Author Interview: On the Threshold of Eurasia: Revolutionary Poetics in the Caucasus, by Leah Feldman (University of Chicago)

In this fourth and final installment of our author interview series, we are pleased to welcome Bruce Grant (New York University), in conversation with the winner of this year’s CESS book prize, Leah Feldman (University of Chicago) for her work On the Threshold of Eurasia: Revolutionary Poetics in the Caucasus.

From the Cornell University Press website:  “On the Threshold of Eurasia explores the idea of the Russian and Soviet “East” as a political, aesthetic, and scientific system of ideas that emerged through a series of intertextual encounters produced by Russians and Turkic Muslims on the imperial periphery amidst the revolutionary transition from 1905 to 1929. Identifying the role of Russian and Soviet Orientalism in shaping the formation of a specifically Eurasian imaginary, Leah Feldman examines connections between avant-garde literary works; Orientalist historical, geographic and linguistic texts; and political essays written by Russian and Azeri Turkic Muslim writers and thinkers.

Tracing these engagements and interactions between Russia and the Caucasus, Feldman offers an alternative vision of empire, modernity, and anti-imperialism from the vantage point not of the metropole but from the cosmopolitan centers at the edges of the Russian and later Soviet empires. In this way, On the Threshold of Eurasia illustrates the pivotal impact that the Caucasus (and the Soviet periphery more broadly) had—through the founding of an avant-garde poetics animated by Russian and Arabo-Persian precursors, Islamic metaphysics, and Marxist-Leninist theories of language —on the monumental aesthetic and political shifts of the early twentieth century.”

Your book suggests a clear pleasure in sharing long overlooked works of art and literature with readers. What was the impulse in bringing together these particular authors and doing so in the ways that you did? 

From my start in comparative literature, it was not hard to be struck first by the over-canonization of Slavic studies—embodied in the cult of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol, and beyond—and on the other hand by the lack of anglophone scholarship on non-Russian literatures from former Soviet spaces in general. I always told myself I would never write about Pushkin, and yet I can’t seem to escape his legacy.

I resolved then to walk the reader through “canonicity” itself, bringing into Bakhtinian dialogue or Saidian contrapoint, a “peripheral” vision of the Russian tradition from the vantage point of the Caucasus as a way of decentering a Russian-Soviet conception of Soviet or Eurasian literature. But I also very much want readers to question the privileging of an “avant-garde.” A remarkable number of progressively minded critics, who see themselves as being maximally inclusive about world literatures, nonetheless reserve the category of “avant-garde” solely for the European greats. “It is true,” they might say for example, “that X (famous Russian writer whose name they can’t remember) spent a significant amount of time in Baku in the 1920s?”  But they don’t know why these writers went there, or who may have been surrounding them? It is as if there is a structural blind spot to the possibilities of equally compelling traditions, with their own aesthetic trajectories, and frankly even an active resistance. I think we need to move away from wrote reliance on formalist readings (particularly popular in the resurgence of Historical Poetics in Slavic studies) that ground literary and art criticism so concretely in arguments about form, which often rather reflect certain reading practices that privilege a hegemonic vision of Euro-American modernity.

Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the Azeri Red Pens (photo used with permission of L. Feldman)

I think my selection of Azeri texts was to a certain extent determined by the odd path I took to finding them. I learned about Celil Memmedquluzade first when I was studying Azeri at UCLA. We had the great fortune of having a Fulbright scholar, the historian Altay Goyushev, as our teacher. Goyushev is a well-known historian and public intellectual, but I am not sure if he had had ever taught language classes before. He took up the assignment with such grace and enthusiasm. His approach was experimental and refreshing. We had no textbook and no dictionary. He said most of them were terrible so instead he taught us using cartoons from the newly latinized transliterated copies of Molla Nasreddin that were being issued at this time during the early 2000s. My understanding of Azeri language and literature was always to a certain extent shaped by the elliptical and philosophical teachings of Memmedquluzade, which would be something like learning French through Derrida. That was a lucky start.

Huseyn Cavid and Iranian theater troops (archive photo used with permission of L. Feldman)

For all of Memmedquluzade’s importance, however, I still wanted to know: Why could so much attention flow in his direction when another key writer such as Huseyn Cavid is largely ignored? This became a crucial focal point later on in framing the project around questions of secularism, vernacularization, and geopolitics.

What does it mean to you to have spent so much time in this world area, as you were researching the project, beyond the obligations to be there for archival work and conversations with authors? Does the Caucasus of today still speak to the world you want readers to know more about? 

Before studying Azeri, I had been studying Arabic, but had to discontinue those studies due to a conflict with a TA-ship that paid the bills. With the  advising of one of my mentors Professor Azade-Ayse Rorlich who had generously taken me on as a student in a reading course, I decided against a more conventional choice to enroll in Turkish and instead took a chance on an Azeri class offered by a visiting scholar. There was no contest: I immediately fell in love with our unorthodox “textbook” Molla Nasreddin.

Cartoons from the satirical journal Molla Nasreddin (used with permission of L. Feldman)

Then I received a Fulbright to go to Azerbaijan, so off I went. At the time I was visiting my parents who now live in San Antonio, Texas, so I took the regular Houston to Baku flight full of oil men in tight suits with glossy boots. When we arrived, I watched a few large stringy tumbleweeds waft across the burning tarmac and thought first for a moment that we had not left. I always joke that a few years living in Texas always prepared me for Baku, well accustomed to gender-segregated parties, vast shopping malls, and glittering and monstrous postmodern glass and concrete towers.

However, the Caucasus taught me so much. I learned about the failings of nationalist and post-secularist claims to a transcendental romantic original, about the ways in which forms of diversity can be used to hide an empire, about forms of continuity in Soviet political and cultural institutions that continue to structure post-Soviet society, about the ways in which the trauma of surveillance were still felt, about  creative and innovative strategies for evading censorship and alternative community-making, about art not only surviving but thriving conditions of war and economic precarity, and about the powerful violence of nationalist attempts to erase and remake the past.

Photograph of the author en route (used with permission by L. Feldman)

What I will always remember most of all, and what will continue to impress and inspire me every time I return to the Caucasus are the incredible acts of hospitality that have I have been shown over the years, from the patience and wisdom of my language instructors to those who risked their own safety to speak with me, or help me with an archive. Traveling in the mountains on the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia was perhaps most inspiring, watching all the ordered arrangements between national language, religion and custom break down into surprises, warmth and stories. I remember once traveling in a small rural town in the mountains near Zagatala. A young boy, perhaps in his late teens, was walking a cow behind me and overheard me say something in English to a friend whom I was traveling with. He asked me if I could help him with a translation. His family welcomed us and he led me to the back porch, lit a candle and pulled out a worn English copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. “We haven’t got internet yet” he explained, “and I can’t find some of the words in that dictionary.” The Caucasus never ceases to surprise me.

In your work you draw on the writings of Russian, Azeri, modern standard Turkish, and Persian authors for this single place called a Caucasus “Eurasia.” Are there ways you have found by which different area studies traditions are looking at similar issues in different ways? 

I think both one of the greatest obstacles and advantages of studying the Caucasus or Central Asia, particularly through literature, theater, art and film, is that Eurasia is somehow both a part of and on the margins of Slavic and Near Eastern Studies. This makes working on and in the region both more challenging in terms of legibility within academia, and yet more rewarding in terms of the capacity of the material to take to task field and disciplinary conventions.

Near Eastern Studies scholars have primarily taken up the work of the Turkic diaspora, rendering visible encounters, ideas and movements across the Ottoman and Russia/Soviet empires. However, the story of the formation of the Soviet empire in the Caucasus can also enrich these narratives, and in particular the growth of Muslim communism complicates Turkic visions of secularism that inform discourses of enlightenment reform and scientific modernity. The work of Azeri writers and thinkers in the Caucasus also crucially intervenes in studies of empire in Slavic studies. In particular, I am thinking of the ways in which Soviet Orientalism has focused on Russian Soviet exceptionality vis-à-vis European empires, a discourse that I think has unfortunately contributed to obscuring the voices of Muslim writers and thinkers who worked for the colonial apparatus and who shaped the very conception of the Eastern International that was central to the architecture of the empire. Attending to Turkic and Persian language writings within Slavic studies can crucially render visible forms of cultural hegemony that sustained the empire and has continued to promote a Russian canon in Slavic departments today.

