I often write academic pieces and reviews, access to which can be found through the following journals:
“‘Doomed to Good Relations’: The USSR, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Anti-Imperialism in the 1980s,” The Journal of Cold War Studies (forthcoming Winter 2021)
This article sheds new light on the end of the Cold War and the fate of anti-imperialism in the twentieth century by exploring how the Soviet Union and the Islamic Republic of Iran reached a rapprochement with one another during the late 1980s. Both the USSR and Iran had invested significant resources into presenting themselves the leaders of the anti-imperialist movement and “the global movement of Islam”, and both Moscow and Tehran sought to export their models of anti-imperialist post-colonial statehood to Afghanistan. However, by the mid-1980s both the Soviet Union and revolutionary Iran were forced to confront the limits to their anti-imperialist projects in the wake of 1970s globalization. Elites in both countries responded to these challenges by walking back their commitments from the world revolution and agreeing to maintain the Najibullah regime in Afghanistan as a bulwark against Islamist forces hostile to Marxism-Leninism and Iran’s brand of Islamic revolution. This joint pragmatic turn, however, contributed to a drought in anti-imperialist politics throughout the Middle East, leaving the more radical voices of transnational actors as one of the only consistent champions of anti-imperialism. Drawing on new sources from the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, as well as sources from Iran, Afghanistan, and the ‘Afghan Arabs’, this piece thus makes a novel empirical and analytical contribution to discussions of the fate of anti-imperialism in the twilight of the Cold War.
During the twentieth century, the socialist bloc became a second home for socialists from Iran and Afghanistan. Iranian socialists almost certainly constituted the largest foreign diaspora in the USSR at the time of its dissolution, and Soviet entanglements in Afghanistan led to a large flow of Afghan soldiers, students, and socialists to the Soviet Union in the latter half of the twentieth century. The USSR also sponsored Persian socialist internationalism domestically in the form of the Tajik SSR. This paper uses sources from all three sides of the “Persianate triangle” (Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan) to highlight how encounters between socialist groups often highlighted differences between these groups’ understanding of socialism despite a shared Persian language. More broadly, it points to the importance of “subnational actors” in the making of Soviet foreign policy. Case studies of a Tajik translator in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan as well as Iranian socialist exiles in Kabul also show how the memory of socialist internationalism has been processed and narrated very differently within the Iranian diaspora and Tajikistan today. In conclusion, the article shows how the networks forged by Soviet internationalism have often been reworked in the wake of the collapse of the USSR and offers reflections on how scholars can engage further in the study of “subnational internationalism.”
This article examines the ways in which transnational Islamist organizations backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran engaged with ideas of liberal internationalism in the 1980s. Challenging the idea of Islamist organizations as irreconcilably opposed to organizations like the United Nations or nation-state centric international organizations, the article shows how periodicals published by and for Iraqis and Afghans were often quite ambiguous as to whether they endorsed pan-Islamism or forms of international order based around sovereign nation-states. The article explores this ambiguity through such groups’ relationship toward ideas of pan-Islamism; international institutions like the Non-Aligned Movement and the Bretton Woods institutions; and the United Nations itself. Ultimately, the article shows how Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and others demanded that transnational Islamist groups be taken seriously as subjects of international diplomacy and that the UN live up to liberal values of self-determination.
Der Beitrag untersucht die Geschichte ländlicher Entwicklungspolitik anhand der Landreformen in Afghanistan während des Kalten Krieges. Während des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts lebte die überwiegende Mehrheit der afghanischen Bevölkerung von der Landwirtschaft. Grundbesitz war jedoch höchst ungleich verteilt. Der Kalte Krieg verwandelte Afghanistan in ein Schlachtfeld westlicher und sowjetischer Visionen ländlicher Entwicklungsprojekte etwa im Bereich der Bewässerung oder der Einrichtung von Staatsgütern. Afghanische sozialistische Intellektuelle forderten eine umfassende Landreform, um die Probleme der ländlichen Bevölkerung zu lindern. Nach einem sozialistischen coup d’état im Jahre 978 versuchten sie, ihren radikalen Plan einer Umverteilung von Land auch gegen die moderateren Vorschläge der sowjetischen Be- rater durchzusetzen. Die Geschichte ländlicher Entwicklungspolitik im Afghanistan des Kalten Krieges führt sozialistische Entwürfe in die globale Geschichte der Entwicklungspolitik ein. Sie zeigt, dass für viele Akteure die Umverteilung von Land ein zentraler Aspekt der Entwicklungspolitik war. Und sie verweist darauf, dass sich die Sowjetunion ungeachtet ihrer Erfahrungen mit kollektiver Landwirtschaft sehr reaktiv zu den Forderungen radikaler Akteure des globalen Südens verhielt, um Lösungen für ländliche Armut und soziale Gerechtigkeit zu finden.
This article examines the history of Soviet-Afghan encounters in northern Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Drawing on archival materials from the former Soviet Union as well as recently published memoir collections by Soviet border guards, it shows how during the 1980s, northern Afghanistan was subjected to a unique regime of degraded sovereignty. While all regions of Afghanistan were subject to military occupation by the Soviet Army, in northern Afghanistan, 62,000 Soviet Border Troops occupied the northern reaches. Their goal was not only to secure the Soviet-Afghan border, but also to eliminate mujāhidīn forces in Badakhshan, encourage peaceful and commercial cross- border interactions between Soviet and Afghan Badakhshan, and secure the entire territory inside an “antiseptic” green zone extending 100 to 120 kilometers into northern Afghanistan. As they did so, many elements of the Soviet border regime migrated into Afghanistan itself. Building on earlier work on the making of the Soviet border through areas of security inside the USSR, this piece shows the afterlives of that border as something also capable of being extended outside the USSR itself. In doing so, it not only enhances our understanding of the Soviet-Afghan War but also reveals the Soviet Union and its border forces to be transnational actors in their own right, rather than mere defenders of a statist territorial order.
This paper argues that the consolidation of Stalinist empire in Eastern Europe and the formation of a new regime of “visual citizenship” in the Soviet Union itself, particularly so in Central Asia, were intimately connected with one another. The paper pursues this argument through the institutional lens of Sovinformbiuro (SIB), the largest clearinghouse for Soviet documentary photography to press outlets. Making use of new photographic and archival evidence – photographs from the Sovinformbiuro collection of Harvard University as well as documents from the Sovinformburo fond at GARF – the paper examines how photojournalists and editors at SIB thought about how they could re-position Central Asia in their photographic arsenal as part of their propaganda war against Western photographic agencies and how the concomitant pressures against “formalism” and “cosmopolitanism” influenced debates about Stalin’s visual empire.
The most lasting legacy of the Soviet experience, more so than institutions that persist in the Russian Federation today or the mentalities of citizens of post-Soviet states, was its transformation of Eurasia from a rural continent into an urban one. Particularly after the Great Patriotic War, the landscape of Soviet urban spaces changed as countless rows of low-quality apartment housing sprung up and a uniform socialist urban culture appeared to be forming. However, how and why this urban revolution happened, and what effect it had on the psychological makeup of Soviet citizens, remains lesser known. This paper provides the outlines of such a history with such an approach by analyzing how changes in the Soviet urban fabric from approximately 1932 to 1980s affected social life in Soviet cities and among Soviet families. Basing my argument on close readings of Soviet books on gradostroitel’stvo (urban construction, urban studies) as well as literature, and guided by the insights of the above-listed urbanist thinkers, I argue that changes in urban planning so altered the relationship between citizens, the Party, and History that the Soviet system lost key strengths that had emboldened it during the 1930s and 1940s. In particular, while new Soviet housing projects obviously raised the standard of living of a great portion of the population, in resolving the housing problem, they also dismantled the “stranger’s gaze” – the everyday urban clashes that, enabled by denunciations and an efficient and brutal NKVD – that had dominated Soviet housing until then. Focusing on Magnitogorsk in the 1930s and a variety of new Soviet cities (Navoi, Dneprodzherzhinsk, etc.) to make this point, I argue that the Soviet system, in effect, built itself out of existence by building so much into existence. I also point to the possibility of rich transnational comparisons in this field in the future.
This paper explores how ordinary Muslims in Southwest Asia in the 1980s viewed Soviet-style socialism in the wake of these developments – through a close reading of several reports by Azerbaijani bureaucrats working for the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA), a Union-level bureaucracy. These bureaucrats accompanied traveling exhibitions, variously titled ‘Islam in the USSR’ and ‘The Muslims of the USSR,’ aimed at educating Muslims about the true situation of religion in the Soviet Union. In the Middle East, the Soviet vision for development remained compelling to many visitors. But almost no one could name what the key features of socialism were. Their reacquaintance with ‘The Muslims of the USSR’ suggests a positive, albeit, nuanced relationship to what the USSR had to offer Asia in the last decade of its existence.
