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  • Comrades on ElephantsEconomic Anti-Imperialism, Orientalism, and Soviet Diplomacy in Afghanistan, 1921–23
  • Samuel J. Hirst (bio)

A 1923 cover of the magazine Ogonek displays two Afghans and a third man in Soviet military clothing assisting a Russian couple in broad-brimmed hats onto an elephant (fig. 1). The headline proclaims the scene anti-British and anti-imperialist, but the image could easily adorn a Victorian celebration of empire. The photograph is emblematic of the time Fedor Raskoĺnikov and Larisa Reisner spent in Kabul: they urged Moscow to provide diplomatic and economic aid to the Afghan state while they themselves collected antique coins to take home with them when they left. Raskoĺnikov and Reisner demonstrated a pronounced sense of cultural superiority during their stay in Kabul, and they seem almost to embody the paradox that has led scholars to refer to the Soviet Union as an “anti-imperialist ‘empire.’”1 Yet Raskoĺnikov, Reisner, and the editors of Ogonek evidently saw little incongruity in their performance. The magazine confidently drew readers’ attention to the Soviet presence in a 19th-century site of imperial rivalry, to a landscape that evoked the Great Game. Sightseeing on elephants was an exotic but irrelevant sideshow; the radicalism of the Soviet Union’s approach to independent states in what was to become the Third World lay elsewhere. The Bolsheviks cared most about economics, and they were convinced that the imperative to consolidate political independence from and against a global capitalist system defined anti-imperialism.

Raskoĺnikov and Reisner were part of the Bolshevik elite, and they promulgated its economic analysis even as many of their gestures evoked another [End Page 13]

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Figure 1.

On 10 June 1923, Ogonek featured this photograph of Larisa Reisner and Fedor Raskoĺnikov in Afghanistan and described the couple as “A Thorn in Lord Curzon’s Side.” Just a couple of months earlier, British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon had demanded Raskoĺnikov’s recall from Kabul on the grounds that the latter was engaged in anti-British activities.

Source: Rossiiskaia natsionaĺnaia biblioteka, St. Petersburg.

Reproduced with permission.

[End Page 14]

world and time. The moment of transition to a new order offers a revealing view of the often uneasy fit of revolutionary ideology and cultural bias. Early engagements with Afghanistan were part of a broader process in which the Soviet Union and its diplomats generated principles and practices that were to play out in Soviet relations with formerly colonial or semicolonial states for much of the 20th century. Between the summer of 1921 and the fall of 1923, Raskoĺnikov and Reisner learned to practice anti-imperialist diplomacy on the ground and on the fly. Their Kabul sojourn began not long after they had led Soviet troops into northern Iran in support of the short-lived republic in Gilan, and they had little prior knowledge of this new posting.2 In Afghanistan, they had to reconfigure their revolutionary dreams. Raskoĺnikov and Reisner brought struggle from the battlegrounds of world revolution to negotiating tables with capitalist states and with states that, like Afghanistan, were nonsocialist but oppressed.

Afghanistan had just fought the British Empire for its independence, and the couple drew on a Bolshevik ideology in which Lenin had identified imperialism as a phase of capitalism characterized by competition among industrialized, imperialist states.3 But Lenin’s key work on imperialism addressed the intra-European conflict of World War I, not the struggle within empires of colonies and metropoles. Lenin’s retrospective diagnosis of imperialism endured long beyond the Great War and came to shape economic policies that defended Soviet Russia’s predominantly agricultural society against a predatory system. As a result, whether it was the protectionism manifested in the monopoly on foreign trade or the anxiety about sovereignty reflected in strict control of concessions to foreign companies, Soviet economic interactions with the West bore resemblance to those of contemporary nationalists in countries with little industry.4 Under Lenin’s tutelage, safeguarding economic independence rather than defeating reactionary armies became the battleground between socialism and capitalism.5 [End Page 15]

Events on the ground in Kabul reinforced Lenin’s...


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