Posts tagged USSR

Two links about Siberia and the former Soviet Union

Sometimes I discover the most amazing stories from my FB friends who are currently living in a country of the former Soviet Union or are back home after surviving living in the former USSR.  Check out this YouTube clip that shows real footage of Lenin and has interesting graphics. It definitely has a point.

Definitely on a roll with the supposed resurgence of the Soviet Union.  Also, check out what a family of Old Believers went through living in hiding in the bowels of Siberia, 40 years away from contact from the Soviet Union. Amazing  and sad story of their endurance against all odds. This is from the Smithsonian website:

I have another funny one done by Ben Kling called Dictator Valentines which also include Trotsky and Marx. They are funny but this will have to do for now. Look them up yourself.

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“Bad Writer is a Bad English Teacher”…oh really?!

The attached photo is a wonderfully warm, Kazakh teacher who got hurt by her own educational system while teaching at a westernized university in Almaty. I knew her to be a good, motherly type mentor to her university students.  She is neither a bad writer or bad teacher but her superiors dismissed her without any explanation.  I’ll withhold her name but let it be known that I witnessed several painful injustices (my own included) within this so-called institute of higher learning while teaching three and a half years in Kazakhstan.

I want to highlight the writings from two Kazakh women in this blog. One I know only from reading a website titled “Vox Populi” and the other is a former student of mine.  I think the two go together because they are suffering the same angst of living in a country of Kazakhstan that is going through phenomenal growth spurts.  There’s baggage from what used to exist from the Soviet Union, yet hopeful anticipation in what could be their future in Kazakshtan.  The first one is named Madina and a summary of what she said in Russian in an interview to Vox Populi after I used Google translation.

“A typical dream for us 30 year olds in Kazakhstan is to go where we feel our rights are not violated, where there is law and order and where the government works for its citizens.  I am part of an astonishing generation, we were born in the Soviet era where we grew up during the breakup of a single state (USSR) but have taken off running during the construction of a new nation (Kazakhstan). Therefore, many of our own parents will never understand that we have a sense of choice.

When I was 27 years old, I began to choke on what surrounded me, the country, the people, our laws.  My friends and I found the easiest way out, we just ran away and left for a half a year to the United States.  America seemed at that moment a bulwark of democracy.  I left Kazakhstan with the underlying idea of staying in the U.S.  This is so typical of us to dream to go somewhere else…but experience showed us all the same problems in the U.S.  Eden, NO!  I went back to Kazakhstan but I came back more relaxed.  I learned to accept the imperfections of the world.

Even with blatant injustice in Kazakhstan, my contribution is to keep working on this project to uncover everything that happens in our country to show a different life, to expose social problems and talk about difficult situations.  Unfortunately, I am not a revolutionary in spirit, to ride with a sword.  Also, I do not like publicity, but I admire people who are active citizens righting wrongs.  If we had a “Swamp,” I would have walked out.  No, instead I have gotten up on a stage, not to be encouraged but to be listened to and supported.  Civic engagement in Kazakhstan doesn’t happen because the majority believes that stability is better than change.”

Here’s the second one from Aigerim, a former student of mine who nails it about where the problem of slavery works into the mindset of the Kazakh citizen. She was a teacher who got in trouble with her superiors for pointing out some errors in her contract.  They are to teach critical thinking to their classes but at the same time they are to obey and not object to injustices.  She is NOT a bad person, teacher or writer…read on:

“Bad writer is a bad English teacher. I want to be a good teacher, or at least not another person reciting same old song or grammar rule. I stand firm on the point that any skills or knowledge taught should be relevant.

When I conducted IELTS classes at my former work place, which is an elite focused and fully funded from President`s fund, I committed to turn this extra-curricular free of charge classes into a writing experiment. We watched and reflected on films, then wrote on blogs. Some of students created and posted their own poetry. Indeed, learners came up to a stage where they reflected on their lives. They wrote great essays about teenage suicides and problems of education in our country.

