William Fierman, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, was recently presented with the Edward Allworth Lifetime Service to the Profession Award which recognizes extraordinary lifetime achievement in the field of Central Eurasian Studies. Professor Fierman, former Director of the IAUNRC and longtime observer of political developments in the Central Asian region, spoke to the IAUNRC about the ongoing project to microfilm his extensive collection of Kazakh and Uzbek newspapers. In 2018, the IAUNRC contributed sufficient funds to enable the completion of this daunting task, initiated in 2016 by the Slavic and East European Materials Project (SEEMP).
Here, Professor Fierman tells us how he came to be interested in the Central Asian region, how he amassed his impressive newspaper archive and how it might be used, and what role he sees for the newspaper in today’s digital world.
IAUNRC: How was it that you initially came to be interested in the Central Asian region?
WF: Well, these days it’s not all that uncommon, but when I started to look at Central Asia, it was something like Martian studies. As an undergraduate at IU I majored in Russian and Chinese, after which I applied for various graduate programs in political science and ended up at Harvard. Although when I began graduate school I intended to study Sino-Soviet relations, during my first years at Harvard I found myself more interested in comparative politics than international relations. And, given my background, I guess that it was natural to be intrigued by issues of language policy. So I applied to IREX, the International Research and Exchanges Board, which was the only program that existed at the time for graduate students or scholars from the US to go to the Soviet Union. The competition for going to the Soviet Union was quite keen; there were only 30 places total for anyone studying anything from Pushkin to economic reform. I applied with the idea of studying and working in Moscow on a project that would compare Soviet and Chinese language policies towards minorities, but my interview didn’t go terribly well; the person who interviewed me decided that I needed to study a specific minority language. So here I was, already done with the coursework for the PhD and my qualifying exams, and ready to start a dissertation, being told, “Begin studying a new language that you will need to master enough to use materials in that language for research.” For me this was a mixed blessing: I wanted to get on with my life but I loved studying languages. I selected Uzbek. I applied for and received a “preparatory” IREX grant to study on my own and prepare here in the US for a year. I picked Uzbek because it’s so close to Uyghur, and I thought I’d eventually be able to study Chinese policy in Xinjiang. The materials I used to study on my own were very poor. There were a couple in English, but on the whole I learned Uzbek through Russian-language manuals. They were very Soviet in spirit: along the lines of “Man works on collective farm, falls in love with tractor, marries tractor, and they live happily ever after as they over-fulfill their production plans.” I was able to find a woman in Cambridge who claimed to be a native Uzbek speaker, and I met with her a few times. But she was not a language teacher. Furthermore, as I learned later on, her “Uzbek” was a mixture of Uzbek and Turkish. Since I listened to tapes of texts she recorded to learn how Uzbek sounded, to this day when I speak Uzbek, native speakers often jump to the conclusion that I am Turkish. As for my plans to compare Soviet and Chinese minority language policies, they did not go anywhere. In those days it was impossible for an American to go at all to the People’s Republic of China to conduct research—never mind Xinjiang; and information about language policy in China was very limited.
In any case, a year after receiving the IREX “preparatory grant,” I was to participate in the exchange. Being nominated did not necessarily mean being accepted by the Soviet side; and inasmuch as the number of participants from the US and USSR had to be the same, the US rejection of any Soviet nominees would mean that even after nomination a US scholar could be struck from the list. This could happen any time up to arrival in the USSR. Indeed, at the time my wife and I left the US for the Soviet Union (on a planned visit in Europe along the way), our Soviet visas had still not been issued. Another IREX participant passing through Europe on his way to Moscow had to carry our visas to Vienna and drop them off at the American Express Office. I had to take the train down from Prague to pick up the visas and then return to Prague to catch the flight to Moscow. In those days, of course, it was impossible to fly to most of the Soviet Union without going through Moscow. In any case, all the IREX scholars who were about to begin research in the USSR in fall 1976—overwhelmingly in Moscow—spent a month for preparation in the Soviet capital. After that my wife and I, along with another American family, headed to Uzbekistan, boarded the train for the 54 hour trip to Tashkent. I remember that our checked luggage had to be placed into burlap bags that my wife sewed up and then some official closed with a wax seal. As I look back, I am not quite sure why the Soviet side accepted me to do my project, since my topic—language policy in Uzbekistan in the 1920s and 1930—was highly political; I think it was probably an accident that they let me go, thinking I was an “innocuous linguist.” But the people in Tashkent appreciated the sensitivity of my project and working there was challenging. Although I collected material from libraries for much of the year, I did not receive permission to start work in the State Archive until spring of 1977—in other words, not long before my scheduled departure. And after a week there, I learned that the majority of the materials I needed most were not even in the State Archive but, rather, the archive of the Academy of Sciences. I worked there two days before the notes I had taken there were confiscated. This turned into something of an international incident, as the US Embassy in Moscow became involved. But my notes from the Academy archive were never returned, and I guess they may still be there.
