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.

Aging in the Absence of the Young and in the Presence of the Ancestor Spirits in Kyrgyzstan, by Maria Louw Aarhus University

In this blog post I will present a research project I am currently engaged in and reflect on some of my preliminary findings. The project is part of a larger cross-disciplinary project, “Radical Uncertainty and the Search for a Good (Old) Life”[1], in which artists, philosophers and anthropologists explore how people who are aging under challenging and uncertain life conditions strive to achieve good lives. My own anthropological part of the project takes me to Kyrgyzstan and focuses on Kyrgyz people who grow old in the absence of their close families. One of the themes that has appeared as central is the role of the ancestor spirits in the lives of the elderly.

A bed for Gulbara’s husband

Gulbara[2] points in the direction of the kitchen. She explains that she recently put up a bed there, as this is the place her husband usually lies down to take a rest when he visits her. Previously, he used to lie down on the floor, but she wanted to make things a bit nicer for him.

Gulbara’s home.  Photo credit Maria Louw.

Gulbara’s husband, as it showed up, had died many years ago, as had most of the other people she had cared about during her life. But Gulbara was not alone. The spirits of those who had died would often dwell in her house. They would come to her in her dreams, giving her omens, as ancestor spirits sometimes do, but more often they would just come and be there. Take a nap and leave again. When she was ill, they would encourage her to persevere: “eat well”, “rest well”, they would say. They would drink tea and ask how she was doing. “I live with them,” she said and shrugged her shoulders as if there was not much to say.

Elderliness in the absence of the young

For the last year or so I have engaged in a research project that focuses on elderly Kyrgyz people who grow old in the absence of their close family. Family members may be absent because they have migrated, because they have passed away, or because the elderly have lost contact with them.

Elderly man in At-Bashy, Kyrgyzstan.  Photo credit Maria Louw.

In Kyrgyzstan, a good life as an elder has traditionally and normatively been defined in relation to the extended family as well as the wider local community. As Judith Beyer has convincingly pointed out, being an ‘elder’ requires more than just being of a certain age: As they grow older, people gradually learn to comply with and perform ‘elderliness’ in expected ways, most notably through the performance of high moral integrity and authority: e.g. mediation of conflicts, passing on advise and blessings to family and members of the larger community, passing on knowledge of Islam, and taking decisions in regard to family property (cf. Beyer 2010 and 2013). In my project I explore how the elderly – bereft of the intersubjective relations in which it is traditionally experienced, performed and acknowledged – live and experience elderliness and its moral virtues.

Notions of virtue imply some notions of selfhood as the seat of ethical character and the agentive locus of ethical action (cf. Dyring et al 2018: 11). As Sara Ruddick pointed out in one of her important contributions to feminist philosophy, virtues are commonly represented as characteristics of individuals (whether as states, dispositions, capacities, or traits of character), but are created between people and inseparable from relationships (Ruddick 1999: 51-53): A person – in this case an elderly person – is able to perform high moral integrity and authority, only if she can create the occasions, with others, for doing so; if there are others who willingly listen to her moral advises and gratefully receive her blessings – and who care for her to compensate for what may be her physical frailty.

Gulbara managed by herself. She pointed out that doing her house chores kept her fit. Other elderly people she knew had children and grandchildren who helped them cook, eat, wash and go to the bathroom, and that made them weak. Nevertheless, her body had started failing her. She did not hear well, and she was nearly blind: She laughingly pointed out that none of her husbands (she had been married twice) ever laid a hand on her, but now the walls would beat her when she moved around her little house.

The absence of close family members, then, often means the absence – and the haunting presence – of particular versions of oneself: the person one could have been if they had been there to support it. The person without the bruises that come from bumping into the walls. The person other people would listen to with interest.

The care of the ancestor spirits

What I have found is that the spirits of the past often settle in the homes of the elderly, being uncanny hinges to lives they could have lived and persons they could have been, had their families not been absent. And thus, one of the themes I am currently exploring – and which brings the project in touch with what has been my long-term interest in the intersections of heaven and earth, the ordinary and the transcendent, in Central Asia – is the role of arbak, ancestor spirits, in the lives of the elderly.