While my students were making their best in critical thinking, my own free speaking brought me into trouble with a department manager as I enquired too many questions on controversial points in a contract. Well, I don`t regret appealing against bosses, I am quite happy with my new job. When my writers learned about my resignation due to my being a wrong format, one student replied with a phrase that still warms my heart, “If you’re A4 format and they’re A5 (smaller), that doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher, you’re just different.”

Young people can think critically until they are framed into stupid rules. Nowadays it is common to think that you have to say what your teacher wants to hear and you get a point, do what your boss wants and keep your place of employment. The problem of slavery exists not only on construction sites and massage parlors, but in thoughts and enslaved wills of ordinary people.

My colleagues were obedient and got another year of their teaching contract. However, I wonder whether these teachers are able to teach young people to think critically and act globally.”

I love my former student’s writing about being different and indeed she is NOT a bad teacher or a bad writer.  On days like this, I feel the same where it is difficult to write and English is my native language.  Some days I feel defeated in trying to explain from my “A4 framework” that I don’t fit in with the A5 environment whether it is in the U.S. OR in Kazakhstan.

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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 ( 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. ???]

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Let’s make Joseph (Stalin) Infamous!!!

I’m still bothered by the hype created by the Kony 2012 people. So Joseph Kony has been marauding and pillaging for 26 years and tragically altered the lives of 30,000 children and their families. What about what Joseph Stalin did for 30 years in the USSR, what about the millions who were starved to death in the 1930s in Ukraine?  Why is it so much easier to turn Americans heads to something that is going on in the jungles of Africa?  With all the historical literature, police records and archival evidence at our disposal about the atrocities of the gulag in Russia and specifically the karlag system in Kazakhstan, why the silence?

These very same people who are lobbying, want our U.S. military to go and save the African children who are kidnapped. Aren’t they the same people who were against President George Bush who wanted to get Hussein out of Iraq and tried for war crimes and capture bin Laden for 9/11? Didn’t we deploy our military to those countries?  Apparently this is different. We are supposedly only going to send 100 “advisors” to be on the ground.  That’s how Vietnam started.  Okay, so now as of December 2011, Joseph Kony has been served notice he is the top most wanted man according to the I.C.C.

What’s this latest thing with George Clooney being arrested today in front of the Sudan embassy in Washington D.C? He is NOT one of my favorite actors (“Perfect Storm” was the last bomb I watched of him though he was funny in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”)  Does Clooney know something about Joseph Kony moving back from Uganda into the very place where he was armed by the Muslim leadership in the north to shoot and kill the Christian population in southern Sudan?  I guess the American media and publicity will shed light on what is going on right now so the killing and kidnapping can stop. YES, I am all for Joseph Kony being stopped.

However, more energy should be exerted in our school systems to know the atrocities that Joseph Stalin committed and make him infamous.  He was far, far worse than Hitler but the academic community is silent on that score, why?  Instead of making Joseph Kony famous, let’s make Joseph Stalin infamous.  The youthful enthusiasm going into this during election year has me greatly puzzled.  April 20th will be the big night out for people to demonstrate their feelings about Kony.  What if Kony is captured and killed before then?  That would be a little bit of a bummer for the organizers, right?

To me, this is too well orchestrated…too sinister on many levels. I hope I am wrong about the Invisible Children founders.  Gavin Russell certainly is a cute little boy who could tell the bad guy (Joseph Kony) from the good guy Jacob who lost his brother to the L.R.A. Gavin’s father is doing what he can for justice.  However, I’m reminded of the verse from Micah:

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God?”

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Pokazukha and Kazakhstan’s political leader, the very one

The following piece was recently written by a Kazakh linguist who has since moved to America. She has a certain perspective on Kazakh culture and politics that only a person who loves her own country can have.  I’m also grateful that she corrected my spelling of Pakazooka (see my last post) since I always wondered what the spelling really was for this Russian term.  I had only heard about it from my husband who speaks Russian and he muttered it plenty while we lived in Ukraine for seven years and Kazakhstan for three and a half years.

It’s “показуха” or in standard Soviet transliteration, “Pokazukha” (“poh-kah-zoo-kah” phonetically). From the Russian verb “показывать” (to show) + noun-forming “-ух” suffix which in this case denotes a negative attitude towards the term.

Yes, like you said, a show off, a pretense, a dog and pony show.

