Archive for September, 2010

“A Cruel Wind Blows” (Part II)

Yesterday’s blog was about my impressions of a movie, produced in Canada, that I watched Wednesday morning with the international women’s group in Astana. Today’s photo was taken off the web from the URL below. It is of the nuclear bombed lake created in the Semipalatinsk area.   I would like to visit this northeastern area of Kazakhstan later some time. I know someone from the ladies group who HAS been to this radioactive place.  Wow!

Today I’ll not continue with my impressions of the film we watched but rather show some facts that I picked up off the web (along with the above photo) about the research done concerning this very sad era of communist rule over Kazakhstan. How many times in the 80 minutes that I watched did I shake my head in disbelief listening to interview after interview from the survivors from the Polygon area?  Too many. These Russian and Kazakh people would reveal truths from their perspective one after another. If enough westerners paid attention to this movie subtitled in English, they would know that communism was not about caring for the common man.  No, certainly not the common Kazakh in an out of the way place such as the Semipalatinsk area, not these Kazakhs didn’t count with the bigwigs in Moscow during the 70 year Soviet regime.

This documentary movie has a good title that should maybe instead read “A Cruel Wind Continues to Blow” because the radioactivity in this godforsaken area will harm generations to come.  Read on from this website:

“To the unsuspecting eye, an endless landscape of beauty unfolds in all directions. The Steppe – as it’s known by the locals – is an 18,000 km prairie-like flatland, dotted with randomly occurring mountain ranges. Its history has been scarred by the detonations of 456 atomic bombs – 340 underground (borehole and tunnel shots) and 116 atmospheric (either air drop or tower shots) tests. The former Soviet Semipalatinsk Test Site, in northeast Kazakhstan, was the primary nuclear test site during the Cold War from 1949 through to 1989. (Kazakhstan is a country of 16 million, which borders on the Caspian Sea to the west, Russia to the north and China to the east, and gained its independence from Soviet rule in 1991.)

In 1947, the head of the U.S.S.R. atomic bomb project, Commissariat for Internal Affairs chief Lavrentiy Beria, falsely claimed that the area was “uninhabited.” Today the site – also known as the Semipalatinsk Polygon and latterly the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan – is under study by various scientific groups who all agree that there are many areas that are not only contaminated but are still radioactive. The question is, how “hot” is it, and is the test site still a toxic source that is strong enough to be harmful to the residents who both live on or near it?


Although testing ended almost 20 years ago, there are many areas that remain “hot.” Such hot spots were craters created by the underground explosions just 18km northwest of the village of Sarjal. In the Degelen Mountain range, mountain tops destroyed by bombs that were placed deep inside them by way of tunnels that have since been backfilled. We also shot at ground zero, just 50 km west of Kurchatov where the first atomic bomb (Operation First Lightning) was exploded in 1949. This was an atmospheric explosion test site where more than 100 above-ground weapons tests took place. The site currently exhibits measurably high levels of radiation. Surprisingly there are no warning signs or fences to stop people or livestock from getting too close. In fact, sheep, cattle and horses can be found scattered around the Polygon grazing on the grasslands and drinking the water from the craters.

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My Impressions of “A Cruel Wind Blows”

No, the title does NOT mean that winter has started already in Astana.  As a matter of fact, it was a nice fall day.  This is all about a movie I watched at the Brazilian embassy in stead of  having our international women group meet at the Radisson hotel for Wed. morning coffee.  The following is the blurb that drew in about 40 ladies to watch this film:

A Cruel Wind Blows – 4 Square Entertainment Ltd – 82 minutes – Feature Documentary

From 1949 to 1989 the Soviet Union exploded 500 nuclear bombs in northeastern Kazakhstan. 200,000 villagers living close to the test site were exposed to high levels of radiation. Deliberately unprotected from the explosions, they were treated as human guinea pigs, instruments of study in the event the cold war turned “hot”.

