By Ivan Cherniakov (PhD Student, Art History)
Griffin Creech is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History, University of Pennsylvania, and the 2023 recipient of the Fisher Fellow Award. The Fisher Fellow Award offers support to junior scholars to attend the Summer Research Lab (SRL) at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois in the spirit of scholarly advancement and collaboration. During his visit to the SRL, Griffin gave a talk on his dissertation project currently in progress Buriats Beyond Borders: Making and Unmaking Multi-Layered Citizens in the Russia-Mongolia Borderlands, 1890-1938. A couple of weeks later, we met with Griffin to talk more about his research, field and archival work, and their political value.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you become interested in the Buriats? How common is this topic among researchers working on Mongolia and the Baikal region?
There are two levels to how I got interested in this topic. One was the traditional academic route through university, and the other was through personal experience. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I received training in Russian and Soviet history. After that, I joined the U.S. Peace Corps in Mongolia for almost three years. Khentii, the province where I lived, is one of two Mongolian provinces that have significant Buriat populations. Many of my colleagues and people I became friends with were Buriats. In many cases, their grandparents or great-grandparents came to Mongolia from the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. I was interested in Central Asia in some capacity, so this topic was a natural way to bring Russian and Inner or Central Asian history together. For people who work on Central Asia and Inner Asia, Mongolia, Qing studies—wherever we want to place Mongolia within the academy—the Buriats are a relatively common topic, but only in certain contexts. There are many studies of the Buriats after the end of socialism, usually done by anthropologists, looking at things like shamanism, the revival of Buriat Buddhism, and responses to traumas under socialism. There is a subfield of historians who work on the Buriat, especially in a Russian and Soviet context, including Melissa Chakars, Robert Montgomery, Nikolai Tsyrempilov, Helen Hundley, and others. Mostly, the Buriats are a topic for one or the other side of the Russia-Mongolia border. Russianists work within a Russian or Russophone context; Mongolists, on the other side, focus more on anthropological and contemporary problems.
What could you say about the state of the scholarship on the Buriats, specifically in the United States?
Some of the most recent scholarship on the Buriats has looked at religious revival in the post-Soviet period. There is some recent work on Buriat language revivalism and Buriat as a minority language in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. There have been some recent books on Buddhism, especially Nikolai Tsyrempilov’s book on Buriat Buddhism in Imperial Russia, which focuses on the nineteenth century. A lot of our coverage tends to be on the early twentieth century and much less about the imperial period, especially pre-nineteenth century. The American academy fits into the pattern of Buriat studies being divided by the Russia-Mongolia border quite strongly. Fewer scholars work on both sides of that spectrum.
In your talk, you mentioned that you had a productive time working with the library sources here during the SRL. Could you tell us about some specific findings in the library collection that were especially valuable to your research?
I worked primarily with two categories of sources during the SRL. The University of Illinois library has an excellent microfilm collection of anti-Soviet newspapers from the Transbaikal (the region east of Lake Baikal) that are hard to find: Zabaikalskaia nov’, Vostochnaia Okraina, Golos Zabaikal’ia, Vostochnyi Kur’er, and for the late imperial period, Zabaikal’e. Working with those newspapers gave me a fine-grained look at pedestrian, day-to-day events that are as important for understanding what was going on in late Imperial and civil war era Transbaikal as archival or printed materials written by Buriat intellectuals. Beyond that, I started working with a few bibliographies, especially a bibliography of so-called “ethnographic sources” on the Buriats. A lot of what I found there was not just ethnographic in character. As the saying goes, “don’t judge a book by its cover!” I discovered new publications that carried a large amount of information and articles about the Buriats, particularly during the period from 1901 to 1905 when the Russian imperial state ended the Buriat Steppe Duma system and replaced it with a Russian administrative structure based on the volost’. The geographical specificity and cross-border nature of my topic sometimes make finding sources difficult. Before I came to the SRL, I was a little concerned about how much I would actually be able to find. As I assume others do, I thought I already knew what was out there. That turned out not to be the case. There was a lot more available than I could even get through in the time I was there—not even close. I would really urge scholars, no matter how difficult it may be to find sources on their topics, to come in with an open mind and give it a try.
What advice would you give to graduate students early in their dissertation research and archival work on the REEES region, especially now, when some sources are difficult or simply impossible to access?
This is a moment when we, historians, need to think seriously about how much we have relied on Russian archival sources, often found in state archives. Since the 1990s and particularly the early 2000s, there has been a fixation on state archives in our field. Obviously, the possibility of acting on this is now non-existent for the great majority of scholars who have relied on Russian archives. As a field, we need to use this moment not just to be frustrated that we cannot go to Russia and access state archives, but to think about the limitations of those archival sources. What can we do to replace them? One answer is to look at materials found in states that now border Russia. This is certainly a viable option for many, but we have to be conscious of replicating the same process by replacing the Russian state archives with state archives elsewhere. I would like to emphasize that there is nothing inherently better or worse about archival sources. The fact that a source is now in a state archive tells us a lot about its provenance, the kind of information that it might contain, and the state structures that produced it, but like other materials, it tends to express a certain, often limited, viewpoint. I think we need to pay more attention to newspapers. Newspapers are very valuable and rich. Generally, if you are working in a Russophone context, the Eurasian space is difficult in terms of access to newspapers, however. We do not have a lot of digitized publications that are keyword-searchable. We do not have really deep access, especially to newspapers and journals published before 1917. But I would encourage people to try places like the SRL, where they can use large numbers of newspapers on microfilm, and to be creative and critical about how they use the (for now) limited archival sources available to them.