There’s a colloquial equivalent with a stronger critical connotation often used by the youth, “понт(-ы)”, or “Pont(-y)”. In Kazakh we would say “maqtan” or “ozing-ozi maqtan” in the same sense.

Yes, I left Kazakhstan because I simply couldn’t be physically present in my home country that I love so dearly, so much was the daily suffocation from the political environment and injustice, so many things I didn’t agree with. I started being a bit involved in the politics, I just couldn’t help it, but I strongly resented the idea. Too dirty games. Potentially very dangerous for my loved ones, too, couldn’t afford it…….

About Nazarbayev, unfortunately, he is just a son of his people… My mom’s friend, a composer, singer, “aitysker” (traditional Kazakh dombyra-debater), studied with Nazarbayev at the same school for 10 years (or maybe 8, not sure). So I personally know what the roots of our country’s leader are. Besides, I simply have eyes to see. I know well what his personal qualities and ambitions, especially after working as a translator for a few months at a Japanese company and having to translate during meetings with very high-ranking Kazakhstan officials. He is no leader for a country, he is far from that caliber. He should have been a director of a steelworks plant as the maximum. But, unfortunately, in the communist party of the USSR the only qualities from the leaders in the Central Asian Republics that were valued were of total submissiveness to the centre in Moscow, lack of moral principles to sack your opponents and a strong stamina to keep your subjects in fear and submission. A perfect recipe for a dictator, isn’t it?

So, Nazarbayev, having all those qualities and unquenchable primitive selfish ambitions, was brought up high into the leadership of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic’s communist party, one of the least important provinces in the USSR at the time. A nobody as a convenient pawn in a nobody land, as far as Moscow was concerned. Not these days, of course, no, he is a “mighty leader of a rapidly developing country”, a true “leader of the world”, a “would-be Nobel prize winner”… How petty and sad…  What I am deeply ashamed of is that the Kazakh people, with all their wisdom and talent, tolerate such man as their leader well over 20 years… Then we fully deserve the bitter fruits we see appearing in our poor land!!! I know it is not fair to say it, and I bear a 1/7millionth of the responsibility (talking about the adult population of Kazakhstan) too, but that is how I see it…

Anyways, sorry for all the emotions. Realistically, I know as an emigrant I will never be able to contribute much back to my country. And I don’t want to now, as I have come to firm belief that you cannot change the human nature, and thus you cannot change the world we live in… All you can do is set achievable goals in your small circle of influence and to do the best you can with whatever you have… Just to be honest and love people, that’s all… And then, what happens, happens. If you change even one person’s life along the way, it is good. But no attacks on windmills Don Quixote-style for me…

I had lived many years in a communist fairy tale and have been harshly disillusioned once. It was a very bitter pill to swallow that I think has inoculated me for life from the bug of idealism…

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Highlights from Kazakh Readers Comments (Part II)

These are comments over the past year that I cherish because they are written out by Kazakhs who read this blog.  I originally thought that it would be for westerners to gain insights into this difficult culture.  Apparently I have erudite, Kazakh readers who are very competent in English. How I wish there were more true, historical stories written for more westerners to know and understand Central Asia.

‘They DO have stories, just not in the written form!!!’

Wrong. A nasty stereotype that even many a Kazakh were led to believe… The problem is, and I mean a major problem, that the modern-day historians are either half-professional or not interested in researching the real history that IS available for those willing to dig deep enough.”

Another Kazakh woman who lives in Arizona wrote the following and I blogged about it earlier.  I value what she wrote and wish more Kazakhs who live in the U.S. Canada or U.K. would write more about their beloved country so we, as westerners, can understand what happened in the past.

