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Russian and Soviet Peripheries in the World

By Timothy Nunan


Where was Russian and Soviet history? This question might seem to have a straightforward answer: within the borders of what has been the world’s largest country, whether in the guise of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, or the Russian Federation. Yet the question is more complex. As other contributions to this blog remind us, dichotomies between “centers” like Petersburg and, later, Moscow and peripheries (whether within Russia or in its borderlands) are a classic theme within the historiography. The regulation of migration looked very different in port cities (themselves both hajj hubs and nexuses for sex trafficking) like Odessa than in Petersburg or Moscow, much less other provincial centers like Ekaterinburg or Tbilisi.


The question of locating Russian and Soviet history becomes more complex still, however, when we ponder the enduring role of Russia in the world. As I show in my recent book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), the Soviet Union was a major player when it came to development aid to the Third World, and perhaps nowhere more obviously so than in Afghanistan. Russian power effectively buttressed Afghanistan from the 1870s onward (when Bukhara became a Russian protectorate), and the USSR’s presence as the leading donor to Kabul from the 1950s onward culminated in the disastrous Soviet occupation of the country from 1979 to 1989. Russian and Soviet power in the world mattered hugely for the course of Afghan history, since it was Soviet recognition (1919) that paved the way for the country’s entry into international society at all, and the biographies at least three of Afghanistan’s rulers (Abdurrahman Khan, Babrak Karmal, and Najibullah) exhibited extensive engagement with Russia and the Soviet Union. Peripheral though Afghanistan, much less Central Asia broadly, might seem to historians perched in Moscow, you can’t understand much of modern Afghan history without a solid appreciation of the USSR’s influence on the place.


More than that, a closer look at the impact of Soviet development aid on Afghanistan reminds us that expertise and aid was often transferred from one periphery (the internal, Soviet/Russian one) to the other (Third World contexts like Afghanistan). Consider two examples that I explore in more detail in Humanitarian Invasion. While Soviet development assistance to Afghanistan dated back to the 1920s and 1930s, aid on a major scale ramped up following Nikita Khrushchev’s December 1955 visit to Kabul, where he announced Soviet credits that would come to some 70 million rubles (several even larger to the country. Prevailing Soviet views of development at the time viewed post-colonial bourgeois elites as a necessary evil on the global road to socialism, and so Soviet aid efforts focused on building up the state sector of the national economy. At the same time that the Afghan officer corps was sent to the USSR for training, Soviet experts built dams and state farms, in particular around Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. Yet much of the expertise deployed to these locations emerged from internal peripheries within the Soviet Union itself. Topsoil was physically transported from Uzbekistan to the orchards around Jalalabad to ensure optimal growing conditions for new citrus cultures there. Looking through newspapers from the period, I learned of how it was often Soviet Azerbaijani botanists trained in developing olive cultures for the Caucasus who were sent to the state farms in Afghanistan. What might appear at first as just a socialist version of North-South development aid turns out to be something different, namely a story of “South-South” transfers mediated from one (Soviet) periphery to its Afghan cousin.


Later in Humanitarian Invasion, I examine the experience of advisors dispatched by the Soviet Communist Youth League (Komsomol) to Afghanistan following the Soviet occupation. Most of these advisors’ work centered around the construction of a mass socialist party within the newly-christened Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. However, the job also involved working closely with Afghan orphanages to, in effect, traffic Afghan youngsters to Soviet orphanages and educational institutions for inculcation within a socialist internationalist world. While the ultimate decisions for the program—which had sisters in the form of Cuban-Ethiopian “youth exchanges”—were taken in Moscow and Kabul, many of the Afghan teenage orphans sent abroad ended up in internats (boarding school-like institutions) in Soviet peripheries. Digging through the archives of Soviet photo agencies leads one to believe that in at least some cases, Afghan orphans were even invited into  Soviet families’ homes. Some of the orphans remained in internal peripheries like Rostov-on-Don following the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) and the involution, a year later, of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, leaving them effectively stateless. Episodes like these offer entry points for the historian of the Soviet Union into debates among anthropologists about refugees and children’s rights. But they also remind us that when we talk about “the Soviet Union in the world” as a scholarly subfield, the action need not take place “out there,” in Eastern European or Third World contexts separate from the areas that historians of Russia’s provinces study. Delving into the archives makes clear how internal peripheries not only “exported” expertise about olives and soil science, but also often “imported” the human lives associated with Moscow’s military interventions abroad.


Cases like these, in short, offer a broader lesson and a chance for dialogue between scholars of internal peripheries and Soviet influence abroad. Scholars of “peripheral” histories within the field of Russian and Soviet history might often reflexively define themselves against a “center” in Petersburg or Moscow, they would do well to also look across the border to find ways in which their provincial experiences have reverbs abroad. Similarly, while scholars of Soviet power in the world are (rightly) interested in the fortresses of economic, technical, and Orientological expertise often clustered in and around Moscow, they would do well to remember that Soviet engagement in the world engaged not just the capital but often also peripheries. Peripheries, in other words, belong to the history of foreign relations.


