The ‘Secret History’ of … What, Again? Reflections on a Journey to Khujand and Historical Memory in the Former Soviet Union

[Sorry for the month-long absence of posts – WordPress is blocked in Uzbekistan, and I couldn’t find a way around the restrictions.]

It’s early morning here in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the skies over the Central Asian metropolis lavender-azul-beige as I look forward to the second stage of my big dissertation research trip. Your humble narrator finds himself in the Uzbek capital after several days of traveling in, around, and finally out of Tajikistan; after about two months in Dushanbe and a trip to Gharm, I boarded a flight to Khujand – the second-largest city in Tajikistan and the main Tajik stronghold near the Ferghana Valley, the hub of Central Asia – where I spent three days and two nights running around collecting interviews from former Soviet advisors and translators to Afghanistan, sampling all the fine local brews, kebabs, and pirozhki the city had to offer, and just relishing being somewhere new and getting a feel for the place.

It’s hardly a scientific judgement, but I grew quite fond of Khujand – just as I’ve enjoyed Tashkent quite a bit thus far – while I was there. Part of the sentiment has, I think to do just with the greater sense of openness and exposure to a broader Central Asian (or international) world that I got there as opposed to even in the Tajik capital. Look at a map, and it may be possible to fathom a guess as to why. As I mentioned in an overview of Tajikistan’s geography in a prior post, Tajikistan is really (in my view) three countries: the forbidding mountains of Badakhshan in the east, a region that extends culturally into Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor; the choice agricultural lands of the north, including Khujand (formerly called Leninabad … like Islamabad plus Lenin in Soviet times); and what one might call, hopefully not too derogatorily, the rump lands of what had been the Emirate of Bukhara, a Tsarist protectorate which was dissolved after the October Revolution and eventually incorporated into first the Uzbek, then the Tajik SSR. The land looks different: in the south, one finds the huge Vakhsh River surging through a mostly arid landscape, with cotton and other agricultural plantations around the further one heads towards Afghanistan. In the north, meanwhile, dozens of irrigation canals divert the rivers of the Syr-Darya River to quench the apricots, melons, apples, and other produce that grows in abundance up in the north. Even though Khujand isn’t the capital then, there’s a sense of greater economic dynamism (hardly a surprise: the north accounts for about three-quarters of Tajikistan’s GDP), and less of a sense that  the economy has been scrabbled out of dust and less-than-primo real estate (which it was, over many decades of Soviet investment into the southern Tajik lands abutting Afghanistan).

There’s also – at least speaking with the people I did – a greater sense of what was gained and what was lost with the national delineations of the 1920s, and independence as the USSR dissolved in the north than in the south, too. Like few other places I’ve been – the West Bank, particularly immediately around Jerusalem, and to a lesser extent the Indo-Pakistani border – there’s a real sense here of how much ethnographic, demographic and political claims butt up on dry hills, farmlands, and, crucially, water. As I noted in my post on Gharm, and as historians like Francine Hirsch tell us, the borders of the greater Ferghana Valley are incredibly bizarre: artificially carved out lines dividing lands Tajik form Kyrgyz from Uzbek, with even some tiny ‘islands’ of states inside other states – reminiscent, perhaps, of Jewish and Palestinian settlements inside the other in Israel and the Occupied Territories, albeit with power much more evenly divided among the different actors, and with significant micro-ethnic communities inside of even the enclaves. How it all happened, and why, is still a sensitive and heated topic among the local academics and historians whom I spoke to. Part of Soviet nationalities policy involved reclassifying people in the region from ‘Sarts’ (a vague Tsarist-era term that usually referred to settled Turko-Persian-speaking peoples) as either Uzbeks or Tajiks.

That may sound like an arbitrary decision, but it had major consequences when time came to draw borders: most ‘Sarts’, one of my co-conversationalists explains to me, were automatically reclassified as Uzbeks, leading to a ‘statistical genocide’ of Tajiks and leaving ‘Tajikistan’ with the geographical leftovers of the region – lacking, most painfully of all, the culturally Tajik cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Even generations later, it still stings. There’s a sense of what-might-have-been among the Tajik nationalists of the region: had it not been for this or that statistical decision, a greater Tajikistan today might encompass more of the Ferghana Valley, Samarkand and Bukhara, plus the current territories of the Republic of Tajikistan today. Keep in mind that the majority of the population in Afghanistan north of the Hindu Kush is ethnically Tajik, a sense that what we call Persian culture is ‘actually’ Tajik, and a skepticism if not suspicion of Uzbeks and, further to the south in Afghanistan, Pashtuns, and you can start to see where this line of thinking goes; a greater post-1991 sense of Tajik nationalism would seem to inflect the way citizens of Tajikistan today interpret their history as a series of national tragedies, at the same time that it allows them to think of an Idea of Tajikistan, a greater Tajik world, that covers much of what today comprises Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and northern Afghanistan. What Uzbeks have to say about that is, I’m sure I will learn in the next few days, is another story …

