In 1979, Eugene Huskey was a graduate student at the London School of Economics when he landed the opportunity to spend a year at Moscow State University studying the Soviet legal system. By the time he departed, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and the United States had announced a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics.
In the late '80s, Huskey was invited by the renowned Sovietologist Jerry F. Hough to join a team of American scholars studying the Soviet Republics as the USSR began to unwind under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. After the Soviet Union disbanded, Huskey was among the first Western academics in modern history to visit what is now known as Kyrgyzstan and meet with members of its government.
A professor emeritus of political science at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, Huskey is the author of 2018's Encounters at the Edge of the Muslim World: A Political Memoir of Kyrgyzstan (Rowman & Littlefield). He spoke to Reason's Mike Riggs in September about studying in Soviet Moscow and the politics of Central Asia after communism.
Q: Did you ever feel in danger while studying in the USSR?
A: No. In fact, quite the opposite. I had been there three times before 1979. I might be on the street at 3 a.m.—not very often, but occasionally—and I felt completely safe.
The people who tried to teach me fear were Soviets. I remember one young woman, who was a psychologist and the daughter of a famous scientist there, came into our dorm room at Moscow University and immediately turned on the water, took a pencil and stuck it in our telephone, and turned on music in the background.
Q: I'm guessing that whatever conversation you had with her probably seemed pretty anodyne.
A: This is the nature of an authoritarian regime. You don't quite know where the boundaries of acceptable discourse are. Everything is uncertain. In the Stalin era, you were worried that anything could be used against you. It was obviously much more open when I was there in the height of the [General Secretary Leonid] Brezhnev period, but there were still boundaries that people really didn't know whether they were crossing or not.
Q: When you first visited independent Kyrgyzstan, what awareness did the leaders there have of concepts like negative rights and civil liberties?
A: Very, very few people had any understanding at all of the kinds of concepts that you're mentioning. Their tradition was in dialectical materialism and the history of the working class. They were from the Soviet Union's higher party schools.
Q: Was it exciting for them to hear about these concepts?
A: I think many of them found it disorienting. 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 are the obstacles to 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. It's very difficult for people to compete with that. In fact, you really can't.
Q: How do heads of state hold power in the post-communist world?
A: They rely on this sort of cult that they've created; they rely on the legitimated devices of courts, elections, and a constitution; but they also rely on a network of elites who are in a kind of pyramid, with the leader at the top. Either through jobs, or rents, or something else, they're part of a dense network that is loyal to the leader in part because they're financially better off.
There's an exchange relationship that's taking place that's extremely important, and central, it seems to me, to the stability of these regimes. But that means they've got to work at getting their people elected in the right numbers and making it seem somewhat legitimate, and they've got to constantly be dealing with this really immense client network to make sure that they're on board and that those relationships are stable.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.