Descending from the upholstered comfort of their van into the vast, windswept steppe of Northern Kazakhstan, six USC Dornsife students gazed about them at an abandoned guard tower and the futuristic-looking Arch of Sorrow monument marking the entrance to the museum built on the site of a former Soviet labor camp for women:
The Akmolinsk Camp for the Wives of the Traitors of the Fatherland.
Established by Joseph Stalin in 1937 to punish wives and female relatives of political prisoners, the camp is known by its Russian acronym ALZHIR. Bleak and isolated, the site of the labor camp — and thoughts of what the women prisoners endured there — left an indelible impression upon the students.
“We got off the van and you could hear all these crows,” said Rosalie Murphy, now a junior. “It was so eerie.”
Vivian Yan, also now a junior, was also moved by the camp, which closed after Stalin’s death in 1953.
“The labor camp is out on the steppe, there is nothing around,” Yan said. “It’s freezing in winter, the living conditions were miserable.”
“When they arrived, the women had to build their own barracks,” Murphy added. “Until it was completed they had to sleep outside and they wrote about how they could see the eyes of wolves in the darkness.”
The visit to ALZHIR was one of many unforgettable experiences offered to students in the Problems Without Passports (PWP) history 499 course The Silk Road Today: Focus on Kazakhstan. Led by Azade-Ayse Rorlich, professor of history and Slavic languages and literatures, the research trip took place in Spring 2012.
Rorlich chose Kazakhstan as an ideal destination for students to further explore the challenges of independence and the dynamics of cultural interaction in Eurasia. It was Rorlich’s general education class The Worlds of the Silk Road: Merchants and Sailors, Pilgrims and Scholars on the Silk Road that inspired the contemporary focus of the PWP program.
“Kazakhstan provided students with an opportunity to understand the impact of modernity on nomadic civilizations and evaluate the economic, cultural and political agendas of today’s Kazakhstan,” she said. “The trip also gave students a chance to identify the challenges of nation building against the background of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Kazakhstan’s multiethnic and multicultural society presents its people and government with significant challenges in creating and maintaining a harmonious balance between a national Kazakhstani identity and ethnic identities. Some of the students’ research projects focused on issues such as identity construction, cultural retrieval and the political and economic challenges of nation building.
Although it is larger than all of Western Europe, Kazakhstan remained virtually unknown to much of the world for the first 15 years of its new-found independence following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. That was until British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen decided to exploit that ignorance to create his satirical mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
When the irreverent film hit movie screens in 2006, lampooning the country as a nation of backward peasants, its success put the former Soviet state — which today is as much about oil as it is about yurts — firmly on the map, but at what cost to its national identity? As The Washington Times commented earlier this year: “If ever a country needed rebranding, it’s Kazakhstan.”
London-born Pakistani Asad Taqi, now a junior, grew up in Singapore and admitted he knew nothing about Kazakhstan – Borat aside – until he undertook the PWP trip. He had found the movie “hilarious” and was intrigued to find out what Kazakhstanis thought about it.
“There was a very mixed reaction. Some people find it quite offensive and other people would say ‘No, actually it was really funny, we just take it with a pinch of salt.’ ” Ironically, Taqi pointed out, the release of Borat is now credited with increasing tourism to Kazakhstan tenfold.
Participating in intensive pre-departure seminars organized by Rorlich, Taqi soon learned that the profound challenges faced by the newly independent country in establishing its national identity after more than 70 years of Soviet rule went far deeper than simply overcoming any negative connotations conveyed by Borat.
His PWP research project focused on how the Kazakhstani government is astutely using its own booming film industry to construct a national identity, both at home and abroad. Ninety percent of the country’s films — mainly big budget epics that focus on tales of heroic bravery in Kazakh history — are state funded. Films like Mongol, Nomad and most recently Zhauzhurek Myn Bala (One Thousand Brave Young Men), which was previewed at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and recounts the battle of 1729 when the Kazakhs were able to repel the Dzhungar invaders, aim to educate viewers about the country’s nomadic past.
While conducting his research, Taqi learned that using film as a persuasive tool to reinforce Soviet identity was also a long-standing practice. Soviet filmmaking was originally based in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), before the Soviet government moved it to Kazakhstan for protection during World War II when advancing Nazi forces threatened even Moscow.
“That is how the Kazakhstan film industry started to gain traction and how people locally became interested in film and how they were exposed to directing, producing, etc.,” Taqi said.
In Almaty, the PWP students visited KazakhFilm, the state-of-the-art national film studios, where they met local filmmakers and students, and attended a screening of a student film dedicated to those 20 year-olds who are the independence generation. The film on cultural identity was made to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence.
“I was surprised that the infrastructure of the studios seemed so grand, so new and so professional,” said Taqi, noting that the Kazakhstan studios appeared to rival Hollywood in terms of equipment and facilities.