“I’m pleased to find at least 1 article in whole web net from Kazakh person about Kazakh art and history through Kazakh rugs. I can’t believe how much Soviet law and specially dominating Russians forced Kazakhs to forget their own history, lifestyle, art. Yes, Soviet law& KGB prohibited any kind of private business in USSR. Kazakhstan was tiered apart between Russia and China. East Turkestan became colony of China and now has new colonial Han’ name SinZsyan. Best Antique Kazakh rugs were stolen by communists in USSR and China. Kazakhs couldn’t make money by weaving rugs anymore. Since all Turkic countries became a colonies of USSR or CPR(Chinese People Republic), and no westerns were allowed at our Silk Road markets; Turkey became a major market of all Turkic rugs, Kazaks, Yughurs, Uzbeks, Altaics, Turkmen, Azeri, Kirgiz, Gagauzs, and etc. Kazakhs were still weaving some of kilims, but no rugs anymore. Pakistan became major producer of Kazakh design rugs now. My grandfather weaved flat rug; Klem or Kilim. After taking part of World War 2 he tried to feed his big family in Kazakh village on Russian territory near Zhyaik (Ural) river. He had ships, horses, goats. He was hunting and selling fur skin. KGB put him to jail in 1982 where he starngely died in 2 days. He was 50 y.o., his youngest kid was 14 y.o. his widow had no job, raising 2 kids and still doesn’t speak Russian. We still keep kilim by my grandfather. We used it once: on his funeral.

Correction to my previous post: at the time my grandfather died, my grandmother was raising 4 underage kids and had 3 more students. She never worked, she was helping my granddad to wash shipskin, fox, rabbit furskin, weaving wool for kilims, sawing, knitting, making felted wool for “valenki”. In one word she made Kazakh hand crafts and tried to sell it sometimes. She stayed true Kazakh, spoke Kazakh, prayed to Allah, had big Koran at home, even though it was strictly prohibited by Russian Federation law. Unfortunately new generations, her kids never were encouraged to learn her skills, since they wouldn’t be able to live on this. I do remember a little, but can’t do even 100th part of what my grandparents did.”

Various and Sundry Comments

The other day I was volunteering with players from a major league football team at a construction site of an affordable housing project. Apparently they were sent by the club owners or something to do this ‘humane work’ as they didn’t show any desire to do real work. Those young footballers were as strong as one can be but they were unwilling to do any heavy physical labour. The site manager had a hard time convincing them to do roofing and framing instead of painting, which was assigned to volunteer ladies. The IQ of the players seemed to be, well, below average. I was also reading that the untreated brain injuries are pretty common as the team owners don’t like the players to be on hospital beds but out in the field playing and earning them $$$.

Bottomline: I will think twice before sending my sons to play (American) football.

Final comment from a Kazakh reader makes me wonder what books he has been reading.  There certainly are a lot of anti-American type books written by non-patriotic Americans themselves.  But then that is what “freedom of expression” was so hard fought for by our early founders of this nation of the U.S.:

“With all due respect, I only disagree with your statement “all the challenges that the U.S. has overcome to be where it is today”. I wouldn’t like at all for Kazakhstan to be where the U.S. is today. The economy is very close to total collapse. Moral degradation. Crime rate has gone through the roof. Censorships of all media. Military aggression for natural resources and political dominance. And the list goes on and on.”

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Highlights from Kazakh Readers’ Comments on my blog

I started this Kazakhnomad blog almost four years ago when I returned to Kazakhstan after a gap of 15 years.  My intention was to inform a western readership about this amazing country…the good and the bad.  If you read the following articulate comments written by Kazakhs, you will see that my base of readers is perhaps not as western as I first thought.  I have had comments from Dutch, French, German, Spanish, British, etc.  When looking at my daily hits I can also tell that my blog readers are from Italy, China, Singapore, Japan, Korea, etc.  What I value most are the comments from the Kazakhs and Kazakhstanis who can inform me about their country.  See what you think and feel free to comment…

The following is from one of my former students, naturally she would be flattering.  Read tomorrow’s blog entry and there are some contrary comments:

“I like reading your blog. You write so many useful and educating things. My part of work is so easy, I just read what you have analyzed for hours so even days or years. You bring us a ready dish just to swallow. Reading your topics I even wonder: ”How do you find time and power for all of these?”
 Concerning the above given quotes I want to add that we also have this proverb “It is better to see once than hear 1000 times”. I think some of suchlike quotes are common for all Central Asian countries. Waiting for your next blog and anecdotes.”


