Tag Archives: #centralasia

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

Cathedrals of Commerce: A Trip to the Bizarre

Build it, and they will come.

Dordoi Bazaar is akin to a medieval village while being emblematic of the new Silk Road in Central Asia. As in the twelfth century when thousands of pilgrims and whole crusader armies journeyed through the south of France to the port city of Aigues-Mortes on the way to Outremer, a small cathedral, such as the one at Psalmodi, would be the cornerstone for a local economy to build on. Stonemasons would arrive patronized by the biggest purse of the day, the Church. Money flowed and opportunities flourished. Soon, a warren-like network began to sprawl circularly outward, centered on the rising house of God. Medieval towns grew organically, without planning beyond the central square and cathedral itself.

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A sign advertising Schwarma and Gamburger (döner kebab)

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Concrete steps formed in front of a container. There is a Coke bottling plant here, but the only American chain store is the Apple store. That’s right folks; no McDonald’s.

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Shashlik and plov

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The food was amazingly good, and everything was shared freely

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Today is my day. March 8.

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Salad bar, Kyrgyz style

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Brollies for sale at Dordoi

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The knife man at Dordoi

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Repurposed pram.

Commerce draws commerce. In areas of commercial devolution, such as America’s rustbelt, when the central employer fails, so does everything else. Until 1991, the central employer in Kyrgyzstan was the Soviet Union. Towns and cities flourished in Central Asia because Stalin needed a dumping ground for resettled European minorities such as the Crimean Tatars and Volga Germans. Bishkek was an administrative center for the refugee state. The Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic thrived. But, once the Soviet largesse ended in 1991, independent Kyrgyzstan began to wither. Now, the capital Bishkek resembles a Roman ruin (albeit built from concrete and rebar), slowly decaying amidst grand boulevards of birch and oak, still watered from aquaducts overflowing with summer glacier melt. Commerce is uncertain, catering only to the corruption class, those who successfully siphon money from international aid.

Yet, Dordoi’s success is undaunted. The Bazaar itself, Zhongai Market, is at the heart of a complex of arriviste suburbs that expands haphazardly every day. Various shopkeepers sell wholesale goods imported from China, Turkey, and Russia to consumers and other merchants. Dordoi centralizes goods imported from east, west, and north for redistribution throughout Central Asia. It is the region’s largest employer. Commerce begets commerce.

Even in the world of cyber commerce, actual goods must still change hands. The physicality (geographality?) of exchange is invisible to most who buy over the Internet. Wares are still made in factories, distributed from centralized hubs, and travel en masse across continents in the new caravans: hordes of shipping containers. Stacked higher than Notre Dame de Paris, these small cities are the new caravansaries. The dominance of consumer capitalism has created new cathedrals; since they serve the god of efficiency rather than Yahweh of old, all expense is spared for beautification. Dordoi is not built of the finest marble or by crafters who take pride in the beauty of creation; rather the very materials that transport goods from here to there are Dordoi’s building blocks: purloined shipping containers.

As I tell my students, culture changes throughout history, but human nature stays remarkably the same. Human ingenuity persists. In this dirt-poor nation comprised mostly of the remotest mountains on Earth, building is limited to what is essentially wattle and daub or imported materials. Rather than importing wood and concrete, merchants peddle wares from the package they came in: shipping containers. Over two square kilometers of mammoth steel quaders rise out of the steppe, one stacked upon the other, accessed through end doors still bearing the names of their original owners: Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd, names in Chinese, Japanese, Cyrillic. Oddly enough, the complex also features a newly built mosque to satisfy the needs of denizens and visitors alike. There is no wall, but there is a fence, and the mosque is on the outside. Allah might be present, but the house of worship is a sideshow to the main event.

A short drive north of Bishkek, getting to Dordoi is itself an experience for comment. Birthed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 and built from the vehicles that supply it, Dordoi is naturally accessed by some vehicle powered by fossil fuels, usually a poorly maintained, not-safe-at-any-speed taxi belching diesel fumes or, for those with the patience of the chronically impecunious, a marshrutka minibus. Driving anywhere in Kyrgyzstan (the land without auto insurance) is dangerous, a full-contact sport. Since the streets are neither plowed nor salted, multiple bumps and scrapes are the norm.

