In Conversation with Polina Ivanova and Mehdi Hesamizadeh

I met his­tor­i­an Polina Ivan­ova and artist Mehdi Hes­am­iz­a­deh in Yerevan, Armenia in Janu­ary 2020 when I trav­elled there to par­ti­cip­ate in Mejl­is Institute’s Per­sian Lan­guage and Cinema Winter Pro­gramme. Mejl­is Insti­tute was launched by Polina and Mehdi in 2019 as a non-profit organ­isa­tion with the aim to bring to life the pre­mod­ern mean­ing of the word ‘mejl­is’ — a social gath­er­ing for the pur­pose of recit­ing and dis­cuss­ing poetry, play­ing music and enjoy­ing good com­pany. In the spir­it of ‘mejl­is’ the prin­cip­al mis­sion of the Insti­tute is to provide a plat­form for such gath­er­ings, fos­ter­ing learn­ing through edu­ca­tion pro­grammes. The Insti­tute holds sum­mer and winter schools for an intens­ive study of lan­guages, such as Armeni­an, Per­sian, Turk­ish, Kur­d­ish and oth­ers, reg­u­lar lan­guage courses through­out the year, lec­ture series, work­shops, poetry read­ings, music per­form­ances, exhib­i­tions, book present­a­tions and film screen­ings. With its loc­a­tion in Yerevan, Mejl­is Insti­tute cel­eb­rates the his­tor­ic­al pos­i­tion of Armenia as a con­tact zone between dif­fer­ent cul­tures and lan­guages, and thus, aims to strengthen the role of Yerevan as a hub of inter­na­tion­al cooper­a­tion.

Entangled in the New Year’s cel­eb­ra­tions, my arrival to Yerevan on Janu­ary 1, just as the pur­pose of my trip, was mis­un­der­stood by almost every­one. My Airb­nb host has nev­er heard of any insti­tute in his his­tor­ic­al res­id­en­tial neigh­bour­hood of Aygest­an. He was also con­vinced that no one would show up the first day of classes, sched­uled at 9.00am on Janu­ary 2, because people would still be cel­eb­rat­ing New Year. Des­pite the forces of the New Year cel­eb­ra­tions, the course did com­mence as planned. Reflect­ing back, I under­stand that the scru­pu­lous nature of the course is an exten­sion of the aca­dem­ic rig­or pri­or­it­ised at Mejl­is Insti­tute. Per­son­ally, my aca­dem­ic exper­i­ence at Mejl­is Insti­tute was excel­lent: I achieved a tre­mend­ous pro­gress in my lan­guage skills in Per­sian and was intro­duced to unique works of Per­sian cine­ma­to­graphy. As a way of cel­eb­rat­ing the impress­ive begin­nings of Mejl­is Insti­tute, it is my pleas­ure to present the inter­view with Polina Ivan­ova and Mehdi Hes­am­iz­a­deh.

The neigh­bour­hood of Aygest­an, Yerevan, Armenia.

How did you come up with the idea to found Mejl­is Insti­tute?

Polina: There is a longer story, and there is a short­er story. The longer story may not be inter­est­ing for a wider audi­ence, because that is more of a per­son­al story. We were gath­er­ing with friends to read poetry for inform­al poetry nights. Then we thought it would be great to actu­ally form­al­ise it, so that we can invite more people and make it into a kind of insti­tu­tion that would con­tin­ue itself and do oth­er sorts of things, not just read­ing poetry for fun, but doing all kinds of cul­tur­al pro­grammes. So, this is kind of the long pre-story to the insti­tute, and it was two years ago.

Was the poetry read­ing in Per­sian or in mul­tiple lan­guages?

Polina: Actu­ally, we began with Greek and Romani­an poetry, and it was dur­ing the night devoted Lorca’s poetry that we decided to do some­thing lar­ger out of these gath­er­ings, which were around 10 – 15 people. Then, we began think­ing of Armenia and its place. This is deeply inter­twined with our per­son­al stor­ies. Intel­lec­tu­ally speak­ing, I came to Armenia from Anato­lia, because I was study­ing the Otto­man his­tory, and then, medi­ev­al Anato­li­an his­tory. Slowly, I became inter­ested in Armeni­an cul­ture as part of the oth­er cul­tures of the Middle East. Thus, I trav­elled to Armenia to learn Armeni­an lan­guage with aware­ness that the coun­try rep­res­ents cul­tures of the broad­er Middle East.

Mehdi: I came here because of a dif­fer­ent reas­on, but it is also a very per­son­al story. I came here from Iran as a musi­cian to work with the loc­al musi­cians. It is not acci­dent­al that I chose Armenia, because this coun­try is a cross­ing point for people from dif­fer­ent places: Syr­ia, Egypt, Rus­sia, Azerbaijan and etc. Work­ing in music, I trav­elled to dif­fer­ent places, but here in Armenia I feel at home. It is a small coun­try, but it is a point of inter­sec­tion of the lar­ger world sur­round­ing it.

Polina: Armenia is not unique in this; these kinds of con­nec­tions are an integ­ral part of any human soci­ety. No cul­ture is pure or isol­ated. It is always an amal­gam. Armenia is not dif­fer­ent. What makes Armenia in our eye spe­cial is that it is a hub geo­graph­ic­ally speak­ing: Iran is here; Anato­lia is here; Meso­pot­amia, and obvi­ously the Cau­cas­us.

The neigh­bour­hood of Aygest­an, Yerevan, Armenia.

Did you have any reser­va­tions about choos­ing Armenia?

There have been some prac­tic­al con­cerns. Armenia is still very much deal­ing with the leg­acy of the 20th-cen­tury nation­al­ism, which is not past and is still with us now. Armeni­an cul­ture remains still a very nation­al­ist­ic cul­ture. And for a good and bad reas­ons. Partly this has to do with the Armeni­an state hav­ing been built after the gen­o­cide, when cel­eb­rat­ing any­thing nation­al was a cel­eb­ra­tion of sur­viv­al. Yet, des­pite this envir­on­ment, the edu­ca­tion that chil­dren get in schools, the kind of his­tory that is being taught here, Armenia has quite an open soci­ety.

