Film Review: Mustafa

November 9, 2008
Earlier this week I went to see "Mustafa," Can Dündar's controversial new documentary about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.

I have always considered Dündar a rather bland figure, well-known for his vaguely liberal left-of-center and very uncontroversial views. Dündar is a newspaper columnist who has written a number of books on contemporary affairs, but he'd always struck me as someone who was more interested in asking questions than in staking out an opinion. Fifteen years ago he came out with an earlier documentary of Atatürk which I have never seen, but which was tame enough to have served as standard fare for Turkish elementary school classrooms every since. It was therefore surprising to hear that many people had found his latest endeavor insulting to Atatürk, even in a country where hagiography often passes for history when it comes to Turkey's first president.

I found the first half of 'Mustafa' much less interesting than the second. Indeed, Dündar is mainly concerned with the Turkish War of Independence and subsequent years, so the parts of the film detailing Mustafa Kemal's childhood and early career offer little excitement. Indeed, Dündar seems to be in a bit of a hurry to get on to the War of Independence, skipping over major events like the Unionist takeover in 1908 and Kemal's activities in Libya. There is, in fact, much about Kemal's life during these years that I think audiences would find interesting, but Dündar doesn't stray far from the general outlines of Kemal's life that are already of general knowledge in Turkey. As a result, the film feels like it is simply going through the motions at this stage while Dündar looks ahead to the second half of the film.

Ergenekon: Turkey's Troubling Trial of the Century

October 20, 2008
The so-called 'Trial of the Century' began here today. Eight-six people, including a number of retired generals and prominent journalists, have been accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The undertaking was supposedly called 'Ergenekon.' It is so strange, so sensational, that frankly I have no idea what to believe.
It all started on June 29 of last year, when police raided a home in the Ümraniye district of Istanbul, where they found a stock of weapons. Six months later, in January of 2008, police took thirty-three suspects into custody, claiming they were part of a terrorist group that had been carrying out political assassinations in Turkey, including the January 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, editor of an Armenian-language newspaper in Istanbul. The suspects rounded up included a former Major General by the name of Veli Küçük, a retired army colonel named Fikret Karadağ, a journalist for the newspaper Akşam, Güler Kömürcü, and several other figures. One of the most intriguing names to emerge from the early investigation was Sami Hoştan, who was involved in the Susurluk scandal from the late 90s (more on that below). Police claimed that they had found a so-called 'death list' created by the group which included the names of Kurdish political figures like Ahmet Türk, Leyla Zana, Sebahat Tuncel, and Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir, as well as Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk and Zaman newspaper journalist Fehmi Konru. The group, which police claimed was a nationalist death squad with links to the state, was called Ergenekon.

Trouble in Ukraine

September 27, 2008
Nobody's talking about it in the United States, but a serious political crisis has broken out in Ukraine. Those of you keeping score might remember that in 2004 the Orange Revolution brought a pro-Western government to power in Kyiv, and since then Ukraine and Georgia have emerged as the two most important allies of the United States among republics of the former Soviet Union which have not already joined NATO.

The crisis has been brought on by a feud between two of America's most important supporters in the country, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. On Wednesday, Tymoshenko joined forces with Viktor Yanukovich (who was the Moscow-sponsored opponent of Yushchenko in the 2004 elections) in supporting a measure to limit the president's powers. The rumors are now that Tymoshenko and Yanukovich will form a coalition government with Tymoshenko as Prime Minister.
Yushchenko's supporters have accused Tymoshenko of treason and Yushchenko himself has threatened to dissolve parliament and call new elections--a move which seems unlikely given his party's own weak standing in opinion polls.

All of this comes at a time when Washington finds itself in an increasingly defensive position in Eurasia. After the heady days of 2004-2005 and the installation of pro-American governments in Georgia and Ukraine, the Bush administration's goals of incorporating both countries into NATO have already contributed to the partitioning of Georgia and risk creating a similarly volatile situation in Ukraine, where the idea of joining the alliance is anathema to the large Russian-speaking population of the country.

