, the Minister of War responsible for planning the genocide of Muslims in Circassia, claimed that no peace was possible with the Central Asian khanates and tribes, whom the Russian diplomat Alexander Gorchakov labeled “the most uncomfortable neighbors.” Others hoped to strengthen Russia’s southern frontiers or avert British encroachment in Russia’s sphere of influence (leading to the oft-cited yet unsubstantiated Great Game theory). Russian elites were enticed by potential economic benefits and concerned about their country’s imperial reputation, especially after the humiliating defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-6. Their concerns about their national identity are expressed by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous celebration of Russian imperialism in Asia: “In Europe, we are Asiatics; in Asia, we, too, are Europeans.” Some, however, saw the expansion as a pure accident. Petr Valuev, the Russian Minister of Internal Affairs, wrote in his diary, “Tashkent is taken by General Cherniaev. Nobody knows why and for what.… There is something erotic about everything we do in the far-flung periphery of the Empire.”4

The tsarist army arrived at the outskirts of Samarkand, where Gulandom’s family now lives, in 1868. The first Governor-General, Konstantin Petrovic von Kaufmann, declared triumph, and the city, a major trade hub within the Emirate of Bukhara, was promptly occupied. Within a few days, however, as the general’s forces proceeded towards the seat of the emir in Bukhara, Samarkand’s residents rose against the newcomers. As swiftly as the revolt emerged, it was crushed: the Russian forces returned with fury, and the city’s main bazaar was set on fire as a punishment for its residents’ disobedience. The hopeful sign of resistance dissipated at the realization that large parts of the surrounding area were already under Russian control. Other victories, primarily the formation of Ferghana Province on the ruins of the Khanate of Kokand and the gradual takeover of the Pamir Mountains, were accrued in the following years. By the 1890s, the conquests were complete and Turkestan Governor-Generalship, with its capital at Tashkent and control vested in Russia, was formalized alongside protectorates with nominal powers.

This colony now formed the southern frontier of the vast Russian Empire, with Qing China and Qajar Iran on either side and Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor separating it from British India. These new imperial borders came with neat categories for the people they held: inhabitants of the Russian-controlled territories would become Russian subjects with certain rights and restrictions on their mobility, while neighboring political entities would likewise claim protection and control over their respective populations. Yet the sheer proximity of the different governing systems created challenges, while those who defied easy categorization frustrated the colonial administration. The continuous, untraceable movement of nomads within and across borders reminded the authorities of their inadequacies and lack of power to settle and control their own subjects. The nomadic Kyrgyz population in the Pamirs were among those targeted by the authorities for their nonchalant attitude towards dividing lines as they continued to migrate between Russian, Chinese, and Afghan territory.

To trace these mobile groups, the colonial administration in Tashkent proposed issuing pieces of paper known as tickets (bilety), which would allow the administration to identify border crossers and exercise at least nominal authority over the population. This practice borrowed from some earlier policies Russia had introduced in the Caucasus. Trans-imperial experience was exceptionally useful for the first governor-general, who had arrived in Tashkent with extensive experience in conquering and governing other tsarist frontiers. While in Turkestan, Kaufmann outlined three separate permit categories: the first for natives (tuzemtsy) and ethnic Russians (korennye russkie)5 traveling to adjacent khanates for trade and other purposes, the second for pilgrims heading to Mecca, and the third for subjects of adjacent polities who wished to transit through the Russian Empire. By requiring people to obtain permission to travel from the state, Russian authorities were attempting to fundamentally alter Central Asian ways of life.

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The Russian bureaucracy was bloated in the extreme; searching for an explanation for its creaking inefficiency, Nikolai Karamzin pointed to what he called its “infinite stream of papers.” Not only was paperwork at the core of the imperial administration, but it was essential to journeys even across relatively short distances: since the 1720s, as the imperial law turned its focus to conscription and poll taxes, the use of internal passports had been mandated to restrict those wishing to travel beyond a 20-mile radius of their permanent place of residence. Identification documents served as tools for policing, revenue acquisition, and movement regulation, both domestically and internationally.