Doing what we are doing here, although it is in some ways may be a counter-main­stream under­stand­ing of his­tory and cul­ture, we do not feel threatened; we have not had any neg­at­ive reac­tions from any­one we spoke with. We think that people here are curi­ous. For example, people passing on the street and see­ing the name of our organ­isa­tion ‘Mejl­is’ will say: ‘Isn’t “Mejl­is” the name for the nation­al assembly of the Crimean Tatars?’

They will be puzzled more but they will not be neces­sar­ily aggress­ive. They will say: ‘This sounds like some­thing Muslim.’ We have not until today seen any aggres­sion. So, when think­ing of the ori­gin­al con­cep­tion, we con­sidered Armenia to be a good choice, where stu­dents from dif­fer­ent coun­tries can come togeth­er. It is a safe and wel­com­ing place.

Mehdi:  After the Soviet peri­od, it was dif­fi­cult to find an insti­tute, and place, where you can gath­er and have a simple intel­lec­tu­al con­ver­sa­tion. And that was our ini­tial con­cern. We know we can go to a dif­fer­ent place, but here, we feel and see the pos­it­ive feed­back.

Why and how did you devel­op the format of the Insti­tute?

Polina: We chose the format that we did quite con­sciously. At one point, we were think­ing of col­lab­or­at­ing with uni­ver­sity. Then we thought that we wanted to go a dif­fer­ent way. We decided to estab­lish it as a non-profit, basic­ally an NGO, in order to be free with our format. What does this mean? There was always this ques­tion mark: is this aca­dem­ic or is this not aca­dem­ic? Well, we then thought, we do not have to neces­sar­ily put ourselves into one frame. We can take from aca­demia what we like — being rig­or­ous, hav­ing high stand­ards, hav­ing high demands — but also avoid some things we find counter-pro­duct­ive in terms of intel­lec­tu­al life and com­munity, such as some aspects of com­pet­i­tion and hier­archy. We wanted it to be as much as pos­sible an open place, open to all kinds of stu­dents, not neces­sar­ily aca­dem­ics, but also to those who have genu­ine interest in learn­ing, so that we can have people of dif­fer­ent levels and from dif­fer­ent places come togeth­er — that is our primary con­cerns. In terms of the format, we did not want to do some­thing just aca­dem­ic. We wanted to be more interest ori­ented. Let’s say if we want to do some kind of sum­mer school or sea­son­al school…Mehdi is work­ing on cine­ma­to­graphy for a work­shop for filmmakers…why not? We can do it here, because it speaks to our goal of bring­ing people togeth­er, work­ing togeth­er on inter­est­ing top­ics. If we want to do a work­shop, like the his­tory of the mul­ti­cul­tur­al city, which is invis­ible today, we can do it work­ing with stu­dents, archi­tects, ama­teur his­tor­i­ans. We are not put­ting ourselves into some kind of chains of how things should be done in an aca­dem­ic insti­tu­tion.

Yerevan is cos­mo­pol­it­an. Here is the land of the Armeni­an people, but we want to make an import­ant point about Armeni­an people: his­tor­ic­ally, Armeni­ans are known to have been always mul­ti­lin­gual, with one foot in one cul­ture and the oth­er foot in anoth­er cul­ture, serving as trans­lat­ors. Hence, you have Armeni­ans speak­ing Armeni­an and Per­sian, Rus­si­an, Turk­ish, French and you can con­tin­ue this infin­itely. We want to cel­eb­rate the role of Armenia as a hub, Armenia as cross­roads, Armeni­ans as trans­lat­ors.

The Blue Mosque in Yerevan, Armenia.

How did you move from the con­cep­tu­al idea of the Insti­tute into its estab­lish­ment?

Mehdi: We liked the area of Aygest­an, because it is part of the old Yerevan and it is close enough to the centre but secluded enough as well. We were look­ing for a house and this one has a garden, and as an Ira­ni­an I can tell you that this is very import­ant for us. As meta­phors in Per­sian poetry have it, a garden is the part of the house, where you can be the garden­er of you soul. When we found this house, it was an aban­doned, ruined place.

Polina: This was six-months of hard work repair­ing the house with our own hands and those of our friends. We are still in the pro­cess of renov­at­ing oth­er parts of the house, but we made it ready for the sum­mer school in 2019. At the same time, we were man­aging the pro­gram, writ­ing emails to uni­ver­sit­ies and etc. to invite lec­tur­ers. It was all hap­pen­ing at once.

Any thoughts for the future?

In terms of fund­ing the pro­gramme, we are a non-profit, we just need money to pay the run­ning expenses and pay the salar­ies, and we would like to make it free for all par­ti­cipants. We would like this pro­gramme to be pos­sible not only for inter­na­tion­al stu­dents who have uni­ver­sity sup­port, but also for Armeni­an stu­dent, and spe­cially the Ira­ni­an stu­dents, for whom it is extremely dif­fi­cult to go abroad. They can come to Armenia, they don’t have a visa prob­lem, but accom­mod­a­tion in Armenia, even if it is reas­on­ably priced, is too expens­ive for them. Our goal is to be able to offer a simple, shared accom­mod­a­tion and a tuition-free study for dif­fer­ent kinds of stu­dents. Now we do charge tuition to cov­er the expenses of the pro­gramme, but it is a very open policy. We ask stu­dents, who come from uni­ver­sit­ies, who can sup­port them­selves or who oth­er­wise have resources, to pay tuition to sup­port us and make it pos­sible. But for stu­dent who do not have the resources we offer tuition waivers, because we will nev­er say no to any­one who would like to come. It is a good work­ing solu­tion for now, but of course in the future we hope we can have more sus­tain­able fund­ing.

Steps lead­ing to the Mesrop Mashtots Insti­tute of Ancient Manu­scripts, Yerevan, Armenia.

