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the Leiden University library – in 1610.

Over the Fall break our colleague Dr Beatrice Penati is invited by the Central Asia Initiative at Leiden University (the Netherlands). The Central Asia Initiative (February 2015 to February 2017) is funded by the Leiden research profile area Asian Modernities and Traditions with the purpose to establish Central Asian Studies at Leiden University.

Dr Penati is going to deliver one open lecture titled “Bitter Truths: Common-pool resources, industrialisation, and the global history of Central Asian wormwood” and a masterclass for graduate and PhD students from Leiden and Amsterdam on “Living standards in Tsarist and early Soviet Central Asia: Can we study them? Why do they matter?”. The abstracts can be found below.

Dr Penati also gave a lecture in Leiden last year, in the framework of the autumn Central Asia Week of the same Initiative.

For more details, please refer to the agenda of the Central Asia Initiative at Leiden University.


Bitter truths: Common-pool resources, industrialisation, and the global history of Central Asian wormwood.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a medicinal plant, Artemisia cina , used to grow abundantly on the right bank of the Arys river, not far from Shymkent, in what was the Syr-Darya province of Tsarist Turkestan (now in southern Kazakhstan). An alkaloid derived from this kind of wormwood (santonin) were in high demand at the time throughout the world. Flowers were harvested by the local Kazakh population and handed over to intermediaries, who sent them to Europe to be processed industrially. Entrepreneurs from different parts of the Russian empire established their own chemical plants in Chimkent and Tashkent from the 1880s onwards. They pressured the Russian imperial government to restrict the rights of the Kazakh population to access the land where Artemisia cina grew, and to obtain the exclusive right to exploit such a resource, in the name of conservation.

The collision between the expectations and rights of the nomads, the industrialists, and the colonial administration allows a glimpse into the evolution of  Tsarist colonial policies about land resources and into the way notions of land property were used by each of the parts concerned. Furthermore, this story casts light on the supposed monopolistic nature of pre-revolutionary Russian capitalism. From another viewpoint, through Artemisia cina we see the emergence of conservationism in the region and on the development of scientific expertise in its support. Finally, because the trade of Central Asian wormwood and its derivates was truly global, changing medical practices and consumers’ behaviour had a massive impact on the destiny of local harvesting and transformation activities. In this perspective, Central Asia ceases to be a marginalised periphery and appears far more integrated than commonly held.

Living standards in Tsarist and early Soviet Central Asia: Can we study them? Why do they matter?

In this masterclass I will present the results of my ongoing work on the topic. I have collected a relatively large database with information from peasant (and nomadic) household budgets from across the region (nowadays Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) and spanning from the first to the third decade of the 20th c. By discussing the sources themselves, the challenges they pose, and the methods used to treat the data they contain, I show the potential of this approach and reveal some rather unexpected results. I will also propose some reflections on the ways in which this sort of woulk could, in the near future, help integrate the study of Central Asia with that of neigbouring regions, and beyond.