Explaining the depth of Russia’s engagement with the Arab world

Zaur Gasimov does not believe Russia’s role in Syria has jeopardised wider relations with the Arabs.
Sunday 18/03/2018
Zaur Gasimov, a research fellow in the Max Weber Foundation-linked Istanbul Orient-Institut. (Courtesy of  Zaur Gasimov)
Forthright approach. Zaur Gasimov, a research fellow in the Max Weber Foundation-linked Istanbul Orient-Institut. (Courtesy of Zaur Gasimov)

BEIRUT - Giving a lecture at the Orient-Institut Beirut, Zaur Gasimov displayed a slide of two books: “Russian-Arabic Military Dictionary” and “Textbook of Military Translation — Arabic Language.”

His topic was “Between Intelligence and Knowledge Transfer: Soviet-Arab Relations Reconsidered.” Gasimov, a research fellow in the Max Weber Foundation-linked Istanbul Orient-Institut, is the very person to explain the depth of Russian engagement with the Arab world. A Baku-born German national, Gasimov has spent years researching Soviet Arabists.

Another slide during his talk showed a 1970 photograph of Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami and his wife meeting Soviet Ambassador Sarvar Azimov, a Uzbek. Next to Azimov is translator Mikhail Tsvigun, whose father was a high-ranking KGB officer in Central Asia.

The photograph illustrates two important aspects of Soviet practice, Gasimov argued: the role of minority Soviet nationalities in outreach and the blurred inter-relationships between language-proficiency, diplomacy and intelligence.

Even so, there is a sense of professionalism about imparting Arabic to Russian military men. The Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow puts out well-produced textbooks such as “Russian-Arabic Military Dictionary” and “Textbook of Military Translation — Arabic Language.” They reflect the importance of Arabic at the institute, Gasimov told The Arab Weekly in an interview. However, it is “hard to know” how many Arabic speakers graduate each year from the institute, he said.

That said, “Russia looks back on a century-long acquisition of knowledge of the Middle East, its state and ethnic actors. In the US, oriental studies are much younger,” Gasimov said.

Gasimov’s research sources include memoirs by KGB officers as well as the internet pages of army veterans, many of whom have Middle East experience.

However, as Gasimov explained in his talk, interest in vostokovedenie (“knowledge of the East”) and specifically Blizhnii Vostok (the “Near East”) goes back to tsarist times. While much of Russia is geographically east of the Middle East, and many Russians praise Edward Said as a critic of the “decadent West,” Gasimov uses the term “Russian orientalist” common in English.

Under the tsars, orientalists pored over medieval texts and the Quran. After the 1917 Revolution, Soviet Arabists wanted to look more at modern Arabic. In 1941, Kharlampii Baranov produced the first comprehensive Arabic-Russian dictionary. For this he drew on work done by Mikhail Osipovich Attaya, a Damascene Christian. Taufik Kezma, a Palestinian Christian, moved to Kiev, founded Ukrainian oriental studies and wrote a Ukrainian-Arabic dictionary.

Missionary zeal helped drive Arabic studies under the tsars, Gasimov explained, and many Soviet orientalists had wide-ranging interests. Ali Alesker Mamedov, who majored in German studies in Baku, was a Soviet translator at the Nuremberg trials. He subsequently learned Arabic and wrote university textbooks for learning Arabic.

Arabic was also introduced in Soviet schools in the 1970s with the first textbooks written by Said Sinan, a Baghdadi of Kirkuk Turkic background. Sinan moved to Baku for oriental studies, worked in radio and left song recordings at Baku Conservatory that are a carefully preserved part of Kirkuk folklore.

Gasimov referred to Sinan’s layered identity. “Sinan arrived with a double identity. He came as an Arab but spoke to some Soviet colleagues in Turkic/Azeri. Later in the 1970s, he returned to Baghdad to spend his time translating Azerbaijani poetry into Arabic.”

There was further cultural cross-pollination with Gamar Almaszadeh, a ballerina and ballet teacher in Baku. In 1970, she was invited by the Ministry of Culture in Baghdad to establish a national theatre of dance. It took her two years. “She didn’t find the differences huge,” said Gasimov, “back then in the 1970s. It was important, though, [for Iraqi cultural sensibilities] that dancers in Baku had a way of covering up [their bodies] more than in Moscow.”

For the Soviet Union, ballet was part of a wider cultural outreach plan. While Moscow restricted Islamic education in the Central Asian republics, it utilised the cultural background of Soviet Muslims as well as the expertise of orientalists.

The limits of this approach were exposed in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “Area studies are important,” Gasimov said, “but they can’t change everything.”

Even so, Gasimov said he was convinced that Russia’s orientalists have shaped the country’s current Middle East policies. These include an alliance with Iran in Syria, close intelligence communications with Israel and warm relations with Saudi Arabia.

American predictions that Syria would be Moscow’s Vietnam have not come to pass and Russian politicians and public regard its military intervention as a success, he suggested. “I guess the [Russian] bases will remain, even if the personnel are reduced,” Gasimov said.

Gasimov said he does not believe Russia’s role in Syria has jeopardised wider relations with the Arabs nor that Moscow is now too wedded to Tehran.

“There are differences in approach [between Russia and Iran] towards Turkey but their engagement in Syria is divided. Iran is represented by military councils and paramilitary units while Russia launches air-backed operations. They seem to share intelligence and both use anti-imperialist rhetoric against the US presence in the region.”

Moscow’s guile reflects its long experience and expertise, Gasimov said. That may be hard to deny.