Monday, November 11, 2013

Dissertation Planning

As my prospectus defense approaches, I have been focusing more on the actual layout and content of my doctoral dissertation. The pain and stress of my Russian History exams are passed, though my CEUS exams are looming off in the not-too-distant future. Now seems as good a time as any to try and write a thumbnail sketch of my research.

My prospectus is also carrying some extra water as trying to prepare me for my CEUS exams, which are written rather than oral like my History exams, and are more in line with my research going forward. This is also good as it is forcing me to come to terms with the big questions, the established research, and the definition of the terms in my work.

My prospects begins in this way, and comments are welcome:

            There are few episodes in the history of Kazakhstan better known among that country’s citizens than the Bare Footed Flight, when a military force of Zunghars invaded the ethnic homeland of the Kazakhs, killing many, enslaving more, and forcing the fleetest to leave behind relatives and property. Details relating to this event are thin on the ground, but the consequences inflicted on the refugees’ neighbors loom somewhat larger in the historical records of the neighbors of the Kazakhs and Zunghars in Russia, China, and the Khanates of Central Asia. The survivors fled before the invaders in several directions, north and south, but always to the west away from the lands of the Zunghars. The consequences of this catastrophe, little known outside of Kazakhstan, in turn affected the economy and political fates of the Central Asian Khanates, the Russian and Qing (Chinese) Empires, and eventually the Zunghars themselves. Historians writing on the relations of China and Russia have only recently taken stock of the struggles of the nomadic entities on their borders, Zunghar, Kazakh, or otherwise.[1]
My dissertation approaches the Bare Footed Flight from two angles: the longevity of the narrative, and the historical impact of these little known events outside the relatively closely defined sandbox of Kazakh national history. Regarding the first task, the importance of the Bare Footed Flight to a national narrative within Kazakhstan predates independence in 1991 and the rise of the polity in the area after 1920. Folklore and literature of the 19th century saw changes in script and ideology in the 20th century, but creative work in Kazakhstan continued to call the audience’s attention to the terrible crucible of Kazakh heroism and righteous revenge in defense of their homeland in the early eighteenth century. Most recently, both the nationalized and private film industries of Kazakhstan have produced multi-million dollar films dramatizing these same events. What happened in the early 1720s helped define Kazakh national history and national identity during the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and continues to influence the present. The narrative warped and cracked, shrank and grew during the policy changes sometimes labeled “nationality policy” during the roughly seventy years of Soviet control.[2]  
Regarding the second task of this dissertation, this series of historical events on the fringe of the Russian and Qing Empires involving no more than two relatively weak and globally unimportant nomadic polities cast a long shadow on the interconnected history of the region, including that of present-day Mongolia, Xinjiang, the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. While the historical research centers specifically on several historical figures, their actions took place in a wide theater of political, military, economic, and religious import. Rather than write the history of simply the last great nomadic powers in Eurasia, this research will showcase the vital interplay between “settled” and “nomad,” between those labeled “warrior” and “trader,” between Cossack, Qazaq, and Kazakh. In the process, a careful reading and critique of contemporary primary and secondary sources regarding the Bare Footed Flight will include not only archival sources, but also the published works of such Kazakhs as Chokan Valikhanov (1835-1865) and Mukhamedzhan Tynyshpaev (1879-1938).
To begin the study of these events, I will challenge the degree to which the current collective memory indicates an uninterrupted continuation of a centuries-old remembrance enshrined in legend and song. Despite the fact that the Bare Footed Flight affected an arguably small portion of the nomads of the steppe now called Kazakhs, these events have captivated the imagination of the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan. What caused this narrative to replace others of devastation and desperation at the hands of their non-Zunghar neighbors? What role did Tynyshpaev play and how did his own background affect his construction of the tale of the Bare Footed Flight? Nationality is a significant portion of this issue—how does the lack of a modern Zunghar nation, following the Qing Empire’s destruction of the Zunghar state in the 1750s, affect the national history of the Kazakhs? What does this public expression of Kazakhstan’s history tell us about the people of the region and their collective memory?
