Category Archives: Kyrgyzstan

An American Reading Arendt in Kyrgyzstan

I taught in the former Soviet Union for exactly three years. The first time that I, a baby boomer, sat foot in the Soviet Union proper was the day I arrived to teach, June 4, 2011. Sure, after 1990, the former Warsaw bloc opened. As curious backpackers or enthusiastic researchers, it became possible to visit wonders hidden by die Mauer. Some even made Russia itself a regular visit. But, I was teaching in the Kyrgyz Republic, most commonly known as Kyrgyzstan.

Nestled amongst neighbors as diverse and dangerous as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China, Kyrgyzstan is also comfortably close to Mongolia, Afghanistan (which explained the Manas Transit Center at the international airport), and, of course, Mother Russia. Kyrgyzstan is a tiny democracy, hopelessly corrupt, and teetering on the edges of full-on ethnic conflict (with its Uzbek neighbors) and a full-on charge to breakdown in infrastructure. The nation also happens to one of the most beautiful and wild places left on this planet. All in all, a heartbreaking place with which it is easy to fall in love. Teaching there, at the American University of Central Asia, was itself a unique experience because of the historical borderland that is the Silk Road.

Since graduating from Georgetown in 2002 with a Ph.D. in U.S. history, I have held positions in the U.S., Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and now Kyrgyzstan. As a large part of my position at AUCA, I am a teacher trainer who conducts faculty workshops in methods of student-centered teaching and strategies to teach specific subject matter. I work with local faculty to encourage them to inspire students to think critically rather than memorizing the material and regurgitating a “correct” answer (as has been the technique in every country where I’ve taught). Instead, teachers are expected to help student understand the themes in any given piece of writing and propose questions for students to answer (in college-level English). Especially with those educated in the Soviet Union (anyone over 45), this is an especially difficult challenge. The other challenge is to help foreign faculty to adjust, not downgrade, their expectations for our students. Our students are an interesting mix of children from staunchly Soviet parents and of traditional families living in villages with basic amenities. In a sense, every student has special needs, depending on the provenance of his or her teacher. That I have been teaching overseas since 2002 and have faced a multitude of challenges, all of which has made me more flexible and a better teacher/colleague, has given me the perspective to stand astride this cultural confluence and help each help the other.

All of my international posts have had two things in common: a dominating patriarchy and at least a nominal Islamic majority. Neither of those circumstances have manifested too obviously in my teaching—after all, I take the position that I am teaching U.S. history; if a student wants to find a parallel in his or her own culture, well that’s not on me. In some of these places, one must be careful about criticizing the government or religion or give the hint of proselytizing (it is hard to teach Colonial America without teaching Puritanism). I’ve walked that line carefully and well. Kyrgyzstan is unique in one way, and it has to do with the influence of the U.S.

In addition to history, I was teaching and co-directing the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking sponsored First Year Seminar Program. Luckily, in 2014 I had the opportunity to teach Hannah Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.” All of my students from the CIS countries (we also have student cohorts from South Korea and Afghanistan) have a clear history of the Great Patriotic War etched into their conscious minds, one even might call it an institutional memory. Many times overseas I must check to make sure university students have a basic familiarity with the ideas on display. For example, my students in the former Soviet Union know almost nothing about World War II in the Pacific. I say almost, because the atomic bomb is the only element of American or British participation in the war they are taught in high schools. So, when discussing Arendt, I did not have to explain who Adolph Eichmann was and what he represented, but I did have confront angry accusations of American atomic warfare on an innocent Japan. This is what we call a teaching moment.

Instead of focusing on the war itself, I focused on Arendt’s basic message: in times of moral reversal, failure to think, to conduct and internal dialogue with oneself, breeds personal responsibility. Interestingly, a later reading, the excerpt “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, claims that failing to think—experiencing great events as a member of a herd—exorcizes responsibility. Yet Arendt was correct; events such as the Holocaust require review of “automatic” morality. When all of life inverts, when that which was moral is then immoral, the illegal made legal, failing to think creates responsibility and therefore culpability. Her example is the moral upheaval that was National Socialism. Yet, another moment of moral reversal clung to edge of my consciousness, and I was almost afraid to bring it up, mostly because academic freedom is a fairy story we tell to graduate students to keep them from fearing the future. The very students had experienced a profound moral reversal, and they had failed to think the consequences through.

