Author Interview: Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan, by Romain Malejacq (Radboud University)

Editor’s note:  Here CESS Blog is pleased to present the fourth installment of our author interview series for those shortlisted for the annual CESS book award in social sciences and humanities this year.  Niamatullah Ibrahimi (La Trobe University), author of both Afghanistan: Politics and Economics in a Globalising State (Routledge 2019, with William Maley), and The Hazaras and the Afghan State: Rebellion, Exclusion, and the Struggle for Recognition (Hurst Publishers 2017) interviews Romain Malejacq (Radboud University) about his book Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan, published by Cornell University Press.

“How do warlords survive and even thrive in contexts that are explicitly set up to undermine them? How do they rise after each fall? Warlord Survival answers these questions. Drawing on hundreds of in-depth interviews in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2018, with ministers, governors, a former vice-president, warlords and their entourages, opposition leaders, diplomats, NGO workers, and local journalists and researchers, Romain Malejacq provides a full investigation of how warlords adapt and explains why weak states like Afghanistan allow it to happen.”  (from the press website)


Many congratulations on the publication of your excellent book, Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan. Can we begin by reflecting on your personal journey that led to the writing of this book? How did you get interested in Afghanistan and the phenomenon of ‘warlordism’ in particular?

Initially, I actually had no intention of working on Afghanistan. In fact, I had absolutely no prior connection to Afghanistan. I spent a year in South Africa as an undergraduate student and that’s really when I became interested in peace and conflict studies. I had also travelled quite extensively throughout Africa before and I continued to do so during that year. It’s almost naturally that I decided to focus my research on African conflicts. I became interested in warlords long before I even thought about studying Afghanistan. I became acquainted with ideas and theories about warlordism while writing my Master’s thesis, which had nothing to do with Afghanistan, but focused exclusively on Liberia and Sierra Leone. I was specifically looking at theories that emerged to describe and explain the Mano River conflicts. Warlordism was an important topic there and I decided to continue on this topic for my PhD. I started my PhD thinking my dissertation would be a comparative study of warlords in a few African countries. It’s only then, the very first month of my doctoral studies, that I had the opportunity to work on and go to Afghanistan for a completely unrelated research project. I jumped on the occasion. I spent that month in Kabul and immediately became fascinated by the place. My PhD advisor then suggested to include Afghanistan as one of my cases, which I did. And I went back to Afghanistan, again and again, every time falling more in love with the place. The more I learned about Afghanistan, the more I realized how complicated it was, the more I realized how little I actually knew. Almost fifteen years later, I still feel this way sometimes, and that’s part of what captivates me and motivates me to go back, time after time. For me, Afghan politics are truly fascinating. Anyway, I quickly understood that there was no point in spreading myself thin and trying to understand multiple places and societies that I knew nothing, or very little, about. I quickly dropped the other cases, and focused on Afghanistan and Afghanistan only. And that’s the story of how I came to study Afghan warlords. I don’t regret a thing.

The author interviewing Ismail Khan in his palace, Herat (photograph by friend of the author)

You have conducted extensive field research over so many years to write this book. Did you encounter any challenges and major surprises during the field work?

Yes! Many challenges and at least as many surprises! First, because Afghan culture is so different from my own. It takes a while for one to get acquainted with people’s traditions and ways of life, and make sure to behave appropriately in all circumstances. I clearly made many faux pas the first times I visited Afghanistan. And I’m sure I still do. Hopefully, less and less… But that’s somehow inevitable. Second, of course, fieldwork is challenging because of the current security situation in Afghanistan. Conducting fieldwork in conflict settings is always challenging but doing research in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly difficult. Especially research on non-state armed actors, such as warlords, militias, or insurgent groups. Access, transportation, accommodation… everything becomes challenging. Last, but maybe most importantly, being confronted with civil war destruction and suffering is something Western researchers are not prepared for. It is of course incomparable with what Afghan people have to go through, and we, foreign researchers, have the ability to leave the conflict behind once we’re done with fieldwork, but experiencing civil war is always traumatizing in one way or another. It is something that needs to be better acknowledged and dealt with, along with all the ethical and moral issues, and sometimes the sense of guilt, that come with doing what we do.[1]

Now, as far surprises go, I actually had quite a few. The first one came almost as soon as I set foot on Afghan soil. I had never been to a conflict zone. I had ideas about what to expect but I vividly remember being quite in shock and impressed by the visuals of foreign intervention. The checkpoints, the sandbags, the barbed wires, the T-walls, I had never seen anything like that before. To add to this, the streets were almost empty, apart for pick-ups filled with young men in arms. After a night of travelling, it made quite an impression on me. It was really something I had never experienced before. What I only realized later is that it was not always like that. We had landed on September 9, on the anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s death, which was the reason for the empty streets and the men in arms. And then, a couple of days later, as my friend and I were driving back from a cultural evening at the French high school, I ended up with a green dot on my chest. Nothing happened, the driver slowly reversed the car and we turned around, but that was quite the first trip.

Portrait of Ahmad Shah Massoud with inscription “national hero” (graffiti adding “of Pakistan”), Kabul (photograph by author)

The word ‘warlord’ and its Dari translation jangsalar can have strong pejorative connotations. I remember, many in Afghanistan argued against using the term as they felt it was instrumentalised by some groups to delegitimise and even demonise their rivals. How do you think the practical use and abuse of the term may affect academic research on the topic?

