Category Archives: History

Author Interview: Oceans of Milk, Oceans of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire, by Matthew King (University of California, Riverside)

Editor’s Note: This fall we are pleased to present again a series of some of the books shortlisted for awards in the Social Sciences and Humanities at CESS.  In this first installment, Daigengna Duoer (University of California, Santa Barbara) interviews Matthew King (University of California, Riverside), on his book Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire, published by Columbia University Press.

  • A polymath Buddhist monk from Khalkha Mongolia, Zava Damdin Lubsangdamdin (Tib. Blo bzang rta mgrin, 1867-1937), and his writings are the center of focus in your book. What led you to write about him and his hundreds of texts?

After I finished my undergraduate degree, on the invitation of a Tibetan lama who was going on a teaching tour of Gobi Desert villages, I began spending time in Buddhist revivalist communities in Mongolia sometime around 2006. Though I knew nothing about Zava Damdin when I embarked on that first trip (or about Mongolia… or really anything!), it happened that our host was the eminent Mongolian lama Guru Deva Rinpoché. Guru Deva had been at the heart of revival and preservation of Inner Asian monasticism for decades; first in the Tibetan diaspora in India during the 1960s, then in Nepal, and then, after 1991, in Mongolia. In the 1970s, Guru Deva Rinpoché had collected and published the seventeen-volume Collected Works (Tib. Gsung ‘bum) of Zava Damdin from his exile base in Kathmandu.

When I arrived in Ulaanbaatar in 2006, Guru Deva Rinpoché’s residence was a throughway for hundreds of people involved in reviving Buddhist institutions and public ritual traditions in Mongolia and the PRC, from visiting Tibetan lamas to sumo wrestlers, endless streams of monks and lay people, and funders and patrons from across Asia. One of the most prominent members of this entourage was a monk named Luwsandarjaa, considered to be the current incarnation of Zava Damdin. During that summer and over five or six subsequent trips, I spent a great deal of time with this lama and his monks in apartment temples in Ulaanbaatar, at his revived Gobi monastery, and in many town halls, grasslands, and sandy ruins across the Gobi all the way to the Chinese border.

“A religious ritual begins, Ulaanbaatar (1930s).(Digital copies of glass plate negatives preserved in the Archives for Cinema, Photography, and Sound Recording, Mongolia [1910s-1950]. EAP264/1/9/6/111.)

Appropriately enough, I suppose, I learned about Zava Damdin’s revolutionary-era historical writing from his current incarnation. During my first two visits, his community was widely distributing a modern Cyrillic Mongolian translation of his predecessor’s verse history of Mongolian Buddhism and world history from c. 1910 entitled the Sounding of the Auspicious Dharma Conch (Tib. Bkra shis chos dung bzhad pa’i sgra dbyangs). Though I had been studying classical Tibetan and Mongolian for a while at that point, in these early years I had not yet discovered the extent of Zava Damdin’s surviving writing, never mind the breadth of their content. That would take many, many (many) years of reading and translating. In the meantime, I completed a Master’s thesis based on ethnographic research about the Buddhist revival in the Gobi and then, for my doctoral studies, I turned to historical anthropology and spent several years reading and translating two or three of Zava Damdin’s histories. At that time my interest was not in the social history of knowledge of the late-and post-Qing, but in theoretical conversations about “non-Western historiography.”

Once I began my current job after graduate school, I spent a couple more years reading what amounts to about two thousand pages of Zava Damdin’s historical writing from c. 1900-1931 and two thousand more pages of autobiographical writing from c. 1910-1936. Collectively, I finally realized, these works contained an absolutely unique expression of scholastic interpretations of the Qing collapse and the rise of revolutionary modernism in Asia’s heartland. Inspired by works such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and formed by exchanges at Duke University and in a meeting at Chiangmai during a yearlong SSRC InterAsian fellowship, I decided to try and use Zava Damdin’s writing as the basis for a revisionist, even radical, microhistory of the Qing-socialist transition in Inner Asia and, more broadly, a critique of modernist presumptions beholden to the national subject in the plotting of post-imperial history in Eurasia. The sum of that exploration is Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood.

  • Your book points out that living and writing in Asia’s first socialist state in the early twentieth century, Zava Damdin’s Buddhist worldview was challenged by new ideologies inspired by Marx, Lenin, and Western sciences that saw the Buddhist institution as a “lama problem.” What was this perceived “problem” and the proposed “solutions” to it?

Against the enduring authority of the Qing-era Buddhist religious establishment, the fledgling socialist state in Mongolia (1921-1990) remained contingent; it occupied a liminal position between enacting direct military action against Buddhist monasteries and having the authority to impose the rule of law. A fundamental problem facing this first project at socialist state building in Asia was glossed by revolutionary cadres at the time as the “lama question” (Kh. Mong. lam narin asuudal).[1] While early revolutionary leaders worked closely with monastic leaders such as Zava Damdin, or else were themselves prominent Buddhist monks and lay Buddhist literati, the majority of monasteries and their elite prelates opposed the centrifugal forces of reform advanced by the government. Examples of reform initiatives range from public health campaigns and staging European theatre for (apparently unimpressed) rural Mongols, to secular education, Mongolian language publication, industrialization of agriculture, and taxing the rich monastic estates. Such reforms failed to provoke a mass awakening of class consciousness; the number of monks actually grew over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s.

“A view of Ganden monastery and its surrounding area, Ulaanbaatar.(Digital copies of glass plate negatives preserved in the Archives for Cinema, Photography, and Sound Recording, Mongolia [1910s-1950]. EAP264/1/9/2/71.)

At Stalin’s infamous behest in the 1937, General Choibalsan and the party leadership in Mongolia decided the enduring weakness of the socialist state and the enduring strength of monastic estates required a turn to legalized violence. In just over a year, at least 40,000 monks and other “counter-revolutionaries” were tried and shot. Hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned or disrobed. Mongolia’s over 700 monastic complexes and temples were reduced to rubble save three. Here was the final, blunt answer to the “lama question.”

  • How did Zava Damdin respond to these conversations and ruptures following “Asia’s first modern revolution” (coined by historian Urgunge Onon) in his Buddhist writings? What were his major topics of concern?

Though Zava Damdin was memorialized in Soviet-era histories as a unique, modernist outlier of an otherwise counter-revolutionary monastic establishment (because, they decided, he had adopted scientific methods in his historical writing), and though current revivalists in Mongolia remember him as a master of the imperial-era monastic tradition, my research shows that neither are true. During the Qing-socialist transition (c. 1900-1936), Zava Damdin and his conservative and trans-Asian milieu of monks and Chinggisid nobility understood their times in terms neither of the Qing nor the just invented revolutionary national subject.

