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Category Archives: Central Asia

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #007

Astana, Kazakhstan 

There are few things that make me angry (besides oh-so-many-things capitalism). One of them is the decision to rename May 1st in Kazakhstan. International Workers’ Day is already completely disregarded in “official life” in the US, which made me cringe every year. But Kazakhstan, why? In 1995, while the country’s economy was still shrinking and after a much-criticized Constitutional reform, the president decided to rename and repurpose May 1st as the Day of Unity of Kazakhstan’s Peoples. While the effort can be noble, displaying, celebrating and promoting respect for Kazakhstan’s multinational state, ANY OTHER DAY could have been chosen for that. So boo for that.

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My first two weeks in Astana were extremely hectic. The spiral of meetings, which I feared could have been slow at the beginning, precipitated fast. Plus, I had the chance to go to several conferences touching upon various aspects of my dissertation and others that were outside of my remit, but still useful to develop contacts.

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An example of useless vs useful business cards collected.

There have been already 3 winters and 3 springs so far in Astana. We’ve been way below zero and peeked above 20C just to check out how fast people get rid of their heavy coats. That meant that I was constantly with a cold. Which was definitely not helped by beverages such as the psychedelic lemonade pictured below. Hopefully now, in May!!!!, we can get past this freezing winter.

Taking Kazakh classes has been productive so far. I now understand the structure of the language far better. Now it’s time to expand the vocabulary! Half of the taxi drivers, however, are generally mute (it’s very typical to have silent interactions here). While I’ve already had 3 women driving me in a taxi, something I think I had experienced only twice before in Kazakhstan. Given the amount of rides I have to take to get anywhere, especially in Astana, that’s a fraction of 1%. One ride was particularly fun: mom driving and son behind playing with his tablet, correcting his mom’s Russian and admitting in cute English that he should play less and study more to improve his English.

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A felt spread at the Eurasian National University.


Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #006

Astana, Kazakhstan

Felicità. That’s what the 60-something-year-old taxi driver was singing the other night. After a few productive weeks in Almaty, with some excellent interviews, moody weather, nomadic housing solutions, and long night walks, I flew into Astana. I also got a cold, which I fought with some paracetamol, bought at the staggering price of 35 tenge (per 10 tablets box), that’s slightly more that $0.01 and slightly less than €0.01 per tablet. Sugar would probably be more expensive.

In Astana, I thought my first week would be slower than this, but I guess it’s good to have a quick start. So, as always, I won’t have time to enjoy the view (!) and will continue living a super-busy life. If you’re around in the capital city, please make my life busier and let’s have a coffee/tea.

I’ve already participated in one conference and will attend another one next week (evidence, with out-of-control beard attached, below).

Since my latest blog post, while in Almaty, I went to theater again, because Artishock is just amazing. I’ve also managed to do some cooking (after living for over a month in a tiny flat without a kitchen!). Had gallons of green tea. Ate increasingly often Bozbash (lamb leg in a chickpea and potato soup) at Khachapuri Khinkalevich, a small Georgian place on Kabanbai Batyr/Zenkova, which also produces its own bread (lepyoshka). And picked Manpar soup instead of Lagman a few time at the Uyghur restaurant 12 muqam, on Zheltoskan/Zhambyl. And plov, tons of it, especially when made by my exceptional Uzbek friend. And baursak, bags of them, especially when bought still warm from the store (yes, people, you still haven’t prepared home-made baursak for me). And bliny! “the thinner the better”.

I’m planning my summer/fall. There will be travels, even more than now, so I have to improve my packing skills and become even more essential.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #005

Almaty, Kazakhstan

It’s Nauryz! (however you spell it)

Spring is here. I’m starting to run into friends around Almaty (feeling increasingly ‘local’), despite the large masses that have crowded the streets in the past few days.

Incredibly, people have been available for PhD interviews. One of them ended with a home-cooked Nauryz dinner, with the best manty I’ve ever tasted and my first try of a Gubadiya (a Tatar pie ). Stop me when I tell you too many times how nice people are here.

