Russia Program Journal No 2

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Regional Perspectives, Local Voices


IERES Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies Editorial Offices: 1957 E Street, NW, Suite 412, Washington, DC 20052; Each article is published individually as soon as it is accepted under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY 4.0). Article submissions and all correspondence regarding editorial matters should be addressed to For more information, please visit our website: The views expressed in this journal are those only of the authors, not of the Russia Program or The George Washington University. The Russia Program Journal is committed to equity. We encourage authors to be sensitive to their own epistemic practices, including as reflected in their citations’ gender balance and representation of scholarship by authors from the country or countries under study.

Vol. 1, No. 2, October 2023

Table of Contents

Eurasia Remade? The Regional Ripples of Russia’s War in Ukraine ALEXANDER COOLEY ………………………………………………………………………………………..7

Implications of Russia’s War Against Ukraine for Central Asia ASEL DOOLOTKELDIEVA ………………………………...…………….………………………………........15

Popular Imaginaries of Russia and Attitudes Toward the Invasion of Ukraine among Kyrgyz People ASEL DOOLOTKELDIEVA …….………………………………………………………………………..….........19

Grassroots Struggles for Rethinking History, Debating Identity, and Restoring Dignity of People in Central Asia ASEL DOOLOTKELDIEVA …….………………………………………………………………………..….........27

Voluntary exile: Kalmyk migrants’ views of Kalmykia from Moscow EDWARD C. HOLLAND and ELVIRA CHURYUMOVA…………….………………………………........33

Russian Regional Science in an Asymmetric System CHIMIZA LAMAZHAA …………………………………………………………………………………………39

“Preserving a Language Involves Everything that Makes a Language Popular… It’s not Something that Lies in Your Grandmother’s Old Trunk and Only Comes out at Festivals” DMITRY OPARIN and VLADA BARANOVA…….…………….…………………………………………….47

Gold, spirits and dead rivers: How the Shors, Khakas and Teleuts fell hostage to the wealth of their native lands ALEXANDRA GAGANOVA and ILYA CHEBERIN…….…………………………………………………...57


Eurasia Remade? The Regional Ripples of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Alexander Cooley, Columbia University

I think initially what stunned all of us was the unprecedented Western unity that we saw after Russia’s invasion. First of all, the Ukrainians surprised all of us, or maybe not all of us, but many so-called experts. Their heroic bravery and resilience in the fight to defend their lands. But I think it’s worth just thinking about some of these other dimensions, including the unprecedented condemnation and sequence of sanctions, and coordinated responses out of the West. The US Treasury and the European Central Bank together announced the freezing of Russian assets. A whole series of financial and individual sanctions were imposed, including the Nord Stream 2 cancellation; partners that had never imposed export controls before came on board – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore. Even Switzerland joined the sanctions regime. Europe has embraced seven million Ukrainian refugees; but 10 years before, observers were foretelling the end of Europe as a project, specifically because of exogenous shocks generated by refugees from Syria and the Middle East. A range of Western countries individually announced military resupply for Ukraine with increasing sophistication in weaponry. NATO agreed to admit Finland and Sweden – just like that. And then we witnessed a mass corporate pullout of Russia. And so, this is what Daniel Nexon wrote about, the strength of the US liberal hegemonic cartel coming together in a time of global crisis. When the West wants to get together and act concertedly, they have a remarkable number of tools, processes, actors and networks to drawn upon. And while this is going on, I think we are having a much-needed conversation and awakening about the analytical lenses and assumptions that blinded us to what Russia was planning, as well as the depth of Ukraine’s resilience. I think the calls for decolonizing the field, recognizing agency and the real local accomplishments, and the local factors in places that we reflexively, perhaps irresponsibly, called the post-Soviet space; these are incredibly important contributions. And thinking about a colonial project as unwinding over a series of different markers and events, implicated in Russian victimhood, I also find to be analytically very important. But I would also say that I think in some ways that we have conflated the important project of thinking about why we got the lead-up to the war so wrong with our assumptions about how every country of the region might react to the war. Following our observations about Western unity, I think we adopted a number of assumptions and overlooked the dilemmas, balancing acts, the very real, excruciating choices


