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A schematic of the Central Asia Power System (CAPS)

Lenin once famously declared that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” In Central Asia, at least, once one of those pillars collapsed, so did the other.

Chapter 2 of my hypothetical book, Until Death Do Us Part, will be about Central Asia’s unified energy system. The energy story is similar – and indeed intimately related – to the region’s shared water resources and infrastructure, about which I blogged some weeks ago. Central Asia’s electricity and power-generation capacity and transmission networks were designed with utter disregard for the borders between Soviet Socialist Republics and controlled from by central planners. When the USSR collapsed and sovereignty (as well as the need to heat homes and fuel lights) devolved from Moscow to the capitals of the new Central Asian states. Havoc ensued.

After the USSR’s dissolution, as scholars tried to understand both what was happening and what had happened in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the academics Blanchard and Kremer hit upon the simple but powerful concept of “disorganization.” Their argument, fleshed out in a 1997 article under the name of their principle, was that the Soviet collapse caused a decentralization of bargaining between buyers and suppliers. WIthout Moscow controlling which widgets went to which producers at what price, two things happened: a) the market began to rationalize itself, necessarily causing harm to the more irrational elements of the Soviet economy; and b) those aspects of the market that could not spontaneously rationalize began to collapse. Stories abound about remote factories being marooned and then cannibalized for parts because their location made no economic sense. This effectively describes what happened to Central Asia’s electricity system – except the countries had no alternative but to force the disorganized system to work.

Lenin’s project to electrify the Soviet Union (the “GOELRO plan,” from the Russian name for the State Commission for Electrification of Russia) began in 1920. Over time, the Unified Energy System (UES) was constructed, linking most all of the Soviet Union. And it was built to maximize efficiency. The UES joined together regional grids with some of the heaviest-duty transmission lines ever made, and the regional grids were planned on the principle of ease of construction rather than Republican borders. Mind you, this made sense in the Soviet Union. Thus when you look at the map of the Central Asia Power System (CAPS) above, you see that northern Kazakhstan is highly connected to southern Russia, but to southern Kazakhstan by only one line. Moreover, Southern Kazakhstan’s grid, like those of all of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, were controlled from Tashkent, the in Uzbekistan. When these territories all became independent states, Tashkent had a lot of power.

The system muddled along for a while, but finally began to seriously break down in 2009. In that year, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan accused Tajikistan of siphoning electricity illegally, and thereafter opted out of the CAPS. However, “sealing” national infrastructures could only be done with nominal effectiveness. Parts of Southern Kazakhstan still share the Uzbek grid, and Uzbekistan’s withdrawal stranded Tajikistan – all of the energy for which has to run through Uzbekistan.

In Kazakhstan, this has resulted in some inconveniences, although Almaty sometimes seems to be isolated to the greatest extent possible from all inconveniences. Instead, southern Kazakhstani cities occasionally go through periods of electricity shortages, especially in the cold winter months. Tensions flared again this winter, which was particularly cold here as it was also in Europe, when Kazakhstan accused Uzbekistan of taking more than its fair share – the same accusation earlier leveled at Tajikistan.

And it is poor Tajikistan that suffers the most from this mess. Friends there tell me they get a few hours of electricity a day, and this despite the fact that Tajikistan might have one of the largest power-generation potentials per capita of any country in the world (hydropower potential). However, the small, mountainous country, was given a raw deal by the CAPS. Mountains divided Tajikistan’s grid into two unjoined parts, each of which originates in and can be manipulated by Uzbekistan. A few years back, Uzbekistan scuttled an agreement between Turkmenistan and Tajikistan by disallowing the Turkmen energy swap to transit Uzbekistan.

Today, all the countries of Central Asia are striving for energy self-sufficiency as a key component of national security. The link is obvious when you consider a case like Tajikistan. However, numerous analyses have demonstrated that all the countries would gain from efficiencies of scale (among other benefits) were they to operate cooperatively as they were forced to do under the Soviet Union (but with important additional market principles – like pricing energy resources). Instead, most of Central Asia perseveres in its state of disorganization and rolling blackouts. Hopefully time and practice will bring some maturity to the region’s energy trade relations.

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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.

Karlag HQ at Dolinka. They have preserved the building as it was.