            My research will answer these questions through study of the primary source documents available in regional collections, contemporary with the Bare Footed Flight and those pertaining to the writing of the history by Valikhanov and Tynyshpaev. I will expand the current historiography of the events of the Bare Footed Flight. Particularly of interest are the diaries and notes of ethnographers active during the time of Tynyshpaev, letters and correspondence contemporary with the events, and the city histories prevalent in cities like Sayram.[3] In addition to studying how Tynyshpaev wrote the story of these events the way he did, the drive of my dissertation will be to explain when, where, and how this narrative survived and flourished—and when and where it did not. The causes of these discrepancies will inform work on the formation of nationalism and inspire efforts to push beyond the nation-state as a container or methodology in history.
            This project represents multiple areas of educational and foreign policy concerns regarding Kazakhstan. Possessing a centralized national educational system, the government of Kazakhstan’s cultivation of its history and official cultural expressions occurs not at the local level, but at the level of the national or international stage. The government of Kazakhstan also strongly influences the creation of prose and poetry as during the Soviet Union. In other words, the leadership of the country has sanitized and “corrected” the stories surrounding the Bare Footed Flight. In the various narratives of the Zunghar oppression and the resulting exodus, the roles played by various factions within the Kazakhs and those played by neighboring people are largely ahistorical and indicative of the environment of their creation.
I have been fortunate to have ample experience with the institutions and cultures of Kazakhstan and the former Soviet Union through my Peace Corps experience (2005-2007) and an IREX IARO intensive Kazakh language fellowship in 2009. The personal and professional connections I have made in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia will serve me well during my time overseas.
My graduate research since matriculating at Indiana University in 2008 has focused on Kazakhstan and the Bare Footed Flight. My master’s thesis marked my first entry into a serious discussion of selected primary sources and their historiographical legacy down to the present day as manifested in history textbooks, songs, novels, and government-sponsored cinema projects. I have prepared for this project for several years with the help of Professor Ron Sela, my dissertation advisor. Involved since the early stages of my project, Prof. Sela has encouraged my research and has guided my coursework to include training in the necessary languages and familiarity with the sources necessary. My master and doctoral coursework included area studies courses with Prof. Sela and others at Indiana University, including courses in the Kazakh and Chaghatay languages, the literary language of the related part of Central Asia, courses in the ethnic and Islamic history of Central Asia, and one course specifically designed to fill gaps in my project relating to the Oirats and Zunghars with specialist in Mongol history, Professor Christopher Atwood. Professor Hiroaki Kuromiya has guided my work in Russian history, including a research paper on the life and writings of Mukhamedzhan Tynyshpaev in the fall of 2012, which I presented at two conferences in 2013. It is thanks to my professors at IU that I have been able to make scholarly connections with my overseas affiliations and I look forward to working with them in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan. Due to my request for funds supporting my dependents, I would add some information regarding my wife and daughter who will accompany me during my research. My wife Teresa served three years in rural Kazakhstan with the Peace Corps. She is conversant in Kazakh and Russian and excited for the opportunity to return to Kazakhstan.
            I wrote my master’s thesis on the Bare Footed Flight using materials available without travel overseas.[4] My initial engagement with the literature relating to the Bare Footed Flight included the historical and political writing of Tynyshpaev.[5] In addition, I incorporated monographs and historical articles by Russian orientalists of the imperial[6] and Soviet periods.[7] The drive to define the cataclysmic history of Kazakh-Zunghar relations constituted the primary focus of my analysis. Recent work by scholars of Central Asian history has supplemented scholarship regarding the interior workings of the Zunghars, poorly recorded because unlike the Russians, Chinese, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Mongolians, the Zunghars possessed no “nation” in the modern era,[8] no state or social apparatus to produce their history. In other words, the descendants of the Zunghars of the 18th century are very difficult to find in the liminal space between Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan’s academy has produced excellent critiques of the nationalizing processes in the legacy of the Bare Footed Flight, [9] but the historically understated importance of the Zunghars and their struggles with the Kazakhs and the Qing continues to produce curiosity outside of Kazakhstan as well. Several historians of China,[10] Uzbekistan,[11] and Russia[12] have written the traumatic events of 18th-century Kazakhs and Zunghars into the periphery of their projects. My focused study of the Bare Footed Flight encompasses two linked occurrences. In the early 1720s, the rise of