IAUNRC: And you ended up subsequently spending a lot of time in that part of the world, isn’t that right?
WF: Yes—Uzbekistan was my beat until the collapse of the Soviet Union. I started to get interested in Kazakhstan for two main reasons. One is that Kazakhstan is a much more interesting place than Uzbekistan in terms of language policy, especially with regard to importance for national identity. Of course there are lots of interesting aspects to consider in Uzbekistan’s language policy, too, but most of the population of Uzbekistan was fluent in the state language (Uzbek) at the time of the Soviet collapse; in Kazakhstan, only about a third of the population knew the state language. The second reason for shifting my attention from Uzbek to Kazakh was the relative accessibility of Kazakhstan. I had a nasty experience when I arrived in Tashkent in January 1994 as a consultant with a USAID project funded through Internews, which promotes development of non-governmental mass media. I was supposed to spend a week in Uzbekistan on this project collecting information. Well, the timing was not good. I ended up not being allowed out of the airport. I was kept there for two days before being handed a “complimentary” ticket to Frankfurt on Uzbekistan Airlines and being told that there was a “quarantine” in Uzbekistan; I was unceremoniously placed on a plane just before takeoff (together with my big suitcases in the cabin) and assured that the Uzbekistan consul would meet me at the Frankfurt airport and sign a document allowing me to fly back to Tashkent on the same plane and enter the country. This was after having already spent almost 40 hours flying from the US in the first place and two days in the transit section of the Tashkent airport. Well, there was no consul to meet me in Frankfurt, and that was the end of that. That experience soured me on Uzbekistan. And of course the politics of Uzbekistan were such that the possibilities of going there were much more limited. The main reason I was not admitted into Uzbekistan on the Internews mission seems to have been at least partly due the fact that not long before my “adventure,” Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Washington had requested and received political asylum in the US; and my situation was one of the casualties of the cool relations that followed. I eventually received a public oral apology from an Uzbekistan ambassador to the US, and I have returned a few times to Uzbekistan since then, though never to conduct research.
IAUNRC: How did your newspaper collection get started?
WF: That’s actually a pretty easy question to answer. Initially, almost all of my collection was from Uzbekistan. Some of the newspapers I had went back to the 1970s. The Soviet Union would subsidize subscriptions to their press, so they were dirt cheap. You could subscribe to a daily newspaper that would be sent in hard copy to the US, each issue separately, for about $30 a year. So I already had a large Uzbek collection when I started working on Kazakhstan. At that time I had not read much Kazakhstan material. In fact, in the mid-eighties I wasn’t interested so much in Kazakhstan because it seemed too Russian. I worked a lot on youth issues in Central Asia, and in addition to the Uzbek- and Russian-language Uzbekistan Komsomol papers, I also subscribed to those in Russian from Kirgizia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan; however, the Russian-language Komsomol paper from Kazakhstan—Leninskaia smena—seemed not very relevant to the Kazakh population, and thus it didn’t interest me so much. Yet when in 1994 I found myself turned off from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan seemed to be a good subject for the study of language issues. I had only dabbled a bit in Kazakh up to that time, so I needed to develop Kazakh reading skills. Learning a second Turkic language, though, was a lot easier than the first one that I had started on almost two decades earlier. And that’s when I started subscribing to some of the Kazakhstan press. Then, it seems, a couple of years later, I received an email from Charles Carlson (an IU grad, as it turns out, who was in Bloomington during my undergrad years, but whom I did not meet then, because I was not interested in Central Asia at the time). Charles, who was managing the Kazakh and the Kyrgyz services at Radio Liberty at the time, wrote me that the radios were about to move most of their operation from Munich to Prague. Referring to the large Kazakh-language periodical collection, he said, “I’m not taking all this stuff with me to Prague; if you want it and you are willing to pay for the shipping, you can have it.” So that’s how I ended up with this huge archive of Kazakh newspapers and journals, especially from the mid- and late 1980s, and the beginning of the 1990s. This period, of course, includes glasnost’, so it’s a fascinating time. The entire Kazakh collection joined the Uzbek collection in my basement. Fortunately it’s dry down there so everything was kept in good condition.
When I had to retire because of eye problems, I got in touch with Akram [Habibulla, IU Librarian for Middle Eastern, Islamic, and Central Eurasian Studies—ed.] at the IU library, and he explored the possibility of my donating the collection to the library. I believe the journals are actually in hard copy in the stacks now. Akram contacted the Center for Research Libraries, and they expressed an interest in microfilming what was not already microfilmed, which turned out to be most of the collection. I don’t know how much of it has been microfilmed up to this point since it’s a slow and expensive process. I also donated some Uzbek material, but a lot of the Uzbek press I had was already on film. That ended up in recycling because the paper was not very high quality. So that’s how I ended up with the collection and how it ended up at IU.
William Fierman receives his lifetime service award
from Martha Merrill at CESS 2018
IAUNRC: I’ve heard that this is a huge collection—do you know how large it is yourself?
WF: I don’t! It’s in pieces. At one point I think I sent Akram a list of what I had, but I have no idea how many newspapers and periodicals were there. Some of the periodicals came out for just a few years, and there are some for which Radio Liberty let subscriptions lapse. So there are holes in the collections. That was one of the problems that libraries in general had in the US with Soviet publications. In those days, before the Soviet collapse, they were cheap. If you subscribe to one of these today in hard copy it will cost you several hundred dollars for a single subscription. But on the other hand, issues got lost, and it was very difficult to replace those. You could claim them—there were stores in Washington DC and New York that handled the subscriptions—but it was almost impossible to fill in the holes.
There is one other aspect to this collecting of materials. When I was an undergraduate student at IU I worked as an assistant for the section of the library that collected Slavic periodicals, which also included anything from the entire Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. My job was to check in each issue on a card as it arrived, and then we would try and claim any that didn’t come. So I came by this habit of collecting newspapers and journals as part of my job at the library.
IAUNRC: How do you envisage the collection being used?
WF: It’s hard for me to know. I hope that that there will be scholars who will be able to access it who otherwise would not find the materials they need, especially the parts for the period of glasnost’. Even if you go to Kazakhstan, to get into a library that’s going to have a full run of these things can be difficult, and the state of most of the libraries today is not great. And of course for US scholars it’s going to be a lot easier if it’s available here. There’s also a copyright issue, which I believe is still true even for Soviet publications. You can’t just make a microfilm and then reproduce multiple copies. It has to be from a copy that you legitimately own. So it’s important that these films are going to be accessible to people at various libraries, and that it’s a resource that people can find out about. Some of the hard copies I believe are actually unique in North America. For a while, Columbia was collecting a lot; Wisconsin was collecting some, too, but not nearly as much as I was receiving; other centers may have some copies—but again, unless they are digitizing them or filming them, those are not going to be accessible outside the libraries where the hard copies are kept. These, especially newspapers, are fragile and difficult to transport and on top of that—in part for those very reasons—many libraries do not lend hard copies of periodicals through interlibrary loan. But films are another story.
IAUNRC: What about in your own research and teaching? Are there any particular projects that you have been able to carry out using this collection?
