Posts tagged Christopher Robbins

“I Write as I Please” 1935 book (Part IV)

If you look at the index of Walter Duranty’s book, it is chock full of names and places, five pages worth.  As a journalist Duranty knew to include as many people as possible which may have brought this book up on the charts of the New York Times bestseller list, if they kept track of such things back then.  People like to see their names in print whether in a newspaper article or in a book, so he knew that all who were “readers” would like to buy a copy of this book which was published so long ago.  Yet, there are many things that remain the same or history definitely repeats itself.  I’ll continue where I left off with what I think are interesting quotes:

p. 212 – Liatsis theory of Red Terror and warning and example [other references to who wrote the manual on terror and how to get people to do what the communist regime wanted them to do]

“His Majesty’s Opposition” – English phrase – W.D. learned to read between the lines of the Soviet Press. “Bewildering difference between Russian and non-Russian and Bolshevik and non-Bolshevik mentality.” [I have the same problem here in Astana, what is Kazakh and not Kazakh, what is post-Soviet and what is just human nature?]

In the spring of 1930, Walter Duranty went to Alma Ata where Trotsky was first exiled to do an interview.  So few references to Central Asia so to me this is interesting.  Christopher Robbins, in his book “Apples are from Kazakhstan” writes about Trotsky’s exile to Kazakhstan.

I like the following poem that Duranty quoted, it fits with living here in Kazakhstan, especially in the capital city of Astana:

p. 240

There was an owl who in an oak

The more he heard the less he spoke

The less he spoke the more he heard

Soldiers, imitate that wise bird

p. 247 – “The tempo of life by which the Bolsheviks /////[can’t read my writing] the rush of their progress, the haste of their desire to catch up and surpass the capitalist world in material achievement, has been too swift to allow any of them to pause awhile by the wayside, and think.”

p. 249 Three old enemies of newspaper:  time, space and selection

How to handle news in Russia – 1st rule – believe nothing that I hear, little of what I read and not at all of what I see

p. 278 – “I had no intention of being an apologist for the Stalin administration” [whether he intended or not, he was the mouthpiece that many people listened to, especially Governor Roosevelt from New York, who later opened up relations with U.S.S.R. in 1933 when he became President.]

(to be continued)

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Icy Cold, Resolute Pine Trees and Kazakh Apples

PB100114Reading “Apples are from Kazakhstan” for the third time brings new insights into old thoughts and vice versa.  I liked the part that I read to my listening students today about the President of this great country of Kazakhstan, in his own words spoken to the author, Christopher Robbins.

The Communist Party was like an army in those days.  It was simply not done to disagree even slightly with your superiors.  We were all meant to be “soldiers of the Party” and soldiers had to obey orders. (p. 261)

The leader of this great land continued to reveal what it was like for him under the Communist Party system:

Years of exhausting hard work, with no solution at hand, build a slow-burning anger.  I saw all the flaws in the system.  Every year the numbers were faked, and every year everybody worked flat out to show 101 per cent. You dared not show only 99 per cent. That would have meant everybody would be kicked out of their positions. (p. 263)

Somehow I can relate to these two above quotes as an English teacher at a westernized university in Almaty but maybe my problem is that I have put in 110 percent.  Maybe I’m feeling the icy, cold reception to my ideas, my student-centered ideas. I’m misunderstood by my “superiors”  in a land that is supposedly hospitable and friendly to foreigners. 

I’m caught in a wedge now because I also have Kazakh students who are lazy and are turning in their final papers and wanting all sorts of breaks.  My response, “Sorry, this paper looks like a blah, blah paper,” or I’ll say, “sorry this is NOT your own words” or “This paper used personal pronouns, OR you are to use the other authors words but give them PROPER attribution!!!”

A lot of fakery going on, I’m afraid.  I’ll end with one last quote from “The Howling of Wolves” chapter from Apples are from Kazakhstan.

“The Soviet system was trapped in an enormous vicious circle.  Bureaucratic legerdemain made it appear that plans were fulfilled when the reality was the opposite.  Projects known to be doomed to failure were approved for political reasons, and when they inevitably collapsed the plans were quietly revised…in other words, the more inefficiently it worked, the better it seemed to be doing.” (p. 264)

Oh, just ONE more last quote which seems appropo, again the KZ president speaking of Soviet years gone by,

Whether you liked it or not, you had to follow the unwritten rules – you had to fawn on your superiors and offer hospitality…the only way to get investment was to be clever and resourceful, and in our system this led to degradation, crime and corruption. The system virtually demanded it. (p. 266)

How do you like THEM apples?

