Breathless Cambridge: Thoughts From Week One of Life As a Post-Doc

Ah, for it to be autumn on an American college campus once again. After five years abroad in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the former Soviet Union, I had nearly forgotten the buzz that hovers over many a college town this time of year. During my first week in Cambridge, things were still quiet. But not long after my mother (here helping me with packing) left for Los Angeles, the freshmen in the Harvard Class of 2017 (thereby making me feel ancient) descended onto campus. The last few days have been packed with the rituals that marks the opening to undergraduate life as a major research university: Lamont Library (the main undergraduate library, but which also has access to Harvard’s fantastic Pusey Library for maps) gets covered with green balloons, free sandwich spreads, and über-enthusiastic middle-aged librarians guiding the younglings around the stacks where many of them will spend the next four years staying up late, writing term papers. As I walked back from a routine shopping errand this afternoon at Harvard Square, strolling through Harvard Yard, I peep through to Tercentenary Theatre to see a huge gathering of freshmen throwing water balloons at one another and screaming. Whether it quite matches up to the Oxford tradition of throwing eggs, flour, and glitter on students who have just final examinations remains open to question, but it’s good to be back in such a … collegiate place after a half-decade away as a graduate student at institutions that either deliberately shunned the undergrad-intensive model (Germany, Russia), or where undergraduates remained mostly dispersed and cloistered away from us slightly-creepy graduate students in their JCRs.

In any event, I’ve gotten off to a solid start this week to understanding the lay of the land at Harvard. After a series of mostly-helpful orientations at the Weatherhead Center (the mothership organization that houses the Harvard Academy) and a pleasant lunch with the other Academy Scholars – one of the biggest classes in history due to the pattern in which certain people deferred the award and/or the Selection Committee chose people – it was time to get down to the familiar business of writing and editing. First off came two pieces which I had been working on all summer. The first, a piece entitled “Durrani Commonwealth? The Life and Times of Soviet Afghan Studies,” is an intellectual history of Afghan Studies in the Soviet Union. Even people who are familiar with the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979–1989 are often surprised – partly because the United States generally does a terrible job at fostering the academic institutions to maintain a steady knowledge of Afghanistan or Pakistan – that the USSR had a vibrant area studies community, especially for the study of Afghanistan. But think for a moment, and it’s actually not so odd. The USSR was the first country in the world to establish diplomatic relations with Kabul. Many of the men (for they were men) who served as diplomats in Kabul in the 1920s, like Igor’ Reisner or Konstantin Lebedev, went on to become leaders for the study of Dari, Pashto, and Afghanistan back in Moscow, particularly after the Soviet Union ramped up aid to its southern neighbor in 1954-1955. The piece, which is going out to an edited collection on the history of Russian and Soviet Iranistica (the study of the Persianate world) traces the history of the discipline in the USSR, with a focus on the intellectual rivalry of sorts that existed between Yuri Gankovskii, one of the deans of the study of South and Central Asia in the Soviet Union, and Vladimir Basov, a scholar of Pashtunistan who went on to become the intellectual godfather of the idea of “national reconciliation” in the Republic of Afghanistan, in spite of never occupying a formal position in mainstream Soviet Afghan Studies. The second piece, which is more rough, and still in progress, focuses on the history of Soviet documentary photography in Central Asia in the post-war years. I’m still not 100% certain of where it’s going, but I had better be in three weeks’ time – that’s the deadline to submit it to the English–Russian translators for the Moscow-based conference where I’ll be presenting it in about a month’s time!

Beyond that, after spending much of the summer so occupied by Uzbek and Persian courses, it’s nice to return to working on what I can now semi-realistically call the book manuscript for Developing Powers. There’s a ton of writing going on from early in the morning to late at night in the Harvard Academy offices: in particular, I’ve been filling in lots of the sections on American development in the Shamalan Plain (a part of the Helmand Valley where Afghans and Americans dreamed of bulldozing a floodplain flat and distributing land in a “rational” way to farmers) as well as a section on Polish road-builders in northern Afghanistan. Perhaps more exciting, however, has been how discoveries in the aforementioned Pusey Map Library has stimulated my thinking on how some of the later chapters on the 1980s should look. Not only does Pusey contain wonderful maps from SCETIRAN (a zany Iranian mega-development project that plays a role in a bridge chapter on development thinking and “future shock” in the Persianate World in the 1970s), but there I’ve also discovered super-detailed maps and tables produced by the UNHCR on the home locations of Afghan refugees trapped in the camps in Pakistan in the early 1990s. Not only will these maps help me paint a more precise picture of how, precisely, the invasion depopulated Afghanistan. More than that, they’ve reminded me of the important role that Western aid agencies played in both Pakistan but also re-conquered Afghan territory as the mujahideen controlled more territory in eastern Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. One of the interpretive challenges I increasingly dwell upon while doing my flips in the pool, and while walking home on these humid New England nights, is how one might make use of the Western documentation that exists in conjunction with the Soviet development material to pain a picture of how Soviet officials (Komsomol and Central Committee advisors) were trying to organize Afghan territory into a totalitarian one-party model at the same time that Western agencies like Doctors Without Borders, the Swedish Afghanistan Committee, and, later UNOCA (the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian and Economic Assistance Programmes Relating to Afghanistan). Successfully integrating materials from these Western agencies which sought to conduct humanitarian operations in re-conquered Afghan territory with the stuff from Moscow is damn hard, conceptually – but then again, I have to tell myself, maybe that’s why the Committee thought this project was a good idea. My head spins – but my imagination also soars – as I think what treasures might be found in the archives in Geneva (UNHCR), Stockholm (Swedish aid organizations), or Rome (the Food and Agriculture Organization) in the future.

There’s much going on, but it’s all intellectually fulfilling and rewarding. There’s still much to be written, and I know that I’ll be re-writing much of what I put down now, but leaving the office on days – and after weeks – like these, I’m quite enjoying my new life in Cambridge.

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