For her PWP research project, Murphy, a double major in history in USC Dornsife and in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, focused on the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear movement, and its memory as a challenge to reshaping modern identity and Kazakhstan’s membership in the world community.
Kazakhstan had served as the Soviet Union’s nuclear testing ground since 1949. In the late 1980s, the country found itself in possession of a vast stockpile of unwanted nuclear weapons. It is remarkable that in 1989, responding to the anti-nuclear movement, the future president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaez, who was at the time secretary of Kazakhstan’s Communist Party, signed a decree ending nuclear testing.
“Several million people protested their presence because they wanted so badly to establish themselves as a nation of peace,” Murphy said. “That captivated me.”
With Rorlich translating, the undergraduate interviewed a chemist whose work studying radiation in the region’s soil helped show how such contamination is responsible for elevated rates of cancer and birth defects in the local population.
Murphy also interviewed a medical doctor specializing in cancer research whose testimony before a 1989 commission studying the health repercussions of nuclear testing helped bring a halt to the Soviet practice in Kazakhstan the same year.
A double major in history and comparative literature, Yan opted to address the issues of ALZHIR and the impact of memory and past tragedy on shaping identities in post-independent Kazakhstan.
Yan interviewed prisoners’ relatives and locals about their knowledge and memories of the camp.
“I was interested in looking at what the ALZHIR memorial wants people today to know and feel about this camp and how that translates into what they believe about Kazakhstan,” said Yan, whose research was informed by the work of French theorist Pierre Nora.
For Yan, the museum and memorial complex built on the site of the camp’s former orchard proved puzzling.
“I still don’t understand the museum. It was very strange and factually imprecise compared to museums here in the U.S,” she added, noting that exhibits were depersonalized and presented as large-scale dioramas. For example, a sewing factory diorama was designed to elicit empathy, rather than provide definable details backed up with facts and figures. Yan noted seeing a clay figurine made by a prisoner that was displayed without any accompanying information about who made it, when or why.
“Photographs of the prisoners are displayed with only their names and the caption ‘Prisoner at ALZHIR,' ” she said. “No details are given of who they were, why they were there, or their lives. They are presented as: ‘These are women, these are our mothers, we must remember them.’ The message seems to be: ‘We must not remember them as my mother, but as our mothers.’ ”
Yan believes this was in order to avoid provoking ethnic divisions in modern society.
Forging New Friendships
Housed in dorms at the prestigious international KIMEP University in the cultural capital of Almaty, the undergraduates found it surprisingly easy to relate to their Kazakhstani peers and even to communicate with them, despite initial worries about how they would overcome the language barrier.
“Vivian [Yan] and I shared a room with three girls from Tajikistan and we would all stay up until three in the morning talking about our social lives, about guys, about our friends,” Murphy said. “They were all 19, 20, 21, like us, so we all had common experiences regarding school and our personal lives.
“In fact I was shocked about how not different it was, because we do so many of the same things for fun,” she added. “We would be doing some library research and we would look around and people would be on Facebook. It wasn’t that different from being in Leavey [Library]."
“I wanted our students to experience life and community on the KIMEP campus because their informal interviews with peers would, I thought, tell them mountains about what the challenges of independence in Kazakhstan are these days,” Rorlich said. Lectures and conversations at KIMEP enabled students to learn more about the famine of 1931-1933 when 1.4 million Kazakhs died of starvation caused by enforced collectivization by the Soviets.
KIMEP had provided “an exceptionally kind working environment” for the group, she added, providing housing, meals and local travel, thereby allowing students to make the best use of their time during the 10-day program.
One social highlight for the PWP group was the evening they spent with their Kazakhstani hosts at a Korean karaoke club where the students’ shared love of popular music brought them together for a night of singing and laughter which lasted until the early hours.
“It didn’t matter that we all came from opposite sides of the world, we can all make ourselves look like fools and get along just fine,” said Yan of the evening they spent singing along to Queen’s iconic rock ballad Bohemian Rhapsody and other popular songs.
“Through having cultural contact with people you find avenues to communicate which transcend language,” Taqi said.
The students particularly enjoyed sampling Kazakhstani food, which mirrors the country’s multicultural population. Favorites included blinys, delicious buckwheat breakfast crepes served with sweetened condensed milk or sour cream and apricot or sour cherry jam; manty, tasty Kazakh, buttered dumplings filled with pumpkin and lamb or beef; savory Russian pirozhki and Central Asian samsa pies stuffed with meat and vegetables; chiborek, a Crimean Tatar pie of seasoned ground lamb and onions in the shape of a half-moon: plov, a traditional dish of cubes of tender grilled shredded meat, onions and carrots served with rice and compote, the juice of stewed fruit. Another popular Kazakh dish students tried for the first time was horsemeat, which Murphy described as “shockingly good.”
