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Kazakhstan

A roadside watermelon vendor on my street. The way fruit is meant to be sold

I have now left Kazakhstan and returned to the USA. This means that I will soon be closing down this blog. However, before I do so, I wanted to share some valedictory thoughts.

One the flight back I had a good think about my favorite and least favorite aspects of my life in Kazakhstan, what I expect in the immediate term to miss, and what I will be just as happy to leave behind.

I will miss:

Grocery shopping in proper markets. I am no stranger to bargaining, but this year was the first during which haggling over the price of lemons, dill, melons, eggs and sausage was a weekly occurrence. It meant working for my food, in a sense, and I came to really appreciate this chore as a feast for the senses. At least in the spring and summer, the bazaar offered a riot of flavors, smells, and tastes. I don’t believe I really knew how cucumber tasted before coming to Kazakhstan. Perhaps the vegetables’ exceptional quality was the consequence of being handled by the weathered, dusty hands of the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Tartar, Uighur, and Uzbek grandfathers and grandmothers working the market stalls.

The Zailisky Alatau Mountains bordering Almaty to the south. Anyone who has lived in the city and has two functioning eyes in his head (or has, as in my case, heavily corrective visual aids) will tell you that the snowcapped, craggy range is Almaty’s outstanding geographic feature. The mountains featured in one of my earliest blog posts, and they continued to be a source of inspiration and enjoyment throughout the year. They are both majestic and accessible.

The weather. The weather features heavily in discussions about and usually as a negative factor: winters are too cold; summers are too hot. My blog is also guilty of indulging in this habit. But the reality is that Kazakhstan’s climate need not detract from one’s enjoyment of the country. The English talk ceaselessly about weather, and in so doing they are stretching the limits of what there is to say about drizzle. In contrast, Almaty has exciting weather. Kazakhstan has climate with character. I will miss the crisp winter mornings and languid summer evenings as much as the perfect spring and autumn afternoons, when individual leaves on the trees stand out against the pellucid sky.

Shashlik. Shashlik is meat roasted on a metal skewer, but is distinguished from barbeque is the USA, kebab in Turkey, and chuar in Northern China by its dense, smoky flavor. My favorite shashlikhana was little more than a converted garage with a fancy tarpaulin for a roof. As far as I ascertained, its menu consisted only of lamb, beef, chicken, duck, heart and liver (I don’t know of what animal) shashlik; fresh Kazakh draft beer; simple salads of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and dill; chopped onions; bread; tea. The restaurant was never fully stocked despite being consistently crowded; many nights they ran out of either tea or beer (never both). I failed to discover the secret ingredient in the shashlik, although the best shashlik is supposedly grilled over an endangered species of steppe juniper.

My brother with a trained hunting eagle. Childhood nightmare?

I will not miss:

Horsemeat. I tried it, tried it again, and tried it again after that, so no one can say I didn’t give it a fair trial, but it just is not for me.

Being forbidden to help with any of the cleaning of cups or dishes because I am a man.

Earthquakes.

I fully intend to import to the USA:

Drinking vodka as it was meant to be drunk. Westerners learned to drink vodka in martinis, and American university students to drink it lukewarm out of plastic cups with orange juice, but no one living in a vodka-dependent country drinks it this way. My Korean-Kazakh friend taught me a better method: in shots poured out of a frosty bottle, chased by herring or black bread, and consumed alongside warm green tea. This is a recipe for a relaxing evening and an almost hangover-free following morning. Look out friends.

Hunting with eagles. Who needs guns for either hunting or protection when this is your pet? I think the NRA has missed the boat on this.

The Russian language’s colorful array of interjections and swearwords, which have an impressive and impressively gradated range of offensiveness and impact. The most useful is “blin’,” which is used like “shoot” or “darn” but is less hokey. Blin’ literally means pancake (as in blini, which is the plural) and came to have this meaning because the first blin’ of the batch always burns in the pan. I won’t share the more colorful words I learned.

Squatting.

I plan to return to Central Asia in the near future, so my premature nostalgia and respite are both equally temporary. Until then, however, I will do my best to practice those habits I appreciate, purge myself of those I don’t, and keep alive the memories of my amazing adventure.

