Moscow Heat Waves: Notes On the Road from Germany to Russia

How time flies. Only recently, it seems, I was sitting at my desk here at the apartment in Moscow, ducking out in a sweater (at a minimum) and umbrella to zip off to archives and libraries, looking forward to what seemed like far-off trips to Germany, for research and to link up with visiting family. The day arrives: I lug my piece of baggage down Butyrsky Val (the street I live on), get on the train to Sheremetyevo Airport, and the wheels on the Aeroflot plane retract, snugly, into the belly of the airplane. I arrive at the hotel in Berlin, ready to get some work done and to catch up with friends. Yet here I am again in Moscow, with the weather now much hotter (in the low 80s and sunny today!), deadlines looming, and bureaucratic paperwork (housing lease documents, plane tickets to the UK for my dissertation defense …), and a great trip to Germany that went by too quickly now behind.

What made it go so quickly? For one, the presence of friends and family, people I love whom I hadn’t seen since the last time I spent any time in the city in the summer of 2011. But maybe just as much were the great finds I dug up in the Politisches Archiv at the German Foreign Office. As I detailed in my last blog post, I had come to Berlin looking for East German diplomatic documents to complement some of the findings on GDR-Afghan relations I had uncovered during my summer 2011 stay in the German capital. And files there are many. Because, however, many files run from (for example) 1979-1987, and because of German archival access regulations, many of perhaps the juiciest East German files – ones that would allow us a more in-depth look into Soviet and/or Eastern Bloc decision-making in Kabul in the 1980s – remain closed until later this decade, conveniently in time for a colleague or enterprising younger graduate student to torpedo many of the claims I hope to make.

Escaping the Moscow vacations for work in German archives … and, err, anthropological fieldwork in glorious landscapes (here the Elbe near Dresden)

But just as exciting as the putative East German materials were huge reams of West German material I didn’t intend to find. West German material covering all aspects of development in Afghanistan, beyond the Paktia-focused material I looked at when in Koblenz in the spring of 2012: police academies, the development of statistics as a discipline in Afghan bureaucracy in the 1950s and 1960s, but also much more detailed stuff on the enormous developmental intervention the Bundesrepublik Deutschland played in eastern Afghanistan throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. Much of the material I found in the Politisches Archiv helps to answer some of the unresolved questions I had when I submitted the D.Phil. in March about the Paktia story. Many of the documents, such as a plan for the housing compound in Khost designed to provide dormitory space to West Germans and Afghans, were simply cool. Many seed ideas for future scholarly projects. Others testify to the confidence that German economists and the ideology of modernization that bolstered them had in the 1960s. I loved a cut-out of an April 27, 1968 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article that focused on the project in Paktia, noting (along with a picture of a witch doctor):

Auch in der entlegenen Provinz Paktia (Afghanistan) beginnt die Zauberei bei Erkrankungen von Mensch und Tier eine brotlose Kunst zu werden. Eine fünfzehnköpfige deutsche Entwicklungsgruppe hat mit der systematischen Erschließung des Gebietes begonnen, und schon heute geht die Bevölkerung bei ernsthaften Erkrankungen lieber zum deutschen Arzt. Die alte Zauberin (unser Bild) wird mit malerischen Amuletts, Wurzeln und Tierkochen bald nur noch ein Relikt aus einer versunkenen Zeit sein.

‘[Here, too, in the far-flung province of Paktia [Afghanistan], witchcraft as a treatment for humans and animals is beginning to die (literally, becoming a ‘breadless art’). A German development team of fifteen members has begun a systematic enclosure of the area, and already today the population prefers to go to the German doctor when they have serious illnesses. The old witch (our picture here) will soon be, along with her picturesque amulets, roots, and animal bones, a relict of a lost age.’

Back in Moscow, then, it’s time to think about how to incorporate these materials into the re-writing of the dissertation into a book version, but also to turn my attention to other writing tasks: most immediately, wrapping up a draft of what I hope will become an eventual book chapter on Soviet development in northern Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s for a graduate student conference in Trento, Italy, later this month; and continuing to gather some seriously obscure materials on polemical debates between Soviet Orientologists on whether Pashtun nationalism was a progressive force, whether Pakistan was a ‘Punjabi dictatorship,’ and how an Soviet Orientalist’s political stand on those questions ought to affect their scholarship and political counseling (where requested) to CPSU élites. Thanks to some very helpful Russian contacts, I’ve found some annotated copies of books which should provide a unique insight into both material for the manuscript, as well as for an article in an edited volume that I hope to have in by August. I enjoy the writing and the managing of drafts, as well as the subject itself, but as the trip to Germany reminded me, it’s crucial to find time to balance such writing and word-schlepping with walks along the Havel, the Elbe, or (for now) the Moscow River.

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One thought on “Moscow Heat Waves: Notes On the Road from Germany to Russia

  1. The Kaleidoscope

    A well known fact in Germany is that those who used to be in charge in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) are still in charge today and that those who had problems with the system in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) are those who still have problems today. Those who were in charge had the opportunity to study, to achieve something professionally. You had to be closed to the block parties of the former GDR and have a perfect ideological record to make professionally in the former socialist German state!

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