In the 2005-2006 academic year, "Eurasian Connections" began to explore the historical and cultural significance of societies and polities on the great Eurasian landmass. Eurasia has emerged as a central focus of interest in the social sciences in the last decade. An initial impetus for the reconsideration of the divide between Europe and Asia was the revival of an imperial perspective on Russia. Russian elites and Russian specialists opened up an old discussion about Russia's cultural and political traditions by turning back to the 1920s and ideas emerging from the earlier revolutionary ferment. The "Eurasianists" of that time highlighted Russia's roots in Asia in both scholarly publications and blustery polemics. The recent demand for a new perspective is reflected in a series of renamings and initiatives. Institutions that called themselves "Russia and Eastern Europe" have added in "Eurasia"; others, as at the Social Science Research Council, have morphed standing committees into "Eurasian" programs. More profoundly, the search for situated knowledge has inspired a significant number of graduate students to study Central Asian languages and reexamine the history of Russian institutions and society in a more complex way.
A second major drive toward new perspectives on this region is related to the efforts of scholars, journalists and citizens to understand Islamic cultures. A third source of interest in Eurasia comes from the revived attention to empires, and the understanding, on the part of some, that the world's largest land empires spanned Eurasia. In particular, the Mongol empires drew upon the cultural resources and political practices of immense, diversified territories extending in the thirteenth century from Central Europe to the Pacific. This new engagement with Eurasia demands expertise in both humanities and social science.
Our workshop explores and augments knowledge about Eurasian politics and culture through a series of initiatives -- study groups, a speaker series, and a conference -- based at NYU. It struck us that given NYU's considerable resources in Eurasian fields, we could do more to bring these together in coherent and dynamic ways. The history department has two Russian specialists, Jane Burbank and Yanni Kotsonis, but "Russia" operates at present only as a secondary field in European studies. The outstanding Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies program does not yet have a Russian specialist. The Slavic Department's faculty have almost exclusively focused on European Russia. Yet recent hires in Anthropology (Bruce Grant -- Siberia and the Caucasus) and History (Zvi Ben-Dor Benite -- Central and East Asian Islam; Leslie Pierce -- Ottoman period; Kostis Smyrlis -- Byzantium; Larry Wolff -- Eastern Europe) open a number of new doors. A goal of our workshop is to engage NYU's already rich, but segmented resources on Eurasia, by bringing professors, students and programs together in a collective exploration. We look to create this forum for Eurasian interests, and later, based on our collective projects and thoughts, we will consider institutional ways to enhance Eurasian programming at NYU.
One specific goal is to broaden our Russian programs, which have been focused almost entirely on Europe; another is to draw together faculty and advanced graduate students from different disciplines -- history, anthropology, literature -- and different units -- Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, East Asian Studies -- into a collective thematic project that has the potential for innovative outcomes. It may become desirable and possible, for example, to offer a field of Eurasian studies within already existing departments. The short-term objectives of the project enrich both faculty and graduate work by bringing them together in an intellectually engaging series of activities -- a reading group, a speaker series, and a small-scale conference and, perhaps, a collective publication. The long-term objectives will be determined and shaped by the group's explorations over a two-year period.
The workshop began in 2005-2006 with series of workshop meetings organized around the work of our participants and that of a few New York area specialists and visitors. The goal of the lunch-time meetings in the first year was to build intellectual connections at NYU. Our goal is to be inclusive, while developing a group of people committed to ongoing intellectual projects concerning Eurasia.
The second year of the initiative followed a similar pattern of workshops based on circulated papers, a few outside speakers, and a small conference, with the goal of producing an edited volume based on articles chosen from the two conferences and from works by NYU faculty and graduate students.
The "Eurasian Connections" project was connected with three undergraduate courses and two graduate ones. Zvi Ben-Dor Benite introduced a course, called "Topics in Eurasian History: The Mongol Empire and its Legacy" in Spring 2005. Jane Burbank and Fred Cooper are teaching "Empires and Political Imagination," a MAP Course in Fall 2007, with a strong Eurasian component. They also regularly teach a graduate colloquium and a graduate seminar on this topic. Zvi Ben-Dor Benite and Jane Burbank taught an undergraduate course, "Eurasian History: the Mongol Empire and its Successors," in Spring 2007.
The Eurasian Connections Workshop is grateful for funding provided by NYU’s Humanities Council, the Program in European and Mediterranean Studies, the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Department of East Asian Studies, and the Social Science Research Council.