As I argued in a recent posting, the Bush administration's obsession with extending NATO membership to these countries is self-defeating. In Ukraine, the prospect of joinging the EU would be a far less divisive and equally effective means of guaranteeing Ukrainian territorial integrity. Indeed, Washington's current plans of putting Ukraine and Georgia on the fast track to membership in NATO could very well lead to the very breakup of Ukraine that Washington is seeking to avoid by promoting its membership. Particularly in today's heated atmosphere, Russians in Ukraine--particularly in the the Crimea--are simply not going to stand for it.

Recent Events in the Caucasus and Russia's Mini-Republics

 September 12, 2008
The other day in the New York Times Ellen Barry had an article on the separatist movement in Tatarstan. According to Barry, the Russian government's abandonment of a policy of steadfast support for the principle of territorial integrity in the face of separatist movements has already attracted the attention of separatists within Russia.
“In the long term, they could have signed their own death warrant,” said Lawrence Scott Sheets, the Caucasus program director for the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that tries to prevent and resolve global conflicts. “It’s an abstraction now, but 20 years down the road, it won’t be such an abstraction.”

More thoughts on South Ossetia

August 27, 2008
Well, the big story here is of course Russia's recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On Russian state television, the decision is being presented quite clearly as a response to the recognition of Kosovo's independence earlier this year by the United States and the European Union. Indeed, an extended excerpt of a speech by Vladimir Putin in Germany last June in reaction to the recognition of Kosovo's independence was shown on the news tonight. I'd never seen it, but in it he clearly says that if such rules apply to Kosovo, then they can apply to countries all over the world.

Indeed, Russia's recognition today marks a reversal of a policy Russia had followed since the end of the Cold War, in which Moscow steadfastly insisted upon the principle of territorial integrity while the United States and the European Union recognized the independence of one state after another in the Balkans. While Russian support for Belgrade was often presented in the Western media in terms of some kind of mystical Orthodox brotherhood between the two countries, in fact Russia supported Yugoslavia's territorial integrity because the Russian Federation is itself divided into republics and autonomous regions which could likewise break apart--and which appeared to be, for much of the 1990s. Thus, despite the fact that the Russian government for years supported the breakaway republics in Georgia, it never went as far as to recognize their independence--until now.

A busy week in the borderlands...

August 16, 2008
I'm in Kazan, now. It's been an incredibly busy week, as my final days in Ufa involved a lot of work and numerous courtesy calls. Now I'm looking forward to settling down again and getting some more work done in Kazan.
As I mentioned earlier, I spent the first part of the week working in the archive of Rizaeddin Fahreddin, someone who was much involved in Muslim activist circles in the late imperial period and later became the second mufti of the Soviet Union. Fahreddin's archive is useful not only for the material relating to Fahreddin himself, but also for its wealth of documents pertaining to the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly. Indeed, Fahreddin spent much of his time as mufti going through documents in the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly's archive. In some instances, he recopied materials into his notebooks, but many of the documents here are originals.

