Moscow Headfirst: Wading Through Former Soviet Archives in Russia

At last, Friday. I arrived in Moscow less than a week ago – my last stop on my major dissertation research trip – and time is flying by. It’s my third time in the Russian capital: the first came towards the end of my first trip to Russia, spent primarily in Petersburg. After two pleasant months in Russia’s ‘Northern Capital’, at first Moscow seemed positively like a Tatar encampment: gone were the moats, canals, and parks of my home for the summer; in was one of the world’s largest metro systems, traffic everywhere, and the sense of really standing at the center of a huge (former) empire. Travel out far enough to the ends of the Metro lines early in the morning, and one finds Tajik immigrant workers building houses or renovating apartment buildings; Caucasian and Japanese restaurants dot the more gentrified areas of the middle of the city; and while St. Pancras or Paris’ Gare de l’Est it is not, getting off at the Komsomol’skaya Metro stop (site of three of the capital’s major train stations) and asking whether you feel like hopping the train to Vladivostok, Yaroslavl, or Makhachkala can be exhilarating. Beyond the incredibly rich archival collections which make the city a must-visit for anyone with an interest in twentieth century Russian or Soviet (or, I would argue, international) history, I found ways enough to cope with the exhaustion that comes with navigating such a huge city that is, for much of the year, frigid, lacking in trees or parks, and packed with automobile traffic.

Back in the Russian capital!

That’s why I came back for a second and third time. I visited Moscow again in October 2010, as part of a dissertation research trip to write my M.Phil., but also really to get some handle on what I wanted to work with in the long term in the former Soviet archives. That was no small feat: non-historians are often surprised to learn that, while the archives of many institutions remain closed (the Army after 1940, the KGB, and certain Stalin-era materials, not to mention everything on the Republican level in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, etc. that is also inaccessible), many of the archives include material open right up to 1991. And given that the USSR interacted with so many different countries around the world, including some which are themselves difficult or dangerous to work in today – North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq come to mind – it’s possible for someone, even sans a deep knowledge of Korean, Persian, or Arabic, to turn up some interesting insights on internal developments in those countries. If starts with these first two factors (openness and the international sweep) and tries to read widely outside of the historiography of the Soviet Union, too – something which I try to do as often as I can – to steal … er, come up with compelling methodological approaches to the Soviet material, there’s a world of potential projects out there. While the public’s interest in the usual subjects concerning Russia or the USSR – Stalin, World War II, the GULAG – are understandable, then, this is why it can be a tad frustrating for your humble narrator when trying to explain that he’s actually not writing about Stalin. There’s simply an enormous amount of material on Russia’s and the USSR’s place in recent world history that goes beyond a lot of what we assume is the ‘real’ narrative; one could easily live out one’s days in the consonant-rich Russian archives (GARF, RGASPI, RGAKFD) researching topics like the USSR and international drug control, Moscow’s and Eastern Europe’s relationship with the EC, the World Bank, or the IMF, or Northeast Asia in the Cold War. There’s a fair amount of drudgery involved in digging through archives, like any job, but it’s also exciting to know that you’re (hopefully) on the vanguard of writers maybe changing people’s master narratives of the past.

Your humble narrator’s new appearance (more or less): FOR n < infinity: sleep, transcribe files, drink coffee, write dissertation chapters, eat, n+1.

Still, after that second trip to Moscow, I had more or less determined that, slightly more modestly than changing hundreds of millions of people’s views about the past, it might be interesting to write my D.Phil. at Oxford on the history of economic development in Cold War Afghanistan, a story in which the USSR had a leading role. Many of the materials I zeroed in on during the first trip – Soviet feminists’ engagement with their Afghan counterparts, or the USSR’s attempt to present a fuzzy image of itself to Muslim audiences in places like Iran or Turkey even as its army was in nearby Afghanistan – have an obvious resonance to today, as we read about Malala Yousafzai, a young female activist whom Taliban have attacked in Pakistan, or the troubling reaction of so many in Muslim-majority countries to the Innocence of Muslims mini-film. This time around, however, I have more time and more focus for what I’m looking for. I’m spending the majority of my time at a small (but easy-to-use) archive in suburban Moscow which has a wonderful collection of detailed reports written by Soviet youth advisors sent all over provincial Afghanistan from 1981 to 1988 to build up the Afghan Communist Party in places like Herat (in the west) or Lashkar Gah (in the south). More than that, because this particular operation (which, it bears underscoring, was only a small part of total Soviet advising operations in Afghanistan but was unique for the extent to which it has a huge publicly accessible documentary record and wasn’t confined to Kabul) took place so recently, many of the former advisors are still alive and – I hope – willing to talk more about what they saw and wrote then. That’s part of what’s been taking me across the former Soviet space this year, and with some luck, I should be able to interview even more people this autumn in Moscow and European Russia.