that a lot of the Eurasian states, governments, and actors within the region have had to make in response to the war. So, in these remarks today – and I apologize for their lack of structured coherence – I wish to make about four or five points. Maybe they are provocations, maybe observations, maybe they’re all wrong. But it’s an effort to open up a dialogue and discussion within this group that has such enormous expertise.

Central Asia’s and Global South’s stance toward the war First, I think everyone’s familiar with some version of this map. This is the map of the countries that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March at the United Nations and numerically they, the blue states condemned the attack, are overwhelming. But the abstentions that we see, the 30 some abstentions, and single-digit support of Russia, together do account for almost half of humanity, right? Think about all these countries and regional groupings: certainly China, South Asia, Southeast Asia, certain parts of Africa. Why is that? I found the Central Asian stances of official neutrality to be understandable in terms of a legal position. And actually, they mirrored what had happened in 2014, when there was a similar vote at the UN to condemn Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The Central Asian votes were a combination of abstentions, formal neutrality and not voting – refusing even to cast a vote, to even get involved. I think the reasons behind these abstentions vary, and it’s important to understand that. There’s not one kind of response here, and I think that also gives us a potential set of insights in some specific cases. China now is promoting its 12-point Peace Plan – more a list of principles. Even though, in essence, it’s supporting politically its revisionist strategic partner. Beijing is opposed to and avoiding sanctions, or at least avoiding detection on really big red lines, such as military supply. And it’s extracting concessions from Russia. It’s using this to try and legitimize its own potential leadership role, and posturing for the Global South. India is a really interesting mix of factors: energy opportunism (Indian purchases of Russian oil are up exponentially over the previous year), geopolitical hedging, a kind of belief that great powers don’t actively pick sides in the multipolar world (they try and keep doors of engagement open), as well as the very real institutional ties on domestic legacies in certain parts of the Indian foreign policy community with Russia. Let’s go to South Africa. Here it is a question more of the resonance of anti-imperialism and nonalignment. You say, well, hang on, isn’t an imperial power actually invading a former colony? Yes, but the resonance in Africa of the Soviet Union being perceived as an anticolonial power is very real. Questions about NATO expansion, the kind of destabilizing aspects of democratization, legacies of the Nonaligned Movement. All in all, 17 African countries voted to abstain from condemning Russia. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise then. A final point I want to make, about the regional fallout of the war, even though we saw this as this unique, unprecedented kind of act fundamentally destabilizing the post-Cold-War European architecture. Central Asia is a region that had endured several exogenous shocks,