WF: Throughout the late Soviet period I used my collection of periodicals from Uzbekistan for my own research, and I would frequently bring newspapers to show my classes. As for the Kazakh collection—I had a sabbatical year when I went through a lot of the material in search of articles relevant to identity. Throughout my career I’ve remained interested in language policy. I’m not writing actively much now because of my visual limitations. However, I mined the papers a lot, especially the youth paper and the literary paper, Qazaq ădībietī. Those are important sources for ideas being discussed in Kazakhstan during glasnost’. Without the collection from Radio Liberty I would not have been able to study the issues that I did. I have a huge file of xeroxes from them: I would go through the papers and copy or have an assistant copy articles and file them according to topic: for example, language, demography, historical monuments, Islam, pollution, and so on. Before I started working on Kazakhstan, I had been following most of these same issues in the Uzbek press. You can take any former Soviet republic and see discussions of most or all of these same issues. And they are critical to understanding the basis of the identities that the former republics tried to cultivate as independent states after the Soviet collapse. When I started looking at Kazakhstan, I was able to trace many of the same issues that I had looked at in Uzbekistan. And it goes without saying that the narratives that appeared in the Kazakh-language press were quite different from what appeared in Russian. A number of major Russian-language Kazakhstan publications were available in the US, many even at Indiana University. But without the Kazakh-language material from Radio Liberty I would not have been able to conduct the research on Kazakhstan that I wanted to do.
IAUNRC: Do you think that collecting and looking at newspapers now is still important in this digital age?
WF: That’s a big question. For a variety of reasons, studying Central Asia is a very different exercise from what it was in the late Soviet period and first decade beyond. But the press is still an important source for studying the Soviet era. And today, especially in the more authoritarian countries, the formulaic official press can offer insights into the official state narrative. But these days there are also other kinds of communication. When I was working on issues of identity in the Soviet era I would even read Uzbek belles lettres in an attempt to discern the sense of identity in the literary community. And I wrote a number of articles about that; subsequently the papers in Uzbekistan carried articles criticizing my analysis. On one trip to Uzbekistan in the late 1980s I met a critic who had written a scathing review of my work. In speaking with him, though, I learned that he had never read the articles he had criticized. Apparently he received orders from above with ammunition to use against this “falsifier of Soviet reality.” Other “critical” articles by Uzbek literati laid out my conclusions to the local reader. In those cases I think that the obligatory condemnation of my work was mostly a cover to allow dissemination of what I had written. But even fiction can be a valuable window into studying Soviet society. On the other hand, today in much of the region, and certainly in Kazakhstan, there are so many other opportunities to gather the information about thoughts of Central Asian intellectuals and what is happening on the ground. You can go to Kazakhstan and even interview the people whose work you have read. When I was in Uzbekistan in the Soviet era I wanted to interview linguists. It was extraordinarily difficult; they would generally avoid me and were extremely careful with what they told me. But in today’s world, with so many other sources of information, printed and even online newspapers are less important. That said, we can’t go back to that Soviet era. You can do some retrospective ethnography, go and talk to people about their memories, but those papers, I think, still remain an important source about the Soviet period. And let me add that when I’m talking about the printed press in the more autocratic societies today, the fact that it’s all very carefully controlled means it is often extremely boring. Turkmenistan is the extreme case. In many ways it’s like reading the Soviet press.
With regard to the press of the Soviet era, it’s important to remember that the tirazh [circulation—ed.] of the press was huge. It was subsidized, and people were obliged to subscribe to many publications. Not too many years ago a Russian woman in Turkmenistan told me that she was subscribing to a Turkmen paper devoted to the Turkmen language. I was puzzled, since it was clear to me that she knew almost no Turkmen. When I asked her why she paid for a subscription, she told me that the paper she subscribed to was among the cheapest, and that she used the paper to line her waste basket. So I don’t want to make too much of the tirazh per se. Nevertheless, press runs of the major publications in the Soviet era were huge, and people probably read much more then than they do today. To some extent, printed media served as part of a feedback loop of sorts, for instance, through letters to the editor—even if they were planted. Today the tirazh is really small for the print papers. There was no Facebook or anything like it in the Soviet era. That’s another important source today. Everyone tells me I should sign up for Facebook and read posts, but given that my vision problems slow my reading down, I already have all I can handle and then some without Facebook. I guess I am a product of another era.