Once at the market, streets and walkways are unpaved. When the steppe melts following the famed Russian winter, puddles of mud are hastily bridged by whatever means possible. As in American boomtowns of the nineteenth-century, a network of wooden planks hastily forms to create sidewalks. The experience is far closer to previous centuries than even a stroll through a lovely medieval town in France, England, or Germany. Stray dogs roam seeking a morsel amongst the detritus of a plastic age.

Dark, dank, and energetic all at the same time, one must dodge hawkers, rambling food sellers offering tea, cakes, corn on the cob, and still hot Kyrgyz samsa distributed from repurposed baby carriages, police soliciting bribes, and pickpockets seeking tourists and the generally distracted. The alleyways are too small for motorized transport, so goods arrive and depart on large carts navigated at breakneck speed. Right of way derived from both economic centrality to Dordoi’s function and pure inertia, crowds part and everyone dives into a shop to avoid serious injury as a monumental pile of toilet paper or microwave ovens speeds by, drawn by a burly man shouting in Russian to step lively or be mowed down.

Containers are stacked two or three high. In most areas, pieces of corrugated metal have been welded over doors to provide cover from sun, snow, and rain. As time has passed, however, whole sections have acquired roofs made from plastic sheeting. What was once ad hoc has acquired a sense of permanence, much like the Grand Bazaar must have once been; plumbing and electricity are scarce but available. Tailors and cobblers have stalls; some shopkeepers have prospered enough to install glass fronts and provide heat and refreshments. North Face products are sold from a North Face store, probably authentic merchandise made in the same Chinese sweatshop as the goods sold to the label conscious American-European but at greatly reduced prices.

Dordoi, despite its stands offering mouthwatering shashlik and plov and a small market offering Korean foodstuffs and veg, is not particularly human friendly. I have not yet summoned the courage to visit the toilets, and although the money-changers are present in their temple, there is no ATM. Multiple levels insulate the ground from the heat of the day, but the steel boxes manage to capture the cold and hold onto it like a dog with a bone. Inside the complex is actually colder than out in the elements. There is no planning, and landmarks shift, so finding anything specific for a second time is a combination of spatial awareness and dumb luck. Dead ends abound, main thoroughfares are few, and maps are non-existent. Compasses are useless, since one is surrounded by steel. However, the area has its own cellular tower.

One does not travel to Dordoi to shop, although I have yet to come back from a trip empty handed. Kyrgyzstan seems to be dumping ground of another sort; products that did not sell in the consumption-savvy West suddenly appear en masse and then disappear just as quickly. In the expat community, word goes out quickly if someone sees a particular brand or item for sale. For example, Doritos are rare, and when they do appear, they are most likely in a flavor that did not suit Stateside Americans. If it didn’t sell in the States, it will end up at Dordoi. American toothpaste is another frequently appearing and disappearing commodity.

Dordoi is a destination unto itself. I stumbled into a tradition in 2012 and enjoyed it again this year. As in much of the former Soviet bloc, Kyrgyzstan is one of the few countries in the world to celebrate formally International Women’s Day. Because capitalism cannot wait, Dordoi is nonetheless open on most holidays. People over 30 remember the Soviet Union with fond nostalgia. Women definitely remember the enforced equality they lost when the Soviet overlords vacated the premises. March 8 is a holy day here and an excuse to celebrate with a picnic (even in sub-zero temperatures). Tables are assembled, dishes are prepared, vodka, cognac, and bubbly flow like water, and Western passers-by are invited to join in the celebration. We go shopping, tipsy from the hospitality, while the men watch our backs. On March 8, there’s no complaining.

In conservative estimates, Dordoi employs over 100,000 people, and the site continues to grow. On the outskirts, new containers appear, nomads set up yurts, and shepherds graze their flocks, seven kilometers north of the capital city.

Chinese wares for sale

Chinese Coke

Hustle and bustle at Dordoi

The ladies still had to do the cooking.

The ladies still had to do the cooking.

There is still room for the craft worker

There is still room for the craft worker

Much of post-Soviet Bishkek is built in similar manner

Much of post-Soviet Bishkek is built in similar manner

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Filed under #bishkek, Expat life, Travel