Revenge of the Nationalities?

[This is the third of a four-part series of posts concerning "The Past, Present, and Possible Future of Russian History in America." For background information on this series, click here. Previous installments: Part One and Part Two]

Revenge of the Nationalities?

Despite the impressive work being done in the broad subfields of cultural, political, social, and military history, the most important trend to have emerged since 1991 has been the growing interest in the geographic and cultural “peripheries” of both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Recently awakened to the place of non-Russian ethnic groups in the history of the country (thanks to their role in the collapse of the USSR) and increasingly influenced by the methodologies of geographers, anthropologists, ethnographers, and comparative sociologists, erstwhile Russian historians and newly emerging scholars have been at the forefront in developing scholarship relating to ethnicity and nationality within Russia proper and in those regions that Russians today refer to as their “near abroad:” Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Although hardly the first work to address the issue of ethnicity, Yuri Slezkine’s 1994 monograph Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North was a path-breaking and immensely successful study aimed at portraying the efforts of indigenous peoples to maintain their native identities in the face of Russian political and cultural encroachment. Covering more than 400 years of history, Slezkine’s account transcended the standard Imperial/Soviet divide in depicting the evolution of Russian policy in the Far North from the sixteenth century until the collapse of the USSR. In addition to providing a comprehensive study of the region’s peoples, Slezkine’s work was important as a marker of the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of post-1991 historiography as it utilized anthropological methodologies in tracing the cultural and intellectual history of the Russian conquest and administration of Siberia.

The number of studies devoted to colonial encounters, ethnic identity, and the inherent tensions between Russians and non-Russian nationalities has ballooned since the publication of Arctic Mirrors. Among historians of the Imperial era, Thomas M. Barrett, Michael Khodarkovsky, and Austin Jersild have written on Russians’ interaction with, respectively, the Terek Cosssacks of the North Caucasus, the nomads of the Central Asia steppe, and the mountain peoples of Georgia. Williard Sunderland has explored Russian popular and state initiatives aimed at colonizing the Black Sea-Caspian steppe, while Robert Geraci and Paul Werth have examined the intersections of ethnic identities and popular religious culture in separate studies of Russian colonization in the Volga-Kama region.

Nationalism and ethnicity have attained growing prominence in the work of Soviet-era historians, as well. Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 is only one of many recent studies to examine the difficulties encountered by Communist Party officials as they attempted to craft a single “union” from among the multitude of ethnic groups that populated the lands of the USSR. Focusing on early Soviet efforts to manage and control national identities while constructing the framework of their newly emerging state system, Martin’s monograph chronicles the often contradictory policies adopted by the Soviet authorities as they attempted to promote the national cultures of minority populations while dictating the content of those cultures to those same populations. Complimenting Martin’s broad examination of the origins and institutional development of Soviet nationalities policy, Douglas Northrop, Adrienne Lynn Edgar, and Paula Michaels have recently published more focused studies documenting the tensions that emerged between local inhabitants and central authorities as the state moved to replace “backward” ethnic customs and practices with a new, unified Soviet culture peopled and produced by “new” Soviet men and women. Nationality and ethnicity play similarly consequential roles in Matthew Payne’s monograph on the construction of the Turkistan-Siberian (Turksib) railway and Francine Hirsch’s examination of the rise of Soviet ethnography. When one adds to this already sizeable list of works focusing on Central Asia and the Caucasus recent monographs on the Polish and Ukrainian borderlands, the Soviet Jewish community, and various collected editions, a small library tied to issues of nationalism and ethnicity quickly emerges.1

The sudden and rapid growth of scholarship involving ethnicity and nationality has been accompanied by a number of broader developments which may have significant long-term effects on Russian history as a field. As established scholars and a new generation of graduate students move away from the Russian “center” to the non-Russian “periphery,” they open up for study and scrutiny an array of regions and cultures previously “marginalized” in academic literature. To the extent that research interests influence teaching, one can expect that students around the country will be provided with increasing opportunities to enroll in university courses focusing on the histories, the cultures, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) the languages of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Russian Far East.2 From the standpoint of liberal study writ large, these are positive developments which will serve to broaden understanding of as yet little known subjects. Whether the boom in scholarship on nationalities and ethnicity bodes well for Russian history and Russian historians, however, is an issue that bears discussion.