Lakefront at Kapshagai

This is my last week in Kazakhstan, and I still have so much to share, and even more that I haven’t yet explored. To celebrate the end of my US tax dollar-supported adventure, I intend to post several times this week so that at least my American followers can feel like they got their money’s worth.

Last Saturday I made it out to Kapshagai (alternately Kapchagay), a city on a reservoir along the Ili river. I’ve been hearing about Kapshagai since I was first in Kazakhstan last May, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I finally took the hour-and-a-half, USD 7/person taxi ride. Kapshagai is a popular summer weekend destination for Almaty residents and has been since the reservoir was created in the 1960s by the construction of a dam. “Resorts” and beaches (man-made?) along the banks offer a version of an island vacation in this landlocked desert country. However, the effect is ruined by the old industrial complexes: Kapshagai is also, and has long been, an industry town. The giant tombs of deceased and decaying Soviet manufacturing plants dot the landscape just beyond the beaches.

I suspect the combination of resort and industry is not accidental. Although I don’t know Kapshagai’s history in sufficient detail to make this assertion confidently, I imagine that Soviet rationale dictated that no one was more deserving of water-front relaxation than factory workers, and thus the two worlds should be forced to cohabit this small oases in the steppe. Of course, the plants also likely used the river and discharged effluent into the same.

Kapshagai’s unfamiliar mix is made stranger still by its new mission: becoming “Kazakhstan’s Las Vegas.” Several elaborate but sad casinos with names like “Aladdin” and (bewilderingly) “The Astoria” have popped up along the man road into town. The Strip it is not.

I steered clear of the casinos, but enjoyed a resort called “Freedom.” I’ve long known that Russians on vacation are deserving of sociological and anthropological study, especially as regards what is considered appropriate beachwear, and Kazakhs are little different. Lots of butts and boobs, and lots of really pale Russians baking themselves crimson.

As an antidote to my Kapshagai adventure, Sunday I went with two friends into the mountains south of Almaty. We climbed to a glacier lake at about 3500m in altitude, above the tree-line. The mountain pastures are overflowing with beautiful wildflowers, and the mountain peaks are still draped in their perpetual snows. Although we weren’t entirely alone, it was a much less crowded day. Funnily enough, though, the trek did not provide respite from Russian men in undersized swimwear. It is not uncommon to see a man in hiking boots carrying backpack and hiking pools wearing nothing but a speedo. Sorry I don’t have any photos. I was too shy.

My friend Kitty during our hike to a glacier lake. Time from Almaty: 0.5 hours in a bus, 3 hours walking.

A sign announcing the new bus fare

Since the beginning of the summer there’s been a rumor that the cost per ride on public buses and trams would jump from KZT 50 (UDS 0.33) to KZT 80 (0.53). While the rise is small in absolute terms (20 US cents), it is a 60% increase in what is for many a daily necessity. But week after week nothing changed. Then, last week, plain and unofficial-looking A4 pieces of printer paper sellotaped inside buses announced the long-awaited increase. The change went into effect yesterday, 23 July (although that didn’t stop some opportunistic bus conductors accepting KZT 80 from me late last week, when I thought the fare hike had already gone into effect).

My friends who have been in Almaty longer than I tell me that it wasn’t so long ago that buses cost KZT 40, meaning that the price has doubled in the last half decade. Government statistics estimate national inflation at 8% annually. To the best of my knowledge, the state does not release inflation statistics for individual oblasts or cities, but I would assume that inflation is even higher still in Almaty and Astana – the two cities in which the vast majority of Kazakhstan’s economic wealth and growth thereof appears to be concentrated. I have no way of gauging what the rate in Almaty might be, but I have anecdotal evidence that the rates are frighteningly high.

I buy a loaf of bread about once a week, and have been doing so since I moved to Almaty just shy of a year ago. Kazakhstan’s bread is good, hearty and tasty, especially compared with the British bread I was eating last year. As the secondary breadbasket of the late Soviet Union, quality bread is perhaps unsurprising. But it is therefore surprising that the cost of my favorite type of bread (borodinski, a black rye bread popular throughout the former USSR) went from KZT 68 to 92 – a 35% increase.

