AAASS ’07

by Nathan Hamm on 11/26/2007 · 1 comment

Here is a guest post on the AAASS conference from friend of Registan.net David Reeves.

Another year, another AAASS conference. Not as much drunken debauchery as last, year, which was surprising since this year’s conference was held in New Orleans. People tended to go to bed earlier than before, perhaps they had learned their lesson. Still doesn’t mean there was no ‘informal caucusing” as we used to call it back in the Model UN days, the row of dives across the street from the hotel serving cheap drinks and smoky atmospheres 24 hours a day.

However, believe it or not, the conference isn’t just one big social scene, there is actual work being done. This area studies society covers any country in the former European communist block (save East Germany). This includes Central Asia and the Caucasus, which were the panels where I hung out, mostly. However, I’m a historian, and I didn’t attend anything that went past 1991. Nevertheless, I thought the readers of this blog might be interested in some of what was presented at the conference. I will not talk about all the panels I went to, for the sake of brevity and to cover up those I slept through.

One of the most interesting papers I saw presented was by Matthew C. Jamison of Oxford. In his paper, “Weakness, ‘Disobedience’, and Russian Expansion into Central Asia, 1864-1865” he challenges the accepted explanation behind Russian aims in the region. The previous narrative states that the Russian generals in the region, in particular Chernayev, acted on their own without St. Petersburg’s consent, indeed often against the government’s wishes. Chernayev is the prime example, but von Kaufmann, Skobelev and others fit into this paradigm as well. Their ultimate goal was personal glory, as winners of great battles and imperial masters. Jamison calls this interpretation into question, stating that Chernayev did not work on his own volition. He followed orders from St. Pete and didn’t go any farther. I would think this further calls into question the idea of a “hard” and “soft” policy regarding military action in Central Asia, with a party led by foreign minister Gorchakov calling for restraint against the military. In public pronouncements to Europe, he complained of the actions of his generals, saying they were out of control, thus hoping to calm Great Game fears. But if St. Pete was directing the conquest, either Gorchakov was kept in the dark or new all along what was happening. Any ‘soft’ policy was a smokescreen.

Another paper I popped in to see that was particular interest to me was by Andrey Alexander Shlyahkter from Chicago, “The Kremlin’s Carrot: The Politics of Investment into the Soviet Union’s Border districts, 1920s-1930s”. While he is looking at the European borders, many of his findings relate to the southern border regions as well, especially the Caucasus. He finds that fear of the British compelled Soviet’s to pay “special attention” to the border regions. In my own research concerning Azerbaijan during the same period bears this out, though I am somewhat surprised there was also this fear along the European border. The experiences of the Civil War did not fade away. Andrey shows that increased economic development was seen as a means to strengthen their border regions. Because of the recent wars, these areas were especially economically underdeveloped, and his ideas corresponds in my thinking to Terry Martin’s “Piedmont Principle”, that the border regions were to be areas where the accomplishments of the Soviet regime would be on full display, in order to entice Azeris, Ukrainians, etc., on the other side of the border to join the revolution. The contraband trade was a consequence of this underdevelopment. The unregulated trade and smuggling was directly linked to the lack of consumer goods, and hence authorities were given another reason to develop the border regions. I talked to Andrey last year at Bilingua in Moscow, he was on his way out, I was on my way in, and he told me about his research. Since then I have paid attention to smuggling along the Azeri-Persian border. I look forward to seeing more from Andrey, and he will be duly footnoted.

The main panel on Soviet Central Asian history consisted of Douglas Northrop of Michigan, Jeff Sahadeo of Carleton U. in Canada, and Adrienne Edgar of UC Santa Barbara (and my advisor). All three have had their first book published, and with this panel they introduced their next projects. Northrop is looking at earthquakes in Tashkent, and his presentation focused on the reconstruction efforts following an earthquake. (Sorry, can’t remember the year; 1950s?) The reconstruction of Tashkent was a showcase of the brotherhood of Soviet nations, as all people came together in the time of tragedy. Sahadeo’s new work is based more on oral histories and interviews than archival research, as he looks at Central Asian migration within the Union following WWII. One interesting theme he is looking at is how Russians view each nationality, instead of them as a whole. How are images of Armenians different than Georgians? Uzbeks and Kazakhs? Edgar is now looking at inter-ethnic relationships and marriage in Central Asia. Something that she mentioned that really caught my ear was one Soviet campaign which promoted inter-ethnic marriage. This campaign in Central Asia extolled the ‘modernity of Russian women’, a model of the perfect mate. This campaign did not push for the marriage of local women to Russian men, something that surely would have caused uproar. Anybody who had been to Central Asia knows that women are virtually forbidden from being involved with non-nationals. This campaign seems to tacitly acknowledge this reality. All these paper were very interesting, and I look forward to seeing how they progress. But the one criticism I told them, and one I am increasingly frustrated with as a scholar of the Caucasus, is how these Central Asianists always leave out the Caucasus. Sahadeo is exempt from this criticism now, but not Northrop or Edgar. Sure, Northrop is looking at a specific earthquake or two in Tashkent, but there is no region in the former USSR with more tectonic activity than the Caucasus. As far as Edgar is concerned, I find ignoring the Caucasus is especially unfortunate, as the ethnic complexity of the region would provide some very interesting examples for discussion. Oh well. I’ll just mention that to her every once in a while.

Another panel that may be of interest to Registan readers was one concerning Islam in Kirgizia, Azerbaijan, and Bosnia. The Azerbaijan paper was mine, and looked at Soviet attempts to stamp out religious processions in the 1920s. I argue that this campaign was consistent, indeed strengthened, throughout the 1920s. Ali Iğmen from Long Beach State presented on religious policy among the Kyrgyz in the 20s and 30s, early Bolshevik attempts at converting Kyrgyz to Soviet culture were uneven as the social and economic climate did not allow for a steady cultural policy. Russian administrators did not understand the culture they were dealing with, and often interpreted and changed central policies to local circumstances. Because of their unfamiliarity, they relied on the views of previous imperial administrators. While outside of our region, Emily Balic’s paper on Nazi/Muslim collaboration and resistance in Bosnia I found really interesting. Local Muslim leaders at first believed the Nazis would give them greater autonomy and would help them in the fight against Chetniks and Ustashe. When these expectations were not met, most broke with the Nazis and fought against them. This temporary alliance in Bosnia is used by many polemicists as an early example of ‘Islamo-Fascism”, and the intrinsic commonalities between the two. Balic shows this to be hogwash, as local Bosnian Muslims were simply playing the odds at any given moment in a bloody war. Local conditions played a far greater role than any common ideology.

The theme of the conference itself was “The Persistence of Empire”, something that is of great interest to me, as the concept of empire, and its relevance to the Soviet Union, is a theme of my dissertation. There was a panel with Terry Martin of Harvard, Ron Suny of Michigan and others, as well as a well as a talk by Mark Beissinger of Princeton. Martin refuted the idea many have that he believes the Soviet Union was an empire, regardless of the title of his book, “Affirmative Action Empire”. Instead, he believes the Soviet Union was a “non-nationalist state”. Suny provided his definition of empire. Empire is a means that the metropole dominates the periphery; empire is rule and legitimation where the right to rule is comes from conquest and the civilizing mission. As the ultimate goal of the imperial civilizing mission, theoretically, the success of empire leads to no need of empire. This is what happened in the Soviet Union, the peripheries were modernized, until they were ready for independence. This all sounds good to me.

I realize now how long I have been writing, reaching 1500 words. For this reason I will skip Beissinger’s talk, as it could easily turn into the intro to my dissertation. Wrapping up, I just want to say to my fellow Central Asia and Caucasus scholars not to limit yourselves to the CESS or MESA conference, but to join us next year in Philadelphia. I’ll buy you a drink.


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– author of 2992 posts on Registan.net.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 1 comment }

Alexander November 27, 2007 at 4:55 am

I was there too, attended most of the same panels: I rather enjoyed it on the whole, and not just because it was in New Orleans (in any case the interior decor of the New Orleans Marriott is the stuff of nightmares, and that’s where we spent most of our time…). I sympathise with what David has to say about leaving out the Caucasus out, and as a 19th-century historian I’ve found that you can’t understand Russian military and colonial policies in Central Asia without tracing them back to their Caucasian origins. That said, when it comes more complex questions of ethnic diversity, interaction and politics I have some sympathy for those who restrict themselves to Central Asia: there is probably no more daunting area in the world than the Caucasus for this sort of stuff. I’d certainly be inclined to cut Adrienne Edgar some slack on this point as I thought her book was superb. I have rather more reservations about Northrop’s work (he doesn’t seem to appreciate the extent to which Uzbek party cadres participated enthusiastically in the Hujum), and Robert Crews’s much-lauded ‘For Prophet and Tsar’ is wholly undermined by his failure to look at Tsarist Russia’s relationship with Islam in the Caucasus, which entirely contradicts his thesis about the ‘Confessional State’ (if it comes to that Central Asia does as well, although he made a valiant attempt to prove otherwise). It was good to put faces to names at the AAASS as the puny world of Slavic/Eurasian studies in Britain doesn’t have all that much contact with the American behemoth, and I hadn’t met most of the people there before.

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