I would like to think that it doesn’t, that the way the term ‘warlord’ is used in the media and by people in general does not affect the analysis, but it does. Academic work on warlords tends to be overly normative. The term is used to vilify a certain category of political actors which, it is assumed, the international community should get rid of. Scholars have compared warlords to viruses and parasites, feeding or encroaching themselves on the population and the state. To hyenas even! Many use the term to evoke these individuals’ violent and criminal behavior, but eclipse anything else that they do or represent. Often with a hint of Orientalism.

There are definitely valid arguments in favor of dropping the term altogether. I personally went back and forth for while. In the end though, I kept the term because I believe that it has academic value. Not to delegitimize political rivals or designate non-state armed actors in sensationalist ways, but as a social science concept. It is often used improperly, normatively, politically even, but it describes a category of political actors that operate according to a very distinctive logic.

In the book, I define warlords as “astute political entrepreneurs with a proven ability to organize violence and control territory, who exert and transform authority across different spheres (ideological, economic, military, social, and political) and at different levels of political affairs (local, national, and international)” (p.4). I make absolutely no normative assumption about them. At least I try not to. I just try to focus on what they do rather than on what is assumed of them. It won’t prevent people from making conjectures about what I say about warlords. It goes both ways anyhow. Some will say I am pro-warlords, others that I am anti-warlords. But in fact, I’m neither. I’m just trying to understand and explain a particular phenomenon.

So, going back to your question, yes I believe that the way the term has been used (and abused) does affect academic research, and in a problematic way. It’s even more the case in Afghanistan, where political actors themselves have used it to vilify others, but it does not make the concept less relevant. We just have to be very careful not to use it normatively, and to really distinguish between the social science concept and the popular use of the term.

Soviet tank remnant, Panjshir Valley (photograph by the author)

In your book, you explore how warlords accumulate and project power to survive in highly volatile environments. Can you please explain how power projection by a warlord is different from power politics more generally?

Power projection is the mechanism through which political actors convince others that they are legitimate, and have authority. That’s how warlords remain indispensable in the eyes of those who need what they can provide, whether it is votes, security, or job opportunities. This is not necessarily unique to warlords though. Populist leaders and dictators, for example, use propaganda and other means to boost their image. Most political actors develop sophisticated communication strategies. What is unique about warlords is that have the ability to use violence, which they combine with the capacity to reach all levels of politics.

Thanks to their ability to use violence, not only can warlords supply goods and services that most other political actors cannot, but they can also create disorder. In places where state capacities are weak, like Afghanistan, this makes warlords very distinct from other political actors. It provides them with a lot of new opportunities. And, since a warlord’s power is extremely difficult to assess, it also makes them very difficult to get rid of. Those who would like to see warlords wither away have to deal with them quite conservatively, as they fear their capacity to foster instability.

What I really try to explain in the book is that there is a circular logic to how warlords perpetuate their power. The more powerful they look, the more their wishes will be accommodated, and the more powerful they will become. And the more powerful they are, the more powerful they look. In fact, they remain powerful as long as long as others believe they are. This brings us to the warlords’ second distinctive feature. They have the ability to exert power and make themselves indispensable at all levels of political affairs, from local communities, to political elites in the capital, to foreign state representatives, which, combined with their ability to use violence, allows them to perpetuate their power.

Some have argued that the so-called warlords may find it in their interest to work through state institutions and thus potentially become state builders. You argue that this is a delusion. Can you please explain why you think this is a delusion? 

Well, I don’t necessarily argue that warlord cannot become state builders, or that they cannot be integrated into some sort of state-building process. On the contrary, I conclude the book by saying that state building can only be successful if it involves the incorporation and absorption of the warlords’ social capital and networks on terms that are useful to the state. The delusion is to think that external state building aimed at centralizing and monopolizing political authority will work. Warlords are integral to the way states like Afghanistan actually work and they won’t go anywhere. There is also no reason to believe that they will turn into benevolent civil servants and just abandon their other sources of authority. This is not to say that there can be no state and that warlords cannot play their part in building it. They will if it serves their interests indeed. But they will maintain their ability to harness different sources of power outside of the state. So, yes, warlords can help the state extent its reach, but their power will endure no matter what, whether we like it or not. In fact, they use the state’s authority to increase their own and use their own to increase the state’s. What I’m truly saying in the book is that external state building in Afghanistan and other similar environments is impossible without significant concessions to these warlords. They will not be eliminated and replaced by the state. So yes, external interventions that aim at building centralized, bureaucratic states are doomed to fail and, in these conditions, lead to what I call the delusion of state building.

[1] Malejacq, Romain and Dipali Mukhopadhyay. 2016. “The ‘Tribal Politics’ of Field Research: A Reflection on Power and Partiality in 21st-Century Warzones. Perspectives on Politics 14(4): 1011-1028.