“Karlag” is the abbreviation of Karagandinskii ispravitel’no-trudovoi lager (Карагандинский исправительно-трудовой лагер), the Russian for Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp, the largest of the camps that comprised the Gulag. On my recent trip to Karaganda, I spent my first day at Dolinka, a small town 45km to the southwest. Dolinka was home to Karlag headquarters. The old administrative building from which Karlag was run is now a museum to Stalin’s victims.

The Gulag was most notably introduced to the West by Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). Under Stalin, Soviet “criminals” were sent to labor camps in some of the least hospitable regions of the USSR to perform hard labor: coal mining in Kolyma, agriculture on the Kazakh steppe, the construction of the Belomor canal north of Moscow. According to an authoritative study by Steven A. Barnes, Death and Redemption, 18 million souls passed through the Gulag system–approximately 6% of the USSR’s population as it was in 1991–and many died or otherwise never returned to their families and homes.

There are many myths that surround the Gulag. One is that it was a wholly capricious system in which the majority of inmates were innocent of crimes as we, in the West, perceive crime. Another is that the Gulag was a system of death camps.

The Belorussian monument at Spassk

Karlag’s history demonstrates that it is wrong to think of the Soviet corrective labor system as similar in a substantive way either to German concentration camps on the one hand or the American internment camps for Japanese[-Americans] in WWII on the other. For one thing, Karlag was much larger than any camps in either of those systems: 200km wide at its widest and 300km long at its tallest, our tour guide at Dolinka compared it to the size of France (670,000sq. km). This is not quite accurate because Karlag was not a rectangle, but the point stands. This camp was on the scale of small or mid-sized European countries. There is no way that such a massive territory could be efficiently patrolled and guarded as to be impenetrable either in or out.

Moreover, as Barnes argues convincingly, unlike a Nazi camp, Karlag was a penal colony with the reeducation through labor and reintegration of its prisoner population into Soviet society as its ultimate goal. At Karlag, inmates  were put to work by and large in agriculture and animal herding.

Lastly, the inmates ranged from prisoners of political conscience and innocents ratted out for allegedly having spoken even a few words against the State to hardened criminals, POWs and others who might “conventionally” be considered threats to the the general population. Again drawing from Barnes, the

The monument to repressed artists at Dolinka

Gulag system developed a remarkably complex bureaucracy and system of institution with which to sort and categorize prisoners: those considered more dangerous were sent to the most distant and difficult camps.

None of this is to say, however, that the system was not deeply perverse. The “most dangerous” criminals were those who were the “counterrevolutionary agitators,” i.e. “politicals” from the intelligentsia. Thieves and professional criminals were treated with greater leniency because, in the eyes of the state, these people were closer to the working classes and more redeemable.

Furthermore, Stalin frequently classed whole populations of people as suspect and had them deported into the Soviet hinterland. Thus in the 1930s Poles were the first to be relocated from the European Soviet Union to Kazakhstan; later quite literally all of the Chechens and the Ingush were deported to Karaganda. But as in Dante’s Inferno, there were gradations of Hell. The deportees did not technically live within the borders of Karlag. They lived much as the free citizens of Kazakhstan at the time. However, Karlag’s administration was bureaucratically responsible for the deportee populations, and the deportees could not freely relocate elsewhere. They were, in effect, put under house arrest in new homes in a different republic of the Soviet Union. Interestingly – and something never mentioned in the museum at Dolinka – Barnes writes that ethnic Kazakhs were rarely incarcerated at Karlag. It would have been too easy for them to slip into the steppe and hide among the free population. Kazakh Gulag prisoners were sent to camps within Russia.

Israeli monument at Spassk

The museum was otherwise decent, but the fate to befall Karlag inmates and deportees was better communicated by walking across the land these people were forced to work and from which they had to eek not only subsistence, but also production quotas of wheat. Labor above and beyond the Plan was the way to demonstrate ones reform and commitment to Soviet society. But even on the spring day on which I visited, it was cold and wet, and the soil looked neither rich nor fertile. It is hard to imagine inmates’ suffering in the depths of winter and peaks of summer.

An associated monument to Stalin’s victims is at Spassk, the site of a former POW camp under the umbrella of Karlag. Spassk now houses a series of monuments. Countries from which citizens were interned either as military combatants or as suspect peoples have erected stone markers reminiscent of large gravestones. The countries include Belorussia, Russia, Ukraine and also France, Korea and Israel, among others. Each has a simple inscription in several languages. There is little fanfare around the stones; behind them stand several unmarked black crosses of different sizes and unknown provenance. Together, the markers are a quiet, dignified and fitting memorial out on the steppe.

