“Getting Re-Acquainted with the ‘Muslims of the USSR'” and Thoughts on Historiography

This week, my last full one in LA, sees me trying to knock out as many applications and articles as possible in between visiting friends (which today included discovering the ping-pong tables at the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood) and relatives (tomorrow I’m headed to Palm Springs in the California desert to visit relatives there and bask in the heat for a few days before my return to Oxford). In between fellowship and grant applications and preparing lesson plans to help the Turkmenistan Youth and Civic Values Foundation launch an online platform for Turkmen students to do college prep, I’m putting the finishing touches on two academic pieces that I’m fairly satisfied with.

One of them traces the career paths of the mushavery, a group of young Soviet men (mostly Russians, but a fair amount of Central Asians and Caucasians as well) who were sent to Afghanistan in the 1980s as operatives for Komsomol, the youth organization of the CPSU and a requisite stepping stone in the career path of ambitious Soviet citizens in the later years of the USSR. They wrote extensive reports while in the field detailing their work with Afghan Communist Party officials and officials from DOYA (the Afghan equivalent to Komsomol), which are interesting in their own right. But for this piece, I’m mostly interested in how these young men got to Afghanistan in the first place: where did they come from? Which regions of Russia, or of the USSR as a whole, were under- or over-represented? What were the catchment cities that regional talent came through to make its way to Moscow? It’s similar to asking today how an ambitious country girl from, say, rural Wyoming, might try to make her way to the Senate. We know that institutions like the Ivy League, or elite consulting firms, or meritocratic ventures like Teach for America, might play a role in the formation of the ambitious provincial made good. But how did it work in other recent big countries? That’s part of what I’m putting together for an edited volume entitled Socialist Migrations, edited by Maxim Mautsevich, a professor at Seton Hall University.

Komsomol: Come for the naked Party careerism, stay for the outfits

The other piece, which I’ve been working on for some time now, is entitled “Getting Re-Acquainted with the ‘Muslims of the USSR'”, and I’m particularly happy with it. When I was last in Moscow, almost a year ago, I spent much of my time in GARF (the State Archive of the Russian Federation), one of Russia’s largest federal archives, which contains the files for CARC/CRA (the Committee for the Affairs of Religious Cults, renamed the Committee for Religious Affairs after 1965). CRA was a complicated organization, one whose history Professor Yaacov Roi at the University of Tel Aviv has partly sketched. CRA’s task was to monitor all religious life in the USSR, the biggest country in the world. It employed hundreds if not thousands of employees who were based out of the various SSRs and oblasts in the Soviet Union, who traveled around and liaised with local Party and religious officials to determine the state of religious practice in the country and make sure it was in compliance with Soviet law. Contrary to popular image, religious practice was not forbidden in the USSR, but many important sites, both Muslim as well as Jewish and Orthodox were allowed to fall into disrepair, and the content of sermons and other religious speeches was monitored closely. In many cases, the picture emerging from the countryside is one of idiotic CRA inspectors facing a mix of semi-synchronized and just insane mullahs and priests. In some of the reports I recall reading for Tajikistan in the early 1980s, many mullahs exhorted Tajik Muslims to harvest as much cotton as possible as part of their religious obligations; in other reports, the CRA bureaucrats dealt with complaints about how an insane local Orthodox priest in Khujand, Tajikistan, had assaulted an elderly woman visiting the church and later was taking shots at local alleycats from the roof of his church with an automatic rifle.

Still, other files in the CRA folders proved more tantalizing. CRA had a department for international affairs, much of whose activity dealt with links between both the Orthodox Church in Western Europe and North America, as well as links between Protestant and Evangelical groups in Russia and the same confessional movements in the West. While this story of Christianity across the Iron Curtain does not personally interest me greatly as a researcher or scholar, I’m sure there’s much material there. However, what interested me the most were records of exhibitions that CRA put on across parts of the Middle East in the early 1980s – right after the USSR had invaded Afghanistan, but also after the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Army coup in Turkey. CRA tasked several Azerbaijani clerics and bureaucrats to present on the status of Islam in the USSR at various trade exhibitions in Tehran, Izmir, and Baghdad during this period. These employees wrote extensive reports about their experience interacting with fellow Muslims, albeit ones from outside of the USSR, and their experience trying to impart an “objective” view of reality about Soviet Islam to their brothers in faith. In many cases, too, the CRA employees didn’t just stick to the exhibition sites but ventured out into these Middle Eastern cities, conversing with local mullahs, persecuted believers (Shia Muslims in Turkey, Azerbaijanis in Iran) and trying to reach some sort of ecumenical understanding in spite of real differences across the ummah. Overall, I think it’s an interesting story of what elite Soviet Muslims thought their own country was about, how they sought to portray it to others, and what Turks, Iranians, and Iraqis thought about Soviet Muslims in Central Asia and the Caucasus, not to mention the many Muslims of places like Tatarstan or Bashkiria. It’s interesting for historians insofar as, I hope, it lends some clarity to how the USSR (like all empires) sought to manage difference, and (like the USA) sought to project itself as a reasonable model for development to the Third World throughout the Cold War. Overall I suggest that while many Turks and Iranians still thought of the USSR as a place where religion was basically forbidden, where mosque attendance might be forbidden, and which had waged war against fellow Muslims in Afghanistan, they were still quite interested in sending their children to university in Leningrad, or in getting their next surgery done not in, say, the crummy hospital in Gaziantep but in Moscow if at all possible. It’s slightly reminiscent of reports that American journalists bring back from, say, Pakistan today: many members of the military elite criticize the United States for waging an unjust war in Afghanistan, for Abu Ghraib, and so on – but in the same conversation ask how they can get their daughter into Harvard or Stanford. Combining ambitious foreign policies in Asia with a tradition of high standards in education and accepting huge numbers of immigrants (Russia has the most immigrants of any country in the world after the USA) has been and likely will continue to be a tricky balance for both Russia as well as the United States in years to come.

