Posts tagged Solzhenitzen

My Talks on Two Difficult Topics

The two topics of Kazakhstan and human trafficking are difficult to talk about.  The first is because not many people have heard of Kazakhstan or know where it is. The second, well, trafficking is such an awful truth about people being exploited that we’d just as soon remain ignorant.  I have given presentations on these two subjects that are close to my heart at least seven times in the last year.

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, land mass wise but it only has a population of about 16 million people.  That would be a good reason why not many Americans have ever heard of Kazakhstan. Not many Kazakhs to promote their own homeland, they are often confused with Russia but look Asian.  But they are NOT to be confused with the Chinese either. They are a proud people with a long and colorful history; their language of Kazakh has Turkish roots.

However, the Kazakhs were subjected to much cruelty under the former Soviet Union’s reign of 70 years. A third of their land was used as a penal colony for “Enemies of the People”…think gulags and Siberia and you have an idea of what Stalin thought of Kazakhstan. This beautiful land was Stalin’s dump ground of castoffs from many different countries of the former Soviet Union who didn’t fit the Soviet mold. Many of these so-called “enemies” were highly intelligent, talented and gifted. Think Solzhenitzen who spent some “jail” time in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhs were traditionally nomadic and moved their cattle, horses and sheep from pasture to pasture depending on the seasons.  When the communist elites from Moscow came in, they purposely dismantled and disrupted centuries of traditions and proclaimed the land would be used for farming instead.  Eventually they found out that the Kazakh land could not sustain agriculture, if only the Moscow elites had listened to the agronomists who knew better.

Some North Dakotans already know, Angus cattle are being shipped to Kazakhstan now to once again graze the steppes.  I heard from one woman the other night that the Kazakhs are flying over North Dakota cattlemen to help show Kazakh herdsmen how to take care of these expensive investments.  Many impregnated Angus cows and their calves had died from the initial shipment because there is much to know in keeping them alive.  Of course, the original Kazakh used to know all this about breeding cattle and herding, unfortunately that knowledge was drummed out of them by the Soviet system.

As an educator, I was far removed from anything having to do with agriculture or cattle breeding since I taught for 3 ½ years in both capital cities of Almaty and Astana.  The former capital of Almaty was in the south close to the Kyrgyzstan border, the new capital of Astana as of ten years ago is more centrally located to the north.  In my talks I try to impress on my audience the construction of elaborate, eccentric buildings which are going up with great speed (not accuracy) in the gleaming new capital city of Astana. These edifices are meant to impress foreign dignitaries who come for short state visits with the president of the country. Regrettably these important foreign guests never see beyond the borders of the glitzy cities of Almaty and Astana.  The countryside is a well kept secret that could gain much from tourism except that Kazakhstan is just so far away and difficult to get to.

How did I get involved in my interest in human trafficking? I tell my audiences about how I often saw many sour faced men look out their bus windows as they were being transported through the city to their construction sites.  I know now I was probably looking at a busload of slaves from other countries who were helpless to escape their forced servitude.  They may have come from countries like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan or even Russia and had their passports and documents taken from them as soon as they arrived. Perhaps the threat of being in Kazakhstan illegally kept them silenced. Sadly they had been promised good paying jobs to support their families back home but under their Turkish bosses, they were stripped bare of their freedoms.

Human trafficking is becoming a huge problem or at least my awareness of it has become larger. As much as I would prefer to quit giving talks and making other people more knowledgeable on these two subjects, I keep coming back to the simple fact that no one knows what I know, seen what I’ve seen, or care about those people who are so far away who have gotten themselves in complicated situations.  I keep hearing new stories that are not meant to shock me or break my heart, but they do anyway.  The cruelty of man against man or man against woman continues in different forms such as slaves working in tobacco and cotton plantations, child soldiers, building construction, forced marriages, prostitution, pornography, surrogate maternity, transplantation of organs.

So whatever is going on in the rest of the world fits the Minnesota statute that defines what human trafficking really is: “The recruiting, transportation, harboring or receipt of a person by any means for the purpose of forced labor, slavery, commercial sexual exploitation or other practices similar to slavery.”  [Minnesota Statute 609.281 subd. 5, 2009] The problem is that we have some of these same problems going on in Minnesota and North Dakota, not just in a far off place in Central Asia.

Many statistics can report the same things in different ways but I’ve heard that Minnesota is ranked 10th or 13th in the U.S. for harboring slaves because we have the interstates from TX to Duluth (port city). We also enjoy the speed of travel along our other ribbon of interstate from east to west on I-94.  North Dakota and South Dakota share an interstate on Minnesota’s western border with I-29 making Fargo a hub where traffickers can transact speedy deliveries of their “merchandise.”  Minnesota has rural, out of the way places where illegals can be hidden but we also have the cosmopolitan city of Minneapolis and St. Paul with the diversity of cultures.

That is why any profit made with the sales of “Card-Again” cards after my 30-minute presentations go to “Not For Sale, Minnesota.” They know where to give that money to the shelters in the Twin Cities for victims of trafficking.  We have already given over one thousand dollars to two different shelters in Kazakhstan that was raised last fall by women at my church.  Almost two thousands dollars of donations and profits from my church and sales of cards have been channeled to the “Not For Sale” organization which was started five years ago in the San Francisco area.

Finally, there is something caring people can do besides donating cards to be recycled into “Card-Again” cards or buying these cards or gift bags, they can become more aware on a grassroots level to be more proactive to help those slaves who have no voice or power to free themselves.  Everyone can be a modern-day “abolitionist” if they have a big enough heart to bring about more education and awareness.  Here is an opportunity in the Twin Cities:

Not For Sale, Minnesota has been asked to host a Backyard Abolitionist Academy (www.backyardacademy.org). Basically, this is a mini-version of the academies they put on in San Francisco. It’s great because it allows those who cannot travel to California a chance to get educated on some very important topics. The Academy will be August 16-18 and will feature 4 tracks: Strategic Investigation, Just Market Supply-Chains, Innovative Aftercare and Proactive Faith Communities. Participants will be able to choose two of the four tracks. The cost to register is $129, but students and early registrants (before June 15) will only pay $99.

[A side note, I haven’t meant to offend anyone in Kazakhstan but apparently this blogsite has been blocked from any followers in Kazakhstan being able to read my updates.  Let me know if this is just an isolated incident because several people I know in Astana are not able to access this blog. ???]

Leave a comment »

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.

Leave a comment »