Eurasia and Steve Kotkin's "Ab Imperio," Part deux

March 30, 2009
In my previous post, I summarized Princeton historian Steve Kotkin's important article, "Mongol Commonwealth? Exchange and Governance across the Post-Mongol Space." 
As someone who works primarily with Turkic and Russian documents with respect to issues spanning Central Asia, Russia, the Caucasus, the Ottoman center and the Turkish Republic, the question of what to call the region I work on is something that I've put a lot of thought into over the years. Originally, I tried to get out of the question altogether by simply describing myself as a "modernist historian," but people always wanted me to be more specific than this. In just about every job interview I had, someone from the hiring committee asked me to describe the region that I work on.  
As far as Kotkin's piece is concerned, I agree that the term "Eurasia" can be problematic. But what I do like about the term "Eurasia" is that it is geographical, rather than a reference to a particular state or nationality. The term is obviously not referring to all of Europe and all of Asia, but rather the parts of Europe and Asia that interact most closely with one another, and whose histories are the most closely intertwined.
A Turkish scholar of the Ottoman Empire that I know likes to argue that the country which became "Turkey" should have been called "Anatolia," after the land mass that is also known as "Asia Minor." The thinking behind this, of course, is that using a geographical term rather than an ethnic one represented a far more inclusive approach which tacitly recognized the existence of non-Turks in the country.
And I think this attention to geography, rather to a particular group of inhabitants and their institutions, is something that appeals to me about the term "Eurasia." While Kotkin is right in arguing that, for Russians and Russianists, the term "Eurasia" evokes the anti-liberal Russian emigre Russianists of the 1920s, what he doesn't take into account is how non-Russian scholars in Eurasia see the term. Indeed, for many former Soviets who speak primarily in Tatar, Azeri, and Uzbek, the term "Eurasia" is seen as a major improvement over previous and alternative designations. And indeed, I think the term "Eurasia" has emerged largely in recognition of the increasing importance in the field of the study of Muslim populations, and the connections between these populations and others living in China and Turkey. 
Of course, I think it's a sign of other problems that it's mainly the Muslim populations of the former USSR who are most comfortable with this designation, and not non-Russian Christian populations like Georgians and Armenians, who would probably hold out for "Eastern Europe" as a preferable term over "Eurasia." For better or for worse, a Tatar living 500 miles from Moscow can see inclusiveness in the term "Eurasia," whereas an Armenian living on the borders of Iran would probably be considerably less likely to feel any part of "Asian" culture [when I lived in Turkey in the 1990s, I had always found it interesting that in AT&T's ads for phone cards on the back page of the Herald Tribune, Turkey and Azerbaijan were always listed under "Middle East," while Armenia was listed under "Europe"]. In my opinion, this use of "Asia" as a shorthand for "Muslim" is probably the most problematic component of the term "Eurasia," but--at least for now--this is not something which has thus far prevented Volga Tatars, Crimean Tatars, Azeris and others from embracing the term.  
In any case, I'm bringing all of this up because--while I appreciate Kotkin's insight with regard to how many Russian-speakers might be uncomfortable with the term "Eurasia,"-- it is also worth keeping in mind that the term is generally viewed in more favor among non-Russians, and that the term was coined largely as a means of coming up with a way of describing the region that did not focus primarily upon St. Petersburg, Moscow, the Russian Empire, or the Soviet Union. So, when Kotkin writes that "the new favorite omnibus designation, “Eurasia,” rings differently over there" [490], it's important to note that Kotkin's representative of the people "over there" is the mainly Russophone editorial staff at Ab Imperio. While Ab Imperio is without question an excellent journal, the contents and approach of this journal are certainly more a reflection of North American, European, and Russian academic views of the region than of  those currently popular among the non-Russian academic and intellectual community of Kazan and elsewhere in the region. [This, in my opinion, is a good thing (or at least it can be), but it doesn't change the fact that this journal's approach to the question of "Eurasia" is probably going to be different from that of non-Russian scholars in the region.]  If Kotkin is going to invoke the views of people "over there" with regard to the question of what to call the region, I therefore think his argument would be a lot more convincing if he could take into account not only the views of predominantly Russian-speaking and US/European educated scholars, but also those of non-Russians who prefer to not have their regional histories interpreted primarily in terms of their "post-Soviet" or "post-imperial" legacies.  
Rather than use the term "Eurasia," Kotkin argues that we might considering using the term "Ab Imperio" instead.

