Borders And Our World Today

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The other day I received an email message from the Wilson Center in Washington DC referring to borders, so you know I was interested. The message was advertising an interview with Paul Werth, an historian of the Russian Empire and professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. The question-and-answer session with Werth, who has written extensively on the issue of religious administration in Russia, is rather short but interesting. I recommend that you check it out. 

Sarpi border crossing between
Georgia and Turkey
The title of the interview was "Russia's Enclosure and the Issues of Bordermaking," which immediately caught my attention. In both my previous book, Turks Across Empires, and in the biography that I'm currently working on in relation to the poet Nâzım Hikmet and his generation of Turkish communist border-crossers, I've written a fair bit about frontiers and the people who cross them. Indeed, one of the arguments I make in each of these books is that we need to look more closely at people's locations and surrounding circumstances, and less at ideology, as a means of better understanding what the individuals I look at were trying to achieve. 

Historians, especially those looking at issues like pan-Turkism (which the individuals in my first book were associated with) or communism, have usually tended to privilege ideology as a determining factor in leading these individuals down a particular path. That was certainly the case with the scholarly literature I encountered when researching Turks Across Empires, which was typically obsessed with various forms of nationalism and other types of collective identity. An older generation of scholars tended to use identity as the prism through which they interpreted politics and society in the Muslim borderlands of Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries. While such approaches might have been interesting three or four decades ago, by the time I started working on the project I found most of these interpretations to be rather sterile, so I started thinking of different ways of discussing the pan-Turkists. 

What was it that I found inspiring about them? I realized that it was their ability to re-invent themselves as they crossed borders, and so that was the area upon which I focused. And, as I continued my research, I realized that the people I discussed most in Turks Across Empires--Yusuf Akçura, Ahmet Ağaoğlu, İsmail Gasprinskii, and Ali Hüseyinzade--all became different people, at least with respect to both their writings and the political activities, when they crossed borders. Rather than try to shoehorn these dynamic individuals into a puny intellectual box, I realized that it made a lot more sense to embrace the complexities that their border-crossing created. 

A young Nâzım Hikmet on the road
with V
âlâ Nureddin
Similarly with Nâzım Hikmet and his generation of Turkish communists, too much emphasis has been placed upon ideology. Born at the beginning of the 20th century and coming of age in the early 1920s, Nâzım's generation was the last of the Ottomans. They, too, re-invented themselves with every border crossed, and--like the pan-Turkists--were much more complicated and interesting individuals than they are normally presented as having been, Rather than treat Turkish communists from the 20s and 30s as mere repositories of "ideas," "debates," and "arguments," I try to show how their ideology grew out of their border-crossing. 

What does all of this have to do with Paul Werth and his recent scholarship? According to his interview with the Wilson Center, Paul is currently working "on the history of Russian borders and territory." While Werth's approach appears to be a little different from mine--I get the impression he's more interested in the construction of the border itself--there still seems to be a fair bit of intersection between our respective approaches--not for the first time I might add, as I also found myself interacting with Paul's fine work on Russian religious administration as I researched my first book.

In particular, I found Paul's comments on the importance of borders today to be quite thought-provoking: 

Q: Why do you believe that your research matters to a wider audience?

Borders seemed to be disappearing before COVID-19—though the matter was never that simple, and there are good grounds for making the opposite claim. The pandemic made crystal clear that they still matter, if debates about immigration and the US and Europe hadn't made that obvious already. The fact is that we live in a bordered world, one that came fully into being only quite recently in a historical sense. Understanding how that occurred and the consequences that it had for various people strikes me as centrally important. To what extent do borders represent fundamental attributes of modern sovereignty? Are they necessary attributes of modernity? What were the conceptions of territorial liminality before the modern period? Territory, for its part, is something that we often take for granted—until borders shift. Vladimir Putin's recent "article" on Russians and Ukrainians reveals that borders and territory remain an important aspect of the outlook of Russia's leadership currently. In case we needed confirmation. 

Without question, I would agree with the statement that the pandemic has underscored the importance of borders as a political issue today, but I would argue that this was something that started quite a bit earlier. Indeed, as someone who came of age at a time when walls were being torn down, and who   has now lived long enough to hear calls to re-build them, I feel quite personally connected to this issue. Borders were already making a comeback long before Covid-19. 

As was the case with the transition from late empire to post-empire, our own transition from the early post-Cold War years to our present era has similarly been accompanied by a growing apprehension toward border-crossers. The leaders of empires saw frontiers--and the people who crossed them-- as an opportunity, not a threat. Imperial capitals like Istanbul and St. Petersburg were situated on water, close to the frontier. Their successors, meanwhile--Ankara and Moscow--were selected as capitals precisely because they were far from the frontier. 

Today, so-called "populist" politicians are stoking people's fears of the border and border-crossers. This isn't only the case with respect to ex-president DJT, but also can be seen in Brexit--a move that could ultimately lead to the breakup of Britain. Hungary's Viktor Orbán is only the latest political figure in Europe to demonize immigrants, while many of my Turkish friends on Facebook are currently plastering their home page with an image of Atatürk accompanying the words "I don't want refugees in my country."

The irony of this last example is that Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) was born in Salonica--today's Thessaloniki in Greece--and his own family came to what is today Turkey as refugees following the First Balkan War in 1912. Actually, "irony" probably isn't the best word to use, because it makes perfect sense that the sort of people who would post something like this don't know much about history, particularly that of their own country, Turkey--which is, in fact, a nation of immigrants.

Between the end of the Crimean War and the beginning of WWI, an estimated 5 million Muslims immigrated to the Ottoman Empire, mostly from the Balkans and Russia. Meanwhile, there was an estimated 14 million Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire in 1912. When the Turkish Republic was created in 1923, the Turkish government began operating under the premise that everyone in the country who was Muslim was ethnically Turkish. Look at people's faces in Turkey today: you see pretty much every kind of genetic history imaginable. Yet people in Turkey have been taught to believe that they are all "pure Turks," something which only encourages intolerance toward this latest generation's immigrants. 

The shifting ideas toward borders that we see today is indeed a global phenomenon, and it didn't begin with the pandemic. Instead, this has been a growing presence in our world since the moment the walls were torn down in 1989. How we deal with these tensions will ultimately play an enormous role in determining how the history of the 21st century's early decades is written. 


Also see: 

Turks Across Empires

Turks Across Empires on the Ottoman History Podcast    

Blechsit: the Breakup of Britain? 

Excerpt: Turks Across Empires

Children of Trans-Empire: New Article re Nâzım Hikmet 


Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge

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