The devastation from this planned catastrophe continues today. Thousands of children who were never exposed to nuclear fallout are experiencing very high levels of cancer, schizophrenia, anemia, etc. All of these are the products of radiation-induced genetic mutations. Experts have concluded that the genetic damage the population will experience will last for ten generations.

A Cruel Wind Blows is an intimate portrait of the Kazakh villagers of the Polygon region. This tragedy has particular resonance in today’s era of nuclear proliferation and “weapons of mass destruction.”

(Dir: Rob King. Prod: Gerald B. Sperling. Writers: Maggie Siggins, Carrie May Siggins. EPs: Gerald B. Sperling,

Joanne Levy. Editor: Jackie Dzuba DOP: Matt Phillips FP: SaskFilm, NHK (Japan), Al Jazeera English.)

My impressions or what I remember without taking notes the whole time I watched the English subtitles are the following:

1) we have NO problems compared to what this small group of people in the Polygon area have suffered

2) one little boy had had surgery on his forehead and had wide-spaced out eyes, he was lovingly held by a caring doctor, this young one had been abandoned by his mother at the hospital. The little tot had a freakish look about him but seemed normal and functioning as any other toddler

3) another little baby was not going to live long and was in a hospital with a tumor or water on the brain, he looked like an alien as well.

4) one little girl had been normal up to age 2 or 3 years and then things fell apart for her, she has no teeth and really is cared for her every need by her Kazakh mother, the girl doesn’t even know how to go to the bathroom.

5) the mother of this girl was interviewed and there were tears of tiredness and frustration

6) many interviews revealed that these people had been lied to, that there had been a lot of b.s. as to what had gone on for 50 years of testing.

7) I was surprised that the film makers didn’t have anything about the animals and how nuclear testing had affected them, towards the end they did show pictures

8 ) main thrust of movie was to show the devastation to the land and the Kazakh people who used to have cattle and sheep that grazed it.  It is a wasteland now, the soil is irradiated, not good for anything.

9) Soviet soldiers who were part of this secret experiment also had radiation problems and had not taken enough precautions, they were just doing what they were told

10) For one experiment of changing the direction of a river to go another direction they practiced on making nuclear lakes.  They used Kazakh soldiers and since they didn’t know Russian, they would not be telling what this secret was about.  Interestingly enough, all those who took part in this disappeared and their records of who they were were erased.

11) The Japanese had come with their research about how this would affect the genetics of the people, considered hogwash.  What was determined was that continual radiation exposure even in small doses over time would leave birth defects for generations to come.

12) One woman researcher who was Russian tried to find villagers who were older but she could not find anyone older than in their 50s, they had passed away quicker.  Someone who might get cancer at age 80 would get it 20 years sooner.

13) showed towards the end where Olzhas Sulemenov played a key role in 1989 in stirring up the people with truth about what was really happening at the Polygon.  Many did not know since it had been kept secret.  Were successful in stopping the exploding of 11 out of 18 explosions one year. Enough public outcry about this made the Soviets realize that they had gone too far.  The miners in Karaganda said they would NOT do their work in the mines if this continued in eastern Kazakhstan.  Perhaps there were enough smart, in-the-know type people who had been at the Polygon who knew the actual truth and had been sent to do mine work in the KARLAG camps.

14) The visual impact of seeing the mushroom clouds and the sound of the explosion shook the room as we watched. I can’t even imagine what it was like to be actually in the area at the time of these explosions.  If I’m not mistaken there were about 500 of them over the span of 40 years.

15) One woman who may have been a doctor during the time of all the hospitals and clinics set up said that they had many around seeing to patients and now there was only a first aid post, she thought that was despicable.  But it went along with the other comment that the doctors were sent to this area surrounding the Polygon to document what they saw as symptoms of the radiation, they were not sent to treat those who succumbed to the nuclear radiation.

16) what is notable to me is that every interview had the person’s name and in fact they were willing to give their names to be videotaped.  It all looked like old footage so this has been updated with the English subtitles.  Many of those interviewed were Russian appearing people.  One man was ready to admit his culpability in this matter.

17) he said that he was brought to the area to certify that everything was okay and that the people were protected.  He was liquored up and given expensive food but at one point he and his comrades said that they were only seeing the city, they wanted to see for themselves what was happening out in the villages out in the steppes.  That was not granted to them so they knew they were being duped.

18) another older man was blind after having looked at the mushroom clouds, none of the villagers were told to stay inside or later some soldiers with masks would come around and have a geiger counter they would keep waving over the people and then giving them vodka to drink.

19) another man had a twitch in his left eye as he talked, he had been a radio mechanic and had spent a significant amount of time as a soldier close to where the bombs were detonated.

20) what was interesting was the omission of the president’s name in this documentary. Perhaps for political reasons the Canadian film crew kept out his name. There was one objectionable statement made by a man who appeared Russian, “why not bring all these people who are infected to a nice dache like home in Canada.”

21) the Kazakh people will not leave their ancestral home, no matter how devastated it is. Similar to the Ukrainians in the Chernobyl area from when that blast happened in April of 1986, they will not move.

22) similar to Chernobyl, nature took on freakish proportions as what happened to fish that were thrown into the nuclear lakes that had been created, they became very huge.

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Open Clinic and Photos of Babies born in Kazakhstan

Today I went back to Open Clinic to get my blood work done, it was not as long a wait as the day before when we needed to have a consultation first.  That was a painful one and half hour wait yesterday watching people open and close doors while the doctor consulted with each patient before me.

Why is it called “Open Clinic?”  I think the emphasis is on the word “open” because I just saw more of the same today waiting outside the laboratory. Opening and closing the door.  Ken went to pay for the lab work at the cashier while I kept my place in line.  You have to know when you approach this kind of medical service the question to ask in Russian is “Who’s last?”  Seems most people abide by this corridor protocol but for others with fussy children, it is tough.

One little girl kept moaning yesterday in Russian, “Domoy, Domoy.”  Obviously she wanted to go home with her consistent, petulant whine. But then there were also the happy toddlers under the age of 3 who played with each other.  Fiddling with door keys, chasing each other and probably a menace to the passing nurses.  But what fun to hear their squeals and laughter over the whimpers.

So, I have figured out to bring my camera next time I need to go to Open Clinic and try to cheer up these little squirts.  I had my camera yesterday to take photos but I was too out of sorts while I was internally whining about wanting to be any other place but there in the corridor of the Open Clinic.

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Photos of New Astana and Kazakhstan’s students

This morning I went back to the old part of Astana to talk to a class of 11th graders.  I had fun doing Carolyn Graham Jazz Chants with them.  They were very good at keeping to the beat and speaking out the words in unison while repeating after me.  The students took turns from each side of the room and they seemed to have fun with doing “Banker’s Wife’s Blues” and “This is Mine” and a few others.

I asked these young students to give to their Kazakh teacher written essays telling me about their grandparents.  I had given them a chance to tell me orally anything about what they knew about their grandma or grandpa after I told them about my Norwegian great grandpa who had settled in North Dakota.  Silence.  My friend who is only about 4-5 years older than her students was a bit miffed that they were so quiet for me.  I told my young friend, “No problem, just get them to write about their grandparents.”  She responded, “They dont’ like to write either.”  I said, that if they were planning on passing the IELTS test, that they would need to write.  Period…Full stop!!!

We shall see if I get any essays next week.  I then went to the Open Clinic after that short 45 minutes with the class of about 25 students.  That was an agonizing wait to find out what is wrong with my left arm.  I saw many children with their mothers.  I took photos after reading magazines and trying not to be too bored.  After an hour and half wait, we finally got to into Door #4 after about 3-4 people had been ahead of us.  So interesting to see corridor protocol at work in Kazakhstan’s medical facilities.  People pop their head in and interrupt the doctors at work as if they can multi-task.  No nurses or receptionists are there to protect the doctor/patient relationship. We had to pay on the spot for this consultation of 2,000 tenge which is over $10.  However, I think we value our time much more in the U.S. and hate to wait that long.  Unfortunately, I need to go back early tomorrow a.m. to do a blood test at this same Open Clinic.  I hope drawing my blood doesn’t take as long.  I only have a dull ache in my left arm, why am I going through all this trauma of waiting and waiting?

