Category Archives: Culture

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.

Author Interview: Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan, by Artemy Kalinovsky (University of Amsterdam)

CESS is pleased to present a series of author interviews highlighting the books shortlisted for this year’s prize. In the first of these, we welcome Malika Bahovadinova (University of Manchester and Czech Academy of Sciences), who poses a series of questions to Artemy Kalinovsky (University of Amsterdam) on Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan (Cornell University Press 2018) – thank you to both colleagues for this virtual conversation!

“Artemy Kalinovsky’s Laboratory of Socialist Development investigates the Soviet effort to make promises of decolonization a reality by looking at the politics and practices of economic development in central Asia between World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Focusing on the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, Kalinovsky places the Soviet development of central Asia in a global context.” (from the Cornell University Press website)

I would like to hear more about the idea of decolonization or decolonization/s. You suggest that there are multiple decolonizations in Central Asia, and you specifically look into the second process of the Khrushchev era. It seems that decolonization sometimes means claims on the state and requests for greater equality (or a fairer share of the statist welfare program). On other occasions, it seems more complex. I wonder if there is a relation between the claims to decolonization and the promise of “culturedness,” and if the latter posits a different type of decolonization or at least emancipation from certain ways of being in the world? What would a “good enough” decolonization look like at this particular historic juncture?

First, thank you for these great questions! I should start out by saying that I use “decolonization” not as something fixed or as one half of a binary, but rather as an idea whose meaning was redefined multiple times. The Soviets tried to practice a kind of revolutionary decolonization through a federal system: there would be no domination of one group by others, and every group would have cultural autonomy, but, at the same time, everyone would work towards a shared communist future. Of course this was a very contradictory concept, and this is why we’ve had very fruitful debates in the last three decades about whether or not we should think of the USSR as an empire.

But my approach was to step away from that debate a bit and see what people did with the claim about decolonization, in an era when the USSR was trying to reassert itself as a champion of decolonization in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. And indeed, for some it was mostly a question of inequality or different levels of economic development. For others it was about relative cultural autonomy, including how you represent the past, how much freedom you have in the arts, and so on. What “good enough” looks like depends on whom you are asking and when. I think to many people in the 1950s it looked like economic equality, growth, the ability to write and publish in your own language, the resources to do that, and so on.

Culturedness is one area where it often seems we are not far at all from European style colonialism. The kind of “cultured” everyday behavior –modes of dress, comportment, and so on, envisioned for a modern Soviet citizen was very clearly based on European models. And yet even here we have two crucial wrinkles. The first is that these modes of culturedness were imposed on everyone; it was not a clear case of Russians imposing Europeeanness on everyone else, but rather a revolutionary minority trying to impose a vision of culturedness on everyone, starting with the Slavic peasantry.

Poet Mirzo Tursunzoda and other Tajik writers meeting with dam-builders.  Photo credit Central State Archive of Video and Photo Documentation of the Republic of Tajikistan (used with permission from Artemy Kalinovsky).

But more important for me is that again, the Soviet promise of decolonization creates room for negotiation what culturedness means in different contexts. One of the things we see when we read the memoirs of Tajik intellectuals, for example, is that they clearly have an idea of what a cultured person is, not just in terms of the literature that person knowns but how they behave towards others, and so on, and this clearly is not a carbon copy of what a Russian intellectual might say, although there is some interesting overlap. But what is also clear, both from those memoirs and from the interviews I conducted, is that these intellectuals took the task of passing on this version of culturedness to a wider public very seriously.

While reading your book I also was reading Gramsci’s prison notebooks, and after reading the latter I became quite interested in your analysis of the role of intellectuals. You start your book with committed intellectuals and end it with an analysis of disillusioned cultural and other elites. Reading this with Gramsci in mind and his analysis of intellectuals (as the backbone of civil society and the site where hegemony forms and extends from), I began to wonder what happens when intellectuals lose faith. This is rather a question to Gramsci who talked about the “spontaneous” remit of hegemony (or we can say ideas), but I wonder if you could be better positioned to explain. I was surprised by the sharp contrast between the cohorts of intellectuals, the ones who had faith, and the others who had lost it. What happened in the middle? And how can we explain the shift from hegemonic belief in a state to utter dissatisfaction with it? I wonder how this “spontaneity” emerges or how it is lost? Why did these specific intellectuals stop believing?

I would start out by saying that perhaps the contrast is not really that sharp. First, even the most committed intellectuals who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s saw the Soviet project as something incomplete and requiring work and perfection. And many of the highly critical ones of the late 1980s were still willing to work for a reformed Soviet state. But a number of things happen in between, of course. One is that the many of the economic initiatives that they had championed in the 1950s not only fail to meet expectations, but also have all sorts of harmful effects, particularly for the environment and for health. Another is the engagement with the developing world, and later the war in Afghanistan, which makes (some) people question the claims about Soviet superiority and also think about the limitations of cultural autonomy as practiced in the USSR. But perhaps the most important factor is the way that with perestroika and glasnost Gorbachev encourages a re-thinking of everything that comes before. So much of the pre-perestroika past is presented as a lie that it inevitably leads to a reassessment of whether anything was true. And I think for the harshest critics, like Abdujabor, who you mention later, the answer was no.

None of these things happens in isolation from what is going on outside of Tajikistan – these intellectuals are in conversation with their counterparts elsewhere in the USSR, and of course they know what’s happening beyond the Soviet Union’s borders as well. And that also means that they are responding to the growing nationalism elsewhere in the USSR – especially Russian nationalism, which they see (correctly) as a danger to any kind of equality in the USSR, and Baltic nationalism, which becomes an inspiration for some of them.