Last winter, the price of one portion of good döner kebab (in Kazakhstan, this means shaved lamb meat, pickles, tomatoes, onions, soggy fries, a red sauce and a white sauce in a wrap and briefly grilled on a George Forman-style “grill”) rose 25% to KZT 500. The proprietors of my favorite döner stand told me that this reflected increases in the cost of meat. Before the 1990s, Kazakhstan was the leading exporter of meat to other Soviet Republics, but this industry collapsed along with the economy in the 1990s and has never fully recovered. If I recall correctly, heads of livestock only recovered their 1980s levels in the early 2000s – which obviously means it is lagging behind population and demand growth as carnivorous Kazakhs become wealthy and larger consumers of meat.

Then, just a couple weeks ago, a businessman with years of experience in Central Asia pointed out to me that vegetable prices are also shooting up. The reason: Kazakhstan used to import veggies from Uzbekistan (as well as China), but the Uzbek government has (supposedly) closed down its greenhouses in order to reroute the power and gas resources used by Uzbek winter and off-season farmers to Chinese consumers. Kazakhstan is compensating by expanding its own greenhouse agriculture practices, but the higher cost of production in Kazakhstan and the lag in transition mean that increased prices are unavoidable.

There are two stories being told here; the first is about food security, which is a huge issue in Central Asia, but one about which maybe I’ll write a chapter in my hypothetical future book. The second is about inflation and Kazakhstan’s financial security. Inflation is itself destabilizing: it causes popular low-level discontent, exaggerates economic inequalities in societies, and may weaken Kazakhstan’s position relative to its looming neighbors, Russia and China. Since the early 2000s, Kazakhstan has done a good job of painting itself as the rock, the island of stability, in a volatile region. Inflation hasn’t yet reached levels where I need to get hysterical about the situation, but it does give me pause.

I am also concerned about inflation in Kazakhstan because of what I presume to be the driving source of the upward pressure: oil and mining. Now, I’m no economist, and I run the risk of misunderstanding causes and effects, but I believe that consumer goods inflation reflects the growing pool of money sloshing around Almaty. The political impact of resource wealth like that possessed by Kazakhstan and concentrated in the hands of narrow segment of society (as it is here) are well-studied, and I worry that Kazakhstan might not follow the Norwegian example, as it should, and instead become another petro-state (if it isn’t already). Certainly, there is already a degree of corruption, inefficiency and imbalance in Kazakhstan, but it could get much worse. So far, Kazakhstan seems like it has been reasonably well managed, and I hope it continues to be. Does the extra 20 cents I paid for my bus ride today bode ill?

If I’ve been delinquent in my blogging responsibilities, it is because my summer in Almaty has kept me very busy. So busy, in fact, that I drove my body into the ground, and I am now laid up at home on antibiotics and painkillers, recovering.

Falling ill precipitated my first interaction with healthcare since I came to Kazakhstan. I’ve written before about my hesitations regarding medical facilities and knowledge in the country, and for this reason I confess to having gone to the fancy, expensive foreign clinic to be looked over. But I feel I had good cause. I learned earlier this month in a cocktail party conversation with a USAID employee that Kazakhstan, similar to the other Central Asian countries, has among the highest rates of HIV transmission in hospitals anywhere in the world. This is because of bad practices with syringes and blood. Supposedly (again, this is a ‘fact’ coming from a casual conversation, but with a professional in the field) only 50% of blood slated for transfusion is screened for blood-borne diseases.

I was prescribed my medications without any jabs or transfusions, so I’ve avoided the major risks of my hospital visit. However, the facts above, in conjunction with some other statistics I’ve learned from various sources and conversations over the last few weeks (and not all independently verified, by the way), have served as a wake up call for me about: first, the gap between Almaty and Astana and the rest of Kazakhstan; and 2, the unseen problems challenging even the ‘developed’ parts of Central Asia.