“Zava Damdin, alias ‘The Spiritual Friend Who Please Mañjughoṣa’ (‘Jam dbyangs dgyes pa’i bshes gnyen).”(Blo-bzaṅ-rta-mgrin, Zhongguo Xi Bei Wen Xian Cong Shu / v. 143-157. 西北少数民族文字文獻; Byaṅ Phyogs Hor Gyi Yul Du Dam Pa’i Chos Rin Po Che “Byuṅ Tshul Gyi Gtam Rgyud Bkra Śis Chos Duṅ Dźad Pa”i Sgra Dbyaṅs, vol. 150 (Lanzhou: Zhongguo Lanzhou: Lanzhou gu ji shu dian, 1990), 25.)

In general, the conservative nobility and monastic elites such as Zava Damdin were overwhelmingly concerned with preserving the integrity and centrality of monasticism in revolutionary Inner Asia; over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, monastic networks became not only the major sedentary institution across eastern Tibet, all Mongolian societies, and Siberia, but also the dominant, nearly singular, site of medicine, literacy, printing, artistic production, and, of course, ritualism and philosophy.  However, in a more interesting and fundamental sense, what was at stake for Zava Damdin and his increasingly embattled milieu was the very mechanism of history and sovereignty itself: contact (Tib. mjal) with purifying, always masculine centers of social, political, and religious reproduction. Here we get to the enduring cultural and social legacies of the Qing imperial formation in Inner Asia that exceeded its political endings. Here too, we find a landscape of social, political, and religious imagination erased by the hegemony of the national subject and state violence. It is this landscape, with all of its revisionist implications for disciplinary treatments of modernization in Asia’s heartland, that I have tried to reconstruct in Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood.

As part of this pressing work to write the Qing ruins into place and time, cosmopolitan monastic elites across the Tibeto-Mongolian-Siberian frontiers such as Zava Damdin were very concerned to engage newly globalized intellectual traditions arriving from Europe. For example, while polyglot frontier scholastics in eastern Tibet and Mongolia had long engaged European mathematics, astronomy, cartography, and art via Jesuits at the Qing court, Zava Damdin is one of the first, to my knowledge, to engage European humanism.  In the pages of a secular newspaper entitled Shine Toli (The New Mirror) that circulated in the Autonomous Period (1911-1919) and in engagements with scholars ranging from Russian Buddhologists,
German diplomats, a member of the Bakhtin Circle, Agvan Dorjiev, and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Zava Damdin and many other Mongolian monastic leaders deeply engaged European arts and sciences. Unlike revolutionary intellectuals, however, these trans-Inner Asian monastic thinkers used the human sciences to extend or subvert received monastic histories from the Qing and also to re-interpret historical and spatial representations in Indian canonical works as varied as the Kālacakra-tantra and the Abhidharma. While I cannot get into the details here, the main takeaway for the social history of knowledge in the region is that this engagement had far less to do with the scientism privileged by the new revolutionary state than with a long narrative and interpretive tradition of frontier scholasticism forged in the polyglot, boundary crossing Tibeto-Mongolian frontiers of the Qing Empire.

  • A really fascinating idea in the book is “enchantment,” which is something that Zava Damdin attempted to historicize in his life’s works. What does this unique historiographic vision tell us about Buddhist views of time and space?

In Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood I use “enchantment” in a specific sense to name the dominant object of historical writing in Inner Asian monastic historiography for much of the last millennia: enlightened agents (buddhas and bodhisattvas) appearing upon the human stage in the bodies of monastic leaders and temporal rulers. This was a centuries-long project along the Sino-Tibetan-and Mongolian interface to historicize the enchantment of Eurasia. The event of history, the object of monastic historiography, was the periodic intervention of enlightened buddhas in the guise of emperors, khans, and monks upon the human stage. The result, as they saw it, was the abundance of social and salvific possibility manifest in forms as diverse as literacy, just law, sacred violence, and, of course, Buddhist monasticism and the promotion of
Buddhist forms of self-and community-cultivation. Turkic, Mongol, Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian communities were known in relation to one another through this lens; and in the early twentieth century treated by my book, so too was the collapse of the Qing and Tsarist Empire, the invasion of Tibet by the British, and the rise of revolutionary nationalism across Asia’s heartland. This orientation to place and time as moved by contact between enlightened
and human actors was, more pragmatically, a dominant language of diplomacy and, during the Qing Empire especially, a way of projecting imperial authority into the Inner Asian frontiers. This was articulated in the “Two Systems” model of a unified religious and political authority (Tib. lugs gnyis, chos srid zung ‘brel; Mong. qoyar yosu). The Two Systems was for Zava Damdin, as it had been for his monastic predecessors, perfected in the Qing-Géluk partnership according to a well-worn model in his late-imperial scholastic tradition. This was a golden age which he referred to regularly as the rising tide of a life-giving “ocean of milk” (Tib. ‘o ma’i rgya mtsho) sweeping across Eurasia’s heartland.

  • The other equally fascinating idea in the book is “disenchantment,” which is when Zava Damdin’s enchanting historiography becomes overtaken by “post-Qing anxiety.” What do his critiques of the disenchantment of post-imperial Inner Asia tell us about Buddhist views of modernity?

In the ruins of the Qing, Zava Damdin’s unenviable task was to “clarify” (Tib. gsal) and “order” (Tib. bkod) his revolutionary times. Occasionally he sought only to appropriately name (Tib. zer) ruptured temporalities, territories, communities, sovereignties, and religiosities. The range of his intellectual interests were vast, ranging from Chinese history to European mechanical sciences and astronomy, yet in all his writing he remained primarily focused on diagnosing the causes and conditions of what was elsewhere being called the revolutionary modern, but which he referred to regularly simply as a toxic, life-denying “ocean of blood” (Tib. khrag gi rgya mtsho).

“Delgeriin Choira, revived Gobi monastery of Zava Damdin near contemporary Delgertsogt, Dundgovi Province.” (photo by Matthew King).

My book contains an extensive presentation of Zava Damidin’s alternative historicization of not just Inner Asian but global history. I won’t give it away here, but in a general Zava Damdin and his trans-Asian milieu understood the Qing collapse as the product of events in 19th century Yeke-yin Küriy-e (modern Ulaanbaatar) and Beijing. After decades of investigation, Zava Damdin determined that the violence and upheavals of socialist state building around him were only symptoms of a grander world historical narrative of decline (one marked also by the authority of scientific empiricism and rule by the masses). Though deeply engaged with revolutionary forces and state narratives, Zava Damdin and his otherwise silent milieu  set the post-Qing world into time, place, and community without any reference to the empty, homogenous time of the nation, for example, or to contact with Europe as marking an epochal transition to modernity in Asia.

  • As you have argued in the book, the historiography of modern Inner Asia has overwhelmingly been driven by state-centric narratives and archives that tend to neatly organize the imperial period and its aftermath into stories of modernization. In addition, you also argue “that the situation is made worse by disciplinary fault lines in the professional study of social, political, and religious history along the Tibeto-Russian-Chinese-Mongolian interface…” So, how would Zava Damdin’s writings and other similar Buddhist responses to modernity offer a corrective to these issues?

I have much to say on this! (Much more than is possible to even summarize here.) Very briefly, my position in this book and in my broader scholarship on the social history of knowledge in the throughways of late-and post-imperial Inner Asia is that the story of modernization is organized too neatly between the imperial period and its aftermath, between Mongolian and Tibetan (and Chinese and European) sources and traditions, between the national subject and what it excludes, and between the arrival of the “modern”—progress, self-mastery, social emancipation, science, technology, socialism, academic institutions, democracy, Europe—and the retreat of the “traditional”—stasis, superstition, other-mastery, suppression, folk tradition, Buddhism and shamanism, scholasticism, monastic institutions, feudalism, Asia.

Such dualisms, like the West/Nonwest binary, the neutrality of the secular humanist gaze, or the modernist staging of the West as site and source of universal knowledge and History—are simply not tenable. For example, in the case study I examine in Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood, the social imagination and active lives of the majority of monastics across Inner Asia cannot be emplotted in the self-descriptive language of a state. Erstwhile cosmologies guided monastic lives during the modern formation of Inner Asia, yet we still know so little about them. Zava Damdin’s oeuvre is just one telling case study, remarkable not necessarily because of its content but because of being recorded and surviving a century of violence.   Here is a vast landscape of social and religious imagination quite apart from what is recorded in state archives, reducible to neither tradition nor the modern, religion, science, monasticism, feudalism, or revolutionary progress.

Endnotes

[1] Here I recommend Christopher Kaplosnki’s 2014 monograph The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia, about state strategies adopted by the people’s party to advance their claim to sovereignty through the analytical frame of Agamben’s use of the Roman legal concept of homo sacer; an exclusionary politics founded on legal exceptionalism and required state violence in perpetual states of emergency.

 

Vera Zaporozhskaya – Scholar of Siberia, by Elena Okladnikova, (Herzen University) translated by Richard Bland (University of Oregon)

Editor’s introduction:

This special blog post was translated and shared with us by Dr. Richard Bland, currently a Research Analyst the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, who has translated a wide variety of volumes and materials related to Russian and Soviet archeology, including the biography of Aleksei P. Okladnikov, well-known archeologist of Soviet Siberia.  The material presented here was written by Dr. Elena Okladnikova, the daughter of Okladnikov and herself a Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia in St. Petersburg.

This blog presents an excerpt of Okladnikova’s original biographical article “V.D. Zaporozhskaya: Scholar of Siberia: The Gendered Aspect of a Personal History” – the original Russian version was published in 2017 in Women in Russian Society 3 (84): 80-92, and was translated by R. Bland in 2019.  That full text details the professional biography of Vera Dmitrievna Zaporozhskaya, the wife of Okladnikov, and mother of Okladnikova. Zaporozhskaya was herself a prolific archeological researcher, scientific artist, and photographer, who documented many Russian archeological expeditions in Siberia and Central Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, and who provided illustrations and design for the many volumes published on those projects (several of which are listed here below).  It is important to recognize that while certain scholars were credited for those works, in fact these are the efforts of teams of talented individuals.

We would encourage our readers to consider this personal biography in understanding the rich tradition of historical archeological research in Soviet Central Asia and Siberia, and to read alongside contemporary research on similar Paleolithic sites from Altai to Transbaikal, which informs our understanding of hominid migration across the region.

Kolobova, Kseniya A., et. al. (2020) “Archeological Evidence for two separate dispersals of Neanderthals into southern Siberia.”  PNAS 117(6). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1918047117

Kuzmin, Yaroslav V. (2007) “Chronological Framework of the Siberian Paleolithic: Recent Achievements and Future Directions.” Radiocarbon 49(2): 757 – 766.

Li, Feng, et. al.  (2019)  “Heading north: Late Pleistocene environments and human dispersals in central and eastern Asia.”  PLOS 14(5).  doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216433

Rybin, Evgeny. (2014).  “Tools, beads, and migrations: Specific cultural traits in the Initial Upper Paleolithic of Southern Siberia and Central Asia.” Quaternary International 347(1).  DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.04.031

***

Vera Dmitrievna Zaporozhskaya was born (30 September 1912) in Chita, Russia, her childhood and youth was spent in Irkutsk. After graduation from high school in 1928 she entered the Irkutsk Art College, which at that time was directed by the well-known in Siberian artist and teacher I. L. Kopylov, who first noticed her artistic talent. As early as her years of study at the college, Vera Dmitrievna felt her mission was to become a theater artist. She settled into work at the Irkutsk Regional Museum, where her father worked as a glazier. She worked in the museum from 1932 to 1933 as deputy director of the art gallery (Fig. 1). It was in the museum that she met a talented archaeologist, head of the Paleolithic Department, A. P. Okladnikov. Their wedding took place in June 1932. To her mother, who was then staying with relatives in Donetsk, Vera Dmitrievna sent a brief telegram: “Married, bless me, Vera.” [i] (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Personal data sheet of V. D. Zaporoshskaya in the account of personnel. Yakutsk, Science-Research Institute of Language, Literature, and History. (Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017).

Figure 4. V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov. Irkutsk, 1932. (Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017).

In 1933 she went to Leningrad with her husband, who entered graduate school at the State Academy of History of Material Culture (GAIMK) oriented toward “The History of Pre-Capitalistic Societies.” She was able to do much in these years: she entered the Academy of Fine Arts, then went to the school for lab work at the State Hermitage under the direction of the outstanding archaeologist M. P. Gryaznov; she also worked as a laboratory technician at the State Academy of Material Culture (GAIMK). At GAIMK Vera Dmitrievna finished courses for bookkeepers and accountants, as well as learning the art of documentary photography. From 1933 she worked in the Hermitage in the Department of the History of Pre-Capitalistic Society, and from 1936 to 1941 at the Institute of Material Culture. She completed archaeological courses at the Academy of Sciences and received the rank of Junior Researcher. As an artist in those years she helped to design scientific works and journals.[ii]

All spring-summer-fall seasons in the 1930s she and her husband spent on expeditions, organized at first by the Irkutsk Regional Museum, then by GAIMK. The materials from these investigations were the basis of work in the archaeological study of regions for future construction: the Angara, Ust’-Ilim, and Bratsk hydroelectric stations. The archaeological materials obtained were the basis of the books that were written then by V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov. [iii] In 1939 she and her husband discovered the presently world-famous Buret’ site. There they found the unique image of Paleolithic Venus—an anthropomorphic bone figurine in fur coveralls. It was Vera Dmitrievna who sketched the finds at Buret’, drew the plans of the dwellings, and conducted photographing of this unique Paleolithic site (Fig. 3).