Author Interview: Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Identity, by Tim Grose (Rose Hulman Institute of Technology)

Editor’s note:  In this, our third installment of the books shortlisted for the CESS annual prizes in social sciences and humanities, Mirshad Ghalip (Indiana University) interviews Tim Grose (Rose Hulman Institute of Technology) about his book Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Identity, published in 2019 by Hong Kong University Press:

“This is the first book-length study of graduates from the Xinjiang Class, a program that funds senior high school–aged students from Xinjiang, mostly ethnic Uyghur, to attend a four-year course in predominately Han-populated cities in eastern and coastal China. Based on longitudinal field research, Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Identity offers a detailed picture of the multilayered identities of contemporary Uyghur youth and an assessment of the effectiveness of this program in meeting its political goals. The experiences of Xinjiang Class graduates reveal how young, educated Uyghurs strategically and selectively embrace elements of the corporate Chinese Zhonghua minzu identity in order to stretch the boundaries of a non state-defined Uyghur identity. Timothy Grose also argues that the impositions of Chinese Mandarin and secular Chinese Communist Party (CCP) values over ethnic minority languages and religion, and physically displacing young Uyghurs from their neighborhood and cultural environment do not lead to ethnic assimilation, as the CCP apparently expects. Despite pressure from state authorities to urge Xinjiang Class graduates to return after their formal education, the majority of the graduates choose to remain in inner China or to use their Xinjiang Class education as a springboard to seek global citizenship based upon membership in a transnational Islamic community. For those who return to Xinjiang, contrary to the political goal of the program, few intend to serve the CCP, their country, or even their hometown. Instead, their homecomings are marred by disappointment, frustration, and discontent” (from the publisher’s website).


How did you become interested in the Xinjiang Class? Why are these students important in the larger context of understanding the Uyghurs in China?

As is the case with many dissertation projects, which in this case was turned into the book, my research about the Xinjiang Class was a stroke of chance, or maybe luck. My original project sought to examine the development of bilingual education in rural Turpan. However, my host institution at the time, the Minzu University of China, as well as authorities in Xinjiang were making it increasingly difficult for me to stay in this town for extended periods. During a stint in Beijing—I traveled back and forth between the capital and Uyghur areas—I met a talented young woman whose command of Uyghur, Chinese, and English still amaze me to this day. When I remarked about her linguistic skills, she shrugged it off and said: “There are many [Uyghurs] like me. We went to high school in inner China (neidi).” She continued to explain the program, how many students were in her cohort, etc. The rest of the project snowballed from this chance encounter.

When I began my dissertation research, several books were either recently published or in the pipelines about “the Uyghurs.” Of course, these works inspired me as a graduate student and continue to inspire/inform my work today, but I felt as though the scope of these projects were very broad.  All along, I wanted to look more closely at a specific segment of the very diverse population of Uyghurs. Because travel within Xinjiang made it difficult to focus on village life, the Xinjiang Class, I felt, was an appropriate compromise: my work never intended to  speak about or for “the Uyghurs.”

Therefore, I consciously avoid generalizing the experiences of Uyghur Xinjiang Class graduates, and I hesitate to suggest they are somehow representative of young Uyghurs in the twenty-first century. My interlocutors’ understandings of Uyghurness, or Chineseness were informed by specific historical and political currents. If anything, I think the findings of my research demonstrate the unpredictability and “messiness” of identity construction.

The first chapter of the book talks about incubating loyalty or resistance in Chinese boarding schools. Why do the results of the boarding school system vary so much?

Truth be told, I don’t believe these boarding schools are meeting the political objectives set forth by the Chinese Communist Party—educating and molding Uyghur persons devoid of an ethno-national consciousness and religious sensibilities. In other words, and despite some variation on a very individual level, Uyghur graduates of the Xinjiang Class were not internalizing state-defined and mediated ideas of Uyghurness or Chineseness. In fact, I argue that the environments established by these boarding schools—Chinese mono-lingual language policies, strict restrictions on religious practice, limitations on contact with parents, etc.,–activated and strengthened a Uyghur ethno-national identity instead of a minzu (Chinese for ethnic group) identity. Put slightly differently, the boarding schools may have engendered a type of Uyghur ethno-nationalism that the CCP is attempting to contain and eliminate.

Beijing’s Madian Mosque, which was popular among several Xinjiang Class graduates.  (photo credit author)

What makes Uyghur students from the Xinjiang class  practice identity maintenance and interpret Islam in a way that is transnational yet also “mono-minzu”?

What I meant by this line is the tendency for young Uyghurs who began cultivating religious piety to look to sources of Islamic knowledge from international students who professed Islam, Islamic websites, especially from Turkey, even embassies of Muslim-majority countries, and reading books authored by foreign Muslims. Therefore, Uyghurs were looking towards and attempting to make connections (tangible and imagined) with the umma who lived beyond the borders of the Peoples Republic of China. Yet their enthusiasm to learn about Islam from outside Uyghur communities stopped at Hui people. Xinjiang Class graduates, similar to some non-Xinjiang Class Uyghur friends and contacts I have, were skeptical of the sincerity of Hui (another minzu in China) piety.

Why was the CCP so adamant about the return of Xinjiang Class to Xinjiang? What kind of expectation does the CCP have for the Xinjiang Class?