A makeshift graphic showing the zones into which Komsomol in Afghanistan (one of the main subjects of my dissertation) divided the country. For reasons of both time – the archives are huge! – and more substantial methodological reasons, I’m mostly looking at the reports from the South (dirt-brown), the East (bright yellow), and the North (greenish turquoise) Zones. Other historians, specialists on Afghanistan, or interested parties are more than welcome to pick up the slack and investigate how the situation was different in other regions in the 1980s!

Of course, writing a dissertation is rarely so smooth as one expects. Much to my chagrin, one of the major archives I need to fill in a substantial and important part of one chapter (on Soviet economic aid to Afghanistan from 1955-1973) has declared itself closed while its files are moved to an ultra-inconvenient location in Podol’sk, a small city on the outskirts of Moscow. That means that I’ll have to come back to Russia next spring (as I had already planned) to clean up there; to say that I’m not looking forward to getting up early to make it to even more peripheral Moscow would be an understatement.

There are issues of methodological and intellectual clarity to be worked out, too. When I discuss some of my findings from the Komsomol archives with people, one of their first reactions is often, ‘… But I thought you were writing about economic development?’ They want to see more about the bread factory in Kabul, the cotton gin in Girishk (in southern Afghanistan), or the gasworks in Sheberghan (in northwestern Afghanistan), all projects built by outside powers during the Cold War. Well and good, I say – bread factory enthusiasts will not be disappointed by what I’m putting together – but I’d make the case that ‘economic development’ during the Cold War encompassed something bigger than just putting a factory on the ground in Indonesia or Vietnam. It had to do with institution-building – whether that took the form of sound monetary policy as directed by Americans so that the IMF wouldn’t freak out about extending loans to Kabul, or convincing 15-year-old Pashtun girls in Helmand that joining the Communist Party was the most important thing they could do. I’m not there yet, certainly, in terms of wrapping it all up in a big narrative, but the more I laboriously transcribe, the more a general picture of what I want to argue is emerging (as are the different ‘Afghanistans’ within the country that Soviet advisors dealt with, whether in terms of pre-existing institutions, ethnicities, or geography).

Iranian development dreamworlds: from a 1970s volume about spatial planning in Iran (in this case, southwestern Iran)

There are other methodological issues, too. One reason why I’m writing this post now is that I intend to disappear into the stacks of the Russian National Library, at least for tomorrow, to try both to write as well as to work out some kinks in another chapter trying to put development in Afghanistan in the 1970s in a comparative context, using both files from the archives in Tajikistan as well as some (to my knowledge) hitherto-unused material by French and Iranian ‘spatial planners’ during the 1973-1978 window of Iranian history when, flush with cash, everything seemed possible to the Shah. The chapter is trying to do a lot – localizing the big narrative we currently have about development facing problems in the 1970s in the Persian-speaking world and executing a three-way comparison between Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan at the same time. That makes it potentially really exciting, but because there are a lot of moving parts, the potential for sounding incoherent is also high. People are often surprised when I tell them that I like to write while on the road, but the opposite – collecting huge masses of material and only afterwards distilling them down and organizing them into chapters, far away from where your materials are – sounds even more horrifying to me as a writer. Hopefully tomorrow should give me further confidence in my own writing strategy – the more solid the drafts of chapters for everything but the Komsomol material I’m working with now is, the bigger risks and excitement I feel capable of bringing to the stuff I’m reading in the archive.

We’ll see how it all goes. (In the meantime, I should soon be up to speed to continue the series of posts on Hayek that I began this August.) Between making the hour-long Metro ride from home to the major archive where I’m working, playing detective with potential interview subjects, and working in other, less crucial for me, archives on the days when the Komsomol archive is closed, it’s all a tad exhausting. But who could complain about getting supported as a still-semi-sprightly young man to dig up these kinds of stories? I’m off to bed for now, but it’s always fun to be on the road in a place like Moscow, beginning to put what you hope will be a really exciting story together.


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