It’s the beginning of a much-needed restful weekend here in Moscow, steaming tea by my side, as I sit down to write. After getting back to town early on a red-eye flight from Berlin, I had to quickly dive in to finishing up a piece for a conference in Trento taking place shortly; sign a bunch of leasing and other bureaucratic documents to prepare for the beginning of my stint at Harvard next autumn; and shell out eye-watering sums of cash to pay for a flight from Phoenix to London (and, thence, Oxford) for my viva, scheduled for the middle of next month.
That said, several friends whom I haven’t seen in too long will be in Oxford, and my visit happily coincides with the Paul Bergne Lecture at St. Antony’s College, an annual lecture given in honor of Bergne, a British diplomat and scholar who played a crucial role in developing diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the post-Soviet Central Asian states following 1991. (He also authored The Birth of Tajikistan, a great introduction to the early years of the country for people interested in Central Asian affairs.) Fittingly enough, the speaker this year is William Dalrymple, speaking on his recent Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, on the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842. I’m not entirely sure how, or if, I’ll manage sitting a viva grilling before two of the top historians on Soviet and international history and still make it to the Dalrymple lecture, all while still on Arizona local time … but them’s the shakes at the intellectual smorgasboard that Oxford at its best can be.
Speaking of Oxford, Harvard, and historians, readers may have become aware of the brouhaha that erupted recently over Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s comments during a speech at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference, a ‘strategic investment conference’ held this year in lovely Carlsbad, California. The conference’s self-made video of highlights gives some taste of the intellectual thrust: the USA is on the verge of inflationary crisis, ‘entitlements’ have to be scaled back for responsibility’s sake, and money-printing central bankers can’t be trusted. None of this is that surprising, but what was, as Financial Advisor editor-at-large Tom Kostigen originally reported, was Ferguson’s off-hand comments about the massively influential British economist John Maynard Keynes. According to Kostigen:
Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark.
The outrage over the argument was considerable. Many commentators seized upon Ferguson with charges of homophobia. Nor did the fact that Ferguson, trained in the first place as an economic historian of Germany, was speaking again about issues of macroeconomic policy to an audience of hedge fund managers do anything to dissipate the main current of anti-Ferguson that seizes plenty of readers today: he’s posing as an economist; he spends too much time on the (lucrative) financial lecture circuit rather than using his (considerable) talents to write good history; he’s again steering too much in the direction of lobbing controversy bombs rather than doing scholarship (another example of which was, when, in his introductory essay to The Shock of the Global, a fine edited volume, he suggested that the 1970s have a bad rap in history because so many academics saw their position in society and salaries relative to other professionals drop).
An apology was soon forthcoming. First, as I’ve learned – and in what might be the only good piece of press for Ferguson in the brouhaha – from the Harvard historian to his own graduate students, whose job prospects and image as serious scholars might stand to suffer the more their seen as Ferguson proteges, rather than independent and creative intellects. Second, however, and arguably making matters worse, was Ferguson’s open apology to the Harvard community, printed in The Crimson, the student newspapers at what we at Princeton called ‘the other place.’ Wrote Ferguson:
Last week I said something stupid about John Maynard Keynes. Asked to comment on Keynes’ famous observation “In the long run we are all dead,” I suggested that Keynes was perhaps indifferent to the long run because he had no children, and that he had no children because he was gay. This was doubly stupid. First, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second, I had forgotten that Keynes’ wife Lydia miscarried.
So far, so good. But, continued Ferguson, people have the right to know whether or not their professor was a homophobe. Well, Ferguson wrote, I am not a homophobe. Why?
The charge of homophobia is equally easy to refute. If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?
He contrasted the charge of homophobia with earlier slanders against him as a racist:
I found myself being accused of racism for venturing to criticize President Obama. This came as a surprise to my wife, who was born in Somalia.
Both of these, clearly, went too far down the road of ‘I’m not a racist – I have a black friend!’
More seriously, however, the Ferguson micro-scandal – the timing of which, I’m sure, has absolutely nothing to do with the recent appearance of Ferguson’s now awkwardly titled The Great Degeneration (based on his 2012 Reith Lectures, which you can hear for free here) – raises several interesting points of departure for how historians, and scholars more broadly, have failed to take gender and sexual orientation seriously in their scholarship in the past. It also opens vistas of how those scholars might improve on an (often embarrassing sometimes horrifying) legacy of hardly-conscious attempts to delegitimize gay people, gay men in particular, in scholarship, while devoting little critical attention to gender as a lens when looking at ‘normal’ people (read: straight, white,
oppressive, imperialist men like myself). For while Ferguson’s remarks were indeed stupid and his own problem, they also reflect deeper structural failings in the profession when someone trained and employed as an economic historian at top institutions could not only show such poor judgment, but also seem genuinely unconscious of why his comments might have been ill-received in the first place.
It bears, for example, understanding how Ferguson’s comments did just just emerge ex nihilio, but rather stem from a rich tradition in the history of economics that has sought to delegitimize Keynes in particular, but also homosexuals more generally, as ‘effete,’ purely self-interested, selfish, or, at worst, child molesters. As South African Twitter user David Fowkes pointed out, in his 1977 book The End of the Keynesian Era, economic historian Robert Skidelsky (who jumped to the defense of Ferguson) had the following to say:
That Keynes’ milieu and tastes at this time were predominantly homosexual is now fairly widely known. Strachey certainly construed Moore’s teaching a justification for homosexuality. Homosexuality is the quintessentially useless passion, in the sense that it has no purpose outside itself (unlike heterosexuality, whose biological purpose is procreation). As such it was the most radical assaults on the Victorian principle of living, particularly in its weakening of the motive for saving or accumulation. To ignore the possible influence of its ‘childless perspective’ on Keynes’s attitude to life, and thus on his life’s work, would be biographical philistinism.
Two decades later, in a 1995 article in The Spectator, Ferguson continued the ‘gays can’t be trusted’ line of attack on Keynes, writing (in the context of Keynes’ meetings with the German banker Carl Melchior and Keynes’ skepticism towards imposing burdensome reparations on Weimar Germany) that
There is [...] no question that a series of meetings with Carl Melchior, one of the German representatives at the armistice and peace negotiations, added a vital emotional dimension. Melchior was a partner in the Hamburg bank MM Warburg – ‘a very small man,’ as Keynes described him, ‘exquisitely clean, very well and neatly dressed with a high stiff collar…The line where his hair ended bound his face and forehead in a very sharply defined and rather noble curve. His eyes gleam..with extraordinary sorrow.’
