Monday, October 21, 2013

Management Training


It has been one hell of a first week -- and a fabulous one at that.

Monday and Tuesdays were Kurban Eid (more commonly known as Eid in the US) a traditional Muslim holiday. Official businesses were closed, which gave me an opportunity to sit down and catch up on some work, meet with old friends and new acquaintances and get a lay of the land. After all, one of the chief tasks, and challenges, of a field research is to understand the on-the-ground networks and dynamics. It helps that I've been here before, but things change.

The highlight of this week, by far, was a project management workshop I attended at the International Academy of Business (also known by its Russian-language acronym, MAB), which is one of my host affiliations. The workshop was for small business entrepreneurs and NGO leaders in Kazakhstan. While the material was not necessarily new, engaging in the group activities with the entrepreneurs gave me such valuable insights into their norms, values and the way they approach management and building a small business. There were also some funny cultural moments.

One woman owns a fertility clinic and pregnancy care center -- they coach moms from conception through delivery and beyond. She told me I should come to her business. I told her I am here only ten months and there is no plan for me to have a baby. "Could you imagine if I came home from Kazakhstan after ten months with a baby, what would my mother say?" I told her. She remarked, in all seriousness, "she would be delighted!" I had to contain myself from laughing.

During a group activity on organizing a project timeline for planning a conference, I commented that buying gifts for attendees was not a central activity. My table of Kazakhs remarked, "no, of course it is." Then we laughed, because only an American like myself would think gifts are a superfluous addition to a conference. My comrades then explained to me that you have to invite at least 500 people to a Kazakh wedding, and up to 50-80% of a budget could be spent on gifts (in a more traditional home).

As you know, I am a huge supporter of State Department exchange programs -- after all, I've had the good fortune to participate in three of them. The State Department also organizes programs for foreign citizens to visit the US. I was pleased to have met this week two Muskie Fellows, a librarian who participated on a month-long State Department exchange for librarians where they travelled throughout the US and learned about our library catalogue and electronic database systems, and finally a woman whose husband was a Fulbright scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. It is really, really hard to measure the impacts of these people-to-people programs -- it is not like measuring GDP or employment. But this was a pretty special group of people gathered this week and the fact that at least (or as far as I know) three of them engaged in U.S.-supported exchange programs and are now leaders in their respective communities and organizations, says quite a lot for the value of these programs.

The training ran through Saturday and on Sunday, I returned to Baraholka!! It was exciting --- but I will not overwhelm you with details now. But I will attach a picture of a plastic bag from Baraholka that features panda bears and the word "Rakhmet," which is Kazakh for thank you. On the bottom, the word "recycle" is also spelled incorrectly. In my opinion, this little plastic bag is a fabulous crystallization of Chinese economic influence in Central Asia.

I'm off to Khorgos this evening to attend a trade promotion fare at the Khorgos Free Trade Zone (FTZ). The Khorgos FTZ runs across the Kazakh-Chinese border and provides special benefits to individuals and companies transporting cargo across the border. I've toured the Panama Pacifico FTZ and Special Economic Zone and the Colon Free Trade Zone, both in Panama, and am really excited to see Khorgos. I've read quite a bit about it and the special visa regime that governs the area -- you do not need a Kazakh or Chinese visa to enter/exit the zone for a limited amount of time (I believe a day or three days -- I forgot exactly). I'm also excited to see how it compares to the Panamanian FTZs in terms of logistics coordination and freight forwarding capacities. Khorgos is much smaller, in terms of meterage, and it appears it does not offer the same diversified services as the other two zones such as banking/financial options, different options for owning and leasing warehouse space, etc., but these are extremely well developed ports in one of the most important trade intersections in the world. Either way, I'll learn more about Khorgos and will let you know!


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Exploring Almaty's Underground Art Scene


I am so thrilled to be back in Almaty -- the smells, sounds, and the pulse of daily life. There is a certain rhythm of life here -- a sort of pulse -- that is unique to the city and its inhabitants. I guess it is a combination of the Soviet infrastructure, the burgeoning middle class and younger generation (which is quite evident in the city) and the smell of samsas, tea and cigarettes in underground walking passages.