Figure 3. V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov at excavations in Buret’, Angara, 1939 (Author’s archive, 2017).

Zaporozhskaya took an active part in field work for the study of Neolithic and Eneolithic burials in the Angara region, that is, in search of the “first Americans,” as called by the American anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička, who met V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov on the Angara in 1939.That is where the artistic talent of Vera Dmitrievna and her sharp scholarly intuition were useful. In those years she masterfully executed the now classic reconstruction of the clothing of peoples of the Angara Neolithic period, included in all the textbooks on the history of the culture of peoples of Siberia. Its reconstruction is a brilliant example of integrated historical-artistic research: in costume are represented decorations of nephrite and mother-of-pearl fangs of Siberian deer, complementing the cut of the clothing, which combined the “Tungus frock” and the Tungus apron (Fig 4).

Figure 4: “Reconstruction of the decorated costume of a female shaman”, found at the burial site, published as drawing #175 in Okladnikov, 1955b.

The 1938 field season, and also seasons of the first post-war years, Zaporozhskaya spent in Central Asia, on the archaeological crew of her husband. The purpose of the work of this crew of the interdisciplinary archaeological expedition of M. E. Masson was the study of the Stone Age. It was in this expedition that the burial of a Neanderthal boy was discovered by Zaporozhskaya and Okladnikov. Publication of this find became the stellar hour in the scientific career of A. P. Okladnikov. In the post-war years Zaporozhskaya took part in archaeological study of the Turkmen deserts, in the discovery of a Mesolithic burial near Kailyu Cave, in the Neolithic “jewelry workshop” near Kuba-Sengir Mountain, and in excavations at Dam-Dam Chemshe Cave.

From 1941 to 1943 she worked in Yakutsk in the regional museum, and then from 1943 to 1945 in Yakutsk in the Science-Research Institute of Language, Literature, and History (Fig. 5). In her autobiography dated to 1945 she wrote that she participated in eleven archaeological expeditions (Fig. 6). On 8 March 1945, by order No. 46 of the Science-Research Institute of Language, Literature, and History, as an artist and archaeologist of the Lena Archaeological Expedition, she was awarded acknowledgment “for good production work.”[1]

Figure 5. V. D. Zaporozhskaya. Yakutsk, 1945 (Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017).

[insert Figure 6.  These expeditions and sites were described in Okladnikov and Beregovaya, with forward by Okladnikova and translated by Richard Bland (2008).

In the 1940s, V. D. Zaporozhskaya and A. P. Okladnikov conducted field work in the Arctic. She spent six years on expeditions on the Lena River. This delicate woman “with a classic figure and long braid”[iv] paddled thousands of kilometers, that is, all the way from Kachuga village on the upper Lena to Tiit-Ary Island on the lower Lena. She learned to manage the sail, to feel the flow of the great Siberian river, to withstand bad weather and the “nizovka”—a treacherous wind that drags the boat not down but up the river. She infused much spiritual and intellectual force into her husband’s major work, Istoriya Yakutii [The History of Yakutia]:[v] she sketched, drew, photographed, made plans of excavations, and kept a field log. She and her husband jointly studied the winter camp of the first Russian mariners on Cape Baranov (Taimyr 1948), where she, as usual, participated in the excavation, was occupied with photo-recording the finds, and fearlessly carried out field processing of the finds while being constantly watched by hungry polar bears.

Zaporozhskaya was occupied with archaeological research in Kolyma and Tadzhikistan (1948), again returning to the Angara and Lena (1951), and working in Zabaikal’e [Transbaikal] (1947–1951). Up to the last days of her life, she was immersed preparing for publication of the large, now classic investigations of the rock art of Siberia and the Far East—Petroglify Srednei Leny [Petroglyphs of the Middle Lena], Petroglify Nizhnego Amura [Petroglyphs of the Lower Amur], and Petroglify Zabaikal’ya [Petroglyphs of Transbaikal]. On New Year’s Eve 1959/60 in the Leningrad apartment on Nevsky Prospect, V. D. Zaporozhskaya inscribed a dedication on the title page of the joint (with her husband) monograph Lenskie pisanitsy [Lena’s Writings]: “This book, Alyosha, I give to you—your inexhaustible creative flame, brilliant thought and boldness. Everything that I did in archeology, all this was done only for you. The pages of this book contain so much that is so dear to me, and to you. Preserve it. Vera. 31/12/1959.” [vi]  These lines can become the epigraph to this article. In them openly and clearly rings the declaration of this bright and talented woman in her love for her husband, archaeology, and sites of the ancient art of the peoples of Siberia.

In the 1970s and 1980s she became one of the leading organizers of the Museum of History and Culture of the Peoples of Siberia, Institute of History, Philology and Philosophy, Siberian Branch, Academy of Sciences, USSR.

References:

Michael, Henry N. 1970.  Yakutia Before Its Incorporation into the Russian State(A translation of A.P. Okladnikov’s History of Yakutia 1950[1955].  McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Okladnikov, A. P. 1955a.  Неолит т Бронзобый век Прибайкалья. Издательство Академии Наук, СССР.

Okladnikov, A. P. 1955b.  Материалы и Исследовании по Археологии СССР.  Издательство Академии Наук, СССР.

Okladnikov, A.P. and N. A. Beregovaya. 2008.  The Early Sites of Cape Baranov. (translated by Richard L. Bland).  Shared Beringian Heritage Program.

Endnotes

[1] Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017.

[i] The materials described through this excerpt are contained at the time of writing in the author’s own archive in St. Petersburg, and are cited here with permission.

[ii] Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017.

[iii] These texts were usually published with Okladnikov as author (e.g. 1955a, 1955b).

[iv] Author’s archive, St. Petersburg, 2017.

[v] Okladnikov’s Istoriya Yakutii [The History of Yakutia was published in 1950, republished in 1955, and was translated into English and republished as Yakutia Before Its Incorporation into the Russian State by Henry N. Michael in 1970.

[vi] Author’s archive, 1980s.

Announcing the publication of Vol. 17 (2019) of The Silk Road, an open-access online journal published by the Silk Road House.