‘It is not too much to infer from these emotive phrases some kind of sexual attraction…Those familiar with Bloomsbury will appreciate why Keynes fell so hard for the representative of an enemy power.’
As economic historian (and former Warden of Rhodes House during the majority of my time at Oxford) Donald Markwell and scholar of Keynes has commented, however, this obsessive focus with homosexuality as the key lens through which Keynes made policy decisions isn’t just creepy; it’s also bad history. As the British journalist Nick Cohen writes following correspondence with Markwell, after all of Ferguson’s bluster,
there is the question of whether Keynes was right to wonder whether Germany could cope. Ferguson brushes over the awkward facts that in 1919 Germany was close to starvation, communist revolutionaries were trying to seize power, and right-wing militias (the ancestors of the Nazis) were trying to put them down. As Markwell says, Keynes thought that ‘if starvation were to be staved off, Germany’s need for food supplies was urgent,’ and France’s revanchist willingness to let the country suffer had to be fought. (Markwell adds but Ferguson forgets to mention that many in the British and American delegations agreed with Keynes, and admired Melchior as well. Perhaps they were gay too) Then there is the question of Keynes’s patriotism. You can say that The Economic Consequences of the Peace helped prepare the ground for appeasement if you want to stretch a point. Unlike Virginia Woolf and many others in Bloomsbury, however, Keynes was not a pacifist. He saw through Hitler the moment he came to power, and found ways to finance World War II.
Nor, of course, is this attempt to delegitimize homosexuals confined to the realm of economics and economic history. Most obviously, the attack spills over into the realm of public policy, as in this paper by Princeton professor Robert George and collaborators in which they argue against gay marriage (among other reasons) by invoking the analogy of marriages to baseball teams. Gay marriages, they argue, aren’t just like bad baseball teams that get crushed in comparison to ‘real’ (read: straight) baseball teams. They’re not even playing the same sport. They’re broken. They’re malformed. Throughout it all, the assault on homosexuals (but especially gay men) follows the same themes. They can’t be trusted, they’re traitorous, they’re interested in useless pursuits (gay sex first and foremost, but also things like poetry, opera … and, err, macroeconomics and monetary theory), they may be child molesters, and, basically, they’re abnormal. It’s worth noting, too, that these attempts at delegitimizing gay people weren’t just undertaken in isolation. Typically undertaken at a time in Western societies when antipathy towards gay people was common, they sought to link causes despised by the right (Keynesian monetary policy, a decoupling of marriage norms from Catholic social doctrine) to a more general hatred of homosexuals.
More subtly, however, the problem isn’t just that these scholarly interventions are mean to gay people. Nor is it that these moments of being mean to gay people may spill over into the general culture, making bullying and/or suicide on the part of young gay people more common. Rather, it’s that because the imagination of these authors when it comes to gender and sexual orientation is so limited, their attacks tend to harden a binary division of sexuality into gay or straight that itself is of (at least in America) recent historical precedence. Indeed, as sensitive works of history like George Chauncey’s Gay New York taught me as an undergraduate, America – at least New York City – in the 1920s and 1930s was a totally different world of gender norms than I had thought, one in which our (current-day) hard boundary of ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ was far more fluid and elastic, and in which the concept of ‘coming out of the closet’ would have made far less sense. Even our current-day vocabulary of ‘straight’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ and so on views sexuality as fixed notches where one is either a 0 (totally straight), 10 (totally gay), or a 5 (bisexual), rather than a far more discrete, but ever-shifting sexual disposition of the world Chauncey describes.
That’s all interesting, historically speaking. The relevance of Chauncey’s scholarship to the Ferguson brouhaha, at least as I see it, however, is that making any dispositional arguments about the relevance of one’s sexual orientation or identity to their policy positions is really stupid. Not just because it’s usually incredibly hard to prove anything like that, but because the idea of someone being 100% gay, and then that 100% gayness (or straightness, God forbid) then informing their political ideology locks people into the binary sexual categories that historians like Ferguson and Skidelsky implicitly operated within. It would be crude, for example, to attack Ferguson’s arguments as being informed by his heterosexual orientation (even if there’s a whiff of Ferguson as the manly Victorian Brit teaching us effete Yankees how not to lose our empire) not just because it’s poor scholarship, but because the idea of a ‘straight argument’ or ‘gay outlook’ on issues itself reinforces ideas of rigid sexual identity that are basically only recent historical inventions.
It’s therefore disappointing that so few of the members of the Harvard History Department did, well, anything, to take advantage of their privileged, tenured position to comment on the issue. History News Network comments:
None of Ferguson’s colleagues in the Harvard history department have publicly criticized him. However, several members of the Harvard history faculty, in emails to HNN, wished to make clear that their public silence should not be taken as a statement of support for Prof. Ferguson’s remarks.
HNN contacted thirty-eight members of the history faculty, We received eleven responses. No respondent was willing to directly criticize Prof. Ferguson on or off the record, and the only two historians who commented on the record — and who were quoted in the original HNN article [Charles Maier and Mark Kishlansky] — offered qualified support.
I’m glad to see that tenure is still justifying its existence. Not a great moment here for Harvard History.
That all said, I’m a tad skeptical of a recent intervention by a group called the Committee on LGBT History, a scholarly society recognized by the American Historical Association that promotes ‘the study of homosexuality in the past and present by facilitating communication among scholars in a variety of disciplines working on a variety of cultures.’ In a recent statement last Monday, Dan Romesburg, the Committee’s Co-Chair and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, issued a statement in response to the Ferguson public apology that read as follows:
Ferguson’s subsequent attempts to clarify his statement unfortunately show little more understanding of the history of sexuality than his initial comment did. The Committee on LGBT History encourages him to consulting the field’s extensive scholarship, much of which our members have written, to avoid echoing unfounded and discriminatory stereotypes and to deepen his understanding and analysis of the LGBT past. Harvard should show leadership here by, at a minimum, hosting a major conference about LGBT history and encouraging Ferguson to attend. It is also high time that Harvard makes a new tenure-track hire in LGBT history. The incident has underscored the value of teaching and researching LGBT histories. This confronts ignorance about LGBT people, lives, and communities, and in the process, builds a more accurate historical record overall.
