2012 Fellows | February 6, 2013

SSRC Dissertation Development Fellow Masha Kirasirova

The Eastern International: Soviet-Arab Exchanges from the Interwar Period to the Cold War

Discipline: History

University at Time of Fellowship: New York University


By reconstructing interwar and cold war-era political and cultural interactions between the Soviet Union and the Middle East, my dissertation highlights the non-Russian and non-European dimensions of Soviet foreign relations, situating Soviet history in a broader Eurasian context. In so doing, I trace the networks, channels, and institutional nodes of Soviet communist internationalism spanning the Soviet “domestic East” (Central Asia and Caucasus) and the “foreign East” (Middle East, Africa, and Asia). Linked by pre-revolutionary orientalist legacies in the Comintern and related Soviet institutions, the two Easts were separated not only by the Soviet border, but also by an increasingly precarious ideological divide: one “liberated” through violent Sovietization, and another primed for anti-colonial national liberation. At the same time, a lack of Soviet experts in contemporary eastern culture, politics, and languages created opportunities for leftists from the “foreign East” to participate in Comintern networks and Soviet institutions, including in the Soviet “Cultural Revolution” in Central Asia. Central Asians, in turn, were recruited to produce Eastern versions of Soviet culture for export. These exchanges—overlooked within overwhelmingly Russo-centric approaches to the study of domestic and international Soviet power—resulted in literary works, films, and other artistic collaborations that were integral to the construction of Soviet Central Asian national cultures, and also to the experiences and images of Sovietness seen in the Middle East during the cold war.

My study is based on archival research and interviews in Moscow, Tashkent, and to a lesser extent in Dushanbe, Damascus, and Beirut. The archives of the Eastern Section of the Comintern, and of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) have allowed me to trace the networks and people involved in promoting Soviet revolutionary objectives in “the East.” Using records of the KUTV Arab section, the personal files of foreign students (including their autobiographies in Arabic, letters, complaints about KUTV, and psychological evaluations), together with memoirs of prominent Arab alumni, I illuminate the experiences and struggles of Arab from Syria/Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine in interwar Moscow, and explore how their education led to their incorporation into Soviet professional life as specialists on “the East.” When foreign students did return to the Middle East, and survived anti-communist purges in their home countries, I show that they often became prominent intellectual and political leaders—a kind of diasporic “Brezhnev generation” of the cold war-era Middle East. During World War II and the early cold war, when Soviet Union expanded the scope of its cultural activities in the Middle East in the form of cultural spectacles (exhibitions, fairs, films), Soviet Central Asia become an increasingly important showcase for the “foreign East.” These post-World War II examples, I argue, show how Soviet culture was refracted through Central Asia, answering new policy objectives of the post-1958 USSR.

In addition to filling lacunae in Soviet, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern history, this study bridges a divide between area studies separated by decades of cold war scholarship. Its transnational approach offers three key historiographical interventions: Firstly, it builds on the historiography of empire and Soviet nationalities studies to show how these dynamics of interwar Soviet state-building shaped the culture and institutions of international communism, especially in the Middle East. Secondly, it draws on the analytical innovations of the recent Soviet-subjectivity debate to study “file-selves,” letters, and memoirs by Arab intellectuals and political activists on both sides of Soviet political and cultural border. Finally, by focusing on Soviet cultural engagement with the decolonizing and then developing world, my dissertation looks outside the dominant “Russia and the West” framework to explore other inter-connections between the internal and external workings of Soviet party-state.

Field Images: