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.

Bib­li­og­ra­phy

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, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tx.html.

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), http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195173697.001.0001/acref-9780195173697-e-1771.

[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, astanatimes.com

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 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.

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).

NOTES:

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: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/body-mind/health/health-studies/sex-educationthe-way-ahead 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 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 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.

Services

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.