Fair enough, for the most part. My only concern here is Romesburg’s quick leap from ‘Ferguson said something stupid, offensive, and homophobic’ to ‘we need a new job for people doing LGBT history.’ I’m fully on board with the idea that we need more work done on issues of gender, sexual orientation, and the family. But as I’ve written before, I tend to adopt a more assimilationist attitude towards disciplines like LGBT history, African-American history, and other histories of groups traditionally left out of our narratives of history. Ideally, I’d like to see fewer attempts to formally institutionalize LGBT or African-American Studies as departments or programs unto themselves, and more attempts to create a more ecumenical, catholic conversation under the big tent of already existing History Departments or sub-fields (American History, Russian History, etc.) Put in other way, I think that gender and sexuality can be an important lens or focus in works of history, but I’m not sure that they constitute methodological approaches unto themselves. Gay New York was a great work of gay history, but it was also a work of American history, for example.
Perhaps I’m wrong: critics might say that to seed the minds of (to return to Ferguson) young economic historians with a critical eye towards gender or sexual orientation, it’s critical that those LGBT chairs exist. Maybe so. Let’s just make sure they stay in History Departments, rather than wandering out into their own segregated Departments. Or, more troublingly, to hedge fund managers’ conferences in San Diego.
This previous fall and winter in Moscow, I made myself the pledge that I’d splurge on taking myself to Starbucks (standard brewed coffee, no sugar, no milk, or an Americano, the same) if it meant that I’d sit down and devote a solid two hours or so to writing up my dissertation. Given the cramped dimensions of my host family’s apartment in Moscow, and the presence of two small children (myself not included) cooped up in said apartment, I probably needed little incentive to take every Sunday to break out, make the long trudge down one of Moscow’s gray boulevards, and sit down to a nice, hot, steaming cup of joe. Yet with an apparent mini-heat spell on our hands, your humble narrator finds himself this evening not among glamorous Muscovites at the Belorusskii Vokzal Starbucks but … wearing shorts and a tank top with a large bottle of water by my side, finally with some time on my hands to engage in some longer-form writing other than dissertation-related tasks.
That’s good, because there’s been a lot of interesting ink spilled on American higher education, MOOCs, and the finances of higher ed in recent weeks that I thought deserved a closer discussion. About a month ago, the National Association of Scholars, a right-leaning advocacy group that deplores the state of American academia since roughly 1968, published a report on what it sees as the politicization of higher education at Bowdoin College, a selective liberal arts college in Maine. Just about a week ago, Yakov Feygin, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow historian of the late Soviet Union, passed on a very useful Reuters piece on Pell Grants and the financial trickery that some colleges engage in with respect to recruiting lower-income students. And most recently, Nathan Heller has published a long piece in The New Yorker on online courses in higher education, and the future of higher education more broadly. All of these traverse a number of (by now) known themes: college is getting too expensive. Students may not be learning that much. Online courses have the potential to shake things up. But we don’t really seem to know how. Or maybe if.
There’s a lot there, but reading over some of the pieces – in particular those concerning MOOCs – I see a failure on the part of scholars, but perhaps especially humanists and historians, to communicate what it is we actually do, and why research (as opposed to, or in addition to teaching) matters.
The problem, as I see it, comes up when you hear the basic case made for a larger shift to online course material. There are, proponents say, some professors (or rather lecturers) who are better than others. Journalists love to bring up the example of Michael Sandel and his ‘Justice’ course at Harvard, but virtually every large university has courses and professors with such reputations, just as it has courses and professors … well, without them. So, proponents argue, why not turn the content of the best professors into the standard, mass lecture for an online-only course? There’s no point, one might argue, to musicians (especially bad musicians) forcing people to attend every single live performance they give, especially if it’s a known fact – and a recorded one! – that their 2006 lecture series on Plato, or monetary policy, was the best ever. Nor can one plausibly make the case for student interaction being meaningfully worse in an anonymous online course with Sandel in comparison to a 500-person lecture theatre. Students are already voting with their feet, proponents argue, skipping out on lecture courses where they can, so there’s no point in forcing them to go. Or to paying academics to speak to empty seats. More effective would be to implement MOOC lectures by the field’s superstars, and then have a qualified cadre of pure teachers. (The more thoughtful of these proposals usually go hand-in-hand with proposals to break apart graduate education into a shorter graduate program to train university teachers, and some form of ‘real PhD’ to train researchers.)
The reaction from professors to all of this has been predictable. The economics of the proposal seem grim, after all. If professors who lack the charisma or sex appeal to get huge audiences well, don’t get huge audiences, their role is bound to be replaced by the online lecturers. That means a likely demotion to something like a glorified teaching assistant. With fewer and fewer well-trained professors (and more computer monitors) at universities around the country, students are likely to have less interest in pursuing a teaching career, and there is less of a need for top professors to train graduate students. The system and profession slowly collapse on themselves until (as with pop music today?) one is left with a field of a couple of mega-stars (Lady Gaga = Steven Pinker), some good more independent acts with a solid enough following to be commercially successful, and then a few indie bands trying to struggle their way to recognition. It’s a good thing that Victorian gender studies is as popular as pop mus — and therein lies the rub. Like a prescient turkey sensing something wrong around Halloween, philosophy professors at San Jose State University, in the Bay Area, announced that they would refuse to use MOOCs in their courses. Reads one part of the open letter:
[We fear] that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.