Nonetheless, the formal application and maintenance of such a system proved to be particularly challenging in the borderland territories, most notably in Turkestan. The story of 19th-century Kyrgyz peasant Sartpai Aidzhanov is revealing in this regard. We know from limited archival documents that he came from the Tokmakskiiy District6 and likely engaged in agricultural work on the banks of the river Chu. Aidzhanov was possibly on his way to see his family members in the neighboring district when he was suddenly questioned by the Russian police, who demanded that he provide a piece of paper identifying and permitting him to travel to the next district. Unable to do so, Aidzhanov was taken to prison in Vernyi7, a two-day trip away from his hometown (the officers detaining Aidzhanov, evidently, were able to traverse the Kyrgyz farmer’s ancestral lands without any restrictions). For over a year, his family earnestly tried attracting the attention of the colonial administration to Aidzhanov’s plight. A reaction finally came: a high-level Russian official and one of the icons of the military conquests, Gerasim Kolpakovskii, sent a sternly worded note to the gubernatorial authorities of Semirech’e Province8 inquiring, “Who is guilty of detaining a Kyrgyz named Sartpai for a significant amount of time in prison, where he fell sick and, if not released, will die?” Revealing that the arrestee’s family has continuously complained about Aidzhanov’s unjust arrest, the general lieutenant noted, “Is it not inhumane to imprison a person for more than a year, just because he, not knowing the rules on passports, went without a paper to the neighboring province?” Kolpakvoskii ordered Aidzhanov’s immediate release unless “he is found guilty of anything else.”

Aidzhanov’s personal entanglement with tsarist authorities reveals the uncertainties around the implementation of documentary requirements, where specific rules could be waived at the request of a higher official. Yet ambiguities around who is required to carry what papers to go where extended beyond individual cases, as evinced by the mountain of correspondence between administrative branches asking to clarify the rules of bureaucracy and mobility. Kaufmann’s expansive three-category passport scheme was only haphazardly implemented, as officials across different provinces remained uncertain as to how to follow the new regulations. Some made an attempt; others dismissed them; still others created their own set of rules, often leading to complicated encounters like Aidzhanov’s arrest. Even though the prospect of introducing mandatory passport practices of the kind present in the rest of the Empire loomed, these were not formally applied in colonial Central Asia. Referencing the distinctiveness of borderland life, colonial administrators routinely proposed travel permit requirements that were lax by imperial standards in consideration of the geographical peculiarities of the region and a desire for maximal trade profits in the imperial frontiers. In other words, the ambiguous and exceptional character of such regulations were partially the result of the colonial administration’s underresourced character but also stemmed from their fear that strict document controls would slow cross-border commerce and, subsequently, trade revenue. Bureaucrats in neighboring British India, too, often cited “free trade” and “liberty of travel” in justifying their reluctance to introduce barriers to mobility.

Despite certain voices in the metropole striving to standardize the travel document requirements across the Empire, colonial Turkestan continued to implement sets of rules around migration that deviated from Russian norms. One governor-general who did manage to garner widespread approval for his travel permit scheme was Aleksandr Vrevskii, who channeled imperial paranoia about dangers posed by foreigners across the border. Afghans, Indians, subjects of neighboring Russian protectorates, and other outsiders, Vrevskii argued, could elude lax colonial controls and damage the authorities’ standing in the region. These “Asiatic foreigners” (a term regularly utilized by the colonial actors) were viewed as harmful and untrustworthy, especially among an existing indigenous population that was already treated with suspicion. In the facе of potential instability, Vrevskii successfully requested that his administration in Tashkent be given an exceptional right to expel neighboring foreigners from the region without trial. This exception would remain intact, despite attempts by some groups to resist, until the fall of the tsar.

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In the Central State Archive of Uzbekistan, one can find the yellowed residency permit of the Chinese laborer Yugun Yu.


***Ticket/Residence permit***

from the military governor of Ferghana Region

November 5, 1898

Novy Margelan

Given for residence on November 5, 1899, to a Chinese subject, Yugun Yu, who arrived in Fergana Province with a national form [passport], endorsed by the Russian general consul in Kashgar on April 12, 1896.