Cemetery near At-Bashy, Kyrgyzstan

Among the Kyrgyz, the arbak, ancestor spirits, remain involved in the world of the living, following the lives of their living relatives and often seek to interfere with them (Dubuisson 2017; Louw 2010). There are certain elements that serve as meeting points between the living and the dead. Dreams for example. Candles. Or certain smells. Words read from the Qur’an. But basically, what ancestor spirits demand is to be remembered and cared for. To be included in the worlds of the living.

Care, in the broadest sense of the term, may be seen as the creation or confirmation of the presence of something or someone in a world. Gulbara’s care for the ancestor spirits gave them a presence and a place in her world – and vice-versa: the ancestor spirits and their care for Gulbara gave her a presence in their world. But what kind of world it was, she was not sure of.

Gulbara was prepared to leave this world, feeling more and more unhinged from the lives of the living. All those she had cared about and cared for during her long live had passed away: Her father never returned from World War Two; her mother had died at the age of 37, and her seven younger brothers as well as their spouses had all passed away as well, as had her husband. The only child she ever gave birth to died as an infant. Gulbara had lived alone for 15 years or more. She did not remember it exactly. “When I die I wish they could bury me, but none of them are alive”, she said, and kept returning to the topic when my field assistant and I visited her for the first time in August 2018. Death was approaching, she felt. She believed that the coming winter might be her last. She hoped that her brothers’ children would bury her after her death, without conflicts and disagreements – therefore she had already distributed her belongings among them. But she also feared that nobody would take care of her funeral, as the younger generation did not seem to care much about her: “They don’t come here to drink tea; they never invite me. I don’t know why they never visit me. They do not ask how I am doing.”

The spectral presences in Gulbara’s life added to a sense of being unhinged from the living but also, at the same time, lend a sense of ordinariness to the present that made her hold on to it, patching up a world that was livable. If Gulbara’s care for the ancestor spirits gave them a presence in this world, their care for her, in turn, presented forth a more virtuous version of herself than she was able to live in the company of the living: welcoming visitors to her home and being asked about how she was doing. Being generous and receiving care, as elderly are supposed to. Simple and everyday acts of care and concern that were both ordinary and essential to her sense of self; that is, the self she wanted to be but was unable to live among the living.

Ancestor spirits indeed often serve as hinges to selves that may be invisible to, or forgotten by, others – or selves one wishes to become in the future (cf. also Louw 2010). But their ways are not always that clear, and although they, to Gulbara, seemed to represent ordinary ways of human conduct she felt had been lost among the living, they also brought her questions. She recalled that she recently had a dream in which she saw her father. He came with two other men. They were on horseback, and they took her and rode up a hill. There they left her and went away.

When arbak take a person with them in a dream it is usually taken as a sign that the person will soon join them. Gulbara did not understand why her father left her and did not take her with him. She was prepared to leave this world, but the spirits encouraged her to persevere, and she did not understand why.

But if the ancestor spirits were uncanny, the ways of the living were even stranger: At first, Gulbara had been angry with her relatives for their neglect of her. But she had gradually realized that they just did like everyone did these days. She did not understand why, and she did not bother to learn why: her time in this world had come to an end anyway.

Closing remarks

Focusing on ghosts allows us to gaze into that which has been forgotten, repressed or ignored, in a self, in others, or in a society. Lives that could have been lived; worlds that could have been made (Gordon 2008), or potentials not yet realized. Ghosts may haunt people against their will, creating uncanny atmospheres in places they thought they knew – but they may equally well be what creates a sense of home in a world one feels unhinged with.

Literature quoted

Beyer, Judith (2010) “Authority as Accomplishment: Intergenerational Dynamics in Talas, Northern Kyrgyzstan”, in A. Sengupta and S. Chatterjee (eds): Eurasian Perspectives. In Search of Alternatives. New Delhi: Shipra

Beyer, Judith (2013) “Ordering ideals: accomplishing well-being in a Kyrgyz cooperative of elders”, in Central Asian Survey 32:4, 432-447

Dubuisson, Eva Marie (2017) Living Language in Kazakhstan. The Dialogic Emergence of an Ancestral Worldview. University of Pittsburgh Press

Dyring, Rasmus, Cheryl Mattingly and Maria Louw (2018) “The Question of ‘Moral Engines’: Introducing a Philosophical Anthropological Dialogue”, in Cheryl Mattingly, Rasmus Dyring, Maria Louw and Thomas Schwarz Wentzer: Moral Engines. Exploring the Ethical Drives in Human Life. Berghahn

Gordon, Avery F. (2008 [1997]) Ghostly Matters. Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press

Louw, Maria (2010) “Dreaming up futures. Dream omens and magic in Bishkek”, in History and Anthropology vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 277-292

Ruddick, Sara (1999) ”Virtues and Age”, in Margaret Urban Walker: Mother Time. Women, Aging, and Ethics. Rowman & Littlefield


[1] Fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan is conducted in cooperation with Babushka Adoption.   The broader project runs from 2017 – 2020, and here I draw on recent shorter fieldtrips (in 2018 and 2019) as well as my own previous longer-term research periods from 2007 onwards.

[2] Gulbara is a pseudonym.

We are pleased to announce the publication of Vol. 16 (2018) of The Silk Road, an open-access online journal published by the Silkroad Foundation.

The latest volume of The Silk Road brings the production of fresh knowledge and dissemination of exciting new discoveries derived from the lands and peoples who continue to animate the historical rubric of the Silk Road. Our excursion through place and time begins with a fascinating archaeological report by Marina Kulinovskaia and Pavel Leus on recently excavated Xiongnu graves in Tuva, lavishly illustrated with nearly fifty color photographs from the field.

From the first article on Xiongnu graves in Tuva (Fig. 49), a richly adorned tomb of a female corpse with a striking turquoise belt buckle.  Image used with permission from Justin Jacobs.

We are then treated to Jin Noda’s analysis of Japanese intelligence agents in Russian and Qing Inner Asia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Next up is Zhang Zhan’s in-depth reassessment of ancient Sogdian documents from Khotan and what they can tell us about the status and occupations of these far-flung travelers during the first millennium CE. Zhang’s philological analysis is followed by Li Sifei’s investigation into the complex subject of Chinese perceptions of “Persians” and “Sogdians” during the Northern Zhou, Sui, and Tang dynasties. Marina Rodionova and Iakov Frenkel’ then encourage us to transfer our attention to the other, far less popularized end of the Silk Road, with a detailed case study of how a Mongol-era Chinese celadon made its way to the Novgorod Kremlin in Russia.

The Mongol backdrop plays an even more important role in Samuel Rumschlag’s sophisticated comparison of bow, saddle, and stirrup technology among different nomadic polities throughout Eurasian history. Finally, we have Matteo Compareti’s creative reading of the literary and artistic influences to be found in the painted programs of the great eastern Iranian hero Rustam in the Blue Hall at Panjikent. The issue concludes with reviews of two recent and important books by Susan Whitfield and Donald S. Lopez, Jr., along with detailed notices of other new books compiled—as generously and meticulously as before—by our former editor Daniel Waugh. In addition, Daniel Waugh has also contributed in innumerable other ways to the production of this volume, not least of which were his expert translations into English of the two articles originally co-authored in Russian.

Justin M. Jacobs, Editor

American University

Image of cover used here with permission of Justin Jacobs

The Cotton Republic: Colonial Practices in Soviet Uzbekistan? by Riccardo Mario Cucciolla, Higher School of Economics (HSE)

The history of modern Uzbekistan is inexorably linked with Russian colonialism and the evolution of the Soviet system. This Central Asian territory was the last frontier of Russian imperialism before becoming the Soviet periphery par excellence. In the 1860s, the Russian Empire expanded towards Transoxiana in order to compete with British influence in the region, create a captive market for Russian manufactures, develop trade, and secure a source of cotton. Indeed, since the imperial era, this latter element, one characteristic of the history of modern industry, has been the pivot on which center-periphery relations were based in political, economic, military, and social terms, defining the colonial ties between Moscow and Tashkent. This was a relationship that, in different forms, would last until 1991.

Continue reading The Cotton Republic: Colonial Practices in Soviet Uzbekistan? by Riccardo Mario Cucciolla, Higher School of Economics (HSE)

Author Interview: Film and Identity in Kazakhstan, by Rico Isaacs (Oxford Brookes University)

Many thanks to Moldiyar Yergebekov (Suleyman Demirel University),  for his questions and dialogue with Rico Isaacs about the book Film and Identity in Kazazkhstan: Soviet and Post-Soviet Culture in Central Asia, published in 2018 by I.B. Tauris.

Continue reading Author Interview: Film and Identity in Kazakhstan, by Rico Isaacs (Oxford Brookes University)