There’s definitely something to this line of argument, particularly when one looks at the data behind the Reuters article, suggesting that many colleges are using Pell Grants (federal financial aid provided to low-income students, administered through colleges, up to a maximum of about $5,600) not to supplement college institutional aid for students, but rather to shift their own financial resources towards providing often-murky ‘merit scholarships’ to wealthier students. There are some outliers: Amherst, Williams, and Pomona College all do pretty good in both admitting significant numbers of low-income students, and actually providing them with the resources they need to be able to attend the schools without ruining themselves. But the overall result is that even as more poor American students are getting admitted to schools, then being provided a comically low amount of aid (say, just Pell support) – in effect, being told that they are too poor to get an education in the United States of America. The kick in the ass that MOOCs threaten to add to this equation should be clear: outside of truly wealthy institutions (Harvard, Princeton), one worries about a world in which the plebs are effectively told to take a seat in the movie theater-cum-classroom at San Jose State, to watch videotaped lectures of a course that rich students at more élite schools get to attend in person. Given skepticism about the efficacy of online learning, not to mention some of the valid concerns that the NAS conservatives raise in their critique of Bowdoin – the idea of the American university as a community of ideas, where students get to know one another and debate ideas in classes, rather than turning on, tuning in, and (maybe) dropping out’ – one should grow apprehensive here. Rather than lowering costs, MOOCification, administered in conjunction with more austerity (read: the abandonment of public funding for education) might exacerbate class divides in America, rather than smooth them out.
Still, for me another argument or comment that has to be made with regards to MOOCs and online education gets back to the importance of research. Too often lost, I find, in the discussion of online education, is the question of where ‘content’ (to use the Silicon Valley-inflected term) for lecture courses comes from in the first place. To be clear, I’m talking about Economics 101, or European History, or Post-War American History here – not specialized seminars that even the most die-hard proponents of online education wouldn’t see fit to transform anyway. Part of the answer should seem obvious: one part of the basic education that should be granted to students in these courses are the facts – when Truman was elected, the relationship between unemployment and inflation, Keynesian economics, and so on. Probe more deeply, and one might answer that a good lecture course ought to include reading from top experts in the field. One might rely, then, not only on primary source collections, but also the best synthetic works on (for example) Russian or Soviet history when teaching a course on the subject.
Probe still more deeply, however, and problems begin to emerge, or at least facts that show how our current model of scholarship works, and why having a wide range of researchers producing work – even if a lot of it isn’t so great – is essential towards the formation of the much-touted super-lecturers that proponents of MOOCs love to roll out. Ask yourself: what are some of those big secondary works based on? If your image of historians (to take my own field) is one of strapping, adventurous researchers bravely navigating archives in mysterious and dangerous countries to find hidden secret documents, that’s only partly right – that’s more the kind of work that graduate students, post-docs, and younger academics have historically done, as opposed to the more established scholars writing synthetic works that can be used for courses for years to come. Those more synthetic works are based not usually on archival finds, but are themselves syntheses of the waves of scholarship that have deposited driftwood (and, if one’s lucky, a message in a bottle) over the last decade or so (varying field to field). Superprofessors like Sandel, or some of the teachers I’ve had at Princeton and Oxford, are in some ways the opposite of the Newton quotation: they might be giants themselves, with impressive talents for synthesis, creativity, or simply a hell of a lot more Sitzfleisch than the rest of us; but when it comes to being able to pull everything together for the great lecture or the great 200-page book that does everything and more in what most of us couldn’t pull off in 500, they stand on the shoulders of lots of pygmies. One of the illusions of the MOOC craze is that by stripping down the ‘lower’ rungs of academia (many of which, like San Jose State, are great schools, and which are now places that the average Princeton or Harvard History PhD would be absolutely thrilled to get a job at), the system can be made more efficient. But part of the problem is that the superstars only really thrive in an environment in which there’s dialogue between the center and periphery of the ecosystem. That’s even more vivid in my own work, where linguistically and intellectually intrepid American and European researchers often not only benefit, but need to benefit with more contact with Russian, and Central Asian scholars whose knowledge of both language and history far exceeds are, even as they work in more cash-strapped institutional environments.
It bears emphasizing that the dialogue I’m taking about results in changes of interpretation that have huge implications for how we teach history, even at the undergraduate level. One obvious example, the importance of the instruction of which I think hardly no one would doubt, has to do with the history of Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust. If one believes that the Second World War and the Holocaust was the most important event in twentieth century European history, and certainly among the most important events in Jewish history – and that it behooves us to examine the history of the Holocaust critically in order to understand the roots of genocide – then how we explain and narrate the history of the Holocaust matters greatly. Yet look back across the historiography of the subject for much of the last fifty years, and it’s remarkable how the emphasis and structure of our explanations has changed. For almost a decade after the event itself, it was hard to find any books on the Holocaust, let alone see it integrated into lecture courses and underscored as a key event in European and Jewish history. Explanations have centered around anti-Semitism, bureaucracy, or the destruction of the Jews as just one part of a mad drive to create a system of ‘totalitarian control.’ Scholars have debated the extent to which the Holocaust was pre-meditated, versus the extent to which it grew out of Nazi conquest of territories. Most recently, in the inaugural René Girard Lecture at Stanford, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder has argued that the Holocaust can be best understood (as I understand Snyder) in terms of the intersection of Hitler’s ‘territorial panic’ – the idea that Eastern Europe had to be conquered to secure limited food in a resource-limited pre-Green Revolution world – and the destruction of states in Eastern Europe, most vividly so in the zone of ‘double state destruction,’ the pale of territory in the western Soviet Union that Moscow had annexed when it destroyed the Polish state, before the Soviet state was destroyed again by the Nazis
It’s not my place to adjudicate between these different explanations. I only bring up the example to highlight how much scholarly debates – which require time and job security for scholars to produce the monographs and articles that fuel these debates – can affect our grand narratives, which in turn affect not only undergraduate lecture teaching but also our understanding of major historical events. Junking less established scholars – just the same people who need the support and space at institutions like San Jose State – in favor of video lectures from super-star professors wouldn’t only perpetuate the class differences that American higher education sometimes perpetuates; it would also risk ossifying historical knowledge (be it of Holocaust, or of slightly less momentous historical events that still merit examination) as something that has a best packaged version, while helping to accelerate the destruction of the institutions surrounding History Departments that foster a critical debate about historical events. The financial costs that students face today are unacceptable, but – after 30 years of rampant administrative bloat – it is unclear to me that historians gone bad, rather than bureaucratic bloat, is the problem, nor is it clear that ceding the field of debate to a ‘consensus’ determined not by peer review but largely by student demand would improve the quality or sophistication of instruction any.
With some smaller bureaucratic housekeeping of my own done, and some papers for conferences handed in, it’s time to hit the ground running in Moscow, as I look forward to wrap up what I hope is my final push of archival research here. Off I go!