Yet what struck me most when it comes to the historical memory in Central Asia was some of the interviews I conducted with former advisors to Afghanistan in Khujand, and specifically the way they thought about historical sources and the memory of the Soviet Union. One thing that often surprises people who aren’t historians of the USSR, or most socialist countries (the GDR, China, Yugoslavia …) is the extent to which many of the archives in these countries, including records dating into the 1980s, are open for outsider scholars. Whereas a foreigner peeping into the archives of the Chinese Foreign Ministry would have been killed or jailed even thirty years ago, today – with the exception of files from around the period of the Cultural Revolution – are there and open for scholars to work with. Travel to a provincial capital in China, and you’re likely to find much the same. In Berlin, one can do work not only on the Kaiser or the Nazis, but also on the dreaded Stasi, the secret police of the GDR – the archives are there, open and a stone’s throw away from Alexanderplatz in the heart of Berlin. Recently opened archives in Bulgaria and Serbia (for the former Yugoslavia) mean that the real question for historians of the 20th century is less how many materials we can get our hands on, but rather how much time and discipline one has to build up a reserve of reading languages (Russian, Chinese, Serbian, German, Vietnamese – the list is potentially endless) to carry out projects. It’s partly for this reason – having seen just how much material there is, and knowing how little we really do know, even circa 2012 – about the last century that doing history is exciting: you get to see for yourself how much you’re really only part of the first draft. Hopefully, one hundred years from now, your work should be comically parochial. It’s that joy of (mostly) open archives and being part of that sketch for future generations that gets you up in the morning.

Speaking with some academics in Khujand, though, I was reminded of how Western, or maybe even specifically American, this attitude is, however. Time and time again, speaking with advisors for my interviews for this project, people have asked me about my sources. And I tell them: this project is mostly relying on archives in Moscow (again, all of which are open to the public, Russian and non-Russian alike), as well as (for the non-Soviet material) stuff drawn from trips to Berlin, Koblenz, Ithaca, and glamorous Omaha. But somehow that’s never enough for people who grew up in the Soviet Union. ‘Yeah’, they say, ‘but you have to work with the secret files.’ The secret files, I tell them? Just from one archive alone in Moscow – the archive of Komsomol – I have enough material to write an encyclopedic history of provincial life in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Then that’s not taking into account gender history, intellectual history, making my project sufficiently ‘global’ or ‘international’ … — no, they ask, where are the secret files? Yet such ‘secret files’ are often less than forthcoming — because, I suppose, they’re secret. When I go to Moscow, they say, I absolutely have to speak with so-and-so to look at some of his secret materials. Like what, I say? They don’t specify – again, these are secret files – but often when I press them on what *they* think the really important sources would be to write this project, they reference not arcane stuff hidden in the basement of the Lubyanka, but rather publicly-available works of secondary scholarship that were produced by Soviet South Asia and Middle East specialists in the 1970s and 1980s: solid scholarship, but hardly secret.

Now, maybe I’ll be disproven once I actually get my hands on such ‘secret files.’ But for the moment I am less excited by the possible existence of some explosive information, and more the attitude towards historical memory that fuels such an interest in secret sources. Over beer and kebab in Khujand, speaking with a fellow historian, I was making the case that, in a sense, no historical source should ever be truly shocking in the sense of one document, or one series of facts, completely overturning everything we thought we know. Journalism and the early rounds of history are a first draft, it’s true, but, to phrase the argument crudely, observers at the time knew that something called the Vietnam War was going on. There was awareness of the existence, if not the scale or the horror, of atrocities perpetuated against Jews in Eastern Europe by the Nazis. We know that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii on — well, maybe not, according to some fellow patriotic Americans. How and why these events unfolded in the way they did is where argument, the really interesting stuff takes place. From a puzzle box of facts emerge interpretations, which tell us how to put our jigsaw puzzle of facts together (hopefully so that everything fits and we’re left with as few spare pieces as possible).

The point is that events are less interesting than interpretations. People with a sense of subtlety for history should be able to appreciate that without full open access to everything, we’ll never have a ‘complete’ interpretation or at least a more textured version of events than before. Take the history of Holocaust, for example. Thirty years ago, we might have thought we knew ‘everything’ about the Holocaust, at least in terms of there being little room for novel interpretations. And yet much of that framework was based almost entirely on German sources – archives in East Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, etc. were all closed. Since then, we’ve gained access to a new world of sources that has shed light on those horrors, if still only incompletely; as this Timothy Snyder piece in the New York Review of Books, or the exciting work of Princeton graduate student Franziska Exeler underscores, working conditions are still difficult in the one country – Belarus – that saw the most killing during World War II. Without access to those files, our understanding of the Holocaust as an event, and one whose insufficiently complex reading then shaped the way historians did research on it for the next half-century, is incomplete.