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Re-reading “Apples are from KZ” a third time

Christopher Robbins certainly knew how to write a good book. I am re-reading his book which is also titled “The Land that Disappeared” but I prefer the one in my blog title above.  I rarely re-read books unless they are very good.  I don’t often watch the same movie more than once or twice. I just believe there are far too many books to read and movies to watch to double up and do it all again. 

Several days ago I just finished reading the New York Times bestseller book “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett which was recommended to me by a friend here in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  I need to discuss this book with her, there are many different layers that need to be sorted out.  For me, it was an emotional book, my friend had termed it “brain candy.” 

Back to Robbins book which makes me laugh because even though it was written several years ago, he nailed so much of what I see and experience every day.  He has a wry, candid way of getting his point across that I can totally agree with him page after page.  The following are examples of what I like about Robbins’ writing:

p. 34 Quote from a middle-aged Kazakh philosopher: “One of the things you have to credit the Soviet system with is education. It was very good, and if you were bright it helped you go all the way, even to Moscow University.  And even the small towns had good libraries.  I began to read the Russian classics, and grew to love and be greatly influenced by Chekhov.”

Over a week ago, the president of this great country of Kazakhstan after giving a speech aimed at KZ students, was asked by a student at another university in Almaty, what he read.  She was a journalist and curious about how she could improve herself.  He answered, Chekhov and Tolstoy.  He also went on to say what else he read but I was struck with how much the Russian authors had informed him in his leadership role of this country.

p. 37 “We Kazakhs have always been clear that it was not the Russians who were to blame for our plight – it was the State. Under the Soviets many Russians were sent here forcibly to work as slave labor in the Gulag.  They were victims, not oppressors.  And we Kazakhs knew that the same applied to all the other nationalities deported here – Chechens, Turks, Germans, Koreans. It was very hard for them – they had nothing and they faced terrible privation.  Perhaps that’s why the Kazakhs became the most tolerant people in the Soviet Union.”

I like the above quote made by the Kazakh philosopher in Robbins’ book.  That is why I love my job here in Almaty as a TEFL teacher and why I love my Kazakh, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian and all the other students in my classrooms.  I don’t see them as separate cultures, I see them as people.

This philosopher went on to say the following as quoted by Robbins:

p. 40 “And there has been a disastrous decline in the education system.  It began in the 1970s when 40 percent of students started failing their exams.  That was considered too many by Moscow so an order came from the top to make the students look good.  The quality of the teaching dropped off.”

Need I write any more about what I am witnessing today in our “westernized” university classroom?  Many of the good English teachers from the villages or towns throughout KZ have fortunately found better paying jobs outside of teaching.  The oil industry that keep Kazakhstan economically viable compared to all the other Central Asian nations, pays heftier salaries than in education.  The best paying teacher jobs for Kazakh citizens are found at my university compared to those other universities that are state run in our oil rich city of Almaty. 

Back to reading “Apples are from Kazakhstan.”

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Kazakh Faces on Train from Astana to Almaty

When my husband came back on the SLOOWWW train from Astana last week he was in the same compartment as these three travellers.  Fortunately he brought a good book with him to read, “Apples are from Kazakhstan” by Christopher Robbins to help while away the hours.  The older gentleman was quite hungry and his eyes lit up when he saw what Ken brought with him from Cholpon whom I blogged about yesterday.  She had sent with Ken some traditional Kazakh snack and the older Kazakh man was ready to have at it. 

Sometimes this older Kazakh man would go into some kind of a memorized story and the two younger Kazakhs would respectfully show their attention to him even though it looked like he was a poor man.  A proud man of his family of 5-6 children he is really RICH because they all live in Kazakhstan.  He supported George Bush and was against the action that happened in Georgia in August.  He thinks Kazakhstan could be next to that kind of hostile treatment.  That’s what I can remember from what my husband told me about this Kazakh man.  His eyes look like he has seen much and shows that his heart has been hurt perhaps as much.  So many stories to tell about this country and its past, so little time.

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People in the Astana area

The mosiac is from the Astana Vokzal (train station), and the oil painting portrait of Nicolai Ivanovich Vavilov is fromDry Lands Grain Farming Institute” named after agriculturalist Baraev, north east of Astana. We went by car with Murat, son of Kanat, a friend of Ken’s along the newly opened expressway.  Once we arrived to this place where it was once considered THEE place for the most prestigious of agriculturalists in the former Soviet Union, we toured the institute’s museum. About a month ago, I read to my listening students the sad story about Vavilov from Christopher Robbin’s book “Apples are from Kazakhstan.”  Vavilov was an important man due to his work and was highly promoted by the USSR but who later suffered much at the hands of Stalin when he contradicted his collectivization policies.