Also, finally went up to the top of Hotel Kazakhstan. The best toilet view in town.

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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #004

Aktau, Kazakhstan

Below, a short collection including research, travels, feminism, a dream and Sacco & Vanzetti.

Set up a few interviews and did some research on newspapers from the 1990s. I also took a small intellectual roundabout that could become a paper in the near future and make an exciting part of my PhD. More on that later.

Flew to Aktau to see the place again, before moving there next summer for a few weeks, reconnect with some of my contacts and visit the annual Adai festival in Otpantau. Saw oilmen, aksakals, camels, sheep heads, horses, and pipelines, in no particular order.

Personal notes:

Woke up early to a dream/nightmare: Mom and daughter were in a park that resembled Panfilov Park. The mom asked the daughter if she was tired and wanted to go home. The little one, who might have been six or so, said yes, pointing to her doll: “Her head hurts. I think because her husband beats her or something.” Woke up very upset that I could dream something so realistic… and in Russian. The scene was the typical moment in which a kid is tired but doesn’t want to admit it and finds an external excuse to go home. But the girl’s choice was chilling. I guess after two days of Femagora, a gender equality-focused event in Almaty organized around March 8, and going to theater to see Artishock’s crude and honest #прямопотолеби, this is what my memory wanted to keep its focus on: the long road to equality, to solidarity, and to happiness.


Now, what comes to mind (and brings the routine tears to my eyes) is Nicola Sacco’s final letter to his son, before being executed together with Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1920s witch-hunty USA. The Italian anarchist wrote to his child not to be selfish, to share his joys with the deprived, for they are his true friends. In a movie from 1971, the adaptation of the letter contains a sentence that is not in the original, “ricordati, figlio mio, la felicità dei giochi, non tenerla tutta per te” – which roughly translates into “remember, my son, the feeling of happiness that you have when you play; don’t keep it to yourself” – which is both about being unselfish and appreciating the culture of sharing with the have-nots and, crucially at least for my memory of today, the feeling of happiness connected to playing games as kids, which was clearly lost in the girl from my dream. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but this was not like every other dream that I infallibly forget.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #003

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Doing tons of readings and reconnecting with friends. Also trying to get in touch with people to interview for the fieldwork, but many seem quite busy. I might schedule a second trip to Almaty or prolong this one by a week or so.

Side notes: we’ve had all seasons in one week here. It snowed, it rained, it was hot (around 16C) and it was cloudy and windy.

Last night, I saw two men in military gear playing virtual roulette in a pedestrian underpass.

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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #002

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Getting settled in, finally. Got an office in KIMEP. Also tried to go to the National Library to access some old newspapers, but it apparently was “санитарный день”. Their day off is Monday, but I guess a pre-Nauruz cleanup is warranted (?).

More readings done in between chores, but tomorrow it’s time to set up some meetings.

Also, while walking back home tonight someone opened the window of a car and shouted: “HELLOOOOOO!!” to me. Yes, to me. I turned around and I was alone. I’m pretty sure I don’t know them. A few meters down the road, I saw a guy wearing a sweater that said: “UPSDAB EAMILY CLOTHING” which sums the whole thing up.

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again, technically not “assistant professor”.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #001

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Back to KIMEP today. Did all the necessary things to register, although I still need to finish up a few things before I can have access to my office. In the meantime, I’ll use the national library for some newspaper browsing sessions.

It was quiet at uni, because it’s reading week and most students and faculty are off. It was a beautiful sunny day, so I used it to walk around a bit and see some new features of the city (Panfilova is pedestrian-only now!!! and yes, they renamed Furmanova…).

In the evening, I went to the premiere of Don Quixote, in a surrealist version proposed by the talented theater group “Art & Shock” (ARTиШОК). Two take-home lessons: I need to improve my Russian and I still like theater (I hadn’t been in a long time).


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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #000

Almaty, Kazakhstan

A lengthy period of PhD fieldwork in Kazakhstan just started for me. I plan to keep a very short diary of my activities in the country.