However, they all struggled with the traditional Kazakh delicacy of fermented mares’ or camels’ milk. “It’s served warm and has the consistency of tomato soup,” said Murphy.
Yan described it as “very pungent, like a very strong cheese, only about a million times stronger.”
“It’s very much an acquired taste,” she said wryly, before adding cheerfully: “We all wanted to try it though.”
“It’s a matter of idiosyncrasies to privilege your food culture over somebody else’s,” Rorlich said. “Nobody’s is better, nobody’s is worse, it’s just different. To state theoretically that you value difference is one thing. I hoped this class and this trip would help them truly understand and value difference by living it, by experiencing it and that is a good lesson for life.
"There are some situations when it would be a meaningless statement to say ‘I am a citizen of the world, I am a global citizen,’ if, for instance, in your daily practice you are driven by your own idiosyncrasies and marginalize other people’s choices and culture,” Rorlich told the students.
“When you truly learn to value difference, then you are on the road to being a global citizen.” she said, adding that she was proud of how the USC Dornsife students graciously handled the cultural challenges of their stay and asked well-articulated, well-informed questions of their hosts.
Other highlights of the program included an overnight trip by train and then by bus to Turkestan to visit the mausoleum and architectural complex devoted to Ahmed Yasawi, the 12th century poet who played a crucial role in the conversion of the Kazakh nomads to Islam.
“The PWP program gave the students the possibility to ponder the past, through places like Turkestan,” Rorlich said. “And to contrast it with the future of Kazakhstan, as shown by the dynamic capital Astana, which is dotted by modernistic buildings by Norman Foster and other leading contemporary architects.”
“This visit to Turkestan was very much meant to help them understand to what extent and in what fashion the religious marker of identity plays an important role in reconstructing identity for the Kazakhs in post-independent Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is a multiethnic, multicultural country, but still it is the historic homeland of the Kazakhs,” Rorlich said, explaining that the Islamization of the Kazakh nomads came about, not through the building of mosques or the creation of laws, but through poetry.
“The Kazakh interpretation of Islam is completely different from the Pakistani interpretation,” said Taqi, a Muslim. “In Kazakhstan, they are religious, there is no doubt, but they focus a lot more on doing positive actions than on rigidly following the religious rules. That was an eye-opening experience for me.”
Yan’s most moving experience during the trip was her encounter with another aspect of faith in Kazakhstan when students visited the Voznesenskii Sobor (the Catherdral of the Ascension) in Almaty where she witnessed an Eastern Orthodox mass.
“I have never felt that same sense of awe as when I walked in and saw all these men and women standing together watching this very solemn ceremony and being in this phenomenal space, gold and high ceilings and light and beautiful voices and music,” she said. “I was raised without a religion and I had never been anywhere like that before and it overwhelmed me.”
Murphy, Taqi and Yan are all determined to return to Kazakhstan to deepen their newly forged friendships and explore further a land they all found to be as fascinating as it was welcoming.
Rorlich believes the PWP program provides students with challenges and opportunities that will benefit them throughout their lives.
“The exercise of these projects was helpful, I hope, not only in opening the door to discover a new culture, a new landscape, but also in sharpening their critical thinking skills and enhancing their abilities to use the same kind of skills in addressing the problems and issues they will be facing,” she said. “They are just at the beginning of their lives, so that was the whole purpose of it, to use a concrete cultural setting to address theoretical as well as practical issues.”
For the students, PWP has already had profound effects on the way they see their futures.
Murphy, who nurses an ambition to be a radio journalist, started learning Russian upon her return from Kazakhstan and is considering becoming a foreign correspondent specializing in Central Asia.
“When I go back there I want to be able to talk to people on my own,” she said. “Without an interpreter.”
Having grown up in Southern California as a Chinese American, Yan found Kazakhstan’s struggle to forge a national identity struck a personal chord. Her experiences and research in Kazakhstan have fostered a deeper interest in memory and the underlying philosophy and politics of museums and on her return to California, she interned with the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles.
“Looking at how Kazakhstan’s government and people are trying to remember their own national tragedies has made me more conscious of the way that we talk about our own history in the United States,” she said.
“How are we going to talk about 9/11? How do we talk about Muslims or Sikhs in our own country if in our museum we are going to say ‘people from the Middle East did this?' How are we going to create a national identity that still unifies despite other identity bonds, or ties that draw people in other directions?”
Taqi’s trip to Kazakhstan has inspired him to aim for a career in Pakistani politics: “I saw so many things in Kazakhstan that could be implemented in Pakistan, like instituting a more tolerant interpretation of Islam in constructing a national identity. Pakistan lacks that and it is why there is so much violence between different ethnic groups there.
“That’s why there is so much value in taking trips like this, because you can incorporate everything you learn in this international experience and actually implement it in your personal life and what you want to do in the future,” he said.
Rorlich agreed: “In addition to the learning experience their life has been enriched with new friends. How much better can it get?”