the Zunghar military-polity culminated in an invasion of what is today southern Kazakhstan. The Zunghars pushed the Kazakhs north and south; Kazakhs crossing south over the Syr Darya river devastated the sedentary sections of Central Asia while those escaping north beyond the Aral Sea abutted lands claimed by Kalmyks and Cossacks in the Russian Empire. The consequences of the Bare Footed Flight influenced the course of the Russian Empire’s expansion, the trajectory of Russian-Qing (Chinese) relations, and the emergence of different polities in Central Asia. My project utilizes historical sources ranging from accounts contemporary to the Bare Footed Flight to the present state of national history in modern Kazakhstan. The literature illustrates that Kazakh historians have presented the Bare Footed Flight in ahistorical terms. Several post-independence Kazakh historians are accelerating this trend, bringing elements of nationalist theory into textbooks and higher-education texts effectively glorifying an imaginary past.
            By synthesizing sources from different perspectives and cultures, including Russian, Oirat/Zunghar, Kazakh, and Uzbek/Chaghatay, this project will be novel in the historical scholarship of Kazakhstan. Moreover, the Bare Footed Flight narrative as presented on screen and in textbooks in modern Kazakhstan makes use of the entire gamut of unwritten sources: legends and family stories collected in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, epic poetry, songs and poetic sagas, and anecdotes about political and religious figures of the era. The interplay of these sources offers a fertile, if presently fallow, field for analysis of historically oral sources and their value in historiography.
The methodology of my dissertation utilizes microhistory, asking large questions in the smaller situations inhabited by people often silent in history. My work will place the constructed narratives of the Bare Footed Flight in direct relation to the lives of its authors, including Mukhamedzhan Tynyshpaev. Due to the mobility of both historical Kazakhs and Tynyshpaev himself, transnationalism offers a rich toolkit for examining the processes at work in constructing the various iterations of the Bare Footed Flight narrative. Rather than replacing or dismissing nationalism, microhistory and a transnational lens will allow the reader to refocus on a broader, beyond-national picture that includes Kazakhs of Kazakhstan, Kazakhs of China and Mongolia, their ancestors, and the place inhabited by historical Zunghars in their worldviews. Tynyshpaev’s life offers a microhistorical opportunity to appreciate several broad trends in Russian (imperial and Soviet) and Kazakh history. Bregel (1996) examined the rise in popularity of nationality studies among scholars of the Soviet Union and their contemporaries in the United States and suggested that a return to source-based, critical history has lagged behind other endeavors. I will question the periodization, class analysis, and Stalinist models of nationalism that have characterized previous works on my topic. Moreover, I will challenge the historicity of the myths of a universal Kazakh catastrophe during the Bare Footed Flight.
My work on Tynyshpaev is part of a larger effort to repopulate the narrative of the multinational Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. As a young man, Tynyshpaev exercised deeply idealistic and strong political opinions in political gatherings and in print. Tynyshpaev easily traversed seemingly exclusive categories: patriotic citizen of the empire, self-identifying Kazakh of commoner (non-Chinggisid) descent, Muslim intellectual, beneficiary of Russian paternalism, and leader of two short-lived autonomy movements during the Civil War. The Bare Footed Flight that Tynyshpaev described was both history and parable, a personal tale of struggle, betrayal, catastrophe, and eventual revenge and victory. He referenced it early in his career and returned to it many times over the course of writing. His version of events relied equally on Russian scholarship and legends collected from his family and chance meetings during his work as a railway engineer in Central Asia. He collected the legends and analyzed their content, willing to challenge or verify each while an educator in Tashkent in the 1920s. To suggest that Tynyshpaev was writing history merely as a moral lesson is to do a disservice to both Tynyshpaev the scholar and the historiography of the region. Even more importantly, analysis of the Bare Footed Flight in many ways must begin with Tynyshpaev.
Previously, the scholarship of the Bare Footed Flight outside of Kazakhstan has only occurred on the periphery of other histories. Previous work on the subject has been cursory, without the Kazakhs and Zunghars as the focus of the scholarship. Such works (Khodarkovsky, 2002; Perdue, 2005) relied over-much on secondary sources from the perspective outside their area of expertise, whether Russian, Chinese, Oirat, Mongolian, Kazakh, or otherwise. Even Holzwarth (2005), a model for much of my own research, represents only an introductory analysis of the events of the first half of the eighteenth century. My addition to the field of Central Asian history will rest on centering the historical Kazakhs and examining their history for the causes and consequences of the division of the region between the Qing and Russian Empires in the early eighteenth century.  

[1] Clifford (1969) Mancall (1971) Paine (1996) A notable exception is the work first of Lattimore and more recently of Peter Perdue: Lattimore (1947) Perdue (1996, 1998, 2005).
[2] Atkin (1992) Esenberlin (1986) Yilmaz (2012)
[3] DeWeese (2000).
[4] Hancock-Parmer (2011)
[5] Tynhspaev (1925, 1926, 1927)
[6] Levshin (1831), Bartol’d (1963). These scholars made use of some contemporary primary sources, including the records of the imperial Russian embassies of Ivan Unkovsky, Aleksei Tevkelev, and Leontii Ugrimov to the Zunghars (1722-23), Kazakhs of the Junior Horde (1730), and the Zunghars (1730), respectively.
[7] Viatkin (1941)
[8] Miyawaki (1987, 1995, 2000)
[9] Erofeeva (1999, 2007)
[10] Perdue (1996, 2005)
[11] Holzwarth (2005)
[12] Khodarkovsky (1992, 2002)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Boats versus Horses

This is a conjecture.

In various historical sources pertaining to the history of the Russian Empire prior to 1900, the means of travel are often obscured in secondary and tertiary sources (monographs, textbooks, articles, etc.), which would explain why this conjecture struck me as being partially novel. However, earlier scholars (Russian and American) have published much research on this very topic, at least tangentially. For example, one need look only as far as Wikipedia to learn the basics of Siberian River Travel. There is at least a superficial similarity between Russian settlement in Siberia and that found in Canada: a vast wilderness sparsely inhabited except for a long narrow corridor near the southern border with extensions northward through arable land and mineral deposits.

I have the impression that Russians tended to expand and move through new territory primarily via domination of rivers and river travel, while the lands through which they traveled tended to be previously dominated by horse travel (in the steppe zones) and foot and snow-shoe travel (in the taiga). I have a modest number of examples:

  1. The Yermak Expedition, aka the so-called Conquest of Siberia (1580) (Failed)
  2. Gradual Conquest of Siberia through establishment of portage/river forts (ostrogi) (1580-1650)
  3. The Semyon Dezhnev Expedition (Arctic Coast) (1648)
  4. The Bekovich-Cherkassky Expedition to Khiva (1717-1718) (Failed - wiped out by Khivans)
  5. The Bukholts Expedition (1716-1717) (Failed - wiped out by Junghars)
  6. The Orenburg Expedition (1734-35) (Besieged by Bashkirs, Orenburg construction abandoned)
A better understanding of the Russian river navy represents a possible avenue of research in this regard. The Cossacks were primarily river raiders, or perhaps there is a dual nature to the Cossack existence (river raiding versus horse raiding). In any event, I submit it is no accident that the Cossacks have long been categorized by their river of habitation: Don, Dnieper, Kuban, Terek, Ural/Yaik, Amur, Baikal, Semirechie, etc. The river boats used by the Don Cossacks (strugi and chaiki) are rather famous in specific historical battles, but not generally understood as part of a larger system of Cossack identity and culture. The strug apparently excelled in river combat, carrying several dozen men; the chaika apparently being designed for river deltas and coastal raiding in the Black Sea. Though specific historical evidence eludes me, Wikipedia claims that each chaika would carry several small-bore cannons for ship-to-ship combat (i.e., falconets). Larger sea-worthy ships similar to cogs, known as baidak, allowed for less militant trade actions along the shores of the Black Sea. Naturally, any ship can be pressed into military service -- especially for use ferrying supplies and munitions.

My primary thought was that such a tactic allowed the Russians to use their strengths (previous contact and collaboration with Cossacks, dominance of river transport, etc.) to counter their weaknesses (passage through hostile territory, steppe combat, etc.). In many cases, the Russians were attacked primarily on land when their wagon trains and supply lines were poorly defended. In some cases, the original inhabitants attacked in strength adequate to threaten and destroy Russian fortifications.

One should not make light of the fact that as a conquering army, the Russians rarely faced pitched battles against organized opponents. The military forces utilized by the original inhabitants were more haphazard, though many fought to the death in defense of their land. Tales of Russian brutality and slaughter also inspired resistance and hatred, even among those supposedly under Russia's domain:
(Donnelly, The Russian Conquest of Bashkiria, Chapter 6: The Orenburg Expedition)
In northern Bashkiria Tevkelev was in danger. The rebels laid an ambush for his detachment at a narrow defile along the Ai River. The plot was discovered beforehand; but when the inhabitants of the village where Tevkelev's party was located discovered the ambush had failed, they planned to massacre the troops while they were sleeping. This surprise failed too. Only a few men were wounded before the alarm was sounded and the Russians turned the tables, surrounded the village, and captured all the inhabitants, except for a few who escaped into the woods. Some 1,000 of the villagers, including women and children, were shot or put to the sword by the dragoons, Meshcheriaks, and Bashkirs who served in the Russian forces. Another 500 were driven into a storehouse and burned to death. "And thus," wrote Rychkov, "the entire village of Seiantusa and its inhabitants, including women and children both small and great, was destroyed in one night by fire and sword, and the settlement was burned to ashes." 
The next day Tevkelev moved his forces to a Meshcheriak village, and after a conference with his subordinates dispatched several parties to take revenge. Approximately fifty Bashkir villages were burned, about 2,000 Bashkirs killed, those who remained alive were executed, and the wives and children were distributed to the troops.

