From Halle to Tashkent to Vienna: The VolkswagenStiftung International Research Partnership

The most ambitious collaborative international historical research project in Uzbekistan right now (and likely all of post-Soviet Central Asia) is also the most under-publicized.  (Aside: for details on another collaborative, international project, see my story on the Balkh History Project.)  For the past four years a cadre of European and Uzbek researchers have been scouring the Tashkent archives and training a new generation of scholars for a project entitled “Archives Talk” funded by VolkswagenStiftung.  Thomas Welsford, author of Four Types of Loyalty in Early Modern Central Asia and a driving force behind this project, was kind enough to sit down with me in Tashkent to discuss both the achievements and challenges of pursuing long-term, collaborative scholarship in Uzbekistan.

The Project

The seed of the project was initially planted by Jürgen Paul and Paolo Sartori, both of whom had been working on a series of VolkswagenStiftung and Gerda Henkel Foundation projects in Tashkent from 2008-2009.  Unusually, the VolkswagenStiftung in particular offers funding for long-term capacity building outside of the European Union.   “There are lots of projects that do capacity building of one sort or another, but I think that a common limitation is the short-term duration of these initiatives.  A great strength of this project is that it is long-term and in-person.  Collaboration works best when you are sitting in the same room as the person you are collaborating with,” Welsford said.

He added: “We are incredibly lucky that such institutions exist in Europe, particularly Germany, to support sprawling projects reliant on participants from multiple countries.  This sort of vision is extremely rare in the wider academic world.”

As the first step of a larger project, in 2009 Welsford picked up and moved to Samarqand to catalog a neglected collection of documents produced mostly in eighteenth-twentieth century Central Asia.  The fruits of this effort are now available in published form: Thomas Welsford and Nouryaghdi Tashev, eds., A Catalogue of Arabic-Script Documents from the Samarqand Museum (Samarqand – Istanbul: International Institute for Central Asian Studies, 2012).  (Note that the term “catalog” in this instance somewhat undersells the volume given that Welsford and his colleagues in fact translated the entire contents of the collection into English – and a Russian version will soon be available as well.)

In September of 2010 the second, even more ambitious phase of the project brought together three partner institutions – Martin Luther University in Halle, the History Institute of Uzbekistan, and the UzArchiv – to prepare Uzbek students to put their research in dialogue with international scholarship.  These young Uzbek scholars first took history classes in Halle, Germany, for four months in 2011, including English language classes.  It soon became apparent, however, that the young scholars required instruction in the English-language academic historiography as  well.  Once they returned to Tashkent, therefore, Saidolimkhon Gaziev, who is currently researching prostitution in colonial Turkestan on a CARTI fellowship at the University of Austin, was brought on board to bridge this gap.

“I tried to select books that serve as a reference point for most – if not all – Western historians, such as Eugene Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen and Edward Said’s Orientalism – which are little known in Uzbekistan,” Gaziev said in a separate interview.  “Additionally, we also engaged with staples of Central Asian historiography that might teach them to think critically about their own research in new ways, such as works by Adeeb Khalid, Jeff Sahadeo, and Alexander Morrison.”

By September, 2012, program scholars were well-prepared to present their accomplishments to a broader audience.  Paul, Sartori, and Welsford organized a Central Asian social history “workshop” of sorts held in Vienna, Austria, which paired the Uzbek scholars with American and European PhD students (of whom I was one).  “The idea was to put them in direct contact with the people with whom they are going to be working the rest of their lives,” explained Welsford.  The workshop also featured hands-on instruction in primary source analysis led by field heavyweights such as Devin DeWeese, Daniel Prior, Andreas Wilde, Alexandre Papas, and Beatrice Penati.

The Participants

In all eight students were included in the project drawn not only from the Uzbek Institute of History, which served as the locus for the project, but also the Institute of Oriental Studies, the Islamic University, the State Archive.

Several of these scholars have already published their research in Western journals: Uktam Sultanov, “Waqf Administration in Tashkent Prior to and After the Russian Conquest: A Focus on Rent Contracts for the Kūkeldāš Madrasa,” Der Islam  no. 88 (2012), pp. 324-351; Ulfatbek Abdurasulov, “Atāʾī-Mulk and Yārlīqlī-Mulk: Features of Land Tenure in Khiva,” Der Islam no. 88 (2012): 308–323.

Hushnud Abdurasulov’s research focuses on social group dynamics and information flows in late colonial Turkestan.  His participation in the English historiography training course led by Saidolimkhon Gaziev prompted him to apply the ideas of James C. Scott (Seeing like a State) and John Bayly (Information and Empire) to Central Asian history.

Qahramon Yaqubov and Nargiza Ismatova are busy combing through the Tashkent archive’s rich collection of Islamic endowments (waqf), focusing on Khivan and Bukharan waqf respectively.  Their work challenges the post-Chekhovich tradition of taking such documents as free-standing textual artifacts, instead contextualizing them against other historical materials and extrapolating patterns of social practice.  Yaqubov was also recently elected to the European Society for Central Asian Studies board.

One tension palpable  throughout the project was the fact that students were obliged to satisfy two constituencies: the one in Tashkent, i.e. their dissertation advisors, and those associated with the “Archives Talk” project.  “This is the first generation that is talking simultaneously to two scholarly communities at the same time.  They are meeting standards for international publications while at the same time publishing extensively in the local academic press as well,” said Welsford.

Welsford also emphasized that neither he nor Sartori intervened in the content of the associated research projects, all of which were selected and pursued quite independently.  “These young scholars understand their way around the archive quite well.  The issue is framing the presentation of their scholarship such that it touches on wider issues and debates,” Welsford added.

Looming large in the background of this collaboration is Jürgen Paul, who has served as a one man bridge between the Central Asian and European scholarly communities for the past twenty years.  Fifteen years ago Paul was already working closely with Uzbek scholars such as Aftandil Erkinov, Bakhtiyar Babajanov, and Nouryaghdi Tashev, and those relationships supported the “Archives Talk” project both as a model and through active engagement.  “His presence lent authority to a project that might otherwise have seemed over-ambitious,” said Welsford.

Stay tuned for the an in-depth profile on one of the young Uzbek scholars participating in this project in the forthcoming post: “Fettered Pastoralism: Akmal Bazarbaev on the shifting fortunes of stockbreeders under Russian rule in Turkestan.”