Still, graduate students or early-career researchers in search of a second project might very well pose the question: what sources do we use to write these kinds of history? Fortunately, the archival landscape in Moscow alone—which I relied on extensively to write Humanitarian Invasion—contains boundless riches. Beyond the archives of the Foreign Ministry, the Russian State Archive for the Economy contains reams of documents produced by the State Committee for Economic Ties (Gosudarstvennyĭ komitet ekonomicheskikh sviazeĭ), the intra-ministerial Committee responsible for coördinating Soviet aid projects to “developing countries.” Particularly for countries with which the Soviet Union enjoyed close strategic and military relations (think Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or Lê Duẩn’s Vietnam), the archives are burgeoning with reports from Soviet-built projects like the Tabqa Dam in Syria. Many such reports read first like dry, purely technical matters, but with a little bit of background reading and imagination they can easily be located within broader narratives—say, the international regulation of the Euphrates River—in which the Soviet Union played a major role. Further afield from these histories at the intersection of development and geopolitics, the archives of organizations like the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee have been used well in histories of Soviet attempts to woo the Third World, but much more could be done to understand how Soviet attempts to organize the Third World—itself a malleable ideological concept—existed in contention with projects organized out of Belgrade, Havana, and Algeria.


And outside of the Russian archives, recent works have exploited a surge in memoirs written not only by Soviet “aid veterans” active in places like Afghanistan, but also military veterans of the forty-odd conflicts now recognized by the Russian Federation as valid military service granting access to a pension. Given that the official list includes not only obvious episodes like Afghanistan but also still-obscure Soviet military episodes like Mozambique (as early as 1967), Syria (1967 and much of the 1970s), and Laos (the early 1960s), many more accounts of these conflicts are likely to be published to secure access to pensions—good news not only for their recipients but also historians looking to piece together the legacy of the USSR in the world. Research in the relevant impacted countries themselves is the final piece of the puzzle. Sometimes, travel to these places (think Damascus, Baghdad, or Kabul) is dicey, but there are many dissertations and book projects underway that draw on sources in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America in the relevant languages, putting them in the same narrative frame as Soviet sources. Further, digitization projects like those of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University or the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha or transfers of entire national archives, like those of Iraqi Ba’athist files to the Hoover Institution, mean that future historians of socialist internationalism in these respective countries will have more to read than they can handle.


My own research strategy for Humanitarian Invasion followed much this strategy. I initially became intrigued in Soviet aid to Afghanistan by delving into the files of the Committee of Soviet Women (Komitet sovetskykh zhenshchin). The Committee might best be known for the issues of Soviet Woman it published at home and sent out into the world. But it also invested significant resources into liaising with other countries’ national women’s societies in order to investigate women’s labor conditions and invite left-leaning women to conferences in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc. Soviet women’s groups were present in Afghanistan from the 1960s onward, and following the invasion, they sought to promote not “women’s rights” or “women’s empowerment,” but rather the full participation of Afghan women in the national economy. Following the documentary trail to the aforementioned Russian State Archive for the Economy and the Komsomol archive, I soon unearthed a huge amount of documents that ran all the way up to the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. Further, many of the Soviet youth advisors deployed to build an Afghan clone of Komsomol in the Afghan provinces were well-organized as an interest group themselves, and some sleuthing allowed me to enter their world and interview them, as well. And studying Persian throughout meant that I could include voices from a growing number of Afghan memoirs into my story as well.


At the same time, the turn to new archives and new histories raises the question of professionalization and career tracks. Most Soviet history courses that I have known remain centered around a narrative of the First World War, the Russian Civil War, the NEP, Stalinism, the Great Patriotic War, the Thaw, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev and perestroĭka. Yet with so much ground to cover—and with most academic departments having at most one modern Russia/Soviet scholar—integrating longitudinal themes like the Soviet presence in the world remains challenging. Just as the maturity of “U.S. in the World” as its own subfield has led to courses focused primarily on American power abroad, one hopes that more work in the field allows for new teaching focused on the exercise of Russian and Soviet power in the five-sixths of the planet outside of the Russian Empire and USSR. While such courses would have to be integrated into our standard “domestic” accounts of Russian and Soviet history, they would also allow scholars to link Imperial topics with present-day concerns—look no further than Crimea. They would also allow scholars of Russian and Soviet history to engage profitably with other area specialists in their own departments and link the field with ongoing debates—and funding streams—about “trans-regional” scales. Recent events may have made the exercise of Russian power in Eastern Europe and the Middle East painfully obvious to Western policymakers and publics. It remains, however, to future scholars to make history central—not peripheral, for once—to the conversation, exploring how both centers and peripheries went into the making of the “Russia” we mean by “Russia in the world.”



Timothy Nunan, an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, is the author of Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). He received his D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in 2013. His current research agenda focuses on the interaction between the socialist world and the Islamic world during the Cold War.


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