Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in the Eastern Bloc (1950's to 1991)

The OIB is launching a new research project.

The political post-war order in the wake of the Second World War, the division of the world into the so-called Western powers led by the USA and the so-called Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union can also be seen as an international "order of knowledge". The Cold War and the East-West conflict have so far been mostly examined as a political and potentially military conflict between the US and the SU. Yet, the "system competition" has always also been a "knowledge competition", and not only in the field of military technology. Competing paradigms in world history, for example, stood against each other, classes and their struggles on the one hand, the history of civilizations on the other, to name just one striking example. Sociological and political studies and aesthetics in the broadest sense were other fields where East-West competition regarding fields of knowledge was strong. It follows that the relations forged within the two blocs were of great importance.

The manifold and complex relations within the blocs, especially those within the Eastern bloc, which were shaped also as relations of knowledge within its metropolises and between these and numerous countries of the so-called Third World, have so far remained largely unexplored. Above all, the Eastern bloc is a space created by a common ideology, an "ideoscape" (Appadurai). The complex relationships which were forged through the mobility/migration of students from the Middle East and North Africa to the Eastern Bloc have often been highly persistent, far beyond the end of the Cold War. The political topicality and high relevance of such a relationship is in some cases obvious today.

With the opening of the archives in Russia and other countries of the former Eastern Bloc (PPR, CSSR, GDR, USSR), research is now possible on the high numbers of mostly Arab, but also Iranian and Turkish students who received scholarships between the 1950s and 1991 to study in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. The majority of these students were enrolled in engineering and medical programs and the natural sciences. But there was also an important number of students enrolling in in the humanities and social sciences. Also all forms of art, as well as architecture were subjects of interest for Middle Eastern students. All of these fields are of importance for an analysis of what has been called “communist/socialist modernity”. It was modernity that was sought after by Middle Eastern states since the 19th century.

Relations with the so-called Third World consisted therefore largely not only of "educational development aid" but were also fed by mutual interests that went beyond a one-sided transfer of ideology and education. In many cases this was also evident in the student movements of that time, the Iranian, Palestinian and others, which mobilized in the West, i.e. in West Germany and other states. The students who went back to their home countries brought not only newly acquired knowledge and expertise back but also relations or rather a web of relationships. What did they do with their knowledge and their relationships? How did these work to constitute (or challenge) the ideoscape of the Eastern Bloc? Which shifts and turns did they take throughout their lives? The last witnesses to these times need to be interviewed, their life stories recorded.

For Africa and Latin America research has already begun. This project will focus on the knowledge mobility and knowledge relations of students from the Middle East and North Africa. In particular, we will focus on the humanities and social sciences (history, oriental studies, political sciences/international relations/international law, sociology, journalism, art/painting, ballet, opera).


Author: Prof. Dr. Birgit Schäbler