many of them involving conflict within a short period of time. So, let’s just recap the last two years: the final US withdrawal from Afghanistan; the sort of symbolism of Russian and Chinese-led security and economic fora, now the main formal and informal ways of pulling the region together; January 2022, Tokayev’s consolidation of power and the successful CSTO intervention – this in itself was incredibly important, right? The CSTO had never intervened before, even though it had been asked on several occasions by the Kyrgyz Republic, by Armenia and so forth. And then of course, February, 2022. So, this is a region that had endured a number of exogenous shocks coming into the war. Now, in terms of US policy, I think it’s fair to say that the US’s standing is not what it was 20 years before, when it successfully set up military bases and supply and refueling agreements across the region to support its operations in Afghanistan. Back then, both Russia and China reluctantly in some ways and certainly self-servingly supported the US. Vladimir Putin called George W. Bush, offered his assistance and the use of Soviet-era facilities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (whether they were even actually his to volunteer should be questioned). And he talked about the common civilizational struggle. China also went along, and China’s main concession was grafting on its campaign in Xinjiang onto this lens of the global war on terrorism – as colleagues have explored. So, when the withdrawal was happening and negotiations were ongoing over a set of possible logistics sites to fly surveillance drones over, Russia, by all accounts, pressured the Central Asian states to deny this. And I think Putin at some point even said that China agrees with us. It was an important denial that complicated the withdrawal, but I think it reflects some changing ordering dynamics and the US’s declining relative influence across the region. There were enough regional levers available that enabled Russia and China to successfully pressure the Central Asian states. I think when we talk about Kazakhstan and its stance toward the war, we have emphasized some of the very real protests and outrage, the mobilization of civil society that we saw, including an effort that actually raised humanitarian assistance for Ukraine. And we also tended to see, or look for, I would say, Tokayev’s defiance against Putin. And so this particular episode at the St Petersburg Economic Forum drew a lot of attention: Putin reportedly got unexpected pushback from an ally on the war Ukraine. President Tokayev talked about how they don’t favor, and would not recognize, the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics as independent states. However, what didn’t get covered in the same speech, rereading it, was that he said the same thing about Kosovo. And he also said the same thing about Abkhazia. The Kazakhstan position has been consistent to not recognize separatist states without UN authorization. So, to me this was more emblematic of Tokayev’s threading the needle in what was a very difficult situation. And I think it’s perfectly consistent with their previous positions. The Economist Intelligence Unit came out with this really interesting infographic a couple of days ago. And their point is that one year after the war, there’s an increasing number of countries that are siding with Russia. And I think on this map, if you look at where Central Asia is, and you look at the other countries that are colored in red Russia-leaning or supportive of Russia, 9

this is hardly surprising. Central Asian positions on the war are absolutely consistent with where their neighborhood is.

Western Sanctions against Russia and the non-Western world So, let’s go through some of the other points. The second issue that comes to mind is nonWestern outrage (or lack thereof) against Russia’s behavior. To me, this is one of the more surprising parts of Western unity – the corporate pullout. It’s not complete but it is significant. And I would argue that this is probably the most successful case of the stigmatization of a country since the Apartheid regime in South Africa. When you talk about corporate entities who were forced to withdraw, almost overnight, because their boards and their shareholders determined it was impossible to remain in Russia – the reputational damage and risk is too much. And so hopefully someone will write a tale of this at some point. Midnight emergency board meetings at companies such as BP or ExxonMobil, not just companies like IKEA and McDonald’s that are Western consumption companies. Companies with real, multi-billion-dollar energy investments that had endured every kind of political risk there is, especially when you think about BP, and its history with the Russian government, saying, “No, we’re out of here!” That level of opprobrium. Now, you might say, well, you know, this is a fear of shareholder activism. So yes, but that shareholder activism is based on a reputational concern. For a running list you can go to the Yale School of Management. But this opprobrium isn’t widely shared across Central Asia, just as it’s also not shared in the developing world, the Global South, many parts of Eurasia in general (save some members of civil society and a few elites). This is a mashup, as reported by Eurasianet from the Central Asian Barometer on public attitudes toward the war in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. And what we see is a pretty even split in Kazakhstan on perceptions of responsibility for the war. And in Kyrgyzstan, the proportion of respondents who think that the West is responsible is pretty significant. And again, given the Kyrgyz Republic’s ties to Russia, migration, the information space, the attitudes toward Russian foreign policy in general, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. I think more interesting for my argument was not the vote at the General Assembly, but the April 2022 vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. This was separate from the UNGA vote about the war or Russia’s later annexation of four Ukrainian provinces. This is about Russia’s membership and standing in the Human Rights Council. Let’s look here. With the exception of Turkmenistan that forgot to vote on this one, every Central Asian country votes “no” – they don’t even abstain. They vote “no.” And so, particularly on this issue of condemning Russia’s involvement in human rights abuses, Central Asian states support Moscow. My third point is one of the fundamental concerns that Central Asia, Eurasia and other parts of the world have – the disruptive impact of Western economic sanctions and compliance with US secondary sanctions. The sanctions regime that was described to me by one official from the region with great alarm: “there is a sanction regime against Iran. We don’t have an