How time flies. Only recently, it seems, I was sitting at my desk here at the apartment in Moscow, ducking out in a sweater (at a minimum) and umbrella to zip off to archives and libraries, looking forward to what seemed like far-off trips to Germany, for research and to link up with visiting family. The day arrives: I lug my piece of baggage down Butyrsky Val (the street I live on), get on the train to Sheremetyevo Airport, and the wheels on the Aeroflot plane retract, snugly, into the belly of the airplane. I arrive at the hotel in Berlin, ready to get some work done and to catch up with friends. Yet here I am again in Moscow, with the weather now much hotter (in the low 80s and sunny today!), deadlines looming, and bureaucratic paperwork (housing lease documents, plane tickets to the UK for my dissertation defense …), and a great trip to Germany that went by too quickly now behind.
What made it go so quickly? For one, the presence of friends and family, people I love whom I hadn’t seen since the last time I spent any time in the city in the summer of 2011. But maybe just as much were the great finds I dug up in the Politisches Archiv at the German Foreign Office. As I detailed in my last blog post, I had come to Berlin looking for East German diplomatic documents to complement some of the findings on GDR-Afghan relations I had uncovered during my summer 2011 stay in the German capital. And files there are many. Because, however, many files run from (for example) 1979-1987, and because of German archival access regulations, many of perhaps the juiciest East German files – ones that would allow us a more in-depth look into Soviet and/or Eastern Bloc decision-making in Kabul in the 1980s – remain closed until later this decade, conveniently in time for a colleague or enterprising younger graduate student to torpedo many of the claims I hope to make.
But just as exciting as the putative East German materials were huge reams of West German material I didn’t intend to find. West German material covering all aspects of development in Afghanistan, beyond the Paktia-focused material I looked at when in Koblenz in the spring of 2012: police academies, the development of statistics as a discipline in Afghan bureaucracy in the 1950s and 1960s, but also much more detailed stuff on the enormous developmental intervention the Bundesrepublik Deutschland played in eastern Afghanistan throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. Much of the material I found in the Politisches Archiv helps to answer some of the unresolved questions I had when I submitted the D.Phil. in March about the Paktia story. Many of the documents, such as a plan for the housing compound in Khost designed to provide dormitory space to West Germans and Afghans, were simply cool. Many seed ideas for future scholarly projects. Others testify to the confidence that German economists and the ideology of modernization that bolstered them had in the 1960s. I loved a cut-out of an April 27, 1968 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article that focused on the project in Paktia, noting (along with a picture of a witch doctor):
Auch in der entlegenen Provinz Paktia (Afghanistan) beginnt die Zauberei bei Erkrankungen von Mensch und Tier eine brotlose Kunst zu werden. Eine fünfzehnköpfige deutsche Entwicklungsgruppe hat mit der systematischen Erschließung des Gebietes begonnen, und schon heute geht die Bevölkerung bei ernsthaften Erkrankungen lieber zum deutschen Arzt. Die alte Zauberin (unser Bild) wird mit malerischen Amuletts, Wurzeln und Tierkochen bald nur noch ein Relikt aus einer versunkenen Zeit sein.
‘[Here, too, in the far-flung province of Paktia [Afghanistan], witchcraft as a treatment for humans and animals is beginning to die (literally, becoming a ‘breadless art’). A German development team of fifteen members has begun a systematic enclosure of the area, and already today the population prefers to go to the German doctor when they have serious illnesses. The old witch (our picture here) will soon be, along with her picturesque amulets, roots, and animal bones, a relict of a lost age.’
Back in Moscow, then, it’s time to think about how to incorporate these materials into the re-writing of the dissertation into a book version, but also to turn my attention to other writing tasks: most immediately, wrapping up a draft of what I hope will become an eventual book chapter on Soviet development in northern Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s for a graduate student conference in Trento, Italy, later this month; and continuing to gather some seriously obscure materials on polemical debates between Soviet Orientologists on whether Pashtun nationalism was a progressive force, whether Pakistan was a ‘Punjabi dictatorship,’ and how an Soviet Orientalist’s political stand on those questions ought to affect their scholarship and political counseling (where requested) to CPSU élites. Thanks to some very helpful Russian contacts, I’ve found some annotated copies of books which should provide a unique insight into both material for the manuscript, as well as for an article in an edited volume that I hope to have in by August. I enjoy the writing and the managing of drafts, as well as the subject itself, but as the trip to Germany reminded me, it’s crucial to find time to balance such writing and word-schlepping with walks along the Havel, the Elbe, or (for now) the Moscow River.
Faced with an impending (nearly) two-week holiday devoted to the victory over fascism, where else does a schizophrenic young researcher based in Moscow go but … Berlin? After wrapping up matters in my favorite archives in the Russian capital this Tuesday, it was off, on a late-night Aeroflot flight, to Berlin, one of my favorite cities but also, more importantly, one with lush archives that are actually open during early May. (The fact that my parents had a vacation planned to Germany for a while didn’t hurt.) It’s a short trip – I’m only here for about ten days, and making a journey to Dresden, besides – but it’s similar in spirit to my time in Moscow: ‘clean up’ on research I’ve already done, so that I’ll be able to sit and relax (well, and write and edit heaps) while in Cambridge this coming academic year.
As readers of your humble narrator’s blog may recall, this isn’t the first time that I’ve spend some good chunk of time in the German capital. In addition to living here for several months in 2008-2009, I also was based here for a month in August of 2011, working mostly at the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives) and the Bundesbeauftragter fur die Unterlagen des ehemaligen Staatssicherheitsdienstes der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (BStU) – a mouthful if there ever was one, but basically the holdings of the former Stasi, the East German KGB. There and then, I was working mostly with their holdings having to do with relations with Afghanistan in the 1980s, but because I was so loaded with stuff then, I didn’t have time to delve into the holdings of the Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes (Political Archives of the Foreign Ministry) – a huge archive in the middle of the city that holds both diplomatic documentation (i.e. telegrams and cables from the various Embassies of the German state(s)) in its various guises, as well as more centralized documentation emanating from the Foreign Minister(s’)’ office, and various policy planning units within the Ministry, too.
It’s a short trip, so I’ll only have time to collect a few gems, back off to Moscow soon enough to polish them. I made my first orders today – mostly some stuff I was surprised to see the DDR’s Foreign Ministry be thinking about in such detail, stuff like the insurgency in Pakistani Balochistan in the mid-1970s, as well as ominous-sounding topics like ‘Staatsaufbau’ vis-à-vis the reconfiguration of the Afghan state in the 1980s. And that’s only for East Germany. In the West German collections – parts of which I hope to be able to scan or copy next week – there’s loads more stuff complementing the materials having to do with Paktia and the West German advising operations – imparting Afghans with up-to-date statistical science and management theory – in Kabul.
And that’s just for my project! Looking around in the finding aids, it’s clear that there are dozens of projects that one could carry out from this archive alone. Throw in collections in the States, France, Russia, Serbia (for the former Yugoslavia), and it’s not hard to imagine something even crazier. To remember some of the romance that history lectures electrified me with as an impressionable young undergraduate. (The fact that the Politisches Archiv is in the middle of Berlin, next to a U-Bahn station, and that I could envision myself dividing my time between holding court over good German beer and coffee, and archival visits, doesn’t hurt.)
Still, there’s always not just a temptation but also perhaps a certain danger, for someone like me, looking through finding aids of great archives like this one. Sometimes, I feel tempted to look more towards government service after spending time at Harvard. A part of me fears spending my life reading cables in archives, rather than writing them or … reading them, but in some official capacity. Then there’s the anxiety that some other graduate students have – the temptation of putting on a business suit and enjoying the privileges of living in a New York, Washington, or London … as opposed to slugging out an academic career in less metropolitan locations. Academia and universities need leaders, but in the current climate, it’s sometimes hard to maintain an optimistic attitude about trying to build a strong community or institution out of a modest history department. Not only can the career prospects sometimes seem doubtful, but – my alma mater aside, where a professor of law and legal studies was made Provost and, recently, President – how much institutional or political authority do professors even have, compared to even someone – far from where I’m at now – who’s writing the killer books based on multiple archives and so on?
It’s just the kind of question worth pondering over döner kebab and Sternberg beer. So, it’s out for a walk through Mitte and dinner with my parents, and then, tomorrow, back into the belly of the archival beast!
Crappy drip coffee from the basement cafeteria of the Russian State Library: light of my life, fire of my loins. It’s a slow, semi-restful Friday here in the Russian capital, as I cruise from archive to library to vacuum up some more material to process into some conference papers and weave into the chapters of the book manuscript that’s emerging from my D.Phil. After a quick visit to the Gorbachev Foundation this morning to check out what, if anything, they had on meetings between Muhammad Hassan Sharq (a prominent Afghan politician both before and after the Communist Revolution in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979), I’m waiting in the most glamorous environs of the basement cafeteria of the main library here in town for several orders of books and articles by the Soviet Orientalist Yuri Gankovskii to show up for reading and scanning. With some luck, they should arrive in an hour or so.
After a little over a month and a half of research here in Moscow, I’m looking forward to a side research trip to Berlin, where I’ll be diving into some East German archives – just one more weekend of writing and some fun, two days of jamming in the Komsomol archives, and then it’s time to beat a path to the German capital just in time for the massive closedowns of the Russian May holidays to kick in. As such, it’s also a good moment to reflect on what I’ve accomplished thus far, the state of dissertation, manuscript, and conference paper things, and, slightly less narcissistically, some more general reflections about the research and writing process in general.
When I came to Moscow this March, I arrived with one major load off my chest – I had submitted the D.Phil., thank God – but with a new one about to be hoisted upon me. During the course of my research, I had accumulated tons of neat archival documents, written several drafts of chapters (only some of which actually went into the D.Phil.), and had a vague idea of how everything (the actual refined D.Phil. content plus the other stuff I had to look away from when the time came to refine down and edit for the D.Phil. version this November) actually fit together. But a vague idea is far from a finished product. After spending several months on putting together a semi-decent 80,000 word (+20,000 words of footnotes) dissertation, I knew how long it took to turn X amount of drafts about as flabby as your humble narrator’s gut into some lean, mean, and worthy of setting out to strut before my readers.
So now the task is even bigger than the one that I faced here in Moscow six months ago: now, instead of turning a flabby 100,000 words into a tight 80,000, while juggling four balls at a time (four chapters), now I have to turn even more content into something within the parameters of what a respectable academic press will publish, and which I hope people will actually read. How, then, to deal?
Part of me copes by trying to maintain something like a fixed schedule. For better or for worse, here in Moscow I tend to operate on a two-track system. Most of the archives I work in here are only open from 10 AM to 4 PM, meaning that after a leisurely morning and a commute, there’s still some time in the evening – maybe two hours if I’m realistic – to try to write a few paragraphs, edit some writing from several months ago down into something better, or think more about how things transition into new parts of the manuscript. There’s a certain schizophrenic quality to this that I think I deal with better than most: I find it easier to spend half of the day transcribing reports on road-building in northern Afghanistan (for example); and the other half of the day writing on ethnic nationalist political parties in the 1960s and 1970s. They’re different topics, and there’s probably a certain disjointed, uninterested quality to my first draft writing by jumping around so much.
But I also don’t go insane by thinking about asphalt and concrete covered roads in Pul-i Khumri for eighteen hours a day. And the process of jumping around allows me to think, in the back of my head, about other sections of the whole manuscript that need work. When I hit a roadblock in thinking on one section, I can jump back to another. Four months ago, writing more about USAID’s irrigation programs in Helmand Province in the 1970s seemed impossible, but now – having gained some distance from it – it’s likely to just be a matter of taking some time out of my schedule when I’m in Arizona and Samarkand this summer. Breaking things up into four or five two-hour chunks over the course of a week (while trying to keep weekends, or at least Sundays, sacrosanct and free of work) and simply grinding through a couple of mugs of tea usually results in slow but steady progress in terms of ‘filling out’ sections. (Not that any of those first drafts are great – but the point is that once something is on paper, it can sit there for several months, even while you do other things. Sometimes, when I come back to stuff I wrote three months ago, I’m appalled by how much junk there is – but occasionally I’m also surprised by how semi-crisp and decent it sounds — still in need of work, granted, but something with which one can start.)