The steppe near Dolinka and Karlag on the day we visited

Evening concert and fireworks at Astana Square

Wednesday was Victory Day (День Победы, Den’ Pobedy), a public holiday across the former Soviet Union commemorating the end of the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II. Notably, the dates for the Great Patriotic War are always given as 1941-1945, which correspond to the Soviet conflict against the Fascists. All the inconvenient “stuff” prior to 1941, like the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact, is left out of the history). Celebrated on 9 May, the day the Germans surrendered to the Soviets, Victory Day is used to honor living and deceased veterans. Those surviving don their old uniforms and, chests heavy with medals and honors, and are escorted by their children and families to the war memorial; everyone else gives gathers to give the veterans flowers and thank them for their service.

Comrade Joe Stalin makes an appearance

This is my first time celebrating Victory Day, and it is an incredible throwback to Soviet times. As one friend remarked: “Oh, so this is what is was like.” The morning began with a flower-laying ceremony at the Eternal Flame in front of the local war memorial. Banners in Russian and Kazakh unabashedly displayed the hammer and sickle. Several veterans waved the Communist flag. Good old Uncle Joe Stalin even made an appearance – in portrait form. In the evening there was an orchestral concert of Soviet marches and hymns in Astana Square in front of what was the former Communist Party HQ (now the Kazakh-British Technical University). Clips of Soviet war films were projected onto a giant screen behind the stage. People of all ages were there singing along to their favorite old tunes. Even I knew some of the words.

Two things struck me as odd about this event. In the first place, it was not only very Soviet, but also very Russian. Although Kazakhs served in the Red Army, and Kazakhstan itself was integral to the war effort as the home of relocated industries and the breadbasket of the USSR while Ukraine was overrun, the majority of the veterans Isaw were ethnically Russian. Furthermore, the days events were by and large (although not exclusively) conducted in the Russian language, which is unusual these

Veteran holding a flag for photos

days for major public celebrations. In the second place, I was surprised that there is not more animosity, or at least ambivalence, among the population of veterans in Kazakhstan towards the USSR. It is my understanding that Soviet POWs returning from Axis camps were after the war sent to the corrective labor camp in Kazakhstan (part of the famous Gulag system) for fear that they had succumbed, in effect, to Stockholm Syndrome. This is how many of the non-Kazakh veterans – although admittedly probably not that many of those still surviving – ended up here to begin with.

These things aside, however, I very much enjoyed and respect the celebration. We have analogous holidays in the USA, but not nearly to the same extent. The politics of various wars aside, we could do more to honor those who have served and their memories. Moreover, the purpose of the holiday has expanded to recognize not only veterans, but also the elderly in general. As one young Kazakh guy told me, Victory Day is “a day for our grandfathers.” The cult[ure] of youth in the US being what it is, I appreciated that a day is set aside in the public calendar for Kazakhstanis – as well as people across the former Soviet space – to recognize the various contributions of their forebearers.

Great Patriotic War monument in Almaty

The numbers on my door.

James C. Scott, who teaches at Yale and whose works I read extensively in my Masters program, writes about the “legibility” of societies, by which he means the government’s ability to locate and measure all of the territory and population over which it is sovereign. In his conception, as I remember it several months on, the process of rendering a society legible involves dividing and defining space, time and population subcategories (through tools like censuses and maps, about which Benedict Anderson has written most influentially, and also through cadastral surveys and orderly urban and agricultural planning) and the purpose is to give the state “panoptic” control over its sovereign possessions. It also helps with the levying of taxes.

Kazakhstan is arguably the least legible society I’ve ever lived in. This isn’t saying too much, since I have lived in Hong Kong, Beijing, New York and Cambridge, England. These are hardly the “wilds.” However, it was nonetheless surprising to me because part of the Soviet high-modernist project (Scott’s phrase here) was precisely to render society into a unified, productive machine, which of course required that all of society be legible. By way of example, unemployment in the Soviet Union was referred to as “parasitism.” (The term also extended, mind you, to artists who were not officially employed as such full-time.) As a corollary to the USSR’s super-legibility, the Soviets were also fanatical note-takers and filers. Soviet archives are treasure-troves.