We are open to expand­ing in vari­ous ways. The sum­mer course has a ‘con­nec­ted his­tor­ies’ com­pon­ent to it, and we like that our group con­sists of stu­dents learn­ing Per­sian, Turk­ish and Armeni­an, and how they inter­act with each oth­er and learn in the con­text of these oth­er lan­guages being taught next door, and how they have lec­tures on con­nec­ted his­tor­ies. We hope to add Kur­d­ish to our list of lan­guages, and we would be happy to accom­mod­ate lar­ger ver­sions of this pro­gramme. This was a pilot pro­ject and we can do a month-long course on Per­sian and Per­sian cinema, or a poetry course. One of our policies is that we try to under­stand what the needs of the stu­dents are and then try to shape our pro­grammes in such a way that those needs are met.

What are your reflec­tions on the past pro­grammes you held? What worked? What did not work?

In the sum­mer we admit­ted 15 stu­dents, but three of them can­celled, so we ended up hav­ing 12 stu­dents. I would not say that everything worked, but one thing that worked very well was the idea of con­nec­ted lan­guages and his­tor­ies. We had stu­dents from Tur­key learn­ing Armeni­an and an Armeni­an stu­dent learn­ing Turk­ish, and Turk­ish stu­dents learn­ing Per­sian, mul­tiple lin­guist­ic over­laps, and when we had our cof­fee break in the garden, we would speak all of these lan­guages togeth­er and that was very sweet. This meant that stu­dents had an extra chance to prac­tice with a nat­ive speak­er and rein­force what they learned in class. That really worked very well, and we had a very inter­est­ing series of lec­tures and explored the notion of con­nec­ted his­tor­ies from archae­ology, ancient his­tory, music, medi­ev­al lit­er­at­ure. We will repeat the course, but it will nev­er be the same because we would invite dif­fer­ent lec­tur­ers, and of course, stu­dents would be dif­fer­ent, so there would be dif­fer­ent interests and focuses. It will be the same frame­work, but it will take a dif­fer­ent shape every time.

In terms of some­thing that did not work, well, I wish that our stu­dents from Iran could come. We had a few applic­ants from Iran, whom we wanted to invite, but most of them even on tuition waiver, could not come here. Even though they could come here by bus, accom­mod­a­tion here is really expens­ive for them, and even life, which does not seem expens­ive for someone from Europe is expens­ive for Ira­ni­an stu­dents. For us this is really the miss­ing link. We wish for Ira­ni­an stu­dents, teach­ers, schol­ars to come here and we hope we can find the resources to make it pos­sible. With loc­al stu­dents from Armenia, we would like to make ourselves more known here as an open insti­tu­tion, so that loc­al stu­dents would join us. These are our goals for this year and years to come.

Mejl­is Insti­tute is hold­ing a sum­mer pro­gramme between July 13 – August 14, 2020, which will con­sist of three par­al­lel lan­guage courses – Armeni­an, Per­sian and Turk­ish – and a series of sem­inars devoted to top­ics in con­nec­ted his­tor­ies of Armenia, Iran and Anato­lia.  I encour­age all inter­ested stu­dents to check out Mejl­is’ web­site. I thank Polina, Mehdi and Maryam (our Per­sian instruct­or) for all of their work. I per­son­ally had an amaz­ing time and I look for­ward to par­ti­cip­at­ing in Mejl­is in one capa­city or anoth­er soon.

Kushtdepdi of the Turkmen and Its Origins

Turk­men nation­al dance Kush­de­p­di

I heard singing with the dis­tinct “hu hu” breath­ing pat­tern, and instantly, a small circle of people gently formed in the middle of the crowd in the court­yard of the groom’s house. The people in the circle — chil­dren and adults — danced around the circle stamp­ing their right foot on the ground, and after­wards, jump­ing up and throw­ing both arms in the air. There was no bound­ary between the spec­tat­ors of the dance and its par­ti­cip­at­ors: people seam­lessly moved in and out of the circle. The energy cre­ated by the stamps, the claps and the singing was aston­ish­ing. These are my memor­ies of the Turk­men dance kusht­de­p­di.

Kusht­de­p­di is a Turk­men folk dance prac­ticed at wed­dings by the mem­bers of the cel­eb­rat­ing com­munity and is accom­pan­ied by spe­cial songs called ghazal or kusht­depme. To under­stand the vari­ous ways in which kusht­de­p­di is prac­ticed by the Turk­men we must dis­tin­guish between the con­cepts of ‘a dance in the field’ and ‘ethno iden­tity dance’, codi­fied by Anthony Shay — a schol­ar spe­cial­iz­ing in dances from East­ern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Cent­ral Asia. Accord­ing to Shay, the term ‘dance in the field’ rep­res­ents dances that form an organ­ic part of loc­al com­mun­al life while the term ‘ethno iden­tity dance’ refers to dances that are cho­reo­graphed or pre­pared for the stage.

The ori­gins of kusht­de­p­di in the field are ambigu­ous. There is strong evid­ence to sug­gest that until the 1970s, the dance was prac­ticed widely by the Yomut Turk­men on the east­ern coast of the Caspi­an Sea. We also know that in the fol­low­ing years, the dance spread in Turk­menistan both as a com­mun­al cel­eb­rat­ory dance and as a staged dance.[1] In terms of the ori­gins of the dance, the most prom­in­ent nar­rat­ive is advanced by Turk­men schol­ars. This nar­rat­ive sug­gests that the dance comes from dhikr heal­ing ritu­al asso­ci­ated with the Sufi mys­tic­al Islam. The uni­form­ity of the dis­cus­sions by these schol­ars cre­ates an impres­sion that the dance is an ‘inven­ted tra­di­tion’.[2] This in its turn rouses sus­pi­cion that their hypo­thes­is might in fact be a product of post-Soviet nation-build­ing efforts. In order to assess the valid­ity of this hypo­thes­is, the aim of the rest of this art­icle is to com­pare the ele­ments of the Sufi rite of afflic­tion prac­ticed among the Turk­men and kusht­de­p­di in the field. What we find in the end is the great like­li­hood of the ori­gins of kusht­de­p­di to lie in a Sufi heal­ing ritu­al.

Turk­men folk­lor­ists claim that kusht­de­p­di comes from a heal­ing rite. For example, Geldi­yev writes that kusht­de­p­di emerges on the basis of dhikr. Goch­muradov takes it even fur­ther to state, that indeed, dhikr itself is a form of folk art.[3] Addi­tion­ally, Otdi­yev and Atdayeva explain that kusht­de­p­di comes from porhan­chylyk, i.e.shamanic prac­tices.[4] Dhikr is ‘ori­gin­ally a Qur’anic word, com­mand­ing “remem­brance of God”, and an act of devo­tion dur­ing and after pray­er’. [5] Here, it is import­ant to note that while dhikr is strictly an Islam­ic notion, neither of the afore­men­tioned schol­ars attrib­ute dhikr to Sufism, and in fact, some assign kusht­de­p­di to be an exten­sion of sham­an­ism. Dev­in Deweese explains that mis­la­beling Sufi ele­ments as sham­an­ist­ic was a com­mon prac­tice by Soviet aca­dem­ics as a res­ult of the government’s hos­til­ity towards Sufis and their insti­tu­tions — poten­tial sources of oppos­i­tion.[6] This makes it clear why the Turk­men schol­ars, who fol­low the tra­ject­ory set by Soviet aca­dem­ics, nev­er expli­citly pin­point Sufism when refer­ring to dhikr and for this inquiry we must con­sider dhikr in the con­text of Sufism.

While the Turk­men schol­ars offer a hypo­thes­is on the ori­gin of kusht­de­p­di, their dis­cus­sions seem spec­u­lat­ive as they lack any nuanced explan­a­tion of the trans­form­a­tion of a reli­gious ritu­al into a codi­fied dance. Yet, it is cru­cial to recog­nize that such ana­lys­is is dif­fi­cult to accom­plish, because there is ‘no doc­u­mented his­tory of dance pri­or to the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury’ on the ter­rit­ory of present-day Turk­menistan.[7]Due to this lim­it­a­tion, the only viable meth­od of assess­ing the hypo­thes­is lies in ana­lyz­ing the trans­form­a­tion of the Sufi rite of afflic­tion into kusht­de­p­di by com­par­ing the two.

One of the most pro­found points of com­par­is­on of the Sufi heal­ing ritu­al and kusht­de­p­di is their vocal and phys­ic­al move­ment com­pon­ents. Dev­in Deweese ana­lyzes two eth­no­graph­ic stud­ies of the Turk­men which provide a primary source basis for the com­par­is­on: a study of a heal­ing ritu­al by Iomud Khan pub­lished in 1924 and a study of a wed­ding dance by Annaklychev pub­lished in 1960.

A vocal ele­ment dis­cern­ible both in the Sufi rite and kusht­de­p­di is the vocal inhal­ing and exhal­ing. Deweese illus­trates the vocal ele­ment of a heal­ing ritu­al described by Iomud Khan: ‘the ishan begns to utter “hu, hu”, and the people sit­ting around the tent join in; if they slack­en their cries, the ishan says “hu” again, and after awhile [sic] he says “Alla” and the people cease shout­ing and rest’.[8] Sim­il­arly, the phrase “hu, hu[9] was part of a wed­ding dance described by Annaklychev in 1960 and it is part of kusht­de­p­di  to this day. In fact, all of the kusht­de­p­di tech­niques which I wit­nessed in per­son or on video mater­i­als involve the vocal inhal­ing and exhal­ing.

The nature of Sufism in Cent­ral Asia explains the vocal cor­rel­a­tion between the heal­ing ritu­al and kusht­de­p­di. The most pre­val­ent Sufi order among the Turkic-speak­ing nomads was the Yasavi order, foun­ded by Ahmad Yasavi. A dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of the Yasavi order is the jahariya dhikr, or dhikr ‘prac­ticed aloud’. [10] Spen­cer J. Trim­ing­ham explains that Ahmad Yasavi ‘is said to have intro­duced the “rasp­ing saw” dhikr, a tra­di­tion which no doubt attests to its Cent­ral Asi­an ori­gin. For this the ha is expired very deeply, then hi aspired as low as pos­sible; and it sounds much like saw­ing’.[11] Both of the afore­men­tioned eth­no­graph­ic works refer to this ‘rasp­ing saw’ sounds. Indeed, jahariya dhikr ‘came to be adop­ted as a part of Turk­men heal­ing rituals in com­munit­ies in which saints of the Yasavi tra­di­tion were quite prom­in­ent’ [12] and ‘as an enter­tain­ing genre for wed­ding and house-warm­ing cere­mon­ies’.[13] While the verses of kusht­depmel­er adopt poetry of prom­in­ent Cent­ral Asi­an Sufis, such as Alish­er Navoyi, and repeatedly refer to the name of Sufi fig­ures, such as Ahmad Yasavi and Baha’ ad-Din Naqsh­bandi,[14] it is the ‘rasp­ing saw’ sounds present in both the Sufi ritu­al of afflic­tion and kusht­de­p­di that make their cor­rel­a­tion irre­fut­able.

Syr Darya oblast. City of Turkest­an. Gen­er­al view of Sul­tan Akhmed Yas­savi’s mauso­leum from the south­ern side. Syr Darya oblast. City of Turkest­an. Gen­er­al view of Sul­tan Akhmed Yas­savi’s mauso­leum from the south­ern side.

Com­par­is­on of the phys­ic­al move­ments of the heal­ing rite and the dance also unearths their cor­rel­a­tion. Accord­ing to the ana­lys­is of Iomud Khan’s descrip­tion of the heal­ing ritu­al, ‘the sick per­son is always seated in the cen­ter of the tent, with the oth­er people sit­ting in a circle around him’[15] and after the ‘rasp­ing saw’ chant­ing ‘at first they bow as they go, and then they begin to stamp their feet on the floor and jump in time to the singing’.[16] Annaklychev’s obser­va­tions of the wed­ding dance are sim­il­ar in that ‘sev­er­al people form a circle; one of them begins singing the “ghazal”, while the oth­ers begin the dance, stamp­ing their feet and jump­ing in time to the song.”[17] Kusht­de­p­di today is sim­il­arly prac­ticed in a circle while feet stamp­ing, bend­ing at the waist and jump­ing are all fun­da­ment­al cho­reo­graph­ic ele­ments of the dance. The com­mon move­ments prac­ticed by people dur­ing the rite of afflic­tion and the dance point to the con­nec­tion between the two. Iomud Khan’s obser­va­tion that dhikr which began to be prac­ticed for enter­tain­ment only fur­ther under­scores this con­nec­tion.[18] Fur­ther­more, the oral his­tory in the Turk­men com­munity, espe­cially among the Yomut, con­firms that kusht­de­p­di was once a heal­ing ritu­al.[19]

With the cor­rel­a­tion between the Sufi rite of afflic­tion and kusht­de­p­di estab­lished, the ques­tion remains: why did the ritu­al trans­form into a codi­fied dance? One pos­sible answer is that the young­er mem­bers of the com­munity began imit­at­ing the sham­ans for their enter­tain­ment.[20] Anoth­er explan­a­tion — per­haps a his­tor­ic­ally sound one — lies in the hos­til­ity of the Soviet gov­ern­ment towards ‘unof­fi­cial’ Islam, which included ‘ances­tral wor­ship, shrine ven­er­a­tion, pil­grim­age to shrines, pop­u­lar heal­ing, pray­er at unof­fi­cial mosques, per­form­ance of dhikr [emphas­is added]’.[21] Deweese con­firms that in Cent­ral Asia ‘the face of reli­gious life indeed changed dra­mat­ic­ally’ in the 1930s and 40s.[22] Geldi­yev adds, that with the com­ing of the Sovi­ets, the reli­gious schools were closed and the sham­an­ic activ­it­ies were ter­min­ated, and as a res­ult, kusht­de­p­di emerged.[23]

Inde­pend­ence Day Parade

Wheth­er the dance ori­gin­ated as a res­ult of reli­gious cen­sor­ship or imit­a­tion for enter­tain­ment, the cor­rel­a­tion between the Sufi heal­ing ritu­al and kusht­de­p­di, on the basis of shared vocal ele­ments and phys­ic­al move­ments, is con­vin­cing. Under­stand­ing the ori­gins of kusht­de­p­di is import­ant not only because the dance is under­stud­ied, but also because it helps to unravel its trans­form­a­tion from a dance in the field into and ethno-iden­tity dance. This in its turn provides a look into the present socio-polit­ic­al life of the Turk­men.


Annamuradov, R. Küšt­de­p­di. Ashgabat, 2007.

DeWeese D. “Sham­an­iz­a­tion in Cent­ral Asia.” Journ­al of the Eco­nom­ic and Social His­tory of the Ori­ent 57, no. 3 (2014): 326 – 63.

Geldi­yev, G. “Küšt­depmel­er.” In Türk­men Šahyrana Halk Dörediji­ligi, 257 – 65. Ashgabat: Türk­men Döw­let Neširÿat gul­lugy, 2003.

Goch­muradov, H. “Küšt­de­p­diler.” In Türk­men Halk Dörediji­ligi, 59 – 63. Ashgabat: Türk­men Döw­let Neširÿat gul­lugy, 2010.

Gross, Jo-Ann. “The Polem­ic of ‘Offi­cial’ and ‘Unof­fi­cial’ Islam: Sufism in Soviet Cent­ral Asia.” In Islam­ic Mys­ti­cism Con­tested: Thir­teen Cen­tur­ies of Con­tro­ver­sies and Polem­ics, edited by Fre­d­er­ick De Jong and Bernd Radtke, Vol. 29. Leiden: Brill, n.d.

Hobs­bawm, Eric., and Ter­ence. Ranger. The Inven­tion of Tra­di­tion. New York: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 2012.

Oraztagan­ov, Allab­erdi. Куштдепмелер. Edited by Gozel Aman­guli­yeva. Ashgabat: Turk­men State Med­ic­al Uni­ver­sity, 1998.

Otdi­yev, G, and N Atdayeva. “Küšt­depmel­er.” In Türk­men Halk Dörediji­ligi (Turk­men Folk Art), 62 – 68. Ashgabat: Türk­men Döw­let Neširÿat gul­lugy, 2010.

Radk­ina, N. P. “Turk­menistan.” In The Inter­na­tion­al Encyc­lo­pe­dia of Dance. Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1998.

Shay, Anthony. Ethno Iden­tity Dance for Sex, Fun and Profit: Sta­ging Pop­u­lar Dances around the World. Pal­grave Mac­mil­lan, 2016.

Sul­tan­ova, Razia. From Sham­an­ism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Cul­ture in Cent­ral Asia. Inter­na­tion­al Lib­rary of Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies; 3. Lon­don; I B. Taur­is, 2011.

The World Fact­book — Cent­ral Intel­li­gence Agency,” accessed Octo­ber 17, 2018,

Trim­ing­ham, J. Spen­cer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. 1 online resource (xx, 333 pages) vols. New York: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1998.

[1] G. Geldi­yev, “Küšt­depmel­er,” in Türk­men Šahyrana Halk Dörediji­ligi (Ashgabat: Türk­men Döw­let Neširÿat gul­lugy, 2003), 257 – 65.

[2] Eric. Hobs­bawm and Ter­ence. Ranger, The Inven­tion of Tra­di­tion., (New York: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 2012).

[3] H. Goch­muradov, “Küšt­de­p­diler,” in Türk­men Halk Dörediji­ligi (Ashgabat: Türk­men Döw­let Neširÿat gul­lugy, 2010), 59.

[4] G. Otdi­yev and N. Atdayeva, “Küšt­depmel­er,” in Türk­men Halk Dörediji­ligi (Turk­men Folk Art) (Ashgabat: Türk­men Döw­let Neširÿat gul­lugy, 2010), 62 – 68.

[5] Razia. Sul­tan­ova, From Sham­an­ism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Cul­ture in Cent­ral Asia, Inter­na­tion­al Lib­rary of Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies ; 3 (Lon­don ; I B. Taur­is, 2011), 137.

[6] DeWeese D., “Sham­an­iz­a­tion in Cent­ral Asia,” Journ­al of the Eco­nom­ic and Social His­tory of the Ori­ent 57, no. 3 (2014): 326 – 63.

[7] N. P. Radk­ina, “Turk­menistan,” in The Inter­na­tion­al Encyc­lo­pe­dia of Dance (Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1998),

[8] DeWeese, “Sham­an­iz­a­tion in Cent­ral Asia,” 332.

[9] Ibid., 338.

[10] Lind­say Jones, Mir­cea Eli­ade, and Charles J. Adams, Encyc­lo­pe­dia of Reli­gion, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Mac­mil­lan Ref­er­ence USA, 2005).

[11] J. Spen­cer Trim­ing­ham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1998), 197.

[12] Jo-Ann Gross, “The Polem­ic of ‘Offi­cial’ and ‘Unof­fi­cial’ Islam: Sufism in Soviet Cent­ral Asia,” in Islam­ic Mys­ti­cism Con­tested: Thir­teen Cen­tur­ies of Con­tro­ver­sies and Polem­ics, ed. Fre­d­er­ick De Jong and Bernd Radtke, vol. 29 (Leiden: Brill, n.d.), 533.

[13] R. Sul­tan­ova, From Sham­an­ism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Cul­ture in Cent­ral Asia, 95.

[14] Allab­erdi Oraztagan­ov, Куштдепмелер, ed. Gozel Aman­guli­yeva (Ashgabat: Turk­men State Med­ic­al Uni­ver­sity, 1998).

[15] DeWeese, “Sham­an­iz­a­tion in Cent­ral Asia,” 332.

[16] Ibid., 333.

[17] Ibid., 338.

[18] Ibid., 333.

[19]  R. Annamuradov, Küšt­de­p­di (Ashgabat, 2007).

[20] Otdi­yev and Atdayeva, “Küšt­depmel­er.”

[21] Gross, “The Polem­ic of ‘Offi­cial’ and ‘Unof­fi­cial’ Islam: Sufism in Soviet Cent­ral Asia,” 525.

[22] DeWeese, “Sham­an­iz­a­tion in Cent­ral Asia,” 339.

[23] Geldi­yev, “Küšt­depmel­er,” 257 – 58.

Where the Wind Blew’ – with art against nuclear weapons

The Cent­ral Asia For­um team atten­ded the screen­ing this Septem­ber of the doc­u­ment­ary  ‘Where the Wind Blew’ by fam­ous Brit­ish dir­ect­or Mr Andre Sing­er, at the First Pres­id­ent Found­a­tion Office in Lon­don. The event, organ­ised by Kazakhstan’s First Pres­id­ent Found­a­tion in the UK, hon­oured the Inter­na­tion­al Day against Nuc­le­ar Tests, which marks the clos­ing, in 1991, of the nuc­le­ar test site in Semi­p­al­at­insk, Kaza­kh­stan.

CAF Coordin­at­or, Alua Kulzhabayeva with paint­er Karip­bek Kuy­ukov

One of the main char­ac­ters of the film – the Hon­or­ary Ambas­sad­or of the ATOM Pro­ject, the out­stand­ing Kaza­kh­stan artist Karip­bek Kuy­ukov took part at the film screen­ing.

Semi­p­al­at­insk Nuc­le­ar Test Site – Source: The Astana Times,

The enlight­en­ing film tells about the cata­stroph­ic human­it­ari­an con­sequences of the nuc­le­ar test and the anti-nuc­le­ar move­ment Nevada-Semi­p­al­at­insk (the two loc­a­tions were the main nuc­le­ar test­ing sites of the US and the USSR), which united the people of the two war­ring coun­tries against nuc­le­ar weapons. Using archiv­al foot­age and inter­views with sur­viv­ors and vic­tims of nuc­le­ar weapons test­ing, ‘Where the Wind Blew’ is not about the cata­strophe itself, but about the act­iv­ists, who facil­it­ated the change that saved the human­kind.

In addi­tion to gain­ing this invalu­able know­ledge and under­stand­ing of the mat­ter, I was hon­oured to meet the artist Karip­bek Kuy­ukov in per­son, and ques­tion him about his touch­ing art­works. While his story is one of the most excep­tion­al ones, Mr Kuy­ukov is not the only one whose life was affected by the nuc­le­ar tests in the Semi­p­al­at­insk region.

Karip­bek Kuy­ukov: First Explo­sion – oil on can­vas, 63.2 x 44.5 cm

The Soviet Uni­on con­duc­ted 456 nuc­le­ar tests at Semi­p­al­at­insk from 1949 until 1989 with little regard for their effect on the loc­al people or envir­on­ment. As the film sug­gests, the chil­dren of the Kaza­kh people who were exposed to the radio­act­ive fal­lout in the 1950s, developed muta­tions and were much more likely to devel­op can­cer for gen­er­a­tions ahead. The full impact of radi­ation expos­ure was hid­den for many years by Soviet author­it­ies and has only come to light since the test site closed in 1991.

As the mod­ern soci­ety devel­ops high­er aware­ness about the social and polit­ic­al issues we face inter­na­tion­ally, the danger of the stor­age and usage of the nuc­le­ar weapons should not be dis­missed. As the film high­lights, the appalling real­ity is that there are cur­rently 10,000 nuc­le­ar weapons stored and ready for use across the world.

Karip­bek Kuy­ukov: Fear – acryl­ic on can­vas, 30 x 40 cm

If you had to only remem­ber one thing after read­ing this art­icle, it would hope­fully be the phrase ‘Atom Pro­ject’. The Atom Pro­ject is com­mit­ted to elim­in­ate the World’s nuc­le­ar Arsen­al. You can help pre­vent the pos­sib­il­ity of a nuc­le­ar dis­aster by fol­low­ing the link below and sign­ing the peti­tion here.

While I had an excep­tion­al oppor­tun­ity to gain more know­ledge about the issue, I was also amazed by how human the movie and the presen­ted art­works were. In the end, know­ing and talk­ing should not be the ends, but the means, through which we can get the actions star­ted.

On behalf of the Cent­ral Asia For­um at War­wick, I would like to thank the First Pres­id­ent Found­a­tion, and Mr Karip­bek Kuy­ukov, for their invit­a­tion and for the hard work they do to reach inter­na­tion­al peace.

Language policy in Central Asia

The lan­guage policies of the Cent­ral Asi­an repub­lics since their inde­pend­ence have needed to respond to lin­guist­ic com­plex­it­ies that emerged dur­ing the peri­od of col­on­isa­tion by Rus­sia. These issues include the devel­op­ment of loc­al lan­guages as lan­guages of admin­is­tra­tion and edu­ca­tion, the eth­no­lin­guist­ic pro­file of the region, the impact of the Rus­si­an lan­guage on loc­al lan­guage eco­lo­gies, and the impact of Eng­lish as a lan­guage of glob­al­isa­tion.

At the time of their col­on­isa­tion by Rus­sia in the eight­eenth and nine­teenth cen­tur­ies, Cent­ral Asia was pre­dom­in­antly Muslim in reli­gion and lin­guist­ic­ally Turkic, with the excep­tion of Per­sian-speak­ing Tajikistan. These lan­guages were writ­ten in the Arab­ic script, where they were writ­ten at all, and edu­ca­tion was provided by Islam­ic schools, which taught Arab­ic, mainly for the pur­poses for Qu’ranic recit­a­tion. Fol­low­ing the Rus­si­an annex­a­tion, apart from immig­ra­tion of Rus­si­an speak­ers into the region, there was lim­ited inter­ven­tion into the loc­al lan­guage eco­lo­gies until 1864 when the Tsar­ist gov­ern­ment enacted an edu­ca­tion stat­ute requir­ing all teach­ing to be con­duc­ted in Rus­si­an. How­ever, access to such edu­ca­tion was lim­ited and­lit­er­acy rates in Rus­si­an were around 1% by the time of the 1917 Revolu­tion.

Chil­dren wear­ing tra­di­tion­al clothes in Cent­ral Asia, pos­sibly in Kaza­kh­stan Source – Uni­ver­sity of Vir­gin­ia Cen­ter for Rus­si­an, East European, and Euras­i­an Stud­ies

Fol­low­ing the Revolu­tion, the Com­mun­ist gov­ern­ment even­tu­ally estab­lished five repub­lics in Cent­ral Asia based a policy of estab­lish­ing nation­al eth­no­lin­guist­ic groups. Although each repub­lic was assigned to a tit­u­lar nation­al­ity, this masked a much more com­plex dis­tri­bu­tion of eth­nic groups in the region. While the tit­u­lar nation­al­ity was the major­ity in each repub­lic, there were siz­able minor­it­ies of oth­er eth­nic groups in each repub­lic. Moreover, each tit­u­lar eth­nic group was spread over more than one repub­lic.

In the new repub­lics, tit­u­lar lan­guages were giv­en a role as offi­cial lan­guages and lan­guages of edu­ca­tion along­side Rus­si­an. As the loc­al lan­guages had not been used for such func­tions under the Empire, and lit­er­acy levels were low, early lan­guage policy focused on the devel­op­ment of lit­er­acy and this went along with devel­op­ment of writ­ing sys­tems for the lan­guages. Script devel­op­ment under­went changes dur­ing the Soviet peri­od, begin­ning with pro­pos­als to devel­op writ­ing in Arab­ic script, fol­lowed by a phase of devel­op­ment of Lat­in scripts, and finally the entrench­ment of the Cyril­lic script. These changes were mainly driv­en by polit­ic­al and iden­tity related con­sid­er­a­tions; Arab­ic being asso­ci­ated with Islam­ic reli­gious iden­tity and with his­tor­ic­al lit­er­ate prac­tice, Lat­in script link­ing to pan-Turkic iden­tity, espe­cially after the adop­tion of the Lat­in script by the Turk­ish repub­lic in the 1920s, and Cyril­lic being asso­ci­ated with a social­ist and Soviet iden­tity and sep­ar­a­tion from eth­nic and lin­guist­ic groups out­side the Soviet Uni­on. These fre­quent changes had neg­at­ive con­sequences for lit­er­acy devel­op­ment as lit­er­ate people were required to relearn lit­er­acy skills with each change.

After the col­lapse of the Soviet Uni­on, the repub­lics declared inde­pend­ence in 1991. They con­tin­ued their inher­ited ethno-nation­al­ist iden­tit­ies and adop­ted policies to pro­mote the status of the tit­u­lar eth­nic group and its lan­guage as a mark­er of nation­al iden­tity. In the Soviet peri­od, the tit­u­lar lan­guages of the repub­lics were co-offi­cial along­side Rus­si­an, although usu­al­ly­with an inferi­or status. Just pri­or to inde­pend­ence, all repub­lics sought to change this bal­ance and declared the tit­u­lar lan­guage to be the offi­cial lan­guage, with Rus­si­an giv­en sec­ond­ary status as an intereth­nic lin­gua franca. Sim­il­ar policies con­tin­ued after inde­pend­ence, although in Kaza­kh­stan both lan­guages were give­nequal status, while Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan adop­ted mono­lin­gual policies with no form­al role for Rus­si­an. In all repub­lics how­ever, Rus­si­an was well entrenched with large Rus­si­an speak­ing minor­it­ies in all coun­tries and Rus­si­an con­tin­ued to play an import­ant role on their soci­o­lin­guist­ic pro­file.

Script reform has been an issue in all coun­tries­and is basic­ally a polit­ic­al issue related to estab­lish­ing a new iden­tity and reject­ing the impos­i­tions of the Soviet peri­od. In Uzbek­istan and Tajikistan, the Arab­ic script was con­sidered but was not adop­ted, Tajikistan has con­tin­uedto use Cyril­lic, and Uzbek­istan is mov­ing to Lat­in script. Script reform has not yet been fully imple­men­ted, with the adop­tion of Lat­in script being most com­plete in Turk­menistan.

In edu­ca­tion policy, there has been a con­cern in lan­guage edu­ca­tion policy to strengthen the pos­i­tion of the tit­u­lar lan­guages. Theyare the nor­mal medi­um of instruc­tion in schools, although the policy on medi­um of instruc­tion var­ies across the coun­tries, with Rus­si­an and some eth­nic lan­guages being recog­nised­in most repub­lics. Uzbek­istan and Tajikistan have adop­ted highly mul­ti­lin­gual approaches. Uzbek­istan recog­nises a right to use any eth­nic lan­guage in education,althoughcurrently only Kaza­kh, Kyrgyz, Rus­si­an, Tajik and Turk­men have been approved as medi­ums of instruc­tion, with Karakalpak being used in the autonom­ous Karakalpak­stan­Re­pub­lic. Tajikistan also allows eth­nic lan­guages to be used in school­ing but guar­an­tees only the use of Tajik, Rus­si­an and Uzbek, with Kyrgyz and Turk­men per­mit­ted in areas with large num­bers of speak­ers. Kaza­kh­stan has both Kaza­kh and Rus­si­an medi­um schools. Only in Turk­menistan is the tit­u­lar lan­guage the sole medi­um of instruc­tion in gov­ern­ment schools and oth­er lan­guages are expli­citly excluded. All policies, except for in Turkmenistan’s, have thus respon­ded to some degree to the intern­al eth­no­lin­guist­ic diversity of the coun­tries. Learn­ing the tit­u­lar lan­guage is, how­ever, required regard­less of the medi­um of instruc­tion in schools as a sub­ject for all stu­dents. Edu­ca­tion policies also require the learn­ing of addi­tion­al lan­guages bey­ond the nation­al lan­guage and moth­er tongues; Rus­si­an is required from primary school level, except in Turk­menistan where policy regard­ing Rus­si­an has been ambigu­ous, andEng­lish is also a required sub­ject in all coun­tries begin­ning in primary school. This means that most sys­tems have a tri­lin­gual policy with the tit­u­lar lan­guage, Rus­si­an and Eng­lish.

Further reading

Lid­di­coat, A. J. (2019). Lan­guage-in-edu­ca­tion policy in the Cent­ral Asi­an repub­lics of Kyrgyz­stan, Tajikistan, Turk­menistan, and Uzbek­istan. In A. Kirk­patrick & A. J. Lid­di­coat (Eds.), The Rout­ledge inter­na­tion­al hand­book of lan­guage edu­ca­tion policy in Asia (pp. 452 – 470). New York: Rout­ledge.

Regan, T. (2019). Lan­guage plan­ning and lan­guage policy in Kaza­kh­stan. In A. Kirk­patrick & A. J. Lid­di­coat (Eds.), The Rout­ledge inter­na­tion­al hand­book of lan­guage edu­ca­tion policy in Asia (pp. 442 – 451). New York: Rout­ledge.

Why can you buy German bread in Kazakhstan?

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?

Ger­man set­tle­ments through­out the globe, notice the con­cetra­tion around north­ern Kaza­kh­stan.

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 eight­eenth 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.

Pho­tos from Crimea, taken before my fam­ily’s re-loc­a­tion.

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).

My Great-grand­par­ents at their house in Найман with their dog друг, who once sur­vived being shot on the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that he was a wolf.

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.

Ger­mans in Rus­si­an Folk­lor­ist out­fits; Taken in Karaganda, 1953.

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.

Creative Bishkek: Rafael Vargas-Suarez

Var­gas-Suarez Uni­ver­sal paint­ing in his stu­dio in Barskoon, Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyz­stan (Sum­mer 2018)

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.

What ori­gin­ally 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.

Var­gas-Suarez Uni­ver­sal 
“34 Blue Vec­tors” (2017)
Tian-Shan moun­tains sheep wool & chi reed tech­nique 45.5 x 26.5 inches (116 x 67 cm)

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 this?

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.

Var­gas-Suarez Uni­ver­sal Ala-Kiy­iz and Shyrdak tapestries made in Kyrgyz­stan, at his loft in New York City (March 2018)

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.

Var­gas-Suarez Uni­ver­sal paint­ing in his stu­dio in Bishkek, Kyrgyz­stan (Novem­ber 2018)

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?

You’re ask­ing 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.

“45 Vec­tors” (2018−19)
Hand sewn, fel­ted & hand dyed Tian-Shan moun­tains sheep wool in ala-kiy­iz & shyrdak tech­niques
84 x 134 inches (2.13 x 3.40 M)
Edi­tion of 10 + 2 AP

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?

That’s some­thing 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 pur­pose.

Review of Overcoming a Taboo: Normalizing Sexuality Education in Kazakhstan

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. 

Chil­dren in tra­di­tion­al cos­tume at the interi­or court­yard of the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. – by Dan Lun­d­berg from flickr

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 Issues26(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 adoles­cence42(11), 1696 – 1707.

Wight, D. (2005). Sex Edu­ca­tion: The Way Ahead. Avail­able at: Accessed: 15 Feb­ru­ary 2019.

Creative Bishkek: Group 705

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.)

Creative Bishkek: Ulan Djaparov

A lead­ing fig­ure of Bishkek’s post-Soviet arts scene: CAF inter­views Ulan Dja­p­arov as the latest instal­ment in the Cre­at­ive Bishkek series.

Ulan Djaparov is seen by some as the godfather of modern and contemporary art in post-Soviet Bishkek.

Along­side found­ing a con­tem­por­ary art and archi­tec­ture space, Stu­dio Museum, he is a driv­ing force of the city’s recent artist­ic boom through his work on social media – primar­ily as the admin­is­trat­or of the influ­en­tial Face­book group Cent­ral Asi­an Pavil­ion of the Con­tem­por­ary Art.

What is Stu­dio Museum and why did you cre­ate it?

The archi­tec­tur­al stu­dio Museum has a long his­tory. In 2018, we cel­eb­rated the twen­ti­eth 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 con­trib­uted?

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.

Tengri Capital

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).

Ten­gri 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 interests.


The firm’s 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.

A 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 author­it­ies.

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 cor­por­a­tions.

The most 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 policies.

The most 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 altern­at­ives.

Firms like Ten­gri Cap­it­al has the poten­tial to kick­start Cent­ral Asia’s fur­ther devel­op­ment by provid­ing cut­ting-edge approach to invest­ment in the region.