How did you come to choose your research topic?
In 2015, I was working as a humanitarian and security analyst on the Syrian Crisis in South Turkey. I witnessed from close by when Russia started its military intervention in Syria in September. President Vladimir Putin then explained that that war was needed to fight international (Islamist) terrorism before it could make it to Russia. To me and many Russian and foreign observers, Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria still came as a shock. Moscow was breaking with three decades of foreign policy tradition to send the army to a Muslim country far from the former Soviet space. The new war evoked memories of the Soviet Union’s last conflict in Afghanistan that had gone very poorly for Moscow, accelerating the collapse of its historical empire and creating an enduring national trauma. In this context, I wanted to understand how Moscow’s policy had seemingly come full circle and explore the origins of Russia’s struggle against radical Islamism. I afterward quickly reached to Professor Davide Rodogno and then to Professor Mohamed Mahmoud Mohamedou at the International History Department of the Graduate Institute. The next year I left the humanitarian field to start my PhD in Geneva.
Can you describe your thesis questions and the methodology you use to approach those questions?
In recent years, especially since 9/11, a lot was written on how the West and various Muslim countries supported the Afghan opposition – the Mujahideen – against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. These books remarkably showed how radical Islamist groups gradually took control of the war in Afghanistan and how they would birth al-Qaeda in the following period. I wanted to look at the other side of that story: How did the Soviet Union and its Afghan communist allies approached Islam in Afghanistan during the war? They were obviously set on “building socialism”, so to say. However, they must have noted the ideological transformations among the Mujahideen. Then, there was the question of the Soviet Union’s own Muslims. Many of them were sent to fight in Afghanistan from Central Asia, a majority Muslim Soviet region bordering Afghanistan. In this context, I wanted to understand how if at all the “Afghan War” spilled over to that region and the extent to which there were concerns in Moscow that it might.
On the methodological front, I have worked with many Soviet, Western, and Afghan archives. I have also conducted interviews with Soviet and Afghan veterans and Soviet advisers who were present during the war.
What are your main findings?
I have two principal findings. First, the Soviets and the Afghan communists’ concern with Islam came late into the conflict. Testifying to an ideological approach to reforming the country, the first phase of the conflict only saw Babrak Karmal, the ruler installed by Moscow, try to instrumentalise Islam in support of his regime while retaining a Marxist-Leninist platform. By the same token, the Soviets failed to give Islam its due importance. This disregard toward Islam rendered even the limited prospects of gaining support for Karmal’s regime moot. This approach to Islam only changed after the Soviets replaced Karmal with Mohammad Najibullah and prepared to withdraw, admitting that their strategy of building socialism in Afghanistan had failed.
Second, only late into the war did the Soviet Union start seriously paying attention to an Islamist threat emanating from Afghanistan to Central Asia. While concerns related to Islamism were present in the context of the troubles in Iran and at the moment of the intervention, these were largely circumscribed to the KGB. In the Kremlin, the threat of Islamism registered in 1987 as the Mujahideen conducted attacks inside the USSR and tensions surfaced in Central Asia. It was however never fully conceptualised by Soviet elites, who continued to see it mostly as a tool to be instrumentalised by the US, Iran, or Pakistan. The Soviets believed that the Islamists had little agency on their own and that their ideology could not find massive appeal among Soviet Muslims. In this context, Moscow never fully came behind Najibullah and India’s call to coalesce against the Islamists, preferring to negotiate with them directly to hedge against the possible impact of them coming to power in Afghanistan. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the new Russian elites initially discarded the Islamist threat in Tajikistan and Chechnya.
Can you give an example of a topical issue on which your thesis might help shed a new light?
There are many parallels to be made. The thesis is for example relevant to our understanding of Russia’s policies of supporting the authoritarian rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and – perhaps even more critically – that of Ramazan Kadyrov in Chechnya. In that latter case, as for the communists in Afghanistan, the challenge has been from the start to build legitimacy for him. As in Afghanistan, Islam was and is a big part of that. That strategy had in fine almost worked in Afghanistan. Najibullah, the last communist leader, had managed to consolidate power, “Islamise” and “nationalise” the platform of the former communist party and fend off the Mujahideen’s assaults for over three years after the Soviets left. In Chechnya, Kadyrov had been even more successful at co-opting the themes of Islam and nationalism form the insurgents to consolidate his power with support from Moscow.
What could be the political implications of your thesis?
That is a broad question. Studying history obviously helps us better understand the present; it should also help our current policymakers in making decisions. At a time of continually worsening Russia-US relations, it may be worthwhile to, even more than before, study the late Cold War, remembering that the world has already been on the brink of a global nuclear conflict once and that it is our best interest to not go there again. In this regard, it is important to remember that it is fundamental for the West to find ways of engaging Russia, no matter what. It has been able to do so before despite the level of tensions of the Cold War. As to Russia, the mistakes of Afghanistan have to be remembered to not reproduce them today in Syria or elsewhere. This relates to interventionism in poorly understood foreign countries for flimsy geopolitical gains, the extensive human rights failings, the risks of military and economic overstretch in supporting loyal authoritarian rulers, or the need to know how to end wars abroad. This is unfortunately less and less so the case in Moscow where the “Afghan War” is being increasingly rehabilitated, sometimes seen wrongly as some kind of precursor in Russia’s wars again international Islamist terrorism.
What are you doing now?
I am a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) postdoctoral researcher/visiting fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute in Florence under Professor Olivier Roy. I am moreover a researcher associate at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding at the Graduate Institute, and a research associate at the Pierre du Bois Foundation for Current History in Geneva.
I have received the SNSF grant to work on my project “Nationalism, Pan-Islamism, and Jihadism: At the Origins of the De-Territorialization of the Grievances in the North Caucasus”. The research is in some ways a continuation of my PhD thesis, examining, among other things, how the “Afghan War” impacted on Russia’s perceptions of the conflicts in Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union.
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Listen also to a related podcast with Vassily:
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Vassily Klimentov defended his PhD thesis in International History in October 2020. Professor Jussi Hanhimaki presided the committee, which included Professor Mohamed Mahmoud Mohamedou and Professor Keith Krause, thesis co-supervisors, and Professor Artemy Kalinovsky, Department of History, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA.
Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Klimentov, Vassily A. “A Slow Reckoning: The USSR, the Afghan Communists, and Islam.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.
As the PhD thesis is embargoed until October 2023, please contact Dr Klimentov at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Diego Fiore/Shutterstock.com.