CE41 - Inégalités, discriminations, migrations

Russians and Kurds in the Middle East (late 19th-21st centuries): The Tribal Factor in Imperial Strategies – Ruskurd

Russians and Kurds in the Middle East (late 19th-21st centuries): The ''tribal factor'' in imperial strategies

While Russian policy in the Middle East has been widely discussed in recent years, due to its part in the crisis the region has experienced since the early 21st century, the project aims at putting the relationship between Russia (broadly defined as the political space of the Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union) and the Kurds, a minority and transborder group, since the 19th century.

Understanding the genesis and specificity of the Russian-Middle Eastern connection

A transborder minority group, the Kurds currently constitute a significant share of the population of Turkey, Iran and several states of the contemporary Arab world, but have also been present, since their emigration to the Tsarist Empire in 19th century, in several regions of the post-Soviet region. Whereas the birth and growth of a Kurdish diaspora in Western Europe in the 20th century is well documented, the project aims at reassessing the historical importance of the relationship between the Russian space and the Kurds (thereby contributing to a better understanding of the Russian-Middle Eastern connection). It studies the way the Kurds became a political and military factor during the Russian expansion in the Caucasus and as a result of intensifying relations with the Ottoman Empire and Iran. It also investigates the central role of the production of ‘’Kurdological’’knowledge in the Russian and Soviet space and the important effects of this academic corpus on the shaping of Kurdish identity/ies in the contemporary period. As the centers of Kurdology were spread across the empire (Saint-Petersburg, Moscow, Yerevan, Tbilisi, Baku, in particular) and involved numerous scholars, they illustrate the internal diversity of imperial polities in the 19th-20th centuries. The project finally considers the scope of Kurdish circulations between the Middle East and the Russian space (and integrates communist Central Europe in the discussion, as far as the Cold War is concerned) and emphasizes their mobilizing role and the necessity to reintegrate them in the global history of Kurdish exiles and migrations.

Whereas archives often embody, in their very process of creation, the perspective of emerging political authorities and may appear, at first sight, remote from the fate of minority groups such as the Kurds, the project aims at reconstituting the composite, multilingual and transnational world of archives that can serve as the starting point for an exploration of Russian-Kurdish relations over two centuries. It will explore official archives, created by Russian, Soviet and Middle Eastern state authorities (or, for that matter, in Western Europe and the US), but will move beyond their world representation and put them into context. This entails an exploration of peripheral archives in former imperial borderlands, for instance in the South Caucasus, in Central Asia and some Central European countries deeply involved in relations with the Middle East after 1945 (such as the GDR and Bulgarie). This also involves a use of parastate archives, such as those preserved by research centres, universities and academies, throughout the geographical space considered. Finally, the project will retrieve private archives, generally unknown and sometimes endangered by the course of events in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East since the 1990s.

In 2019, the projet financed several research trips in the region for project members (Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Germany, Netherlands, Iran, Iraq) which allowed collecting primary and archival sources and staging a few interviews. Several conferences and events were held, notably in Moscow (in collaboration with the Institute of Orientalism of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the French-Russian Studies Centre) and Istanbul (in partnership with the French Institute of Anatolian Studies). These two events were dedicated to the exploration of the diplomatic/military dimension of Russian-Kurdish dimensions and the preliminary analysis of transnational kurdish networks between the Middle East, Russia and Central Europe (thanks to research implemented by the post-doctoral researcher). The first findings of the projet demonstrate the way the specific perception of the Kurds by Russian and Soviet authorities shaped the policies adopted domestically and internationally (political use of ethnographic knowledge, contact with ‘’tribal’’ elites, etc.). Conversely, the study of Kurdish transnational mobilizations in the 20th century confirms the significance of the communist world as a reference in political and cultural modernization.

In spite of the serious perturbation caused by the COVID-19 crisis (postponement of field trips, heavy teaching and administrative load reducing available research time), the project will proceed in 2021 with a public seminar allowing a presentation of the first findings of the project, a discussion with junior and senior researchers and students and an engagement with the wider historiography of relations between Russia and the Middle East. It will hopefully provide the opportunity to make the expected research trips initially planned and move forward with publishing further research results and making archival material available.

As of mid-2020, the project has led to the publication of several articles (in Engish and Turkish) and the editing of a special issue of ‘’Kürt Tarihi'' devoted to Russian-Kurdish relations (on the basis of the workshop organized in Istanbul in December 2019). The discussion area offered by the project has made possible for the principal investigator to finalize a « History of the Caucasus » (published in October 2020) et for the post-doctoral research to prepare several papers. A collective book project will be submitted in 2021.

The relationship that has brought together Russians and Kurds since the 19th century is one of the driving factors of Middle East
politics and societies. This intercourse has been made of alliance and turnarounds at the crossroads of imperial strategies and local
realities. This imperial-tribal nexus revolves around the Kurdish tribal factor, whose endurance has aroused fascination as well as
distrust among the great powers. It has given birth to applied Kurdological knowledge, particularly interested in the Kurdish
expertise in irregular warfare. Intellectual and political exchanges, migrations and transnational trajectories account for the density
of a relationship which has been one of the most intense channels between the Middle East and Eastern Europe to this day. This
project aims at reconstructing the many sides of this relationship which is central to a better understanding of these complex
regions and their current situation, by a wide audience and expert circles alike.

Project coordination

Etienne Peyrat (Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion/MESHS)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


IRHis / MESHS Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion/MESHS

Help of the ANR 291,924 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2018 - 36 Months

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