Russian Academy of Sciences, Ufa

The materials on the Orenburg Assembly are not as vast as those of the Central State Historical Archives in Ufa, but I would think that anyone working on the Orenburg Assembly would definitely want to look at them. I should also say that Ramil Makhmutovich has provided a real service to research into Islam in Russia by cataloguing this large fond of materials. 
Monday and Tuesday were thus spent working intensely at the archive of the Academy of Sciences, where I took over one thousand photographs of documents. On Wednesday, however, we took an excursion. Ramil Mahmutovich (Bulgakov) had suggested that we visit the grave of Rizaeddin Fahreddin, so on Wednesday the two of us went there, accompanied by the historian Marsil Farkhshatov, as well as Gülnar Iuldibaeva, a folklorist at the Academy of Sciences in Ufa, and Liliia Baibulatova, a kandidat nauk from Kazan who recently published a book on Fahretdinov's Asar. Then we all went to a restaurant looking over the Ufa river and had lunch.
After lunch, we headed back to the Academy of Sciences so that I could deliver my otchet, or report on my activities, to the Director of the Academy, Professor Firdaus Khisamitdinova, a former Minister of Education for the Republic of Bashkortostan. It also turned out that Firdaus hanım is an old friend of Flera Safiullina, one of my Tatar teachers from way back in Kazan. Some photographs were taken, after which I was presented with a book. All in all, a nice afternoon. 
On Thursday, I took the bus from Ufa to Kazan. It's a lot cheaper than flying ($35 versus $170), and shorter than the train (ten hours, they said, versus twenty-two). In all, the trip ended up taking sixteen hours, two of which were spent sitting by the side of the road ten miles outside of Kazan due to construction. It was a pretty lousy trip, but not much worse than expected.
In Kazan I was picked up at the bus station by Lolla, the woman from whom I'm renting an apartment here. Lolla is orginally from Abkhazia, and like everyone else I've ever met from the Caucasus is extremely hospitable. Indeed, this morning she was taking her children to the "Blue Lakes" outside Kazan and called to ask if I wanted to go. They're quite interesting--today was my first time there. Due to mineral deposits they are a deep blue-green color, and for some reason are extremely cold--no warmer than the mid-forties, in my estimation. When I jumped in the first time, I felt my heart contract and thought I was going to die for sure. It was so cold I could barely feel my toes after just a few seconds. The most anyone could do was swim from one side of the pond to the other--a distance of about forty feet. It was definitely refreshing, though, and fun.
In the afternoon on Friday I worked for a couple of hours at home until heading down to Bauman Street to meet Igor, my old landlord from my Fulbright year. Igor has since sold the apartment I used to live in and is planning to emigrate to South Africa, but for the time being is renting a place on Tatarstan Street. Both he and his girlfriend, Sveta, love going to Ikea, which is located in the enormous Mega shopping center on the edge of town. I drove out there with them, and we sat in Ikea for a few hours, drinking tea in the Ikea cafe and chatting about people we know. Then we were joined by a couple of Igor's friends, who were also hanging out at Mega.
A friend of mine, Ramil, owns an apartment out near Mega, so after leaving the shopping center Igor dropped me off there, where I had dinner with Ramil, his cousin, and his sister. After speaking with Igor and his friends in Russian all afternoon, it was fun to switch into Tatar, something which reminded me of one of the reasons why I like this city so much.
At eleven I got up to leave. In Kazan the public transportation shuts down pretty early, so I had to go home by "taxi"--meaning I flagged down someone in a car and came to an agreement with him on a price.
I remember taking a "taxi" like this for the first time, when I lived in Kazan in 2003-2004. I was really anxious about it, and only did so after having spent a couple of months here. Ultimately, climbing into the car of a complete stranger in the middle of the night--or at dawn--became second nature, making small talk in Russian or Tatar as we sped down the road listening to techno on the radio.
Anyway, the guy who picked me up was a recent graduate of the Law Institute here, and we started to chat. He asked me my name, told me his was Timur, and by the time we got to my apartment near Sovetskaia Ploshchad' he asked me if he could take my picture. "No one's gonna believe this" he said to himself after snapping a couple of photos.
Whatever, I guess all of this sounds a bit self-aggrandizing--and it's not as if people here automatically go nuts upon meeting a foreigner. But all the same, there aren't nearly as many foreigners here as there are in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and people here are less stand-offish about making conversation than they can be in the capitals. Indeed, one of the great things about living in provincial Russia is that it is much easier to make contact with people.
The other great thing about living in Kazan is getting the chance to hear two languages constantly throughout the day. Indeed, while bilingual signs (Russian and Bashkir) are more present in Ufa than in Kazan, it seems to me that I hear a lot more Tatar on the street here than I hear Bashkir or Tatar in Ufa. In Kazan, I feel like I can live in both worlds, a feeling I think I've only really had elsewhere when I was a student in Montreal. Two languages, two religions, two great civilizations.
Granted, there are a lot of things about living abroad--and particularly about living in Russia--that I can find exasperating, things that I tend not to write about here. Especially at times like this, however, I feel really, really lucky to have been able to have the kind of experiences I've had over here.
To see more photos from the Caucacus journey, go to the photos page of 
More links, analysis and photographs can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

South Ossetia and the fate of the 'mini-republics'

August 13, 2008
Something about the recent crisis in South Ossetia that needs to be underscored is the absolute necessity of the next US president coming to some kind of understanding with Russia over the fate of the mini-republics, the “national” republics within states which have been the conflict zone of Eurasian space since the end of the Cold War. Chechnya, the republics of the former Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are all examples of such “mini-republics,” regions which had their own state apparati--usually autonomous regions or republics within Yugoslavia or the republics of the former USSR.
As I discussed in my post yesterday, the question of when to recognize the independence of mini-republics and when to support the territorial integrity of larger state entities has never been answered consistently. Indeed, after years of insisting upon the sanctity of respecting the territorial integrity of states, Russia has now become more aggressive in defending separatism when it suits its interests. The United States, which for years has supported separatist movements when it felt like it, is now up in arms over Russia's support for South Ossetia.

