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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Roundtable Report: Doing Research in the South Caucasus

By Jo Laycock

Doing Research in the South Caucasus

The South Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; Imperial and Soviet Transcaucasia) is frequently cited as an archetypal ‘periphery’, a borderland between East and West, Christianity and Islam and, for much of the twentieth century, the Soviet world and ‘the West’. Tropes of crossing and closure still dominate popular representations of a region at once regarded as geographically isolated from the wider world and presented a site of exchange between languages, cultures and economies. Orientalist notions of regional ‘backwardness’ and barbarism which proliferated with Russian imperial expansion into the region during the nineteenth century continue to resonate, yet these images have co-existed with others which represent the region as an outpost of Christianity and thus of ‘civilisation’. More recently, post-Soviet conflicts have lead to a greater emphasis on the region as an ethnic, geo-political or even civilisational ‘fracture zone’, the site of endemic conflict or ‘ancient hatreds’.

Recent scholarship on the region has been powerfully shaped both by these enduring stereotypes and by post-Soviet processes of transformation and conflict. Geopolitical analyses of contemporary conflicts tend to dominate research agendas, a significant number of which reinforce perceptions of regional peripherality by emphasising Russian power and influence over regional dynamics and local political agency. Histories of the region are frequently concerned with explaining contemporary conflicts or instrumentalised in order to support particular national claims.

However, over the last ten years at least, the landscape of scholarship in history and in the wider social sciences has broadened and there is increased scope for critical engagements with the region’s past and future. At the same time there has been a growing acknowledgement that research on the South Caucasus can offer insights into historical and contemporary events and processes well beyond the region itself. For example, the region’s recent past has been characterised by mobilities, exchanges and relationships which disrupt assumptions of static or linear relationships between centre and periphery. While the local South Caucasian capitals of Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku may be far from Moscow, they are also ‘centres’ in their own right. Between 1922 and 1936 Tbilisi was the regional centre of the Soviet Transcaucasian Federation which united Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yerevan is now an important ‘centre’ for the international Armenian diaspora. Conversely the population of the Armenian Republic maintain connections to multiple other cities – Lebanon, LA and Istanbul as well as to disaspora communities in Krasnodar, Moscow and beyond.

Innovations in approaches to the region have been accompanied by improved access to libraries, archives and other research resources. The scope for interaction and collaboration between local and international scholars has widened considerably, despite the challenges posed by closed borders and territorial disputes. Such developments have been uneven and inconsistent across the region, but they are still significant. These developments, along with the broader potential and pitfalls of carrying out research in the region were the subject of a roundtable, ‘Doing Research in the South Caucasus’ roundtable organised by Timothy Blauvelt (Associate Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies, Ilia State University and Country Director, American Councils for International Education: ACTR/ACCELS) at the ASEEES Summer Convention in L’viv in June 2016. The roundtable brought together scholars from a variety of regions and disciplinary backgrounds, who utilise a variety of research methods and approaches. This report outlines some of the major themes and questions emerging from our discussion. It is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to research in the region, but as a starting point for dialogue, therefore your comments and questions are very welcome!

Roundtable Report


Although our roundtable was interdisciplinary, the participation of Anton Vacharadze, Director of the Central Historical Archive, National Archives of in Tbilisi, allowed for an in-depth discussion of the archival resources. Anton Vacharadze was able to outline the wide range of resources available in Tbilisi as well as some of the general developments in archives across the region. Collections in Tbilisi, as Tim Blauvelt highlighted, have proved to be relevant not only for scholars of the South Caucasus but also those with a broad range of interests in the Russian Empire. The Central Historical Archive, for example, include the archives of the Russian imperial administration in the South Caucasus.

Whilst archives in the region are organised along national lines, our discussions highlighted the potential for utilising these collections for trans-regional or transnational projects which challenge the national frameworks which dominate regional histories (see below). For example, the Archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia (Party Archive), include important collections relating to the Transcaucasian Federation (1922-1936), valuable resources for projects addressing Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Georgia, as in the case of Jeremy Johnson’s research on literacies and gender in the early Soviet period and my own project on post-WWI refugee resettlements.

Anton Vacharadze also described some of the challenges and developments involved in working with archives in the region. The situation in Georgia and Armenian National Archives is broadly similar, access for international scholars is good, indeed the collections are perhaps more ‘open’ than in many other regions of the former Soviet Union. None of the historians on the panel had worked in archives in Azerbaijan. Reports from other researchers however suggest that the Azerbaijani archives are now, in general, less accessible than the other countries of the South Caucasus although this varies greatly depending on the topic

In the case of Armenia and Georgia, full archival catalogues are not yet available online, but there are ongoing improvements to cataloguing systems and online resources are improving. Archival structures and systems will be familiar to those who have worked elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Photography is not permitted in the Georgian or Armenian Archives but photocopying and high-quality scanning is available, if still relatively expensive. The historians on the panel stressed that to make the most of the archives, and to ensure you don’t ‘miss’ some of the more unexpected resources was (1) to prepare a detailed statement outlining your project in advance that you can share with the archivists and (2) be prepared to discuss your research with archival staff who may, as some of us have experienced, already have lists of holdings on various topics.


As Thomas Wier pointed out, the diversity and particularities of the languages of the South Caucasus mean that they have particular interest for scholars of linguistics. As well as the ‘national’ languages of Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani, a plurality of minority languages and dialects are spoken across the region. There was some debate as to the necessity of local language skills for carrying out research. Many international researchers, across the disciplines, approach the region with Russian as their only or primary research language. Russian is still widely, but by no means universally, spoken across the South Caucasus. In urban settings, particularly in Baku, and amongst the demographic educated during the late-Soviet period, Russian language skills are much more widespread. In Armenia, Russian is still commonly heard and seen on the streets, especially in Yerevan. A reluctance to speak Russian is more frequently encountered in Georgia, but it is impossible to make any hard and fast rules about this.

In general, then, the panel agreed that the need for local language skills is context-specific and depends on particular archival collections, research settings and methods. For example, as Tim Blauvelt explained, those working on the archives of the Russian Imperial administration in the Caucasus are unlikely to uncover extensive materials in local languages. However, even for scholars intending to carry out research in Russian, a little knowledge of local languages tends to go a long way. Learning to read the alphabet in Georgian or Armenian makes the practicalities (transport, shopping) of research trips less painful, and a knowledge of basic greetings can do a great deal to smooth relations with local colleagues as well as archivists and librarians. Language politics can be very much alive in the South Caucasus and it helps to familiarise yourself with potential sensitivities and tensions in advance.

Discussing his current research on literacies and language reform, Jeremy Johnson highlighted some of the ways that knowledge of local languages can help push the boundaries of existing scholarship on the region, opening up new research topics and methods. Such developments are of course dependent on the continued existence of opportunities for language learning, an issue felt particularly acutely perhaps by new researchers from the UK, for whom finding opportunities for learning local languages is perhaps more challenging. A final point raised on this theme was that of working with native-speaker research assistants. Again, many of the participants reported really positive co-operative experiences, but also pointed to pressing ethical questions – in particular the importance payment of fair wages to assistants and the desire to find better ways to ensure research assistance is not a ‘one-way street’ but an opportunity for dialogue and development for all.

Conflict, Borders and Access

Since the fall of the Soviet Union the South Caucasus has endured a number of protracted conflicts. Whilst the roundtable was not intended as a forum to discuss the causes or nature of these conflicts, it highlighted some of the ways that they continue to shape scholarship in the field. For example, despite a ceasefire in 1994, the ‘frozen’ Nagorno-Karabakh conflict means that the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains closed and there are recurring flare-ups around the ‘line of contact’. This conflict also led to the closure of the border between Turkey and Armenia in 1993. International researchers should be aware that Azerbaijan may blacklist and will not allow entry to individuals who have visited the disputed-territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Whilst these circumstances are usually an inconvenience rather than posing any danger for international scholars visiting the region, they are much more serious for scholars in the region. As well as living with the social and economic consequences of conflict, border-closures can make scholarly collaboration and exchange near-impossible, this situation has contributed to the continued dominance of approaches to the past and present framed in national terms. In recent years, as Jeremy Johnson pointed out, a number of international anthropological projects, for example Caucasus, Conflict, Culture have made important contributions to changing this, promoting regional approaches and dialogue by bringing scholars from all three Caucasus Republics together for research in Georgia.

Some topics, for example the history of the Armenian Genocide and its aftermaths are obviously politically sensitive. However other topics which might not at first sight appear to be ‘political’ (from Soviet language reform to the history of pre-modern migration and demographics, to the dating of archaeological sites) have frequently come to be bound up with regional conflicts and invested with political significance. This can sometimes mean that accessing materials relating to ostensibly innocuous topics can become difficult, interviews unexpectedly fraught or informants suddenly reluctant. It can also mean that the dissemination of research outcomes can provoke difficult responses. In response to a question from the floor, Sofie Bedford discussed how a piece intended to provide an impartial, external perspective on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict provoked fierce accusations of bias. Roundtable participants shared the view that it was near-impossible to avoid these kinds of conflict completely. However, we concluded that an awareness of the wider social and political context of the region and understanding how particular terminologies and language have become politically loaded, (for example the implications of the use of particular variants of place names) was a good place to start. Dialogue with other local and international scholars, it was also observed, is also essential in helping new researchers negotiate these issues.

Nationalism, exceptionalism and orientalism

A number of the roundtable participants reflected, in different ways, on the barriers to collaboration and dialogue between local and international scholars. Beyond the practical problems caused ways that the continued centrality of nationalism in the politics and society of the post-Soviet South Caucasus has shaped scholarship on the region. Historical scholarship in particular has been heavily influenced by post-Soviet nationalisms. Historical narratives are frequently instrumentalised in order support territorial claims, defend national ‘causes’ and to underpin the legitimacy of existing political regimes. These contexts pose numerous challenges for both local and international scholars who seek to engage in research which questions or transgresses the boundaries of these established national narratives. For historians who approach the region from critical. For example, I discussed the ways in which my own research addressing the early Soviet history of the region from a transnational perspective has sometimes been regarded as less ‘worthwhile’ than a nationally-framed narrative.