All articles for the latest issue can be accessed at: https://edspace.american.edu/silkroadjournal/volume-17-2019/

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Did Richthofen Really Coin “the Silk Road”?
Matthias Mertens

An Interview with Roderick Whitfield on the Stein Collection in the British Museum

Sonya S. Lee

Faces of the Buddha: Lorenzo Pullè and the Museo Indiano in Bologna, 1907-35

Luca Villa

Knotted Carpets from the Taklamakan: A Medium of Ideological and Aesthetic Exchange on the Silk Road, 700 BCE-700 CE

Zhang He

Some Notes on Sogdian Costume in Early Tang China

Sergey A. Yatsenko

An Analysis of Modern Chinese Colophons on the Dunhuang Manuscripts

Justin M. Jacobs

Camel Fairs in India: A Photo Essay

Harvey Follender

BOOK REVIEWS

Robert N. Spengler III, Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Food We Eat

Susan Whitfield

Thomas T. Allsen, The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire

Samuel Rumschlag

Roman Hautala, Crusaders, Missionaries, and Eurasian Nomads in the 13th-14th Centuries

Charles J. Halperin

István Zimonyi, Medieval Nomads in Eastern Europe

Charles J. Halperin

Baumer and Novák, eds., Urban Cultures of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Karakhanids

Barbara Kaim

– Justin M. Jacobs, Editor (jjacobs@american.edu)

The Unyielding First Secretary, translated by Balzhan Suzhikova (KIMEP)

Editor’s introduction:

This special blog post, translated and shared with us by Kazakhstani Fulbright Scholar and Associate Director at KIMEP University Balzhan Suzhikova, outlines the experience of her grandfather Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov as a Soviet party leader in the Republic of Kazakhstan.[i] The original version of this article in Russian  was published in Novaya Gazeta on 24.07.2019, and was written by Professors Abdijalel Bakir (Doctor of Political Science) and Sagymbay Kozybayev (President of the Academy of Journalism of Kazakhstan), who also detail their efforts to recover archival and newspaper records to support Suzhikov’s own writings and interviews in order to offer this historical biographical perspective.

Suzhikov’s story centers on two primary themes.  The first of these takes place in the context of the history of ongoing Soviet nuclear testing in the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan.  As First Secretary of that region’s party committee, Suzhikov bore witness to the physical damage, pathological radiation effects on health and ecology, and military displacements there; while many others stayed silent in the face of military and KGB authority, Suzhikov chose to report a warning.  The second major theme is the subsequent dismissal of Suzhikov from his post, which was speciously blamed on his failure to meet agricultural quotas, and the State’s public characterization of Suzhikov as a troublesome ‘nationalist.’  Such testimonies serve to rhetorically counteract assumptions (or accusations) of complicity.  But further, this biographical narrative also sheds light on how the very category of ‘nationalist’ is historically structured as oppositional or problematic within the communist party structure itself (a genealogical precursor of the anti-nuclear (ethnic, ecological) nationalisms of the early post-Soviet period) and thus informs well then broader critical studies of power, and governance in (post) Soviet Central Asia,[ii] as well as the historical and ethnographic contexts of the nuclear history and legacy in Kazakhstan.

Suggested readings:

Balmukhanov, B., Raissova, G., & Balmukhanov, T. (2002). Three generations of the Semipalatinsk affected to the radiation. Almaty: Sakshy.

Johnston, Barbara R., ed. 2007.   Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War.  School for Advanced Research Press.

Kassenova, Togzhan. 2017. “Banning nuclear testing: lessons from the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site” in The Nonproliferation Review 23(3-4): 329-344.

Stawkowski, Magdalena E. 2016. “I am a Radioactive Mutant”: Emerging Biological Subjectivities at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site” in American Ethnologist 43(1):144-157.

2017 “Life on an Atomic Collective: The Post-Soviet Retreat of the State in Rural Kazakhstan” in Études Rurales 200(2):196-219.

***

A cry from the heart about the dire consequences of nuclear explosions at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was first heard sixty years ago.  At that time, M. A. Suzhikov wrote a secret letter to N.S. Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, and to N.I. Belyaev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Most of our compatriots do not know about this document, even the leaders of the well-known as the “Nevada – Semey” movement do not mention it.

M.A. Suzhikov in 1938 – Chairman of the Volodarsky District Executive Committee of the Astrakhan Region (all photographs used with the permission of B. Suzhikova).

In 1947, the Soviet Government turned the ancient Kazakh land into a nuclear test field. And the first to raise the alarm was Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov, who in 1959 was elected First Secretary of the Semipalatinsk regional party committee. One morning, Suzhikov came to work and could not believe his eyes: in the building of the regional committee there was not a single window left – all of them were broken. Employees of the regional committee, in contrast to the newly appointed First Secretary, knew the reason and spoke secretly about it: this was the result of another nuclear weapons test.

Suzhikov later received strictly secret results (available to him as to the member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan) of a study by radiologist Saim Balmukhanov, on the effect of radiation on the human body. So he met with the scholar, who told him about such diseases as leukemia and cancerous tumors that were rapidly spreading among the population of the Abay, Makanchy and Urdzhar districts.

M.A. Suzhikov with participants and delegates from the Volodarsky district of the Stalingrad region to the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, Moscow 1939.

Decades later, S. Balmukhanov, a member of Academy of Sciences, said in his article entitled “My View of the Nuclear Test Site” that when this meeting took place at the Semipalatinsk regional party office, a representative from the nuclear test site had given Suzhikov outdated information, indicating that the main cause of symptoms and syndromes identified in patients was vitamin deficiency.  The most complex types of brucellosis and tuberculosis in the local population were also explained in this way, thereby ruling out the effects of nuclear testing.

However, Suzhikov did not accept this conclusion. He traveled personally to all areas of the region and thoroughly studied this problem, which revealed a very troublesome picture.  Subsequently, a scientific expedition was organized by Balmukhanov to study the effect of nuclear tests on the local population was able to find out that the radioactivity of air and food in the settlements of Sarzhal, Kaynar, and Karauyl was significantly higher than base levels elsewhere in the country (compared to the Shubartau district and the village of Aktogay in Karaganda region). Then it became known about the excess contamination of all meat and dairy products from the Semipalatinsk region. Suzhikov supported this expedition and created a special commission at the Academy of Sciences, but unfortunately, under pressure from above, the expedition was soon dissolved.

“The more I learn about the situation, the more my internal anxiety increases. Not only were hundreds of people in the region exposed to excessive radiation, but the products of one of the country’s largest Semipalatinsk meat processing plants, including children’s hematogen, are sold throughout the country in infected state,” – these words of Mukhamedgali Suzhikov are recalled in the article “A Bomb for the Third World War,” published in “Kazakhstanskaya Pravda” on July 20, 1991.

At a session of the Supreme Council of the USSR in May 1959, M. Suzhikov specifically met with R. Malinovsky, who served as both the USSR Minister of Defense, and the Marshal of the Soviet Union. Suzhikov told the Minister that residents of the Abyraly and May districts were forced to leave their homes, being ousted by military personnel.  At the same time, those displaced did not receive any assistance from the military forces, and had to face severe problems on their own, being left without a place to live. Malinovsky was also informed about the results of Balmukhanov’s expedition. The military dictatorship was so strong that even though Suzhikov was the First Secretary of the party’s regional committee (of the territory where the nuclear training ground was located), was forced to ask for permission of the Minister of Defense to visit that training ground and to familiarize himself with the activities there.

