A story of mass movements throughout Central Asia, by Nikolai Klassen.
Not only is Russia a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: fragments of the puzzle are also replicated and recapitulated throughout Central Asia, with the five ‘stans’ all bearing idiosyncrasies that point to a past as rich and unpredictable as the present. Let me address one such mystery: why, like myself, are there so many German-Kazakhs? Nowadays, Germans represent a sizeable minority in each Central Asian country, for example, there are still 179,476 ethnic Germans dwelling in Kazakhstan. However, ethnic Germans only began to form a sizeable chunk of Kazakhstan’s demography shortly after 1941. So, why did so many Germans go to Central Asia? And what does my grandmother have to do with this story?
Like my grandmother’s family, many German speaking settlers moved east in search of opportunities off the back of Russia’s developmental efforts. Under Ivan II (1462−1505) some experts, such as doctors, architects, and military officers migrated to Russia. At the time of Peter the Great (1682−1725), Germans increasingly began settling along the Volga River in significant numbers. Another figure driving German Migration in Russia was Kathrine the Great. In 1762, she invited German farmers and craftspeople to Russia to help modernize her country, giving them land, religious freedom, exception from military service and tax exemptions. Escaping high taxes and political tensions in the Holy Roman Empire and later Prussia, most came to lay the foundations for new settlements. Some 30,000 arrived in the first wave between 1764 and 1767 and they had a profound impact on improving Russia’s agricultural output. More started coming after 1789 and they kept coming until 1863. Most of them were Catholics or Mennonites seeking religious freedom, a new place to settle and political stability. As they swept down to Russia’s eastern and southern borders, the first German settlers arrived in modern-day Kazakhstan by the end of the 18th century. In due course, Germans founded their first permanent settlement in 1785, called Friedensfeld. During the period of the Stolian reforms in 1905 — 1911, Germans had already formed towns such as Alexandertal, Altenau, Königsgof, and Puggerhof. The migration did not stop there though: German settlers even tried to reach as far as Azerbaijan in the 1930s. The reason: increasing hostility and distrust directed against the settlers due to the political climate in Germany at that time. This time, Mennonites have been suspected not because of their religion but because of their nationality.
History is rarely kind, and World War II is known for its forceful relocations within the Soviet Union. Most of the Germans were offspring of Volga Germans, who lived in the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic located in Russia, or the Black Sea Germans, who lived in Ukraine and Crimea. This demographic spread reached an abrupt ending during the early 1940s; with forced relocation to Kazakhstan being initiated in July 1941, after Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union. Moreover, Stalin initiated a state of emergency: Germans were declared spies a priori, a decision which resulted in all working-age men (15−85) being confined to Soviet Labour camps – the so-called gulags. According the Soviet Government, a decree to relocate the Germans was imposed because:
“Among the German inhabitants, who live in the Volga Region, are thousands and ten thousand of saboteurs and spies who are awaiting a signal from Germany to execute explosions in other regions, but also against their own people.“
In the course of the deportation, my granduncle and my great-grandfather were sent to two different gulags nearby Archangelsk to work in a forestry station in pitch-black winters and all-day summers. Fortunately, they were working as doctors and were important for the camps’ overseers. They were able to survive the extreme temperatures and harsh labour conditions, and were lucky not to have been sent to an even-more punitive camp, where their medical skills may not have been called upon.
Officially, people were never deported: they were brought to safe towns, away from the frontlines. The areas to “spread” the Germans across the countries were areas, such as the Altai region (650,000 re-located), the Qaraghandy region (500,000), Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (both home for 70,000 Germans). The regions where Germans were spread generally had a low population density and a demand for workers in agriculture and mining. The labour shortage arose from the huge demand for troops to send to the Soviet frontline, leaving many Central Asian towns stripped of their male populations. As German settlers were suspected to be spies and saboteurs, the authorities saw fit to keep an eye on them and extract their productive energy through keeping them in tightly-controlled labour camps. In addition to forced labour, Germans in the Soviet Union were subject to forced assimilation, such as through the prohibition of public use of the German language and education in German, the abolition of German ethnic holidays and a prohibition on their observance in public. Not only were Germans stripped of their language and culture, they were often openly discriminated against and publicly mocked. At around this part in our story, my Grandmother, then a young girl, was making her way across the frozen midwinter Steppe in a cattle wagon. In 1941, she, her mother, and other 38 people put into the wagon were forcibly relocated to Serenda (Зеренда, nowadays in Kazakhstan).
Suppression of ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union did not end with the Second World War. Though some Germans were able to live unofficially in German communities in tows they’ve been sent to, their culture had to remain hidden: still, they were able to secretly hold holy services, speak German, and celebrate German holidays. In 1949 most Germans were finally released from the labour army, although no public apology or excuse was given for the 4-year delay. In August 1964 the Soviet Government finally began rehabilitating the Germans to their pre-war settlements. According to the newly appointed president Breshnev, the accusations against were not justified, and a terrible mistake had been made. However, most chose to stay on in Central Asia, and only a few returned to the Volga area. Others travelled around and went where they could find employment. Others still tried to claim their pre-war homes, even though they lost the right to do so. After 1964, the German population became dispersed and mobile — finding new homes and shaping new identities. The number of Germans involved in agriculture declined while those occupied as academics and teachers rose, as those living in the country moved to the cities. In that process Germans finally managed to blend into their milieu, losing their cultural uniqueness as their language, arts, customs were becoming more and more Russified. Many Germans moved in among non-Germans and started families with people of other ethnic descents. The trend towards urbanization also caused a drop in the birth-rate and the size of German families, which had been erstwhile characterized by high birth rates. By 1991 less than half of the German Russians claimed German as their first language, and instead regarded Russian as their mother tongue.
The horrors of deportation and the tragedy of Stalinist cultural subjugation became far better known through historical studies during the 1980s and 1990s, after the Soviet Union fell apart. Most of the remaining ethnic Germans emigrated to Europe and beyond, with a majority opting for Germany. In 1990, after my Grandfather returned from a visit to Canada, he and my grandmother decided to move to Germany, where they felt they would be treated as equals. From there they invited other parts of my family and finally also my father and my mother, who was pregnant with me while moving.
In 1990, there were around 2.9 million ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union, of which only 41% resided in modern-day Russia. The rest were spread throughout Central Asia and the Caucuses, with 47% being based in Kazakhstan, 5% in Kyrgyzstan, and 2% in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As these populations either blended into their cultural woodwork, or made their way to Germany, these populations have fallen to about 1/3rd of their original size. Yet their footprint lingers on in countless aspects; so, should you ever find yourself North of Astana and notice rock-hard dark breads curiously similar to German pumpernickel, please spare a thought for my Grandmother who, like so many other Soviet-born Germans, has left a lasting mark on Central Asia’s demography.
Rafael Vargas-Suarez, also known as Vargas-Suarez Universal , is a contemporary artist based between New York and, for the last three years, Bishkek. His work, which is based on the visualization of scientific and technical data, has been featured in numerous museums and galleries, and has been the basis of his many collaborations with institutions, governments and universities. Recently he has been exploring the history of materials, from traditional oil painting to experimenting with materials typically used in spacecraft and materials sciences. This was also the inspiration behind his moving to Bishkek: for the past few years he has been learning to work with ancient textile materials such as silk and wool. In Kyrgyzstan, he has found the perfect environment to learn techniques and their history from local masters, as well as doing experimental work with them.
influenced you to start using these more traditional materials?