In marked contrast to previous changes in the field, the current infatuation with nationality and ethnicity has been accompanied by a series of developments which suggest that something more than a simple “paradigm shift” is well underway. The establishment of new journals, like the independent quarterly Ab Imperio, is but one case in point. A peer-reviewed humanities and social sciences journal, Ab Imperio is specifically “dedicated to interdisciplinary and comparative study of nationalism and history of empire and nationalities in the post Soviet space.” Published since the summer of 2000 by an editorial team of five scholars trained in Russian, European, and American institutions (and counting many leading historians as members of its editorial board), the international journal typifies the field’s movement “from the center to periphery.” Although not devoid of content pertaining to Russia proper, Ab Imperio’s coverage has heavily favored Central Asia and the Caucasus, a fact that is not at all surprising given the journal’s stated mission of promoting broader scholarly awareness of nationalities and nationalism.

Still more significant have been institutional changes such as the recent formation of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS), a relatively new scholarly organization devoted to promoting research and teaching involving the history, languages, and cultures of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Tracing its origins to a series of annual workshops begun in 1996 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, CESS emerged as a formal institution during the course of its inaugural conference in October 2000. Since incorporating as a non-profit and receiving tax-exempt status in mid-2001, CESS has growth considerably in size and stature. Currently hosted by Harvard University’s Program on Central Asia and the Caucasus and supported, in part, through the budgetary contributions of eight leading international and area studies centers, CESS boasts a membership of 1,588 scholars representing nearly 70 countries. Its twice yearly publication Central Eurasian Studies Review (appearing since January 2002) has quickly developed into a leading interdisciplinary journal. The rapid growth of CESS parallels recent developments in the longer standing Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN). Since its inaugural world convention in 1995, in which no more than a dozen panels and perhaps 100 participants took part, the event has grown considerably. In 2005, the organization’s world conference included more than 100 panels comprised of 455 participants drawn from 42 countries.3

The development of CESS and ASN stands in considerable contrast to the fortunes of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS), the nation’s leading scholarly organization for (what else?) advancing scholarship in Slavic-related fields. Originally founded in the late 1940s for the purpose of publishing an American journal pertaining to Slavic issues (Slavic Review), the association subsequently became a membership organization in 1960. Bolstered by widespread interest in the USSR and indirectly underwritten by the Title VI funds that flowed into academia during the height of the Cold War, AAASS grew in the decades that followed into the premier private organization devoted to Russia, Eastern Europe, and, by default, regions now identified as the “former Soviet Union.” An interdisciplinary association from its inception, AAASS and its many American regional affiliates attracted members from across the humanities and social sciences as well as non-academics affiliated with government, the military, and, to a lesser extent, the private sector.

More recently, AASSS has fallen on hard times. During roughly the same period in which CESS and ASN logged impressive growth, AAASS registered considerable decline. Between 1997 and 2007 the association saw its membership shrink from 3,610 to 2,640.4 Standard disclaimers that “correlation does not equal causality” notwithstanding, the concomitant expansion of organizations such as ASN and CESS coupled with a more than 25% drop-off in the ranks of AAASS suggests that Slavic area studies (and, by extension, Russian history) has, indeed, been adversely effected by rising interest in the non-Russian “periphery.”5 At the very least, the sea change underway in the field appears to have produced an identity crisis of sort for AAASS. At the organization’s annual conference in 2006, a special “Presidential Panel” convened to consider whether the organization should be renamed in a fashion that would more appropriately “fit the times.”6 Among the several suggestions floated by the panel’s participants and audience members, the descriptor “Eurasian” (intended to denote the society’s inclusion of Central Asia and the Caucasus) figured most prominently. At the time of this writing, the jury is still out on the “fate” of AAASS. Whatever the result, one need not be a believer in the post-modern nostrum “language = power” to recognize in the debate over the AAASS moniker an admission that “power” is drifting away from Russia and the Slavic world.

Far more disconcerting than the growth of newer societies and the (potential) re-branding of older ones has been the relative decline in funding opportunities for graduate training and scholarly research in Russian history. In recent years, funding agencies long relied upon by Russian historians have increasingly dispersed growing portions of their shrinking monies to projects involving Central Asia and the Caucasus. An important case in point is the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a non-profit organization founded in 1968 for the specific purpose of coordinating scholarly exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Through its Short-Term Travel Grant (STG) program and three- to nine-month Individual Advanced Research Opportunity (IARO) fellowships, IREX has long been the principal funding agency for doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers in Russian history and area studies. No longer devoted solely to facilitating scholarly exchanges to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, IREX now supports programs in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. Today, the organization has offices and representatives in over 125 cities of Europe and Eurasia administering programs to advance education, support independent media, promote Internet development, and build civil society.