Okay, as promised I’ll show more photos of Astana, the new part.  After today, I am ready for the new generation of Kazakhstan to take over the medical services industry.  

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Photos of a Mix of Old and New in Astana

Since I’ve had a LOT of words on my blog lately, I’ll put up some fall photos of what is happening in Astana.  New beginnings for many people, yet I like the OLD feel to the other side of town with the narrow streets and old buildings reminding me of Kyiv, Ukraine. What I think I like about the odd mix of Astana is that it expresses what is happening with our new university.  You have the old ideas mixed with the new.  Like old log cabins and pipes above ground with modern architecture and young people being celebrated.  Fascinating place to be right now in Kazakhstan, I feel privileged to be a part of this combining old with new, new with old.

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Red Cross Talks: People Quakes and Earth Quakes

My husband and I went to a AmCham (American Chamber of Commerce) meeting the other night and heard two different speakers from Red Cross talk on Central Asian issues. Lots of facts and figures were put up on the powerpoint that we witnessed once Drina Karahasanovic was introduced.  From my notes I gathered the following:

186 countries have National Red Cross and Red Crescent

1919 was when the Intl. Federation of Red Cross was formed (wondering if this is a result of the one million Armenians who had been killed in a genocide in 1915 or if a direct result of WWI?)

Drina focused her talk on what happened in southern Kyrgyzstan after early April when the interim government was still settling in after the Talas and Bishkek violence.

June 10 – interethnic tensions

June 12 – Uzbek border opened (90,000 passed through)

June 14 – new Kyrgyz government requested international support

June 17 – 75,000 were registered by Uzbek government and put in 50 different locations

June 25 – referendum

Aug. 10 – Kyrgyzstan lifted state of emergency

What are the needs of 375,000 IDPs and refugees still after the summer problems in Osh?

1)   psycho-social needs for adults and children who witnessed the violence

2)   food and non-food items – shelter, safe water

3)   promoting social inclusion and culture of non-violence and peace

So far, 30,000 IDPS have been assisted

Many Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan are wondering how they will make it through the winter without houses and lack of food

Even though Red Cross had their “ear to the ground” and knew the Ferghana Valley has much racial tension, they were surprised at the magnitude of the problem, how it escalated so quickly.  That is a hot spot to keep watching

To know more about what the Red Cross Intl. does in other hot spots, check out or

Next, a representative for the American Red Cross (ARC) was a man of Pakistani origin named Augustine Gill.  He touched a bit on the flood in Pakistan but focused more on the problems in Central Asia related to earthquakes.  Augustine said that for every $2-3 spent on prevention it could save $7-10 in relief.  The obvious result of politicians not agreeing on locations and thus not spending money on dams that were needed, it created many homeless people.  22 million have been affected by the indecision of government and 2,000 people died as a result.  He mentioned something about “Restoring Family Links” which is something about reuniting families after a catastrophe when they are seprated.

The point was well taken that Central Asia has many major cities that are in the earthquake zone.  How much money could be spent NOW to make sure buildings are up to code so that lives and structures are not lost when the eventual earthquake hits.  They predict in the next 10-15 years.  Almaty and Bishkek are two cities high on the list of risk levels.

I know from when I first arrived and  lived Bishkek in 1993, there were standing some non-structurally sound buildings.  Where the first Peace Corps building housed their office was in a vacated hotel that had been damaged by an earthquake which had happened maybe 10-15 years earlier.  In Almaty there was a HUGE concrete walls built to stop mudslides coming down to the city. I can’t remember when but maybe in the 1960s a whole town was demolished close to Almaty due to a tremor and mountain mudslide.  I know I wrote in my blog several years ago about that.

So, there needs to be behavorial change issues that have to happen.  The Ministries of Emergency in each country need to be prepared with escape plans and food and water preparations for those people affected by earthquakes.