We find multiple registers of the idea of “Eurasia” in motion in this book — some narrators are inspired by traveling ashiqs across the countryside, others see regional unity in their extended families moving between Constantinople, Tebriz, and Moscow, while others (perhaps the most famous) are the metropolitan Caucasus playwrights reading Gogol, offering their own subtle disruptions of dominant expectation. Did your thinking on the concept of Eurasia shift as you worked on this book?

This is in many ways what I learned most while writing this book. The book began in some ways as an attempt to, in the Saidian mode, trace a “voyage in” or contrapuntal answer from the periphery in Baku and Tbilisi back to the metropole in Moscow and Petersburg. However, as I wrote, I realized that the discourse of Eurasianism was not some historical appendage of an empire that has since collapsed, but the very motor reviving new forms of authoritarianism in the post-Soviet moment. I began to realize that what I was reading historically as a linguistic movement and a geopoetic frame for Soviet imperial identity not only had a strange resurgence within the new right movement in Russia in the work of Alexander Dugin, but also that neo-Eurasianism had resonances across global populist movements more broadly. It turned out Eurasianism was not only one of the Soviet Union’s most valuable domestic products, but also a potent post-Soviet export, a discursive monster just baggy enough that it could accommodate the French Nouvelle Droit’s critique of liberal egalitarianism, and American claims to dismantle the welfare state, building violent forms of ethno-nationalism in its stead. This poses a problem for, on the one hand, expanding the scope and coverage of Slavic Studies and developing continuity with Near Eastern Studies, while on the other remaining critical of the political use of the term to signify a form of ethno-linguistic nationalism that often operates as a form of white hegemony. When I rewrote my introduction, I had this in mind. However, since publishing the book, I have devoted much time to working on the global rise of the right including teaching a course at Chicago and co-editing a volume of boundary2, on the topic. This has been truly important if soul-wrenching work for me, yet it also presents the possibility of new audiences for thinking about the imperial legacy and am excited about those prospects.

One of the most striking things about this book is the different valences of “revolution” that move across time and place. On the one hand, we have the well-known political movements that surround it: from dramatic changes in the Russian empire in 1905, to the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, the Young Turk Revolution of 1907, and beyond. Yet as we know, their ambitions varied widely: some wanted to shift the loci of power in a nationalist sense, while others wanted to completely upend existing social orders. Do you think that there was a shared voice of a kind, a shared momentum?

I really like this idea. For better or worse, I think my tendency skews toward thinking critically about forms of domination, ruptures, misconnections, and even failures rather than celebrating connections or a revolutionary ideal. I wonder sometimes if growing up in the San Francisco Bay area amidst the neoliberal tech boom gave me some kind of allergy to utopian discourses. But I am attracted to revolution for its messiness. I have hopes for momentum today, as much as I see some threads of possibility glimmering in the literary, poetic and theatrical projects of the early twentieth century. I think it is possible to see a momentum across these revolutions that was not visible as a movement at the time, and I like to think it is something we can peek into through missed connections or failed encounters and collect in the traces of revolutionary poetics they left in a certain commitment to upending genre, script, language, and form to fashion spaces between Soviet and nationalist totalities. Mikayil Refili’s dedication to Lenin on his death, which opens the book, is one I am particularly fond of: “Sən komsomol, mən – ‘bitərəf’ / Fəqət mənim qəlbim sənin” (You’re Komsomol, I’m “nonaligned”/But my heart is yours). This non-alignment, which the quotation marks further displace, offers a call to the kind of revolution I think this momentum tracks. It is one that is as personal as a declaration of comradely love, as it is awkwardly outfitted to an abstracted Lenin, who is maybe a Soviet cause, but one Refili notes is already lost. This revolution in the name of a possibility that recognizes loss is, I think, something important. It doesn’t trace an institutional alignment across these series of revolutions, of which certainly there were many historical threads, but rather it renders legible a poetic mode of inviting revolution through forms of interpersonal solidarity that are inscribed in the very gift of the poem itself as an act of hospitality. This reminds me of your book, The Captive and the Gift, which so inspired the writing of mine. I hope too that the momentum of our field will be directed toward such expressions of solidarity for revolution in non-alignment.

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