Archive for October, 2007

Beautiful church, Ugly Memorial, roaming pigeons

pigeonsugly memorialRussian monumentOrthodox church in Panfilov ParkOrthodox sideOrthodox church

Panfilov park is embedded in Almaty off of Dostyk and Gogol streets.  I remembered seeing the Orthodox church and WWII war memorial 14 years ago when I lived in Almaty the summer of 1993.  The church was as beautiful yesterday as it was when I went with my friend Tatyana for an Easter service.  However, the Soviet monument was just as ugly back then as now.  Fortunately, it was a beautiful day for a walk and I discovered where our pigeons from the neighboring rooftop fly to for feeding time.  One entrepreneur was selling bird seed for children to throw and the pigeons did not move as I waded through them, so tame are they.  I had followed a priest in his flowing robes to get to the beautiful Orthodox church where the roses are in their last bloom.  I did not go inside this time, so lovely was it outside.

An eternal flame is part of the WWII memorial where the ugly Soviet statue of the military forbids happy thoughts.  I do not mean to denigrate the memories of those brave Kazakh soldiers who died in the name of communism defending their land against fascism.  I do think a less cubic rendition without all the rough edges and fearsome looks could portray with accuracy what war looks like.  This depiction of the brutish soldiers shows more of what communism did against the Kazakhs more that anything.  Perhaps the metal from tanks was melted down to create this “art” only a football field away from the peaceful Orthodox church which was there first, of course. 

I think a better memory of how the Kazakhs served during wartime would represent less of the brutality of the Soviet regime and more of how these people were brutalized into submission in the name of collectivism.  On second thought, perhaps leaving the statue as it is shows exactly what happened on Kazakh soil with the ideology of communism bursting in on their passive, nomadic existence.

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Lowflying Jet in the Northwest, pigeons to the north

Lady statue close to Fatboysstatue near Bishkek train stationAs I start today’s blog, a jet is flying in the northwest and hundreds of pigeons sit perched on the neighboring roof 30 feet away at eye view level.  Every day in our kitchen I look out our balcony and remind myself I am facing North and that to go to Ken’s university means going downhill, go NORTH!  The majestic mountains that rim the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are to the south.  I’m glad I went to Kyrgyzstan last week because it helps to further orient me so I can divest myself of this daily ritual “downhill means north, mountains mean south!”  Therefore, we will be getting the brunt of the northwest cold winds in the winter.  I enjoy fall and I’m enjoying THIS fall in Central Asia.  Already it has been below freezing in NW Minnesota where I came from less than a month ago. 

I’m wondering what these two statues commemorate in Bishkek, maybe someone can tell me in the comments.  The horse and rider is near the train station at the end of the parkway I always used to walk to get to KAUF everyday back in 1993-1995.  The other Lady statue is across from Fatboys restaurant.  What are their significance to Kyrgyzstan’s history?  Or maybe they are Soviet statues and have no real significance to Kyrgyzstan anymore.  Can someone inform me?

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More Bishkek photos

Wes at radio stationsheep on highwayOtto and missing manhole coverKaren and WesAUCA studentsKen took these photos and took as many of the of missing manhole covers we walked by.  We observed many gaping holes in Bishkek.  Apparently the theives took the cast iron covers and melted them down for their own purposes.  Russian Politics students of Dr. Otto Pohl’s (in yellow jacket) are listening attentively to what I had to tell them about Ukraine’s tragic history.  Seems that some Kyrygz had never heard that collectivization was not a good thing for many people in the Former Soviet Union. Karen and Wes are looking at old wedding photos Kris scanned from 1995, Wes is also pictured at their OK radio station.  Notice the sheep crossing the highway.  Why do you suppose they wanted to get to the other side? 

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Photos from Kyrgyzstan

man and horse statueSoviet Ladymule going through customscrescent moon graveyardsbarren landscapeherding cows

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Kazakhnomad back from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

How wonderful to return to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to see our friends again after 12 years away.  Wes and Karen have lived in Central Asia for almost 15 years.  Wes married us a second time when we did our whole wedding all over again in Bishkek for the benefit of my Kyrgyz students, a month after our REAL wedding in Minneapolis, Dec. 24, 1994.  Karen played my Yamaha keyboard for the ceremony since she majored in organ at the university. Wes performed the ceremony with Slava as our Russian translator.  Seems we have many similarities in interests and personalities though distance and time has kept us apart.   

We talked on Wes and Karen’s radio station for an hour about our teaching activities in Ukraine and after that we went to have supper at their home.  They are foster parents to five Kyrgyz children who are bereft of their biological parents.  The next day we met up at a Chinese restaurant with another couple we knew from way back when, Don and Elisabeth. They have lived as long in Bishkek as Wes and Karen have.  Don taught English at the same university I did when it first opened to 40 Kyrgyz students in 1993.  So much has changed in the institution over a decade where the university now has over 1,000 students from other countries besides Kyrgyzstan, it is called AUCA, American University of Central Asia.  However, much of Bishkek has NOT changed as dramatically as Almaty has.  The difference of what money can do.  Almaty has it, Bishkek doesn’t. 

I was happy that my friend Karen came to AUCA the next day to hear my talk where I taught 13-14 years ago.  Not many students showed for the Russian Politics professor’s class due to a warm Friday afternoon, (typical students) but those who did show up had some GREAT comments related to Soviet collectivization.  I showed many of my Ukrainian students’ powerpoints they had put together concerning their grandparents interviews which related to Terror Famine of 1932-33, WWII, Forced famine after the war, collectivization, etc.   

One Kyrgyz girl right at the beginning of my talk said that she was amazed to hear anything contrary to collectivization.  Her grandfather had profited from it and thought the Soviet Union was the greatest thing since sliced kleb (bread in Russian).  After an hour and a half the students clapped and shared more from their hearts about what they knew of this difficult era.  They happen to be very privileged kids to get a westernized education, which costs about $2,000 a year.  That is, if I have figured out the som exchange correctly compared to our American dollar.  Let’s see, I think it is our 3 cents to their one som, or rather $1 = 40 something som.  After 10 days in Almaty, I think I had just figured out the Kazakh tenge to the U.S. dollar which I think is about 120 tenge = $1.  Try to figure out dealing with tenge currency and change it to som!!! 

Looking at photos from our trip, it looked like we drove through North Dakota with rolling hills except for the crescent moons on the Muslim graveyards that are dotted along the side of the road.  Our driver both ways, Alex, is from Bishkek and did a fine job navigating all the traffic stops he had to make.  Seems the police had his license number because he was pulled over three times BESIDES our hour wait in line at customs. (reminded me of leaving San Diego for Tijuana, Mexico but far worse coming back INTO the U.S.) 

Back in the old days during Ken and my courtship, we never had to stop for this border crossing at the Shu River.  Ken had to sometimes when he was driving his NIVA car but he could talk his way through.  We certainly didn’t ever need a visa to go into the next Central Asian country.  How things have changed.  Fortunately, we met up with an East German fellow at the B&B we stayed at for two nights help share the car fare.  It took only about 3 hours to travel whereas years ago it would have taken four hours or more since the roads used to be in such miserable shape.   Some things have changed for the better, some for the worse.  Anyway, I told Ken that my zeal to get back to Bishkek has been dampened.  Bishkek is a nice place to live but I wouldn’t want to visit there again.  We had earlier gone to the Kyrgyz consulate and bought a 30 day visa for $45 each and only used 2 days worth, I thought we could go back again within a month but it doesn’t seem to be a multiple entry visa.  Oh well, live and learn.  

The adventure over the Tian Shan mountains was well worth it just to reconnect with people and places again! 

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Our Flat, Our Palace

Our apartment is small for what we are paying but we are thankful for a place to live.  It is twice the size of what our university paid for in Ukraine which was half of what we are paying for here in Almaty. 

Did I mention that the doors don’t connect with the doorframe?  We are on the 5th floor and there may have been an earthquake here where they did at one time fit but don’t now, all stand ajar.  Ken needs to insert metal magnets to tighten the doors because no door to these rooms have locks except the bathroom for the toilet and the other for the bathtub and sink.  The steps in the hallway, did I mention them?  Seems when they built this place the steps were all about 8-9 inches high but the final step for each floor is about 12 inches.  The unevenness in walking up or down these flights of steps keeps one on their “toes” so to speak.  Drunks beware! 

We definitely have heat whether we need it or not, some people open windows or doors to let the cool air in but that is risky for one’s health because of the mountain drafts.  Kazakh natives freak out if you open doors or windows because they are convinced you will get a cold.  They have a point, so meanwhile we sweat in our own place.  No complaints, we have lived in COLD apartments before and taught in COLD classrooms in Ukraine so I guess this is an improvement.  I haven’t tried to light our gas oven yet but use a clicker devise to get the top burners going.  That is good as is our washing machine that if you pick one cycle it might take 2 hours and 15 minutes to run through the wash and spin cycles.  I picked another one the other day and it only took an hour.  Then we either put our spunout clothes on the radiators to dry or the rack to dry overnight.  Never have used a dryer in the former Soviet Union, come to think of it we use the clothes line back in Minnesota in the summer. 

I cleaned our “Palace” this afternoon so that we will have two guy friends of Ken’s over for spaghetti tonight.  One is from New Zealand and let Ken stay with him the first month Ken arrived.  The other is a Muslim from Canada and had recommended this place to Ken as a “clean” place.  I hate to think what other places he saw because this has nice walls but the linoleum, yipes!  Fortunately, we have a nice landlady and so that is much to be thankful for even though we are paying through the nose for this place. 

Yes, I need to get a job soon to help with all the expenses here, very pricey where we are living.  The streets are lined with Tiffanys and other outrageously expensive boutiques.  As one American woman put it, the whole city has become “obscene” in its prices.  Not sure who of the Kazakhs can afford to live here but they do and the buildings keep going up all around us.  Also, Mercedes Benz and BMW cars keep filling the streets and cars drive on sidewalks meant for pedestrians!!!  Apparently there is much oil money floating around here in Almaty and some people can afford to own cars and live in ritzy apartments. 