“Hopeful view, I’d really like to think in a similar way, but I don’t. A metaphor. If we see education as a house, there was an imperfect but a solid house built at the time Kazakhstan was part of Russia, then the USSR. Since the independence, education has never been on top 1000 list of priorities of the country’s leaders. Too bad so sad, they said. C’est la vie. Now the house is half-broken half-deserted only a pitiful reminder of the past glory, quality and strength. It’s leaking everywhere, the water, heating and sewage systems work sporadically if they do. Power comes on and off. Basically it’s rapidly deteriorating and is nearing a collapse. A complete rehaul is required. If it had been properly maintained, repaired, reinforced and added to, then it would be the same house or even better, but, alas, now it’s in a really, really bad shape comparing to what it used to be.

Yes, too bad they’re beautifying the tip of the iceberg whereas the bottom part is quickly melting away…”

“Glad to hear such praise about our younger generation. I was a bit pessimistic about the way they are, but you actually gave me some hope and a reason to be proud.”

 The following is from another commenter about education in Kazakhstan:

“Yes, teachers are low paid in KZ, it doesn’t matter university or school teachers. I don’t think that there are teachers who work unpaid, at least their salary is government based, so it is paid on time. But nowadays problem of downsizing, every government budget based organization are dismissing their employees, so the others who remain has to work twice. That means much stress, because I think most difficult part of being teacher or for ex: doctor not teach many students or observe many many patients, but the paperwork that has to be done. This takes more time then their direct job duties.”

Bribery and Corruption

“Interesting. Yes, even in the Kazakh army the high-ranking officers force soldiers to build their houses… It’s terrible. There wasn’t much of such shameful exploitation of the vulnerable in the USSR times… It would be something out of the ordinary if something like that happened. The educational system was way, way better at the time. Both of my parents are retired university professors. Many things that you can see happening these days are uniquely Kazakhstan or post-Soviet phenomena rather than rudiments of the socialist system.

And I agree that people in ex-USSR do not trust each other. In the West, the people tend to trust each other except when they see a reason not to. In ex-USSR, people tend not to trust each other except they have firmly proven their trustworthiness to you.”

(to be continued )

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Double Punishment for being a Captive Soldier in WWII

I continue to learn new things from my advanced Speaking class, sad things about death and repressions. What irony there is in life but it often happened in the former Soviet union, double punishment for fighting as a soldier in a war and being caught as a prisoner. One of my student’s grandfather on her mother’s side was arrested by a German officer and put in a German concentration camp.  After the war, the Kazakh soldier was released and he returned to Kazakhstan only to be put in a Soviet gulag camp according to Stalin’s orders.  After Stalin died in 1953, he was released and lived only another 8-10 years, he died in the early 1960s.

Another student said that his grandfather on his mother’s side wasn’t imprisoned, he somehow avoided prison.  But he did not avoid the police station every night for several years.  He was asked over and over again the same questions and by 1953, he was convinced he hated communists.  I asked if he was beaten or tortured.  No, he just had to answer the questions correctly otherwise he would have ended up in a Siberian concentration camp.

Another instance in the same family was the grandfather was an officer for the NKVD.  After the Great Patriotic War there were a lot of gangs with guns in the Pavlodar region and he had to interrogate those who were causing much unrest in the area.  He would have been on the opposite side of the table as the other grandfather as he was the head of this police station.

Another Kazakh student of mine is from the Karaganda area and she doesn’t know much about her own grandparents.  [this is typical because there was a strict code of silence for all those in Karaganda and especially those who were finally released from the KARLAG once Stalin died]  She said that many intellectual people were sent to Kazakhstan from all over the USSR to the Karaganda region and they helped develop and build the architecture of that city.  Many Japanese, Russians and other nationalities brought enrichment to this area because of their expertise. The very skills that had drawn attention to themselves in a favorable climate, won them disfavor in the eyes of the ruling Moscow elite.

She did remember that her mother’s older brother had driven a tank during WWII and when he returned from the war he worked in a mechanical factory or plant.  When he was alive still she was very small.  She did say that what was a prison for political prisoners in Karabass is now a prison for hardened criminals.