After some time, the military commander directly involved in testing the nuclear bomb at the test site, arrived to Semipalatinsk, and Suzhikov accompanied him to the city of Kurchatov – the center of the nuclear test site. Suzhikov, together with a representative of the military-industrial complex, visited the storage site of the weapon referred to only as “The Product,” and he spoke to scientists and to officers there. Unfortunately, his questions were answered under the strict control of the military commander. But even with the highest level of secrecy, something became clear to the head of the region.

Upon his return from the training ground, Suzhikov gathered the members of the regional committee bureau, and informed them about the results of the expedition with Balmukhanov, as well as about the results of the meeting with Marshal Malinovsky, and explained what he saw at the training ground. It turned out that the members of the bureau of the regional party committee knew about the social situation of people evicted from their homes.  They also knew about a large number of cases of leukemia and other oncological diseases, and about an increase of the number of babies being born underdeveloped and with pathologies. However, several members of the party’s regional committee (including the second secretary of the regional committee and the chairman of the regional executive committee) said they would not intervene in these matters: “These are not our problems – the KGB and the military elite are in charge of this area. For us, the case is hidden under the heading “Top Secret,” let the big bosses decide for themselves.”[iii]

M.A.Suzhikov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (bottom row 3rd from left), pictured with Zhumabay Shayakhmetov, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Kazakhstan  (1st row in the center); collective photo of delegates to the congress in 1951.

As a result, the unyielding Suzhikov sent a secret letter, titled “On the dire consequences of testing nuclear and thermonuclear weapons at the Semipalatinsk test site” to N.S. Khrushchev – the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU and to N.I. Belyaev – the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Only after this letter did the Council of Ministers of the USSR adopt a secret resolution aimed at providing financial and medical assistance to the population of the Semipalatinsk region, even if for quite an insignificant sum. This was the first state act on social rehabilitation and assistance to citizens of the region in ten years from the moment of starting the nuclear tests at the test site.

We searched for this secret letter for a long time, yet we could not find it in the republican archives. We sent a request to the directors of the Russian State Socio-Political Archive and of the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History. But we only received answers about absence of such a letter.

When one of the authors of this article, Abdijalel Bakir, was in Moscow in 2009, the head of the department of the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History told him: “Perhaps these documents are kept under the “Secret” mark in the Presidential Archive. This is not in our hands”. Thus, so far there is no hope of finding this letter. But its existence was mentioned by Balmukhanov – his words were referred to in the “A Bomb for the Third World War”, as well as in the “Ana Tili (The Native Tongue)” newspaper in an interview with Suzhikov entitled “Why I wrote a letter to Khrushchev” dated August 23, 2001.

Unfortunately, back then the top heads both in Moscow and in Alma-Ata perceived this letter sent to Khrushchev and Balyaev extremely negatively, which subsequently affected M.A. Suzhikov’s career. These affects could already be seen by 1959: when Semipalatinsk region reached top levels in producing and selling meat and other agricultural products, Suzhikov’s merits were marked only with a medal, although other regional officials were awarded orders of various degrees. (Usually, for such achievements, the First secretary of the regional party organization received at least an Order of the Red Banner of Labor.)

Of course, Suzhikov knew that this very letter to Khrushchev about the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site could decide his fate, but he could not remain silent, could not help doing something about what he had seen, and knowing the situation of the local population.  However as a result of this action, both Moscow and Alma-Ata were waiting for an opportunity to remove the stubborn First Secretary of the regional party committee from his position.

M.A. Suzhikov discusses with architects their diarama plans to build a publishing center in then Alma-Ata, 1968.  

M.A. Suzhikov, the Chairman of the State Committee of the KazSSR for print media, hosts foreign guests in 1968. 

Such an opportunity appeared due to unrest in Temirtau, where the construction of a Kazakhstani “Magnetic Mountain” began.[iv] Thousands of people were brought there from all over the country – convicts and the parolees. They were put in arduous conditions, not only having not enough food, but even craving for drinking water. Unrest and riots began in the city, for one whole week Temirtau was in the hands of the rebels who robbed all the shops, restaurants, and food stores.

The tragedy of Temirtau was discussed in 1960 behind the closed doors at a special plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan “On the State of the Construction of Karaganda Metallurgical Plant”. M. Suzhikov, speaking at the plenum, sharply criticized the bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan for not having political foresight in resolving the fundamental issues of construction, and for considering the secondary problems before the priority ones.

The next day, urgent information “regarding nationalism” of the First Secretary of Semipalatinsk regional committee reached Moscow. A week later, instructors of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, arriving expeditiously, called the “nationalist” to account, and visited all of his previous work places in Aktobe and Kyzyl-Orda regions. Their audit lasted for three months, and as a result, not even a single fact that could have served as grounds for public accusation or for the removal of Suzhikov was revealed. In all the places the inspectors visited, people spoke warmly about Suzhikov and about the results of his work. For instance, while working during the post-war years in Aktobe, Suzhikov, seeing how the whole region was starving, immediately wrote a letter to Moscow asking for food aid, and managed to get it, thus saving many people. And in Kyzyl-Orda region, Suzhikov resolved cadre issues, thus stimulating the development of regional economy and culture.

Instructors from Moscow and the leaders in Alma-Ata discussed the issue endlessly, but could not find any violations in Suzhikov’s work. They had no choice but to accuse him of non-fulfillment of socialist obligations in agriculture.

Indeed, both the summer of 1959 and the winter of 1960 were unfavorable in this sense. Hot weather in summer prevented the districts to ensure the compete preparation of hay for the winter. As a result, a large loss of cattle occurred. It would have been even larger in scale if Suzhikov had not taken action in time. He constantly met with herders, brought in the needed professionals, helped the population, making every possible use of all the internal capabilities of the region. But despite all his efforts, the increase in livestock at the time of the audit was lower than was planned.  All these facts were taken into account during the audits; however, there were still no sufficient reasons for dismissing Suzhikov from his post.

M.A. Suzhikov, Chairman of the State Committee of the KazSSR for print media in 1970.

Then, the “Pravda” newspaper – the main press organ of the Central Committee of the CPSU, published an article titled “Words Do Not Match Actions,”[v] which was a kind of sentence in Suzhikov’s life and track record. Much of what was published about him was untrue. But there could be no turning back. During those years, if the article was published in “Pravda” no one could refute it. This was a reality of communist party discipline.

Subsequently, at the meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan held on August 27, 1960, after considering the letter “On unsatisfactory work of the party committee of Semipalatinsk region in increasing agricultural production, as well as in fulfilling the socialist obligations undertaken by collective and state farms of the region for 1960” and after reviewing letters from the staff of the apparatus the Central Committee of the CPSU on this issue, Suzhikov was dismissed from the post of First Secretary of the regional committee of Semipalatinsk region for ‘significant violations and deficiencies in agricultural management.’