When I think more about how graduate education in History is structured, my experiences between Central Asia, Russia, Germany, and elsewhere incline me to think that it could potentially be wiser for universities, and perhaps grant-making organizations like the SSRC, Fulbright (which funded past research), IREX (which funded much of my current research), or American Councils to consider allowing for some splitting-up of research trips. Granted, I’m sure that part of the reason why we currently seem to insist that PhD students do one big research trip comes down to the financials and the fear of 8th-year PhD students. It’s expensive to ship grad students, even in steerage, between Palo Alto and Pune, and one of the benefits, I reckon, of a status quo that features a big research trip in year four, followed by one (usually two) years of writing-up does at least have the benefit of scaring the dickens out of students that they *have* to get something accomplished during that year.
But looking at my own experiences – which were atypical, admittedly, since I was in the UK and it was easier and less expensive to scuttle over to Moscow, Koblenz, Berlin or Basel as certain episodes in the dissertation process demanded – it strikes me that writing a dissertation is more like preparing a ceviche than frying a fish (to use an excruciating metaphor). I started off the M.Phil. in Economic and Social History having virtually no idea what I actually wanted to write on. I switched advisors at the very beginning of my program, having the good sense to work with two great supervisors. Even a year into the program, when I made my first major research trip to Moscow and Dushanbe, I still thought I was going to write on Central Asia in the post-war years. Only some chance discoveries of materials on the Soviet women’s movement in Afghanistan and the Komsomol files turned me in the direction of what has become a project that touches on not just the USSR but also Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
But it took time – not just time reading stuff in archives but writing crappy drafts of stuff back in the UK – to realize what I was actually writing about. Coming back on subsequent trips, first to Germany and then to Central Asia and Moscow again, I was able to focus like a laser in on materials that fit into my funnel. Part of me fears that if I hadn’t had those less stressed-out breaks in the UK to regroup, I would have spent more of a putative year-long stay running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Had I thrown all of my material and thoughts into the frying pan of a straight one-year run through Russia, would the fish dish of my dissertation still have cooked? Probably, but only in the same way that a raw fish thrown into sizzling oil would. Instead, I’d like to think that it took time – the marinade of time, lemon and lime (reading widely in fields outside of Soviet history, and simply reading tons of good literature in any event), and a pinch of salt and elbow grease in the last months of writing up – to prepare the perfect dish that I wanted to serve up to my dissertation readers. It took time, reflection, and plenty of self-doubt along the way, but also confidence in myself and the breadth of my reading that my ceviche mix, if you will, *would* actually turn my raw materials into something edible.
Now, to wait and see if the professors assigned to read my D.Phil. actually agree with this apologia pro D.Phil. sua …
In the meantime – my order here at the RSL is almost ready – I’m looking forward to preparing some stuff for future talks, conferences, and edited volumes. With any luck, I should manage to organize at least two talks for this May with the American Center at the Russian State University for the Humanities. Due to some visa snafus and the fact that I can’t seem to stay in the same country for two long, my plans for a student visa (and hence a formal affiliation) fell through, but fortunately my scholarship sponsors at Oxford, and some contacts at RGGU have been generous and understanding in terms of trying to facilitate my having some kind of presence at the University while also focusing 95% of the time on research.
Beyond that, I’m spending a good deal of time this month – even while in Berlin – putting the finishing touches on a first version of a manuscript chapter on the nationalities question in northern Afghanistan, Afghan Communism, and the Soviet invasion for what sounds like a great conference in Trento, Italy at the end of May, right before I split for much, much warmer climes in Tempe. Finally, I think I’ve finally gathered enough materials (among them the stuff that’s about to arrive here at the RSL) to begin making serious strides towards drafting a first version of a piece on Soviet Pashtun / ‘Pashtunistan’ Studies, which I hope will touch on some cool stories of internecine Soviet academic warfare, the link between Soviet academia and the policy-making apparatus, and (something I have commented on earlier) the relative dearth of Pakistan or Afghanistan Studies programs around the world – much less programs in Punjabi, Balochi, muhajir, Pashtun, Sindhi, etc. Studies. I’ll have my eyes out for wealthy Pakistani or Afghan donors to endow just such a chair in the long run, but in the meantime it’s back to the much more modest – but still fulfilling – task of writing my thoughts down, letting them marinade, and hoping, like my imaginary ceviche, that they’re fit to be plated once all is said and done.
What a difference several inches of slush makes! When I arrived in Moscow shortly after submitting my D.Phil. this March, much of the city was still underwater with melted ice and pools of icy water several inches deep. Even making the short walk from some of my usual metro stops to nearby archives risked slipping, misjudging a jump, or, saddest of all, misjudging a puddle, resulting in icy, cold, feet for the rest of the day. Fortunately, however, with the onset of something that looks like legitimate spring, those days are over. Moscow remains, well, something less than Los Angeles when it comes to late April weather, but after a gloomy, drizzly, and blustery English winter that included the coldest March in decades, I’ll take 50 degree weather and the occasionally unpleasantly gusty day. Particularly if it also comes with sunsets at 8 o’clock PM, which are increasingly the norm here.
I’m settling in – not long before moving out again, alas – but life goes well here in Russia. My schedule is predictably 9–5: get up, make the journey down to the southern suburbs of Moscow, deal with the changing cycle of security guards who scrutinize my Russian visa, and work in one of two archives in a large archival storage facility: either RGASPI, which houses the reports of the Komsomol advisers about whom I write a great deal in the dissertation, or RGAE (the Russian State Archive for Economics), which houses loads of interesting reports that I wasn’t able to work with this autumn, reports which range from those written by Soviet lawyers re-writing Afghanistan’s corporate laws in the late 1970s to civil and petroleum engineers who build roads, fertilizer factories, and other huge infrastructure projects, mostly in the north of Afghanistan, but also in Kabul and Jalalabad, the largest city near the Khyber Pass and one which saw huge Soviet investment in agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s. Put it all together, and most of my daylight hours are spent reading, transcribing, and copying portions of this huge mass of material (tens of thousands of pages in total, easily), and making sense of it.
And maybe even turning it all into something readable. I’m not – *knock on wood* – Dr. Nunan yet. For that I need to pass my dissertation defense (‘viva’ in Oxfordese), an oral examination which should, I hope, be scheduled for some time this May. If it involves a rushed trip back to the UK at the last minute, so be it: the real issue is that I fly out of Russia for conferences in Italy, and thence to Arizona for Uzbek courses this summer, at the end of May. While my examiners (both historians, one from Oxford and one from another British university) are reading the D.Phil. version of my work, however, I’m beginning to think of how to re-write and integrate the 70,000-odd words (not including footnotes) that I submitted this March, with all of the other material I’ve gathered (and in many cases written first or second drafts of), en route to eventually compressing this all into a tight, hard-hitting scholarly monograph of some 100,000 – 110,000 words (usually the max that most university presses will go for). I’ve begun to consider investing in some better editing software than trusty OpenOffice – Scrivener, for example – which helps me lay out *all* of my material in one window and break down chapters into more easily editable sub-units. And there’s the usual rigamarole of conferences ahead – Italy in late May, southern Germany in mid-September – to help discipline me into whipping this all into better shape.
For now, then, it’s back to hack out some parts of an introduction to one of the chapters I hope to present in Italy …
It’s been too long since I’ve updated this blog, but only because things have been so busy since arriving in the Russian capital.
After an absence of a few months that saw me mostly back in Oxford to refine my findings and submit my dissertation (the viva date for which I’m waiting to hear), I’m back, spending most of my days trawling through archives in the suburbs to work with materials from one particular archive, RGAE (the Russian State Archive for Economics), that was closed during my autumn sojourn here, as well as to transcribe and copy more of the Komsomol (VLKSM) material that forms much of the core of my then-dissertation, now-book manuscript project. During my last two trips here, in the autumn of 2010 and the autumn of 2012, I managed to collect most of the material I feel that I’ll need for writing about southern Afghanistan (Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, about which I presented at LSE this February) and eastern Afghanistan (ditto for this December in Moscow); this time, the focus is mostly on materials from the less Pashtun-dominated north, generally wealthier part of the country that lies north of the Hindu Kush and south of the Amu-Darya River. I’m hoping to present some preliminary findings at a conference in only slightly more glamorous Trento, Italy, at the end of May, too, right before heading back to the States for language training.
In RGAE, meanwhile, I’m the first scholar – to my knowledge – to crack into the Afghanistan files of fond 365, the collection of materials from GKES (Gosudarstvennyi komitet po vneshneekonomicheskim sviaziam, the State Committee for Foreign Economic Ties), a Soviet coordinating body that helped to coordinate aid to various countries in the Third World. The materials are vast and mostly interesting. Highlights from the first couple of weeks reading and transcribing include policy planning memos from Soviet statisticians on the development of uniform statistics for Afghan economic planning, as well as Soviet-drafted laws for Afghanistan written in the summer of 1979 (the brief window when Afghanistan had had a Communist revolution but had not yet been invaded by the Soviet Union. This stuff is interesting because it helps me tell a more continuous narrative of what happened with Soviet aid policy in the country, all the way from the mid-1950s, when aid really kicked off, to 1989, when troops withdrew. (That said, the USSR provided medical and infrastructure aid to Afghanistan as early as 1923, not long after it became the first country to recognize the independence of its southern neighbor, and advisors for many Afghan institutions remained in Kabul until December 1991, when the USSR itself dissolved.)
On a more abstract methodological level, this all plugs into bigger debates that other international historians are reshaping with work similar to mine. If, during the Cold War itself, the focus of most historians was on Europe as the real scene of the action (the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall, nuclear missile sitings …), in the last fifteen years the literature on decolonization as something that happened simultaneously with ‘the Cold War’ as we know it has grown, too. Yet sometimes we struggle to articulate what, precisely (or if any) the link between the Cold War, decolonization, and independence for these Third World countries was. Field-defining books like Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War, or an early May 2013 conference in Cambridge that I will be missing (but with a good excuse – to do some work in archives in Berlin), not to mention the Trento Conference I’ll hopefully be attending, all serve as platforms where historians are trying to better articulate this question.
Still, I’d offer that the case of Afghanistan (or, alternatively, Ethiopia …) makes for an especially interesting case to study this phenomenon — both were examples of countries whose trajectories were radically reshaped by the Cold War, but neither of which was ever colonized (Afghanistan was attacked several times by the British in the Anglo-Afghan Wars, of course, and by the USSR in the 1980s, but never turned into a colonial possession per se, while Ethiopia was famously the only African country besides Liberia not to be colonized (although it was occupied by Italy from 1936–1941). We’re still a ways away from a good new history of Soviet aid to Mengistu Haile Mariam in the 1970s and 1980s, to my knowledge (I love languages, but Amharic is a bit much even for me … !), but in spite of the tragic situation of Afghanistan today, between Soviet, American, and German archives, and the numerous digitization projects and special collections of Afghan materials in, for example, Omaha, NE (where I worked in the summer of 2011) or Tucson, AZ (of which more information here), the extent to which we can write the history of development in that central Asian country (from the perspective of the nation-builders if not perhaps enough Afghans themselves) is surprising.
One of the methodological challenges as I go ahead with my work – presenting it, digging through collections in Moscow, and re-writing stuff – is what the history of this, a country that was never colonized yet became the premier site for developmental interventions in the Cold War, can tell us about the broader global phenomena into which some of these conferences, and other graduate students, are poking their snouts. I’d only make the observation that it’s interesting that some of the most ambitious developmental interventions of the Cold War took place precisely in places where ‘decolonization’ was just not part of the story, and where instead monarchies – Haile Selassie and Zahir Shah – were overthrown by army officers. Indeed, in both countries these coups (in 1973 for Afghanistan and 1974 for Ethiopia) were possible, arguably, only after devastating famines a year or two before. Without being too needlessly provocative, one might make the case that the worst Third World crises of the Cold War actually had quite little to do with ‘decolonization’ and instead might be linked with ecological and monarchical collapse (although not of the British, French, Dutch, or Portuguese, but rather monarchical dynasties that, coincidentally, came to power around 1930 – the Durrani dominance in Afghanistan goes back much further, but the Musahibans controlled the state since the early 1930s until 1978).
There’s lots to think about and lots to do, in other words. If I can enjoy Moscow itself while doing all of this – and mucho writing, too – I should remain productive and, maybe more importantly, not become a dull boy. I’m looking forward to it!