Excerpt from Presidential Address
2014 CESS Annual Conference, Columbia University, New York
October 25, 2014
Edward Schatz, President, Central Eurasian Studies Society
Fifteen years ago, several enterprising Central Eurasianists—some of whom are in this room—proposed creating a new academic society. It was an exciting endeavor, even if there were legitimate questions about CESS as a then-new society and its sustainability:
- How would it transcend individual research clusters located at particular universities?
- How could it be as inclusive as possible in terms of the academic disciplines it encompassed?
- How could it be genuinely and substantively transnational, including scholars from Central Eurasia, as well as North America, not to mention other world regions?
- Finally, how would it define the contours of Central Eurasia?
These were, and I believe remain, legitimate questions for the Society to consider, but generally they’ve been addressed well in the following ways:
- Institutional Spread: Our system of rotating the location of conferences every year has worked admirably to transcend single university environments.
- Cross-Disciplinary Inclusivity: Whereas the social sciences in the early years were perhaps underrepresented, today the opposition between area-studies and theoretical work—assumed to be so fundamental in some circles—has all but disappeared. One can be a card-carrying member of disciplinary associations and area-studies ones without suffering from any major cognitive dissonance.
- Cross-National Participation: Our membership continues to be vibrantly transnational, and various new relationships—institutional and individual—between researchers outside and those inside the region, make it harder and harder to know who is a researcher from “here” and who is a researcher from “there.”
- Locating Central Eurasia: Finally, our maximally inclusive definition of Central Eurasia has served us well and become fairly normalized. It’s usually outsiders, i.e., non-CESS members, who remain deeply concerned about what Eurasia “really” is and where the Central part of it might “really” lie.
CESS’s New Challenges
Today, we face very different preoccupations, and that is a sign that we are maturing as a Society.
Here is our first preoccupation. True, we are transnational, as attested by a wide range of student exchange programs and border crossing of various kinds. Places like American University of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan), University of Central Asia (Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan), and Nazarbayev University (Kazakhstan) specifically seek to hire new faculty with PhDs from Western programs. But can we thicken our transnational ties? What steps can be taken to locate more intellectual activity and training in the region itself, so that we produce better knowledge and build stronger, denser communities of scholars?
There are scores of possibilities. One of them is already being discussed by colleagues in Central Eurasia: how can research conducted by scholars from the region—typically in Russian or other languages of the region—be published in a peer-reviewed, English-language journal based in the region itself? I believe that we have reached a critical mass, wherein there are enough Central Eurasia-based scholars with top-notch English who are ready to take this on.
Let’s consider a second preoccupation. We are already financially viable, but we face questions about how to thrive in an environment of budget-cuts, both at universities and in government. As we all know, universities across North America have been trimming or outright eliminating entire programs and funding streams deemed non-essential. In the meantime, the US federal government has been “reorganizing” its funding priorities, such that Title VI (and other streams) is harder to obtain. The study of the region has been imperiled. And, if the good news is that the worst appears generally to be behind us, the bad news is that the broader crisis of funding for the humanities, and to a lesser extent, the social sciences, isn’t going away.
At CESS, we have moved from being based at a particular university and become a financially free-standing, and much streamlined, operation. The transition to a new financial model has been exhausting for the people who did the heavy lifting. Let me take this moment to thank in particular Cynthia Werner, Scott Levi and Maureen Pritchard. Because of them, we are in a much better position to expand the array of goods that the Society offers.
So, this is our third preoccupation: how sustainably to expand what we do. Currently, our main goods are our annual conference, our regional conference, and the blog. But, many members want to know what else CESS can do. I encourage you over the next year or two to take part in discussions about how to make the Society even more productive for our membership.
A New Politicized Research Environment
Let me suggest a final preoccupation. And, if you didn’t already know that you were preoccupied, let me relieve you of that bit of false consciousness and persuade you that you should be.
I am convinced that we as scholars of the region face a qualitatively new environment for conducting research. It is an environment in which the production and dissemination of knowledge via research is more and more politicized, in which what scholars do as a matter of course comes in for increasing scrutiny.
Let me give a few examples. Over this past summer, Alexander Sodiqov, a Tajik national in a PhD program at the University of Toronto, was working for a research project with the University of Exeter. In the midst of a research interview in Khorog, Tajikistan, he was arrested, then held incommunicado, and eventually faced possible charges of espionage and treason. After an international outcry, he was allowed to leave the country. But the investigation into his alleged wrongdoing is ongoing, and it seems unlikely that he will return to Tajikistan any time soon, and certainly not to conduct research on the politics of his country.
In Azerbaijan, Leyla Yunusova and Arif Yunusov, both trained historians, were arrested and charged with a variety of things, including treason. Their real crime seems to have been running afoul of political orthodoxy regarding Nagorno-Karabagh and receiving grant monies from foreign sources. This is part of a more general and increasingly spectacular crackdown on civil society that the Aliev regime has conducted for years.
In China, Ilham Tothi, a Uighur economist based in Beijing, was recently handed a life sentence for “separatism.” His real crime was being concerned with how Uighurs in Xinjiang are treated. By all credible accounts, he is a moderate voice and an accomplished academic.