I flew in early Wednesday morning and was picked up at the airport and brought to my apartment. I am renting a one-bedroom, Soviet-era apartment at the intersection of Gogolya and Baitursinova. It is comparable to other apartments I've lived in. I found the apartment through a friend who lives in Almaty and had the same landlords. I could live anywhere in the city, I just wanted a nice and responsible landlord. And I must say, the landlords -- an older Russian couple named Oleg and Tatiana -- are absolutely charming. 

(note Oleg and Tatiana are not their real names, but pseudonyms for the purpose of the blog)

When Oleg and Tatiana came over on Thursday night to bring me a microwave, Oleg inspected the apartment to make sure everything was working. He noticed a nail sticking up in the floor, took a tea spoon from the kitchen, and used the end as a screw driver to push the nail back down. He then smiled,  held up the spoon and proudly commented "A screw driver in Soviet style." When they were leaving, Oleg asked me why I brought rain boots. I told him I am like a pioneer (a Soviet youth organization) -- "Budt' gotov, vsegda gotov" (Be prepared, always prepared). They laughed, as I knew they would. I find that any Soviet era joke is a sure way to make friends. 

I have spent my time meeting with my affiliations and doing some prep work before I head into the bazaar.  I have an office at one of my affiliations, KIMEP, which is absolutely awesome. Granted KIMEP is about an hour's walk from my house, but it is nice to have a place to organize interviews, print documents and focus. I've never had an office before, so this is truly fantastic.

Saturday night was really fascinating! I met up with Anton, my friend from Summer 2011, and we went to an underground theatre, Art Shock. Art shock is one of Kazakhstan’s first independent, non-government affiliated theaters. It is this hipster type of theatre where you pay a flat 2,000 T for unlimited tea/coffee. There are no assigned seats, but rather there is an open area and a small stage where the featured performance occurs. There were probably no more than 10 to 15 of us in the audience.

We chatted with one of the bar tender’s who interestingly enough was born in Almaty, returned to his family’s native town of Yaroslavl in the 1990s, and is now living in Almaty. We asked originally where he was from and he said “Yaroslavl” and then when we asked why he was here he said “well it’s home.” It’s interesting to see how people self-identify based on ethnicity and place of birth.  This is not uncommon as a taxi driver who I befriended was Turkish. He explained his family is Turkish but he himself (in his 40s) was born and raised in Almaty. 

But back to the performance! The rapper, Takejan, at first glance, is a typical, Kazakh male, around age 40s. He wore jeans and a t-shirt. But don't let appearances fool you, as his work was fascinating and he was a truly powerful performer. Takejan rapped about time he spent time in a prison in Termez. He sang about revolution, AIDS and the need to not impose social stereotypes on others. He said everyone should be as they want, dance as they like and really be true to themselves. While this is a "kumbaya" message, the rap medium and underground atmosphere modified the message to appear more genuine rather than corny. Plus, Kazakhstan, particularly Almaty, has a growing "nouveau riche" class. Takejan's message is really important as Kazakhstan continues to develop. As a political scientist and historian, it is fascinating to witness first hand the development of the underground culture. Takejan is not singing about anything evil, bad or anti-establishment. He is simply using artform as a mechanism for expressing his political opinions and promoting social and political plurality.

I read about how bands like DDT and Akvarium started in basements and local performance halls with small audiences in the 1980s in the Soviet Union, which parallel's Takejan's performance in Art Shock. Kazakhstan is a young state and to witness the development of different classes and the evolution of culture, art and the intelligentsia, is quite remarkable.

Art Shock Theatre

Takejan on stage accompanied by a trumpet player

Takejan and his son on stage

Well, that is the highlight for now. This weekend is a holiday, Eid, so everything is closed Sunday through Tuesday, which gives me some time to catch up on work and overcome jetlag. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Back to Kazakhstan!!