exemption from that regime the way India [does]. You haven’t granted us an exemption. We now have sanctions for dealing with companies in Xinjiang. Now you’re sanctioning Russia. What are we supposed to do? We’re a landlocked country.” I thought it was a very interesting and telling way of phrasing the connectivity dilemma for the Central Asian states. Additionally, I think that none of the post-Soviet states having joined the sanctions fully is a story. Perhaps not in Central Asia, but certainly when you think about Georgia. And there are a couple drivers here. One is self-interest. Certainly, the Georgians don’t want to unilaterally cede half of their wine industry or a third of their tourist industry that relies on the Russian market and Russian visitors. But also, I do think there’s a sense of indignation about where were the sanctions in 2008? Where were the sanctions when Abkhazia and South Ossetia were taken from us and recognized as independent states? Furthermore, there are regional concerns about the shocks of integration, inflation, soaring prices for energy and food stuffs, and compliance risks. Can you use Mir cards? What does this mean for Eurasian shipping, and so forth. A very interesting paper that I would recommend for everyone, put out by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development a couple weeks ago, finds that there is evidence suggestive of intermediated trade via neighboring countries being used to circumvent the sanctions. In other words, exports of sanctioned goods through members of the Eurasian Economic Union rose by 30% relative to those of other goods. What does that mean? It means re-export through Armenia, through Kyrgyzstan, through Kazakhstan. Countries that are members of the Eurasian Economic Union are also most likely being used for sanctions evasion.

Repurposing of Eurasia’s regional institutions That gets me to my next point and I think maybe one of the more interesting ones that Russia and Eurasia, rather than being pulled apart or “de-centered” by the war, are actually remixing and re-networking in ways that very few of us anticipated. It involves individuals, companies and economies. It is the consequence of the repurposing of Russia-led regional architectures, including visa regimes and regional economic organization. And the very fact that the Eurasian Economic Union can be used for this kind of activity is telling. But, of course, the war isn’t mentioned at all by the Eurasian Economic Union on its website, which proceeds as if nothing’s happened over the last year. Let’s talk about migration. So initially, I think there was a wave of analysis that there would be a mass exodus of Central Asian migrants from Russia, especially because the sanctions would impact their ability to send home remittances. There was also alarm about the possibility of forced conscription of migrants. Some media stories recounted how migrants were lured to the front lines, and others detailed the potential loss of citizenship for hundreds of thousands of Tajiks that had acquired Russian passports if they refused conscription.