Much sadness observed in the ALZHIR area but we met these friendly, little girls who wanted to practice their English in the small town of Akmol.  Are they aware of the sad past as portrayed by the mural at the newly built ALZHIR museum?  Maybe they have distant relatives who came to be punished at ALZHIR during the 1930s and 1940s purges.  The final photo is one young man making a wish on top of the Baiterek tower overlooking Astana.  Maybe he is hoping for peace while outfitted in his military uniform.

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Build Up Astana and THEY Will Come

 Astana, the NEW capital of Kazakhstan, brand spanking new! Ten years ago President Nursultan Nazarbayev had the vision to build up this small frontier town into a megapolis of half million people. He probably had “Field of Dream” visions of constructing skyscrapers. Surely the big players in investment would come and fill the palatial buildings. That remains to be seen and the building projects continue in different stages of completion.

I was surprised how huge Astana has become from Akmola, what it was known as 15 years ago. We are staying in the old part of the city where it has the typical Soviet style of architecture. We visited the ball on top of the tower, Baiterek, that faces ALL directions, toward the president’s palace to the east, the airport where Ken’s cousin Jack flies into is to the south (makes sense, closest to Almaty as the crow flies). The better part of Astana is to the north and to the west are the flat plains. What is missing are the mountains and I wonder how Nazarbayev copes with the lack of mountains though one would think that it would make construction much easier if everything is on level ground.

Riding the Spanish train that went east first and then north we had in our coupee a Russian gentleman whose business is with Astana’s drinking water. He said that the water table is quite high in Astana as it was built on a swamp. Rivers dissect the city into Left bank and right bank or Old City, reminded me a little bit of Kyiv and also a tinge of San Antonio, TX. There are no basements in any of the buildings as a consequence. I’m wondering how the architects deal with sinking of land due to abundance of swamp water. At least they don’t have to consider earthquakes which are known to happen in Almaty along the Tian Shan mountains. Too much for me to ponder on as an English teacher. I just hope the buildings being built will be filled but not too full that they start sinking into the saturated land.

We also had as our traveling companion on the fast train to Astana a woman by the name of Zhibek (silk) as in Zhibek Zholy which we all know means Silk Road. She is in her late twenties and her English was very good. She told me stories of her family being from a wealthy tribe on her mother’s side. As is typical in Kazakh families, the oldest son inherited everything. However, when communism clamped down on kulaks, they evenly distributed the wealth to the youngest son and hid the gold and silver. Consequently, the oldest brother was sent off to Siberia while the youngest one who appeared poor, stayed behind. As in many other stories I’ve learned, they buried the silver and gold to find it again for later use.

As it turns out, Zhibek’s grandmother was taken care of by the younger brother in Kazakhstan. She told of how her grandmother’s younger sister when they returned from Siberia to Kazakhstan was put on the shelf in the train. They had no food to feed the baby or themselves. Their thought was, if the baby is still alive by the time they get back to Kazakhstan, okay, she would live. This same little girl when she was 2-3 years old was deathly afraid of sheep, she had never seen them before in Siberia. She would scream and carry on whenever they got close to her. As discipline, the mother tied the little girl to the sheep so that she would not be afraid of the sheep any longer.

For Kazakhs of the past, breeding and raising sheep used to be their livelihood and to have fits about sheep was considered unnatural. What was also very unnatural was to have the collectivization project come through their sheep-herding steppes and have the soil upturned to plant vast fields of grain. Zhibek’s mother remembers seeing her grandfather crying when their sacred family burial plot was plowed under. Their ancestors memories were desecrated with the grain growing above their withered remains. Since Zhibek’s family had been a wealthy one in the past, they had had their own place to bury the dead. However, with collectivization Zhibek’s great grandfather saw that being erased as well as his future dwelling place for his old bones. Thus, the tears.

So, to put together these sad stories from the past with that of what I witnessed of Astana the glittering new capital, was a bit disjointing. Reading Christopher Robbins’ book In Search of Kazakshtan and the chapter titled “Howling of Wolves” concerns Nazarbayev’s sad past, similar to Zhibek’s family. How do the Kazakhs regain what has been lost of their heritage with its tribal values of honor and respect for the old while keeping pace with what is going on in the globalized world swirling around them? I guess they can look to China as an example of achieving much the same thing. No, China is too real a threat as is Russia. Thus, the reason for Nazarbayev wanting the capital to be moved from southern Kazakhstan in Almaty to the north.