Another interesting story came from a woman whose mother’s uncle was a tall Kazakh man with BLUE eyes.  He was somehow so unusual in his appearance that a German officer didn’t put him in prison but rather he stayed in his big house and helped built things around the house.  He was good with wood and made things for three years while living in Germany.  This Kazakh man spoke German very well but upon his return to Kazakhstan he was directly sent to Magadan in Siberia.  He stayed there ten years and when he returned to his native town he built a beautiful home.  He died at the age of 95-96. This student remembers that he was a vigorous, proud man who didn’t stoop but had good posture the last time she saw him at age 92.  He walked with a cane but had the regal look of a decorated officer, perhaps like the German officer who had spared him from prison camp while in Germany.

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Haunted by ALZHIR Stories of Brave USSR Women

The wind is howling wickedly outside today worse than it was yesterday.  Yet with this fierce, cold weather we are enduring in Astana, Kazakhstan, we have so much to be thankful for compared to the Soviet women from all over the USSR who were cruelly deemed as cast offs, spurned to this desolate area of Central Asia.  All 15 countries or former republics of the USSR were represented.  Very few intelligensia were spared during the Stalin purges.  My students marveled that so many of the creative, smart ones were destroyed in the past while our university is currently trying to create an intelligensia to move this country forward.

As a class field trip, we went out to see this ALZHIR museum that was built in 2007.  We picked up taxis across from Mega Mall by the sauna and with four of us riding in each taxi, it cost 1,000 tenge one way.  The road is narrow and sitting in the front, I had to trust the skill of our driver to get us to our destination in one piece.  These drivers have no idea how unnerving it is to narrowly miss a hair’s breadth away from hitting the oncoming cars and trucks.  The bumps, crevices and potholes gave an extra thrill for those three riding in the back seat. Fortunately, we were able to get taxis going back into Astana (25-30 kilometers away) after not too much standing in the wind and cold.

How sad to hear all these women’s stories from our Kazakh guide. The cost was 100 tenge for student rate and 150 for me as their teacher.  It would probably take a week, 8 hours a day to really know and understand each sad saga that is represented behind the faces of these ladies whose pictures were on display.  I am eager to find out what my PDP students’ reactions were to all this.  One from the south of Kazakhstan didn’t even know this gulag existed so close to the capital city.  Another student showed me the name on a list of his grand, grandfather who was considered an enemy of the people.

These 18,000 women were considered political prisoners and first they had their husbands taken from them and then they were yanked away from their children.  Some women came pregnant and after their children were 3-4 years old, they were taken away to be put in an orphanage.  Sometimes the women were lied to and tricked into being interrogated to their own demise.  Initially they were told they were to meet up with their missing husbands again. In some cases, they would put on their finest clothes only to be placed on a train going south to Kazakhstan.  Another instance I read in the English brochure produced by the British Council is that a husband and wife met in the hallway where they were being interrogated.  They were in a mad embrace and would not let each other go until their arms were brutally hit with the butt ends of rifles.  Oh…the sadness!

Today I’ll show the photos from inside the main lobby area but we could only take photos on the outside.  Too cold to go to the back wall where ALL the women’s names were engraved into a stone slab similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.

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What else I learn from my adult learner students

The other day was a potpourri of various talents who showed up for English practice that is meant for advanced speakers once a week.  Some of these university employees were more shy to speak up once the talkative ones found their stride.  Represented were those from Center for Energy Research, Economics, Admissions, Legal department, Strategic planning and the Library.  We got on the topic of occupations as a kind of carry-over from the week before when we discussed teachers and builders.

The conversation went all over the place from talking about Kazakhstan’s sports like boxing, football and hockey to the recent Asian Winter games to Tour de France, to Roza Bagnalova’s son to the profession of policemen to the upcoming presidential election.  Finally an hour was up and we were talking about Olympics and the Goodwill Ambassador Vladimir Smirnoff who represented Kazakhstan.

