Eileen Kane, Masha Kirasirova, and Margaret Litvin (eds.), Russian-Arab Worlds: A Documentary History (Oxford University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Eileen Kane, Masha Kirasirova, and Margaret Litvin (EK, MK & ML): This book was conceived at a workshop called “Russia and the Arab World: History, Literature, Arts” convened by Margaret Litvin at Boston University in February 2017. At the time this area of study was not well developed. The participants were excited—we had all struggled to convey the significance of Arab-Russian and Arab-Soviet connections to our students. Rather than publish yet another edited volume, we decided on a documentary history book to inspire scholars and teachers alike.
There was no obvious model. The existing sourcebooks either left out Russia and the USSR, if they focused on the Middle East, or left out Arabic and Middle Eastern sources if they focused on the Soviet Union. Not enough people even have the language background to bridge that gap. We three editors decided to model what it might mean to bring the fields together as both scholarly research and curricular design. We invited workshop participants and a few other scholars to contribute mini-lessons: a translated primary source, a reflection on its significance, and a few suggestions for further reading. The rules were that each source had to be previously unpublished in English, each introduction needed to challenge a received assumption in its respective field, and each chapter had to be comprehensible for an undergraduate with no specialized knowledge. We got some wonderful translations, and as our curiosity outgrew the bilateral paradigm of “Arab” on one side and “Russian” on the other, we kept finding new contributors to invite.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does this book address?
EK, MK & ML: One big contribution is the new scholarship on the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IPPO). There are five chapters on the IPPO: Vasili Khitrovo’s Jerusalem travelogue, documents from Russia’s domestic propaganda effort to make ordinary Russians feel connected to Palestine; autobiographical writings by alumni Mikhail Naimy and Kulthum ‘Awda; and a new map of more than one hundred IPPO schools in Syria/Lebanon and Palestine. It was interesting to try to geolocate each little village with a Muskobiyya school. The Russians invested in some tiny Orthodox Christian communities.
Another key strand of the book is about how religious solidarities are cultivated or manufactured. One chapter presents the 1896 travelogue of a Tatar Russian diplomat who goes on the hajj and is horrified by local Muslims. Another shows the Soviet Union, which was the first country to recognize Saudi Arabia, sending a delegation to the Hejaz in 1926 to shore up its credentials as an anti-imperialist modernizer and ally against the British.
Another cluster concerns Arab students in the USSR. We include statistical tables summarizing the extent of the study abroad program, which grew every decade from 1950 to 1990. There are chapters on the earlier internationalist period at the Communist University for Toilers of the East, and on Cold War-era students from Iraqi communist painter Mahmoud Sabri (whose beautiful painting graces the cover) to Egyptian refrigeration engineer Zakaria Turki, to Soviet-educated Syrian novelist Khalil Alrez, whose interview closes the book. We include a memo from the foreign minister of Soviet Azerbaijan (yes, the republics had their own foreign ministries!) trying to defuse tensions between Syrian and Iraqi Ba`thist students in Baku.
But there is so much more. We have included documents on Jewish migrants using Russian “pilgrim visas” to go to Palestine in 1840; slavery in the tsarist North Caucasus after 1861; the resettlement of Chechen refugees from Russia in the Ottoman Empire (1865) and later of Armenian genocide survivors from Arab countries to Soviet Armenia (1946-49); military and economic ties from 1774 to 1974; Stalin-era Arabic scholarship in Dagestan; and a co-produced film about the Aswan High Dam. We decided that since the book could not possibly be comprehensive, it should at least illuminate as many different areas of contact as possible.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
EK: I published a book in 2015 about the infrastructure that the tsarist regime built for its Muslims making the Meccan pilgrimage. Research for that unexpectedly took me into the early Soviet period (because the infrastructure didn’t fall apart with the Russian Empire in 1917; the Soviets resuscitated it in the late 1920s to generate cash for building socialism). I finished the book thinking I would write next about Arab students at Soviet universities. I had been curious about this story since 1991, when I was a student at Moscow State and, one day in my Tolstoy class, I saw the guy sitting next to me taking notes in Arabic. I had no context to understand this. Russian imperial and Soviet history had been taught to me as part of European history. People kept telling me, “Oh, Masha Kirasirova is already writing a book about Arab students in the USSR.” I didn’t know her, but then she appeared in my Inbox, inviting me to this conference at Boston University that someone named Margaret Litvin was organizing, and we met and it was awesome and this idea for a collaborative book was born.
ML: This book covers a much bigger timespan and geography than the monograph I am now wrapping up, tentatively called Another East: Arab Writers, Moscow Dreams, which focuses on the literary afterlives of Arab-Soviet cultural ties. It has been wonderful to learn more about the pre-histories. Who knew that the earliest European military intervention in the modern Eastern Mediterranean was the Russian navy helping Zahir al-Omar and Ali Bey, a quarter-century before Napoleon invaded Egypt? Or that the largest Soviet export to the Persian Gulf used to be kerosene?
MK: This sourcebook is broader than my monograph, The Eastern International: Arabs, Central Asians, and Jews in the Soviet Union's Anticolonial Empire (forthcoming with Oxford University Press, February 2024). The Eastern International traces how the concept of “the East” was used by the world’s first communist state and its mediators to project, channel, and contest power across Eurasia. It looks at these processes through the experiences of students, communists, and Leftist activists—Arab, Jewish, and Central Asian–who had considerable access to state authority and agency to shape Soviet ideology, inform concrete decisions, and allocate resources. The sourcebook includes some materials I developed for my own students. Like my monograph, it historicizes the circulation of peoples and ideas between the socialist and decolonizing world and reinscribes Soviet history into postcolonial studies and global history. However, being a collective effort, it accomplishes this on a much larger chronological and geographical scale.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sorts of impact would it have?
EK, MK & ML: This book is for our students—undergraduate beta readers have liked it. It’s for our friends and colleagues who teach Middle Eastern, Russian/Soviet, and global history and literature, and for anyone who wants to rethink the parameters and possibilities of area studies. Each chapter is meant to be accessible to entry-level readers, because no single reader will have all the needed backgrounds. We hope that the questions we’ve raised about connections across Eurasia and the Middle East will inspire new inquiries that span these regions.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ML: Continuing to build out the field of Arab-Soviet history, I have been working with two undergraduates to translate the memoir of Najati Sidqi (1905-1979), an early Arab member of the Palestinian Communist Party who studied in Moscow in the 1920s. I am also researching a collective biography of Sidqi’s astonishing family.
MK: I am reading the proofs of my monograph and starting a new project about the intersection of Soviet environmental history and international development during the Cold War. I am also reading more about the development of science and technical expertise in postwar Central Asia.
EK: I am writing a social history of the mass movement/expulsion of people from the Russian Empire and USSR to the Middle East between the 1840s and 1940s. This was one of several “great” global migrations happening at the time, the result of new racist and nationalist ideas and laws that redefined who belonged where. I am also working on a very cool project funded by the MacArthur Foundation to bring investments to the humanities at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) (of which there are ninety-nine in the United States, mostly in the South) and to educate about how HBCUs have shaped anti-racist activism and freedom politics in America and beyond. These days I am reading mostly books about life under Jim Crow, which suggest questions about Russia/USSR that I have never asked before. Like, what does Jim Crow have to do with tsarist Russia’s anti-Jewish May Laws?
J: What has been the most satisfying part of this project for you?
MK: It has been tremendously rewarding collaborating with Margaret and Eileen. I have appreciated the valuable mentorship I received from both of them in the process, and I felt like the three of us became better friends over regular Zoom sessions throughout the pandemic. I learned so much from editing the various submissions, co-writing with Eileen, long walks with Margaret, and collective brainstorming sessions about our fields and how we might put them into conversation.
EK: Working with and learning from my two brilliant and good colleagues. This has truly been the highlight of my career so far.
ML: Yes, definitely the people! Mirroring and expanding the geographies we study, this project has brought me into interesting conversations with over thirty scholars based in the United States, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, France, the Czech Republic, and Japan, colleagues at career stages ranging from PhD student to full professor, plus independent scholars and artists. Our discussions have illuminated fields of inquiry I did not know existed. For me as a literature person, hanging out with historians has been amazing—Masha and Eileen have taught me so much, with their insistence that every chapter in the anthology should address a real historical question, not just tell a fascinating story. Through some troubling times, from the pandemic to Russia’s war on Ukraine, working on this book has been a joy.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)
The Soviet Arabist Kulthum ‘Awda-Vasilieva was born in 1892 to Orthodox Christian parents in Nazareth, in Ottoman Palestine. She died in Moscow in 1965, leaving autobiographical writings that help explain how this unwelcome fifth daughter of Palestinian peasants went on to become a distinguished Arabist in the USSR and possibly the first Arab female university professor anywhere. As she tells it in an essay translated in this book, luck played a role: the opening of an Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (Russian acronym IPPO) missionary school in Nazareth in 1885 helped lift a girl her own mother considered “ugly” and lacking prospects into a world of educational opportunities and social and geographic mobility. After Nazareth ‘Awda received a scholarship to the IPPO women’s seminary in Beit Jala and mastered Russian. As a young teacher back in Nazareth she met and married Ivan Vasiliev, a doctor at the IPPO hospital. On a summer 1914 visit to Vasiliev’s parents in Kronstadt, the couple was stranded by World War I and stayed. After his death during the Russian Civil War the young widow, now called Klavdia Viktorovna Ode-Vasilieva, supported her three daughters by teaching hygiene and Russian literacy to peasants in Ukraine, before moving to what soon became Leningrad to work with the great Arabist Ignatii Krachkovskii. She would live in Russia for the next half century.
