Central Asia, one of the most understudied areas in the world, is currently going through the upheavals of modernisation and nation formation. Arguing against the one-dimensional modernist conclusion that this process was arrested during the Soviet period, the article sets out to explore the complex weave of historical continuity and discontinuity in the formation of national identity in the new states. It argues against the notion that national identity involves the necessary dissolution of traditional ties. Moreover, the article substantially qualifies the contemporary theoretical trend to treat continuing elements of tradition as merely dead images of the past, given life by instrumental elites. Instead of nationality being posited as a one-dimensional form of identity, the article sets up an approach that emphasises the contradictory layering of identity.