Note, though, that the issue isn’t really ‘secret files’ or ‘hidden facts’ here so much as an appreciation for texture. Historians like Snyder and Omer Bartov quarrel over how the new Eastern European materials shape our understanding of the Holocaust, and to some extent this debate might be unresolvable: it’s a debate about whether frameworks of ‘Jewish History’, ‘Polish History’ (in other words, national history), or a bigger framework of ‘Eastern Europe’ or the post-Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth represent the best goggles through which to view events. There are, I am sure (albeit as someone who has not researched the Holocaust professionally), plenty of shocking, depressing, and wrenching facts in the Polish, the Hungarian, the Belarussian, and so on archives. Yet I would wager that there is no individual, or even series of ‘secret files’ that would crucially upturn the way we view the Holocaust whether in general or even on a national level. One counter-argument will jump to mind – Jan Gross’ Neighbors, which was explosive in Poland, which documented the extent to which ‘ethnic Poles’ themselves participated in pogroms and the killing of their Jewish neighbors. Yet important, too, is the extent to which Gross’ findings draw us in to a more complicated – if also more tortured and wrenching – conversation that calls for more texture, more attention to local circumstances. They’re not the Hitler Diaries, or – at long last! – the long-speculated about single order to execute the Final Solution. What if ‘secret files’, that one explosive document that exposes everything, don’t actually exist?

Me, I’m fine with that: texture and contingency are part of what make history compelling and something you return to, rather than a hunt for ‘the’ document that proves all. Still, however, I wonder: what is it about a public’s psyche or idea of historical memory that prompts people to think in such terms? It’s no surprise that historically consequential one-off events – say, the decision for Partition, or the drawing of the national borders in Central Asia – that inspire irredentism and nationalist fervor today could generate such an attitude: if only we can show that Stalin said this, then that proves … well, what, exactly? That the border should be here today? That Pakistan or India was illegitimately created? The problem, unfortunately, I think, is that even if we were to find such documents, the hunt for them too often comes with an attitude that thinks of history as something that’s ‘supposed’ to happen one way or another, and that we could some how ‘correct’ events if we only knew. Yet I fear this is not the case.

More subtly, I often notice that the attitude about a hunt for ‘secret documents’ pops up most when it comes to recent history, where memory and overlap have close to a 1:1 overlap. When I visited Pakistan, for example, I was struck by how many (otherwise brilliant!) Pakistani academics were almost curious to find a real, breathing historian in their midst. It was difficult to explain to them why there could even be the need for something like a professional historian of Pakistani national history: from their point of view, after all, they had grown up along with the country, so really, what secrets were there to know? If they wanted to ‘find out’ something (here we were with the emphasis on facts rather than interpretation), they could just call their friend in the civil service, they assured me. More than that, there was the insistence, familiar from talks with people who grew up in the USSR, that Ayub, Yahya, Bhutto, or Zia had ‘really’ said this or that there were secret documents somewhere showing that so-and-so really wanted peace, or war, or something, with India. Or maybe it was China. Or perhaps Iran. Secret documents about Afghanistan! It all blended into a blur at some point.

The problem, of course, is that future generations, and a sense of shared – but debatable and contingent – heritage demands a shift to the more open idea of historical memory. Pashtuns in Pakistan, just as much as ethnic Uzbeks living in Tajikistan, may demand that their side of the story – whether in an irredentist or, more hopefully, reconciling national, key – gets told. If you’re a Tajik nationalist in Tajikistan, or a Punjabi membership of the Pakistani Establishment, what do you tell the Ismaili, or the Ahmadi, who wants to have their story told. That they’re wrong because there are ‘secret documents’ somewhere off-site in closed archives? That their perspective is flawed, not because of any sources they’re using (though you’ll tell them that they’re wrong because they don’t have access to the ‘secret’ documents? These kinds of debates can be kept under the lid for years, even decades, but as the work of someone like Gross with respect to Poland shows, the national histories of most nation-states are seldom clean enough to keep deferring such an open reckoning forever. Even in Poland, where – as a result of Nazi atrocities, the post-war expulsion of Belarussians, Ukrainians, and Germans, and the anti-Semitic expulsions of 1968 that, ironically, ejected Gross into the West – national identity and history would seem uncomplicated, these debates become heated, painful, and real. People wonder who used to live in that barn, or ask what branch of Islam the founder of a country belonged to. And what do you say then?

With these thoughts in the back of my head, I have another epic journey before me this afternoon. After too long of a wait, I’m finally making my way to Nukus, a city in western Uzbekistan that’s home to the Igor Savitsky art museum, one of the finest repositories of Soviet modernist art in the world. There’s a complicated backstory here – one that I hope to highlight in a future post, even though I may want to write a more honed article on Savitsky and Nukus for publication rather than your humble narrator’s blog. I’m making my way through Hayek, as well, so keep your eyes peeled for that, as well.


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