One of them asserted that the most popular professions in Kazakhstan are lawyers and economists, especially looking at what students are majoring in for their subjects at university.  Others didn’t agree so we quickly moved into sports.  Apparently the most famous footballer is Pele whose name means “useless” or perhaps “crafty.”  We talked a long time about his name and how his name means smart but doesn’t let on that he is, like in Russian (heat-tree.) I can’t tell from my notes because I had to write fast with six people all having an opinion about this athlete.  Supposedly he was quoted as saying that if Russia wins the World Cup, then Brazil will have a hockey team in hell.  Something like that, like I said, my notes after trying to decipher them 24 hours later leave much to guess work.

This I DO know they talked about and was new information for me, that the Klitschko brothers who are so famous in Ukraine for their boxing feats were actually born in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. Their father was a military man and it is said as a kind of joke, I’m not sure if this actually happened.  One of the Klitschko brothers ran into Sasha Cohen in New York City, who made that despicable movie about Kazakhstan (which really wasn’t true to Kazakhstan and was filmed in Romania).  Anyway, since Klitschko is really a Kazakhstani, he had some strong words for Cohen and it put the fear into him.  You don’t want to mess with a boxer if you get him riled. Maybe this was just a joke but the point is, that the film has done little to bring good repute to Kazakhstan.

One thing that was supposed to bring Kazakhstan’s reputation up a notch or two was the Tour de France that was won by a Spaniard Cantador while he was biking for Team Astana last year.  We shall see who will rise from the Kazakh athletes to take over in cycling.  A nice stadium that was built just down the road from the university for the ice skating for the Asian games is really for cycle races.  It looks like a bike helmet from the outside.

We moved on to what all Kazakh people know internally but is little known in the western world about Roza Baglanova who died just last week.  She was a much loved singer and represented Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union.  Apparently one of my adult learner “students” went to school with her son Tarzhen.  When he was born his grandparents went to register him with a good Kazakh name but when the father found out about it, he was furious and had it changed to a good communist name, Tarzhen. I’m unsure of the meaning but it sounds like Tarzan to me.  Apparently Tarzhen didn’t follow in his mother’s footsteps in music but his father’s as a businessman.  He is entrepreneur and his quiet and keeps to himself, a good father of 3-4 children.

Then we got into the subject of names of Kazakh children and what it was like in the past if you wanted to appear politically correct.  I mentioned that during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s many young girls were called “Hong” for Red.  Someone said it was true in the USSR’s past that many had the names related to Lenin or Marx.  One poor lad was named after Albert Gore after he visited Kazakhstan.  With the Asian games now over, some girls are called Aizada (Asia) or boys might be called “Summit” after the OSCE summit last December. Or parents might use the word “Khan” or “Bai” or Abai going back to ancient times.  Some babies are given the name of the day of the week that they were born.  This has deep Kazakh roots to give names that honor an event.  Being BORN is an event here in Kazakhstan!

Somehow our conversation was directed back to occupations and several of these Kazakh people drive cars, so we talked about policemen.  After a Kazakh driver is stopped by a man with a white and black baton, the requisite forms are filled out. Some said they never pay a fine and talk their way out off whatever ticket.  Others who are in a hurry will pay the bribe just to get back on the road again.  You see, if you don’t want to go through all the steps of going to the bank and the police office to get the necessary paperwork down, you can give 1,000 or 2,000 tenge to the officer. However, this is NOT usually done directly, it might be slipped into a book or it might be left in the back seat of the squad car.

If you were to pay directly and officially with all the extra time spent to do it, it would cost about 6,500 tenge.  In the capital city of Astana it is not as bad to pay bribes to police officers as down in the south of Kazakhstan, like in Almaty. Perhaps this doesn’t happen in Astana because the police are more tightly controlled or they have other more important functions to deal with such as security for the president and other VIPs.  Maybe they are better paid than those officers to the south.

We talked of other things of course, such as the football match with Tartastan where the Dutch played in Moscow and the temps were -20 C and they played in the cold and mud with a score of 2-0.  Better than the score during the Asian games where a hockey match was 30-0. That would have been no fun to watch but one of my “students” witnessed that lopsided game.  Others saw the same ice skaters I did and we all talked about the opening ceremony.  I was surprised that one Kazakh woman didn’t even watch the Asian Games Opening ceremony on her t.v. I think she is too busy with her job and raising a family.

That’s it, from Lake Kaz-be-gone.

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