I was surprised, as was Robbins, about the Kazakhs not appreciating Solzhenitsen and his contributions to the literary world about how difficult life was in the gulags. I should not be surprised because the Ukrainians react the same way to Solzhenitzen, he was a thorough going Russian nationalist to the exclusion of all other ethnic groups. As it turns out, Kazakhstan had many death camps, especially around Karaganda. Tomorrow I hope to have a student take me to one of the places Robbins mentions in his book, in Ajir, about 50 kilometers from Astana. Ajir was the place where the wives of the “Enemies of the People” were taken, guilty by association and sadly worked to the bone. Why do I want to see such a depressing place? Out of curiosity I suppose but also because not much is known about this by a majority of westerners, to our shame.

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Aral Sea or Semipalatinsk: Which is the Worst Disaster?

I asked my students in a quiz based on a short excerpt from Christopher Robbin’s book: “What is the difference between the two environmental disasters of the Aral Sea and Semipalatinsk?  Which is worse and why?” The following are their answers:


In my opinion, the disaster in Aral Sea is uncomparable with the environmental disaster in Semipalatinsk.  It’s quite a different thing.  The most shameful in both of these catastrophes is that now our government doesn’t pay any attention on the victims.  In Soviet times somebody planned the solutions of the problems, made decisions.  But now we can see nothing!  Where are these plans?  We have only facts:  Kazakhs allowed to make a polygon on their land, Kazakhs can’t make any money with the Aral Sea, people die from diseases because both Semypalatinsk and Aral Sea are disasters.  But our government can only talk too much about the consequences and do nothing with them.  This is the most shameful!


About Semipalatinsk, we have some communities that are working with this problem like “Nevada-Semipalatinsk”as some governmental project that wants to reduce influence of radiation and to help people that live there.  But there are only few communities that work to help Aral Seas problem.

Maybe everybody thinks that radiation is more dangerous than vanishing of sea.  But vanishing of Aral is world-size problem.  I read that salt from Aral was found in Central Russia.  Can you even imagine what distance it is?  It is so it can influence on Syberia, Northern Africa and Europe.


Aral Sea was the place where people can rest, it was a place where fish was widespread, of course after cultivation of cotton, Soviet destroyed the natural environment of Aral Sea zone.  Nowadays when someone goes to that zone, they’re afraid that they can get some illness, you can call Aral Sea zoneà”Dead Zone.”

But Semipalatinsk tragedy is also, and more disastrous than Aral Sea problem.  The effect is still widespread, the nuclear things still in the ground, that’s why Semipalatinsk fruits and vegetables are the worst selling ones.  People are afraid to try that product, because they are afraid that someday they will give a birth, and a child that is born will be disabled, as many of them in Semipalatinsk region are.  It’s the tragedy that still affects on our society, both of them are!


The Aral Sea disaster clearly shows that insatiable human desire for more and more and its consequences.  It also shows Moscow’s indifference to the other countries of USSR and their citizens.  I think at this point a lot of Kazakhstan citizens became disappointed in Russia’s image of “Big Brother.” Comparing Aral Sea disaster with Semipalatinsk disaster is very hard especially in terms of their negative effect on people’s health but there are two reasons why I think Aral Sea disaster is worse.  First, is that it affects flora and fauna of not only Aral Sea region, but even further.  As we heard in the article, salt form the Aral Sea brought by wind to the Europe.  The second reason is the time needed to bring everything back to the good.  It will take a lot of time to bring Aral Sea to the past size and bring life to that region back.


What I find most shameful is a huge Soviet Union with a lot of scientists who couldn’t think about this action!  I mean if there were enough clever people in the USSR, they should thought before doing something!

But I still find the situation in Semipalatinsk worse, because the affect of this catastrophe is still existing in that area!  And people who died, suffered and those who suffer even now can’t even blame anybody, as there is nobody to blame!  That was really awful action and completely irresponsible one!  Soviet Union put it’s step in our history and environment and although there were some good acts, those two are really bad.


The problem of Aral Sea…The worst part of it is that it is probably one of the biggest mistakes of humans referring to environment.  When you see the ships standing in the middle of what used to be a sea and now is a desert, and look in the eyes of men – former sailors, it’s a sad picture.

I really hope that the scientists will come up with a solution to Aral Sea disaster, because it causes a lot of problems not only in Kazakhstan  – the salt from the sea gets to the Arctic!


The disaster of Aral Sea is more widespread.  The Soviet Union government did many stupid and harmful things.  If we destroy nature, nature destroy us.  The effect of Aral disaster is longer, more time consuming to repair.

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