Monday, November 12, 2012

A Vestige of Soviet Historiography

(This is a restating and paraphrasing of some theoretical work by the scholars Anatolii Khazanov and N.N. Kradin)

Feudalism is a term with such a varied and proliferated usage that it becomes almost meaningless out of context. In that way, it is not unlike the terms fascist, socialist, their derivatives. Modern historians of the Enlightenment and following centuries, largely in the 18th and 19th centuries categorized, explained, and rejected the feudal system of lords and vassals in Medieval Europe. In other words, from its very beginning, the term feudal was primarily used negatively against a precursor 'other' system.

In the Soviet Union, the Marxist definition of history was an understood required model for anyone hoping to publish. In this regard, the impossible problem was presented: how to make non-Western histories somehow adhere to a Marxist model. This model was teleological, meaning that it adhered to a belief in absolute progress and backwardness. The term teleological derives from the term telos, one of the four Aristotelian 'Causes' of change. Telos is the fourth and what Aristotle called the "Final Cause," meaning the purpose, aim, or drive of a thing. Thus, a telos in history is the belief that there is an aim or purpose, that all of time is working to produce a specific outcome. In the case of Marx, that outcome was World Communism, a Utopian environment without property, money, want, crime, or the other social ills caused by inequality. Marx believed at the dawn of World Communism, mankind's history would start anew.

How do we approach Communism? Another hallmark of teleology in history is the belief in linear development. This is likely because a belief in a final cause inspires a belief in steps or levels of progress towards that final cause. Marx identified several such levels, which are the so-called Stages of History. They are, in order,

  1. Primitive Communism, which ends with the development of private property
  2. Slave Society, which ends via exhaustion of resources
  3. Feudalism, which ends with the emergence of a significantly powerful merchant class
  4. Capitalism, which ends when the wage labor working class rises against the ruling class
  5. Socialism, or the "first stage of Communism"
  6. Communism, or the "higher stage of Communism"
I should explain first that it is possible for a person to be a "Marxist" historian without believing in this rigid set of stages or in the tenets of teleology.

In any event, when it came time to write histories of Kazakhstan and the Kazakhs, the impossible problem of fitting 3000+ years of written history in the steppes in this model was surmounted by locking the peoples of the East in a cyclical loop, starting in Stage One and ending in Stage Three before repeating once again.

The problem with this system is that at various times the nomad societies showed characteristics from several of these systems. That is not special in itself, as a univeral system of history is defined more by its exceptions and inaccuracies than anything else. In the case of the various nomad societies of Eurasia, they showed characteristics of various Marxist Stages of History while remaining quite ambiguous on other aspects, due to a lack of historical source material available to historians in twentieth century Kazakhstan.

Both the answer and its primary refutation to this impossible problem came, perhaps ironically, from the Mongols of the Mongol Empire. Thanks to the posthumously published work of Russian Orientalist Vladimirtsov (B. Vladimirtsov, Obshchestvennyi stroi mongolov. Mongol’skii kochevoi feodalizm. [Social Structure of the Mongols. Mongolian Nomadic Feudalism]. Leningrad, USSR Academy of Science Publishing, 1934), Soviet-trained historians managed to produce a thesis of nomad feudalism. This despite the fact that Vladimirtsov used the term outside the context of Marxism and the Stages of History. Rather, Vladimirtsov used the term to describe Mongolian systems of law and the charismatic transfer of power among the Khans. In 1934, the works of Tolstov (S. F. Tolstov, Genezis feodalizma v kochevykh skotovodcheskikh obshchestvakh. [The genesis of feudalism in nomadic livestock-herding societies) in Osnovnye problemy genezisa i razvitia feodalnovo obshchestva (Basic Problems of the Genesis and Development of Feudal Society), ed. by S. N. Bykovskii et al, OGIZ, 1934.) appeared to display both the rhetoric of Vladimirtsov and Marx, explaining that pastoral nomadism was, in fact, feudalism similar to that found in agrarian, backward Medieval Europe.

This quickly became the standard categorization and explanation of nomadism with regard to Western forms of economic and social history. Appearing in the first major non-Russian history in the Soviet Union (Pankratova et. al, Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR, 1943, and its similarly ill-fated second edition in 1949), the terminology of Feudalism (lords, vassals, etc.) became standard in the history of the Kazakhs and other nomadic societies. And it remains to this day in at least some work published in the CIS and in collaboration with scholars from the CIS.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Kazakh History in the 1940s

I recently requested Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR s drevneishikh vremen do nashikh dnei [History of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic from ancient times to our days] from ILL [Inter-library-loan]. I'm writing up this blog post in between scanning the work to PDF.

Regarding the scanning of books to PDF, I am trying to put most of the important reference works in this format for easier travel and use while away from my office. I do wonder what format will come next, however, and whether using my time in this way is actually an efficient use of my time. That being said, I'm at a loss to imagine what a next-generation PDF file would offer, but I suppose that lack of imagination will not be standing in the way of whomever ends up inventing the new format.

This particular book that I am scanning is quite special and potentially very useful for my work in the history of Kazakhstan. It is the second such general history published in the Soviet Union in the 1940s, following the 1943 publication of a work of the same name. After I have read this book, which was published in 1949, more closely I will be able to ascertain more about the political and ideological movements of that period and how they manifested themselves in the editing and omission of various events in history.