Alas, I am returning to Kazakhstan to conduct my Fulbright research, formally titled "Challenges to Entrepreneurship in the Informal Bazaar Economy." Basically, I channelled my love for bazaars and outdoor markets into a formal research project. I'll spend quite a bit of time in the bazaar using a methodology of participant observation (basically shadowing a trader) and will also conduct interviews.

I'll certainly update the blog on my experiences overseas. I will have to safeguard many research details, though, in order to protect the integrity of the research process and the identity of research subjects. With that said, something tells me there will be more than enough information available for me to blog about.

As a Fulbright grantee, I must reassert that all opinions and information expressed on this blog are mine and do not represent the U.S. Government or U.S. Department of State.

I'll be based in Almaty, but plan to travel throughout Kazakhstan and the region. If you're in the area -- send me an email!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

McCain's Op-Ed in Pravda


In light of President Putin's Op-ed in The New York Times and Senator John McCain's reaction in Pravda, I wanted to take a few minutes to contextualize the civil war in Syria and international relations in Russia. Having spent the summers of 2012 and 2013 in Russia, watching the Russian news coverage of the civil war, and studying the country and region at Georgetown, I hope to shed some light on the Russian political environment. I know American political commentators will over-analyze and inaccurately interpret the impact of McCain's article in Russian society.

First, quick Russian lesson! Pravda = truth. Izvestia = news, communication, reporting (generally, what is known.)

Second, let me quote an old Russian saying, "In Pravda, there is no news, and in Izvestia, there is no Truth."

The newspaper Pravda began around 1917 under the direction of V.M. Molotov and Alexander Shlyapnikov, both of whom opposed the liberal Provisional Government. Initially, Molotov was opposed to Stalin joining the editorial board -- quite a bold move. But Stalin eventually took over the magazine and Molotov had a successful career in the government, becoming the only senior official to outlive Stalin's purges (Molotov died in 1986). Pravda has always been an instrument of the state for the promotion and proliferation of propaganda.

I've taken media classes in Russia, with Russian professors, and they told me everyday they pick up Pravda and/or Komsomolskaya Pravda for fun reading, and another paper (Rossiskaya Gazeta, Argumenti i Fakty) for news. Russians, by and large, know to read between the lines when they read Pravda and they do not take the paper seriously. I am not suggesting that everything in Pravda is false, but rather that the paper is not considered a serious, credible, legitimate source like The New York Times.

In recent years, Pravda has declined in popularity. Today, there is Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is comparable to OK! or People Magazine. It is kind of like the Russian tabloids. It is super cheap and available everywhere. Pravda, however, is no longer available in kiosks. You must read Pravda online or specially order the delivery of the paper. Pravda is in limited publication and reaches a generally older demographic.

Most young people read other news outlets through, Facebook and Twitter. Again, I am not saying that Pravda is worthless, but it certainly does not have the esteem and credibility we think of in the West.

I read the Russian version of the article and also want to make a few comments.

Much of what McCain argues will not resonate with the Russian people.

McCain writes that "The Russian powers manipulate your elections." You think Russians don't know this? They know it! They know politicians are corrupt and whenever you bring up politics, Russians respond, "oh, they're all corrupt," and brush off the conversation. They are so jaded with the system. There is no history of civic activism like in the U.S. The demos keeping in check the powers of the legislature and executive is an unknown concept in Russian civics, history, society and politics. Russians by and large recognize their system is corrupts and there are corrupt politicians, but do not do anything. 

Furthermore, many Russians associate wealth with corruption. If someone has money, the assumption is that they quickly grew rich vis-a-vis corruption. This is a long-standing tenant of Russian culture, going back to the days of serfdom. McCain then goes on to criticize Russia's political-economic system. He writes that Russia's economy is  based on a few natural resources and that a few officials will bring the resources under their control and capital will then flee from Russia. Russians know they have an oil and gas-based economy, and they are not necessarily ashamed of this. Basically, he is not saying anything new to Russians.