Now that I live in the safety of Astana, I’m thinking with all the empty apartment buildings that keep going up and being filled with hard working young people, if an earthquake happens in Almaty…well there would be homes and office buildings ready to take those who move BEFORE the big one happens.  After the earthquake that is bound to hit, then Astana will be a bustling, busy city.

I talked yesterday to an older woman from Taras who still has property in Almaty, but she has moved up to Astana to work at the new university.  She said wryly like a died-in-the-wool Californian might say, “Yeah, they are always talking about the next BIG one…”  She doesn’t believe it will happen and thinks it is just a scare tactic.  Hm…talk to those people in Japan or Turkey or China about earthquakes.  I’m just saying…

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More Kazakh Teachers’ Writings (Part II)

Yesterday’s blog was written well, it was written from the heart.  Today’s essay by a Kazakh teacher was written from the head, but just as good.  All Kazakh teachers who are worth their salt are doing the best they can to improve themselves for the good of their country.  This person from Semey wrote eloquently about how she hopes to make a difference:

“What is future for any country is an acute and constant issue of discussion.  Is it it’s natural resources?  Or maybe it is it’s land or people?  Kazakhstan is a country which can be considered rich and developed taking into consideration our land, our industry and some other indexes.

But a real wealth for us is our children.  The saying that “Our children create our future” is undoubtably correct.  What country do we want to live in?  It depends on what upbringing we give our children because they are future citizens of the country.  They will accept important decisions concerning the future development of the Republic, they’ll present our country on a world political summit meetings and find new ways of the Republic development.

Personally, I can’t do much to make a difference for the future of this country.  But being a teacher and working with children makes it possible for me to influence their young minds and create in some way their consciousness.  Surely, a teacher himself should be a very intelligent, well brought up person with the wide-range of knowledge spheres.  He should constantly work over his (or her) self-development, possess moral principles in order to be an example for his pupils.  Very often children copy or just follow the behavior model or attitude to the world from the adults they see every day.  So it’s obligatory for every teacher or tutor to be a right and good example for them.

“Great route consists of small steps” says the Chinese proverb.  My routine work at school are these small steps which may lead to the making a difference for the future of this country of Kazakhstan.”

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More Kazakh Teachers’ Writings

I’ve been privileged to read through many Kazakh and Kazakhstani teachers’ essays. They were “tested” and wrote these essays in the time allotment of half hour with an option of writing an answer to one or the other of my two questions.  This essay below answers how they can make a difference for the future of their country of Kazakhstan.  If I have more teachers to test, I will try for a different question because this is on the minds of every person in education in Kazakhstan.  Obviously, they have ready answers and this one from Semey is a very good one:

“I’ve been working as a teacher for more than 30 years and I am convinced that teachers are a special category of citizens who make their own contribution into their country’s future.  We should always stay young otherwise our students won’t follow our ideas.  Our country develops rather quickly, a lot of information gets from TV and Internet practically daily and a teacher should be able to cope with all this.  I see my aim as a teacher to help children grow up with a great load of knowledge on my subject, that is English, so they must be able to speak English fluently and understand grammar.  I remember the time when English was the only purpose of my students, they simply wanted to know the language and dreamt of being a translator.

Nowadays, students want to become specialists in fields other than English but proficiency and fluency in English are regarded highly.  So, the best way is to teach everybody as if for being an interpreter and let him or her chooe their life career themselves.  I think I can make a difference for the future of Kazakhstan by giving my students that level of knowing English that will help them become really useful and necessary for their country.  Society is a rather complicated machine and it works properly only when all the details are in their places.  So, I clearly understand my place among the variety of different details, I am not the main one, but not the least.  I am part of the chain and my responsibility is to provide future generations with the knowledge of English.  This will lead to mutual understanding between people and as a result, to a bigger progress of our country.

In a hundred years from now, nobody will remember me, but I shall live in my students’ ideas, I will be important as I was important in the life of a child.”