What about race? Was it simply not an issue – was not there in Soviet Tajikistan? Or was it there, but not enunciated or present in archival materials and sidelined later by nostalgic memories of the internationalist city?

I think we need to be clear regarding what we mean by race. There was certainly plenty of prejudice, including at the “city of friendship,” Nurek. Sometimes it took on racial overtones, as when Russian workers talked about locals as “blacks;” in these instances differences were seen as biological. But more common I think were forms of prejudice that I would hesitate to call racial; this would manifest itself in construction managers not wanting to hire rural Tajiks because they assumed they would be less qualified, or becomes their Russian was weak. All of these things have been muted by nostalgia, but they come out in the archival records, in interviews, and even journalism and fiction about the period. (I would really recommend Jeff Sahadeo’s work[i], although he deals with migrants in Leningrad and Moscow rather than on relations within the republics.)

A more clear case for racialization of difference can be made, I think, in the way that social scientists talk about the relationship of ethnicity and labor in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. In seeking to explain why Central Asians do not seem to be moving towards industrial cities but staying in the countryside, they start to treat culture as something almost immutable. And although no one ever makes the case that this is biological, I think it comes pretty close.

I really liked your analysis of the “local labour” problem, or, rather, the problem of its im/mobility, as well as how this problem came to be understood in Soviet knowledge production. In your book, Tohir Abdujabbor argues that local labour did not move because industries were built with Russian in minds. I found this expression quite interesting, and from my limited knowledge of the labour “immobility” in Soviet Union, quite persuasive. Claims about inherent immobility often overlooked the role of networks and personal connections in procuring housing in cities, propiska, language barriers in navigating the bureaucracy, and many other structural factors in place making local labour “immobile”. Could you elaborate more on this issue: how can we interpret Abdujabbor’s statement?

I think Abdujabbor confuses effect with intent, perhaps deliberately to make a political point. His point is not just about industries but about the cities; he was referring to the size of apartments, for example. It’s worth pointing out that the idea that immobility was “inherent” only took hold in the late 1970s and 1980s, and even then remained controversial among Soviet planners. Simultaneously there were ongoing discussions about 1) how to make the cities more attractive for Central Asians with large families both physically (the “vertical mahalla” in Tashkent is a particularly interesting example) and aesthetically and 2) about changing the geographic distribution of industries so that people in rural areas could stay close to their extended families and still join the industrial workforce.

A Belaz truck mounted near the reservoir overlooking the city.  Pictured here is Nurullo Shulashov, a local who became a Belaz driver, studied engineering, and eventually became mayor of Nurek. He identified strongly with the dam, and with his former profession.(Photo credit Artemy Kalinovsky)

Of course Soviet planners were largely blind to the questions you mention: the role of networks, personal connections, and so on. But the sociological surveys they carried out showed plenty of other reasons that many avoided coming to the cities, and the optimists tried to address these along the lines mentioned above.

You note in your concluding discussion some parallels between Chinese “hard” development in Tajikistan with the Soviet commitment to social and cultural transformation in the process of development. There is an implicit critique of the former, it seems, because there is no “commitment” to Chinese development today. It would be curious to hear more about this “commitment.” In your depiction of Nurek and Nurek’s local and migrant labour there is something of a missionary-style assumption of local backwardness, which needs to be overcome: the necessity of older brothers who need to be imported and thus bring quite colonial overtones to the Soviet aid. In the Chinese case, couldn’t cash transfers (and other “hard” development) be beneficial to people without the extended statist or developmental bureaucracies? If Chinese money builds infrastructure, why ought it to have a moral agenda along the way? Why is there a need for social transformation?

I think this is a very good question, and of course it cuts to more fundamental problems with the whole notion of development. I should say that I have not studied the question myself, and the things I say in the conclusion to the book are based on observations made in the 2011-2015 period. But the first question is who gets to benefit from these projects, and who gets a say in what benefiting from these projects means? My sense is that in the case of Chinese projects, which is carried out by Chinese companies using Chinese laborers, the benefits to locals are often unclear (although Irna Hofman has found some interesting nuances at least as far as agriculture is concerned[ii]).

I would say it was precisely because the Soviets had an explicit agenda that it was possible to challenge projects, to reshape them, at the very least to make sure they benefited local people in some way. We see this at Nurek when local villagers demand to get access to water, or roads, or other things that dam builders never thought they would have to think about. And when they mobilize local workers (which, again, is part of the agenda of social transformation) those workers also become spokespeople for their communities. When the USSR undertook projects without commitment to social transformation, for example in its various closed cities, this kind of engagement did not happen.

The PRC, I think, would claim to be less colonialist because it does not impose moral conditions on the governments they partner with, but they are engaged in extractive work with the benefits primarily going to Chinese companies and local political and economic elites, which to me is a very solid definition of colonialism, if not the only one.

Cash transfers are really intriguing, because they really do seem to get rid of paternalism all together, and this is one of the reasons we’ve seen even people like James Ferguson come out as cautious supporters. But the danger with cash transfers, as with Universal Basic Income, is that the government steps back from responsibilities for maintaining equality. Suppose the prices for services or rent or food go up? Will the government (or donor agency) increase cash transfers to compensate? What if wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of a few, who consolidate their control of political and economic life? What are the mechanisms to challenge this political and economic inequality? You could see cash transfers actually have a de-politicizing effect, where the recipients are treated like consumers who are given the choice on how to spend money, but no real citizenship.

[i] Sahadeo, Jeff. Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow. Cornell University Press, 2019.

[ii] Hofman, Irna. Cotton, control, and continuity in disguise: The political economy of agrarian transformation in lowland Tajikistan. Diss. Leiden University, 2019.