Over the last 15 to 20 years I have been doing a lot of artwork referencing, for example, networks, microchips, visualization of scientific phenomena and subjects related to the space programs of the US, Russia, the EU, Japan and Canada. As I got more aware of complex visualization systems, I started to get more interested in complex architecture, such as microchips. Thus, I decided to go backwards rather than forwards to deepen my understanding, first to adding machines and punch cards, and then later to carpets and textiles, silk and wool. These materials are the great ancestors of what we use today as computers, LCD screens and mobile devices. I started to become interested in the question of how it is that all of these things that are so commonplace today came to be. If you look at any carpet or rug you can see a lineage to today’s more complex electronic devices. Going to Central Asia you actually get to access a lot of these traditions from the craftspeople and communities, whose ancestors created these complex items. The knowledge has been passed down the generations and is still very relevant there. Coming from the US, where I always worked within a very contemporary and conceptual framework and moving into those areas of work and research has been really gratifying.
What led you to
finally decide to move to Central Asia?
I was commissioned to make a permanent artwork for the American University of Central Asia. HMA2 Architects are based in New York and had seen my artwork before in a gallery in Manhattan. They approached me to come up with a proposal for a permanent artwork, which I presented 1 1/2 months later. Eight months after our first meeting we were in Bishkek. We went regularly for two years to complete the work. After finishing the commission, I realised that I enjoyed working there and that I wanted to continue exploring silk and wool as well as all other ancient materials and techniques, and wondered how I could integrate them in non-traditional manners into my work. That is to say, I don’t explicitly follow western or eastern traditions. These materials are underrepresented and under-explored in contemporary art – there are some fibre and textile artists that use them but they are usually pigeonholed into a regional or craft category, so I wanted to really do research and see what I could do with these materials in my work.
Listening to your
comments it sounds like you are more closely involved with traditional artists
in Bishkek rather than the city’s contemporary art scene – can you comment on
The ‘art scene’ in Bishkek is very small, especially in comparison with New York, where I am based. There are hardly any galleries or museums in the city, so it couldn’t be more different in terms of the cultural landscape and the amount of activity going on creatively. There are however a lot of creative people in the city, both young and old. I’ve noticed that they’re basically divided between those educated in the Soviet system and those educated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The younger artists definitely tend to be more conceptual and tech savvy. In general, there is however still a huge emphasis on craft and what is called ethno art, which means traditional Kyrgyz or Central Asian motifs, colors and materials for making very lucrative silk road products, which are very touristy. So there is a very vibrant community in with traditional crafts and its markets.
Part of my creative duality in Kyrgyzstan is that I associate with the artists doing super traditional local regional craft work and then on the other hand I try to be a mentor to the younger, more contemporary, artists, who are incredibly hungry for information from the west and other places. I do however make sure to not tell them what to do or how to do it.
Put generally, it
can be said that the whole Central Asian region is trying to bring itself into
the new ‘western world’ whilst at the same time trying to maintain its ancient
traditions. Do you think Central Asian artists are trying to do something
similar also, by combining modern methods with traditional techniques, or are
you somewhat of a pioneer in this regard?
This is a good question and indeed is something I ask myself almost every day. You see strict divides between people doing traditional things and those doing experimental contemporary things. For example, you are almost guaranteed to make a living with traditional crafts – there is a market there, even a foreign one (primarily American) for their local crafts. Because of local policies in Kyrgyzstan, the artisans producing such goods are actually considered small businesses and are doing really well selling their goods abroad. One thing I have noticed is that these crafts artists are slightly frustrated and often afraid to experiment, as they fear that they won’t be able to make a living and sustain their families if they do so – in effect, they are artists not respected workers.
On the other hand, the more experimental/contemporary-minded artists are very much influenced by western, modern, contemporary ideas and aesthetics but sadly there is very little opportunity there to sustain a living doing that, even as a teacher. They usually have to teach standard western art history, which is a leftover from the Russian traditional academic teaching structures, which are very safe and conservative. There is also a conflict between generations due to differing ideas and intentions: young art students and older traditional professors who were educated during Soviet times are divided. A lot of the younger artists feel frustrated and can’t really do anything with the super formal training that they get. There is however a variety of art collectives, such as MuseumStudio, 705 Group, Kasmalieva & Djumaliev’s ArtEast , Shtab and the very young Laboratory Ci. There’s even LGBT art collectives known as SQ and Labrys. The cool thing about Kyrgyzstan is that you can make art work that specifically is critical of political, social, class and racial and ethnic realities. It’s very important to be free as an artist anywhere.
A major question there relates to Kyrgyzstan’s identity between the east and west and whether there is an identity crisis creatively about what it is to be Kyrgyz. This is definitely an interesting thing to observe as an outsider, as a foreign artist. You see Kyrgyz artists addressing these questions, more so than in other countries in the region, where there is a major lack of freedom of expression. I always explain to young artists in Kyrgyzstan that they are living in a democracy, even if they don’t realize it. Yes, it’s a young country and underdeveloped, but fundamentally they are young artists in a democracy and can express anything they want, it’s their legal right to do so. This is the real difference between artists in Kyrgyzstan and in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan – in Kyrgyzstan nobody is going to shut you down for criticizing – people may tell you not to, but you won’t be arrested for it. An even bigger tragedy in neighbouring countries is artistic self-censorship, which is clearly a tragedy and leads to arrested development as far as developing identity and national culture. This does not mean that critical contemporary Kyrgyz artists can sustain themselves, however. This entire panorama is of course truly interesting to me as a western artist. I make sure to not step on anyone’s toes and I also don’t intend to exhibit or sell my art there, as I’m very sensitive that I am a foreigner and merely observing from the cultural side lines while I produce my work there.
Let’s carry on
with that point. You are a foreigner and are trying to enact a change in
Bishkek and the wider region’s art scene. Has this been difficult for you in
terms of getting contacts or local credibility or has there been a general
acceptance and willingness to learn?
There are many challenges in Kyrgyzstan – the primary one being the language barrier, as I am still trying to learn Russian and only understand very basic Kyrgyz. There are however lots of young creative people that speak English, as a few have been educated abroad. Overall, in Bishkek, I can also get by with my limited Russian – I have an assistant to help me, however. Another challenge is that people there are often very insecure, especially young artists, as they come from very traditional and conservative families, which means the idea of being an artist is frowned upon, and there is very little understanding of it, which is the opposite of my background, where the system I grew up in fostered and supported the idea of being a player in a cultural landscape. It happens frequently that I have to explain and basically define what I do, as people there often don’t fully understand it, which was quite surprising to me. More often than not, people in Central Asia are quite surprised that I make my living as an artist.
I have started to hire assistants, mostly younger artists that are not sustaining themselves with their art. We often have great conversations in the studio about lots of topics and they do tend to get a lot of confidence when I tell them how it is that I got to become an artist and what my vision is for the future. They are not used to people being so open and generous and so they are very surprised and ultimately appreciative when someone opens up and gives them advice. Unfortunately jealousy, territoriality and a tribal mentality are quite common, which can clearly be detrimental to their progression.
As far as breaking into the scene, it should be noted that there isn’t really one. I’m also mindful of the fact that I’m just there to produce, to do my work there and then it gets exported back to the US. People often ask me when I’m going to do a show there but I don’t have any plans for that and I don’t think local curators intend for that to happen either. At the start of my project at AUCA, I felt a jealous energy around me by some of the local older artists, as they saw the project there as a great opportunity that was taken away from them by a foreign artist. However, one of the objectives of the public art initiative, was to bring an artist from the US to do something there. There were people complaining at the start so the architects and president of the university decided that it would be a good idea for me to collaborate with a local artist on the project, so I chose to collaborate with Dilbar Ashimbaeva, of Dilbar Fashion House. She is the most respected fashion designer from Central Asia. She educated me about silks, embroidery, fabrics and really gave me a crash course on how to work with silk for my art. She is a master and has travelled all over the world to do her work. At the same time, I educated her a lot on contemporary art, conceptual art and installation art, so it became a great creative partnership. We even became great friends and have even made some silk paintings together more recently.
Overall, Kyrgyzstan is a place of production for me though. I have learned so much there, not just about Kyrgyzstan and its art but also about myself and the artistic traditions that formed me. More and more I feel that it’s a place I can contribute to more as a mentor or educator. Last year the American embassy and several NGOs have asked me to help develop art education programmes for the public and for children. I always say ‘yes, absolutely’ to any possibility with arts related education. I find it incredibly important and early education is how real impactful change happens.