Destination #1 for students from ... Iran, Myanmar and North Korea?

Peer-review is an important part of putting these articles together and making changes and tweaks to them, of course, and readers might make the same objection that many of my reviewers did: there’s a difference between what someone will write as a bureaucrat on their report and how they actually feel as, for example, a Soviet Azerbaijani Muslim (or as a Nigerian immigrant to the USA working for DHS, for example). On some obvious level, I’m receptive to this critique. In the absence of memoir literature, or diaries, or personal correspondence, we should be slow as historians or researchers to claim that a piece of writing reflects how someone personally feels. Bureaucrats across all time periods share, one might posit, the perception that they need to portray themselves as effective, or that the situation would collapse without their brave intervention, or that they did a good job. Concretely for this piece, one might say, in the most extreme form of the criticism, that we can’t trust CRA reports on the situation in Tehran just as we can’t trust SS reports about health conditions at Auschwitz. Bureaucracies and large state institutions have an imperative to cherry-pick evidence and report the positive. In some cases, they simply lie. Several academics criticized the above-mentioned work of Yaacov Roi on CRA for a reason similar to this: Roi, they suggested, simply reproduced the jargon and worldview of CRA employees without fundamentally examining the worldview and flawed (in the view of 21st century scholars of Islamic history) terminology and concepts that CRA workers – and Roi by extension – used to examine the phenomenon of Islamic faith and practice in their country.

While historians are, one has to say, often fairly criticized for making impressive methodological disclaimers in their introductions and then launching into several hundred pages of what Marshall Poe has aptly called “unreconstructed archival empiricism” (i.e. reading archival documents and uncritically spitting them back out into semi-readable narrative prose), I hope that I’ve found something of an elegant solution around the above problem in this article. On one banal level, it seems crucial to me that scholars perhaps worry a bit less and seek to disprove each others’ arguments more. Friends of mine who work more in Middle Eastern History often report that their field is intellectually hampered by a knee-jerk distrust of colonial (British or French) archives. The operating assumption, they report, is that colonial sources are so compromised as to be highly un-useful for serious scholarly work. The problem that this approach has is that it’s not an approach. It leaves one with relying on what are often, in my mind, more dubious scholarly approaches borrowed from cultural studies departments, rather than going with a written document that hopefully reflects some part of what actually happened in the past. On a more sophisticated level, I was delighted to find inspiration in an essay by the late Mark Saroyan, a superstar professor and scholar of Soviet and Islamic history who died young, at the age of 34, cutting short what looked to be a promising scholarly career. In the essay, “Rethinking Islam in the Soviet Union,” Saroyan suggested, among other things, that scholars take less of a kneejerk approach to the bureaucratic voice problem. It might be true, he noted, that the bureaucrats weren’t always telling the truth. But simply noting that this was the case was unsatisfying and, like I just noted, unlikely to take anyone very far. Instead, he suggested, it might be more useful to take the bureaucrats’ own records to seek to develop a kind of anthropology or sociology of the bureaucratic institutions themselves, in order to better understand the kind of language that was demanded from superiors, and to understand how (if at all) alternative languages of analyzing the problem of Soviet Islam, or Orthodoxy, or the economy, emerged, changed, or evolved throughout the period. For example, future historians, instead of dismissing the Wikileaks cables as being of any utility to analyzing US foreign policy because the State Department consisted of a bunch of ideological bureaucrats, might be better served to examine how standards for a “good cable” changed over time, or whether certain communities of mentorship – based out of a remote Embassy or Consulate, perhaps – adopted new outlooks to analyze the behavior of, for example, post-Soviet political elites. The focus, in other words, has to be less on dismissal, and more on understanding how language and concepts were constituted and evolved within large bureaucratic institutions, be they the Fed, the CRA, or the State Department. I’m not sure if the modest article I’ve penned comes close to achieving that task – rather, it just identifies it as a possible direction – but it’s a spirit I hope to keep in mind as I mine more material from GARF and Russia in the future.

Uzbekistan: home of romantic Samarkand ... and new discourses about how to talk about Islam from CRA bureaucrats? It's a possibility.

On a note for the coming weeks, I hope to dive into a book discussion of The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith with a friend, John Raimo, who intermittently publishes a blog titled Tandem Reading. Both of us are, perhaps somewhat idiosyncratically, possessed by the notion that Anglo-American social science from approximately 1950-1970 may have been the peak of human achievement, and I’ll be happy to pore into what one work of economics looked like from this period. Hopefully we’ll be able to arrange a podcast on the topic, too.


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