This brings me to politics in Russia -- most Russians do not like to discuss politics. They love discussing poetry, books, music. Politics is just not discussed as much as it is in the U.S. -- it is just the culture.

Finally, McCain must realize that he is an American politician and army veteran speaking to the Russian people and Russians will perceive him as that. Regardless of his intentions, McCain will be viewed as an American criticizing the Russian government. And who is he to tell the Russian people "I believe in you"? Where is this coming from? I can envision many babushkas sitting on a bench, gossiping and asking "Who is this guy?"And even if McCain believes in the Russian people, what can he do to protect Russians against the human rights abuses and prevent corruption by officials he details in the article?

My point in writing this is not to criticize John McCain -- I have a lot of respect for him and it was quite brave of him to write this. However, the article's message will likely fall on deaf ears and will not tarnish Putin in Russian politics. My message is simple: Do not over-analyze and over-estimate the impact of McCain's Pravda article in Russia.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Fire in Baraholka


Due to visa delays, I am not yet in Kazakhstan on my Fulbright. I am eager to get over there soon!

I am updating the blog with some tragic news -- today, Friday, September 13th -- a fire broke out in Baraholka, the international hub bazaar. You all know I love bazaars and my Fulbright project focused on studying entrepreneurship in the informal and formal economies, and my methodology includes participant observation in Baraholka. So this is sad to watch. But the traders will regroup, I am sure.

News on the cause of the fire, casualties, affected areas are still forthcoming. The fire has been raging for three hours and as of this post (around noon EST), it has not been tamed.

The photos and videos I found online speak for themselves -- it is quite tragic.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"Eto Vse"


While I always start every post with an apology for the extended lag time between posts, this time I really mean it. I apologize for the two week delay.

Two weekends ago, we went on an overnight excursion to Aigir, a small mountain village in the Ural Mountains accessible only by train. The scenery was truly remarkable, untouched and absolutely picturesque.

A very-well kept lakeside garden (sad) in Aigir.

Our intrepid leader, Djafar. Djafar is an ethnic Bashkir badass. But really. He carried a loaded gun to fight off bears and a belt with shrapnel and a knife. He also told us how he killed a bear by himself, and even showcased the bear paw as proof. When he got to the top of the mountain, he snacked on water, vodka, cigarettes, pickles and bread. Definition of badass.


Taken by a friend towards the top of the mountain of us slackers "scaling" the mountain.

Plaque on the trail. Made in the USSR.

Another view from the top of Mount Karatash. Worth the trip.

Aigir, view from the railroad track.

Our weekend cabin

River in Aigir

View from the top of Mount Karatash

Unfortunately, while hiking Mount Karantash, my head hit a tree trunk and I incurred a mild concussion. Fortunately, I was in the wonderful care of our CLS staff and I went to the hospital and took a few days off from school to rest. It was quite an experience. On the plus side, I learned a lot of new Russian medical terms. And please do not worry - I AM FINE. FABULOUS, in fact. I am feeling much better and am totally fine, but the past two weeks have been spent healing and (ironically) working (final tests and presentations).

We had our final presentations today. Tomorrow, Liobov, Renat and I are going to Dom-Musee (House Musem) T'ulkin, a 20-th century painter. And then the 35-hour journey home begins (Ufa-Moscow, Moscow-Frankfurt, Frankfurt-DC, DC-EWR). But that's life.

Well, there is really so much more I could share. Ufa has certainly had its share of awesomely awkward host mother stories, crazy and funny moments and insightful experiences. I am so grateful to everyone who helped make this experience -- especially my language partner Diana, and Liobov and Renat.

In a few short weeks, I am excited to return to this part of the world and launch my Fulbright experience in Kazakhstan. Stay tuned!

For now, eto vse (that's all) from Ufa, Russia. I leave you with Yuri Chevchuk, Ufa-native and frontman of the band DDT singing "Eto Vse."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Trip to Lenin Museum


Well, week 6 is done, and now I have two weeks left in Ufa! How time flies! And I have a MONTH until Kazakhstan. CRAZY.

