"Developed Socialism" in the Periphery: Artemy Kalinovsky’s new research on Tajikistan during the Cold War period

Artemy M. Kalinovsky, Assistant Professor of East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam and author of A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan, was kind enough to chat with me regarding his new research about Soviet Tajikistan and experiences working in the archives. 

We decided to separate his tale into two posts, so check back in a week or so for part II: “The Party is Not Over: Archival Adventures in Tajikistan.”

“Basically, the idea is to look at how Tajik elites took Soviet ideas of modernization and implemented them locally.”  Kalinovsky’s continuing work in the Party Archives (as well as the State Archive of Tajikistan, the State Archive of the Russian Federation [GARF], and the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History [RGASPI]) is part of a broader research project provisionally titled “Modernization in a Forgotten Corner: The Politics of Development in Soviet Tajikistan,” which is supported by a Veni grant from the Dutch National Science Foundation (NWO).  If all goes according to plan, this research will culminate in a monograph several years from now; in the meantime, pieces of it will appear as articles, including one in Ab Imperio due out later this year.

Although a great deal has been written about the Sovietization of Central Asia (particularly Uzbekistan) in the 1920s and 1930s (e.g. Adeeb Khalid, Douglass Northrop, Shoshana Keller, Marianne Kamp, Adrienne Edgar), very little has been written about the period following it.  Kalinovsky intends to deal with the reception of Soviet modernity by Tajik elites, a topic which he will take on holistically – from physical industrialization projects like the Nurek Dam to cultural projects like the creation of Tajik opera.

Opera and heavy industry may seem at first glance to be separate stories, but Kalinovsky argues that they are in fact both outcomes of the collision between grand Soviet ideas and local initiative.  “I’m interested in the way that certain grand Soviet ideas create opportunities, how they made things possible.  The idea of creating a Tajik opera can seem very restrictive if one thinks of it as the imposition of European cultural values (as interpreted by Russians and Soviets). But on the ground what actually takes shape is the product of engagement between the European ‘specialists’ (in this case, musicians, composers, etc.) and local intellectuals who like aspects of the cultural project but not necessarily the way it is carried out by these specialists from the center.  The conception of these projects is broad enough that they can usually reshape it.  For instance, the form that opera could take was negotiable, even if the form’s position at the pinnacle of a national-Soviet culture was not.”

Conceptualized thusly, cultural projects and more practical ones, like the kolkhoz (collective farm), have a great deal in common.  To get at this dynamic at the grass-roots level, Kalinovsky is incorporating an oral history component into his project, and has been following up with individuals who participated in Soviet projects during the decades in question.  For instance, he tracked one kolkhoz activist from a reference in the Tajik State Archive to Moscow, where he interviewed her in person, and is now plotting a visit to her kolkhoz in the Vahdat region of Tajikistan.  “You have these complaints at the Tajik republic level, at the Union level in Moscow, that kolkhozes are not being developed (not getting tractors, not building roads, schools, clubhouses, etc.) but then you see these same objectives accomplished when there is initiative from below.”

While this period of Central Asian history is something of an open field in terms of recent scholarship, Kalinovsky will apply his background in Cold War history – a field which has exploded in recent years – to the Soviet periphery.  The research engages in Sovietization as development policy, debates about postcolonialism, and regionalism affecting the Cold War more broadly.  “In many ways, Tajikistan was one of the most peripheral, underdeveloped, and artificial of the SSRs.  For these reasons it ended up playing a role similar to that of the foreign east – an object of modernization that would demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet system.”

The Brezhnev period in particular was when the mentalities and worldviews of the current post-Soviet elite were forged and understanding this pivotal period will offer us a unique window into the contemporary scene.  Students expecting to find a little piece of Iran in Tajikistan are sometimes surprised and confused by the Soviet edifice (both literal and metaphorical) confronting them.  “Although it’s not the starting point for my project, it’s fascinating to see traces of Soviet development and cultural program everywhere, even during the recent Nowruz celebrations.”  

Explaining this dramatic transformation will dominate Kalinovsky’s research agenda for the coming years.

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