‘Awda-Vasilieva’s life story reveals larger histories at work. Her Nazareth school was part of the vast IPPO network of educational and medical institutions that anchored Russia’s presence in Ottoman Palestine and Syria from 1882 to 1917; its seventeen-acre headquarters outside Jerusalem’s old city gates, pieces of which are presently being reclaimed by the Putin government, is still called the Russian Compound today. (This book maps the IPPO’s network for the first time, based on an alumnus’s 1907 Arabic survey.) Through a career that crossed the tsarist-Soviet divide and combined Arabic and Russian languages, ‘Awda-Vasilieva was buffeted by the collapse of empires and the political realignments that marked the twentieth century. As a Soviet scholar, she was imprisoned in Stalin’s 1937-38 purges and lived through the Nazi siege of Leningrad; she translated literature, trained three generations of Soviet Arabists, researched Arab-descended Soviet peoples, and assisted in Soviet outreach to visiting Arabic-language writers. Meanwhile as a Palestinian intellectual she bore witness to the Arabic literary revival called the ‘asr jadid, or “new age,” (later termed the nahda, or renaissance) and to the 1948 creation of Israel and resulting loss of her homeland. Her life story, while extraordinary for a woman of her place and time, is also emblematic: it reveals larger transregional processes that connected Arabic-speaking societies to imperial Russia, and later the Soviet Union.
The roots of the Arab world’s current Russian entanglements reach deep into the tsarist and Soviet periods, but this shared history has been broken apart by scholars’ recent habits of studying the two regions separately, which, in turn, has limited our historical imaginations. Russian-Arab Worlds pieces this rich history back together using primary sources translated from Russian, Arabic, Armenian, Persian, French, and Tatar. These carefully chosen sources include archival, autobiographical, and literary texts, introduced by specialists and in some cases by pairs of scholars with complementary language expertise. Like short stories in an anthology, 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, revealing structures and relationships that the fields of area studies and global history have so far failed to see.
We include a set of new maps to help readers get their geographic bearings amid the expansion and collapse of empires, many border changes, forced transfers of populations, and creation of new nation-states that occurred during the two centuries our sources cover.
The sources and introductions assembled here show how various Russian/Soviet and Arab governments sought to nurture political and cultural ties and expand their influence, often with unplanned results. They illuminate transnational networks of trade, pilgrimage, study, ethnic identity, and political affinity that state policies sometimes fostered and sometimes disrupted. Above all they give voice to some of the resourceful characters who have sustained, embodied, and exploited Arab-Russian contacts: missionaries and diplomats, soldiers and refugees, students and party activists, scholars and spies.
We have chosen to arrange the chapters in chronological order rather than impose a thematic grouping. Given the many themes that cut across multiple chapters, we believe that different sets of connections will light up for each instructor or reader. As should already be clear from ‘Awda-Vasilieva’s example, the same life can be read from many angles: in her case, as a story about missionary education, interwar migration, Soviet studies of Arabic, gender across cultures, and even (in her ethnographic report from Uzbekistan translated here) the overlap between the USSR’s “domestic” and “foreign” Easts.
Other in-between characters are just as thematically rich. The 1897 hajj narrative of Shakhirdzhan Ishaev, a Tashkent-born ethnic Tatar who becomes a Russian consular official in Jeddah, brings into focus Russia’s diplomatic efforts in Muslim societies, its involvement in the hajj (of which Ishaev’s article is the first known Russian-language account), as well as the predicament of the trusted Russian Muslim native intermediary disgusted by the “foreign and hostile dark people” whose culture he is assumed to understand. The file of Mecca-born Syrian Communist Taha Sawwaf (aka “Djoni Viliams”), who studied at Moscow’s Communist University for the Toilers of the East (KUTV) in the 1930s, sheds light on Arab Communism as well as patterns of study abroad, Soviet broadcasting in Arabic, and differing experiences of race in Syria and the USSR. And visual artist Ala Younis’s photo essay on Youssef Chahine’s two Aswan High Dam films (1968 and 1970) touches on themes of postcolonial Egyptian internationalism, Soviet infrastructure aid to Arab countries, censorship in the film industry, and (because Younis’s work is an artistic reconstruction) contemporary art’s response to all these.
A note on what we mean by “Russian-Arab Worlds”: We use “Russian” in a geographic sense capaciously, to mean not simply lands historically inhabited by Russian speakers, but the wider Eurasian spaces, home to many different ethnic and religious groups, that were ruled by tsarist and then Soviet regimes from the 1770s through the 1990s. And by “Arab” we mean the Arab-majority but internally diverse societies that developed in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, which then became post-Ottoman successor states under semi-colonial British and French rule, then independent monarchies or republics. (For reasons of space, we focus solely on the Arab Middle East and not on North Africa, which would merit a documentary history of its own.) In using these terms, we do not mean to project contemporary formations onto the past, or to reproduce the nationalist assumptions of those who would reduce these regions to the majority ethnic groups that have dominated them politically in recent years. In fact, we aim to unsettle these traditional framings.
Each event or relationship described here invites at least three layers of analysis: What geopolitical contexts and big-picture strategic alliances made it possible? In which transregional circulations of ideas or objects does it participate? And how does it show the agency of individuals who move across borders or adapt to new historical frames, refashioning themselves to impress new audiences or simply to survive? By focusing on transregional phenomena—institution-building, exchanges of ideas or commodities, and the movement of peoples—this book captures historical processes and complex lived experiences that national and regional framings cannot. It raises a set of questions that, we hope, will help map out a coherent interdisciplinary field of inquiry into Russian-Arab worlds.