To make it easier to follow on Twitter and elsewhere, I’ll use the hashtag #дәптер – notebook in Kazakh – so that I can also use it as motivation to learn some more Kazakh.

My first day just ended. Met some friends, ate lagman, settled into my tiny flat.

Currently fighting jet-lag, so if I you see me using a pen to operate a calculator when it’s turned off surrounded by tenge coins, €50 notes and random graphs as in the picture below, you’ll know why.

Back to school


Edinburgh, UK

After three years of incredible personal, professional, and business growth, I take my leave from The Conway Bulletin to undertake a doctoral degree at the University of Glasgow.

When I started at the Bulletin as a Kazakhstan correspondent, the newspaper had only 3 pages. Back then, everyone was excited about the start of the Kashagan offshore oilfield, which would have soon disappointed hopefuls when its pipes broke. Interestingly, Kashagan just re-started a few days ago. But now the Bulletin counts hundreds of subscribers, not just dozens, runs 12 pages packed with news every week and has a fully-working archive with over 7,000 news items from the past six years.

Now, after writing well over 2,500 news stories and around 200 news wires, covering  elections around Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and doing an immense amount of daily research, it’s time for me to move on to my next challenge, back into academia.

At Glasgow, I’ll fold back into my research of Kazakhstan’s energy sector, with a particular eye this time to its social impact. This means that I will travel more to Central Asia, attend more academic conferences, and write more for a diverse range of outlets.

For a brief period, I will continue to work part-time at the Bulletin, hoping that my replacement can be found soon. And I will stay on in Edinburgh until there’s a good reason to move.

After almost two years, the blog is back. Or is it?

Скоро кончится лето – Кино

Almaty, Kazakhstan 

I’m writing my dissertation, that’s why I’ve been so proficient in procrastinating. But it’s crunch time, so I promise this will be my last post until I’m done with my academic writing.

When Viktor Tsoi died at 28 in a car accident in Latvia, the Baltic country had just declared its independence from the USSR. It was June of 1990, a time of change, or “перемен” as Tsoi would have sung it if he had lived to see it. A truly Soviet character, Tsoi was a Korean-Russian with some roots in Kazakhstan’s former sleepy capital of Kyzylorda (his father was born there). A profoundly uneasy artist, who even sounded dark when he sung his less-than-happy songs with his band, Kino.

Every 21st of June, the former Soviet youth celebrates its own Christmas. The birthday of Tsoi revives the Soviet rock scene from Almaty to St. Petersburg. Even a street artist was able to get away with painting a mural in his honor in Almaty, avoiding the ever strict Kazakh police. But I digress. I conducted a very quick analysis of the lyrics sung in the most famous songs by Kino. As I casually listened to the words used, it became clear that the choice made by Tsoi in the 80s was more original than many other songs that usually play in my iTunes.

A mural for Viktor Tsoi - Almaty (Arbat) 2014

A mural for Viktor Tsoi – Almaty (Arbat) 2014

Next to very Soviet words like звезда (star), война (war), земля (land), вперёд (forward), город (city), there are several ones related to natural phenomena – солнце (sun), трава (grass), снег (snow), огонь (fire). Other recurrent words reference the body: кровь (blood) and глаза (eyes). The choice of verbs is also interesting: молчить (to be silent), спать (to sleep), встать (to wake/stand up), остаться (to stay/be left). One very peculiar word that comes up often is брод (ford, “a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across” tells me the dictionary).

Often, Kino’s songs address uncomfortable situations that disturb the “normal” living experience. When Tsoi talks about being stuck in either an Elektrichka (“Suburban Electric Train”) or on a Trolleibus going East, you can feel the problems that the singer was facing within. You won’t find любовь (love) or сердце (heart), except in their un-romantic meanings. “Love” is used in the locution я не люблю to say “I don’t like”, whereas “heart” is more often the source of pain than excitement.

There is so much sub-text in Kino’s songs that I should dedicate a month to it, not 30 minutes. But time flies, so I’d better go back to my dissertation, listening to Tsoi’s tunes, of course.