Anyways, this week has been fun. We celebrated Renat's birthday so I gave him a card that says "You're always 17" and a bottle of Martini -- one of the only liquors Liobov will consume (she generally does not drink, however I have found that sharing a few shots of liquor with Renat is a great way to bond).

This week, I went to the Dom-Musee (house museum) of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin lived in Ufa for several months in 1900 with his wife and mother in law. Lenin actually came to the house illegally, without permission from the Tsarist government (at the time you needed permission to move) in 1900. He stayed for around 6 months, left and returned for a bit, but ultimately lived in the house for less than a year.

Interior of the Lenin House Museum.

Lenin's Report Card  from when he was a student at University in Kazan. A studious individual fluent in French and German, Lenin majored in Law. As you see from his report card, he received all "5" (the equivalent of an A) with one exception: he received a 4 in "Logic." Does anyone else find this funny? 
Outside of the house. A prime piece of real estate in the city center.
I also went to the Vietnam rynok (finally!!!!!!!) last weekend. I unfortunately don't have time to write about it, as I am off to Aigir, a small village in the Ural Mountains for the weekend. But I will!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Bashkir Language in the Russian Countryside


As always, it has been a busy week and I cannot believe it is already the end of July!!! The highlights of this past week were trips to the National Museum of the Republic of Bashkortostan on Sunday with my American friend, and a family outing with Liobov, her sister-in-law Tatiana, and Tatiana's 18-year old son, Misha, on Tuesday to the house-museum of Sergey Aksakov. 

The house-museum of Sergey Aksakov was interesting -- a scaled-down version of Monticello. But I will devote this post to my visit to the National Museum. 

These two images are of traditional Bashkir jewels. Notice the similarity between them  and some of the Kazakh and Tatar jewels (pictures I previously posted from Kazan).

No, that is not a swastika. That is a traditional Bashkir cloth. The swastika symbol dates back thousands of years to  Indus civilization. Archaeologists have found the swastika symbol inscribed on arch-arrows in the Ural Mountains. Swastikas have also appeared in Egyptian, Chinese and African sources. Ignorant of history (among other things), Hitler foolishly and inaccurately adopted the symbol to represent the Aryan race. 

In the top, center, notice an original copy of Lenin's 1902 publication, "What is to be done" (Shto delat'?). Lenin actually took the title from Nikolay Chernyshevsky's 1863 novel, also called "Shto delat'?" Lenin's older brother Alexander Ulyanov, was involved with a radical, leftist underground organization that plotted to kill Tsar Alexander III. The assassination attempt failed and Alexander was killed by the Tsar's authorities in 1887. Alexander and Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) were both extremely influenced by Chernyshevsky's 1863 book. It is said that Vladimir Lenin read the book several times in one summer. the ideology, combined with his personal experiences, certainly contributed to his motivation to lead the Russian revolution.

Russian-language poster from World War I. Please notice the American soldier walking across Siberia, smoking a pipe, holding a pistol and strutting an American flag in his back pocket.

The delegation of  from Bashkortostan visits Moscow in 1939. Please notice in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo Joseph Stalin seated between Comrade Foreign Minister Vyacheslov Milkhanovich Molotov (who Winston Churchill famously called a "stoneass"/"hardass"). The word Molotov is derived from the Russian word "Molotok" which means "hammer." He was Foreign Minister from 1939 to 1949, concluding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact), as well as gaining the honor of being the only senior Soviet-official to outlive Stalin (i.e. be in Stalin's inner circle and not be sent to the Gulags) and is the namesake of the "Molotov cocktail" (a nickname that developed during the Russo-Finish War in the late 1930s). The man to the right of Stalin, I believe, is Marshall Zhukov -- but I might be wrong. Hard to tell in this photo (please correct me if you know)!