In 1991, Kyrgyzstan became an independent nation. At no time in history prior to 1991 was the territory now called Kyrgyzstan ever a nation state. The Soviets carved the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic from the rest of Central Asia out of subtle linguistic differences among other Turkic languages, such as Kazakh and Uzbek, and primarily Mongolian features that the Kyrgyz share with Kazakhs and Yakuts in Siberia. The nation that was never a nation is now finding itself with a rising and fervent nationalism, which is not the only lasting feature of a post-Soviet world. Kyrgyzstan is unique amongst its neighbors in that it attempts to be a democracy, and despite two revolutions in twenty years, the last president, Rosa Otembayava, did leave her position on schedule. That makes one peaceful change of power, something no other CIS nation can boast.

Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is multiethnic. In addition to the sizable Uzbek minority in the south of the nation, the environs around Bishkek, the capital, were Stalin’s dumping grounds in the late 1930s: Tatars from the Crimea, Volga Germans, Jews, and Chechens (including the Dzharnaev family whose sons moved to Boston) were all relocated to the country so far from anywhere else. Perhaps this is why the U.S. decided to focus its aid and military cooperation on Kyrgyzstan, or perhaps it is the long Chinese border, but in any case, Kyrgyzstan’s blatantly corrupt economy is propped up by payment from the United States. The only other single industry in the nation is a gold mine operated by a Canadian firm that is under constant threat of nationalization by the government and attack on horseback by the local villagers. Kyrgyzstan is afloat because of American money. And, with American aid comes American ideology, and since World War II, American diplomacy demands adherence to the political idea of the free market economy. And there is where the moral reversal lies.

Ingrained in American foreign policy is the sanctity of the open market, the inviolability of contracts. In the spirit of Arendt, the “automatic” go-to philosophy taught in America is the so-called free market, the greatest mythological expression of which is the self-employed success. Only with careful thought that feel as though borders on the treasonous does the adult come to realize that this philosophy confused with mother’s milk is itself morally questionable. To counter, the “automatic” philosophy of citizens of the Soviet Union was the violence that was the free market and the superiority of communism. Adults also questioned (inwardly) the hegemony of the Comintern, but a freer market certainly did no mean the vacuum of social support that is the American ideal (and thankfully, not the entire American reality). In the CIS, one day communism was the rule; seemingly the next day, capitalism came hand-in-hand with American aid. Included in this ideological shift was a profound moral reversal.

America’s assumed inviolability of contracts is morally compromised in idea, and perhaps completely immoral in application. At the base of contract law lies the fiction that parties who are contracting are similarly situated enough to be considered equals. The contract provides for obligations for both parties as spelled out in the document. A contract is a legal promise. The problem with this fiction is rarely, if ever, are parties contracting truly equal. When the powerful contract with the weak, there is very rarely the change to bargain honestly, and if the stronger party doesn’t keep up its end, who will make them? Certainly not the weaker party. A contract is an opportunity for abuse.

In the Soviet Union, the situation was reversed. The State existed to protect the weaker party, banning “the freedom” of contract. While not perfect, the ruling idea was not to take advantage of the weak however one can. The ruling idea was to protect the weak, “Each according to his abilities.” The old had pensions, the ill had treatment, the artists had jobs, and the swindlers had jail. After 1991, the old, the ill, and the artists had the street and the swindlers ran the country and the black markets.The strong man, like Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, became the hero, and public utilities around the region crumbled.

The western democracies had so successfully branded communism as evil that its opposite must be good, so when what had been billed as the opposite arrived, the capitalists painted themselves as liberators. Unfortunately, some of America’s freedoms are freedom to starve, to freeze, to be discarded. In times of moral reversal (especially when the change is so dramatic), failure to think breeds personal responsibility. In Kyrgyzstan, at least, a new generation has accepted without question that communism was bad and capitalism is good just because America said it was. Moral reversal came to the CIS, and no one questioned it at all. Perhaps this helps to explain the popularity of Vladimir Putin. He questioned America, and in so doing became a dictator. The U.S. needs to divorce the free market from its foreign policy. Let people have their social welfare states; perhaps the world will end up with fewer dictators.


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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Foreign Policy, Former Soviet Union, Hannah Arendt, Higher Education, Ideas, Kyrgyzstan, Thinking

Kyrgyzstan’s Cornucopia


Left to right: rhubarb, garlic, oregano, thyme and rosemary, mint

Left to right: rhubarb, garlic, oregano, thyme and rosemary, mint

Yesterday, Doug and I went for a walk in the Issyk Ata gorge, about one hour’s drive from Bishkek. I had forgotten that we had just spent 16 days at sea level and that my body greatly prefers generous amounts of oxygen, so we did not get far into our hike. As always, the scenery was magnificent, the sun warm, the breeze cooling, and the company fine. Add to that cold beer at the end, and it was a near perfect day.