It should be noted that unsatisfactory assessment of Suzhikov’s work of fulfilling socialist obligations was far-fetched. Literally three months later, the republican and regional newspapers reported the early fulfillment of socialist obligations by the Semipalatinsk region, the grounds for this being in fact set by the leadership of Suzhikov.

In fact, Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov was sacked from the position of the regional head not for his “sins” of not fulfilling the socialist obligations, but because he was courageous enough to be the first to openly oppose the high-handedness and unaccountability of leaders of the central bodies of Soviet Union as when creating the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and conducting nuclear tests on it, or as when conducting the construction of the Karaganda Metallurgical Plant. The opinion of local population, its social well-being, and lifestyle were not taken into account in state level decision making.  Suzhikov was worried least of all about his own personal well-being; rather, he put the interests of people of Saryarka and Abai’s native land above all, therefore the cliché of a “nationalist” was attached to him.

The truth, though late, ultimately triumphed. When Suzhikov passed away in 1999 at the age of 89, the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan noted his merits: “During the Great Patriotic War, Suzhikov organized the construction of defensive structures and formed fighter battalions from militias in the Stalingrad Region. After the war, M.A. Suzhikov worked as the secretary of the regional party committee in the regions of Astrakhan and Kostanai, as the first secretary of the regional party committee in Aktobe, Kyzylorda, and Semipalatinsk, and was elected secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. For many years, he also led the State Press Committee of the Republic. Working in such positions of responsibility, he was able to clearly express his active citizenship, and the mastery of a skilled organizer. He made a huge contribution to the development of culture and economy of Kazakhstan” (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, 14 August 1999).

After 60 years, at the initiative of the local leadership, the secondary school in Kyzylorda region was named after Muhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov.”

In 2017 a school was named in Suzhikov’s honor and a new monument erected.

The granddaughters of Suzhikov Balzhan and Sherin, as well as his neice Almira, at the opening of his monument at the school in Kyzylorda in 2017.

[i] Биография Сужикова М.А. (Ашимбаев Д. Р. Кто есть кто в Казахстане. Биографическая энциклопедия. Алматы, 2008)

Член ВКП(б) с 1932 г. В 1929 г. окончил педагогические курсы при Народном комиссариате просвещения РСФСР, в 1948 г. — Высшую школу партийных организаторов при ЦК ВКП(б), Высшую партийную школу при ЦК ВКП(б).

  • 1929—1938 гг. — заведующий школой колхозной молодёжи, директор Володарского рабочего факультета Астраханского рыбного техникума,
  • 1938—1943 гг. — председатель исполнительного комитета Володарского районного Совета (Астраханский округ),
  • 1943 г. — секретарь Астраханского окружного комитета ВКП(б),
  • 1944—1945 гг. — заместитель секретаря Астраханского областного комитета ВКП(б) по животноводству,
  • 1948—1949 гг. — секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана по кадрам,
  • 1949—1950 гг. — секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана,
  • 1950—1951 гг. — первый секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана,
  • 1951—1954 гг. — секретарь ЦК КП(б) — КП Казахстана,
  • 1954—1958 гг. — первый секретарь Кзыл-Ординского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1958—1960 гг. — первый секретарь Семипалатинского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1960—1963 гг. — заместитель председателя Комиссии государственного-советского контроля СМ Казахской ССР,
  • 1963—1965 гг. — председатель казахского республиканского комитета Профсоюза работников культуры,
  • 1965—1967 гг. — секретарь Кустанайского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1967—1971 гг. — председатель Государственного комитета СМ Казахской ССР по печати.

Награждён орденом Трудового Красного Знамени, двумя орденами «Знак Почёта».

[ii] Recent collections of critical studies of governance in (post) Soviet Central Asia include:

Isaacs, Rico and Abel Polese. 2015.  “Between ‘imagined’ and ‘real’ nation-building: identity and nationhood in post-Soviet Central Asia” in Nationalities Papers 43(3): 371-382.

Kassymbekova, Botakoz. 2017.  “Understanding Stalinism in, from, and of Central Asia: beyond failure, peripherality, and otherness” in Central Asian Survey 36(1): 1-18.

[iii] Л. Вайдман, политический обозреватель «Казахстанской правды»  «Казахстанская правда» 20 июля 1991 г. Статья « Бомба для третьей мировой»

[iv] Kotkin, Stephen.  1997.  Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. University of California Press.

For a recent overview of the place of Central Asia in Science and Technology Studies, please see:

Van der Straeten, Jonas.  Borderlands of Industrial Modernity Explorations into the History of Technology in Central Asia, 1850–2000

[v] Editor’s note:  the editor and translator were unable to locate the precise date of this article’s publication.

Author-Interview: Slavery and Empire in Central Asia, by Jeff Eden (St. Mary’s College of Maryland)

In this third installment of our series highlighting the books short-listed for this year’s book prize, we welcome Sergey Salushchev (University of California, Santa Barbara) who interviews Jeff Eden (St. Mary’s College of Maryland) about his book Slavery and Empire in Central Asia.   

From the Cambridge University Press website: “The Central Asian slave trade swept hundreds of thousands of Iranians, Russians, and others into slavery during the eighteenth–nineteenth centuries. Drawing on eyewitness accounts, autobiographies, and newly-uncovered interviews with slaves, this book offers an unprecedented window into slaves’ lives and a penetrating examination of human trafficking. Slavery strained Central Asia’s relations with Russia, England, and Iran, and would serve as a major justification for the Russian conquest of this region in the 1860s–70s. Challenging the consensus that the Russian Empire abolished slavery with these conquests, Eden uses these documents to reveal that it was the slaves themselves who brought about their own emancipation by fomenting the largest slave uprising in the region’s history.”

The introduction of your book introduces slavery in Central Asia as a long-forgotten phenomenon. Why, in your opinion, has the historiography of the region ignored this important issue?

I would love to offer a “savior” tale here about how I was a whistleblower amid a conspiracy-of-silence on slavery, or saved manuscripts from a shipwreck, or was simply “in the right place at the right time” to make a huge discovery (possibly on camelback amid nomads). The reality involves far less in the way of personal glory, but—in its own way—it’s even more exciting.

First, to clarify: there has been no mass conspiracy—let alone a watery grave—hiding the primary sources on Central Asian slavery. Information on slavery is “hidden in plain sight” in practically every travelogue and memoir from nineteenth-century Central Asia, whatever the language. There is also some excellent work on Central Asian slavery by Turgun Faiziev, Yuan Gao, Scott C. Levi, G.I. Semeniuk, Elena Smolarz, and others (please see references below).

That said—and as some of these colleagues have likewise noted in their work—there has been a remarkably small amount of research on Central Asian slavery overall. Compared to many other regions in which slavery was historically prevalent, Central Asia’s slave trade seems forgotten: unknown to most who study slavery in other contexts, and little-known even to many Eurasianists.

Since there is no shortage of accessible information, nor any conspiracy against revealing it, I suspect that the relative shortage of research here may best be explained by a relative shortage of Eurasianists working on pre-Soviet Central Asia. To be sure, there has been rapid development on that front in the last decade or so. But here too is the exciting part: there are still many huge, epoch-spanning, relatively unexplored topics in Central Eurasian history simply waiting for motivated writers to pick up the threads.

Trying to research and understand the lived experiences of enslaved individuals and communities is a notoriously difficult and epistemologically daunting task. What motivated you to research the history of slavery and the slave trade in Central Asia?

Researching slaves’ lives can be challenging, especially given the scarcity of sources on slaves’ experiences in many parts of the world. Central Asia—like the American South—is one of those rare regions where reconstructing slaves’ lives seems thrillingly possible, thanks to an abundance of sources from many different perspectives. We have so much: memoirs by former slaves, interviews with slaves and former slaves, manumission documents, legal manuals, ambassadors’ letters, eyewitness travel reports, and more. These sources span several languages, including Persian, Turkic, Russian, English, and French. Diverse sources means diverse questions about source-specific biases, genres, and motivations, and addressing these questions is a constant epistemological challenge. Sometimes the challenge is a pleasure, and sometimes it feels like a burden. In any case, this is a topic for which the “burden” of too much evidence is undoubtedly a blessing. It was the visceral impact of the sources—some are heartbreaking, some are breathtaking—that initially motivated me to work on the subject.

View from the city walls, Khiva (wikimedia commons opensource image)

The title of your book suggests an intricate, if not integral, link between slavery in the Central Asia and the Russian imperial project in the region in the nineteenth century. In what ways does the Russian presence in the region illuminate the history of slavery in Central Asia? In what ways might it obscure it?

These are great questions. Some of the most detailed eyewitness information on slavery is provided by Russian travelers, soldiers, and officials. These sources are crucial. However, there are at least two ways in which major aspects of the slave trade are obscured or distorted in some Russian reportage.

First, Russian official sources say relatively little about the enslavement of Iranians in the region, an oversight that creates a warped picture of slavery’s demographics. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire repeatedly used the presence of enslaved Russians in Central Asia as one pretext to dispatch envoys and armies. By mid-century, there were very few Russian slaves to liberate. There were, however, tens of thousands of Iranian slaves, and they were the focus of much less Russian diplomatic engagement. In short, there is a risk of obscuring the main victims of the slave trade—Iranians—while exaggerating the prevalence of enslaved Russians. Taking advantage of diverse sources helps to balance the picture here.

Second, Russian official sources tend to overlook the persistence of the slave trade after the Russian conquest of the region. The Russian government lost interest in the region’s slave trade after the conquests, despite convincing evidence that the trade was ongoing. (To make this very point, an American traveler named Eugene Schuyler personally purchased a child slave in Bukhara!) The most likely explanation for Russia’s indifference to slavery in the post-conquest period is that the empire’s pre-conquest “abolitionism” had largely been a pretext for war. After the conquests were accomplished, there was little incentive to acknowledge that slavery still existed in Central Asia, let alone to help combat it.

Can you describe what have been the biggest challenges of conducting the research and writing the manuscript of your book? Did you encounter any major issues in gaining access to the archival sources in the region?

Most of the archival sources used in my book are held in Almaty, in the Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan. I ventured here thanks to the advice of my kind colleague Alexander Morrison, who suggested that I might find manuscripts on slavery in these collections. Kafkaesque anecdotes about former-Soviet archives constitute a venerable literary genre in our field, but I have no tragicomic tales to pass on from this archive. It is simply a wonderful place to work. The archive director and archivists were efficient, welcoming, and knowledgeable; the reading room was comfortable even in late summer; the neighborhood is leafy and pleasant; Almaty is lovely; and every folio I requested was freely available.

One of the chapters in your book attempts to dispel the myth of Russian abolitionism in the region. Your assertion has important implications for understanding Russian imperial expansion in Central Asia in relationship to slavery, as it challenges a well-entrenched perception of Russian benevolent abolitionism in places like the Caucasus and Central Asia. What archival discoveries allowed you to reassess the role of Russian imperial authorities in ending practices of slavery and the slave trade in the region? 

One of the most striking discoveries, for me, was the Khivan Slave Uprising of 1873, which is described both in a manuscript source and in published eyewitness accounts. These events—among others—seriously call into question the Russian “abolitionist” enterprise in Central Asia. This is the gist of the events:

On the eve of the Russian conquest of the town of Khiva in 1873, a massive slave rebellion erupted in the region. Evidently, these courageous slaves either expected the Russians to liberate them, or calculated that the chaos of the invasion would be an opportune moment to rise up. If the Russian “abolitionist” program had been sincere, one might expect the Russian military to support the uprising. Instead, the Russian general in charge of the invasion ordered rebelling slaves to be hung from the gallows in a public square, their bodies left to rot in plain view as a warning to others. It seems that he preferred to conquer a town filled with quiet, frightened slaves rather than deal with the “mess” of immediate emancipation.

“At the Fortress Wall: Let Them Enter” painting by Vasilii Vereshagin, 1871. 

The most interesting source describing these events is a local history from Khiva, written in Arabic-script Turkic. This manuscript is held in Tashkent, a city I have never visited; I received a copy of it from Paolo Sartori, another kind and generous colleague. I am planning to translate and publish this remarkable source later this year.

Exciting new revelations about Central Asian slave rebellions have continued to emerge from the archives. Just last month, my colleague Ulfat Abdurasulov shared with me a major discovery: another local history of slavery in the region, likewise in Arabic-script Turkic, which describes a series of slave rebellions that erupted before the Khivan Slave Uprising of 1873. (Abdurasulov and Nuryoghdi Toshov have translated and transcribed this manuscript, and their work was published just a few weeks ago.) This local history, based in part on interviews with former slaves (!), reveals an ongoing pattern of resistance among the slaves of Central Asia. With many Russian and Central Asian archives more accessible now than ever before, I look forward to further revelations on Central Eurasian slavery in the months and years to come.

References:

Artykbaev, Zh.O. ed., Raby i tiulenguty v kazakhskoi stepi. Astana: Altyn kitap, 2006.

Faiziev, T. Buxoro feodal jamiyatida qullardan foydalanishga doir hujjatlar (XIX asr). Tashkent: Fan, 1990.

Gao, Yuan. “Captivity and Empire: Russian Captivity Narratives in Fact and Fiction.” M.A. thesis, Nazarbayev University, 2016.

Levi, Scott C. “Hindus Beyond the Hindu Kush: Indians in the Central Asian Slave Trade.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12/3 (2002), 277-288.

Smolarz, Elena. “Speaking about Freedom and Dependency: Representations and Experiences of Russian Enslaved Captives in Central Asia in the First Half of the 19th Century.” Journal of Global Slavery 2 (2017), 44-71.