The other statistics I heard were:

  1. Kazakhstan has the third highest young adult suicide rates in the world, behind only Russia and Belarus, and, according to Wikipedia, as of 2010 (although some figures are older) had the fourth highest absolute suicide rate in the world, trailing Lithuania, South Korea and Guyana.
  2. Supposedly heroin is cheaper per dose than a new syringe in Central Asia, leading to lots of shared needle use in among drug addicts. This explains the fact that…
  3. Kazakhstan, along with its regional neighbors, is one of the few places in the world in which the HIV/AIDS infection rate is still growing, and in fact has one of the fastest growing HIV populations in the world. This superlative is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the infected population is relatively low to begin with (a fast rate of expansion is easier: 75% growth in a population of 4 is only 3 new cases; the same rate in a population of 160 requires 120 new infections), but is shocking nonetheless.

I am shocked because these statistics do not resonate with the city and country as I’ve experienced it, which appear to be on the up and up even outside of Central Almaty. What the facts tell me, though, is that I’ve been somewhat complacent in my explorations and adventures. I’ve become very comfortable in Almaty, and I take for granted the creature comforts that this city – which I heard a US Foreign Service type refer to as “the best kept secret” – offers to foreigners with disposable income. But it comes as no great revelation that expats, including myself, mistake the city’s superficial and cosmetic accomplishments for real improvements in quality of life and social welfare. While they were still in Kazakhstan, the Peace Corps folks liked to tell Fulbright grantees living large in Almaty like myself that we didn’t know or hadn’t really experienced Kazakhstan. This is preposterous on one level because, well, if I’m not in Kazakhstan, then I don’t know where I am; but on another level, I am sympathetic with their frustration at people confusing the part for the whole, and perhaps misjudging the part at that. Even after the better part of a year here, it is very hard for me to say what is going on here, where the country is going, how people feel about their circumstances, etc.

It is unlikely that, in my last month in the country, I’m going to strap on my hiking boots and set out for the “real Kazakhstan” (perhaps an imaginary analog to Sarah Palin’s “real America,” but you get the idea). I say “unlikely” not because it would be hard, but because I really have come to appreciate my creature comforts, and I don’t want to set off on an expedition in the summer heat. Instead, I am taking comfort in the idea that I’ll be back after my Fulbright research is over. That I raise these (and many other) doubts about my experience now means that I have questions to answer in the future.

Although I’m supposed to be focused on Central Asia these days, China just won’t leave me alone. A while back I was in contact with friends who work as producers for the US public radio show This American Life; they asked for leads on interesting Americans living in China. While they didn’t end up using material from any of the folks to whom I introduced them, they did produce a really good hour of reporting about the expatriate experience in China. Everyone should be able to stream the show here. I also get thanked at the end, which is exciting and, let’s face it, the real reason I’m posting about this. That’s a joke.

The one thing I will add in order to bring this post back around to my experiences in Kazakhstan is that, like Michael Meyer, I am asked numerous times a day several of a list of questions, usually in this order:
1. Where are you from?
2. Do you like Kazakhstan? (Which is an unfair question, coming from a Kazakh.)
3. Where did you learn Russian? (Usually preamble to: And why don’t you speak Kazakh? Answer: I can’t reproduce either the vowel sounds or some of the hard consonants.)
4. Are you married? (Headache-avoiding answer: Yes.) Where’s your wife? (New York.)
5. Do you like [our] Kazakh women? Why don’t you have a Kazakh wife / girlfriend / service-provider? (Headache catches up to me: I can’t afford two wives, let alone a wife and a girlfriend.)

Almaty being a blessedly and forgivingly small city, this is about as far as the conversation usually gets before I pay and go about my business. In longer taxi-rides, I’ve ended up talking about circumcision, my salary, and (of course) my thoughts about Obama and Putin. One female friend of mine was told by a taxi driver: “If I weren’t already married, I would kidnap you.” We decided this was meant as a complement.

Below is the English-language version of my article appearing in a recent art publication in Almaty:

Despite Kazakhstan’s increasing inclusion in world affairs since the collapse of the USSR, the country’s art scene has remained on the fringes of the international market. “The art market’s limited understanding of post-Soviet art is almost entirely reducible to Russian art,” observed British art historian Sarah James in 2008.[1] But efforts by James, among others, to encourage interest in Soviet and post-Soviet art outside of Russia have not yet brought Kazakhstan’s art into the mainstream. This is because of a misdiagnosis of the disease; the root problem is that, with few exceptions, Kazakhstan’s local art narratives do not resonate beyond its national boundaries.

