Shaping the Periphery, Enabling Movement: Infrastructure in the Caucasus from the Early 19th Century to Late Soviet Period

Shaping the Periphery, Enabling Movement: Infrastructure in the Caucasus from the Early 19th Century to Late Soviet Period

Arpine Maniero, Collegium Carolinum, München; Helena Holzberger, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München / Max-Weber-Stiftung Bonn (American University of Armenia, Yerevan; Collegium Carolinum: Forschungsinstitut für die Geschichte Tschechiens und der Slowakei, München; Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München; Max-Weber-Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland, Bonn, Faculty of History of Yerevan State University)
American University of Armenia, Yerevan; Collegium Carolinum: Forschungsinstitut für die Geschichte Tschechiens und der Slowakei, München; Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München; Max-Weber-Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland, Bonn, Faculty of History of Yerevan State University
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
03.10.2023 - 05.10.2023
Felix Bok, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

From 3rd to 5th October 2023, a conference was held in Yerevan, whose participants were as much challenging established approaches to Eastern European and Eurasian history, as they themselves were challenged by the most recent events in Nagorno-Karabach. As a result, some of the participants were not in the state to read their papers, so that panels had to be rearranged on the spot. This may suffice as an explanation for little inconsistencies in the structure of panels and papers, that are reflected here as delivered at the conference.

However, the conference’s manyfold aims alone would have provided for a sufficiently challenging attempt. HELENA HOLZBERGER (Munich/Tbilisi) and ARPINE MANIERO (Munich) presented the conference’s framework in their introductory remarks: Infrastructure – with its ambiguous features as the centre’s instrument of control as well as the periphery’s means of participation – was meant to serve as a link between differing methodological approaches and scientific interests in the Caucasus region. The severely restricted access to Russian archives after March 2022 prompted many Western scholars to turn their attention to the former Russian/Soviet periphery. However, as the existing historiography on the Caucasus illustrates, this region constitutes an object of historiographical interest by its own right, not a mere periphery. Though presentations varied from methodological reflections to specific show cases of infrastructure, the entanglement of infrastructural and imperial history helped to bring a great variety of presentations under a common framework.

In her keynote lecture, ELKE SHOGHIG HARTMANN (Berlin) discussed the current state of research in the field of infrastructure. With reference to Brian Larkin, she argued for a broader definition of the term, stating that any built network – material or immaterial – facilitating the flow of goods or ideas can be understood as infrastructure. Accentuating how our perception of the world is unconsciously confined by what is taken for granted, she introduced the notion of ‘derivate infrastructures’. These only become apparent when they cease to exist and thus create a lack of what they provided for previously. In drawing attention to the dynamic nature of infrastructures over time, she put an emphasis on the role of temporality and agency in the shaping of infrastructure itself. During the discussion, some participants raised the question, whether immaterial or premodern phenomena should be considered infrastructures, as the term might lose its epistemological rigour by transgressing the traditional limits of the definition in terms of materiality and time. This topic became a recurrent motive throughout the conference.

EVGENIYA PRUSSKAYA (Tbilisi) opened the first panel with the question of how infrastructure helped the Russian administration control its new Muslim subjects in the Caucasus. Maintaining the existing spiritual and educational infrastructure under the umbrella of a government-funded Muslim Spiritual Administration, the religious leaders were put under state supervision. By the end of the 19th century, the construction of railway lines in the Caucasus eventually allowed the Russian Empire to control the movement of its Muslim subjects on the Hadj by providing travel infrastructure to Mecca.

Concluding the first panel, CHRISTOPH NEUMANN (Istanbul) offered various aspects to be considered in infrastructural history from an Ottomanist’s perspective. Bringing up examples from Ottoman history, such as the establishment of technical time as a state’s standard time, the funding and construction of large-scale infrastructural projects by the state or the border limitation processes in between states, he argued for an understanding of infrastructure as a phenomenon of the emerging modern nation state. However, this did not prevent private actors or even foreign states to exert their influence on the creation of infrastructure – a process for which the Ottoman Empire is a prime example.

In the second panel, REINHARD NACHTIGAL (Freiburg i. Br.) presented his paper comparing commercial and military concerns as incentives for the construction of infrastructure in the Caucasus. While the Russian administration in the early 19th century showed interest in improving roads and shipping lanes in order to promote trade in the newly acquired territories, it was not before the second half of the century, that (mostly foreign) entrepreneurs would establish infrastructure for purely economic reasons. On the contrary, large-scale infrastructure projects were only realised by the state, after the Crimean War had revealed the vulnerability of the Caucasus being situated at the far periphery of the Russian Empire.

VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN’s (Yerevan) paper took a microhistorical approach. Examining Levon Sargsyants’ report on his travel from Persia to Ottoman Anatolia in the late 19th century, differences and commonalities became apparent within the Armenian people divided by the Russo-Ottoman border.

The last speaker of the panel, MKHITAR GABRIELYAN (Yerevan), presented his case study on culture and trade in the town of Akhaltsikhe. In a similar microhistorical approach, though concentrating on a place instead of an individual, the paper presented the development of an urban community of Armenian merchants and artisans in Akhaltsikhe maintaining trade relations with cities in the Ottoman as well as the Russian Empire. Thus, both case studies in this panel exemplified, how Armenian infrastructures could transcend imperial borders.

In the third panel, MIKAYEL MALKHASYAN (Yerevan) analysed the demographic policy of the Russian Empire in the region of Kars. Throughout the studied period, not only the Christian or Muslim local population were either allowed or forced to move their places of living, but also several non-autochthonous people were settled by the Russian administration. By dividing the 40-year-period of Russian rule into three phases of demographic policy, the paper illustrated the high mobility ethnic groups were subjected to in the context of imperial rule.

With his paper on Metsamor, an Atomic City in Soviet Armenia, HAMLET MELKUMYAN (Yerevan) not only introduced discourse analysis as a methodological approach to the conference, but also extended the period covered to the Soviet era. In examining the shift of narratives from ‘modernization’, ‘enlightening Utopia’ and ‘rebirth of the Armenian nation after the genocide’ at the time of its construction to ‘national ecology’ and ‘(post)coloniality’ in the Armenian independence movement, it was demonstrated how political developments in the periphery could change the framing of infrastructure in the context of the centre-periphery-dichotomy.

The panel was closed by TAMAR QEBURIA’s (Tbilisi) survey on the Manganese Ferroalloys Factory in the city of Zestaponi, Georgia, during the first five-year plan. In contrast to the Stalinist narrative of planned economy, the factory was first set up as a joined stock company in hope for a higher output. In 1921, Stalin instructed Ordzhonikidze to give a concession to foreign investors, which subsequently was obtained by Averell Harriman, an American business tycoon. Only with the first five-year-plan the company was fully nationalised. The paper not only tried to shed a light on the multitude of actors involved into establishing the factory, but also on its harmful impact on the city’s environment.

OLIVER REISNER (Tbilisi) opened the fourth panel. By understanding the technologies and services enabling the spread of information and expression of opinion as a network of media infrastructure, the paper demonstrated the role of Tbilisi as a media hub between Europa and Asia at the turn of the 20th century. Reisner argued, that the transnational experience of Georgians receiving news(papers) from all over the world stimulated the transgression of local traditions in and the transmission of modernization to the Caucasus. Although having only a marginal social position in multi-ethnic Tbilisi, the Georgian intelligentsia active in the media infrastructure managed to create a we-group with ethnically stereotyped caricatures.

In the following paper TYSON SADLEIR (New York) discussed Russian imperialism with the example of infrastructure, stating that the connection between the imperial centre and the periphery via the Darial Gorge was of prime importance to the Russian Empire. In describing the maintenance and frequent reconstruction works on the so-called Military Highway as a struggle against the elements high in the mountains, the paper drew attention to the workers’ own struggle for better working conditions. Thus, the materiality of the road itself as well as the immaterial network of road builders were analysed under the common framework of infrastructure.

As last speaker of the conference ANUSH HOVHANNISYAN (Yerevan) examined the altering water policy of Turkish, Soviet, and Armenian authorities. The paper stressed the ambiguous nature of infrastructure as an instrument of integration and control. While plans for a shared Turco-Soviet hydroelectric power plant never came to existence in the 1920s, Turkey and the Soviet Union agreed to construct a water reservoir on the river Araks in the 1970s. Despite Armenian objections, the reservoir was completed before Armenian independence, giving the Turkish government potential control over part of Armenia’s water supply. The fact, that the water reservoir is still collectively used today, leaves the question unanswered, whether this infrastructure will constitute an instrument of control or cooperation in the years to come.

The conference was further enriched by the screening of the documentary “A State in a State”, portraying the connective and disruptive impact infrastructural networks in the Caucasus do and did have over time. Focusing on the railway sector, the documentary uncovered the eponymous ‘state in a state’ – a network of railway workers originating in Soviet times, still alive in the minds of railway workers today. As EVELINA GAMBINO (Cambridge), the documentary’s scientific advisor, emphasised in the subsequent discussion that collaboration between film making and scientific research might be challenging, but can well contribute to the research on infrastructure by making the dimension of time and space perceptible for the audience.

In his Commentary on the Conference, RONALD GRIGOR SUNY (Ann Abor/Michigan) went through all the presentations held by the participants and stated that he was impressed by the many new aspects brought up throughout the conference. Even after 55 years of studying the Caucasus, he was offered new insights into the region under the umbrella of infrastructure as a common framework. Yet, he maintained that scholars should not overlook in their analysis the agency of individuals in shaping infrastructure or the significance of individuals’ emotional bonds towards infrastructure.

On the last day of the conference, SANDRA DAHLKE (Bonn), EDITA GZOYAN (Yerevan), HELENA HOLZBERGER (Munich/Tbilisi), VAHAGN POGHOSYAN (Yerevan), TAMAR QEBURIA (Tbilisi), OLIVER REISNER (Tbilisi), ANDREAS RENNER (Munich), and VAHRAM TER-MATEVOSYAN (Yerevan) joined a Round Table hosted by the American University of Armenia. The participants discussed possibilities for and obstacles to a cooperation between Western and local scholars of Eastern European and Eurasian history. While all participants showed interest in deepening the international and interregional cooperation between universities and scientific institutes on both sides, our colleagues from the Caucasus expressed concerns about not being heard by the international scientific community. Gzoyan emphasised the insufficient command of language as a reason for little scientific exchange with Western historiography, since local scholars in Armenia would refrain from publishing their works in English language. Qeburia drew attention to possible risks coming along with the increasing interest into the Caucasus. In her opinion, Western scholars should not use the archival expertise of local historians only as an empirical basis for writing a history of the centre from the periphery. Moreover, they should contribute to the development of a critical historiographical school in the Caucasus by acquiring the languages of the region and engaging in methodological discussions with their local colleagues on equal terms.

Considering the challenging conditions under which it took place, bringing together participants so diverse in terms of methodology as in terms of scientific interest, the conference could have hardly been expected to come up with a common approach to the imperial history of infrastructure in the Caucasian periphery as a final result. From the author’s point of view, the main achievement of the conference lies in the fact, that scholars from various regional and methodological backgrounds could engage in discussions about how and by whom the history of the Caucasus could or should be written. This way, the conference may have evoked more questions, than it answered. Yet, it will hopefully help scholars from the Caucasus and beyond to enter into scientific cooperation beneficial for both sides.

Conference Overview:

Sandra Dahlke (Bonn); Edik Minasyan (Yerevan); Hagop Yacoubian (Yerevan): Opening

Helena Holzberger (Munich/Tbilisi); Arpine Maniero (Munich): Introduction

Elke Shoghig Hartmann (Berlin): Keynote Lecture: Rethinking Infrastructures – Perspectives, Aims, and Challenges

Chair: Oliver Reisner (Tbilisi)

Panel 1: Structuring States

Evgeniya Prusskaya (Tbilisi): Islamic Infrastructure in the South Caucasus

Christoph Neumann (Istanbul): Infrastructures in the Caucasus, Infrastructure in Between Empires – an Ottoman(ist) View

Chair: Andreas Renner (Munich)

Panel 2: Travel and Trade

Reinhard Nachtigal (Freiburg i. Br.): An Epoch of Russian Dominance: The Slow Integration of the Southern Caucasus in the 19th Century as a Matter of Infrastructure

Vahram Ter-Matevosyan (Yerevan): Infrastructural Constraints and Development Trajectories in the Imperial Peripheries: Russian Armenia vs. Turkish Armenia in the Travel Notes of Levon Sargsyants, 1888

Mkhitar Gabrielyan (Yerevan): Culture and Trade “Open” the Borders of Empires: Case of the Town of Akhaltsikhe

Chair: David Jishkariani (Tbilisi)

Panel 3: Urban Development
Mikayel Malkhasyan (Yerevan): The Demographic Policy of the Russian Empire in the Kars Oblast, 1877-1917

Hamlet Melkumyan (Yerevan): Urban Development of Metsamor Atomic City in Soviet Armenia: Tracing the Complexities of Colonization and Decolonization Discourses

Tamar Qeburia (Tbilisi): Manganese Ferroalloys Factory During the First Five Year Plan

Chair: Arpine Maniero (Munich)

Documentary with Introduction and Discussion

Evelina Gambino (Cambridge): A State in a State

Chair: Philipp Schroeder (Düsseldorf)

Panel 4: Shaping Environment

Oliver Reisner (Tbilisi): Media Infrastructure and Self-positioning of Political Intelligentsia in Tbilisi printing press, around 1900

Tyson Sadleir (New York): Russian Imperialism and the Bridges of the Darial Gorge, 1769-1917

Anush Hovhannisyan (Yerevan): Turkish Water Policy in Araks-Kura Basin: Instrument of Cooperation or Conflict?

Chair: Suren Manukyan (Yerevan)

Ronald Grigor Suny (Ann Arbor/Michigan): Commentary on the Conference

Concluding Discussion

Round Table: The Southern Caucasus as a research landscape for Western East-European and Eurasian History

Sandra Dahlke (Bonn); Edita Gzoyan (Yerevan); Vahagn Poghosyan (Yerevan); Tamar Qeburia (Tbilisi); Oliver Reisner (Tbilisi); Andreas Renner (Munich); Vahram Ter-Matevosyan (Yerevan)

Moderation: Helena Holzberger (Munich/Tbilisi)

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