The 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR is itself an important monument to Soviet historiography. Too often historians operating outside the Soviet Union have criticized the entirety of the historical profession working under Lenin, Stalin, and their successors. While many sacrifices were made to keep in line with the party and avoid official disapproval, much of what we take for granted in the history of Central Asia was pioneered through the work of historians of that place and era. The 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR is a prime example, though its authors quickly faced official disapproval of varying intensity. Labeled either writers prone to make mistakes of bourgeois nationalism or, much worse, being themselves at heart bourgeois nationalists, the authors of the 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR that were able and willing to recant published the 1949 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR, a work profoundly different from that which they originally put to pen.

One example close to my previous research stems from the characterization of the period of history known in Kazakhstan today as the Aktaban Shubyryndy (Barefooted Flight) in Kazakh and Gody Velikogo Bedstviia (Years of Great Calamity) in Russian. In the 1720s the territory now called Kazakhstan was inhabited by ancestors of the modern Kazakhs, but also by Oirats ruled by Choros/Junghars (in the east), Baraba Tatars (in the northeast), ancestors of modern Kalmyks (in the northwest), and Cossack communities strung along the northern regions. In 1722 or 1723, the Junghar/Choros Oirats came West into lands controlled by Kazakhs, crossing the Chu, Talas, and Chirchik Rivers, until they controlled lands nearly up to the Syr Darya River. They sacked, or at least took control of, the cities of Sairam, Karamurt, and Tashkent. This historic event can be found in contemporary sources and is remembered in the oral histories of Kazakhs and Kalmyks to this day.

There is limited continuity in the remembrance of this disastrous historical event among the Kazakhs. When the Russians were first bringing certain Kazakh elites into the fold of the Empire, one military leader of the Kazakhs appears to have used the violence of the 1720s as evidence for the necessity of joining forces with the Russians. However, by the end of the 1750s the tables had turned on the Junghar/Choros Oirats, who were almost utterly destroyed by the Chinese, with the help of the Kazakhs. In fact, many of the Kazakhs who today live in China are descendants of those who nomadized in the steppes vacated by the retreating and re-settled Junghars. These Kazakhs remain outside the bounds of official history in Kazakhstan, outside the historical categories of the three Juz/Zhuz (Horde, literally Hundred) of the pre-19th century Kazakhs, though one can surmise they came entirely or largely from the so-called Uly Juz (Senior Horde).

In the early 19th century, a Russian official who lived for a short time among the Kazakhs collected much of their history for the first time for a Russian audience. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, the Russian-educated Chingiz Valikhanov, a descendant of the line of Kazakh nobility stretching back to Chinggis Khan, also mentioned in passing the events of the 1720s in one of his essays on the history of his people.

In the late 19th century, Russian and Russian-educated ethnographers came to Central Asia following the expansion of the Russian Empire in the middle of the 19th century collected folk songs and histories. Thanks to their work we have the oldest known recording of the great national folk song today known as Elim-ai (Oh, my homeland). In that first documentation we unfortunately only have a Russian translation titled Karatau (Black Mountains), after the chain of hills that the Junghars crossed in 1722 or 1723 to take the cities then ruled by the Kazakhs.

Perhaps independently of that work, Mukhametzhan Tynyshpaev wrote in the 1920s a series of essays on the same events in the 1720s and 1730s. He likewise published a rendition of the same song, without a title and including the original Kazakh. He shared oral histories passed down by his father and those collected during his years working on the railroads that crisscrossed the region in the last decades of the Russian Empire.

What made the 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR so special was its inclusion of much of the foundational work of Tynyshpaev, though without citation or mention. The authors included even the story passed down by Tynyshpaev's father without citation. I assume this was done out of necessity, as the same volume of history included Tynyshpaev's name among the so-called bourgeois nationalists. In fact, Tynyshpaev was arrested several times, served as a railway man in exile, until being finally executed as an enemy of the people in 1938.

The 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR suffered a similar fate, being lambasted by party officials for bourgeois nationalist arguments. My curiosity regarding the 1949 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR extends to its breadth of publication and its inclusion and alteration of certain narratives. The 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR was denounced in time, but its initial publication was accompanied by a nomination for the Stalin Prize in history. It survives today in many libraries, including Indiana University's own Wells Library. The 1949 volume, however, is difficult to find. This seems counter intuitive to me because it was edited specifically to better mesh with the party's ideological demands for history.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Question of Historical Theory

I am posting a question here I posed to the public at

I am interested in feedback regarding a novel twist on some standard theoretical approaches. To-wit, can the rise of the use of the terms "professional" and "amateur" in the 18th and 19th centuries be considered a lynch-pin of European exceptionalism? Might this be one of the chinks in the armor of Modernity presaged by Michel Foucault, particularly with regard to its origin in Christian early modern Europe?

I could generalize and say that historians and scholars writing in that era would look at earlier times and exotic examples of specialized labor and hierarchies of knowledge and say, "Ah, but they were not professionals like ourselves." In this case, is the word 'professional' just a weasel word for "European?" It seems that the pre-Enlightenment baggage of Christianity (i.e. the baggage of the word professionalism and its roots in monastic and other religious orders) has done much to obscure and challenge other areas of the world and other periods other than the "Modern West."

New Academic Blog

The purpose of this blog is two-fold. The first aim of the blog is to exist as a stage upon which I may dress up and demonstrate in various states of readiness my work. This might include interesting material found relating to current projects. Alternatively, the blog may merely function to share little tidbits and interesting leads for future reference. The second goal I retain for this blog is related to the craft of writing. I hope to improve my academic writing style. While a blog's casual format precludes its use as a venue for perfecting footnoting and referencing according to the Chicago Manual of Style, that same format should make it easier to see the myriad flaws, shortcuts, and nonsense that I slip in between my points, arguments, and theses.