This is an internal identification card that was issued to a citizen of the Bashkir republic in 1922. Notice how the test is in Russian (cyrillic) and Bashkir (arabic). The Bashkir language was historically written using an arabic script, but adopted the cyrillic alphabet under Stalin.  In addition to Soviet-era material, the museum also featured posters and official government documents issued between 1905 and 1917, and during Tsarist rule prior to 1905. Many of the documents were written in Russian and Bashkir (I could not take a picture due to the babushka in the corner of each gallery, watching our every move).  This was really fascinating to me, as it shows a continuation in policy towards the treatment of non-Slavic, Turkic peoples on the frontier regions of the Russian empire and Soviet Union. During the Soviet Union, posters, coins, printed monies (bills), journals and magazines were printed in Russian and in the language of titular republics. Granted, the material was overwhelmingly printed in Russian and Russian was the lingua franca, without a doubt, but there was linguistic diversity.

In fact, the topic of linguistic diversity in Russia and throughout the Soviet Union is a fascinating one. Here in the Republic of Bashkortostan, the official languages are Bashkir and Russian. After 1991, Bashkir was a mandatory course for all students. There is a significant Tatar population and many of them objected to this policy, so after 2010, when a new Republic President came into office, Bashkir language became an optional course. This is understandable -- after all, there is no such thing as a "pure Bashkir." Intermarriage between Bashkirs and Tatars occurred throughout history and most people I have met identify themselves as "half Russian, half Tatar," or "half Tatar, a quarter Bashkir and a quarter Russian," or "half Bashkir, half Kazakh," etc.

While nearly everyone speaks Russian, I have been told on several occasions that if you go into the countryside and visit the villages, you will find that the rural Bashkirs speak incredibly poor Russian. Some do not even speak Russian, and those who do, speak with an accent. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with Diana (my Russian tutor) and her mom. Her mom grew up in a kolkhoz (village) where they learned Bashkir and Tatar --- it was not until later, in university, that she really perfected her Russian. And my host father, Renat, grew up in a Bashkir kolkhoz where he spoke Bashkir. Renat, however, learned Russian in school. When I asked one ethnic Bashkir if the level of Russian-language education in the rural, Bashkir villages decreased after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I was surprised to hear that in his opinion, the intensity of Russian language education improved: more people now speak Russian in the villages, than during the Soviet Union. I was surprised for two reasons: first,  his perception that Bashkir language was more frequently spoken in the villages during the Soviet Union than after 1991and second, the fact that the quality and intensity of Russian language instruction improved in remote village areas after 1991. While I have noticed some people speak Russian with a Turkic accent (similar to the Kazakh accent in the Russian in Kazakhstan), I have not encountered a person who does not speak Russian. This however is likely a reflection of my experiences, as many of the kolkhoz are in southern Bashkortostan, 

Meanwhile, in the Central Asian Republics, Russian-language education has declined as ethnic republics try to revive national dialects (however, there is some great Pew polling data that suggests citizens (particularly migrant workers) value Russian-language education).

Anyways, I could go on and on about the national museum and some of the Tatar and Central Asian connections. But I will stop for now -- the moral of the story is that throughout history, there has been a tension between Bashkir and Russian language in Bashkortostan. While the two languages manage to coexist and and occupy the same spaces (mass media, conversation, school, government communications), throughout history there is variation in the geographic reach and force of implementation of Bashkir- and Russian-language policies. 


Speaking of the Russian countryside, yesterday I went to Krasnosoulsk, a resort town in the Ural mountains famous for its fresh, spring water and healthy mud. People walk around in bathing suits, enjoy shashlyk picnics and relax, taking occasional breaks to spread mud all over themselves. There is also a village church and monastery. It was a really beautiful place and reminded me of a combination of summer camp, six flags a bar and a church. Pictures from my camera to come -- but for now, here are some photos I snapped on my phone along the 2-hour drive. 

Welcome to the Russian countryside! I posted this photo at the risk of coming off tacky and devoid of class-- but I couldn't help myself. We passed SO MANY COWS during the drive. This picture features a sign written in Bashkir and cows. 

Mountains in Bashkortostan.

A field in Bashkortostan that produces some form of cereal product I am assuming.