After the expiration of the term on this ticket, Yugun Yu is obliged to renew this document; otherwise, he will be subject to expulsion to his homeland. The stamp duty has therefore been paid.


Religion: paganism

Age: 31 years old

Height: average

Eyebrow, hair: black

Eyes: brown

Nose, mouth, chin: ordinary

Face: dark (smugloe)

Distinctive marks: a scar on the nose

Though documenting his appearance and itinerary, Yu’s papers do not disclose their carrier’s motives for crossing the imperial border into Russian territory. However, one can try to reconstruct some potential reasons. By the turn of the 20th century, there was a stable flow of seasonal migration from Chinese Turkestan to Russian Turkestan. This ranged from laborers on agricultural land and irrigation projects to participants in the region’s extensive trade networks, including the trade of opium. In his study of the formation of the Uyghur nation, David Brophy cites a Qing diplomat according to whom by 1894, upwards of 7,000 Kashgaris9 would cross into Russian Turkestan on an annual basis, with this number increasing to over 50,000 by the start of the First World War. These were individuals seeking higher wages and pushed from their hometown by the increased prices and economic decline caused in part by the devastating and excessive indemnities that the Qing Empire was forced to pay after the Boxer Rebellion. Among these migrants who crossed the border into Russian Turkestan was Yu.

Traversing the imperial border itself would have been a complicated procedure for Yu. A prospective laborer, Brophy explains, would have had to first obtain permission from his village head, after which he could go to Kashgar to apply for a Qing passport or an “authorization to leave the guard post.” This document would contain text in both Chinese and Turki, with a separate Russian translation if the traveler wanted a visa from the Russian consulate. All of this would allow Yu to merely enter Russian territory; once there, he would have to apply for a temporary residence permit (bilet), such as the one above. Beyond bureaucratic barriers, there were also financial ones: when Yugun embarked on his journey, the passport fees were around 0.4 tael,10 but the Russian visa cost him nearly 15 taels. With the additional bribes that were an expected part of chasing such papers, the fees would reach about 50 taels. Given these exorbitant prices and the continuous scrutiny faced by the passport applicants, many crossed the border without any documentation through poorly guarded paths, often working on nomadic lands to avoid being caught.

However, Yu had a passport residence permit and was therefore not among the undocumented. Or was he? There were many cases of Kashgaris who borrowed someone else’s passport to apply for a residence permit. To the frustration of Russian bureaucrats, the paper regime was, like the physical border, a permeable one: those caught with incorrect or fraudulent papers were rarely deported back to the Qing Empire. There were even cases of undocumented Kashgaris obtaining Russian subjecthood under the governor’s orders in Semirech’e. Sometimes the Russian authorities simply could not distinguish between Russian subjects such as Andijanis11 and Chinese subjects from Kashgar, allowing migrants to remain unnoticed. There is, of course, no way to know for sure in the case of Yu’s was indeed a permit issued to him based on Qing documentation. A piece of paper could easily deceive the officials in places of authority: in the Russian Far East, for instance, Korean and Chinese laborers frequently purchased, resold, and leased passports to fellow workers. As empires sought to record, document, and categorize the mobile subjects who crossed into and out of their territories, those on the receiving end of such policies navigated (or evaded) the new system with the tools available to them. In the case of itinerant individuals like Yu, this entailed enduring the bureaucratic hurdles while at times, perhaps, subverting them to their own advantage.

