On Saturday I gave a lecture to a large group of Kazakh National University students about the subject of my Masters dissertation, to wit: the post-Soviet privatization of Kazakhstan’s agricultural land – a title that bores even me, and I was giving the lecture. The group to which I lectured is called “Open Faculty,” which is a student organization that on Sundays voluntarily attends interdisciplinary lectures, usually delivered by professionals in Kazakhstan. I happen to have befriended one of the student organizers of OpenFaculty, and it was he who invited me to speak – much to his regret, I’d imagine. Judging from my interactions with young students thus far, undergrads are not particularly interested either in agriculture or Kazakhstan’s past (even its recent past), and so the combination of the two must have seemed a peculiar punishment.
Still, I made what I feel was a valiant effort to convince the Open Faculty students that Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector remains important and should be the subject of study; furthermore, it should be made attractive to investors so that it might enjoy even a fraction of the injection of capital and attention garnered the mining, hydrocarbon and finance industries. The great fear regarding agricultural investment, however – and the only aspect of agriculture about which most Kazakhs take any interest – is that China is going to monopolize the agricultural land. There are always rumors about the Chinese, but I cannot verify any of these.
After the lecture, most of the students politely thanked me for speaking and those that had questions were more concerned about any tips i might have for the GRE or for studying in the USA. I can’t fault them for this, and it is part of my responsibility as a Fulbright grantee to answer such questions and encourage such aspirations.
What amused me, though, was that not a few students asked me: “Why are you interested in Kazakhstan? Why do you research this?” I told them it was because Kazakhstan is a fascinating country intimately involved in so many important world developments – from the US war in Afghanistan to China’s expansion; from the global narcotics trade to the equally global hydrocarbon industries; from post-Soviet transition to the pending crises in Asian (if not world) food and water security. They looked at me sideways. A lack of national self-esteem seems an odd problem for the world’s ninth largest country and largest uranium exporter to have, but yet, here it is. A state in this neighborhood really has to fight for attention.