The question of moving beyond these national frames was addressed in a number of ways. Firstly, the importance of developing events (conferences, workshops) and publications which provide opportunities to challenge existing narratives, investigate the connectedness of societies and histories to and promote dialogue between scholars from different parts of the region. The ARISC Caucasus Connections conference was cited as a good example of this approach. Transnational and comparative projects, for example Sofie Bedford’s current research bringing together the cases of Azerbaijan and Belarus, were also suggested as an important means of challenging narrowly national narratives and connecting the region to broader questions about social, political and cultural change. Using broader regional conferences – for example ASEEES and CESS – as a forum for bringing scholarship on the Caucasus into dialogue with scholarship other regions, for example Central Asia, was also suggested. New international journals, such Caucasus Survey also further opportunities for cross-border dialogue. Jeremy Johnson meanwhile highlighted the potential of thinking more critically about the nature of archives of the South Caucasus, drawing on anthropological theories and post-colonial histories to reflect upon the nature and construction of these archives and moving beyond taking them for granted as repositories of self-evident national histories.

Other issues which emerged strongly in the discussions was the problem of what may be broadly termed ‘orientalism’, in other words the tendency of international scholars to approaching the region as ‘exotic’ – a site of complicated languages, and unique traditions and cultures. On the other hand, as Thomas Wier explained, a kind of ‘reverse orientalism’ sometimes causes a different kind of barrier where local researchers assert that it is impossible for ‘outsiders’ to understand the particularities of the region’s society, culture and history. Roundtable participants and audience members shared the view that some of these differences related to a broader gap between academic cultures, methodologies and priorities in Europe and the USA and the post-Soviet world. Bridging this gap is in part about providing academics working in often difficult circumstances in institutions in the Caucasus with better access to international resources, literature and events. However, our discussions suggested that there is also a need for international scholars to create a culture in which dismissing local scholarship as simply ‘Soviet’ or ‘nationalist’ is not acceptable and instead to actively try to find better ways to engage.

Living and researching in the South Caucasus

All roundtable participants were able to recount positive experiences of researching in the South Caucasus and had been comfortable and safe for the vast majority of the time they had spent in the region. A common theme across the roundtable contributions was the benefits of engaging with existing friendly and supportive communities of researchers. Tbilisi was singled out for its active work-in-progress series and Friday evening banya and dinners which bring together international researchers and others. More low-key and informal networks and sources of support are present in Baku. In Armenia, diaspora networks continue to play an important role making connections.

A few important points relating to safety and security were raised. These varied across the region and the importance of awareness of particular local contexts and sensitivities. Since our roundtable large-scale social protests erupted in Yerevan but these have now given way to relative calm. More generally participants highlighted the importance of awareness of local cultural norms (which vary across the region) and the extent to which expectations and practices may vary between urban and rural settings. The impact of recent episodes of repression and restrictions on freedom of speech in Azerbaijan on scholarship and their implications for international researchers was discussed at some length. Sofie Bedford, discussing her research on religion in post-Soviet Azerbaijan and more recent work on opposition politics in the region pointed out that even in the context of state repression and limitations on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, research on ‘controversial’ topics can still be possible. Local informants and interviewees may be extremely welcoming and seek opportunities to share their experiences and points of view. As in the case of archival relationships, taking the time to build up good relationships and networks was central to the success of the research.

The issue of gender and the experience of female researchers in a regional context still largely dominated by patriarchal cultures provoked perhaps the most discussion. Neither of the female researchers on the roundtable had experienced formal discrimination or felt unsafe during our research experience. We were however aware of widely differing experiences, from finding it difficult to be ‘taken seriously’ and marginalisation by local male colleagues to being offered apparently unusual levels of access, deference and assistance. To what extent these experiences were shaped by gender or were common to the experiences of all international researchers was a matter of some debate. On a different but related note, the serious problem of homophobia in the region and incidences of violence against LGBTQ communities, for example in the case of the international day against homophobia protests in Tbilisi in May 2013, were also raised. In both case the importance of support networks and opportunities for dialogue between new and experienced researchers again came to the fore.

We hope that these discussions form the beginning of a helpful resource for those planning to undertake research in the region. As one of the main points emerging from our discussion was the benefit of increased dialogue across the disciplines and between ‘local’ and international scholars, we encourage readers to share their own experiences, perspectives and suggestions using the comments section.

Roundtable Participants

Chair: Timothy Blauvelt, Associate Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies, Ilia State University and Country Director, American Councils for International Education: ACTR/ACCELS

Jo Laycock, Senior Lecturer in History, Sheffield Hallam University

Anton Vacharadze, Director, Central Historical Archive, National Archives of Georgia and PhD student, Ilia State University

Thomas Wier, Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Free University of Tbilisi

Jeremy Johnson, PhD candidate in anthropology and history, University of Michigan

Sofie Bedford, Uppsala University, Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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