At one time, the CCP believed that Xinjiang Class graduates would serve as a stabilizing element to Uyghur society. They were supposed to be equipped with  the necessary deportment and skills of an upstanding Chinese citizens: patriotism, secularism, mastery of Chinese language, etc. The strategy was to use these individuals to fill low level vacancies in many public sectors, especially education, health care, and agricultural technology. Officials were extremely hopeful that Xinjiang Class graduates would return to rural communities and serve as teachers, which would help the Party carry-out its “bi-lingual” (mostly Chinese language) education program. The Party even offered Xinjiang Class graduates free college tuition if they agreed to serve as teachers for ten years. Perhaps as a surprise to the CCP, however, many Xinjiang Class graduates aspired to different paths, many which led to places other than Xinjiang. Certainly, few wanted to become teachers. Still, in the eyes of Party officials Xinjiang Class graduates had and still have two main responsibility: fill critical needs job while embodying/spreading Party values.

“Education Guidelines of the Party and Country,” Elementary School, Kashgar, 2013.  (photo credit author)

In the context of current reality, what kind of changes do you anticipate would happen to the Xinjiang Class? Would their resistance also be met with a brutal crackdown?

It’s hard to predict. I imagine that authorities will emphasize, even more so than in the recent past, the political ideology courses and ethnic unity activities. After the 2009 Urumchi demonstrations and ensuing violence, CCP officials doubled-down on the political content of the Xinjiang Class curriculum. When Xinjiang Class students return home for summer recess, they are required to attend regular “study sessions” held locally—sometimes jointly with college students who’ve returned home. To my surprise, we haven’t witnessed an increase in annual enrollment. In fact, I believe the number is still capped at just below 10,000 persons/year. However, and strangely, I haven’t found enrollment figures for 2019 and 2020—I just checked in October 2020, the websites had been deactivated.

I can’t imagine Xinjiang Class students—ages 15-18—would resist in a way that threatens the school or cities hosting these schools. Of course, and as do teenagers across the globe, Xinjiang Class students break rules and defy authority figures. Consistent insubordination and severe infractions are dealt with by expulsion.

I do know with certainty, however, that Xinjiang Class graduates have not been immune from the recent state violence. My conclusion speaks of one close contact who was detained in 2017 and his whereabouts and well-being remain unknown. This startling reality says to me that the CCP realizes its own shortcomings in trying to engineer “loyal” and patriotic Chinese citizens out of young Uyghurs.

Statue of Uyghur playing the dap stands above the rubble created by “modernization” projects in Urumchi, 2013. (photo credit author)

New Publication: At Ahura Mazda’s Throne, by Vladimir Karasev

Editor’s note: We present here a brief overview of a new publication by Vladimir Karasev, currently available in Russian language:

“Среди величайших религий мира Зороастризм выделяется своей духовно-нравственной философией, которая вроде и присуща всем мировым религиям, но в тоже время настолько своеобразна, что покоряет мгновенно каждого, кто заинтересовано обратит на неё свой взор. Покоряет простотой понятия Добра и Зла, Правды и Лжи, Света и Тьмы. Ведь в глубине сознания каждого человека теплится невысказанная мысль о творении всего сущего на земле.” (description from the author’s website here, where the volume is also available for purchase).

Vladimir Karasev is one of the well-known archeologists active across the Central Asian and Altai regions as well as Crimea over the past three decades, who worked to excavate Soghdian and Scythian sites among others; his total work comprises over 150 expeditions.  Karasev has lived primarily in Uzbekistan, where he dedicated his career and work to the project of cultural heritage and sites protection.  This work was not always easy, nor supported by the state in either Soviet or post-Soviet times, either for ideological or practical financial reasons.  Karasev’s life-work has been to work beyond the boundaries of political limitations, to bring the rich and multi-faceted cultural history of Central Asia to a global stage.

Here we present the author’s prologue and introduction to At Ahura Mazda’s Throne, republished with permission.

We are grateful and give our special thanks to Ksenia Ilushina, in preparing these materials for the blog.







Азия! Самое будничное и обычное слово для всех жителей Старого Света. Рыбаки из аравийской Джидды, забрасывающие сети в Красное море и такие же ловцы Анадырского залива с Чукотского полуострова, их коллеги с острова Кюсю, Сингапура и цейлонского Коломбо обязательно скажут о себе: «Я азиат!». Потому, что для большей части всего человечества не существует другого мира, а только Азия – пространство, которое равно по площади обоим Америкам.

Менее пятисот лет назад, для любого азиата не существовало другого мира кроме Азии, да ещё ничтожного как по размерам, так и по значению придатка к ней  – Европы. По их мнению, Европа была  дикой, там  живут «варвары, делающие всё не так как у людей…».

Деление мира на Восток и Запад, как любят об этом муссировать европейские учёные и писатели, для азиата просто смешны. И с этим, пожалуй, нельзя не согласиться. Ведь для жителя Японии, Кореи или Камчатки   – Ближний Восток, это очень далёкий Запад.

Потому, что, даже прогрессивный израильтянин или турок, просто не имеют морального права утверждать, что он представитель «западной» – европейской культуры.

Несмотря на то, что самые древние цивилизации человечества, за исключением египетской,  родились и выросли в азиатской «колыбели», ещё всего-то сто лет назад, эта часть света считалась таинственной и загадочной для любого просвещённого и культурного европейца. Экспедиции, отправлявшиеся туда, обрекали себя на непреодолимые трудности, лишения и, подчас, гибель.

