Georgi Derluguian’s Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus

On the right side of this page you will find a “Currently Reading” section. The only reason why I mention this is because of the current book that is displayed, Georgi Derluguian’s Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World Systems Biography. I’m sixty pages into it and I find it absolutely fascinating. I became aware of it a few weeks ago when Derluguian spoke at the colloquium “Russia: Failed Transition?” put on by UCLA’s Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. I was skeptical at first because of the propensity for any talk that has the words “Russia” and “transition” tend to simply suck. But the Center tends not to feature any dimwits. A glance at their colloquium themes over the last several years shows that they bring in some of the best intellectuals on the planet. Yet you never know and I walked into Derluguian’s talk with my standard skepticism. Was I wrong.

Derluguian’s talk was lively, informative, funny, and the guy did it without any notes. It was one of those rare academic talks where you don’t sit there hoping the speaker will shut up and do it quick. I could have listened to him forever.

Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus touches on too many issues to mention here. When I am done with it I hope to write a review for this blog. Essentially, the study aims “to provide a plausible explanation as to why in some regions, mainly in the Caucasus, the catastrophic end of Soviet rule resulted in ethnic conflicts and the emergence of weak states that are thoroughly corrupt, not to say criminalized. The argument can then be extended to explain why in some places, predominantly but not exclusively in Chechnya, state structures withered away almost completely to be replaced by phenomena variously described as mafia, religious fundamentalism, warlord armies, and international terrorism” (8). He does this through the life of one Musa Shanib (russified name Yuri Muhammedovich Shabinov), who was a 1968 “New Left rebel” in Kabardino-Balkaria, professor, nationalist leader, and admirer of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Deluguian discovered the last fact in a rather amusing way:

We were already five hours and two dozen toasts into the feast when, trying to ask another question, I blurted out the words “cultural field.” Shanibov’s reaction was astonishing. He reached across the table to hug me: “Our dear guest! My Armenian brother! Now I see that you are not a spy—forgive our confusion, but you seemed to know too much about local affairs, and my security [his bodyguard was a big bearded Wahhabi–Sean] could not figure out whether you worked for the CIA because you came from America, or for the Russian FSB because you and your companion are from Russia. But now I clearly recognize in you a genuine sociologist, for you are knowledgeable about Pierre Bourdieu!” (So the long drinking session was a charade intended to sound me out for possible hidden intentions.)

I fell into my seat: “And YOU?”

“Me!?” exclaimed Shanibov. “But of course! Bourdieu’s Nachala [the 1994 Russian translation of Choses Dites] became the second most important book in my life after the Holy Quran. I studied it in my hospital bed when I was recovering from a wound received in Abkhazia.”

Brilliant. To get a taste of Derlugian’s work, I recommend reading this interview. If you have access to the New Left Review, you can read a review of Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus in the March-April 2006 issue.