According to James, the dominance of Russian post-Soviet art results from a concentration of financial capital in Moscow and the hegemony of Postmodernist critical discourse. However, the global economic crisis has diluted capital and weakened Western theoretical authority. If James’s arguments were correct, this should have created opportunities for artists on the margins to access the mainstream. But even as the Soviet empire is being conclusively dismantled in many spheres, the metropole-periphery relationship between Moscow and the former republics has persisted in the post-Soviet art world. We therefore need an alternative explanation.

Art derives meaning by participating in narratives, the invention of which is the purpose of art history, criticism and theory. The narratives can be grand or modest, general or personal, global or local: the impact of Matisse’s arthritis on his late work or patronage relationships in 15th century Italian city-states. In isolation from any story, however, a study is not a portrait, and a maquette is not a sculpture. Art history weaves artworks into a narrative, and it provides stories guiding the production of new art. Once contextualized, the appreciation of art is not merely a matter of taste. Stories save art from being a trivial commodity.

While art historical narratives take many forms, they are not all of equal value. Although there are no objective criteria against which we can measure the quality of narratives, it is undeniable that some better capture the imagination or reflect the prevailing zeitgeist. We know about Van Gogh’s suicide because it explains something profound about his work; we know about Andy Warhol because he so perfectly represented his era. It follows from this that an artwork’s value—intellectual or monetary—is determined by both the degree to which it interacts with a narrative and the quality of that narrative.

Consider the rise of China’s contemporary artists to international prominence about fifteen years ago. While conventional wisdom is that these artists flourished because of Chinese wealth, the original buyers were in fact Western. What caught their interest? Not a change in styles, which had emerged decades before, but rather a change in the dominant narratives surrounding Chinese contemporary art. The stories of China’s rise and the shift of global power from West to East emerged in the late 1990s and were perceived to threaten Western values. The romanticized vision of the Chinese artist as unable to express herself under a repressive authoritarian regime neatly encapsulated Western anxieties. As a result, Chinese art became a sought-after intellectual and political commodity.

Moscow became the center of the post-Soviet art world in the 1990s and subsequently because, in the Western mind, the narrative of the collapse of Communism was a Russian story. Western intellectual audiences wanted evidence of the contrition and realignment of values “appropriate” of a defeated enemy. Successful Moscow artists like Dmitri Gutov or Valery Koshlyakov were happy to oblige and thereafter attracted international interest and demand.

Meanwhile, in Almaty, Tallinn, and Yerevan, new nations began reclaiming identities, rediscovering histories and reviving mythologies. The art demanded by the process of rebuilding countries was often intellectually monolithic and, by necessity, isolated from broader trends in art. International markets were unfamiliar with the narratives that gave rise to a resurgence of primitivism in form and traditional themes in content across the former Soviet space. In Kazakhstan, the dominant narratives were the ancient origins of Kazakh culture and the historic nomadic life as represented by yurts and horseback batyrs [warriors]. These motifs served important cultural-political purposes, but did not resonate with international audiences. Thus, much Kazakh art in could not “become one more commodity to be packaged for sale,” as Susan Reid has written of Russian post-Soviet art.[2]

On the other hand, Kazakhstan is rich in narratives potentially attractive to international markets because of the country’s long, often difficult history and uncertain future. Alexander Yerashov is an example of a young local artist investigating less popular local themes. In a series of humorous hand-drawn posters, Yerashov exploits Soviet, Russian folk and pop-culture visual vocabularies to present ironic and counter-factual versions of Soviet history that reflect on post-Soviet cultural trends and aspirations. More broadly, his drawings examine propaganda’s functionality, the significance of uniqueness in an age of digital reproduction, and the stigmatization of social utopianism, which are all questions that remain urgent after the collapse of Communism. His works connect historical and geographical particularities to universal topics.

Yerashov situates Kazakhstan’s specific experiences over the last two decades within more general narratives of post-Soviet development and the spread of a postmodern, international cultural order. Thus, instead of marginalizing contemporary art from Kazakhstan, as James suggests is the case, the postmodern critical discourse provides Yerashov a shared vocabulary by means of which international, or at least regional, audiences can relate to the artist’s specific narrative. The challenge confronting Kazakhstan’s artists, art historians and critics is therefore to compose narratives that make local, unique stories relevant to a wider audience.