Kazakh appears to me to be “illegible” in little, perhaps insignificant ways. Take, for example, that I live in apartment 85 not on the 8th floor of a building of 39 independent apartments. Friends of mine in another building live in apartment 46, which is on the 3rd floor: across the hall and up one floor from apartment 45. The street number system is also inconsistent: although most streets use the “American” numbering system (odd numbered lots are on one side of the street, evens on the other, and both sets increase as you move in one direction), at least one street uses the London system (numbers increase going up one side of the street, cross to the other side at the end and then continue to rise as one returns to the start). Needless to say, finding anything in the winter can be excruciating.

These foibles of management, as I’ve taken to thinking of them, seemingly penetrate into all spheres: excess employees with no work to do; the impossibility of printing anything unless you have access to a relatively upscale office; restaurants advertising food they don’t have or running out of tea when too many customers appear; whole computer networks at institutions so riddled with viruses that it is inadvisable to transfer any files off the system. In May 2011, when I first came to Kazakhstan, there were new street signs designed for pedestrians at intersections. Those were removed in the summer such that by the fall of 2011, the only street signs are again those for cars, which are positioned such as to often be hard for pedestrians to read. Why would the city take down perfectly useful signs?!

Of course, some of these problems result from deficits of resources and funding, but many are simply inefficiencies that no one cares to resolve. I suspect (and here regular readers can hear the sound of familiar hooves approaching) that many of my perceived inefficiencies date from the Soviet era, when efficiency was never paramount, and that the system has perpetuated these for its own reasons. It is, I imagine, easier to be corrupt or to hide in Almaty than in Chicago. These quirks are, however, unmistakably a source of Almaty’s charm – as long as you don’t have anywhere to be in a hurry.

The artificial Nurek Reservoir in Tajikistan. Not my photograph. I've not been to Tajikistan yet.

If I ever write a book about Central Asia, I will title it Until Death do Us Part. Before I came here (and still now to an extent), I generalize about “Central Asia.” This is similar to talking about East Asia or Western Europe as regions: it masks intra-regional differences and conflicts. But generalizations about Central Asia are particularly insidious because common knowledge about the region is insufficient to mitigate against gross over-simplification. When a comment is made about “The Middle East,” our minds account for differences we know exist between Israel, Iran and Egypt. This does not happen with regards to “the ‘Stans.”

The trouble is that “the ‘Stans” really don’t like the neighborhood in which they are grouped. Turkmenistan does not even consider itself part of Central Asia, preferring instead to associate with the Iranian / Persianate worlds (whatever those are), and the other countries can barely cooperate.

It is therefore unfortunate that there are real, and not merely rhetorical, connections between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that justify – even necessitate – the regional grouping of these countries into “Central Asia” (or “West Asia,” as I understand the Australians now call it). Primary among these ties that bind are shared water resources. Generally speaking, water resources (i.e. water – and rivers in which hydropower dams can be built) are concentrated and abundant in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but sorely needed in the dry agricultural countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – and also in Turkmenistan, which is so desiccated that it imports 98% of its water. On the other hand, the upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have practically no source of power and hardly any exports to speak of beyond hydropower.

The Soviets had a good solution to the division of resources and differentials in demand: the nerve-center of the command economy – Gosplan, based in Moscow – decreed each year that the upstream countries would allow the necessary amount of water to flow through its hydropower stations in the summer even though electricity was in low demand during this months. The goal was to provide the cotton and wheat-growing downstream countries sufficient water for irrigation. So single minded were the Soviets in reaching this goal that the Aral Sea has all but disappeared since the 1960s.

Map of the Syr Darya, which runs east to west through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (again) and Kazakhstan before "reaching" the Aral Sea.

Meanwhile, the upstream countries need electricity for heating in the winter months and demanded compensation for the power generation capacity foregone by allowing the water to flow through the dams in the summer months. Again, Moscow decreed that the downstream countries, which also happen to be rich in “firm”, fossil-fuel energy resources, would burn oil and coal in the winter to meet demand in the upstream countries.

This complicated system prioritized the uneconomic and highly wasteful agricultural industries in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. To this end, Moscow treated all of Central Asia as one political and economic unit, even though technically the region was composed of five “independent” Soviet republics. And it worked, more or less.

It stopped working, however, when the USSR collapsed and the five countries were in fact independent of each other and fiercely nationalistic to boot. Unfortunately, the two major rivers that run through Central Asia – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya – did not change their course to accommodate the new international borders. The Kyrgyz government wants to store water and run hydropower plants in the winter to provide heat to citizens; the Uzbeks and Kazakhs need water in the summer growing months to support their crops. Tajikistan has essentially the same conflict of interests with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Untangling the mess of demands upon the water and of the states upon each other has proven challenging, time consuming and costly. All the major international donor organizations are involved, but the governments in Ashgabat, Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent do not see eye-to-eye on fundamental issues: who has priority rights to use the water, how to price water resources, even whether water resources should have a price at all. Islam dictates that water is a gift from God to be shared. This is all well and good if you’re Uzbek and want water, but since the Quran does not say as much about oil and gas, the Kyrgyz still have to buy, at world market prices, their heating energy from the downstream countries.

I must admit to being sympathetic to each country’s claims. It is not a question of absolute right and wrong, and although perhaps not to equal degrees, all these countries are dependent upon each other. With so much at stake, however, it is understandably hard for the governments to cooperate. How this fascinating question gets resolved is undeniably going to shape the future development of “Central Asia.” This set of disputes might be the most likely cause of new war of which you, my reader, have probably never heard. Hopefully, however, the regional governments can keep a lid on things.

A Soviet ambulance-hearse

One of Almaty’s two dual-purpose ambulance-hearses left over (as best I can tell) from the Soviet period. Who said the Soviets were inefficient?

Although I’m neither particularly knowledgable about nor interested in medicine, Kazakh medical beliefs and the national healthcare system have featured heavily among my conversations since I moved here. From my perspective, at least, local attitudes towards health and treatment are nothing short of bewildering. There are aspects of both traditional, “old-wives-tale”-type prescriptions and proscriptions as well as behaviors lingering from the Soviet period. Many of my discussions with foreign friends attempt to disentangle these two strains and figure out if there are any “merits” (from a Western medical perspective, at least) in the mix of remedies and precautions.

Grandmas will upbraid young women for sitting directly on hard or cold surfaces of fear that doing so will cause the younger woman’s ovaries to detach. Going outside with wet hair or eating cold foods in the winter causes pneumonia, and people looked at me wild-eyed in the winter when I dared step outside without a hat. Most sinister of all, however, is a draft. A skvozniak (сквозняк) through a room can wreak havoc on one’s “organism,” and it is for this reason that in the colder months, especially, there can be no two open apertures in a room. This rule holds true no matter how over-heated the apartment, car or train compartment.

I am lead to understand that because neither patients nor healthcare providers in the Soviet period saw or were responsible for the costs of treatment, medical care was both responsive (as opposed to preventative) and aggressive. When a man entered a hospital in poor condition, the doctors threw the whole kitchen sink of treatments at him, often disregarding the potential negative effects of such physical bombardments. Hospital stays were also prolonged and frequently used by the healthy-but-exhausted as an excuse for a few days relaxation. Workers supposedly checked themselves into hospital in order to catch up on sleep. The result was high rates of in-patient infection. There was also a predilection for injections. Even now, one can get vitamin injections!

I equate the desire for injections to the sounds – the beeps and pings – that computers used to make when connecting by modem to the internet. Those sounds were entirely artificial, but they gave the user a sense of something being done while we waited for AOL or Netscape to load. Getting an injection simply feels medical, and thus doctors go on giving needless injections.

A big problem confronting the medical profession in Kazakhstan at the moment is the low quality of medical education. The education system as a whole is ravaged by corruption: teachers taking bribes, students buying diplomas, and plagiarism by academics and students at almost all levels. Of course this has a negative impact on the country’s human capital as a whole, but it makes one particularly nervous in the medical profession. I was advised that, should I need medical attention, I should find an old doctor with a Russian surname. He or she would have been Soviet trained, and that is (despite what we might think of the Commies) a guarantee of at least some standard of training. Otherwise I might be treated by a doctor who bought his or her medical degree instead of studying.

I don’t really know if it is as bad as all that; knock-on-wood, I’ve not yet been to a hospital here. But I have heard some horror stories, including one young American student returning to the USA after being he diagnosed with cancer based on some flu-like symptoms. Knowing the rumor mill in Almaty as I do, there may be a miscommunication somewhere in the chain of gossips, but I’d rather not put it to the test. I’d be extremely uncomfortable getting into the ambulance-hearse / hearse-ambulance.