The publication of this massive and magisterial book is an important event for historians of contemporary Central Eurasia. Stalinism is analysed from below in a way that renews our understanding of Soviet rule in non-Russian borderlands. As far as one of Baberowski’s challenges is to “de-russify” Soviet history by focusing on indigenous populations, his study of the complex settlement of modernity in Muslim periphery is essential to understand the whole Soviet Union pre-war history. Moreover, taking part in the new historiographical trend on the “Imperial” nature of USSR, Baberowski, Professor of East European history at Humboldt University in Berlin, exposes an unknown dimension of Stalin’s totalitarian project. His pertinent choice to favour a cultural approach allows us to perceive in situ the conflict between civilisations that occurred when the Bolsheviks intended to “overcome cultural heterogeneity and resistance and transform it into uniformity (p. 829).” Presenting in all details the struggle against traditional culture, this theoretically sophisticated book is not another generalist work on Bolsheviks’ nation-making project. Because national categorisation and identity formation processes are not Baberowski’s main concerns, the present monograph neglects the narrow links between scholarship and politics (see for instance in the present volume M. Kemper’s comment on Vasil’kov Ia. V., Sorokina M. Iu., eds., Liudi i sud’by: biobibliograficheskii slovar’ vostokovedov-zhertv politicheskogo terrora v sovetskii period (1917-1991) [People and Destiny: A Bio-Bibliographical Dictionary of Oriental Scholars – Victims of Political Terror in the Soviet Period (1917-1991)]. However, stating with W. Connor that concerning national groups “what ultimately matters is not what is but what people believe is (p. 21),” Baberowski makes a decisive innovation by promoting a quasi essentialist approach of the national question in USSR. Critical to constructivist approaches, the author proposes nothing less than a new method to study national histories inside the multiethnic state with a large Muslim population that was the USSR. Using Gadamer’s theory of culture (as model of behaviours) and Foucault’s idea of circulating power, the book replaces Stalinism into a larger enlightenment project. One of the book’s strength is that it links these efforts with earlier initiatives that go back via the colonial politics of the late nineteenth century to the indigenisation of the 1920s. Analysing how the conquerors turned into civilisers, it presents the continuity between Tsarist and Soviet attempts at integrating Muslim peoples into modernity. Built on solid archive work in Moscow, St Petersburg and Baku, the book focuses on multiethnic Azerbaijan which, representing “the Imperium in a miniature (p. 17),” stayed, according to Baberowski’s argument open to criticism, as a first laboratory for Stalin’s experiments. Finally, the book talks about the roots of Stalinist civilisation in the “Asiatic” part of the Soviet Union and from this perspective finds new answers to an old question: How the socialistic experiment could come out on mass terror?
The first chapter describes some fundamental historical characteristics of the emergence, between 1828 and 1914, of nationalism as a counterpart of the Russian “civilising” policy in the Caucasus. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Tsarist bureaucracy planned to civilise indigenous populations on a European model. In his examination of the colonial policy conducted in Caucasus, Baberowski focuses on interethnic relations, and seeks to explain the link between migrations, urbanisation, and the radicalisation of national claims. He states for instance that the discriminations against Muslims that followed the development of oil industries in multiethnic Baku played a crucial role in the 1905 pogroms. Despite the implication of Muslim socialists from the ‘Ummet Party, class struggles remained insignificant compared to ethnic ones. The ideological diversity that emerged among Muslim intelligentsia is well described with a special mention on the various aspects of Turkist ideas promoted by the new national press. Baberowski provides illuminating illustrations of the conflict relationships between Russians and Muslims, but neglects to deepen the question of the traditional and non-assimilationist nature of the Tsarist Empire when he insists on the official aspiration to assimilate Muslim population (p. 70). If Russian settlers were actually major actors of the civilising mission toward backward natives (see Sunderland Willard, Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004, 239 p.—and my comment on this book in the present volume), the very concept of assimilation was unthinkable by the administrators of a country which failed to enter within the framework of a nation-state (cf. the classical works by Andreas Kappeler).
Running from 1914 to 1920, the second chapter exposes the consequences in the Caucasus of the Russian military engagement against the Ottoman Empire and of the civil war that followed the Bolshevik coup d’état. Obviously, considering the complex borders changes and the fascinating territorial analysis provided by Baberowski on the November 1917 Duma elections, some maps would have been more than useful. Talking about “Ethnic cleansing” but refraining from bloody descriptions, Baberowski uses new archival sources to detail interethnic conflicts that occurred in 1917 in Azerbaijan, especially the massacres of Muslims perpetrated by Armenians defending the Baku Commune. After the Ottoman troops’ intervention and the establishment of the Musavvat regime, the journal Azerbaijan presented the massacres of Armenians as a legitimate reaction. In such a context of “permanent pogrom,” Baberowski explains with a lot of concrete examples how territories became important political issues (the enclave of Higher Qarabagh was claimed by Baku’s authorities) and why did ethnic conflicts occurred: homecoming of deserters, forced migrations and land struggles (when in November 1918, Armenians from Nakhichevan came back to their villages, their houses were already occupied by Muslims). Finally, according to Baberowski, the fact that peasants were impervious to national identities (some of them did not even know what Azerbaijan was, p. 182) explains the Bolsheviks final conquest of the region in April 1920 by the lack of support for the Muslim nationalists of the Musavvat.
When the third chapter presents already known Bolsheviks positions on the national question with special considerations on the ambiguities of their colonial / civilising mission in the Soviet East, the fourth chapter deals with the difficult application of these principles. The “reconstitution of the Empire” by Bolsheviks was followed by several attempts to take control over the entire region. Among all the new material provided on the Sovietisation of Azerbaijan, the biographical information on the main local leaders is of great value. Baberowski shows the significance of personal networks for the functionality of the regime: Elected in 1922 chairman of the Union Council of the Transcaucasian Federation, Nariman Narimanov launched the indigenisation policy and could count, until 1925, on Lenin’s support to counter the pro-Armenian positions of A. I. Mikoian, the chairman of the Party Committee for Baku.
The history of Soviet Azerbaijan from 1923 to 1930 is described in the fifth chapter. From that point onward, Baberowski replaces “Muslim” by “Turkic” to qualify the Caucasus population, but he unfortunately does not explain his terminological shift. In fact, limited by their incapacity to imagine people without national ties and constrained by their fear of separatist tendencies, the Bolsheviks transformed the Soviet Union into a state of nations, in which newly recognised nations were assigned to national territories. By promoting native languages, cultures and administration, they paradoxically sought to overcome cultural diversity and to unify the enormous multiethnic semiliterate population. Despite his reduction of indigenisation to a “strategy for escaping interethnic conflicts”, Baberowski has written one of the most detailed histories of its local implications. He shows for instance that ‘Turkic’ workers were sometimes recruited as drivers or dustmen only to fulfil national quotas. He convincingly demonstrates the failure of the linguistic Turkisation and the promotion of others national minorities which obtained inside their national districts (created in May 1925), education in native language. A short historical presentation of these groups (Talishis, Kurds, Lezgs . . .) is missing. As well shown in the second part of the chapter, the promotion of nationalities led to a reinforcement of national boundaries. Referring to Terry Martin’ works, Baberowski argues that the “Affirmative action” policy multiplied rival national claims and consequently reinforced ethnic animosity. Land struggles were intensified by the legitimacy officially given to the titular nationality: The slogan “Azerbaijan for the Turks” was notified in the Nakhichevan’s villages to expel Armenian and Russian settlers. In the countryside, the process of ethnic homogenisation reinforced the attachment to “national traditions” and clan solidarities. In Baku, rapid industrialisation exacerbated concurrence between Russian and Turkic workers for places and housing. On everyday life level, cultural cohabitation was difficult: The choice between Friday and Sunday as vacation day provoked tense debates. Together with their former Musavvat professors, Turkic students of Baku University claimed that “Azerbaijan is a little Turkey” and refused to attend lectures in Russian language. The chapter ends with vivid examples of the strong influence obtained by the Kemalist model in Azerbaijan during the 1920s. It was to become one of the motivations for the repressions of the 1930s.
Focusing on the same topics but for different periods, the sixth and seventh chapters show the absurd “rationality” of Bolshevik’s violence against tradition. From 1923 to 1928, there were several attempts at controlling Muslim communities, to eliminate “barbarian” traditions and to replace old customs by the modern ways of life. Baberowski provides amazing descriptions of the gap existing between urban culture of the Bolsheviks and the Islamic culture of autarchic villagers, which for instance in the Karachan region had no roads, no schools and no secular calendar. His insistence on the differences in value systems is essential to perceive the mutual lack of understanding: As a rural communist said, “I am a Leninist but I have nothing to do with Marxism.” Mullahs and beys maintained their domination on local communities. So, the only solution for local communists to gain some legitimacy was to insert themselves inside the traditional clan system. They got some power as far as they were called Aga, Khan or Sayyid. Finally, the indigenisation conducted to a ‘traditionalisation’ of the Communist Party apparatus. In the second part of the sixth chapter, the detailed description of anti-Islamic campaign crosses the gender problematic: the Bolsheviks considered the Islamic veil as a sign of “religious fanaticism” where Muslims saw a protection of woman dignity. Another cultural misunderstanding was about the illegal use of violence by armed bands that contested Soviet power and refused land reforms to maintain ancestral order. In such a context, Communists were feeling surrounded by enemies that were to be destroyed. From 1925 onward, the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan was the first region to experiment Stalinist violence. This experience was to be enlarged to all Soviet Union in 1929.
The seventh chapter presents the “Cultural Revolution” in Azerbaijan, which Baberowski considers as a systematic extension of the civilising policy of the 1920s. Going on Sheila Fitzpatrick’s conception, he describes the great drive against religion and traditions in 1929. Confronted with misunderstood traditions, the Communists tried to impose cultural changes by coercion. Through a radicalisation of their modernist project, religious practices, national cultures and customs were thoroughly demonised. Archive documents on local level shows the sudden, brutal, utopian effort to change the way people lived, to abolish their old “superstitious” culture and force them out of “backwardness”. According to Baberowski, the use of “barbarian” methods was specific to Soviet Union and differs from other Europeanisation policies of that time (in Kemalist Turkey, in Persia under Reza Shah, and in Afghanistan under Aman-Allah) which are usefully compared in the third part of the chapter. Methods, actors and discourses of the campaign are well described with concrete examples: Musical instruments had to be replaced by the European guitar; the traditional hat (papach) was forbidden and the Komsomols were ready to punish offenders. Concerning the shift to Latin alphabet that occurred in 1928, Baberowski states that it came from local intelligentsia which intended to facilitate the literacy campaign. He shows the wide range of reactions against this aggressive “cultural imperialism”, and provides interesting statements on the armed bands led by Sunni mullahs (for instance the famous Hafiz Effendi) in the Zakataly region. In many cases, Bolsheviks had to accept compromises solutions to escape general uprising. Islamic veils were tolerated and became signs of national distinction and resistance. The final failure of the Cultural Revolution paved the way to the Great Terror.
Collectivisation is described in the eighth chapter as part of the cultural struggle against traditions. After some considerations on its intellectual origins as a collectivist interpretation of European modernity, Baberowski exposes its main purposes: Breaking the strong solidarity networks, definitively settling nomadic populations and getting labour forces to engage massive cotton production. But on a territory ruled by feudal clans on which Moscow had no control, violent and chaotic collectivisation led to violent resistance. From 1930 to 1933, Azerbaijan suffered from civil war: The OGPU troops failed to defeat armed bands which attacked kolkhozes, killed communists and even managed to conquer the Nakhichevan province. Only the intervention of the Red Army managed to restore some order. But here also the result was the triumph of tradition. Seized by clan society, the newly created kolkhozes were socialist in form, but stayed traditional in content. On that point, Baberowski proposes one of his more innovative demonstrations stating that the Great Terror was mostly determined by indigenisation and the final failure of the civilising mission. When the subjects did not submit to collectivisation and the Cultural Revolution, the Bolsheviks took it as a national resistance. Obsessed with traitors, Stalin came to believe that nations could be a threat to the Soviet order. Having taken advantage of indigenisation, the former Musavvat intelligentsia had to be neutralised. Purges of the Party apparatus, arrests of new enemies and various techniques of terror and extermination are presented in the last chapter on Great Terror in Azerbaijan.
Aside from factual presentation, Baberowski provides an in-deep analysis of Stalinism in the Soviet East: “Oriental despotism was not enough to destroy oriental despotism, Stalin’s Terror was necessary (p. 773).” He explains for instance that Stalin and many of his fellow leaders were from non-Russian nationalities and may have wanted to destroy the culture from where they had managed to extract themselves. We can regret the lack of data on the international context that would have helped to explain why, as a frontier region, the Caucasus was first concerned by Stalin’s wish to discover new enemies in saboteurs and spies. Among other relevant statements, a very stimulating analysis is made on the decisive impact of clan solidarities in the continuous escalation and intensification of the Terror. Also suggestive is the idea that both L. P. Beria and Mir Ja‘far Bagirov, Chairmen of the Party in Georgia and Azerbaijan, could survive the Terror because they organised their own cult of personality. Together with a sociological and statistical analysis of the purges, the precise mechanisms of repression are described on the local level with full of details coming from archive documents. One of the conclusion points of the book is that Muslim peasants learned to write when writing denunciations.
In this instance, this “cultural history” of Stalinism in the Caucasus makes a remarkable contribution to the field of Soviet history. Over the course of nine vivid chapters, Baberowski demonstrates the centrality of the civilisational aspect of Stalinism. Considering that “revisionist” historians of the Soviet Union have wrongly de-emphasised Stalin’s role and the importance of ideology, he contradicts Moshe Lewin’s conclusions on Stalinism by showing that bureaucracy in a Weberian sense did not exist and that power rested on the effectiveness of personal networks. Moreover, we can find echoes of the modern civilisational critique in his insistent association of Stalinism with utopian Enlightenment ideas. Full of statements on the intentionality of Soviet leaders to overcome traditions, the book provides comparisons with 1793 revolutionary France but we would expect more comparisons with the contemporary Nazi Germany to enlighten the debate on totalitarianism. Despite the little use of this concept, Baberowski clearly demonstrates that through Terror and attacks against a culture considered as “barbarian”, Stalinism was above all an imperial phenomenon. As far as Islam was more than a confession but a culture, a world conception linked to a peculiar values system, it stayed as mortal enemy for this anti-religious religion that was the totalitarian ideology. However, rightly explaining that “historiography must place religion at the centre of its analysis (p. 588),” Baberowski unfortunately fails to carry out his ambitious programme: Reduced to its more visible dimension as a Soviet policy target, Islam is not recognised as a complete and legitimate object of studies. Mostly built up on official documents, the work lets uncovered numerous aspects of the complex Islamic reality in the Caucasus. Nothing is said for instance on the role played by the Sufi mystical paths and their implication in resistance movements. Muslims appears only as victims of Stalinism and their culture as static and unchangeable. Muslim reformism is limited to an elite phenomenon. Neglecting the sources in Azeri language and the new historiography on Jadidism that clearly shows the great scale of controversies provoked by nineteenth-century modernisation, the book gives the wrong impression that the civilising trend was only a forced policy from the colonial power. The debate that arised between Jadids and Musavvits about the Islamic veil should have deserved more than a few words (p. 639). In the same way, more comparisons with other Muslim regions of Russia, for instance the Volga-Ural region and its reformism applied to education, could have permitted Baberowski to avoid concluding that a “Muslim way towards the modern was from now impossible (p. 37).” These reserves notwithstanding, Baberowski’s discoveries on the Soviet “civilising mission” will renew the historiography of Soviet studies. By the importance of his topic and the originality of his research, the book deserves a wide audience among historians of modern Central Eurasia. An English translation would enlarge the readership of this major work that historians will be consulting for years to come.