Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Tishkov Working to Impose a Political Straightjacket on Ethnic Studies in Russia, Iskhakov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 20 – Academician Valery Tishkov is seeking to build his own power vertical in the ethnographic fraternity in Russia and to impose a political straightjacket on its members, blocking any discussion of sensitive issues and insisting that everyone follow his and the Kremlin’s line on others, according to Damir Iskhakov.

            The Tatarstan historian and ethnographer says this was very much on public view at the recent Congress of Russian Ethnologists and Anthropologists, a meeting Tishkov called the best ever but that Iskhakov says was the worst of all the 13 such meetings that have been held since Soviet times (business-gazeta.ru/article/432128).

                The meeting recalled Soviet-style intellectual congresses in which there was a clear party line, the Tatar ethnographer says; but it also reflected two dangerous trends in the post-Soviet period.  In the early years after 1991, there were a large number of Jewish scholars but most of them have either died, retired, or emigrated. 

            Moreover and in contrast to the first such meeting which were characterized by diversity and democratic procedures, the last one was far more homogeneous, intellectually constrained, and undemocratic with ever less rotation of cadres in the senior positions of the meeting. And perhaps most significant of all, this congress, unlike its predecessors, attracted few foreign scholars from beyond the CIS.

            None of this is good, Iskkhakov says, because “Tishkov backs specific views;” and those who do not agree with him on issues like the existence of “a civic Russian identity” – “and those are mostly people from the republics” – are now characterized as “ethno-nationalists” who must be marginalized or actively opposed.

            In all this, the Tatar scholar continues, it is important to recognize that Tishkov “is conducting himself not as a Russian in fact but as an imperialist, a government man of the current kind.” And he is using the association of ethnologists and anthropologists as his base because he is no longer director of the institute or minister for nationalities.

            In pursuit of his own power vertical within it, the academician is using his influence over the grant process, ensuring that those who support his views get money and those who don’t don’t, an arrangement that many understand but have little choice but to go along with, the Tatar scholar says.

            By that method and by his control of the agenda of meetings like this congress, Tishkov keeps certain important issues from being discussed such as language policy and religion and marginalizes those who want to raise questions about the past and present which create problems for the Kremlin and thus for Tishkov.
            “Real problems simply aren’t discussed; they’re avoided,” Iskhakov continues.  But those who adopt this strategy forget that they cannot make the problems disappear by not talking about them. “It is a very sad picture when scholarship is seized by administrators and they work in a definite key.”

            As an example of Tishkov’s intervention, the Tatar scholar describes how he kept a section on the Kazakhs from talking about the terror famine in that country, about the role of the Golden Horde in Kazakh ethnogenesis, about the divisions of Kazakhs into clans, and about whether as Kazakhs say their country was once a Russian colony.

            If Vladimir Putin has taken a different position – and the Kremlin leader has insisted, for example, that the Kazakhs did not have a state until Soviet times – Tishkov works to impose that view and in places where he has control he is often able to do so, Iskhakov says.

            The Russian academician also seeks to provoke change in the way ethnographers think by engaging in provocations. For example, he said at the congress that Russian-speaking Tatars are still Tatars. Of course, Iskhakov acknowledges, “as an ethnologist I understand that identity and language do not correspond in 100 percent of the cases.”

            “A classic example is the Lithuanian Tatars, who lost their language already in the 16th century but being Muslims preserved their Tatar identity. True, their culture did not develop: there are [only] remnants of the earlier culture which they have held on to.”

            “But if there is no language, it is impossible to develop a national culture,” the Kazan ethnographer says. “If we all will be Russian-speaking Tatars, then we will have to write Russian literature and in the end we really will become Russians especially in that Russian ‘ocean’ which surrounds us.”

            The latest congress was so Russia-centric, Iskhakov says, that he is now thinking that perhaps he and others ought to form “an association of ethnologists of the Turkic peoples. We could then discuss our problems in a somewhat more global field but with invited foreign scholars including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others.”

            He says that there have been certain steps taken in that direction in Bashkortostan. A group has been formed, with online publications. “This is a trend which in the future can intensify” in reaction to what people like Tishkov are doing.

            Iskhakov stresses that at a personal level, he has had good relations with Tishkov. But there is also “Tishkov the politician” and with him in that role there can only be disagreements. “I will not say that Tishkov has degraded but he has changed himself along with the political system of Russia.”

            The Russian academician was “initially an Americanist, a specialist on American Indians, he had a corresponding perspective and views. Besides, when the association was formed, he was director of the Institute of Ethnology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and was extremely democratic. He received many American grants and made good money.”

            “But when in the 2000s, a new power vertical was erected in Russia, he joined this vertical and began to serve its interests; and from that time onward, his political views changed.” In this, he has “conducted himself as a Russian.” Instead, he and others like him have “become cosmopolitan statists,” degrading right alongside the state they serve. 

His and their ability to change so quickly and completely raises serious questions about their scholarship as such because it suggests that their conclusions do not arise from their own work but from the ideological and political requirements those higher up the power vertical insist upon.

            That is not a good trend for the field, and Iskhakov argues that it must be exposed and resisted.

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