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AN AVERAGE AZERI VILLAGE (1930): Remembering Rebellion in the Caucasus Mountains

Bruce Grant Associate Professor of Anthropology Swarthmore College, 500 College Avenue Swarthmore, PA 19081, USA

“From the end of 1929 to April of 1930, the political situation in [our region] was good. In April, a few kulaks and bandits raised a commotion and spread discontent. Currently, however, our political situation can be considered average.” — Political Report from northwest Azerbaijan, November 1930 What did it mean to be average in the Soviet Union of the early 1930s? This was the question confronting me as I sat in a provincial archive in Azerbaijan in the autumn of 2002, in the small city of Sheki, six hours' drive northwest of the capital, Baku.1 Housed in a damp stone building, the archive had a single reading room that filled each day with men and women working through property registers from before, during, and after the Soviet period to lay claim to paper fragments that would alleviate their tax burdens or assert their property rights in the unstable setting of life in the post-Soviet republic. I had come to look for sources on the history of a mountain village where I had been doing ethnographic field-work, where the grandson of a Sufi-style saint had led a rebellion against Soviet power in 1930. The story of what became known locally as "the Sheki rebellion" (Şəki üsyanı) unfolds today, as it might have then, as a complex whodunit. Was it a triumphant sign of tireless Azeri resistance to communist tyranny, or a government-led charade to expose anti-Soviet elements? Was the movement driven by a charismatic leader with magical powers, or by a politically inexperienced young molla who found himself in a trap? Inevitably partial and partisan, evidence from published, archival, and contemporary oral accounts suggests all of these things. These later multiple and lively retellings of the Sheki rebellion, dating from more than seventy years after it took place, demonstrate its enduring status as both event and metaphor for those who reconstitute it today.2 According to some reports, as many as 10,000 men and women — entire families of farmers and tradesmen, Muslim clerics and Communist Party members—took part in one night of street battles followed by three days of eerie calm in April 1930.3 Rebel leaders emptied the prisons and organized a cabinet, a small militia, and even a trade office. After the Red Army arrived to retake the city, hundreds were arrested, sent into exile, or killed. Yet only months later in the rattled offices of the Sheki administration, the telling language of memorandum worked with its familiar clip: "From the end of 1929 to April of 1930," an unnamed secretary of the political division reported, "the political situation in our region was good. In April, a few kulaks and bandits raised a commotion and spread discontent." But what does one write about the state of political life when one's own predecessor has been executed at gunpoint only months earlier? "Currently," he wrote, "the political situation in our district could be considered average [orta hesab etnwk mümkündür]." It is inviting to read this archival moment as Aesopian euphemism for what could only be described as chaos in the countryside, as a local party officer taking refuge in the language of "averageness" from the tumult all around. Indeed, within less than three years following October 1917, Muslims in the eastern Caucasus had witnessed the spectacular collapse of the Russian and Ottoman empires, vigorous interventions by the British and the Turks in the months that followed, a staunchly nationalist period of independence led by the Musavat Party (1918-1920), and the establishment of Soviet government in April 1920. Given the pace at which events continued to unfold throughout the 1920s, amidst a tectonic remapping of political, economic, and social terrains—from the standardization of political rule and new communications technologies used by new political rulers to the banning of the veil, the introduction of the Latin alphabet at the expense of the Arabic one, and the collectivization of the countryside itself—it is not hard to imagine that anyone's sense of the "average "would be loose at best.4 But instead of dismissing the nervous blandness of the Sheki pronouncement, what would happen if we took the report quite literally, on its own terms, to interrogate averageness itself? Where does the average come from? How it is made? And, most importantly, what do we make of it? The average, the everyday, the ordinary: these are the measures by which historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have long made patterns out of chaos, sameness out of difference, and memory out of history.5 But do these terms signify the same thing? Long after Hegel famously professed that there is no history without struggle ("Periods of happiness are empty pages in history"), scholars of Alltagsgeschichte have labored to produce chronicles of the normal and the ordinary, while equally numerous volumes have been dedicated to writing the very full pages of the everyday.6 Yet the concept of "average" has seemed to bear a more complicated set of associations, not least in anthropology, where the focus on cultural difference long ago resulted in the abandonment of notions of "typical" or "average" cultural characteristics. Early on in the nineteenth century, the Belgian scholar Adolphe Quetelet insisted that averages not only are integral to scholarship broadly conceived but are in fact only made knowable by the all-too-human labors of scholars themselves. "When men are thrust together in society and their various sizes come together in the most unlikely combinations, there is between them a mysterious link that allows us to consider each individual as a necessary part of a whole which has no physical existence and escapes us in the individual instance, and which can only be perceived through the eyes of science."7…

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AN AVERAGE AZERI VILLAGE (1930): Remembering Rebellion in the Caucasus Mountains


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