This is a great point. It also makes me think about a recent criticism of research that heavily relies on work with Russian state archives and ignores the fact they are not neutral sources in terms of what they provide or don’t provide access to. I was curious to hear more about whether this aspect of archival work came up in your research in Russia or Mongolia.
One does occasionally still encounter the view that archives are more neutral and preferable sites for finding sources, but there is plenty of literature out there that can help us to move past that view. Part of scholarship is not taking any source at face value, and that includes state archives. As you mentioned, they have blind spots and gaps. They can produce really deep and rich detail at some moments, but at other times they may remain silent or skip over whole topics. So, there is a place for state archives certainly, but they will always give us a more institutional perspective. The root that my topic grew from was looking at Buriats who migrated from the Transbaikal to Mongolia and, to a lesser extent, to Manchuria and China during the Russian Civil Wars. Owing to COVID and then Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, I have never been able to do in-person work in the State Archive of the Republic of Buriatia. There are some good, scanned document collections that the archives just graciously put online. But, by and large, this is a topic that a lot of authorities who produced materials that are now in archives had an incentive to gloss over or to speak about only in vague terms. One must be creative and read between the lines a lot, and this is especially true for Russian archives. When I go to the Mongolian archives, I find a very different, though still limited perspective on that piece of the topic. You can find lists, thousands of pages long, with names of Buriats, all way from children to elderly people, who migrated there from the Transbaikal. But most of the attention here is focused not on what brought the migrants to Mongolia, but on claiming them as Mongolian citizens. The job of a scholar is less to take sources at face value and more to think creatively about what they might suggest or point toward. I hope that stepping outside of the archive and supplementing it with newspapers, journals, and, where possible and relevant, oral histories might help us to detract from the traditional state archive and flesh out the picture a little bit more.
Going back to your project, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about how it resonates with the contemporary moment. What can the history you explore in your project reveal about today’s Buriat populations as well as the policies of Russian authorities toward the Buriats?
The period I work on has many direct parallels with our current moment. I am often shocked to see near copies of events that I read about in materials from the early twentieth century or before happening in today’s world. One particular moment of direct parallel resonance was in the fall of 2022, when one of the major rounds of mobilization was announced for Russian citizens that would be sent to fight in the war on Ukraine. Buriat communities have been disproportionally impacted by mobilization, and they have died in disproportionally high numbers fighting in Ukraine. One thing I saw happening in live time was that many Buriats began to cross the border into Mongolia to get away from this mobilization. Earlier, when I was in Ulaanbaatar in the summer of 2022, there were a very large number of mostly Russian-speaking Buriats in the Mongolian capital city that I had never seen there before. It was very tangible that something had changed. I can look directly back to the period between World War I and the Civil War and see exactly the same thing happening when state authorities grew anxious over many young Buriat men of draftable age fleeing to Mongolia and remaining beyond the draft’s reach. More generally, the cultural and political situation that the Buriats are in right now has some resonance with the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Buriats have historically had to negotiate their place between the state in which they find themselves in terms of their citizenship and passport, and Mongol Inner Asia, a region that, for many, offers cultural, linguistic, and religious affinities. This dynamic has placed the Buriats in a situation where they have to put an unduly large amount of thought into how they are going to survive as a minority cultural and linguistic group. Right now, there is a lot of discussion among Buriat activists about the decolonization of Buriat history and life, and of the contemporary Russian Federation. Many of these activists have moved abroad to continue their work. But Russia’s war on Ukraine has spawned many of the same discussions about the survival of the Buriats as a people that one can see in the late imperial era. As many members of Buriat communities are taken to the frontlines in Ukraine and, often, do not come back, the Buriats again have begun to discuss their future during this tumultuous moment.
Are there any sources or media that you would recommend for getting familiar with the Buriats’ present and past from the Buriats’ perspective?
For people affiliated with the academy, I would recommend the work of Buriat scholars, including Nikolay Tsyrempilov, a professor at Nazarbayev University and a leading scholar in Buriat studies; Sayana Namsaraeva, an anthropologist at Cambridge University; and Jargal Badagarov at Heidelberg University. And there are many good Russian- or Mongolian-language social media accounts that are produced in or around Ulan-Ude and Ulaanbaatar. On Instagram, I would recommend Buryad Oron1 and Indigenous of Russia often features stories from Buriat decolonial activists.
1“Oron” is a Mongolic term meaning “land, country, territory.”