Phew! It’s been a hectic last several few days here, so before I knew it, I was getting far behind on my posting. Since – if things are still the same as when I was there last – WordPress remains blocked in Uzbekistan, I thought I might take the opportunity that a relatively homework-free night accords to write up a few thoughts on how the last few weeks have been going, and what the near-term future portends.
The most important things first: in spite of hearing many gruesome stories about how slow the bureaucracy at Oxford could work even under the best of circumstances, let alone during the Long Vacation (their version of summer vacation), I feared that even with a viva date of mid-June, I still might not have the Board of the Faculty of History formally confirm that I had passed the examination until well until next year’s fall term – around October or so. Being officially crowned ‘Doctor’ is always nice, of course, but more important was the bearing formally getting the degree would have on my position – and income – at Harvard this coming year. Still, even after many horror stories about the journey from viva to D.Phil., I was pleased to receive earlier last week news that the Board had, somehow, foolishly, confirmed that I had indeed passed the viva, and that they ‘had no objections to my applying for leave to supplicate.’ Translated out of Oxford-speak, that means that I could submit the necessary documents to graduate. While I’m relying on an Oxford-based friend or two to handle some of that for me, if everything goes according to plan, I should officially graduate from Oxford on Saturday, July 27th.
I’ll be doing so in absentia, however. As readers will have noted, I have spent much of this summer in glamorous Tempe, Arizona, at the Critical Languages Institute at Arizona State University: nerd camp, more or less, for polyglots. Here, for the last six and a half weeks, three other brave students and I have been traversing the crags and ridges of Intermediate Uzbek; after learning virtually all of the outlines of the formal grammar, including our penultimate lesson today on past subjunctive (‘If it hadn’t been for that horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.’), we’re ready for our final exam on Thursday. It’s been a wonderful experience: even though Uzbek / Turkic syntax differs quite a bit from that of English, I’ve been enjoying myself putting together sentences with super-long agglutinative words (words whose meaning comes from a series of suffixes rather than prepositions or adjectives that appear as separate words) like: Agar men Buxoro shaharida tug’ilganimda, Buxoro amirligidanligimdan xursand bo’lar edim. (If I had been born in Bukhara, I would have reveled in the fact I was from the Emirate of Bukhara.) At a time when the value of a liberal arts education is under more attack than ever … – er, well, we’re having a lot of fun. More importantly, and seriously, learning a language – particularly one as little-studied as Uzbek – offers the best insight into the history and culture of a country which sits at the heart of Central Asia, has a population of 30 million, and whose history remains in large part poorly understood.
Indeed, during our upcoming month-long trip to Samarkand (the former capital of Uzbekistan for a time in the 1920s and home to some of the most spectacular architecture in the world), beyond working on the unreal past tense and haggling for pomegranates in the city’s bazaars, I hope to be devoting some time both to writing and refining some of my existing historical work as well as thinking more about new projects. As far as the old is concerned, there’s still a ton of stuff that needs to be changed to the chapters of Developing Powers – still lots to be written about southern Afghanistan in the 1970s from my conversations with Dick Scott and reading the documents on his site, as well as figuring out how to integrate the later Soviet attempt to transform the south with the hydrology- and ethnicity-centered story of the 1970s. Part of what makes the Afghanistan I write about in the project interesting is the way it becomes a grid for different modernization projects to be layered on top of one another: American, Soviet, German, Afghan Pakistani … and yet precisely what I hope will make reading this story compelling is what makes writing it damned difficult. Even having visited the archives, one struggles for the right balance between story lines; between making ‘cuts’ between different stories and lines of argument at the right time; between engaging with the historiography explicitly and seeking to preserve a creative non-fiction voice, too. It’s fun – otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it – but sometimes it seems like a long slough. Fortunately, with an upcoming conference in Germany in mid-September with a crop of exciting other historians, I should have the chance to test-drive a new version of what I hope the final chapter on the south will look like.
At the same time, as anxious a person as I am, I have to reserve enough time to agonize over future directions, too. A part of me remains interested in using the opportunity that my time at the Harvard Academy will afford to begin to develop an old project idea that, in reading the works of scholars like Michael Kemper or Stephen Kotkin, comes up again and again: the rise and fall of modernization projects around what Russians called the Srednyi Vostok – Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan – and a Soviet Middle East (roughly, Azerbaijan, Tatarstan, and much of contemporary Uzbekistan) from around the 1910s to some semi-arbitrary end point: 1945 or 1953 might suggest themselves. Coming from a background in German and Russian history, and having stumbled into the Turko-Persian World somewhat by accident, I find myself struck by the extent to which these two seemingly disparate worlds were linked together in the 1920s and 1930s in particular via the economic engagement of Germany (and the idea of modernity it represented) and the economic renaissance of the former Russian Empire, in the form of the Soviet Union. One naturally wonders about whether ideas floated between Istanbul, Kazan’, Baku, and Samarkand – and Berlin and Moscow – as easily as Persian rugs. One wonders, too, about how history in this part of the world might have been different had it not been for Stalinism or the Nazi invasion. Such a hypothetical project would be fun, because ambitious, could involve travel to lots of cool places, and might promise to elucidate a lot of issues seen as separate (World War II, the Turko-Persian modernization failure everywhere except Turkey, the murder of the Soviet intelligentsia in the periphery in the 1930s, the history of the idea of pan-Turkism …) precisely by bringing them together.
At the same time, however, another part of me, just as excited as the first, feels pulled towards continuing to work on more modern topics, ones more squarely within the domain of Soviet history. Digging around recently – and thinking back to a trip about a year ago to Nukus, Uzbekistan, home base to many Soviet archaeological digs in the 1950s – in the websites of various Russian academic institutions, I’ve become interested in the history of postwar Soviet archaeology and field ethnography. The Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR devoted massive resources in the postwar period to sending out field expeditions to various parts of the USSR – Central Asia, Dagestan, western Russia, Azerbaijan – to conduct large, multi-year ethnographical expeditions to dig stuff out of the ground, interview locals on their ‘traditional’ customs, and in some cases try to create larger-scale quantitative profiles of the ‘ethnicities’ (itself a term of recent invention) within those regions: how Russians in, say, Smolensk, differed ethnically from those in Tver’ or Kharkiv. That’s just the raw source material, somewhat limited information about which is available online. But a number of different possible projects and ideas suggest themselves: the connection between how identities were ‘managed’ or ‘created’ in institutions like publishing houses, holidays, national food (the ubiquitous ‘Uzbek food’ in Moscow or ‘national dishes’ in Uzbekistan …), and ethnographic scholarship; the connection between these scholarly investigations of ethnic histories and the postwar project of building a ‘Soviet nation’; and, particularly in the case of the Russian Ethnographic Expedition (the big project on Russian ethnic history mentioned above) the connection between conducting historical ethnographies of Russians in places like Ukraine, Belarus, and the western RSFSR and the fact that these were some of the areas where what was becoming known as the Holocaust had in substantial part taken place.
Both directions have benefits and disadvantages: one a more sweeping and hence necessarily superficial, but also (probably) more multilingual project; the other international in a different way (Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Dagestan, Russia …) and perhaps able to go deeper because of a more constrained focus. There’s lots to think about besides the past unreal tense in Uzbek as I look forward to another journey this weekend.