Even though IREX remains an essential resource for scholars and students of Russia, as the organization has revised its mandate to include broader world regions so, too, has it shifted its attention within the region known as the “former Soviet Union” away from Russia proper to the Caucasus and Central Asia. As the records available through the IREX web site reveal, recent years have seen a growing percentage of IREX fellowships and grants awarded to projects devoted in whole or in part to Central Asia and the Caucasus. Of the 107 IARO fellowships dispensed over the three-year period from 1999-2000 to 2001-2002, 40 awards (or 37%) were designated for projects with a Russian-only focus while only 12 grants (11%) went to projects concentrating on Central Asia or the Caucasus. The most recent five-year period (2002-2003 to 2006-2007) reflects a growing emphasis on the “borderlands” as the number of funded projects involving Central Asia and the Caucasus exceeded those focusing on Russia. Of the total 146 IARO fellowships awarded by IREX during this period, 33 (or 22%) went to Russian projects as opposed to 40 (27%) for those focusing on Central Asia/Caucasus. The same general trend applies to the IREX Short-Term Travel Grant program. Where the 2001 competition cycle saw 18 of the 42 (43%) available grants earmarked for Russian projects as opposed to only 4 (9%) for Central Asia and the Caucasus, by 2005 the gap had narrowed to 31% for Russia (9 grants) compared to 17% (5 grants) for Central Asia and the Caucasus. These trends continued in the following two grant cycles. Of the 26 grants awarded in 2006 an equal number, 6 (or 23%) went to “borderlands” and Russian projects. The following year, 4 borderlands projects were funded (17%) as opposed to only 3 (13%) on Russian topics. In other words, amid a significant decline in the total number of STGs available (42 in 2001 versus only 23 in 2007), the absolute number of awards earmarked for Central Asia and the Caucasus remained the same while the number of STGs for research in Russia has fallen more than 80%. It is likewise worth noting that as IREX support for non-Russian projects has increased, the number of grants awarded for the study of history (all regions) has declined significantly. In each of the three years between 2000 and 2002, IREX awarded STGs to 10 applicants in history. During the following five years, historians accounted for only 3 (2003), 8 (2004), 6 (2005), 4 (2006), and 2 (2007)

The relative decline in IREX funding for Russian projects is not an isolated development. Other grant agencies with longstanding interests in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, such as the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research (NCEEER) and the American Councils for International Education (originally incorporated as the American Council of Teachers of Russian), are likewise devoting larger percentages of their available funds to projects focusing on non-Russian regions. The causes and effects of this phenomenon emerged as central topics at a roundtable discussion held at the 2006 national conference of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) in Washington, DC. Titled, “Policy Relevance and Humanities Grants in Slavic Studies,” the roundtable brought together chief administrators from four leading funding agencies to discuss how recent trends are effecting humanities research focusing on the regions of Russia and East Europe.7 When directly questioned by this author on the perceived shift away from Russian topics toward Central Asia and the Caucasus, each of the roundtable participants acknowledged that the shift is real and of relatively recent vintage. While such explanations as “broadening intellectual curiosity,” “increased access to non-Russian regional archives,” and “new methodologies” were cited in the discussion that followed, all of the participants acknowledged that the single most important factor behind the decreasing number of awards granted to Russian historians and cultural specialists has been a fundamental change in the way that grant agencies themselves are funded.

According to Robert Huber, President of NCEEER, cutbacks in funding for the National Endowment of the Humanities since the mid-1990s have significantly effected the number and types of fellowships agencies award to prospective applicants. When, in years past, block grants from the NEH underwrote a substantial amount of their scholarly programs, institutions such as NCEEER, IREX, ACTR, and the Wilson Center enjoyed considerable flexibility in making funds available to worthy humanities projects. Provided that applicants demonstrated that their research would contribute in some fashion to “advancing knowledge in the humanities” (broadly interpreted), foundations were more or less free to disperse awards as they saw fit. Since 1995, Congressional cutbacks to the NEH budget have forced agencies to turn elsewhere to generate the funds necessary to underwrite their grant activities. Increasingly, these agencies have come to rely on the institutional support of the Title VIII program.8 Administered by the U.S. Department of State, the mission of Title VIII is “to sustain the fields of Eurasian and Central and East European studies, support the national capability for advanced research of highly trained and experienced professionals, and make this expertise available for service in and out of government.” [emphasis added] As NCEEER’s web site explains, this last item means supporting “projects that produce readable analysis, reliable information, and lively debate about current economic, political, and international issues. Applicants must demonstrate, directly or indirectly, how their research impacts upon policy debates and research on such issues.”9