Are you the only
foreign artist in Kyrgyzstan with a focus on production?
As far as I know,
there are fewer than a dozen foreign artists that have taken up space and
worked there, while a few others are temporarily working there with an NGO or
embassy. From what people tell me, I’m the most involved foreign artist ever so
far! I have a studio in the mountains of the Southern shores of Lake Issyk Kul
and one in the center of Bishkek, so I am very embedded. I’ve made many friends
and have started to hire people now so I am now learning who does what and
such. I am still more embedded in New York but I’m firmly setting roots in
Bishkek too. I like that there are no distractions in Kyrgyzstan, so I can be
really focused and work long hours in the studio. I can do so in New York too,
but there are so many more distractions and interruptions. Surprisingly,
Bishkek can be a little busy and and hectic too, but in general I get a lot of
studio work time, so I feel really satisfied there. I tend to be focused
wherever I go, but I’m especially productive in Bishkek and at Lake Issyk Kul.
Do you want to
stay there for a longer time or do you have a set date for when you want to
fully return to the States?
Right now I’m
actually in the US but I did just spend 6 months in Kyrgyzstan, and did the
year before also, so I’m currently doing half-half. I don’t have a specific
plan and tend to be someone that goes with the flow. As long as I can produce
there and don’t run into problems I can continue there. I’m lucky that I can
work anywhere, as I think most artists can’t, after they get set into one way
of working. Because of the nature of my work, I’m always looking for new materials,
new ideas, new concepts, research and travel, which is clearly helped by my
innate ability to be able to shift modes and adapt to almost anywhere so far. I
never actually imagined that I would spend very much time in Bishkek or even
having studios there at all, but the AUCA project showed me that I could work
there. I still have some projects I want to do there, such as designing my own
yurt, making carpets with traditional materials, using the Shyrdak and
Ala-Kiyiz techniques for wool.
Your work is primarily
at the intersection of aeronautics/astronomy and art – is this something you
are still doing in Central Asia or has your focus shifted since you started
using more regional materials?
really good questions, related to things I think about all the time. As far as
the images and resulting artworks that I’m making there and here in the US, I
am still very much connected to this idea of spatial movement, as well as
astronomical charts and microchips. I’ve also shifted my attention from NASA to
Roscosmos, the Russian space programme, whose launch facilities are located in
Kazakhstan. It is an interesting contrast to see this rocket infrastructure in
the middle of Kazakhstan with camels and people in traditional Central Asian
dress. So yeah I can say that a lot of my work is still very much related to
geometric abstraction, and scientific visualization. I don’t know how much my
work can change thematically or if there is an orientalist or silk road
influence in my art. I think the influence is purely material so far, rather
than conceptual. One of the interesting things about doing the work I do there
is the way people react to it – they associate it a lot with Russian
constructivism and pure modernist art, which means they aren’t so confused by
it, and more importantly, I’m not confusing myself with it.
So you have been
going to Bishkek fairly regularly for the last 4 and a half years. How much do
you think the city has changed or modernised in that time, in terms of its
creative scene and how people view their city, country and future?
There are definitely
many changes to observe and live with. Almost every day in Kyrgyzstan, I see a
new idea or project that people really gravitate towards or are very curious
about. There’s a lot of potential, as well as smart young people who are really
hungry for new ideas and new things. At the same time they are still holding on
to their very traditional values so I feel that Kyrgyzstan is culturally torn
between conflicting cultural visions of their future. I believe there are three
main camps: those that maintain a traditional Kyrgyz structure infused with
conservative Islamic ways of life and traditions, those that are attracted to
Russian culture, language, mentality, and with a lot of nostalgia for Soviet
times; and the camp I am associated with socially, is globally minded and
gravitating to new, progressive ideas and developing culture.
I do see a lot of change in general though, and it tends to happen at an increasingly rapid rate. You also see things that probably won’t change, especially when you’re outside of Bishkek. Outside of the capital, you’re not going to see the change, amount of change or rate of change. It’s interesting because there’s a kind of identity crisis – people want to be contemporary and up to the minute but are held back by very strong traditions, so it’s quite a dynamic to see as a foreigner.
Do you see these
three camps as split along generational lines or does everyone have all three
internalised in them to greater or lesser extents?
It’s mostly generational but then from time to time we’re surprised – by “we’re” I am referring to us few foreigners. For example, there is a huge emphasis on getting married as young as possible, even, at times, in more seemingly progressive circles. So you do see people whom you think are living their lives in some sort of anti-establishment direction with their lifestyle and beliefs, and then suddenly they’re married and wearing the hijab and living a super conservative Muslim way of life and then that’s it. They had their fun, they had their chance, they had their foreign friends and were living their western values and then all of a sudden it’s just cut off. That’s something I’ve seen more and more in the last few years and I’m like ‘wow, what a shift’, one minute you’re a feminist and the next moment you’re married, either by choice, family or tradition, and there’s no going back. It’s not something one sees within the ethnic Russian population. There is definitely a massive emphasis to marry early, in comparison with the west at least, and this means that the divorce rate is very high, so I question the rapid pace of such major decisions being made. I don’t judge but I definitely question them there.
In which direction
do you see the country heading? Is the dominant movement towards liberalisation
and democratisation or do you think the more traditional culture is starting to
claw its way back in?
else we all talk about all the time. I have a lot of conversations with people
from the US embassy and different NGOs, amongst others, about these trends and
socio-cultural dynamics. Everybody knows that this is a very small developing
interesting country that is fundamentally a democracy. Evidently, the
last elections and the non-violent transfer of power caused foreign government
to send some of their diplomatic representatives to congratulate the new Kyrgyz
President and his administration. I think the main challenge for Kyrgyzstan at
the moment is to stop expecting handouts, and I mean that from the top levels
all the way down. There also needs to be a greater sense of ownership, where
people commit to protecting what is theirs.
I feel Kyrgyzstan is going in the right direction but there’s going to be a lot of aches and pains along the way. I also think a lot of early education is needed – not just in schools but also at home, as that’s where all education starts. So I think in another generation or so it’s going to be a really interesting place in terms of social standards. I always tell young people that there is no reason why their country can’t become similar to Switzerland or South Korea. I always use the example of South Korea, a country with very limited natural resources that has progressed so much in the last few decades, mainly due to changes in education, attitude and policy to benefit its people. It is also important to note that the Kyrgyz government is secular and that they’re really against the growing Islamisation of the country, so there certainly is a big divide between the secular and Muslim populations, which goes all the way up to government. Kyrgyzstan has this same potential as any developed country, but it will take a while and it won’t be easy. Nothing good is easy, you need commitment at all levels.
Do you have any
final comments with respect to your work or Kyrgyz society?
Most people I
speak to outside of Kyrgyzstan haven’t heard of the country when I tell them
that I’ve been working there – many also hear Kurdistan, which is
obviously very different, so I always have to explain where it is and that it’s
not a dangerous place, that it’s the only democracy in its region, with free
and open internet and so on. In a way I’m not just trying to encourage Kyrgyz
people to look into themselves, to look around, to look beyond their
borders, but also people in the States and elsewhere, that Kyrgyzstan and
Central Asia are important and valuable parts of the world. Growing up in the US during the Cold War and
after the collapse of the Soviet Union we knew nothing about the region and
it’s definitely worth knowing about. It has a really interesting history, with
the silk road, nomadic cultures and its vibrant mix of ethnicities and
languages. I have met people there that did ethnographic studies and
anthropological research during the Soviet times and that found Central Asian
connections to Native American migrations. These connections actually exist
throughout Central Asia, East Yakutia and Eastern Siberia. You see these
connections in art, architecture, food, literature, and even in the textiles
and fabrics used in these regions. Sometimes I see textiles that look Peruvian,
Mexican or Navajo. There are many links that both sides are not very aware of
yet. Art is a very powerful tool for anyone looking to connect these
dots. it’s both a great opportunity and a privilege to be able to serve such a
Recent reports show the rates of child abandonment as a consequence of unwanted teenage pregnancies are alarmingly high in Kazakhstan. This problem along with other sexual health problems could be the result of a number of factors, including the lack of effective sexuality education programs in the school curriculum that would shape young people’s sexual behaviour and attitudes towards sexuality. The current review paper aims to analyse an article “Overcoming a Taboo: Normalizing Sexuality Education in Kazakhstan” presented as part of the Central Asia Program in January 2018.