In short, it seems many of the most terrifying uses of force involved neither boats nor horses. It should be noted, however, that Tevkelev and his forces had come to the area by boat and were acting in response to raids against Russian supply-wagons. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Teaching History With Our Own Past

Here's a thought - let's use the family as a model for teaching history. I'm speaking as a citizen of the United States, though I believe this model could be useful elsewhere as well.

Let's take for our example the hypothetically average student. He or she belongs to an "average" family of mom, dad, 2.5 kids, and a dog/cat. It's probable they may have a step-parent, perhaps some half- or step-siblings. Let's then assume the biological and non-biological mom and dad have 3.5 siblings each. Though marriage isn't for everyone, perhaps more than half of those people themselves have a spouse or more with 2.5 kids of their own. Though your student probably doesn't know them so well, their grandparents likely also had siblings, probably at least 4.5 each.

Let's step back and visualize this in another way.

Our student has his brother and a dog or cat. This student also has a bunch of cousins, aunts, uncles, and at least four grandparents. Some amount of these people have sadly already passed away. Perhaps some are long dead, even some of them may be in prison. Once you add in the extended family of the grandparents, your student has some unknown mass of second cousins.

More likely, your average student is aware mostly of their aunts, uncles, and first cousins. Well, some of their first cousins, though not necessarily of all their first-cousins once-removed. It is unlikely that your student is on a first name basis with all of the cousins of their parents. Any, most, or all of this vast array of people could be living in one town, fifty towns; one country or five countries; one language/culture or two or even three different languages/cultures. This country is supposedly a melting pot, after all.

Perhaps this is the typical American family - though of course, there are those who are not only only-children, but the single child of only-children, having no aunts, uncles, or cousins. However, that is pretty unlikely, and eventually everyone has cousins, be they second, third, or fourth cousins.

Quick Note on Cousins: In English we have a limited vocabulary compared to other languages for distinguishing relatives. Even the vocabulary we do have is under-used and often misunderstood. A "first cousin once removed" to you would be how you refer to the children of your first cousins and also how you would refer to first cousins of your parents. An easy example is to imagine that your favorite cousin Jim has a child. That child, let's call him Teddy, is Jim's son. Jim is your first cousin, but little Teddy is your first cousin once removed. Similarly, if your dad is really close with his cousin Jill, she is also your first cousin, once removed. If you want to be more specific, you would describe her as your first cousin, once removed, on your father's side. This still doesn't explain to your listener which type she is (child of cousin or cousin of parent), but the context usually makes this clear. Again, there are other languages that handle this situation with fewer words and less confusion.

In short, family relations are just about the most confusing thing to talk about and explain, yet the vast majority of humanity has them in abundance.

My thought is to use this to our advantage in teaching history.

Your student with their typical family -- they are sitting in your history class in High School or at college. Ask this student to imagine the people in their family - even better, have them draw a "family tree" as best they can, including as many relations as they can handle, including first cousins, even once or twice removed cousins where they are known. Get aunts and uncles in there, step-parents and half-siblings, Uncle Thomas who was really a foundling, plus grandparents, great-grandparents, whatever they can handle. Some students will have tiny family trees and others might have gigantic ones. For a learning experience, perhaps have them make one family tree in class and then have them turn in a "complete" or "official" family tree at the end of the semester with birth and death dates for as many people as they can manage. Ask them to be as clinical as possible in both cases, understanding that death, sickness, and time are working on all of our family trees.

Now that your student has this gigantic cast of characters, have him or her attempt to create some general narrative of their family history, focusing on their own "pedigree." This is the super simple family tree, from parent to child. Build from that story using stories they have heard about their parents' childhood. Perhaps they can write some notes about how mom and dad met, their courtship and marriage(s), various children, occupations, economic-social class, religious affiliations and hobbies, focuses and personal beliefs. This should be fairly easy and also allow the student to explain some of their own feelings and personal beliefs, positive and negative, allowing that everyone's family has the capacity to cripple and amaze, to disgust and inspire.

At this point, have them pick a cousin of the same generation they know pretty well and explain how their view of the family is probably different. Then put themselves in an uncle's shoes, or that of their cousin, once removed on their father's side. It becomes more difficult as they have to rely more and more on hearsay and publicly available documents. Even more so, they will notice that as they consider their relatives with their varying military, occupational, and religious backgrounds, their own likely values and beliefs may change in both expected and unexpected ways.

In a large family, one member may best explain their relatives according to their duties and a sense of honor lived in service to one's country or community. For another member, the socioeconomic status and ability to rise past or maintain the station of the parent is more important. For another, the trials and tribulations of health and family trouble are best explained through devotion to certain values, beliefs, and religious affiliations.

