Moscow Grooving! Reports from Russia and Thoughts on the Cold War and Decolonization

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.)

RGASPI: Russian for ‘hell on earth’, or, the Russian State Archive for Socio-Political History. I work mostly in an even less aesthetically charming building 10 miles to the south of this, the main one in central Moscow.

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 Waror 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.

Decolonization or *non-colonization* as source of Cold War crises? It's interesting to note that at least two of the worst wars of the 1970s and 1980s (Ethiopia and Afghanistan) happened in countries that had never been colonized by European powers or the Japanese Empire (countries shaded on this map). Obviously, some definitions of colonization are loose (Iran, China, Mongolia), but this still may be food for thought.

Decolonization or *non-colonization* as source of Cold War crises? It’s interesting to note that at least two of the worst wars of the 1970s and 1980s (Ethiopia and Afghanistan) happened in countries that had never been colonized by European powers or the Japanese Empire (countries shaded on this map). Obviously, some definitions of colonization are loose (Iran, China, Mongolia), but this still may be food for thought.

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!

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