The article is written in an accessible and comprehensive language showing the author’s knowledge of subject matter, however, there is no logical and coherent structure throughout the article. The sections such as the literature review, methodology, aims, results, discussions, conclusions and recommendations are not presented explicitly and not shown in a chronological order. Whilst the methods and reported results are comprehensive and clearly showcase the insufficient sexuality education problem facing teenagers, there was no mention of the interviews with the authors as another method used in the article, as well as the aims and limitations of the research were not clearly stated. The author compares Kazakhstan with other developing countries where the reproductive health situation is no better without mentioning in the Introduction section why these particular countries were selected for comparison. This undermines the value of the study, therefore, it would have been useful to select countries with the better reproductive health situation and draw on their experiences.
The entire article focuses on the factors explaining the acute sexual health issues affecting young people. However, there is a range of other factors that could result in the early sexual activity, such as the influence of environment, peers, exposure to sexually explicit materials in the mass media, yet were not addressed by the author (Nikken & Graaf 2013). The article well-describes the apparent neglect of the issue by the policy-makers as a result of adopting weak policies or implementing ineffective programs. It highlights the role of the local government in increasing public awareness of the issue, through either pilot sexuality projects, targeting primarily women, or lectures, and poor results that it delivered. The article identifies the underlying causes for these failures as stereotypes, stigma or shame attached to an earlier sexual activity. Such stigma prevents parents from openly talking about sexuality with their children and makes the policy-makers move away from an issue.
The author suggests the sexuality education as an alternative that is yet to be put to practice, and identifies the lack of information about sexual health in Kazakh language for the residents of certain regions as well as low-quality or inaccessible sexual health services and centres as other contributing factors influencing the sexual well-being and health of teenagers. Interview answers of various specialists and survey findings have been provided to support this information as well as the arguments made throughout the article. The author also suggested that a range of policy changes such as abortion legalization for 16-year-olds, public awareness campaigns, increasing the quality of sexual health services, making birth control means more accessible, etc. would reduce the problem. However, this set of measures in itself would not solve the problem completely, for example, legalisation of teen abortions is likely to have serious health consequences, such as morbidity and mortality (Gerdts et al. 2016).
Therefore, solutions should be properly developed with all the root causes of the problem in mind. As a way forward, sexuality education should not be perceived as something that encourages early sexual relationships, it should rather be regarded as a tool to increase the public’s knowledge of sexual health (Wight 2005). International community, policy-makers and public should also unite in their efforts to eliminate stigma and stereotypes by raising public awareness and shaping public opinion of an issue as well as draw the attention of policy-makers most resistant to changing the policies, ensure parental involvement in order to change the ways the parents raise their children through various information sources and media platforms. The more the parents are open to talk with their children about the sexuality and associated issues, the less likely are children to choose the wrong path or encounter its harmful consequences (Krebbekx 2018).
Gerdts, C., Dobkin, L., Foster, D. G., & Schwarz, E. B. (2016). Side effects, physical health consequences, and mortality associated with abortion and birth after an unwanted pregnancy. Women’s Health Issues, 26(1), 55 – 59.
Krebbekx, W. (2018). What else can sexuality education do? Logics and effects in classroom practices. Sexualities, 1363460718779967.
Nikken, P., & de Graaf, H. (2013). Reciprocal relationships between friends’ and parental mediation of adolescents’ media use and their sexual attitudes and behavior. Journal of youth and adolescence, 42(11), 1696 – 1707.
Wight, D. (2005). Sex Education: The Way Ahead. Available at: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/body-mind/health/health-studies/sex-educationthe-way-ahead Accessed: 15 February 2019.
For the latest interview in the Central Asia Forum’s Creative Bishkek series; meet Group 705; Kyrgyzstan’s answer to the Situationist International.
Marat Raiymkulov is a Kyrgyz artist who has been involved in Bishkek-based art collective Group 705 since its inception in 2005. Drawing on an absurdist philosophy, the group is primarily concerned with animation, drawing, and theatre. The group also organize a festival of experimental movie and video-art and children workshops. In recent years, the art group has spread its influence to other regions in Kyrgyzstan, while also starting to form international links.
Who are Group 705 and what is the objective behind the group?
Group 705 is part of a translocal network of Collaboratory Arts woven into the artistic scene of the Central Asian region. The group was formed in 2005 after the Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan and staged performances in the abandoned spaces of the city of Bishkek. In 2010, after the overthrow of President Bakiyev, Group 705 was engaged in a project of theatrical research on the relationship of power, society and art. So there were performances “Broken glasses”, “Lenin and Christ” and “King of Rats”. After 2014, we set ourselves the task of forming an alternative artistic platform, in which experiments are conducted on the themes of the language of art, analysis of modern social processes, discussion of artistic processes in the region, etc.
Today the group consists of 6 people. The group holds the festival of experimental cinema “Olgon-Khorhon”, children’s workshops, performances, holds the April Fools Competition under the supervision of the Studio “MUSEUM” Ulan Djaparov and holds small exhibitions.
What is the context of contemporary art in Bishkek?
What does Group 705 add to the city’s art scene?
Are you involved in other projects in the city and if so, which ones?
What do you see as contemporary culture’s role in Kyrgyzstan’s development?
In which ways is Bishkek changing? Are these changes primarily positive?
How do these changes link to the city’s art and creative scenes?
Is your art mainly influenced by local or international trends?
How do you see the interaction between young and slightly older artists in the city?
(Something’s going on here, but we’re not all too sure what it is, are we Mr. Jones? — Ed.)
What is Studio Museum and why did you create it?
The architectural studio Museum has a long history. In 2018, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the studio’s official status and the thirty-first anniversary of the creation of the group Museum. During this time, there have been several generations of ‘studioists’.
Natives of the studio are now working in various cities in the world – from Vladivostok to Cologne, and from Moscow to Auckland. The speciality of our studio is that, in addition to architectural projects, we are also engaged in projects in the field of contemporary art, as well as personal artistic practices. Another emphasis of our studio is seen through our wide network with other artists throughout Central Asia, as well as people from different fields (non-governmental organisations, businessmen, etc) who are interested in art.
How much has the contemporary
art scene in the city changed in the last few years and how have you
Modern and contemporary art as a phenomenon appeared in Kyrgyzstan relatively recently — a little more than 20 years ago. Originally, there was not a single art institution or official centre for contemporary art. Everything was done on personal enthusiasm. The museum and I, as the curator of many of the first exhibitions, were among the several initiators of this process.
Nowadays there are a couple of generations of young artists and art activists, with new ideas and forms of existence. Of course, there are some minor differences between groups – the generation of 35 to 40-year-olds still remember the Soviet era, the difficulties of the 90s and so on. The generation of 20 to 25-year-olds is already very different – they are more mobile, practical, not so tied to ‘old’ values.
Nonetheless, everything still depends on the personal drive of artists in Bishkek, insofar as the commercial art is itself out of reach, Bishkek’s modern art scene is still led by the artists’ personal interest and desire to put forward challenging ideas.
Do you participate in
other projects in the city, and if so, which ones?
Our studio Museum is quite specific, and has been since its creation. We mainly cooperate with good friends who have interesting ideas and we help them to design and visualise them their ideas architecturally. Ideally, we help them to realise what is not always possible. Often, this is the development of architectural concepts. In addition, sometimes we organise exhibitions of contemporary art.