Giving the option of a do-over in life decisions, I would have liked to pick up a degree in botany along the way. If I hadn’t been convinced that girls cannot do math, I would have probably become a doctor rather than a lawyer. But, as I constantly remind my students, the physical sciences are indeed part of the liberal arts. I’m a sucker for plants.

One of my great loves whilst living in the US was wildflower and edible plant identification. Travelling through Nova Scotia one visit, I met a Parks Canada ranger who was from the M’icmaq people. He and I gabbed for hours over edibles and medicinals on that amazing island. We each parted with a book neither had, an exchange of like minds.

A colleague of mine, Valeri Hardin, is an encyclopedia of the natural world. If I could go hiking with him, I’m sure my brain would be overwhelmed with raw data on what one can eat and what one can cure from the natural bounty of this place. I cannot hike with Valeri, however, because he is just so damned fit. My seal level-bred oxygen needs just will not allow me to follow his mountain goat speed. Luckily, Doug will let me set the wheezing pace, so I can spend a lot of time looking at plants.

Wood Sorrel

Wood Sorrel

So far as I can determine, there is no book published in English, French, or German to assist one in identifying wildflowers in this country of such rich flora. There is one book on medicinal plants of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (and it’s available in a Kindle version!), but even the e-book is $150. Luckily, many of the plants in the Tien Shan and Altai regions are similar to other alpine regions around the world, and I have been able to pick up some tips from Valeri and from what I see in markets.

Yesterday’s walk turned into a foraging expedition for our tea. I have a deal with Doug: when we go camping, he’s responsible for catching and cleaning the fish; I’ll do the cooking and gather the rest. If yesterday’s uniformed forage (I only eat what I’m sure I can identify) is any inclination, we’ll eat quite well.

The path lines with mint and wild sage

The path lines with mint and wild sage

On my first gasping stop, I sat down in a grove of wild sage. It has a much more delicate flavor than the European sage that Americans use for their poultry, Turks for their çay, and Brits for their pork. The first thought that leapt to mind: “pork chops wrapped in wild sage and baked in wine with a savory strawberry glaze.” Yum. As I looked around, I realized that I had stumbled (literally) into a wild herborium. I found three distinct varieties of mint and thought “mojitos!”

At this point, I was crawling through the low growth wrinkling leaves and sniffing my fingers. I can only imagine how I would have appeared to any passers-by on the trail, much like truffle-hunting boar, I suspect. Doug has the patience of a saint.

Wild oregano grew in vast patches, as did wild rosemary with its lovely lavender flowers; wild thyme grew nearby. In addition to various potherb vegetables, I stumbled upon clumps of wild garlic (no ramps alas). I managed to dig two clumps while Doug liberated ten. At that elevation, we were just on the cusp of collecting bulbs over the strongly flavored and woody stalks (great for cutting into sections and storing in olive oil). Since the tomatoes are coming in from the Fergana Valley, I decided on a foraged spaghetti fresca (molta fresca!) for our evening meal.

Doug convinced me that perhaps we had rushed into the land-without-air and should turn back before I developed cerebral edema or something. My hiking boots were getting tight from my swollen feet. I’m much happier at depth than at altitude, but I love the mountains. Slow acclimation is the key.

On the way back down, I continued to rub leaves, sniffing for essential oils, when Doug stopped and looked at a plant. He doesn’t usually do that. He usually has hunting on his mind in the outdoors. Next thing I know, he’s pulling this waist-high plant out root and stem. Only then did I see the delightful purple on the stalk. He found our dessert. Although I had seen strawberry plants, we were too high for ripe berries. But, the lowland collection had begun, and our local souk had freshly picked mountain berries by the kilo.

Our evening meal was quite delicious, finished off with a strawberry rhubarb crumble served right out of the oven. Given more time, say on a camping trip, I could have made everything from what we were able to scavenge, including flour made from dried angelica and cattail roots (very labor intensive). Olive oils and wine would be a problem, but if we camped up there, we’d have horses, so I could travel with those and other bare necessities.

Fields of poppies, without the slaughter

Fields of poppies, without the slaughter

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Filed under Expat life, good things, Gustatory Delights, Kyrgyzstan, Travel