* * *

From Aidzhanov’s arrest and Yu’s residency permit to Gulandom’s hefty passport, much has changed, including the exponential growth of the weight carried by pieces of paper and their role in shaping our mobility. Today's migration patterns have led inhabitants of Central Asia to different parts of the world. A common destination for migrants from the region is Russia, where the “infinite stream of papers” decried by Karamzin centuries earlier is still a fixture of the bureaucracy. Many face humiliating and expensive requirements within the Russian bureaucratic system, including obtaining labor patents, undergoing medical checks, and passing language tests. Minor missteps in this process have led many—over a quarter million Tajik citizens alone over the last eight years—to detention and deportation. The latter always comes with a distinct stamp in the identification document, indicating expulsion and three-year-long prohibition against entry. Desperate, many such deportees pay to obtain new passports under false names in their home countries from authorities interested in the extra cash, thus permitting them to attempt a border crossing again. Nevertheless, even those who successfully complete the migration requirements face routine racial profiling by the Russian police in the streets. Even receiving citizenship does not shield Central Asian immigrants from the systematic xenophobic outbursts on local and national levels, as evident in the cases of the many Russian citizens of Central Asian descent who have been harassed for their ethnicity and even stripped of their legal status.

The curious role of papers as objects that can be granted or removed in the lives of the mobile cannot be overstated. Izzat Amon, a human rights lawyer, is among a handful of those who had experienced this first-hand. Born in the Rudaki District of the Tajik SSR, he applied for and successfully obtained Russian citizenship in 1996. Over the next several decades, he built a reputation as an individual who provided support to his compatriots in navigating the bureaucratic hurdles in Russia. His efforts extended to criticizing the Tajik government for their lack of support for the itinerant laborers. In March of 2021, Amon was apprehended by Russian police, stripped of his Russian citizenship, and deported to Tajikistan on charges that Amon had obtained his citizenship under false pretenses. His swift deportation was followed by an arrest in Dushanbe and a nine-year prison sentence for alleged fraud. The paradoxical centrality and futility of citizenship papers is striking: the passport’s value is a point of pride for states that claim unequivocal protection and acceptance of its bearer, often pointing to the undocumented as an illegal and dangerous entity. However, the speed and ease with which such papers and, thus, citizen status can be removed render them virtually worthless. Amon’s case is, unfortunately, not unique: several other Central Asian immigrants to Russia, including Karomat Sharifov, who headed a group that aided Tajik migrants, and Bakhrom Khamroev, an activist who was part of the now-closed international human rights organization Memorial, have faced similar experiences of expulsion and denaturalization. In the latter case, the authorities attempted to force Khamroev’s ex-wife to claim that his citizenship was illegally obtained through a sham marriage.

Removing immigrants’ legal resident status or citizenship and seizing their passports for even minor infractions has now been formalized in Russian law via a bill introduced by Vladimir Putin himself. Beginning in December 2022, individuals from former Soviet republics or those related to such individuals will be eligible to apply for Russian citizenship through a simplified procedure, but with a catch: simplified naturalization also entails simplified denaturalization. Reasons for revoking one's citizenship have been expanded to include offences against the state, drug trafficking, giving false information during naturalization process, and acts or justification of terrorism. Because the idea of citizenship revocation runs contrary to the constitution, the new law attempts to distinguish between the revocation of citizenship and the decision to cancel the granting of citizenship. Member of the State Duma Alexander Khinshtein has since called for the further expansion of denationalization criteria to include those already born into Russian citizenship, declaring that “sometimes you listen to the revelations of our opposition and wonder: why do you even need a Russian passport if you hate your country and people?” In other words, any opposition to the existing power structures could also be considered grounds for removing one’s citizenship.