Но какое великое озарение охватывало исследователей, которые открывали для себя и «просвещённого мира» загадочную Азию! Закрытые аравийские, китайские, тибетские и индийские города потрясали воображение. Для исследователя открывалась иная философия, иной культурный облик, который казался знакомым и близким, как родные пенаты, взрастившие и воспитавшие первые представления о мире. От этого веяло такой изнывающей ностальгией, что европейские читатели и слушатели рассказов об этих открытиях, считали Азию очень понятной и духовно близкой. Именно это стало настоящей катастрофой для интеллектуальной Европы!

Подобно эпидемии беспощадного гриппа умы европейцев стали захватывать изотерические учения псевдо-восточных мудрецов. Бесчисленные сонмы новоявленных магов, просветлённых провидцев, духовных факиров заполонили богемные салоны, театры и дома добропорядочных граждан Европы. Даже великолепный Сэр Артур Конан Дойль, буквально сходил с ума в своих спиритических теориях и экспериментах. Во всех аристократических салонах «мудрой Европы» появлялись толпы толкователей и провидцев, спешащих поведать Истину, спрятанную между строк в священных писаниях самых разных народов. Библия становиться объектом занимательного и романтического чтения с последующими обсуждениями в кружках, где просто витала насыщенная и осязаемая атмосфера  изотерических спекуляций.

Потрясённые открывающимися громадами пространств восточной изотерики, лучшие представители интеллигенции тамошнего мира, опрометчиво, но в то же время и самоотверженно бросались в этот губительный океан. С упорством, которое под силу только параноикам, новоявленные «просветители и миссии», а, по сути, – банальные шарлатаны и ловкие мошенники, изображали из себя учителей (гуру), «познавших всю глубину философского наследия Востока». Конечно, это был обязательный этап, через который проходит каждая научная мысль во времени первоначального становления, в моменты появления грядущих научных эпох. Как любой коллекционер, начинает сбор вожделенных предметов с простого численного накопительства, постепенно обретая опыт и познавая ценность своего занятия, так и новые научные течения, пробиваются через труднопроходимые тернии к широким просторам чистых морей знания.

Прародиной всех крупнейших мировых религий – от иудаизма, с библейскими пророками просветлённых, до бурятских ламаистов со своей изощренной философией, все они были детищами необозримых просторов Азии.

Это, несомненно, должно было возбуждать любопытство и воображение экзальтированных «пифий» новомодных объединений и кружков в Европе. В то же время, для десятков учёных открывались новые и неведомые горизонты познания истории культуры человечества…

«Сердцем Азии» всегда считался Памир – горная система, которая, по мнению азиатов, была «Крышей мира». Он располагается в самой центральной области этой части света. Здесь же – у его подножья, раскинулась и Великая Туранская низменность, на которой сейчас уютно устроились современные Узбекистан и части Таджикистана, Киргизия, Казахстан и Туркменистан. Эти страны, образовались в результате политический коллизий, кипевших на этой территории в последнее столетие, хотя бурлящие потоки передвижения громадных масс народов «терзают» эти пространства уже более трёх тысячелетий.

Истинные пророки истинных религий родились в Азии, где и проповедовали свои откровения. Одной из таких величайших монотеистических религий человечества был Зороастризм.

Практически все учёные-религиоведы (О! Как уничижительно насмешливо звучит это определение – «вед»!) утверждали без сомнения, что эта религия зороастрийцев и её пророк родились в Иране. Но, как мы увидим, истины в этом не больше, чем в утверждениях известной в Х1Х веке мадам Елены фон Ган, ставшей впоследствии Блаватской, которая в новомодных салонах и домах российской аристократии, убеждала простофиль и экзальтированных истеричек в том, что именно она является последней реинкарнацией Гаутамы Просветлённого! Эта, пророчествующая «ведунья», не имела ни малейшего представления о буддийских философских  притчах, в одной из которых говориться: «Как-то, у ближайшего из учеников и последователей Будды спросили о том, что надо делать, если встретишь Будду на дороге? Мудрец ответил –  убей его, ибо истинный Будда находится всегда внутри тебя!». Но Европа, казалась ничтожной и не понимающей её великого «космического» учения. Устроившись в штате Вермонт, она в 1875 году создаёт первое в США теософское Общество. Затем, пишет книгу «Разоблачение Изиды», которая совершенно не потрясла прагматичных и целеустремлённых американцев. Обиженная изотеричка, собрав громадные чемоданы набитые «цивилизованным» барахлом, приплыла обратно в европейское «убожество».

Author Interview: Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence, by Shoshana Keller (Hamilton College)

Editor’s Note: This fall we are pleased to present again a series of some of the books shortlisted for awards in the Social Sciences and Humanities at CESS.  Our second installment features the work of Shoshana Keller, Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence, published by the University of Toronto Press.

“Russia and Central Asia provides an overview of the relationship between two dynamic regions, highlighting the ways in which Russia and Central Asia have influenced and been influenced by Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This readable synthesis, covering early coexistence in the seventeenth century to the present day, seeks to encourage new ways of thinking about how the modern world developed.

Shoshana Keller focuses on the five major “Stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Cultural and social history are interwoven with the military narrative to provide a sense of the people, their religion, and their practices – all of which were severely tested under Stalin.

The text includes a glossary as well as images and maps that help to highlight 500 years of changes, bringing Central Asia into the general narrative of Russian and world history and introducing a fresh perspective on colonialism and modernity” (press website).