The requirement that projects underwritten by Title VIII be geared toward policy relevant research has given scholars employing social science methodologies a distinct advantage in the competition to secure funding. Similarly, individuals focusing on regions of the world perceived to be strategically important owing to geographic location and/or natural resources are likely to benefit from the Title VIII mandate. In contrast, scholars whose projects reflect less practical, humanistic approaches, or that pertain to Eurasian countries not currently in vogue may face a more challenging struggle in their quest to secure funds. This is not, of course, to say that projects lacking intellectual rigor or scholarly merit have been taking precedence over others simply because of “policy relevance.” Nor is it to say that Russian historians cannot obtain Title VIII funding, only that it is becoming more difficult for them to do so. In this regard, Mark Pomar, President of IREX, reported that the fallout from the shift to Title VIII can clearly be seen by comparing IREX awards in 2000-2001 with those from the most recent grant cycle, 2004-2005. According to Pomar, 2000-2001, “the last year of the NEH funding boom,” saw IREX award fellowships and grants to 70 project, of which 35 (50%) were in the humanities. By contrast, during the 2004-2005 cycle, in which IREX funded 60 projects, the number of awards in the humanities plummeted to only 9 (15%). As NCEEER’s Robert Huber quipped at the conclusion of the AATSEEL roundtable, while the “median” researcher in the field “probably remains a historian of nineteenth-century Russia, big problems loom for Russian historians” if major funding agencies are long forced to continue relying heavily on Title VIII to underwrite their fellowship programs. Still, Huber did note that NCEEER, recognizing the shift in IREX funding, has managed to support a larger number of humanities grants it did in times past. Provided that scholars are able to identify the link between their subjects of research and contemporary regional issues, it is possible to support humanities research under Title VIII. Moreover, in cooperation with ACTR, NCEEER administers an NEH-sponsored grant devoted exclusively to supporting the humanities by funding projects involving at least one colleague from the region and research in the region itself.

  1. Serhy Yekelchyk, Stalin’s Empire of Memory: Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Historical Imagination (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004); Kate Brown, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderlands to Soviet Heartland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Jeffrey Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001). Recent collection of essay include: Daniel R. Brower and Edward Lazzerini, eds., Russia’s Orient: Imperial Borderlands and Peoples, 1700-1917 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997); Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin, eds., A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Robert Geraci and Michael Khodarkovsky, eds., Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Imperial Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001) []
  2. A representative sample of course syllabi pertaining to Central Asia and the Caucasus can be found on the Central Asian Studies World Wide []
  3. Membership figures for the Association for the Study of Nationalities were not available. My thanks to Gordon N. Bardos, Executive Director of the ASN, for providing information on the growth of the association’s annual convention. []
  4. Statistics provided to the author via e-mail on 19 December 2007 by Luke Zentner, Membership Cooridinator of AAASS []
  5. Although the professional and scholarly interests of AAASS include such regions as the Balkans, the Baltic States, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, according to the organization’s rough calculations over 72% of its members’ interests lie in the Slavic word with Russia topping the list at 29%. Those interested in Central Asia account for only 7% of the AAASS total membership []
  6. An overview of the panel and its ensuing discussion was subsequently published in the AAASS newsletter. See, Katherine Verdery, “What’s in a Name and Should We Change Ours?,” NewsNet 46:2 (March 2006): 1-4 []
  7. The roundtable participants were: Dan Davidson, Executive Director of ACTR, Robert Huber, President of NCEEER, Mark G. Pomar, President of IREX, and Margaret Paxson, Senior Associate at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) []
  8. In 2005, for example, the Title VIII program provided $801,000 to IREX, $715,000 to the Woodrow Wilson Center, and just over $1 million to NCEEER []
  9. The quotation comes from NCEER’s public announcement for the 2008 National Research Competition []

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