A Journey to Central Asia – By Way of Italy and Arizona? Notes From the End of A Moscow Research Trip

I remember my first trip to Moscow only hazily. I was in between my junior and senior years at Princeton at the time, taking intensive Russian courses in St. Petersburg, and after a somewhat underwhelming trip to Pskov after our first of two months in the ‘Northern Capital’, we were promised a more stimulating, if not overwhelming, visit to Moscow as a capstone to the trip. Finally, the date arrived. We boarded our train at Moskovskii Vokzal in central Petersburg, left on time at 11:55 PM, and – several bottles of beer and (for some of our cohort) packs of cigarettes, and not enough hours of sleep later – we arrived in the capital. Cue a quick stop at the first McDonald’s in Russia, and a rushed tour through many of the sites – Red Square, Sparrow Hills, Victory Park – and we were soon left on our own to explore the massive city. Then, I remember, it seemed truly overwhelming, even in comparison to Los Angeles or New York. Our hotel, the Kosmos, across from the massive Stalinist VDNKh Exhibition Center, was itself a giant artifact in institutional Brezhnevism (built for the 1980 Olympics, but since outfitted with a casino and hookers stalking the smoke-filled lobby), and it inexplicably had a memorial to Charles DeGaulle out front, too. The city was brash, (for the most part) ugly, expensive, and disorienting, but combined with the rich archival holdings of which I knew little at the time, and the fact that it somehow held itself together, there was something I found compelling in it.

The Hotel Kosmos, my once and former home in the Russian capital, and a true monument to late 1970s-era Soviet institutional planning

And so I decided to return. In the fall of 2010, I made my first research trip to the capital, beginning work on what I (then) thought would be an M.Phil. dissertation on postwar Central Asia. That’s a project that researchers like my colleague and friend Artemy Kalinovsky (now in Tajikistan) are still hashing out, but through a run of luck in the archives then, I ended up working on Soviet development policy in Afghanistan – a choice of dissertation topic that has since taken me to Germany, Central Asia, various archives in the United States, and, finally, back to Moscow this fall and spring. This trip, funded with the generous support of a Scatcherd European Scholarship from Oxford (thanks!), allowed me to do some of what I’ve been calling ‘clean up’ work in some of the archives that were either closed, or in which I didn’t have enough time to work in this autumn, and it’s been a huge success in that regard. Working as much as possible in RGAE, the economics archive of the Soviet Union, I’ve managed to find lots of great reports and statistics on Soviet aid to Afghanistan up to 1979; in the Komsomol archive of RGASPI, one of the Party archives, I’ve managed to work my way through the huge number of reports that Komsomol advisors wrote from northern Afghanistan in the 1980s. Throw in interviews with former development specialists, and unique access to books and articles by Soviet academic scholars of Afghanistan and the Pashtun people, and it’s been a great trip. Along the way, rewarding myself with the prospect of fresh coffee at the neighborhood joint in exchange for being a dissertation graphomaniac, I’ve managed to hash out something close to what I think the book manuscript for this project will look like – at least, that is, before I edit it *extensively.* It’s with a sense of accomplishment, then but also a small sense of apprehension – how long has it been that my adult life has centered around research trips to this delirious city? What now? – that I’ll be headed out, über-late on Tuesday night, to the airport to leave Russia for now.

Until the next trip to Moscow this October, however, there’s plenty to look forward to. After a hellishly early flight out of the Russian capital to Verona, I’m off to a conference at the University of Trento on the intersections between decolonization and development aid in the Third World in the 1970s. (Check out the snazzy conference poster below!) There, I’m looking forward to hashing out some of the research I’ve been conducting these past few months in Moscow, on Soviet aid and development in northern Afghanistan in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. As I’ll try to point out there, Cold War Afghanistan represents something of an outlier to our usual stories about the 1970s as a disappointing denouement to the ‘Decade of Development’, when initial hopes about development projects to transform the Third World gave way to revolution or, in other cases, decades more of crushing poverty. Not only was Afghanistan never formally colonized (putting it in an interesting category along with Ethiopia, Liberia, arguably Iran, and a couple of other countries whose Cold War histories scholars are beginning to write), but there development arguably served as a means for Kabul to ‘re-colonize’ the borderlands areas of Pakistan that it felt it had ‘lost’ during Partition. With the help of American, West German, and Soviet aid in the south, Paktia Province, and the river valley around Jalalabad, respectively, Kabul in the 1960s and early 1970s sought to create model examples of economically developed Pashtun communities to face across the Durand Line into the Pashtun-dominated regions of Pakistan. (The fact that many of these areas were formally thrown into the ‘One Unit’ of West Pakistan from 1954-1970 bolstered Kabul’s claims to represent the real face of Pashtun autonomy against a ‘Punjabi dictatorship,’ as some critics of the Pakistani state call it.)