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Two Kazakh Teachers Write Divergent Views about Past (Part V)

Two Kazakh teachers from Kokshetau, Kazakhstan answered the second of two questions for me in just a half hour.  They wrote divergent responses based on their grandparents’ past lives.  For now, this is the last installment from the teachers and their grandparents’ past that I’ll post.  Some of these teachers did very well putting together in words what they remember about their grandparents’ past in such a short time.  Would you, as a native speaker of English, do any better?  What do YOU know about your grandparents’ and great grandparents’ past?

Teacher #1 – “My grandparents’ past is not known to be clearly. My grandparents died many years before I was born, that’s why I don’t know much about them.  My grandfather died during the Second World War, but I can tell you about my parents’ life was difficult, but full of events, I believe.  Their life is closely connected with the history of our country.  I think that it is truly supposed that each man is a part of history.  They endured with our country all difficulties and always were devoted to their Motherland.  Most of their life, they lived in the former Soviet Union and they said it was great for they never worried about the future of their children, their children could be sent to the countries of the USSR and it was always a pleasure, firstly.  Secondly, each year they were sent to resorts in summer but I believe they regret about it because they were young at that time.  

To sum it up, I want to say that now it is obvious that our country is one of the prosperous countries and my parents’ live has greatly changed to the better.  Taking into consideration that now they have a good cottage to live in and they don’t worry about anything.”

Teacher #2 – “Our grandparents live in difficult time when the government was ruled by Communists and where there were definite rules and taboos.  They told us that the politics of that time demands its rules:  Firstly, they couldn’t allow the things they wanted.  For example, they had enough money, but they couldn’t buy clothes or furniture they needed.  Next, they couldn’t have a great deal of cattle if they live in the countryside.  Moreover, they couldn’t say anything bad about their country, politics and government.  It was forbidden to them.  They obeyed the rules given by the government.

Finally, we can say that the politics of Soviet Union is not acceptable and suitable for people because people want freedom: Freedom in words and in actions. And the last, it should be said that we live in happy time, for we live in freedom. Our government gives us all the opportunities to work and study.  And we must be grateful for that to our government and president.”

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Kazakh Teachers’ Write about their Grandparents (Part IV)

The following writing is from a teacher in Semey and what she remembers about her grandfather in particular.  She wrote this essay in 30 minutes, I think you will see that she was very fond of her grandfather who was highly literate in the Soviet ways of thinking while still maintaining his Kazakh heritage. I’m sure a very tough act to pull off.

“I’d prefer to write about my grandparents and exactly about my grandfather Gani Butobayev, a teacher of Kazakh and Kazakh literature.  When people ask me why did I choose this profession [of teaching], I answer without hesitation that I inherit teacher’s skills from my grandfather Gani Butobayevich.  He was a well known teacher in town, near Ust Komenogorsky as well as a famous school director.  He was a philologist of the Kazakh language and was very smart in French, as well.  I’ve never seen him but many people who knew him as a teacher and as an individual said that he was an orator and knew how to attract people’s attention.  And no doubt, he could teach very well, he had his own methodics and ways in teaching language.  Even if I didn’t see him, I admire him, he left so much work, sometimes I look through them and realise that he was a Master in his field.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact years of his working experience, but I can guess it was in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, the educational system was different comparing with today’s.  The teachers had their own ideologies, beliefs and systems.  My grandfather was a fan of Marks [sic] & Engels, and he read all their works.  Then he wrote his own works based on these two famous politicians works.  The future seems quite different now, but 30, 40 years ago they believed people would be equal and honest with what they do.

Talking about education system of Soviet Union, it was a good one, to my mind.  Universities prepared highly qualified specialists with good knowledges and well-behaved individuals.  Comparing with these time kids, they were more polite, intelligent and able to learn.

Summarizing, I’d like to add that time passes very quickly and everything changes, but we shouldn’t change our upbringing base that was given by our grandparents, as well as our culture, honor, traditions and our origin.

God bless my Kazakhstan anytime!


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