This article explores the Soviet mission to emancipate Afghan women during the Soviet war in Afghanistan through a detailed reading of records of a 1982 seminar in Moscow designed as an exchange of ideas and experiences between leading members of the Committee for Soviet Women and the Democratic Organization of Women of Afghanistan. Approaching this episode as a moment in the quest to find new forms of modernity – Communist, Islamic, or Western – in Afghanistan, the article shows how Soviet women’s representatives repeatedly played up the important of the hujum in 1930s Soviet Central Asia as a model program for Afghan and, to some extent, all Third World societies. At the same time, however, the Afghan women at the conference, while avid Communists, articulated their own vision of women’s emancipation for Afghanistan which did not reject the veil, a vision at odds with that articulated by their Soviet ‘teachers.’
This article analyses tendencies in Soviet nationalities policies in the 1930s, using issues of the illustrated journal USSR in Construction devoted to the newly founded Tajik SSR. In it, I highlight the incoherence and contradictions of Soviet nationalities policy at the time through an analysis of the issues’ photographic presentation of the nationalities and languages of Tajikistan. More broadly, the article places Soviet photography of “backwards” locations in a larger international context by comparing USSR in Construction’s depiction of socialist legality, authority, and “others” with the photographic language of contemporary American photographic projects conducted by the American Farm Security Administration. Both photographic projects presented backwardness as a justification to carry out modernization policies. The article thus analyses the similarities and differences between Soviet and American domestic modernization projects through the lens of documentary photography. More broadly, the piece highlights the possibilities for the use of documentary photography as a lens to compare modernizing regimes in the interwar conjuncture.
Chapters in Edited Volumes
“Persian Visions of Nationalism and Internationalism in a World At War,” in Beyond Versailles: Sovereignty, Legitimacy, and the Formation of New Polities After the Great War (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2019)
While not commonly included in accounts of the First World War, Iran formed a battlefield between Ottoman, British, and Russian armies from 1914-1918, while the War helped bring down the Qajar Dynasty, which had ruled Iran for more than a century. This paper follows the engagement of Iranian nationalists primarily associated with the newspaper Kāveh from 1916 to 1921, during which time they engaged with visions of self-determination ranging from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to Woodrow Wilson’s offer of “peace without victory” to Vladimir Lenin’s vision of socialist anti-imperialism. During these years, these Iranian nationalists would guide Iran’s entrance into a post-imperial international order. Drawing on sources in Persian, Russian, and German, this essay argues for the international origins of visions of an independent Iranian state in the world. The self-understanding of Iranian nationalists of Iran’s place in a post-colonial world, it argues, is best understood as but an outgrowth of the “market in ideas” on self-determination that flourished between Berlin and Petrograd during the Great War and its aftermath.
“The Soviet Elphinstone: Colonial Pasts, Post-Colonial Presents, and Socialist Futures in the Soviet Reception of British Orientalism,” in Mountstuart Elphinstone in South Asia: Pioneer of British Colonial Rule, ed. Shah Mahmoud Hanifi (London: Hurst, 2018)
This essay offers a brief history of the reception of the thought of Mountstuart Elphinstone among Soviet scholars of Afghanistan. The connection may not be obvious at first, but Russian-language scholarship on Afghanistan outpaced that in any other language from the early twentieth century onward owing to the special nature of Soviet-Afghan relations following the October Revolution and Afghan independence. Likewise, close Soviet-Afghan relations during the Cold War—culminating in the decade-long occupation of the country by the Soviet Army – framed the context for later Soviet scholarship on the country. The essay demonstrates that “Elphinstonian epistemes” very much had an afterlife in Soviet scholarship on the country, as many an author fell into traps about the identity of the Afghan state in Kabul with Pashtun populations on both sides of the Durand Line. Worse, these readings of Afghanistan intermingled with crude readings about the “revolutionary” nature of Afghan Communists and their opponents. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, careful scholars urged more nuanced concepts to make sense of Afghanistan, but as the piece shows, Elphinstonian tropes very much framed the Soviet romance with (and disaster in) twentieth century Afghanistan.
“Graveyard of Development? Afghanistan’s Cold War Encounters with International Development and Humanitarianism,” in The Development Century: A Global History, eds. Erez Manela and Stephen Macekura (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)
This article examines the history of international development in Afghanistan during the twentieth century, using that country’s checkered experience with Soviet, Western, and NGO-led development schemes as a lens to think about the global history of development. The article explains how Afghanistan, in a kind of reverse replay of its nineteenth century history, became not the “graveyard of empires” but rather a “graveyard of development” as the Soviet Union and the United States sought to transform this economically marginal, territorially indeterminate country into a self-sufficient territorial state. it also examines why Afghanistan–formerly marginal to world politics–became a powerful site of ideological projection for transnational humanitarian and Islamist groups in the 1980s. Ultimately, the piece argues that the global history of development adopt a wider range of actors (particularly from the socialist world and the realm of non-state actors) than its current focus on Western, often American, actors. It also pleads for greater attention to the 1970s and 1980s as something more than just a denouement to the age of “high developmentalism,” namely as a high point for socialist development schemes and the genesis for modern transnational NGO-led development projects.