Shoshana Keller recently spoke about her work with Nicholas Seay (the Ohio State University) for the New Books Network; you may listen to their conversation now:  interview can be accessed by clicking this hyperlink, re-posted here with permission from the author. 


Author Interview: Oceans of Milk, Oceans of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire, by Matthew King (University of California, Riverside)

Editor’s Note: This fall we are pleased to present again a series of some of the books shortlisted for awards in the Social Sciences and Humanities at CESS.  In this first installment, Daigengna Duoer (University of California, Santa Barbara) interviews Matthew King (University of California, Riverside), on his book Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire, published by Columbia University Press.

  • A polymath Buddhist monk from Khalkha Mongolia, Zava Damdin Lubsangdamdin (Tib. Blo bzang rta mgrin, 1867-1937), and his writings are the center of focus in your book. What led you to write about him and his hundreds of texts?

After I finished my undergraduate degree, on the invitation of a Tibetan lama who was going on a teaching tour of Gobi Desert villages, I began spending time in Buddhist revivalist communities in Mongolia sometime around 2006. Though I knew nothing about Zava Damdin when I embarked on that first trip (or about Mongolia… or really anything!), it happened that our host was the eminent Mongolian lama Guru Deva Rinpoché. Guru Deva had been at the heart of revival and preservation of Inner Asian monasticism for decades; first in the Tibetan diaspora in India during the 1960s, then in Nepal, and then, after 1991, in Mongolia. In the 1970s, Guru Deva Rinpoché had collected and published the seventeen-volume Collected Works (Tib. Gsung ‘bum) of Zava Damdin from his exile base in Kathmandu.

When I arrived in Ulaanbaatar in 2006, Guru Deva Rinpoché’s residence was a throughway for hundreds of people involved in reviving Buddhist institutions and public ritual traditions in Mongolia and the PRC, from visiting Tibetan lamas to sumo wrestlers, endless streams of monks and lay people, and funders and patrons from across Asia. One of the most prominent members of this entourage was a monk named Luwsandarjaa, considered to be the current incarnation of Zava Damdin. During that summer and over five or six subsequent trips, I spent a great deal of time with this lama and his monks in apartment temples in Ulaanbaatar, at his revived Gobi monastery, and in many town halls, grasslands, and sandy ruins across the Gobi all the way to the Chinese border.

“A religious ritual begins, Ulaanbaatar (1930s).(Digital copies of glass plate negatives preserved in the Archives for Cinema, Photography, and Sound Recording, Mongolia [1910s-1950]. EAP264/1/9/6/111.)

Appropriately enough, I suppose, I learned about Zava Damdin’s revolutionary-era historical writing from his current incarnation. During my first two visits, his community was widely distributing a modern Cyrillic Mongolian translation of his predecessor’s verse history of Mongolian Buddhism and world history from c. 1910 entitled the Sounding of the Auspicious Dharma Conch (Tib. Bkra shis chos dung bzhad pa’i sgra dbyangs). Though I had been studying classical Tibetan and Mongolian for a while at that point, in these early years I had not yet discovered the extent of Zava Damdin’s surviving writing, never mind the breadth of their content. That would take many, many (many) years of reading and translating. In the meantime, I completed a Master’s thesis based on ethnographic research about the Buddhist revival in the Gobi and then, for my doctoral studies, I turned to historical anthropology and spent several years reading and translating two or three of Zava Damdin’s histories. At that time my interest was not in the social history of knowledge of the late-and post-Qing, but in theoretical conversations about “non-Western historiography.”

Once I began my current job after graduate school, I spent a couple more years reading what amounts to about two thousand pages of Zava Damdin’s historical writing from c. 1900-1931 and two thousand more pages of autobiographical writing from c. 1910-1936. Collectively, I finally realized, these works contained an absolutely unique expression of scholastic interpretations of the Qing collapse and the rise of revolutionary modernism in Asia’s heartland. Inspired by works such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and formed by exchanges at Duke University and in a meeting at Chiangmai during a yearlong SSRC InterAsian fellowship, I decided to try and use Zava Damdin’s writing as the basis for a revisionist, even radical, microhistory of the Qing-socialist transition in Inner Asia and, more broadly, a critique of modernist presumptions beholden to the national subject in the plotting of post-imperial history in Eurasia. The sum of that exploration is Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood.

  • Your book points out that living and writing in Asia’s first socialist state in the early twentieth century, Zava Damdin’s Buddhist worldview was challenged by new ideologies inspired by Marx, Lenin, and Western sciences that saw the Buddhist institution as a “lama problem.” What was this perceived “problem” and the proposed “solutions” to it?

Against the enduring authority of the Qing-era Buddhist religious establishment, the fledgling socialist state in Mongolia (1921-1990) remained contingent; it occupied a liminal position between enacting direct military action against Buddhist monasteries and having the authority to impose the rule of law. A fundamental problem facing this first project at socialist state building in Asia was glossed by revolutionary cadres at the time as the “lama question” (Kh. Mong. lam narin asuudal).[1] While early revolutionary leaders worked closely with monastic leaders such as Zava Damdin, or else were themselves prominent Buddhist monks and lay Buddhist literati, the majority of monasteries and their elite prelates opposed the centrifugal forces of reform advanced by the government. Examples of reform initiatives range from public health campaigns and staging European theatre for (apparently unimpressed) rural Mongols, to secular education, Mongolian language publication, industrialization of agriculture, and taxing the rich monastic estates. Such reforms failed to provoke a mass awakening of class consciousness; the number of monks actually grew over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s.