Paull Randt, U.S. Fulbright Researcher, originally published Ugay, Alexander, ed. Art Listovka (Art Leaflet), issue 5, May 2012.

[1] James, S. “Behind a Theoretical Iron Curtain,” Art Monthly, no. 317, 2008; pp. 7-10.

[2] Reid, S. “The Art Market and the History of Socialist Realism,” Art History, vol. 22, no. 2; pp. 310-316.

I originally hoped to publish the below piece with another online Central Asia news and opinions site. That didn’t work out. It is therefore slightly out of date, but I wanted to share it here nonetheless.

* * *

An incidental development in the anti-Putin protests in Moscow may have lasting implications for cultural connections between Russia and Kazakhstan.

Following Putin’s inauguration as president for a third term, and in a continuation of earlier protests, thousands in Moscow have taken to the streets. Several incidents last week ended in violence between police and protesters, and on 9 May two of the opposition’s leaders, Aleksei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were arrested. Prior to his arrest, however, Navalny used Twitter to rally supporters to Moscow’s Chistye Prudy Park for an Occupy-style sit-in.

The crowd that gathered at Chistye Prudy took the name “OccupyAbai” after the nearby statue of the 19th century Kazakh poet-philosopher Abai Qunanbaiuli. To the Occupiers, the statue did not have any significance except as a geographic marker. Announcing the protest location, Navalny Tweeted that he was “going to #chistiyeprudy to the monument of an obscure Kazakh poet” (iPort.kz). An AP reporter later described the “OccupyAbai” name as “a random choice” (abcnews.com).

Abai is anything but obscure in Kazakhstan. His statue stands at the end of a main thoroughfare bearing his name. His poetry is still widely read, and Mukhtar Auezov’s novels Abai and The Path of Abai are modern classics of Kazakh literature. Moreover, were one so inclined, one could draw out resonances in the Moscow opposition’s choice of name. Like those in Chistye Prudy, Abai too wanted modernization and reform in his country.

That Navalny was ignorant of Abai illustrates the gulf that divides the formerly fraternal Soviet peoples, and especially the remove Muscovites feel from those in Russia’s former Central Asian colonies. Ironically, the statue was unveiled in 2006 by Putin and Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev as a symbol of the close cultural ties between their two countries. Those ties were evidently weak. But by and large, this is true in only one direction. It is hard to imagine a Kazakh as educated as Navalny not knowing Pushkin. Nonetheless, the lack of a cultural dialog leads to unpredictable interpretations of the signals being sent. Even as Kazakhs watch events in Moscow, they are reaching different conclusions about their significance.

On 11 May, #OccupyAbai was trending as the third most popular topic on Twitter globally and the first among the Russian-language Tweets. People were interested in the “unknown Kazakh.” Indicative of the different attitudes now prevailing in the two countries, this was not viewed as a bridge between the protest spirit in Moscow and any analogous feelings in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh Internet space seems more interested in the good PR for the country: one commentator of TengriNews.kz speculates on the increase in book sales; Murat Izhanov, proprietor of Kazakh.ru, wrote that this was an opportunity to popularize Kazakh culture.

In light of the Arab Spring, many in Kazakhstan have been wondering if the protest spirit in Moscow will spread. If the revolution will be Tweeted and Internet ephemera are a barometer of societal moods, then anyone hoping for a Central Asian Spring should not hold his breath. The cultural divide between Russia and Kazakhstan appears to be acting as a firebreak.

However, the OccupyAbai incident is spurring a cultural rapprochement with potential consequences for the future. Now that Navalny and Udaltsov are in prison, some reports suggest Abai has become the figurehead of the protest movement; others have begun referring to the protesters as the “independent government of Abai-stan” (yvision.ru). Protesters are also beginning to find inspiration in Abai’s poetry. One line in particular is being frequently quoted: “The worst man from any number of men is the man without convictions” (my translation). The longer Muscovites and Kazakhs consider this sentiment together, the more likely it is that future popular movements in Russia will find deeper resonance in Kazakhstan. Such concerns aside, though, the joint appreciation of Abai may be the first step in a greater sharing of cultural touchstones between these two neighboring countries.