by Camilla Pletuhina-Tonev Princeton University, Department of History, G-3

I knew little about modern or early modern Central Asia in late 2021 when my colleague from Russia shared the link to the “Russian Archives on Islam Summer School,” saying I might find the program interesting. I knew even less about the said “Russian Archives” - I was an Ottomanist whose primary research language was Ottoman Turkish and who did not quite venture outside the Ottoman Archives’ confines in Istanbul, Sofia, and elsewhere. So, I had my doubts about being a good fit. While the program sought to focus on Muslim experiences in the former Russian Empire, my research focused on Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. “The opposite,” I thought, “Or maybe not?” Were there any commonalities between the study of the Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire and the Muslims in the Russian Empire? Ironically, I realized that I navigated toward that question earlier in the year when I embarked on an exploration of this very topic in the final paper for my Russian History class at Princeton. The paper - titled rather bluntly Imperial Approaches to the Management of Religious Diversity: The Case of Muslims in the Early-Modern Russian Empire and Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire - pointed to commonalities in imperial policies and led me to notice that the early modern empires were either willing or forced to seek cooperation with minority elites. So, there was that. I further noticed that the ideal candidate for the program had to have a good command of Russian and one Turkic language. Check! Plus, I wanted to give Vienna another chance. I spent a semester in Vienna in the Fall of 2019 as a Master’s student at CEU, but I was too busy and too cold to build any meaningful connection with the city. Having taken all these considerations into account, I decided to apply for the program, oblivious to the fact that I signed myself up for one of the most intellectually transformative experiences of my academic journey so far. 

It didn’t take long for me to locate my fellow summer school attendees when I arrived at the hotel in Vienna: a group of men was loudly and enthusiastically talking about petitions, Turki, andI believe – horses while enjoying their breakfast. I approached them and introduced myself. A couple of hours later, we were sitting in a tight circle on the patio in front of the hotel, reading Ottoman petitions about Russian prisoners of war in the Ottoman Empire. A few hours after that, we were still sitting in a tight circle - this time in a cafe at the banks of the Danube, still reading – but we switched the focus to the petitions in Turki and their Russian translations about Tilabika – an Uzbek woman whose fate was decided by obscure transactions between her husband, brothers, and other men who saw her as a mere commodity.

This first day in Vienna before the start of the summer school turned out to be a fair representation of what was to follow - a week of reading and discussing all kinds of primary sources in Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Turki, Tatar, Russian skoropis’, Russian in Turki, Turki in Russian, and more. So much in this experience was mind-blowing and mind-bending: the intellectual rigor, how prolific fellow participants were in a variety of extremely complex languages, the breadth of topics that we accessed by using these languages, and the questions posed. We talked about trans-imperial diplomacy, marriages, and divorces in the Volga Urals, de-colonizing the field of Central Asian studies, Mongols and their tax systems, songs and poems in the Tatar language, the interplay of legal systems - imperial and religious. All of these topics were assessed with empire(s) in mind but with an unambiguous, unapologetic focus on the lived experience of the imperial subjects and all kinds of them: desperate women trying to navigate confusing and often competing layered legal systems of their local communities and the looming empires, the Ottoman and Russian prisoners of war and the imperial “businessmen” holding, selling, estimating the value of their human “commodities,” all kinds of trans-imperial subjects at the forefronts of “new diplomacy,” and even prostitutes self-fashioning as innocent wedding goers to the representatives of the Russian imperial authorities in Central Asian governorates. 

I left the week-long program in the summer of 2022 sleep-deprived, profusely caffeinated, determined to come back the next year (which I did), fascinated with the field of Central Asia, and surrounded by a group of intellectual companions with whom I continued exploring the field throughout the next year. Having proclaimed ourselves “Turki Enthusiasts,” I and several fellow summer school participants spread through three continents but connected regularly after the program to continue the conversation sparked during the short but impactful week in Vienna in late June of 2022. Throughout the following academic year, I spent my weekend mornings in a wonderfully enriching and challenging intellectual exchange: reading primary sources in Turki, Kazakh, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish and talking about the narratives and archival traditions behind these sources. 

This led to my conversion. I did not want to spend another moment reading about whether or not the Ottoman Empire declined or whether or not its history was “commensurate” with that of other European states. I could not care less about pashas and veziers, and tımars and vakıfs. I could not read another patriarchal berat or another dry formulaic petition carefully crafted by yet another state-trained arzuhalcı. I wanted to study the cool stuff, and all the evidence was clearly pointing to the fact that all the cool stuff belonged to the field of Central Asian studies. 

As a result, I found myself in the office chair in front of my supervisor with my disoriented yet enthusiastic spiel about Central Asia and how I wanted to study the Ottoman and Central Asian connections. I was still doing coursework and pre-generals (comprehensives), so I could not go to the archives in the foreseeable future. To compensate, I decided that the best move forward would be to explore the published primary sources highlighting the Ottoman - Central Asian histories and focus on closing the gap in my knowledge of the secondary literature in the field by pursuing a minor in the field of Central Asia and Eurasia that seemed to be an odd pair to my major in Ottoman History and another minor in the Eastern European History.

