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Dushanbe Diaries: Or, On the Histories of Central Asian Forests and Rivers

August 10, 2012

It’s only at the end of a very busy week here in Tajikistan that I’ve been able to make the time to write a quick blog entry. Having gained entry to the Central Government Archive last Friday meant that I spent much of the week in the bowels of the Tajik archives, combing through materials that I think could be interesting for various dissertation chapters. Add to that the never-ending list of people to interview, blistering summer heat (one of the outdoor thermometers near the archive read 47 Celsius, or 116 Fahrenheit), and the hassle of getting around the city in marhshrutki and shared taxis, and often by the time I’ve gotten back to my host family’s house, I’m ready to collapse by 10 PM and wake up at 6 AM to get a start on the day before it gets too hot again.

Still, in just the span of a week, I’ve found a lot of neat stuff in the archives. Going into the Tajik archives, I tried to maintain a fairly open mind about what I thought could be interesting. I knew from previous experience of looking at their putevoditeli (guides to the files held in the archives) that there was little that really directly touched on economic development in Afghanistan. So what then to do, with about three weeks of unencumbered access and a delicious and cheap cafeteria across the street from the archive? Since one chapter of the dissertation (well, given how long this thing is turning out to be, perhaps only the eventual book manuscript version, I hope) attempts to take a comparative look at state-building in Soviet Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan from about the 1950s to the 1970s, I decided to start looking through the files of the Tajik Ministerstvo lesnogo khoziastvo (Ministry of Forest Economy, to translate the term awkwardly). In the meantime, too, I’ve started looking through the files of a smaler Tajik state administration that managed the Hissar River, and am trying to petition my contact people at the archive to see if they can drum up the file guides to the Nurek Dam, the world’s largest dam which was constructed in Tajikistan from 1961-1980.

I, for one, am in a better mood than this ornery Tajik camel, spotted last weekend near Hissar

Forests, rivers, and dams: these all might seem like eccentric interests, but they’re all actually really useful lenses for asking interesting historical questions about public administration and state-building. I first became (sort of) interested in this as a methodological direction during a week of Tony Grafton’s seminar for Princeton seniors interested in history, wherein we read Richard White’s The Organic Machine, a history of the Columbia River. Even as I went on to spend much of the next two or three years working on more straight-up intellectual history stuff in what became Writings on War, the embryo of what I hope is a good idea was implanted in my mind. Reading more widely into the work of people like Jim Scott or Thaddeus Sunseri (who, like me, has an interest in the history of West German forest sciences) convinced me that maybe this wasn’t such a crazy idea.

Glad to be out of the classroom and into the archives! I’ve escaped the fate of students like these Afghans learning Russian in Dushanbe in 1980. Found in the Tajik photo archives this week.

I’m looking in particular at the way that Tajik institutions (which were coordinated with forest surveying and planning efforts run out of Tashkent and Moscow) conceptualized the problem of resources and population in the Rasht Valley, a valley in central Tajikistan whose residents were repeatedly deported throughout the 20th century to collective farms on cotton-growing lowlands to become productive socialist laborers. I’ll withhold some of my thoughts on the connection between Soviet forestry and the specific Tajik stuff for now, but I think it’s an auspicious start. On top of that, the more I read works of Iranian scholars like Gholam Reza Afkhami on modernization under the Shah (who, like the Soviets, also nationalized his country’s forests and pastures during the White Revolution), the more connections across the region I see. With some luck, I should be able to make it back to my alma mater this coming January to look at some of American master modernizer David Lilienthal’s files on water planning and resettlement in Khuzestan in southwestern Iran, which happen to be held at Mudd Library at Princeton. Things are going well, in other words, but there’s still a lot of reading and writing and traveling on the horizon.

The Dez Dam in southwestern Iran: my next (vicarious) stop, via Princeton?

 

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