Russian-Arab Worlds: New Sources and Angles
RoundTable XII-2, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am
This roundtable celebrates the new book "Russian-Arab Worlds: A Documentary History" (Oxford, 2023). The 34-chapter anthology explores the rich history of the Arab world’s current Russian entanglements, unearthing roots deep in the tsarist and Soviet periods. Carefully chosen primary sources translated from Arabic, Russian, Armenian, Persian, and Tatar reconstruct a centuries-long history of connections and contestations that had fallen between the artificial cracks of area studies frameworks. The sources, all appearing in English for the first time, include archival, autobiographical, and literary texts, introduced by specialists and often by pairs of scholars with complementary language expertise. They offer kaleidoscopic glimpses of the many ways that Russia and the Arab world engaged and helped shape each other over more than two centuries, thanks largely to intrepid individuals who became intermediaries across national boundaries. A set of new maps reorients the reader’s historical and geographic imagination, helping students and scholars alike get their bearings amid the expansion and collapse of empires, forced population transfers, and creation of new nation-states that occurred during the two centuries our sources cover.
Unlike most treatments of the modern Middle East, which leave out Russia, our anthology begins not with Napoleon’s 1798 Egyptian landing but earlier, with Russia’s 1772 naval mission in Syria—the earliest European military intervention in the Eastern Mediterranean. Each chapter complicates or upends a prevailing scholarly assumption. Newly discovered documents show how transnational religious solidarities (both Muslim and Orthodox Christian) were manufactured; how provincial decision-makers influenced foreign policy; how states sought to control and use minority groups including Circassians, Armenians, and Jews; and how structures of political and cultural influence persisted despite massive historical ruptures. Readers hear from some resourceful characters who have embodied and exploited Arab-Russian contacts: missionaries and diplomats, soldiers and refugees, students and party activists, scholars and spies. The sources highlight such in-between figures as Turkestan-born diplomat Shakhirdzhan Ishaev, Palestinian schoolgirl turned St. Petersburg Arabist Kulthum `Awda Vassilieva, Afro-Syrian communist “Sawwaf,” and contemporary Syrian novelist and Arabic-Russian translator Khalil Alrez, showing how enterprising individuals refashioned themselves to navigate the shifting geopolitical and cultural terrain of the Arab-Russian and Arab-Soviet encounter. Sources on literature, painting, and cinema appear alongside documents on diplomacy, religion, and study abroad, showing how those spheres interact.
“Russian-Arab Worlds” promises to deepen the growing scholarly conversation about Russian, Middle Eastern, and global history. We are excited to pursue this conversation with our MESA friends and colleagues.
I approach the subject of Russian-Arab ties from the Arabic angle and through the disciplinary lens of comparative and world literature, so at this roundtable I plan to show how Russian literature and Soviet experiences can work as a pair of red threads pulling through Arabic literary history, bringing together figures that at first appear disparate and illuminating thematic and stylistic commonalities that scholars since 1990 have almost entirely overlooked. On the other hand, simply centering Russia in the story of modern Arabic culture also poses a risk (it was not in fact central for many Arab writers, any more than "the West" was, but simply provided resources they could use). So my presentation - like my past talks on MESA panels - will stress the agency and strategies of the Arabic interlocutors who developed their personal styles and messages in (sometimes acrimonious or half-interested) dialogue with Russian literary models or experiences of living in the USSR.
Another issue that interests me is continuity between periods of cultural history. Several documents in the "Russian-Arab Worlds" collection point to carryovers between the tsarist and Soviet (or Ottoman and Mandate and nation-state) periods. In some cases the same Russian-speaking, largely Orthodox Christian litterateurs, such as Kulthum 'Awda, Hanna Abu Hanna, and Mikhail Naimy, continue to produce and shape their societies' cultural output both before and after the Russian Revolution. My presentation will make these links explicit, pointing forward to the continuities between Arab-Soviet literary ties and the many forms of deja vu on today's post-Soviet scene.
While teaching Middle Eastern, Russian/Eurasian, and global history I have often wondered why the “global” historical perspective lends itself more easily to courses, conferences, and volumes about the Middle East than to ones about Russia and the Soviet Union. Perhaps one reason is that histories of integration tend to privilege economic interactions, markets as prime movers, and use of economic metaphors to describe exchange, interconnectivity, and the circulation of people and ideas. This language makes it easier to see transregional exchanges and integration in colonial context where economic interconnectedness was more explicit. By contrast efforts to normalize the USSR’s imagined relationship with the capitalist world—by reinterpreting 1930s “autarky” as an outcome of the closing of world credit and commodity markets or tracing Soviet postwar reintegration into global trade as a component of postwar globalization—have been critiqued for underestimating the role of ideology in ways that have led to substantial distortions. Our sourcebook tries to bridge research and teaching of the Middle Eastern, Russian/Soviet, and global history by focusing on documented religious, educational, and cultural entanglements and the individuals and institutions that sustained them. It considers them within wider regional and global contexts. By emphasizing cultural, rather than economic or political connections, our sources and essays raise new questions about continuity and change, as well as general periodization, of Middle Eastern and Eurasian histories. We hope these questions will contribute to the curricular development of these and other related fields.
My interest in the relationship between modern Russia and the Middle East began in
college in the early 1990s, when I found that the history courses I’d taken did not help
me understand much of what I had experienced during a year of study abroad at Moscow State University (MGU), in 1991-1992.
Something I remember vividly from that year: sitting in a class on Tolstoy next
to a man dressed in a suit, who, to my fascination, was taking notes in Arabic. This was
my introduction to Soviet higher educational outreach to the Arab world—part of the
post-1945 global Cold War, which brought tens of thousands of Arab students to Soviet
universities—a subject not covered at all in the U.S.- and Euro-centric Soviet history
courses taught back home.
When I began graduate school in the late 1990s to study Russian and Middle Eastern
history, it seemed obvious to me that there were many ways to uncover the
interconnections between these two world regions. And yet, their historiographies had
little to say to one another at the time; and the two fields were (and still are) far more
open to and integrated into other area studies fields than with one another (there is, for
instance, and for reasons we can discuss in this roundtable, far more comparative and
interregional work on the Middle East and Africa/South Asia/Central Asia, than on the
Middle East and Russia).
Fast forward 20 years, during which scholars (especially on the Russian side) have
been working to integrate Russian and Middle East Studies, and we now have a good-
sized body of work. My own approach—in research and teaching—has been to focus on
migrations between the two regions, the institutions that states built up around them,
and the kinds of relationships and political and strategic possibilities these created. My
first book is about Russian sponsorship of the hajj, and I am now working on a new
book about mass migrations from Russia to the Middle East and the institutions created
to support and organize them.
The sourcebook we have created is our contribution to seeding a new field of Russian-
Middle East Studies, with a focus on the Arab lands. It brings together work by scholars
leading in this work, and reveals the set of relationships, networks, ideas, and
institutions that give coherence to this new field. My role in this roundtable will be to
summarize the story of nineteenth-century Russian-Arab worlds that our book tells.