This morning we will take a $5 bus ride for 3-4 hours to Bishkek for a 2 days visit.  I’ll give a talk at my former university where I taught on Friday afternoon and then we will return “home” on Saturday.  We could take a car but that would cost $75.  I think we are better protected by riding in a bus around those mountain passes that Ken used during our courtship 14 years ago when he owned a NIVA jeep. 

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An apology from Former Soviet Union?

 An apology is NOT too likely to happen, Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev had the following to say about this in his autobiography on p. 177 in “Chapter 12 “The Imperative of the Next Century” 

 “It is important to note one highly important circumstance: the war in Europe ended more than 50 years ago, but it has still not ended for the countries of the former Soviet bloc; it did not end when the last Soviet troops left Poland, Hungary and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, not even when they at last won full independence. Neither the East nor the West (which, after all, bear joint responsibility for the Cold War) have yet apologized to the people for what they did.  It is unimportant now who takes the first step; the important thing is to set a precedent. 

The Soviet Union itself has disappeared from the map and so, strictly speaking, there is no one from whom one could demand such an apology, but there are the ‘post Soviet’ states, the former Soviet republics.  I believe that the world is still waiting for an apology from them.  For this reason, I took advantage of the celebrations marking the fifty anniversary both of the end of the WWII and of the creation of the United Nations Organization, to express formal regret on behalf of Kazakhstan for its part in the moral and physical harm which was caused by the Cold War and to extend the hand of friendship to all countries which were ready to engage in honest and open dialogue.”

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Quote from Sufi poet

Just got our Internet set up at home this afternoon, finally!  One more quote from Nazarbayev’s book, I have been still settling into our flat, will post photos soon.  

p. 125 “The Kazakhs have a long tradition of supporting peace and living alongside other nations and peoples.  They are also tolerant, patient, and well meaning and respect the way of life, customs and cultures of others.  Their good qualities were summed up by Khodzha Akhmet Yassaui, a Sufi poet, who is considered by Muslims to be second only to the holy Mohammed:          

The prophet has this wish:         

When one day you meet a stranger,         

Do not do him wrong.         

God does not love people with cruel hearts.

These words are written on his mausoleum in the town of Turkestan, in Kazakhstan, which is considered by Muslims as a little Mecca and is a place of pilgrimage for believers from across the Islamic world.  The Kazakh people are always true to the words of their prophets.”

We will be travelling on Thursday to Bishkek where I lived for a year and a half in 1993-95.  Looking forward to how much it has changed.  Surely not as much as Almaty I hope!!!

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Former Soviet Union’s absurd economics

Another quote from Nazarbayev’s autobiography from the chapter “Poisoned Legacy” p. 46:

“The whole thing was worsened by the absurd way in which the economic indicators were calculated.  Although officials would boast in their speeches about millions of tonnes, square metres or kilowatt hours of output of a product, performance was actually calculated in financial terms.  In a Western-style market system this is logical, but in a planned economy, when prices are arbitrary and there is no competition, it makes no sense at all.  The more a plant increased the cost of inputs needed to make each unit of production, the more it could charge and the more its turnover increased; in other words, the more inefficiently an enterprise worked, the better it seemed to be doing.  Why make miniature switches for machinery when you could boost revenues hundreds of times by making enormous, outmoded ones instead?  Why use inexpensive but sturdy materials for construction when you could hit your rouble-denominated targets much more easily by using huge concrete blocks and panels?

The whole Soviet system formed an enormous vicious circle.  Every breakthrough cost us tremendous effort.  It was increasingly clear that this vicious circle was caused by an absurd economic system which had developed a momentum of its own and almost completely turned its back on the real needs of the people whom it was supposed to be serving.  Of all the 15 Soviet republics, Kazakhstan was the most vivid example of this.”

I don’t know, I think Ukraine had some fairly staggering examples of absurdity in their Soviet-style economics as well!!!

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Another quote from President Nazarbayev

From  Nazarbayev’s autobiography p. 91 

“When considering the former Soviet republics, many of which were torn by internal conflicts at the time, I was reminded of the parable about an old nomad.  The man died and his sons decided to share out his possessions equally among themselves: his sheep, his camels, his horses and all his furniture.  Each one was happy with his share, but suddenly they remembered their father’s copper saucepan – who was to have it?  They could not divide it up and as no one was prepared to give in, they began to fight over it.  After a long struggle, they finally decided to make peace.  But by then they had lost everything; all their sheep, horses and camels had wandered away.  The only thing left was the copper saucepan itself, but nobody needed it anymore, because they had nothing to cook in it.

 We do not want to make the same mistake in Kazakhstan.  We do not want to waste all our country’s economic and intellectual potential in conflicts, whether inter-ethnic, religious or of any other sort; our main aim should be instead the strengthening of stability.”

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