History is much the same way - some historians are most interested in Military History, others in Economic History, still others in Anthropological or Sociological discussions of rituals and practices and their explicit and implicit meanings. Not only that, but these categories are leaky and fungible, so that Uncle Frank sees the world both through military service and devotion to various organizations, though he may not articulate such so clearly. In fact, when he was younger, he focused more on technology and a sense of progress, while those considerations are not as meaningful to him now.

Family relations are a rich source of didactic models and history as the story we tell ourselves about the world around us can learn much. It also allows the student-historian to practice self-reflection and to see the difficulty of "walking in another's shoes." If you can attempt to see where and how you fail to visualize the inside of your mother's head, you will be all the better prepared to imagine historical figures of another gender, time, or culture than your own.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rhetoric and National History

National history stumbles when it perceives its subject as a population defined by membership in a specific group to the exclusion of other connective tissue. The classic example of a nation with a territory, language, identity, and national history is the "Jewish" nation, which is also possibly the most problematic example, sharing no common language, territory, or identity among all those who self-identify as Jews. Much the same can be found in any of what Anderson has named the "imagined communities" of our current world. In short, instead of studying only nations and national identity, perhaps the interplay of certain other groupings might produce more interesting analysis. For example, "Jewish" painters and their interactions with both non-Jewish painters and those "Jewish" painters who do not actively self-identity or agitate as Jewish.

Unfortunately, while Jewish nationality is the classic example, it is also one of the least useful, almost guaranteeing that the initial argument will be lost in a sea of hazy discourse. Kazakhs, then, might be a better example, and certainly one closer to my area of expertise.

The current "nation state" of Kazakhstan, bearing a name which translates conveniently as "Land of the Kazakhs," borders the Russian Federation (not the Russian-speaking Federation), the "Land of the Uzbeks," the "Land of the Turkmen," the "Land of the Kyrgyz," and the "People's Republic of China." One might suspect nationality and identity are sticky subjects in a neighborhood where China comes across, at least superficially, as the least focused on nationalism. The borders of Kazakhstan have been relatively clear for the past eighty years, but shifted several times during the breakup of the Russian Empire and the re-categorization of the lands of the Soviet Union.

These lands and borders were, in theory, supposed to reflect the national make-up of the Soviet Union, with the odd caveat that the appearance of Russian populations would not be counted equally, leaving the colonization of the Russian Empire to become solidified in a supposedly non-Russian nationality. Additionally, some territory inhabited by some nations remained outside the Soviet Union; in the case of the Kazakhs, many had moved willingly or fled persecution and famine to settle in China and Mongolia, on lands that were often specifically set aside for their use following the depopulation of the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. These Kazakhs ended up maintaining a nomadic way of life into the twenty-first century; however, Kazakhs of Kazakhstan

Confusing Social and Cultural History

I've nearly finished my preparations for the PhD qualifying exams in Russian History. My dissertation proposal is, I believe, about 80% complete and in need of only a little rewriting and reorganizing. I have also been reading more about the defining of several strands of history past and current in "the academy," at least in the United States. I've had a lot of difficulty compartmentalizing Social versus Cultural History.

Part, or perhaps most, of the confusion arises in changes in day-to-day speech in English-speaking America. In short, I have read that today we speak of culture in a very similar way to how Americans spoke of society a generation ago. Social problems and societal strife were topics of interest not too long ago but perhaps have been replaced by cultural concerns and the so-called culture wars.

At one point, social history meant for some of its proponents Marxist History, i.e., Labor History. It was characterized as "history from below," in opposition to "Great Men" history, Diplomatic History, Military History, and other brands of writing about the past that did not necessarily put "the masses," "the workers," and "the proletariat" at the center. Part of the concern with writing a history from below, however, is that the proletariat and the masses aren't truly "the bottom" of any society. By nature of being workers, they are among the employed and employable - for much of the industrial revolution, women, the elderly, and the physically impaired were a small part of the overall workforce, pigeon-holed into specific professions. As this has changed, the history of "the worker" may seem to be closer to a "history from below," but I think sometimes the Labor Historian's reach may exceed his grasp. This is hardly a negative characteristic, as it showcases a desire to attain the impossible.

In any event, I wanted to share these thoughts because so often a discussion of Cultural and Social History quickly devolves (evolves?) into jargon and terrifying phrases like "discourse," "dialectic," and strange alternate uses of common words like "archaeology" and "knowledge."

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Writing this post after reading my last post, I hope I'm not making a reputation for myself as a tactless iconoclast. Rather, I would like to challenge some of the common concepts and ideologies that I have encountered during my education. This is not to say that I perceive a deeper knowledge inside my own brain than exists in the outside world, but only that one should be able to throw certain logical queries at the accepted notions of academia from time to time. In the case of my previous post on Orientalism, I certainly concede that the popularity of Said's remarks is based in some part on the attractiveness of the argument and its perceived suitability to the purposes of other thinkers. However, I see the infrastructure of the argument as  irreparably flawed in its basic assumptions.

