Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Creative, but neglected, cartography

Bryan at Why Now? has a nice post on the gerrymandered borders of Central Asia which led me to reminisce about my own interest in lines on maps.

When I went to grad school in the eighties to study the multinational communist states of the USSR and Yugoslavia, nationalism was considered an old fashioned subject. The hip subjects of the day were social and economic questions. The professor who ran the dissertation writing seminar, and who taught intellectual history, actually cut me off one day when I was discussing my research into the Yugoslav national question with a brusque comment that he found nationalism boring and wanted to hear about someone else's work.

Nationalism, besides being denigrated as part of old school political/diplomatic history, was also in disgrace because of nationalist writing--that is historical narratives being produced as tools of nationalist propaganda. No seemed willing to acknowledge the difference between nationalist history and the intellectual history of nationalism, which was what interested me. Besides, the argument went, all of the national questions had already settled by WWII and decolonization. My peers and supervisors also seemed unaware of the irony of rejecting a topic for historical study because it had happened in the past.

Of course, as the nineties showed, they were completely wrong about national questions being settled. Just because you draw a line on a map and give the people within that line a common name and parliament, doesn't mean they think of themselves as one people. Americans have always combined and confused the two concepts of nation and state. Right up till 1991, historians and pundits were telling each other that people in the USSR thought of themselves as Soviets first and Georgians, Ukrainians, or Latvians second. The Kurds today most certainly do not think of themselves as Turkish, Iranian, or Iraqi first.

Borders, as a subtopic of nationalism, got even worse treatment than the intellectual history of nationalism. Once upon a time, external borders were a major topic of diplomatic history and boundary commissions were covered along with treaty negotiations. That went out of style after WWII, but at least it did get covered up to that point. Internal borders, on the other hand, have never been well studied. As administrative decisions, they don't leave a nice trail of diplomatic dispatches and memoirs by international statesmen. Good examples of this neglect are the volumes of the Hoover Press's Studies of Nationalities series published in the 80's and 90's. The volumes on the Uzbeks and Kazakhs barely mention the establishment of the soviet republics and don't mention changes in their borders at all.

There is a certain academic urban legend that all border decisions made by communist regimes were made with Machiavellian divide and conquer principles in mind. That's not entirely untrue, but it's only part of the story. The internal boundaries of the Soviet Union were drawn over a period of about thirty-five years. In some parts of the country, particularly the Russian heartland, old imperial provinces were left in place for convenience sake. Other borders, where there was no national question involved, were shifted about for practical economic and geographic reasons.

When national questions were involved, the decisions were certainly more cynical and got more attention from higher on the Party food chain, but they still involved a variety of criteria. In the twenties a cohort of genuinely idealistic anthropologists had a hand in drawing territories for the peoples of Arctic Russia and Siberia that gave them room to practice their traditional economies. Later these policies were abandoned and the "small nations" were forced to give up their nomadic ways and learn Russian while their territories were flooded with Russian settlers and political prisoners. I suspect--though I don't know for sure--that something similar happened in Central Asia with a mixture of idealistic anthropologists, cynical commissars, and changing state goals being reflected on different stretches of border.

The tragedy of treating internal divisions as administrative minutiae, beneath the attention of real scholarship, is that when empires break up, these administrative lines become national borders. The powers that be are deathly afraid to renegotiate borders for fear of opening the door to questioning hundreds of bad borders around the world. Meanwhile, numerous wars have already been fought in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe over the persistence of lines that were not meant to be borders.

No comments: