“Even history that happened centuries ago can cause problems for the people you are working with” – Interview with Naira Sahakyan

This interview was conducted on 9th May 2019, during the workshop ”Knowledge, Politics and Publics: Conversations on the Role of the Academic, the Intellectual and the Writer in Times of Change”, organized by the Forum Transregionale Studien and the ZEIT Stiftung Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius. Naira Sahakyan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Amsterdam and fellow of the “Trajectories of Change” programme of the ZEIT Stiftung that addresses historical and current transformation processes in the European neighbourhood. Her thesis, written under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Michael Kemper and Dr. Alfrid K. Bustanov, examines the Dagestani Reformists during the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

Naira, how did you become interested in Islamic-Soviet thought in Dagestan?

Thank you very much for having me here, for this wonderful workshop and also the kind invitation to this interview. My interest in Dagestani intellectual history, particularly of the beginning of the 20th century, was formed when I started my PhD at the European University in Saint Petersburg. There, we had a program for studying Islam in Russia. I did not visit Dagestan yet at this point of time, but I knew from the start that I was interested in 20th-century Dagestan in general. I have a BA and a MA degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies, and consequently Muslim-populated Dagestan became my field of interest. More and more, I was becoming excited by Dagestani manuscripts. Imagine a huge number of Arab-language Islamic manuscripts outside of the Arab world. However, one cannot decide to study such a narrow topic without spending some time with those manuscripts and archival documents. After my first visit to Dagestan I had a clearer picture about what exactly I was going to do. Based on these perceptions as well as the historiography of Dagestan, I ended up with the topic “Islamic Reformism and the Bolshevik Revolution in Dagestan, 1917-1928”. So, my thesis deals with a period of transition from imperial Russia to the Soviet Union. I am switching attention from the metropolis, which has been studied quite well, and propose to investigate the situation on the fringes of the former Russian Empire where major Muslim intellectuals experimented with combinations of Islamic and Socialist ideas. They thereby built on the local and international projects of Islamic reformism, and integrated Islamic ideas of ‘progress’ into the discourse of the Bolsheviks.

Naira Sahakyan. Photo: private

What is the relevance of this topic nowadays?

To answer this question, I would like to start with the idea that when young scholars, such as PhD students, start a project, they try to find a certain gap to fill, to use this academic phrase. But for me, this project is not only about filling that gap and getting a degree. Rather, I am guided by the question of what the value of my work is, not only for historiography, and not only for international academic scholarship, but also for Dagestan and Dagestanis. At the beginning I didn’t know how to deal with this question. During visits to Dagestan I travelled in the mountainous part and visited several villages where I talked to Dagestani historians and teachers. Once, we even had a very emotional meeting with school children. I saw that people want to know their history but there is a certain problem. Many of those manuscripts were written in Arabic, a language which was once the lingua franca for Dagestani elites. Today, only a small group of people learn Arabic in Dagestan, meaning that there is a barrier for Dagestanis to study their own history. Of course, there are brilliant historians in Dagestan who read sources in Arabic and produce academic article and books, but not every topic is covered. And so, here is my contribution to this field: to use Dagestani sources that have recently become available, to write something that can be read and used by Dagestanis themselves so that they know more about their history, and to keep this history alive. It is hugely important to fill these gaps in their identity.

Did you also spend some time at the University of Dagestan or at some research institutes there? Are they somehow connected to institutes in the Middle East or rather separated and in need of such connections?

I worked at both the Institute of History of Dagestan and the Central Historical Archive of Dagestan. During my recent visit I mainly worked at the Institute, where historians are doing their best to collect and discuss all the private archives silenced during the Soviet years. Most importantly, they are also trying to digitize them. I was really lucky to be connected with them and to have access to these private archives, because in many cases researchers coming into the field don’t know where to start, how to get access to sources, and they mainly go to the state archives. These archives are also important but what one finds there are mainly Russian-language administrative documents with certain narratives and ideologies. From these documents, we can gain knowledge about how the Soviet system and Soviet censorship worked in Dagestan, but it gives us nearly nothing about what the hopes and fears of Dagestani intellectuals of that time were. Here, the role of private archives becomes more and more important, because through these archives, through these private libraries and their hidden manuscripts, we can reconstruct the inner voices of Dagestan.

Dagestani manuscripts. Photo by Dr Shamil Shikhaliev

And concerning the connections to the Middle East back then and now: was Dagestan rather separated or were intellectuals from that region travelling around?

My sense is that Dagestan is and has never been separated from the rest of the world. Many of Dagestani intellectuals travelled a lot before, during and after the Soviet Union. They visited not only the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire, but also, for example,  Central Asia, and they had very active relations with scholars from these regions. A nice example is one of my main heroes, Ali al-Ghumuqi, who studied in Egypt at the University of Al-Azhar and brought ideas of Egyptian reformism to Dagestan.

The last question will concern today’s workshop. The topic of it is the role of intellectuals in the current world, a reflection about how intellectuals contribute to public debates of our time and whether it is possible to be a detached observer and a participant of events at the same time. How do you see your political role? Do you have any further engagements or do you rather prefer to focus on research without engaging politically in a broader sense?

This is a quite broad and complicated question, because it depends on where you work, with whom you work and on which topic. I work with manuscripts. I mean, I’m trying to follow the history of manuscripts. It’s not the same kind of work that anthropologists, or other scholars working directly with people, are doing. So, it’s somewhat far from today’s politics. Of course, sometimes, even in that case, you need to be very careful about how you are expressing your ideas, and where and what are you talking about, because even history that happened centuries ago can cause problems for the people you are working with. This is, I think, very important. What also matters is academic freedom; its degree is not the same everywhere. I think we have a lot to fix here.

Questions: Ewa Dabrowska


Citation: Naira Sahakyan, “Even history that happened centuries ago can cause problems for the people you are working with”, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.07.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19276.



Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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