Nomadism as a concept seems somewhat similar to me. Semantically, it serves as short-hand to identify and explain certain characteristics. The nomad is differentiated from the non-nomad, in other words. The non-nomad is much less often the target of a blanket definition, but when such occurs, the term used tends to be sedentary, or some synonym of the same.

I have the unfortunate hobby of etymology lodged in my consciousness. For that reason I will share the following data:

  • The word nomad is attested in the English language from the 16th century, coming from Latin via French. In Latin the term was Nomas in the nominative and Nomadis in the genitive - hence we have the word nomad from misunderstood Latin grammar; alternatively, it could be blamed on poor Greek, which followed the same (nomas in the nominative, nomados in the genitive, nomades in the plural). The term in Greek is given the definition "roaming, roving, wandering" and connected to reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *nem-, meaning to divide, allot, or distribute. This is important as the word originally included the conception of ownership, division, and the importance of land; this in contrast to later characterizations that nomads had no connection to the land.
  • The word sedentary is similarly attested from the 16th century in English, coming again from Latin via French. In Latin the term sedentarius (sitting/remaining in one place) is easily connected to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *sed-, meaning to sit.
  • Modern Kazakh generally uses the word koshpendi (Көшпендi) to translate the English word nomad, a practice that predates claims that Kazakh had no word for the concept. I do not know how long the Kazakh language has had this word in its lexicon, but the root meaning is clearly old. In fact, the root (көш/коч) also gives the Russian word for nomad, kochevnik (Кочевник). The verb in question (көшеу/кўчмок) appears in dictionaries as "to move, to migrate, to relocate." The word is similar in Uzbek: ko'chmanchi.
Etymology is a fun aside, but the deeper problem is what we are attempting to explain with the terminology. From a scientific perspective, the term has been replaced with more specific terminology not yet in common public use; these terms tend to explicitly describe the primary economic occupation of some critical mass within the defined population. In other words, while some percentage of those people previously labeled as nomads did indeed practice a specific type of economy generally requiring frequent shifting of camp to renew the pastureland of livestock, the economies of the people involved were much more complex. Moreover, the various economies of nomadic people differed the point of the word not adequately explaining differences between nomadic populations in different geographic areas. In other words, the nomads of the Sahara Desert are not similar enough to the historical nomadic populations of the Volga region to truly warrant using the same term for both.

Another issue is what, exactly, the term is supposed to tell us about the people thus labeled. Are nomads possessed of a different life outlook in a uniform way different from that of non-nomadic people? History has shown again and again that sedentary people are just as likely to pull up and migrate to new locations; similarly, nomads in various locations are characterized by the regular return to family-owned pasture locations. In addition, many nomadic people have historically been involved in non-livestock herding economies, providing labor for fishing, mining, trading, and other endeavors within their vicinity.

What, then, does calling a people "nomadic" achieve for the historian? Will this explain their actions in a useful way? Are nomadic people blood-thirsty savages that do not share a similar level of civilization (however that might be ascertained) with their sedentary neighbors? Many gallons of ink have been spilled in the cause of just such assumptions, but such crude characterizations of "exotic" populations have become less common. Other assumptions have lasted longer due to their sophistication. For example, that nomads are uninterested in land rights, or at least less so than non-nomads. Similarly, nomads have specific gender-norms that are different from those of sedentary people. Again, nomads practice religion in ways inherently different from non-nomads. 

I would challenge any such assumption and would rather we remove the term "nomad" from all but the most general of characterizations to imply regular movement of people. Let us know that knowing this little fact about the changing of addresses will explain the intricacies of their societies. Nomads need not have inherently different political systems: a "nomad" king is different how, exactly, from a "sedentary" king? A "nomadic"democracy is different how, exactly, from a "sedentary" democracy? 

Let us challenge such terms the moment they appear.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


So what?

The question that many fear to encounter after delivering an agonizingly-constructed, seemingly-whole argument is a powerful tool. The rise of cotton monoculture in the deserts of Central Asia has led to the disappearance of the Aral Sea. So what?

It allows the reader to define the aspects of our experience important to them. For example, if one is concerned with the preservation and protection of so-called natural resources, the disappearance of the world's fourth largest lake would seem to be a big deal. However, the question "So what?" can also challenge those closely-held beliefs. For example, in a world that believes in the law of the conservation of energy, the resources of the Aral Sea didn't ever "disappear," but rather were scattered around the region in unplanned reservoirs and in the cotton that leaves the region. Perhaps the argument can be refocused to include a critique of globalization that allows such a trade to take place. Or a critique of the characterization of the Aral Sea as the "fourth largest lake," which might obscure the fact that the Aral Sea is vastly different from other large lakes like Baikal, Victoria, and the Great Lakes system in terms of rates of evaporation and average rainfall.

Only a few years have passed since a graduate colloquium introduced me to the work of Edward Said. It has reappeared several times, sometimes in a positive light, at least once in a neutral light, and several times in a negative light. In other words, I have seen criticism leveled at the work itself and at the critics of the work. Defining the work itself can be difficult and often leads to simplified characterizations. For example, one might say Said's work is anti-imperial; or Said's work is literary criticism; or Said's work is a scholarly response to the new problems of a global world; or Said's work is a product of the Arab-Israeli political turmoil of its time; or Said's work is a bold uncovering of the corruption of white established ivory tower elite education. In addition, criticism of Said has often been characterized (correctly or not) as defense of Western authority; the largely negative reviews the original work received seems unsurprising considering how easily Said crossed between different scholarly fields and the modern political environment.

So what?

Edward Said is one of those people that is entirely unknown to a large portion of the population and widely known by a dedicated minority. Scholarship often likes to characterize itself as a force, like gravity or disease, that affects the masses whether or not they are aware of that force. Certainly historians have written the same in the past - consider the trite axiom regarding those that fail to learn and are doomed to repeat history.

I imagine the possibility that Said wrote for a different audience than he, in the end, received. The world of scholarly literary review seems to have been less distraught by Said's contribution. Said would have known very well the meaning of the word synecdoche; a figure of speech where one item stands in to represent the whole. A typical example is the expression "All hands on deck!" I am not the first person to suggest that his critique of Orientalism has turned one specific field of study into a synecdoche for imperialism and the abuses of imperial power through the acquisition of imperial knowledge.

I believe part of the problem is the naming of this webbed, branched totality of knowledge a "discourse," following the terminology used by Foucault.

What is Orientalism according to Said? There is a set of definitions offered in the book, or more accurately approaches toward a definition. Orientalism is:

  1. what Orientalists do and have done.
  2. a "style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of the time) 'the Occident.'"
  3. an institution for dealing with the Orient, a Western way of dealing with and dominating the Orient.
This leads to Said's lack of focus, in my opinion, because the first and third involve a dialogue between West and East (or at least the observance of the East by the West), where the second is entirely in the minds of the ignorant, isolated West. This has led to the work easily being borrowed for the critique of cross-cultural scholarship on the whole. The irony is that there, as in the critique of Orientalism, the critics resemble the same essentializing, monolithic cast of the scholarly model they happen to be attacking. One example is Said's omission of Foucault's criticism of authorship. In other words, none of the Orientalists are given the benefit of a dynamic career in which their works and experiences are free to shift, change, shrink, or grow. They seem to be portrayed as static representatives of Orientalism.

I don't want to be overly derivative in my opinions on Orientalism. I am responding largely as a scholar of Kazakhstan - country decidedly to the East of Europe. I grant that in earlier days I would self-identify as an Orientalist in English, as I would even today in Russian, Persian, or Kazakh. If someone were to name me an Orientalist today, I would accept the title, but its reputation is such that I don't want to start arguments by naming myself as such outright.

And so I return to the eternal "So what?" with regard to Orientalism and the critique against the same made by Said. What would Said have us do? What is the problem, exactly, and how best to solve the problem as such? If it is an unavoidable error of representation (as some have it), there is no action to be taken, only an order to eternal vigilance against taking my observations as an Orientalist to heart without challenge. That much seems easy to take; all scholars should have the benefit of being reminded of their own imperfections and errors. In the case of the Russian empire, the case has been made that much work remains to be done towards understanding the implications of Said's critique because he made no analysis of German, Russian, or other imperial discourse; which is to say nothing also about Ottoman Orientalism, Japanese Orientalism, and other so-called "imperial" discourses.

So what? What does Orientalism have to do with Kazakhstan? Are Russian scholars past or present immune to the ills of Orientalism? Are Russian-trained Kazakh scholars, or madrasa-trained scholars from the area immune to the same? Is not the nature of representation a reason for caution and the challenging of prior narratives? In other words, could I reiterate the argument of Said as a simple, "Be careful!" spoken in earnest to future scholars of regions other than their own? And shouldn't those that study their own history and culture be just as careful? I've read more ill-reasoned American history than I have Russian history - the market is larger and the barrier to entry is considerably lower.