In Conversation with Polina Ivanova and Mehdi Hesamizadeh

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

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

The neighbourhood of Aygestan, Yerevan, Armenia.

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

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

Was the poetry reading in Persian or in multiple languages?

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

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

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

The neighbourhood of Aygestan, Yerevan, Armenia.

Did you have any reservations about choosing Armenia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blue Mosque in Yerevan, Armenia.

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

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

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

Any thoughts for the future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kushtdepdi of the Turkmen and Its Origins

Turkmen national dance Kushdepdi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independence Day Parade

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


Annamuradov, R. Küštdepdi. Ashgabat, 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid., 338.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Ibid., 333.

[17] Ibid., 338.

[18] Ibid., 333.

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

[20] Otdiyev and Atdayeva, “Küštdepmeler.”

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

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

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

‘Where the Wind Blew’ – with art against nuclear weapons

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

CAF Coordinator, Alua Kulzhabayeva with painter Karipbek Kuyukov

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

Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site – Source: The Astana Times,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language policy in Central Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

Why can you buy German bread in Kazakhstan?

A story of mass movements throughout Central Asia, by Nikolai Klassen.

Not only is Russia a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: fragments of the puzzle are also replicated and recapitulated throughout Central Asia, with the five ‘stans’ all bearing idiosyncrasies that point to a past as rich and unpredictable as the present. Let me address one such mystery: why, like myself, are there so many German-Kazakhs? Nowadays, Germans represent a sizeable minority in each Central Asian country, for example, there are still 179,476 ethnic Germans dwelling in Kazakhstan. However, ethnic Germans only began to form a sizeable chunk of Kazakhstan’s demography shortly after 1941. So, why did so many Germans go to Central Asia? And what does my grandmother have to do with this story?

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

Like my grandmother’s family, many German speaking settlers moved east in search of opportunities off the back of Russia’s developmental efforts. Under Ivan II (1462-1505) some experts, such as doctors, architects, and military officers migrated to Russia. At the time of Peter the Great (1682-1725), Germans increasingly began settling along the Volga River in significant numbers. Another figure driving German Migration in Russia was Kathrine the Great. In 1762, she invited German farmers and craftspeople to Russia to help modernize her country, giving them land, religious freedom, exception from military service and tax exemptions. Escaping high taxes and political tensions in the Holy Roman Empire and later Prussia, most came to lay the foundations for new settlements. Some 30,000 arrived in the first wave between 1764 and 1767 and they had a profound impact on improving Russia’s agricultural output. More started coming after 1789 and they kept coming until 1863. Most of them were Catholics or Mennonites seeking religious freedom, a new place to settle and political stability. As they swept down to Russia’s eastern and southern borders, the first German settlers arrived in modern-day Kazakhstan by the end of the 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).


Gerdts, C., Dobkin, L., Foster, D. G., & Schwarz, E. B. (2016). Side effects, physical health consequences, and mortality associated with abortion and birth after an unwanted pregnancy. Women’s Health Issues26(1), 55-59.

Krebbekx, W. (2018). What else can sexuality education do? Logics and effects in classroom practices. Sexualities, 1363460718779967.

Nikken, P., & de Graaf, H. (2013). Reciprocal relationships between friends’ and parental mediation of adolescents’ media use and their sexual attitudes and behavior. Journal of youth and adolescence42(11), 1696-1707.

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

Creative Bishkek: Group 705

For the latest interview in the Central Asia Forum’s Creative Bishkek series; meet Group 705; Kyrgyzstan’s answer to the Situationist International.

Marat Raiymkulov is a Kyrgyz artist who has been involved in Bishkek-based art collective Group 705 since its inception in 2005. Drawing on an absurdist philosophy, the group is primarily concerned with animation, drawing, and theatre. The group also organize a festival of experimental movie and video-art and children workshops. In recent years, the art group has spread its influence to other regions in Kyrgyzstan, while also starting to form international links.

Who are Group 705 and what is the objective behind the group?

Group 705 is part of a translocal network of Collaboratory Arts woven into the artistic scene of the Central Asian region. The group was formed in 2005 after the Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan and staged performances in the abandoned spaces of the city of Bishkek. In 2010, after the overthrow of President Bakiyev, Group 705 was engaged in a project of theatrical research on the relationship of power, society and art. So there were performances “Broken glasses”, “Lenin and Christ” and “King of Rats”. After 2014, we set ourselves the task of forming an alternative artistic platform, in which experiments are conducted on the themes of the language of art, analysis of modern social processes, discussion of artistic processes in the region, etc.

Today the group consists of 6 people. The group holds the festival of experimental cinema “Olgon-Khorhon”, children’s workshops, performances, holds the April Fools Competition under the supervision of the Studio “MUSEUM” Ulan Djaparov and holds small exhibitions.

What is the context of contemporary art in Bishkek?

What does Group 705 add to the city’s art scene?

Are you involved in other projects in the city and if so, which ones?

What do you see as contemporary culture’s role in Kyrgyzstan’s development?

In which ways is Bishkek changing? Are these changes primarily positive?

How do these changes link to the city’s art and creative scenes?

Is your art mainly influenced by local or international trends?

How do you see the interaction between young and slightly older artists in the city?

(Something’s going on here, but we’re not all too sure what it is, are we Mr. Jones? – Ed.)

Creative Bishkek: Ulan Djaparov

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

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

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

What is Studio Museum and why did you create it?

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


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.