Six months into my encounter with the field of Central Asia, I still felt disoriented as well as slightly “homesick.” Most of the published primary sources I encountered dealt with the intricacies of facilitating Hajj or trade for the Muslim subjects of the Russian Empire - and I missed my Orthodox re’aya. On the temporal scale, too, many sources and secondary literature on the Ottoman engagement with Central Asia seemed to shed light either on periods before the eighteenth century - which was my main scholarly focus throughout my graduate education - or after the eighteenth century (Yaşar, Can, Khalid). At some point during that academic year, I found myself going back to the beloved patriarchal berats and to new petitions and, embarrassingly, got way too excited reading yet another book on the formation of the Ottoman state. I passed my generals, finished my coursework, and returned to Vienna to participate in summer school in 2023, yet I was still an Ottomanist. Did the conversion fail? What went wrong (Ottomanist pun intended)? Was it all in vain? 

Answering this question requires a slight pivot. When I was embarking on my Master’s program at CEU, my wonderful supervisor asked me a challenging question, “Why would a historian of, say, the Caribbean read your dissertation about the Ottoman Christians?” He was trying to push me to think trans-regionally and trans-disciplinary, to find methodological and epistemological ways of connecting with, drawing on, and contributing to histories beyond my history. I found the question far-fetched and annoying. To be completely honest, I could not care less about the historians of the Caribbean. As far as I was concerned, the Ottoman Christians were inherently fun and unconditionally worthy. If a hypothetical historian of the Caribbean failed to recognize this very obvious fact, it was their loss. I proceeded through the rest of my Master’s program, holding a furtive grudge against the imaginary historians of the Caribbean and their like for undermining the value of my academic contributions and (surely) questioning the worthiness of my intellectual endeavors. 

It was only after my encounter with the Central Asia and the Central Asianists that my supervisor’s question and the vision behind it started to make sense. Good histories are intelligible and influential across fields across distances - geographical, political, linguistic, and temporal. Good histories and good historians do not “convert”; they unsettle, decenter, push the boundaries of disciplinary cannons, and shake the ossified intellectual constructs. They provide refined methodological tools to approach whatever history is your history. And so, I took the tools, embraced the unsettlement, and returned to my history. I was still reading the berats, but having read Paolo Sartori’s Visions of Justice: Sharīʿa and Cultural Change in Russian Central Asia, I was suddenly paying attention to the subtle interplay of legal systems and normative practices transpiring in the patriarchal berats - something I had not paid attention to before – even though I considered the berats to be such a familiar terrain.

Eric Schluessel’s Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia showed that approaching imperial histories does not have to be either “top-down” or “from below” – a skillful combination of zooming in and zooming out allows to create an infinitely complex layered history of an empire, but also of a destitute child inhabiting it. His command of languages and how he drew on them to construct the incredibly intricate and intimate story of colonial and subaltern voices shook off the weariness I felt from working with foreign languages for the past decade. Forget Turkish, Ottoman, Turki, Serbian, Russian, or German, at some point - still under Schlussel’s influence - I found myself reading books about the Habsburg Empire in Romanian and even tried to brush the dust off my Gagauz. 

Perhaps most impactfully, Scott Levi’s works cured my obsession with empire and helped me think globally, trans-regionally, and through a connected and connecting rather than comparative lens. Unexpectedly, decentering Empire emancipated me from my anxious attachment to being the “proper” kind of Ottomanist. This very self-imposed and arbitrary vision of a “proper” Ottomanist led to my producing works titled unironically XIX. Yüzyılda Hükümetin İstanbul Esnafına Dair Yaptığı Düzenlemeler [The Regulations Undertaken by the Government Respecting Istanbul Artisan Guild in 19th century] (my undergraduate thesis) or Nizambetween reality and fiction: Ottoman imperial vocabulary in the Orthodox Christian Patriarchal Berats and Petitions (my first-year research paper at Princeton). Encounter with Central Asia convinced me to halt attempts to feign Halil Inalcık and Koçi Bey - as if I ever stood a chance - and embrace what I thought were “unorthodox” approaches to Ottoman history. Such where the Ottoman state was a stage but not necessarily the main actor, where it provided context that was subsumed under layers of other contexts, where the realm of the Ottoman and non-Ottoman was not rigid or clear-cut and thus could not be compared but could be connected, where the voice of Ömer from Çukurova (Gratien), an unnamed Russian prisoner of war (Smiley), a Circassian refugee (Hamed-Troyansky), or an Ottoman Kurd straddling the Ottoman-Russian border (Reynolds) was as impactful and central to the study of Ottoman history as that of a pasha or a sultan.

At this point in my academic journey, my dissertation traces how trans-imperial politics shaped Orthodoxy and how Orthodoxy shaped trans-imperial politics in the context of inter-imperial rivalry between the Ottoman, Russian, and, to a lesser extent, Habsburg Empires in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pretty unorthodox, according to the canons of “Proper Ottomanism,” this dissertation is yet to be written, and a job is yet to be found. Regardless, I will be forever indebted to the Central Asianists for adopting me and providing inspiration, guidance, and ample opportunities to think broadly and boldly and venture beyond the self-imposed obsession with fitting my intellectual curiosity and academic contributions into rigid and arbitrary scholarly identity labels.