[I]f we need an overarching term about what we study and what shaped the world, perhaps we might induce colleagues to subsume all this under the notion of “Ab imperio”—literally, “from empire.” [508]
This hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement--indeed, Kotkin seems more interested in asking provocative questions and furthering debate than in actually changing the terminology. But let's look at this term for a moment before talking about some of the bigger issues that Kotkin raises. 
It seems to me that the most obvious problem with using the term "Ab Imperio," and one that Kotkin surely realizes, is that the term is so generic that it could be applied to virtually any region in the world. Thus, it seems that for Kotkin, it is better to use a non-geographic designation for the region we study than to use one that is problematic. 
But there are, of course, lots of problematic terms that scholars use all the time, and somehow we all manage to survive. The terms "Near East" and "Middle East" are, for example, reflections of Eurocentric concepts of the world, but so far no one has come up with an alternative that has caught on. And for decades, people talked about Uzbeks, Tatars, Georgians, and other groups in the context of "Russia and Eastern Europe." Until the breakup of the Soviet Union and the development of trans-regional scholarly interests stretching from Turkey to China, people didn't really have a problem with this. [In any case, I don't remember hearing Russianist historians like Kotkin complain about the weaknesses of the terminology back then.] So why, now that the scholarly community has finally adopted an operating concept that does not center primarily upon the Russians, Moscow, or St. Petersburg, is it suddenly unthinkable for us to employ a term that is imperfect, and to such an extent that it would be better for us to essentially adopt no specific geographical terminology at all?
But while the term 'Ab Imperio' is generic with respect to geography, the term is more specific when it comes to systems of rule--for the term is, after all, imperial. Kotkin, of course, goes into great detail to emphasize that he is not referring to a single empire, but rather to the various empires which have inhabited the region we work on. But let's be serious here: for the great majority of people working in this field, the term 'Ab Imperio' conjures up first and foremost the Russian Empire (after all, how many articles on the non-Russian empires of the region does the journal Ab Imperio run?). All Mongols aside, "Ab Imperio" is a term which re-establishes, in contradistinction to "Eurasia," the primacy of the imperial center to the field. Even if we argue until we are blue in the face that what we are taking about are actually imperial centers, and not a single imperial center [although frankly I wonder why Kotkin didn't use the term "from empires" rather than "from empire," if it is a plurality of empires that really interests him], I don't think that many non-Russian scholars in places like Kazan, Ufa, Baku, or Simferopol would find "from empire" a real improvement over "post-Soviet," and I wouldn't either.  
Moving on to a larger field of argument, Kotkin is not simply concerned about terminology but rather the state of the field more generally. Railing against what he describes as the "fixation" on identities that he sees in Eurasian studies, Kotkin argues that we should focus instead on "institutions" [528]. Moreover, Kotkin suggests that the tendency in the scholarship to look at identities, rather than institutions, may even be related to the preponderance of authoritarian states in the region.
This is a very interesting and provocative line of argument. And indeed, maybe there is some connection between research agendas of an international community of scholars and the ways in which authoritative states in the former Soviet Unions govern. At the same time, however, I think that even a cursory glance at the kind of connections that Kotkin is trying to make can reveal a number of holes in this argument.
Indeed, in the historiography of the Balkans and Central Europe--including that of ten EU members from the region--there has been no less of a tendency to focus upon nationalist narratives and "identity" than there has been in, say, Tatarstan, the Caucasus, or Central Asia.  Nevertheless, while Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and other countries with identity-fixated historiographies may not necessarily be the most liberal societies in Europe, they are nevertheless considerably more liberal than, say, Turkmenistan, Russia, and Georgia. Meanwhile, it should also be pointed out that there is relatively little focus on "identity" in scholarship focusing upon Russia and the Russians themselves, even though Russia has become the model for stage-managed democracy and state control of information that other authoritarian former Soviet states have sought to emulate. Thus, I think that by looking at precisely the sort of institutions (the EU, for example) that Kotkin encourages scholars to examine more closely, it is fairly easy to conclude that authoritarianism in, say, Bashkortostan or Belarus probably has more to do with the internal and external political dynamics of those countries than with the tendency (or lack thereof) of scholars to focus on "identity" in the historiography of the peoples inhabiting these countries. 