The story of the migration regime is as much about the removal of papers as it is about the lack of (the right) papers. Under the façade of imposing and solid territorial borders, states claim exclusive rights of control, callously modifying the criteria around who can and cannot enter. While border crossing is turned into a treacherous and dangerous undertaking and identities demonized and criminalized, those categorized as impermissible continue to defy the monopolizing efforts of the state. The trans-oceanic migration patterns of Central Asians are one such example of resistance. While US green card lotteries have always been popular across Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, reaching upwards of two million applicants in 2018, only a tiny fraction are selected, leaving the majority in search of alternative paths for migration. The vast majority face numerous constraints—with the US consulate in Uzbekistan rejecting nearly 70% of visa applications—which have only increased since the institution of pandemic-related policies. As a result, some have resorted to an elaborate route across the ocean: through Russia or Turkey to Tijuana, past the Mexico-US border to the detention centers on the American side, and hopefully from there to New York or Philadelphia. It’s worth noting that Russian passport holders can enter Mexico without any strict restrictions, while citizens of Central Asian countries require a Mexican visa except if they have a Schengen visa in their passports. The peculiarity of being able to travel to Mexico with a European permit stands out as exceptionally arbitrary: people whose own documentation labels them as insufficiently verified and potentially unsafe require a stamp from a seemingly credible authority located halfway around the world to be granted entry. Hundreds of Telegram accounts and YouTube videos have sprung up to solve such conundrums, alongside individuals—some trustworthy, others less so—who have developed schemes to aid (or deceive) hopeful voyagers. In a notable parallel to the early 20th-century migration routes from the Ottoman Empire to the US through Mexico, an increasing number of Central Asian migrants are even joining asylum seekers from Central and South America, China, Ukraine, and India, applying for refugee status on the basis of claims of discrimination or political persecution in their home countries. With growing awareness of this route, airlines flying from Moscow to Cancún have begun a thorough check of travelers onboard, often removing dozens of passengers due to suspicion about their trip. Fellow Central Asians who have followed this path speak of the incessant and nerve-wracking uncertainty, maltreatments in American detention centers, and exorbitant fees reaching upwards of tens of thousands of US dollars.

The kaghaz-bazi referred to by Gulandom is just that: a bazi, a chase, hunt, or puzzle in which pieces of paper are mandated according to rules that are, in turn, persistently modified with little notice and even less sense. The chase—from and for—the paper regime has come to define the cross-border mobility of our age. As migrants from Central Asia pursue paths to their desired destinations beyond the region, those remaining within, too, experience the brutal entanglement of papers and borders. The Kazakh government shut a number of its border checkpoints during the protests this January (while allowing passage to military reinforcements from its neighbors), while violence that erupted last spring over water rights between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan resulted in land travel between the two countries being suspended for months. Afghan students at Tajik universities remain stranded at checkpoints as their passports and visas expire and they are refused entry by the border officials on the Tajik side. The Dushanbe-based Ministry of Education has responded with a renewed promise to provide quality and accessible education to their Afghan brethren, with a caveat that the question of crossing state boundaries remains outside of the office’s competency. The students’ search for an entry point has not been met with success, while their pleas to the officials remain unanswered. The thing holding the students’ entry up, by all accounts, is a missing piece of paper listing all their names.

1 Name changed to respect privacy.

2 Some Sufi pilgrimage sites were known as “Second Meccas” or “Kaabas.”

3 A city in present-day Uzbekistan.

4 Recent literature has pointed to the inadequacies of the grand theories that are often used to explain the Russian conquest of Central Asia. In his book, Alexander Morrison deconstructs these debates in a productive and helpful manner. In the case of Valuev’s statement, it is also worth checking Svetlana’s Gorshenina’s analysis, which points to the curious parallels between the “accidental” conquest of Central Asia and British narratives in India.

5 The terminology used to refer to indigenous people in the Russian language and throughout the Russian Empire and subsequent Soviet Union is tricky. In the Russian Empire, the local population of Central Asia and Siberia were referred to as tuzemtsy (equivalent to the term “natives”) or inorodsty (meaning “alien-born”). The term korennye (meaning rooted or indigenous) became more prevalent during the Soviet period but in this case is used to refer to ethnic Russians. It is also used to differentiate between the new subjects of the Empire, meaning those who were included after the conquests, and the existing imperial subjects from Russia proper.

6 In present-day Kyrgyzstan.

7 Present-day Almaty.

8 An area that comprised what are now parts of southern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan.

9 In the late 19th century, Kashgari was an umbrella term that included those from different parts of Chinese Turkestan.

10 One Qing tael was roughly equivalent to 0.38 grams of silver.

11 Andijanis, residents of the city of Andijan in present-day Uzbekistan, played an important role in the trade between Chinese and Russian Turkestan. They would have been considered Russian subjects. The stories of Andijanis and their use of Russian passports in Chinese Turkestan is also a fascinating glimpse into the lives of such mobile groups.