A little bleary in the archives...

August 11, 2008

Well, it's been a long day but a good one. I was supposed to call the Academy of Sciences first thing this morning to see if they had decided to let me research there or not. Two weeks ago when I applied for permission they told me I'd find out within a week, but when I called them last week they had hemmed and hawed and told me to call back a week later. I therefore had assumed that it wasn't going to work out, and so went out to a bar last night with Albert and a few of his friends.

Indeed, I'd only been out a couple of times in Ufa since arriving here a month ago, and I'll be leaving later this week. I figured it was time to do something other than sit inside all day in front of my computer. So, in the daytime I walked around town taking photographs, and in the evening called up Albert and proposed getting a few beers at Ogni Ufi, a complex consisting of a number of bars and an outdoor terrace not too far from my apartment.

Russian media coverage of the fighting in Southern Ossetia

August 9, 2008
Well, it's not looking good right now in South Ossetia, a republic that Georgia and most of the rest of the world recognizes as part of Georgia, but which the South Ossetian and Russian governments consider independent. Russian troops have been stationed in South Ossetia for years, where the Russian ruble is the currency and where most people have been given Russian citizenship. Today, some of their soldiers were killed when Georgian troops attacked in an apparent effort to retake the region. Russian troops then responded in force, sending tanks across the border. I won't go into details about what is actually happening there, since the facts are in dispute and my only access to news right now is Russian television. However, I can make a few observations. 

From Ufa V

August 8, 2008
It's rainy and cold again here. Actually, it's kind of nice at night--with the temperatures dipping into the low fifties--to sleep with the windows open and listen to the rain while a cool breeze blows into the apartment. I've been sleeping really well, although that also might be due to the fact that I've been working twelve hours a day. Last night I didn't call it quits until after three, and I was up again at eleven today working some more.

Rainy days in Ufa just won't go away

A Loser's Bet

August 6, 2008
Hardly anybody is talking about it in the American media, but the implementation of new regulations by the US Department of Homeland Security has made the nightly news in Russia two nights in a row, where it has been criticized as a "violation of human rights." The measures allow US customs agents to copy any and all data on people's electronic hard drives, and even confiscate people's computers.

To what depths have we sunk when Russian state television is able to chastise the US government--and rightly so--for its intrusions into people's personal freedoms?

From Ufa IV

July 31, 2008
Well, today was my birthday--and a great day it was. For the last ten days or so, I've been working a lot not only in the archives, but also on an article that's been a part of my life for too long. Today, like most days, I spent the morning working on the article before heading off to the archive. I came home again at around four in the afternoon, sat down and started working again on the article. I didn't get up again until after eleven.

And now, the article is pretty much finished! I'm going to send it off to some friends of mine, see what they think about it, then look at it again myself in a week or so. Hopefully I'll be able to submit it before too long.

Book Review: Robert D. Crews' For Prophet and Tsar

July 28, 2008
Robert D. Crews’ For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Harvard University Press, 2006) is one of the more interesting and thought-provoking works to emerge from the growing list of studies that have been produced over the past two decades with regard to the Muslim communities of late imperial Russia. Following on the heels of the work of Danil’ D. Azamatov (in particular, his masterly Orenburgskoe Magometanskoe dukhovnoe sobranie v kontse XVIII-XIX vv.), Crews’ study is an examination of the role of “official” Islam in the Russian Empire, and of the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly in particular.

From Ufa III

July 25, 2008
Well, I've finished my first week of work in Ufa and it has been really great. The folks in the archive have been friendly, and I've been able to get through a good amount of material here without being overwhelmed. All in all, there wasn't all that much that I needed to look through here, since I'd worked here for a few weeks back in 2005. However, there had been a number of questions which had come up since then and which I wanted to investigate here, and I think the two weeks that I'll end up working in the archive this month will be enough time to find whatever the archive has to help me answer them.