Northern Afghanistan, however, as I try to explore in the paper, was an interesting exception to this pattern. The north (roughly defined here, everything in the drainage basin of the Amu-Darya, but especially Baghlan and Balkh Provinces as centers of development) was different from the three hubs of Pashtun development that the Soviet Union and Western powers devoted their attention to. The region only existed as such because of Anglo-Russian territorial demarcations (one of which, ‘the Ridgeway Line’, is much less famous than its cousin demarcated by Mortimer Durand), which helped to create a semi-coherent container space state in which the late 19th century Afghan leader, Amanullah Khan, could carry out wars against Uzbek khanates and later resettle rival Pashtuns, mostly from eastern and southeastern Afghanistan, to the region. By the 1930s, thanks to the efforts of modernizing Afghan élites like Abdul Majid Zabuli and Nadir Shah (the King of Afghanistan in the 1930s and 1940s), areas like Baghlan, along the banks of the Kunduz River, became hotbeds of investment into cotton and sugar beet farming. Soviet aid towards cotton plantations helped, as did later German and Japanese investment into an industrial revolution in miniature in the north. Water was abundant, as was – especially after hundreds of thousands of people fled from collectivization, war, and anti-religious campaigns in  Soviet Central Asia – cheap labor.

Still – to return to the relative fame of the Durand Line over its northern cousin, which English and Russian imperialists had assumed would be temporary – it bears underscoring that after Partition, in 1947, it was always the partition of Pashtuns, rather than the even longer-lasted effective partition of Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, that really agitated Afghan leaders (who were themselves overwhelmingly Pashtuns). As the Soviet Union sought to bolster its presence in the country in the 1950s and 1960s, and as Kabul was willing to comply to gain alternatives to exporting its goods through a Pakistan that seemed intent on blockading it until it kow-towed on the ‘Pashtunistan’ issue, the north became an unexpected showcase of Soviet-style modernity, as highways, telegraph lines, port facilities, cotton cleaning plants, fertilizer plants, and other hallmarks of twentieth century industrial, territorial modernity filled up the space that, seventy years earlier, English and Russian diplomats and imperial agents had agreed was to explicitly be outside of (then) St. Petersburg’s sphere of influence. Suspicions that the Soviet Union – which built the Salang Pass, then the world’s highest tunnel, making it possible to drive from Dushanbe to Kabul in a day – was ‘infiltrating’ the country grew.

There’s still a bunch to explore in the paper: the ways in which the idea of the Soviet Union (unexpectedly for me, less so the way it treated its Central Asian nationalities and more the way it represented industrial modernity) influenced different actors in the Afghan Left in the 1960s and 1970s; the ways in which those Soviet-influenced parties on the Left debated the role an industrialized, wealthier, but Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated north should play in a state that they assumed would be dominated by Pashtuns should play; and, of course, the pickle that Soviet political advisors found themselves in after 1978 (and especially 1979), when they were dispatched to Baghlan, Pul-i Khumri, Mazar-i Sharif, Samangan, and other locales, to help the PDPA, the Afghan Communist Party, build up its membership and influence in the region – all with a civil war taking place in the background.

Less Turkestan, more Europe: looking forward to Garavini’s talk in Trento.


Still, it’s to help resolve methodological approaches and quandaries like the one I describe here that I like to attend conferences like this one in Trento. (The relative pleasantness of Italian to Russian weather, not to mention cuisine, play, I can assure readers, no role whatsoever.) Looking over some of the other papers that will be presented, there’s a wide arrangement of interesting topics on offer: the obvious American comparison of American development in South Vietnam in the 1960s; an interesting on Japan’s reaction to USA-China outreach in the early 1970s and Tokyo’s evolving relationship with Vietnam, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian nations in the mid-1970s; and a book talk by Giuliano Garavini on his After Empires, which covers the effect that decolonization had on the formation of the EEC and its transformation into the EU. It promises to be a great week in Italy, then – but one followed by even more excitement as I head back to the United States to begin a course in intensive Uzbek at the Critical Languages Institute, of which more in a future post. For now, however, it’s goodbye to Moscow, where, even after some two years of off-and-on work in the archives, I feel like I have only scratched the surface.


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