- Review of Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan, ed. Aaron B. O’Connell, Orbis 62:4 (Fall 2018)
- “The Postcolonial Cold War,” Foreign Affairs (Review of Gregg Brazinsky, Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War) (October 10, 2017)
- Review of Sergey Radchenko, Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War, The English Historical Review (December 2016)
- “Why Pakhtun Lands Have Been So Volatile for Two Centuries,” The Herald (Review of Elisabeth Leake, The Defiant Border and Martin Bayly, Taming the Imperial Imagination) (September 29, 2016)
- Review of Humanity: An International Journal of Humanitarianism, Development, and Human Rights 6:1 Special Issue on the New International Economic Order, H-Diplo Article Roundtable (July 2016).
- Review of Timothy D. Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Yale Alumni Magazine (January/February 2016).
- Review of S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Central Asian Survey 33:4 (October 2014): 577-578.
- Review of Ferghana Valley: The Heart of Central Asia, ed. S. Frederick Starr, Europe-Asia Studies 65:6 (2013): 1231-1232.
- Review Essay of Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea, Humanity (October-November 2012)
- Introduction (October 2012)
- “From the Concert of Europe to the UN” (October 2012)
- “The UN and the Third World Project” (October 2012)
- “Human Rights and Democracy Promotion” (October 2012)
- “Mazower Contra Slaughter” (October 2012)
- Conclusion (November 2012)
- Response by Mark Mazower (December 5, 2012)
- Review of Michael Latham, The Right Kind of Revolution: Modernization, Development, and U.S. Foreign Policy from the Cold War to the Present, history.transnational (October 2012).
- Review of The Global 1989, eds. Chris Armbruster, Michael Cox, and George Lawson, Europe-Asia Studies (January 2012): 1155-56.
- Review of Paul Stronski, Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City, Slovo 23:1 (Autumn 2010).
- Review of Christopher Ward, Brezhnev’s Folly, Acta Slavica Iaponica, 2011
- Review of Rebecca Manley, To The Tashkent Station, Ab Imperio, November 2010
- Review of City Culture and Planning in Tbilisi: Where Europe and Asia Meet, eds. Kristof van Assche, Joseph Salukvadze, and Nick Shavishvili, Europe-Asia Studies, November 2010
Contributions to Policy Volumes
- “Deutschlands Verantwortung zwischen Russland und dem Iran,” Deutschland und die Welt 2030 (Berlin: Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik, 2018), 168-169.
Along the way, I’ve written a number of other pieces, not all of which are fit for publication in scholarly journals – dissertations submitted for academic requirements, seminar papers, and so on. My book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan, drew from my Oxford D.Phil. dissertation, but expanded on it considerably with new Soviet archival material, interviews, and the incorporation of materials from the archives of non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. (The D.Phil. dissertation itself built on my M.Phil. thesis, also included below.) If you find the dissertation compelling, please consider purchasing the book or requesting your local public or university library to do so.
In the last decade, scholars have recognized economic development and modernization as crucial themes in the history of the twentieth century and the ‘global Cold War.’ Yet while historians have written lucid histories of the role of the social sciences in American foreign policy in the Third World, far less is known on the Soviet Union’s ideological and material support during the same period for countries like Egypt, India, Ethiopia, Angola, or – most prominently – Afghanistan.
This dissertation argues that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is best understood as the final and most costly of a series developmental interventions staged in that country during the latter half of the twentieth century by Afghans, Soviets, Americans, Germans and others. Cold War-era Afghanistan is best understood as a laboratory for ideas about the nation-state and the idea of a ‘national economy.’ One can best understand Afghanistan during that period less through a common but ahistorical ‘graveyard of empires’ narrative, and more in terms of the history of the social sciences, the state system in South and Central Asia, and the ideological changes in ideas about the state and the economy in 20th century economic thought.
Four chapters explore this theme, looking at the history of the Soviet social sciences, developmental interventions in Afghanistan prior to 1978, a case study of Soviet advisors in eastern Afghanistan, and Soviet interventions to protect Afghan women. Making use of new materials from Soviet, German, and American archives, and dozens of interviews with former Soviet advisors, this dissertation makes a new and meaningful contribution to the historical literature on the Soviet Union, Central Asia, and international history.