“A view of Ganden monastery and its surrounding area, Ulaanbaatar.(Digital copies of glass plate negatives preserved in the Archives for Cinema, Photography, and Sound Recording, Mongolia [1910s-1950]. EAP264/1/9/2/71.)

At Stalin’s infamous behest in the 1937, General Choibalsan and the party leadership in Mongolia decided the enduring weakness of the socialist state and the enduring strength of monastic estates required a turn to legalized violence. In just over a year, at least 40,000 monks and other “counter-revolutionaries” were tried and shot. Hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned or disrobed. Mongolia’s over 700 monastic complexes and temples were reduced to rubble save three. Here was the final, blunt answer to the “lama question.”

  • How did Zava Damdin respond to these conversations and ruptures following “Asia’s first modern revolution” (coined by historian Urgunge Onon) in his Buddhist writings? What were his major topics of concern?

Though Zava Damdin was memorialized in Soviet-era histories as a unique, modernist outlier of an otherwise counter-revolutionary monastic establishment (because, they decided, he had adopted scientific methods in his historical writing), and though current revivalists in Mongolia remember him as a master of the imperial-era monastic tradition, my research shows that neither are true. During the Qing-socialist transition (c. 1900-1936), Zava Damdin and his conservative and trans-Asian milieu of monks and Chinggisid nobility understood their times in terms neither of the Qing nor the just invented revolutionary national subject.

“Zava Damdin, alias ‘The Spiritual Friend Who Please Mañjughoṣa’ (‘Jam dbyangs dgyes pa’i bshes gnyen).”(Blo-bzaṅ-rta-mgrin, Zhongguo Xi Bei Wen Xian Cong Shu / v. 143-157. 西北少数民族文字文獻; Byaṅ Phyogs Hor Gyi Yul Du Dam Pa’i Chos Rin Po Che “Byuṅ Tshul Gyi Gtam Rgyud Bkra Śis Chos Duṅ Dźad Pa”i Sgra Dbyaṅs, vol. 150 (Lanzhou: Zhongguo Lanzhou: Lanzhou gu ji shu dian, 1990), 25.)

In general, the conservative nobility and monastic elites such as Zava Damdin were overwhelmingly concerned with preserving the integrity and centrality of monasticism in revolutionary Inner Asia; over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, monastic networks became not only the major sedentary institution across eastern Tibet, all Mongolian societies, and Siberia, but also the dominant, nearly singular, site of medicine, literacy, printing, artistic production, and, of course, ritualism and philosophy.  However, in a more interesting and fundamental sense, what was at stake for Zava Damdin and his increasingly embattled milieu was the very mechanism of history and sovereignty itself: contact (Tib. mjal) with purifying, always masculine centers of social, political, and religious reproduction. Here we get to the enduring cultural and social legacies of the Qing imperial formation in Inner Asia that exceeded its political endings. Here too, we find a landscape of social, political, and religious imagination erased by the hegemony of the national subject and state violence. It is this landscape, with all of its revisionist implications for disciplinary treatments of modernization in Asia’s heartland, that I have tried to reconstruct in Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood.

As part of this pressing work to write the Qing ruins into place and time, cosmopolitan monastic elites across the Tibeto-Mongolian-Siberian frontiers such as Zava Damdin were very concerned to engage newly globalized intellectual traditions arriving from Europe. For example, while polyglot frontier scholastics in eastern Tibet and Mongolia had long engaged European mathematics, astronomy, cartography, and art via Jesuits at the Qing court, Zava Damdin is one of the first, to my knowledge, to engage European humanism.  In the pages of a secular newspaper entitled Shine Toli (The New Mirror) that circulated in the Autonomous Period (1911-1919) and in engagements with scholars ranging from Russian Buddhologists,
German diplomats, a member of the Bakhtin Circle, Agvan Dorjiev, and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Zava Damdin and many other Mongolian monastic leaders deeply engaged European arts and sciences. Unlike revolutionary intellectuals, however, these trans-Inner Asian monastic thinkers used the human sciences to extend or subvert received monastic histories from the Qing and also to re-interpret historical and spatial representations in Indian canonical works as varied as the Kālacakra-tantra and the Abhidharma. While I cannot get into the details here, the main takeaway for the social history of knowledge in the region is that this engagement had far less to do with the scientism privileged by the new revolutionary state than with a long narrative and interpretive tradition of frontier scholasticism forged in the polyglot, boundary crossing Tibeto-Mongolian frontiers of the Qing Empire.

  • A really fascinating idea in the book is “enchantment,” which is something that Zava Damdin attempted to historicize in his life’s works. What does this unique historiographic vision tell us about Buddhist views of time and space?

In Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood I use “enchantment” in a specific sense to name the dominant object of historical writing in Inner Asian monastic historiography for much of the last millennia: enlightened agents (buddhas and bodhisattvas) appearing upon the human stage in the bodies of monastic leaders and temporal rulers. This was a centuries-long project along the Sino-Tibetan-and Mongolian interface to historicize the enchantment of Eurasia. The event of history, the object of monastic historiography, was the periodic intervention of enlightened buddhas in the guise of emperors, khans, and monks upon the human stage. The result, as they saw it, was the abundance of social and salvific possibility manifest in forms as diverse as literacy, just law, sacred violence, and, of course, Buddhist monasticism and the promotion of
Buddhist forms of self-and community-cultivation. Turkic, Mongol, Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian communities were known in relation to one another through this lens; and in the early twentieth century treated by my book, so too was the collapse of the Qing and Tsarist Empire, the invasion of Tibet by the British, and the rise of revolutionary nationalism across Asia’s heartland. This orientation to place and time as moved by contact between enlightened
and human actors was, more pragmatically, a dominant language of diplomacy and, during the Qing Empire especially, a way of projecting imperial authority into the Inner Asian frontiers. This was articulated in the “Two Systems” model of a unified religious and political authority (Tib. lugs gnyis, chos srid zung ‘brel; Mong. qoyar yosu). The Two Systems was for Zava Damdin, as it had been for his monastic predecessors, perfected in the Qing-Géluk partnership according to a well-worn model in his late-imperial scholastic tradition. This was a golden age which he referred to regularly as the rising tide of a life-giving “ocean of milk” (Tib. ‘o ma’i rgya mtsho) sweeping across Eurasia’s heartland.

  • The other equally fascinating idea in the book is “disenchantment,” which is when Zava Damdin’s enchanting historiography becomes overtaken by “post-Qing anxiety.” What do his critiques of the disenchantment of post-imperial Inner Asia tell us about Buddhist views of modernity?

In the ruins of the Qing, Zava Damdin’s unenviable task was to “clarify” (Tib. gsal) and “order” (Tib. bkod) his revolutionary times. Occasionally he sought only to appropriately name (Tib. zer) ruptured temporalities, territories, communities, sovereignties, and religiosities. The range of his intellectual interests were vast, ranging from Chinese history to European mechanical sciences and astronomy, yet in all his writing he remained primarily focused on diagnosing the causes and conditions of what was elsewhere being called the revolutionary modern, but which he referred to regularly simply as a toxic, life-denying “ocean of blood” (Tib. khrag gi rgya mtsho).

“Delgeriin Choira, revived Gobi monastery of Zava Damdin near contemporary Delgertsogt, Dundgovi Province.” (photo by Matthew King).

My book contains an extensive presentation of Zava Damidin’s alternative historicization of not just Inner Asian but global history. I won’t give it away here, but in a general Zava Damdin and his trans-Asian milieu understood the Qing collapse as the product of events in 19th century Yeke-yin Küriy-e (modern Ulaanbaatar) and Beijing. After decades of investigation, Zava Damdin determined that the violence and upheavals of socialist state building around him were only symptoms of a grander world historical narrative of decline (one marked also by the authority of scientific empiricism and rule by the masses). Though deeply engaged with revolutionary forces and state narratives, Zava Damdin and his otherwise silent milieu  set the post-Qing world into time, place, and community without any reference to the empty, homogenous time of the nation, for example, or to contact with Europe as marking an epochal transition to modernity in Asia.

  • As you have argued in the book, the historiography of modern Inner Asia has overwhelmingly been driven by state-centric narratives and archives that tend to neatly organize the imperial period and its aftermath into stories of modernization. In addition, you also argue “that the situation is made worse by disciplinary fault lines in the professional study of social, political, and religious history along the Tibeto-Russian-Chinese-Mongolian interface…” So, how would Zava Damdin’s writings and other similar Buddhist responses to modernity offer a corrective to these issues?

I have much to say on this! (Much more than is possible to even summarize here.) Very briefly, my position in this book and in my broader scholarship on the social history of knowledge in the throughways of late-and post-imperial Inner Asia is that the story of modernization is organized too neatly between the imperial period and its aftermath, between Mongolian and Tibetan (and Chinese and European) sources and traditions, between the national subject and what it excludes, and between the arrival of the “modern”—progress, self-mastery, social emancipation, science, technology, socialism, academic institutions, democracy, Europe—and the retreat of the “traditional”—stasis, superstition, other-mastery, suppression, folk tradition, Buddhism and shamanism, scholasticism, monastic institutions, feudalism, Asia.

Such dualisms, like the West/Nonwest binary, the neutrality of the secular humanist gaze, or the modernist staging of the West as site and source of universal knowledge and History—are simply not tenable. For example, in the case study I examine in Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood, the social imagination and active lives of the majority of monastics across Inner Asia cannot be emplotted in the self-descriptive language of a state. Erstwhile cosmologies guided monastic lives during the modern formation of Inner Asia, yet we still know so little about them. Zava Damdin’s oeuvre is just one telling case study, remarkable not necessarily because of its content but because of being recorded and surviving a century of violence.   Here is a vast landscape of social and religious imagination quite apart from what is recorded in state archives, reducible to neither tradition nor the modern, religion, science, monasticism, feudalism, or revolutionary progress.


[1] Here I recommend Christopher Kaplosnki’s 2014 monograph The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia, about state strategies adopted by the people’s party to advance their claim to sovereignty through the analytical frame of Agamben’s use of the Roman legal concept of homo sacer; an exclusionary politics founded on legal exceptionalism and required state violence in perpetual states of emergency.