The “East” as a Category of Bolshevik Ideology and Comintern Administration: The Arab Section of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East
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The “East” as a Category of Bolshevik Ideology and Comintern Administration
The Arab Section of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East

The Third International (or Comintern) transformed the dynamics of anticolonial resistance around the world by linking communist activists in various countries with Moscow. As one scholar of postcolonialism put it, “for the first time, anti-colonial struggles could be articulated within a wider framework and, more importantly, could look to a major world power for organizational, material and military support.”1 The scholarship focusing on the transnational exchanges resulting from this support, however, has largely failed to take into account notions of space as either an object or a problem. As Brigitte Studer has argued, the tendency to treat space as a given, or as a mere fact, has led many scholars to confine themselves to the national paradigm.2 If we consider Comintern and Bolshevik support for anticolonial struggles more closely, however, the spatial imagination of Moscow-based organizers appears to be both more ambiguous and contradictory.

As early as 1917, in an effort to legitimize their revolutionary manifest destiny, party-state officials spoke of the responsibilities of the new socialist republic to awaken “the peoples of the East.”3 These statements, as well as their understanding of Russia’s advantageous geographical location “between Europe and Asia” echoed those voiced by 19th-century Russian intellectuals [End Page 7] and politicians.4 Yet their approaches to “the East” also differed from Russian imperial versions in several key ways. Between 1914 and 1917, Lenin introduced the oppressor/oppressed nations dichotomy into the popular analysis of international politics both inside Russia and in the broader world. By juxtaposing European colonial and Great Russian chauvinist “oppressors” against the “oppressed” Eastern nations and peoples, his definition of imperialism explicitly linked the revolutionary world struggle for socialism with the revolutionary program on the national question.5 In the domestic context, as Terry Martin has argued, the “greatest danger principle”—the 1920s idea that great-power (or Russian) chauvinism posed a graver danger than local nationalism—reproduced the hierarchical distinction between state-bearing and colonized peoples but reversed its valence by downplaying the expression of Russian national identity and promoting national “forms” among formerly colonized nations instead.6 Internationally, the hierarchical distinction between oppressor and oppressed nations was further preserved and partially reversed, with the Comintern assuming the responsibilities for providing ideological and financial support to foreign anticolonial revolutionaries, including those considered most oppressed in the East. In the 1930s, as Russians were again raised to the rank of “first among equals” in the Soviet family of nations and as the Bolsheviks assumed ever greater control over the Third International, the Soviet Union settled into its duty as liberator and leader of all of its different “Easts.”

More so than “Asia,” “the colonized world,” individual nations, or any other category inherited from prerevolutionary political geography, it was “the East” that came to be embraced by the early Bolsheviks. A flexible and [End Page 8] vague concept, it accommodated both the revolutionary domestic program on the national question and the world struggle for socialism. For this reason, especially in the formative period of many party and Comintern institutions, “the East” came to be used for a wide range of political and propaganda initiatives.7 In 1917, it allowed Lenin and Stalin to appeal simultaneously to the toiling Muslims of Russia, Persia, Turkey, India, and the Arab world. In 1919, it formed the basis of the Russian Communist Party’s Central Bureau of Communist Organizations of the Peoples of the East as well as of the Comintern’s Eastern Section, the Third International’s center of communist organization outside Europe and North America. In 1920, the idea of “the East” played a role in discussions of national and colonial problems at the Comintern’s Second Congress and was then used to mobilize more than 2,000 delegates from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Turkey, Iran, India, and other surrounding regions to attend a special Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku.8 Throughout the 1920s, these initiatives crystallized into a more permanent infrastructure for working with “Eastern peoples” that has...


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