Putin as Tatar: Detail from a souvenir plate I bought in Kazan

As for Kotkin's broader case that scholars need to look at "institutions," rather than "identity," I can say that I agree with him in part. Certainly, the historiography of many of the populations that I work on has traditionally been dominated by very narrow national historiographies, among which even what Kotkin calls "vulgar Benedict Andersonism" would probably be considered an improvement. Kotkin is absolutely right to encourage scholars to look more closely at institutions. 
At the same time, however, as someone who is concerned about issues of state-community interaction not only from the perspective of the tsarist state, but also from the perspective of Muslim communities themselves, I don't view the question of "identity" with the same sort of disdain that Kotkin evidently feels for it. While I would agree that much of the literature that focuses upon "identity" tends to be rather simple and poorly done, I also believe that it is important for scholars to continue to try to gain a better understanding of how non-titular communities viewed the state, and the place of their own communities within the state. Is that "identity"? I would think so. For while there are many cases in which different religious communities interacted with the tsarist state in ways which seemingly had little or nothing to do with their confessional status, in many other cases I think it is impossible to discuss the question of state-subject relations without addressing the issue of collective identity.  Indeed, in a state like Russia--where much of the administration of non-Russian communities was undertaken through state institutions that were nominally "Muslim," "Jewish," "Buddhist," or otherwise confessional in form--I think it is particularly difficult, if not impossible, to separate the study of institutions from the question of how the community saw itself as a community in its interactions with the tsarist state.
To be honest, I found Kotkin's rant against the identity "fixation" of Eurasianists (by which he seems to mean people working in the field who can research in a language other than Russian) to be a little curious given the way the historiography of Eurasia (by which I mean not only that of scholars working on non-Russians, but also those working specifically on the Russian and Soviet states) has developed over the last fifteen years, discussions of state institutions has really assumed a previously unimaginable position in the historiography of non-Russian communities. Take, for example, the field I work on, Muslim communities in Russia. If we look at the best known and most influential books to come out regarding Muslim populations in Russia over the past fifteen years, almost all of them have been written from the perspective of state institutions, rather than that of Muslim concerns relating to "identity."
Indeed, one of the most interesting consequences of the changes that have taken place in Russian studies over the past two decades has been the conquest of the scholarly borderlands by Russianist historians. During the Cold War, Russianists often ignored the existence of non-Russians in the empire altogether, while the study of non-Russian populations was left to "nationalities studies" experts who championed the "national awakening" of these communities in the face of "Russian" rule. Since the 1990s, however, the scholarly literature examining non-Russians in the empire has gradually come to be dominated by Russianists who, while often producing excellent work, nevertheless tend to operate mainly within the concepts, categories, and terminology of the tsarist state [upon whose sources these narratives, even when critical, are constructed]. Meanwhile, a smaller group of studies relating to Muslims in Russia has been produced by scholars with a background in Islamic or regional studies who, while making a very valuable contribution to their field by re-positioning Muslims from Russia within the field of Islamic world history, nevertheless tend to pay little, if any, attention to the state at all [indeed, in the case of several of these studies, it is easy to forget that the action is taking place in Russia at all]. Judging from the footnoes of Kotkin's piece, both examples of research meet with his approval on how best to discuss the region he wants us to call "from empire."
But where do such approaches leave the issue of conflict? Whereas the historiography of non-Russian communities in Russia was once dominated by nationalist narratives emphasizing the theme of conflict between non-Russian communities and "Russian" rule, today the issue of conflict is mainly discussed either according to the concepts, categories, and terminology of tsarist state officials, or else is written out of the historiography altogether [this is also the case in Ottoman historiography, where the concept of Ottoman "tolerance"--which once was a very useful corrective to nationalist narratives emphasizing the "Turkish yoke," has become so overused and so broad that it has lost much of its original meaning]. While I do not share Kotkin's disdain for "identity," I do think that scholars working on non-Russian populations in the empire should nevertheless take Kotkin's advice and look more carefully at tsarist institutions, if for no other reason than to provide a narrative of these interactions that is not based entirely upon state perspectives and sources.
Thus, as far as the concept of "Eurasia" is concerned, I found Kotkin's critique of the term very useful and informative. But while I sympathize with some aspects of this critique (and have some issues with the term that are different from the ones that Kotkin brings up),  I would also argue that, at least with respect to literature concerning Muslim communities in Russia, the concept "from empire" is not only alive and well, but has actually been the dominant force in this historiography for quite some time. While "Eurasia" is not a perfect term (and what term is?), I think it's the best alternative that I've heard so far.

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