From Ufa II

July 23, 2008
Just a quick update now while I'm on online. Things are going well. I've been working in the archive the past few days--they're treating me nicely. As was the case when I worked here in 2005, they allow unlimited (and free) use of digital cameras, which makes the work go faster. I've been looking at some of the opisi of the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly that I didn't get a chance to look at last time, as well as some other materials relating to the provincial governor's office and other branches of regional administration.

From Ufa!

July 20, 2008
Greetings from Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan!

As I have no telephone line at home, I won't be able to regularly update this website. So, I'm just going to make the posts as always and will update when I can. Thus, there will probably be times when no posts appear for days or even weeks, followed by the sudden appearance of several postings all at once. I don't think there's any other way, at least until I'm back in Turkey. We'll see.

Hostel Territory

July 19, 2008

Ever since my old standby hotel in Moscow, the Rossiia, was demolished (here's a clip of the implosion--it's too short but gives you an idea of the immense size of this place) I've been without a regular place to stay in this town. The Rossiia was a dump but it was an enormous dump, so I could always get a room there. It wasn't a bad deal--for about $40 it was possible to stay right across the street from Red Square.
I miss the Rossiya
Hotels in Moscow are really expensive, so for a while I tried staying at the Izmailovo Gamma-Delta Hotel, but I just got sick of it. Not only is the Gamma-Delta as much of a dump as the Rossiia was, but it's also rather pricey in its own right and is just too far away to be much fun.

From Moscow

July 18, 2008 
Well, I've made it to Moscow! It's a little hard to imagine that just a few days ago I was still in Ann Arbor. It's been a tiring trip, but really exciting. On Thursday afternoon I flew from Istanbul to Moscow--the first time I'd flown into Moscow since 1998. A lot has changed. Indeed, the last several times I've flown to Russia I've arrived in St. Petersburg and (more frequently) Kazan, and my waiting time in customs and passport control has always ranged between one and three hours. This time, in contrast to my last arrival at Sheremetyevo airport in 1998 (when I waited three hours and didn't get out of the airport until five am), I breezed through passport control in just a couple of minutes. Then, I boarded Sheremetyevo's brand new airport train, which goes from the airport to the Savyolovskaia train & metro station in about twenty minutes. Here is a shot of the inside of the train, and here is a photo of some of the scenery that I passed through en route into town.

The oil companies and Iraq

An article by Andrew E. Kramer appearing on the website of the New York Times last night reports on the awarding of no-bid contracts to Exxon-Mobil, Shell, Total, BP, and Chevron.
The no-bid contracts are unusual for the industry, and the offers prevailed over others by more than 40 companies, including companies in Russia, China and India.
While the contracts are not large, they are considered important by industry analysts for establishing position with respect to a series of lucrative new contracts which are expected to open up soon.
“The bigger prize everybody is waiting for is development of the giant new fields,” Leila Benali, an authority on Middle East oil at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said in a telephone interview from the firm’s Paris office. The current contracts, she said, are a “foothold” in Iraq for companies striving for these longer-term deals.
One question: since the oil companies are obviously benefiting from the American occupation of Iraq, when are they going to start paying some of the war's costs?

Last day in Morningside Heights

June 13, 2008
I'm leaving New York tomorrow, unfortunately. Don't get me wrong--I'm looking forward to spending the next two weeks in Rhode Island. But at the same time, I already feel nostalgic for the year that is coming to an end tomorrow.
When I received the Harriman fellowship last year, I originally told them that I could only do it for one semester. I'd already received the NEH-ARIT fellowship for seven months in Turkey, and decided to spend one semester in New York and then the second semester in Istanbul.

Nicholas Breyfogle's Heretics and Colonizers

May 30, 2008
I've been pretty busy lately preparing to leave New York, and one of the many tasks I've been tackling has been returning to Columbia's library the dozens of books I've got stacked all over my apartment and office. There are a number of books about which I'd like to write a few lines, without going through the bother of writing a full review, and this site seems like a good place to do it.