You know you’re researching in Eurasia when…

AHA Today recently published a post about mundane problems commonly faced by historians.  Some will be familiar to scholars of Eurasia (e.g. “someone takes your favorite seat at the archive”), others less so – as many of our contributors pointed out, being annoyed that another scholar took the last power outlet presupposes working in a country with reliable electricity.

I reached out to a variety of scholars of Eurasian studies (mostly – but not entirely – historians working in the archives) to ask: “What are some common challenges specific to researching in Eurasia?”  They were not shy in expressing themselves:

  • The success of your project depends on the changing mood of an archive keeper.  Archivists assume that the documentary repository under their charge was set up as a social club for their exclusive benefit, researchers being unwelcome intruders in this cosy atmosphere.
  • Outrageous photocopying charges, and the obligation to pay them via an immensely complicated bank transfer (ahem – RGVIA).
  • Two or three-day waits for documents (any post-Soviet archive).
  • Closing throughout August.
  • Immensely complicated forms for zakazy (i.e. “document orders”)
  • The dreaded Sanitarnyi den’ (“cleaning day when the archive closes down”).
  • “Archivists in Urumchi say I must stop work; they collect and stow the documents, then carve an enormous watermelon on the reading table. On their invitation, I take off the white archival gloves and join them.”
  • Getting permission to enter the archive depends on state rules, and these are invented on a case-by-case basis.
  • There is no restroom in the archive or anywhere nearby; there is a sort of outhouse, though, just past the goat and chickens.
  • Not having ever experienced hypothermia, it’s hard to tell if your fatigue is from work or cold.
  • The reading room is for lunch-time smoke breaks.
  • The power will go out if too many people turn on heat in the building/come to work.
  • The random closing times, because the young woman responsible for monitoring the reading room had something better to do and nobody else could/would take her place.
  • Vodka drinking, beginning at 10:00 am. “I distinctly remember showing up to work and being ushered to an impromptu reception. The toasts began, followed by shots and more shots. As an ‘honored guest’ I received extra attention from my hosts, who made sure that I had what they thought was a good time. By the time it ended at noon I was thoroughly inebriated and unable to work that day.”
  • “Why are hundreds of document folders piled on the stairs, by an open door, during a winter storm?  Why are documents brought to the archive in a dump truck?”
  • Being accused of holding Tajik nationalist views by interviewees and being yelled out of an office for not speaking Uzbek with someone in Samarkand.  Being worried about being arrested for carrying books on national delimitations written by Tajik scholars across the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border.
  • Things just disappear or get lost:  “I think it’s a consequence of the basically arbitrary way that these places are managed: rather than having one consistent and well-regulated system for everybody, instead it’s a situation where if you know the guy and he likes you then they let you take out whatever you want and not put it back, or if they don’t like you then they don’t let you have anything.”
  • “I am sending this message through a proxy with an anonymizer tool because the KGB seems quite upset about the fact that I travel outside of the capital to non-tourist areas. They read foreigners’ email messages and then decide whether to (a) report their activities to their boss, or (b) directly contact them for an extortion attempt.”

The most common response, of course, was being denied archival access altogether, which seems to be a veritable rite of passage in the field: In the words of one scholar, “How about spending years acquiring the skills to work in multiple languages, only to show up at the archives and be denied access?”

For scholars who have dedicated their lives to studying Eurasia, this grousing comes from a place of love.  Many scholars I contacted emphasized the positive aspects of working in Eurasia that keep them coming back for more – which usually involved tea and exceptionally competent, friendly archivists.

Perhaps the best way to close, though, is with an anecdote passed on by one respondent that best sums up the essence of research in Eurasia: “There is a story about an outspoken Russian actress that I’m constantly reminded of here. Apparently during the 1980 Olympics in Moscow department store managers were ordered never to admit to foreigners that a given product was unavailable. When a foreigner came in and asked for leather gloves, a shop assistant asked him if he was wearing the coat the gloves were supposed to match. When he said no, they told him to come back with the right coat. The actress, overhearing the conversation, said: ‘Don’t believe them, young man. I’ve brought in my toilet bowl, and I’ve shown them my ass, and they still wont sell me toilet paper.'”

Additional stories welcome in the comments!