In Russia, several colleagues working on the research project of an American colleague recently found themselves detained, questioned, and could face charges of some kind or another, depending on the mood prevailing in the prosecutor’s office.
In the United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press decided at the 11th hour not to publish Karen Dawisha’s latest book about President Putin’s political and economic system, because it feared being subject to libel claims brought to British courts by the Russian economic elite. She has since published her book in the U.S., with its relatively more stringent legal standard for proving libel.
Scholars who conduct research on politics are used to having doors closed and promising leads truncated. For their part, historians who request access to archival materials often know that this can amount to a rolling of the dice: access might or might not materialize. What we are not used to is being harassed, pressured, or arrested on spurious charges. We are not used to the very terrain on which we conduct research shifting so quickly. This is qualitatively new, and it is enormously troubling.
Nor is it a problem just for those studying “political” topics. Think about those conducting research on sexuality in post-Soviet space who could come under legal scrutiny for “gay propaganda.” Think about those conducting research on the pre-Islamic religious traditions of the Caucasus who have encountered the ire of militant Salafis. More prosaically, think of the politics of filmmaking in Kazakhstan, which can be seen as a reaction to a certain Sascha Baron Cohen film. Cultural knowledge is like anything else: it can very quickly become political. And if such knowledge appears to challenge the raison d’être of the regime, or the personal interests of a single, key individual, it can quickly spell trouble.
There’s an old joke, whose provenance I don’t know. In it, a Russian pessimist meets a Russian optimist. (In some versions, the two individuals are Polish, which puts a slightly different spin on the joke.) The pessimist says, “Things can’t possibly get any worse.” The optimist says, “Oh, sure they can!”
The very worst, most extreme version of the politicization of knowledge emerges when the pursuit of knowledge itself—regardless of its content—is branded as inherently dangerous. This seems to have been the view of the gunman who fired three shots at Malala Yousafzai, the young champion of universal education, who was the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
I don’t pretend to know how we got to this point. Not too long ago, the explosion of information with the digital age was trumpeted as an endless font of freedom and empowerment. If it did have that impact, we seemed to have turned a corner. Across the globe, today’s regimes (largely authoritarian ones, but in different proportions this also applies to democracies) have become circumspect and protective of information. In the parts of Central Eurasia where paranoia and conspiracy theories run rampant, nearly anything can be painted as dangerous and the individuals involved treated with near-impunity.
Yet, most regimes do not seek to control the information environment. The political, social, and economic costs of doing so are just too high for most to contemplate. Instead, they seek to manage the information field, selectively punishing and thereby making examples of key individuals. Thus, publishing an academic article on an obscure topic comprehensible to, and circulated among, a narrow array of specialists may mean little in the way of protection. No topic is narrow, specialized, or obscure enough to remain beyond the state’s potentially punitive gaze.
What to Do?
If I sound a bit like the Russian/Polish optimist (“Things can get worse.”), then let me propose that they don’t have to.
First, academic associations can and should play a role. During the campaign for the release of Alexander Sodiqov, societies like CESS were centrally involved, coming to the defense of the principle of academic freedom in general, and for Sodiqov’s release in particular. Steering clear of the language of human rights, these associations continually stressed Sodiqov’s credentials as a scholar.
No one wants a scholarly association to become an advocacy organization; at root, the two have different purposes. But, the principles upon which our collective endeavor stands—the freedom to access information, to produce and disseminate knowledge, and to do so without being intimidated—are bedrock. This means that, at key moments, we need to articulate them and do so publically.
I suspect that there are other things that academic societies can do, and CESS will be putting together a Task Force on Fieldwork Conditions to survey what this might include.
As individual scholars, Central Eurasianists can and should play a role. We might start by insisting on the primacy of evidence. In our scholarly work we would never accept a claim solely based on innuendo, logic produced in a vacuum, intuition, or the like. No base of evidence is perfect, but as scholars we refuse to throw out the need for evidence in the first place. And the same thing goes when we think of the fate of a scholar who has been jailed. We must insist that trials be subject to the highest standards of evidence. Even when we talk to non-academic friends and colleagues, these micro- (call them “kitchen”) conversations can cumulatively have a large impact.
Second, I propose that we endeavor to emphasize how scholarly activity differs from journalism or advocacy. Yes, top-notch journalists can also do top-notch research. Yes, many scholars have normative commitments that they take seriously and may guide the research questions that they pose (though, I hope, not the answers that they find!).
Many of you have your own ideas about what distinguishes scholarship from non-scholarship. For me, three principles loom large. First is being systematic and thorough. I hope this speaks for itself and is fairly uncontroversial. Second is being open to surprises. Preconceived ideas—and we all have them—could just be wrong, and scholars need to entertain the serious possibility that the evidence simply bears a different conclusion than the one they expected.
Third is intellectual humility. Scholars know that any understanding of the world is incomplete. As the German sociologist Max Weber remarked in his essay “Science as a Vocation,” “We cannot work without hoping that others will advance further than we have.” We make our intellectual contributions, but we don’t overstate their significance; we trust that the next generation will surpass what we have done.
Any hope for the next generation hinges on this generation’s—that is, our—collective ability to maintain space for scholarship that is conducted with integrity, honesty, and seriousness of purpose. I know that we are up to the task.