We cooperate with young, but also more experienced, artists from all over Central Asia. A few years ago, I was the editor-in-chief of the Central Asian almanac Kurak (art and society). Recently, we began to cooperate with some NGOs. For example, we are developing and recommending on ‘setting models of a safe educational environment with the help of design in pilot schools of Kyrgyzstan’.
What is the role of
modern culture in the development of Kyrgyzstan?
The situation is interesting. Everyone has a different understanding of what modern culture is. Some appeals to some kind of archaic or purely national forms and wrap them in modern packaging, others try to relay to us ‘universal cultural values’ (but often this is the result of working off grants, or for marketing purposes), while again someone else is looking for/creating a culture at the junction between our real situation and specific and modern form.
Meanwhile, there is a large layer of religious culture in the background, which is becoming increasingly pronounced every year. Modern culture has only really taken form in the urban space, as the population of the city has greatly changed since the 1990s.
How important is
cooperation between creative people in the city?
I think that the concept of creative people is somewhat broad and vague, but the process of cooperation itself is interesting and this is almost our only opportunity to do something interesting here in our current situation. And if earlier there was some tightness in different social groups and strata, now there is a certain interest in interdisciplinary projects and cooperation.
How is Bishkek
changing? Are these changes primarily positive?
Bishkek is changing a lot; some people see this as positive, while others lack the same enthusiasm. Outwardly, Bishkek has turned into a larger city (high-rise buildings, shopping centres, offices, etc.). Some elements have also become more civilized, which is nice. However, in most cases, there is some negligence.
For example, there have some rather aggressive new developments in the city that do not consider the current context and primarily have money as a motivating factor. The problem does not only concern short fallings in town-planning policies, but also concerns a vanishing social consensus about common cultural values; especially with respect to prevailing urban environments and their connections with private initiatives.
What does it take to integrate an emerging market to the international circulation? The vast literature in the topic mentions several factors, but most of them agrees on one thing; local, independent investment experts with the peculiar knowledge of the region are key players in the process of market integration by connecting local efforts with international investments. Tengri Capital is one of these ambitious firms and also the main sponsor of Central Asia Forum 2019.
History and awards
The company was founded in 2004 in Almaty, Kazakhstan under the name of Visor Capital. It has changed name in
2016 along with ownership, followed by a large-scale strategic rebirth. The
company is one of the few internationally recognised firms of the region,
winning several awards, including
The best brokerage firm (2011, 2012/13, 2014)
Best investment bank in Kazakhstan (2013)
Best research team (2009, 2010).
Capital’s impressive client portfolio showcases partners from both the public
and private sector of the regional economy. According to the firm’s agenda,
they would like to further expand by strengthening the already extensively
international client base of investors, which would make Tengri Capital the
most prominent financial powerhouse of the region in securities trading,
investment banking, asset management and principal investing with international
dynamic sales team is comprised of
seasoned local and Western specialists, based in Almaty, London and Stockholm,
with in-depth knowledge of capital markets activity and particular expertise in
emerging markets and the CIS countries.
multicultural team of professionals with extensive knowledge of international markets
and local market specifics, having the unrivalled understanding of the local
business environment, and excellent relationships with relevant regulators and
The strongest corporate finance team in Kazakhstan
with proven track record on local and international market. Professionals
combining local knowledge and international experience who can originate and
execute a wide array of market transactions for local and international
recognized research team in Central Asia,
covering a growing range of industry sectors through industry specific analysts
and publishing a wide range of Research products. They go further than a
regular research provider by arranging a holistic view of factors determining
investment decisions such as local politics, economic landscape or taxation
professional asset management team
in Central Asia, applying the most modern investment analysis methods and
tactical asset allocation styles based on risk factor, and offering a wide
choice of portfolios, covering all major traditional asset classes, as well as
Firms like Tengri Capital has the
potential to kickstart Central Asia’s further development by providing
cutting-edge approach to investment in the region.
‘I saw Bishkek as an unfilled linen canvas; one that I wanted to paint on’.
Chihoon Jeong is a South Korean entrepreneur based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. His Korean chicken restaurant Chicken Star has quickly established itself as a creative hub in the city, with regular cultural events and local art on the walls (including works by Chihoon himself). Recently, Jeong also launched Flask, a coffee shop on the AUCA campus, which is playing a central role in the city’s coffee revolution. Both Chicken Star and Flask will be expanding to Almaty this year. Through his community-centred, artistically motivated approach to service and business, Jeong has left an indelible mark in his short time in the Kyrgyz capital.
What led to you becoming an entrepreneur Kyrgyzstan?
After completing my master’s in Boston and working as an artist for a short time, I was set to start a PhD in Manchester in philosophy and art. I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to be in the library for 5 years, however, so I decided to start travelling to help guide my decision. During this trip, I visited my uncle, who has a business in Kyrgyzstan. At this point I already felt that I had to do something here. When I first went to Bishkek in November 2014, I remember thinking how raw and organic the city was – for example, there were amazingly clean and fresh ingredients but only very few decent dining restaurants, so I realised that I wanted to create something new there.
While living in the US, I was already interested in direct and sustainable business – so I only went or restaurants with locally sourced ingredients or cafés with locally sourced milk. Despite liking sustainable business as a consumer, I never thought about being an entrepreneur. Nevertheless, I saw Bishkek as an unfilled linen canvas; one that I wanted to paint on. As a result, I went back to Korea and started preparations for my new business, after telling my parents that I wouldn’t be returning to England to start my PhD. I decided with my uncle to start a Korean fried chicken restaurant – it had started to become popular around the world. Additionally, Kyrgyzstan is virtually the perfect location for a chicken restaurant, as it used to be the Soviet Union’s principal chicken supplier. Furthermore, sunflower oil is cheaper than corn oil in Kyrgyzstan because there are sunflower seeds everywhere – and so I thought that there are perfect conditions for a Korean chicken restaurant in Bishkek.
How difficult was it to create Chicken Star and organise it in a personal way?
It was very difficult at the start. I didn’t have any local connections and the bureaucracy involved in setting up the business was tough too. There were also language difficulties as I spoke neither Kyrgyz nor Russian and so I had to rely on my first manager for translation. Indeed, apart from the manager, none of the 7 people I originally hired could speak much English, so he had to translate everything while I was training my staff and explaining everything to them.
It was a lot of fun though, as it was my first business and I hadn’t done anything like it before. I originally just thought ‘let’s do it’, which I think is the best approach, as I would have otherwise wasted lots of time learning about the legal system and how stuff works in the country, rather than learning by doing.
A key aspect for me from the very beginning was my view that it should be a people-centred business, with a strong focus on the team. I don’t want to give orders but rather expect everyone to be responsible and proactive. They should also not be afraid to make mistakes. From the beginning my goal was for my staff to grow and so I helped them to expand their skills – I brought in English teachers, for example.
I love the people, and especially the young people, in Kyrgyzstan – they are all super smart but sadly there is a lack of opportunities for them. I am a foreigner, and I could have just gone to ‘do business’ but I wanted to contribute something to society. As a result, I focussed a lot on building my team and a system, which required a lot of research before. I made sure to focus on teambuilding in the first few weeks after hiring my staff – we spent hours every day talking, cleaning, sharing food and working together – an important part of this for me was instilling the culture and philosophy that I wanted for the restaurant in my staff members. It was probably quite tough for them at the staff, as they weren’t used to this working culture, but most were really excited about it.
What is your vision for Chicken Star and Flask and how can you explain their success?
I have a clear vision for both. Chicken Star’s aim was to make the world more joyful than the day before – to keep growing and keep developing. Human conflict and suffering come from our relationships, but so do our happiness and joy, so it all depends how we handle our lives and relationships. Chicken Star is related to the Bishkek community so there’s a goal of building a good relationship with the city – whoever walks in should feel joy and should be treated well, even if they aren’t a client. This all forms my vision of building a sustainable community.
There are four aspects to Chicken Star:
Special – being special and creating a unique atmosphere and treating everyone in the same way – every individual is special and has their own beauty.
Tasty – maintaining the quality of the food, always controlling the taste and making sure the standard remains high.
Artsy – the space is artistic. In my opinion, art inspires society and can help develop neighbourhoods. I have exhibitions every month and support local artists, including through 6-month residency programmes. This is a win-win, as I can support their work and it can help make art more accessible, while also providing atmosphere and inspiration in the restaurant.
Responsible – without the community, we can’t exist and make business, so we have done multiple charity events. We’ve helped local orphanages and donate reusable food waste to a local community organisation, for example. We also try to recycle our trash and reuse as much as possible.
My aim for Flask is similar. Coffee is one of my passions – I love how much one cup can change based on where the beans come from and then how you roast and brew them. There are also so many different tastes – some are fruity, nutty, chocolatey etc. There’s also no alcohol and so you can share the joy of the amazing taste of coffee with everyone – and it isn’t that expensive. On top of this, I want to spark innovation. When I launched Flask I did a pitch to the AUCA saying that I don’t just want to be there to make a business but that I want to contribute to the AUCA community. We always create a new menu and only serve high quality coffee, tea and food products.
We have also started doing a lunch talk on Thursdays, where everyone is invited to come and share their stories. I believe that inspiration and innovation does not just come from famous entrepreneurs and scientists but from everyone and so I try to create a dialogue. This was perfect for the AUCA community, but I also want to expand to the city centre and other cities in Kyrgyzstan – I want to inspire people to tell their stories because everyone has their unique story and unique ability to surprise people.
This is why Chicken Star and Flask are different from other cafes and restaurants – I always wanted them to be unique and to give something to the community in an innovative way and with great service. I really encourage my team to be friends with our guests – naturally they have to give a service as our customers are paying but I want them to be friends as it creates a better atmosphere.
What is Bishkek’s potential and how can creative-minded people help the city achieve these goals?
Bishkek has a huge potential, especially due to its freedom of speech and creative freedoms – this is why there are lots of artists here and why many Central Asian artists come here for their shows. As Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have many natural resources to rely on, art, culture and start-ups should be responsible for driving development in the country. They certainly have lots of potential and people here often don’t realise that. Young people often tell me that they want to bring Starbucks here, but I then tell them that I wish they could create something like Starbucks here and then take it to the world.
It will probably take a long time for Bishkek to realise its potential, however. I also hope that development comes from within, rather than from big foreign companies that would take away opportunities from local people. I think it’s therefore important for people to see the future and not just the present, which will enable them to launch their own projects. People in Kyrgyzstan are thirsty, and I think it is important for them to use this energy for good here rather than leaving the country and not coming back. Of course, life and opportunities are currently better elsewhere but if we provide opportunities for young people in Kyrgyzstan, they will stay and will contribute themselves to developing the country. As a result, the country really needs to focus on the human resources it has and should pay attention to education and seek to strengthen certain areas, such as IT.
I think it’s really important for there to be a focus on exporting rather than importing in the country. Importing ‘cool’ things is temporary – instead, the focus should be on improving future potential. This can be done by boosting Kyrgyzstan’s current strengths and looking for domestic solutions to its gaps. Creative-minded people are crucial to any future development, but they need to make sure that they remain patient and have a clear outlook for the future. If they succeed in this, I think Kyrgyzstan will have a very positive future.
How important is the role of entrepreneurship in Bishkek?
There are a lot of young entrepreneurs in Kyrgyzstan, including many people that I admire and respect, and I feel that I can learn a lot from them. I’m a partner of a group called Pro Art, which was started by young entrepreneurs in Kyrgyzstan. They created the group to help young students develop their education and career, which in turn helps develop the country and community. They are all creative entrepreneurs and when I talk to them I don’t feel any difference to the US. I just wish there were more people like them, as they do more for the community than me. I just own a small restaurant but since I’m a foreigner I get more attention from the population, even though there are much more incredible entrepreneurs in Bishkek.
How do you ensure standards and quality in your projects?
I give my team many freedoms but I’m very picky, I guess you could call me a perfectionist. The most important things are finding the right people, then training them properly and then putting them in the right position and continuously giving them a mission and goals. It’s really important to give freedom and responsibility to your staff while asking them to be proactive. For this to work, you have to make sure you clearly explain what your philosophy and vision are, and you have to remind them regularly what they are.
Any final comments?
I remember something my father told me when I was a child, 34 years ago in South Korea. He explained that the situation in Korea was difficult but that they were working for the future and that their hard work would pay off in the next generation. This is also important for Kyrgyzstan’s stage of development. Working towards the future may be slow and you might not be able to taste glory in your lifetime, but you leave your legacy.
People are naturally the most important part of this process and so in my company I want all the partners and staff to be successful because their success is my success. If they tell me that they got offered a job from another company I tell them that I think that’s great. I may lose one of the best workers in my team, but it is what it is and I’m glad that they can progress. There’s also the motivation of being able to train new people which is fun and allows me to create the great relationships with my team and the community. If they really care about their people, community and future, businesses will solve problems creatively and people will react positively. A lot of people want to make money, which is understandable. However, if they shift their motivation towards improving their community, they are much more likely to solve problems, which is a much better outcome for everyone.
I hope there will be many more young entrepreneurs that are passionate about the future. I always tell my team to not focus on competitors and to only think about our guests, as they’re the people we meet every day. We don’t meet our competitors and a lot of our people are spending too much time on this. It is better to focus on our guests in the restaurant, as I want to create a beautiful experience for everyone that comes.
Although an external observer still tends to label the five major countries of Central Asia’s vast region (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) as ‘Post-Soviet’, it might just be the wrong prism to use.
The shift away from the ‘Post-Soviet’ and towards the long-hoped-for modernization, although not a rapid or uncontroversial one, is seen as a positive development by the countries’ younger generation.
one can deny the importance of Soviet economic developments and our shared
culture,’ — says a Kazakh student, who graduated this summer and is currently
an assistant at a local accounting company, — ‘and with my grandparents still
nostalgic about the Soviet times, all of the younger people are genuinely
Cultural and political battles between the Stans’ Soviet legacies, and the growing emphasis on national identities, have largely been won by the latter.
This has been seen in the demographic changes. As the Kazakh census shows, ‘the number of Russians is on the decline’ (Dr. Merlene Laruelle, 2018)[: the percentage of Russians in the total population has fallen from ’37% in 1989’ to ’20% in 209’. The majority of Kazakh citizens — the overwhelming ’95%’ — now identifies with their Pre-Soviet Muslim beliefs, moving away from Russians’ Christianity or Soviet atheism.
Tajikistan’s capital — Dushanbe -, city planners tear down the buildings that
once manifested Soviet presence in this trophy city.
In Uzbekistan, 25 years of Karimov’s dictatorship was characterized by attempts to present all Russian and Soviet in the most negative light, moving towards his own personal cult and nationalism. The new Mirziyoyev’s reforms aim to reshape the infrastructure and economy, try to polish Tashkent’s reputation and make the country more competitive for investment. The general political and economic trends show re-focusing on the future of the country and building on its Pre-Soviet culture, not the Soviet one.
sharing the common Soviet culture, the five Stans are very different. Tajikistan
and Uzbekistan’s land has seen one of the oldest civilizations, but Kazakh and
Kyrgyz cultures are that of nomads. Thus said, the evasion of the Soviet
heritage can, to a certain extent, allow the countries’ historical identities
to prosper and enrich the global understanding of their diverse cultural
values. How the Central Asian countries’ differences are becoming more and more
acknowledged is also emphasized in this article (on the EU’s strategy? The one
That Gera wrote?).
However, it is not uncontroversial to suggest that all of these developments are positive: infrastructure projects in Tajikistan, for instance, lack proper city planning and consideration for the important Soviet era’s influence on the region. One might question whether it’s right to completely wipe out such a huge and influential part of the region’s history as the Soviet era, which did determine people’s lives and cultural awareness.
Moreover, ‘Post-Soviet-ness’ is still present in a few places: Russian is the most spoken language in both Almaty and Bishkek, while Stans still look up at Russia for economic support (Kyrgyzstan, in particular). Stans have a very long way to go.
is important that countries change to allow progress, and culture itself iss
never a static concept — it is always in flux. With the Stans’ aspirations
often held down by the fact that their independence has been so short and
turbulent, this vast land of mountains, grasslands, and desert lying on
Eurasia’s crossroads, should attract more foreign interest as important players
with great potential.
More importantly, one might argue that Stans should no longer be defined by their ‘Post-Soviet-ness’, but by their distinct identities.
Creative Bishkek: Aida Sulova is the second interview of the series introducing the lives and work of talented and creative people from Bishkek, who are helping to establish Kyrgyzstan’s capital as the region’s cultural hub
Kyrgyz artist and curator, Aida Sulova, developed Bishkek’s leading art centre: Asanbay.
She has helped produce public art in the Kyrgyz capital and been involved in art education in the city. She is currently working in New York.
How did Asanbay originally get created and
what have the early challenges been?
I returned to Bishkek after finishing my undergraduate degree in New York and soon after I started working for Henry Myerberg, HMA2 Architects, who is the architect of the new campus of the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), in Bishkek. While at the AUCA, I was engaged in a public art programme with local curators and artists, in this time we produced a number of pieces and had an exhibition curated by Ulan Djaparov. This was how my engagement and collaboration with local artists started. Not long after this, I was approached by local entrepreneurs and investors in the development and restaurant business who showed me a 1800 square metre space, which they intended to use for a brewery business with a dance space. My proposal was to found a flexible multi-purpose place which can transform its space and resources for various events. The main activity of the Center are a strong art and education programs that are supported by side commercial activities such as a restaurant and event hall. This was the original idea for creation of multi-disciplinary Asanbay, which now has event spaces, a gallery and a Georgian restaurant.
The mission of the center is to be a flexible space for art, education, and entertainment programs for communities to enrich their cultural life. However, not everyone reacted enthusiastically after we opened Asanbay. Some people, for example, accused me of commercialising art by making it too accessible and by serving food and drink in an art space. After I explained to them that most museums in the world work like this, and have an additional entrance fee, they started to listen, so I think it’s mainly a cultural thing. People need to understand that due to the cost of production and rent, it is only possible to have free exhibitions alongside these commercial activities.
Asanbay is but one of Bishkek’s many exciting
new creative projects – do you think the culture of the city is changing and
where do you see the city heading?
There’s been a dramatic change in the last couple years and I see it as largely positive. There is a real thirst and strife for a better life and the civil community has become much stronger in recent years. There are now lots of people who are launching their own creative projects and the city’s start-up culture is improving. There is now even speculation that Bishkek is becoming the Berlin of Central Asia. My only concern here is that there is no central vision or mission, so I hope the younger generation will be able to provide this. I really hope that education and culture are seen as priorities – culture is so underestimated in my opinion and I think it is really important for people to understand that it is an effective tool to bring social changes.
I think collaborative initiatives are extremely vital – and not just from artists, but also from businesses, the government and the creative community. I’ve already seen the challenges involved in these initiatives at the Asanbay centre, as people often have conflicting interests and ideas. Nevertheless, as Asanbay shows, such collaborations can produce very positive results. I’m also happy that there are more initiatives like co-working spaces, urban talks, research labs, etc. and that people in culture are starting to bring international artists, curators, and art managers to the city. Cultural exchanges such as these are groundbreaking and so I think the city is heading in the right direction, all things considered.
How different is the process of being an artist in Central Asia compared to Europe or the United States?
The contemporary art scene is strong in Bishkek and I can see the thirst that artists in the scene possess. Artists there are constantly producing art and the fact that there isn’t funding and support isn’t really an obstacle for them. An artist in Kyrgyzstan is an artist, whereas an artist in the States is an artist, manager, curator, specialist and PR manager – as such, artists in New York have much more knowledge about the art market and they are more experienced in promoting themselves. I think this is about survival though – the context in Kyrgyzstan is different as artists there are less focused on personal promotion. It is probably more genuine in Kyrgyzstan and their message is stronger. I have tried to promote some Central Asian artists by making websites for them – not everyone understands the value in this though.
Do you think Central Asian artists will
soon start to have this broader defined set of attributes?
Surprisingly, it is the older generation in Central Asia that have started to get involved online and especially on Facebook. There are now artist groups like the Central Asian pavilion of contemporary art – this shows that there has been a shift. Younger artists have increasingly started to self-promote on Instagram also. This is of course largely about economics and it is generational. What makes Central Asian contemporary art different from the rest of the world is that artists in the region are not forced to come up with an issue because the issues are already all over – social issues, personal issues, gender issues. The artists there truly reflect openly and freely and this is channelled in their art. Most of the work I see at Art Basel and the Venice Biennale, for example, strikes me as lacking substance or a strong idea, which I don’t often find in Central Asian contemporary art.
Have you personally curated any Central
Asian artists to show them to a broader audience?
I have a foundation called “Kachan?” (translated from Kyrgyz as “When?”) and through this I managed to bring a few Central Asian artists to Washington a couple years ago. In Washington, there is little cultural knowledge of Kyrgyzstan and so I wanted to display the works of two provocative artists from the region – one was about the revolution and was called the ‘Kinematics of Protest’ by Eugene Boikov, while the other was called ‘Perestroika’ by Shailo Djekshenbaev . This was the start of my cultural exchange programme.
What other projects have you been working
A few years ago, I did quite a few urban art projects on the street – as I didn’t go to art school and am not trained I prefer these kinds of projects to more classical gallery pieces. One of my major projects was about how people react to surprises on the street and in the city environment, an idea which is known as hijacking the space. For example, I decorated trash cans and bus stops in Bishkek as a response to the city’s garbage problem.
I’m also currently working for an architectural firm, helping on projects in both Kazakhstan and in the States, which I have been doing for a little while. Recently, I have started working on a project to change the role of libraries in Bishkek, which I see as really important. The library has changed its role and has become more of a community centre. As a result, librarians can become more like curators and event organisers — people who provide more knowledge than just giving out books. I find this especially important as Bishkek’s libraries are empty currently, even though they could be used by new startups, for example, who currently rent expensive studios in order to be more like Silicon Valley startups. I’m convinced the role of libraries can be enlarged and they can be used to create a stronger and happier community.
Have your projects been particularly
inspired by any cities you’ve lived in or visited?
Of course my projects have been inspired by places I’ve visited but I do think that most of my ideas are fairly universal, rather than geographically bound. People will say that I copied the idea of Asanbay, but every large city has an art centre with activities. The concept behind Asanbay was naturally also influenced by experiences I have had in New York, Berlin and Tbilisi.
On a more
personal note, leaving to study in New York had a major impact on my outlook
and personality. I like the fact that I was able to express myself the way I
wanted there, which hadn’t been the case before. In that sense, I was able to
follow my own American dream. Nevertheless, I always felt that I wanted to
return to Bishkek, in order to help develop the city. The international
experiences I gathered before returning were crucial in knowing how to enact
positive changes there.
Any final comments about Bishkek’s future
and its creative scene?
When I talk about
my country, I don’t want to talk about it in black and white terms – it’s cool
and it’s doing well but sometimes it gets the wrong leaders – I am however
hopeful for the future and think we’ll see more positive changes soon.
Creative Bishkek: Maksat Sydykov is the first interview of the series introducing the lives and work of talented and creative people from Bishkek, who are helping to establish Kyrgyzstan’s capital as the region’s cultural hub
‘I am trying to bring the world here’ — Maksat Sydykov reflects on his role in the world of contemporary Kyrgyz ballet.
Maksat Sydykov is a Kyrgyz choreographer based in Bishkek, who has performed in ballets for many of the world’s leading companies. He is currently also the head of the Kyrgyz public foundation Pro Art, which supports art and culture in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan. While at Pro Art, Sydykov has been responsible for putting on several ambitious productions, such as Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev and The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.
Since Pro Art’s launch in 2016, the foundation has invited many of the world’s leading choreographers to the Kyrgyz capital. Due to financial limitations, many young Kyrgyz dancers are unable to travel, and so Sydykov set out to ‘bring the world to Kyrgyzstan’. After many years of experience studying and working in the UK at the English National Ballet and Europe, Sydykov decided to return to his native land to ensure that Kyrgyzstan’s next generation of artists would stamp their mark on the world map.
How was your experience studying in London and how has it affected your career and later creative projects?
Studying in London was a great experience. The city really opened my eyes to a lot of things, which was in large part to its being alive 24 hours a day. It is a fantastic cultural hub and I was fortunate to see a lot of great premieres, shows and museums. London showed me the size of the world and how much is going on and it definitely allowed me to become more creative and open as a result. This has definitely influenced my career and subsequent projects.
Thanks to my experience studying in London and working in Europe, I have been able to collaborate with many crazy and creative people, which has especially been the case in Germany. I was never afraid to try new things and try to meet new people and this has also been beneficial to me, through collaboration with many different people you can create something amazing.
This has inspired me with my aspiration for Bishkek. I hope that my city will turn into a small Central Asian Berlin. Berlin isn’t a beautiful city but the people make it special: they provide it its spirit and atmosphere and are the reason why so many people have fallen in love with the city. A similar phenomenon exists in Barcelona and Portugal, where artists have helped create creative hubs. Hopefully one day more people will start to creative small creative spaces in Bishkek and will spark a creative shift in the city — this is why I believe artists and creatives are so important to cities.
What do you
see as the fundamental differences in creative education in Central Asia and
Europe and what do you see as Kyrgyzstan’s potential in this area?
The English system is very open and teachers in the UK tend to give their pupils maximum freedom to experiment. The focus is on guiding pupils while leaving them their freedom. In Kyrgyzstan, there is an older system where a teacher tells you what to do and guides you within certain rules, which leaves pupils with less freedom. One of my motivations in returning to Kyrgyzstan was to try to encourage young dancers to go beyond this strict system and to try something new.
I want to bring
choreographers to the country that can get young artists to experience a
different approach. This has been slightly tricky at times as some of the young
dancers are very young — only 16 or 17 — and are often, as is common in
Kyrgyzstan, somewhat shy and conservative. The artists are very talented and
driven, however, and thanks to the internet and the region’s
internationalisation, people in the region have started to become a bit more
open, as they can see what’s going on in other countries.
I do however think that Kyrgyz young people could do with more international experiences and a more open mindset. Sadly, due to the region’s economic situation this is not possible as many people cannot afford to travel. As a result, I am trying to bring the world here.
Will Pro Art
continue to focus on Bishkek or are you looking to expand into other areas?
We will just stay
in Bishkek for now. It is a young foundation and so we should focus on turning
it into a success here for now. If the programme goes well, I think we can and
should look into expanding, though. I would like to move it into Uzbekistan,
for example, which has an even more conservative culture than here. The focus
for now is on Bishkek though.
How do you
fund the foundation?
I stage ballets in different parts of the world and get paid for them. I then use this money to help fund the projects here. I also sometimes get support from friends. Sadly, supporting the arts is not so common in Central Asia, unlike in the United States or Europe, and so it can be a struggle sometimes, but we get by.
What success has the foundation had so far?
We have staged a
lot of productions already and have always used dancers from the big ballet
school in Bishkek, which has around 400 students. We always try to work with
people that want to be artists in the future, to help further their careers and
provide financial support. We have staged some more classic productions, like
Romeo and Juliet and the Nutcracker, as well as more contemporary pieces. Sadly
we have had difficulties raising money for the project at times, such as when
our ambitious charity gala, for which we invited 14 of the world’s best
dancers, was unable to raise any money for future productions. The Swiss
embassy really helped a few years ago and thanks to their funding we were able
to fund future productions.
In general, is there a lot of support for what you are doing?
I think so, yes.
People like what we are doing but we can’t always ask supporters for money and
so we need to work towards becoming self-sustainable. That’s why we always try
to reinvest the money we get from ticket sales into new productions. It will
take a few years for major productions to be financially viable and so I want
Pro Art to work and I want it to be sustainable. I want more financial support
for the project but it is working well so far.
How much of an
impact has your strategy of ‘bringing the world to Bishkek’ had?
It has been
crucial. I am currently the only modern choreographer in the city and modern
dance does not really exist in Kyrgyzstan. I am also the only Kyrgyz, as far as
I’m aware, that has worked in big international companies, such as the Deutsche
Oper, and so nobody else has the required know-how here. It is thus also
difficult to form local partnerships with other groups, and so most of our
local collaborations have been with local designers, costume makers and
composers, rather than other dance groups.
It was a slight shock for the dancers, as well as the audience, when I started to introduce contemporary dance into the repertoire. In the Soviet Union, the priority was always classical ballet and there was never any experimental dance, a legacy that has carried on. As a result, it was a challenge for dancers initially, as you have to move differently in modern and contemporary dance. A good case in point was when I invited choreographers from New York, Switzerland and Germany for a performance. Their creativity and freedom in the studio shocked the dancers initially. The dancers were taught to listen to the music and to use objects to really go into the piece — they were all trained dancers but had never done anything comparable. The effect was remarkable, especially mentally. Their level improved by 200% after and it has also enabled them to become better classical dancers, funnily enough.
Do you know many other people that have spent many years abroad that have then gone back to launch their own projects in Bishkek?
unfortunately. Most people that leave Kyrgyzstan want to stay abroad and don’t
want to return. I do love meeting the rare exceptions, however. If you return
to Kyrgyzstan you tend to do so because of passion rather than money, due to
the country’s tricky financial situation.
My parents always ask me why I come back for example. I had a good salary and the freedom to travel everywhere and I worked hard for many years to get to that level. I didn’t come back to Kyrgyzstan for the money but rather to do something good for my country and the country of my ancestors. I want to help it develop. I want my children to be in a prosperous, nice, friendly and open country and I feel that it is partly my responsibility to create this future Kyrgyzstan for the next generation and I wish other Kyrgyz would think about it in the same way.
Is there a
brain drain away from Kyrgyzstan? How could this situation be improved?
Kyrgyzstan there is not an equivalent of the Kazakh Bolashak programme, where
students receive funding to study abroad on the condition that they return to
the country for five years after. This could be a good programme for my country
also — if you want prosperous, creative and driven youth they should explore
the world and learn abroad and then return and share this information with
Luckily I do feel
that the country is becoming more international — more people have started to
come and the country is becoming more open. The youth here is hungry, people
want to learn and become part of the global society. This is in large part thanks
to the internet — they want to see what the world is like in other countries
and are now also global citizens and want to see what happens elsewhere.
There is also always a difference between urban and rural areas and so I want Pro Art to start to expand into rural areas, as they are often neglected. Then youth can also see what happens in cities. In general, I have a positive outlook for youth in the country though. I work a lot with them and have noticed that they don’t need a lot and are happy — I just think that they need to choose a good profession and focus their attention on this.
How easy is it
to run creative projects in Bishkek?
I don’t see many barriers. There is a very open youth culture, young people just need to get involved in projects — once they get involved in projects they can follow their own dream. This approach has been successful at Chicken Star, a local Bishkek restaurant, where the youth are encouraged to launch their own projects after Chihoon, the owner, has trained them. This is why he is so popular, as he helps a lot of people develop through a kind of employee educational programme. People in Central Asia need an environment like Chihoon’s.
*answers have been lightly edited for readability