But over the last few months, we’ve seen a couple of trends that run counter to that. The ruble has remained relatively stable due to Central Bank capital controls. I think sanctions are biting in other ways, but the financial sanctions that some thought would cripple Russia financially have not had that immediate effect. And as a result of the war, we’re seeing what is, according to the Gaidar Institute, the Russian labor market experiencing the most acute shortages it’s had since 1993. And in fact, we’ve seen migration quotas lifted for Uzbek migrants in critical industries, construction and agrobusiness. So, Russia needs labor, and it strikes me that that is going to only encourage migration to resume and even exceed previous trends. Then, there is one of the more unexpected stories. And this starts from the Russian government banning all Western tech platforms for fears of information security when the war started, and also in response to sanctions. And here is an infographic with percentages of Russian adults that use Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, PayPal, all of these different platforms. As a result of both the instability of the war and a lot of these sort of tech companies and products being banned, we had an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russian IT workers. The estimate is that a hundred thousand are still abroad. A hundred thousand IT workers, it is 10% of all workers in the sector. Initially, this is where they went in the first month, according to a hearing in the Russian Duma. They identified 25,000 in Georgia, 20,000 in Turkey, 20,000 in Armenia, 3,000 in Uzbekistan. And one year on, we see some extraordinary developments. We see in Armenia, Armenian GDP having exploded, up 13% in 2022, with 1,300 companies formed there. Exports to Russia up three times, remittances from Armenia to Russia up four times. We see IT hubs booming in Central Asia. The Astana Hub, which is also, I think, quite strategically targeting incubating FinTech along with the Astana International Financial Center. You see the hightech park in Kyrgyzstan. For so long, relatively quiet places are now an absolutely bustling engine: 270 companies, double the number of the previous year. And in Uzbekistan, its IT park registering 200% growth from last year, revenues up 440%. So, what we’re seeing is a concerted effort in these places to adopt strategies to attract Western, but not just Western, business outsourcing firms and services. We see the implementation by all these countries of new residence regimes to facilitate it: five-year visas, tax-free status in Kazakhstan, digital nomad visas in Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan’s TashRush relocation program. That’s point one, and point two – the mobilization and conscription in September. This is less about IT workers and fleeing academics with more liberal worldviews. It is about those wanting to avoid mobilization even though maybe they don’t have strong political opinions. And again, let’s look at the vectors from the data provided by Novaya Gazeta Europe: when mobilization was announced, over 260,000, probably more, going through routes where you have visa-free travel. This isn’t a Central Asian slide, but I call this a tale of two clients – both Russian allies – and their reaction to the war. I think reactions depend on the regime security in question here, so the Belarus-Armenia comparison is interesting, because they are both relatively small states and both viewed Russia as a security ally. To understand Lukashenko’s active support, not neutrality, but active support and co-belligerence in this conflict, you have to understand the


deals that were made in 2020 with Moscow to help stem the protests against fraudulent elections and the quid pro quo that they involved. But with Mr Pashinyan, this is the ultimate final straw, I think, showing that the security partnership with Russia is actually unreliable when applied to Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan. Russia provided legal pretexts that its security commitments did not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh, but even when the fighting spread to Armenia proper, Russia was not there. And so, this is Pashinyan very demonstrably interrupting a meeting of the CSTO. But I think regime politics and insecurity, as is usually the case across Eurasia, dictates the stance toward Russia, including in the Kyrgyz Republic, in Tajikistan, in Kazakhstan and the others as well. So, let’s go to the latest Russia-China summit. Temur Umarov flagged an official statement explicitly referencing Central Asia for the first time as a region of mutual interest and coordinated action. And true enough, there was. I find really interesting the paragraphs that the parties are ready to strengthen their mutual coordination to support the Central Asian countries; we don’t want color revolutions, we don’t want external interference in the affairs. But there’s also this paragraph before where the parties note the positive contribution of the CSTO to regional security. And they note the potential for the development of cooperation between the CSTO and China in order to ensure peace and stability of the region. Why insert this? Why is this in the communique? And I think the answer, going back to a year ago, goes to Xi’s statement at his Central Asia summit in January 2022, where in response, in the wake of all that had happened in Kazakhstan, he issued a blandly supportive statement of principles of Tokayev and Kazakhstan: firmly opposed to external forces, Kazakhstan should maintain stability, stop violence, strong leadership of Tokayev, and so forth. But there was not a reference to the CSTO in that speech. My reading, and this is just pure speculation, is that the 2023 CSTO statement is an attempt to loop the circle. We can argue about sort of different interests of Moscow and Beijing and their possible clash in Central Asia. We’ve done so and we’ll continue to do so. But my thinking on this, based on what I see transpiring in Central Asia, is that rather than be the cause of potential fallout between Russia and China, it’s the arena in which they actually reach mutual accommodations. It’s the arena in which their different ordering institutions, whether it’s regional architectures, norms, economic spaces, security organizations, if not mutually coordinate, find a way to co-exist and overlap. So, I think these interactions are important. They work through their interests in Central Asia as opposed to being divided by them in Central Asia. And to me that’s incredibly significant. So, to wrap up, how should the US, the EU and other countries navigate a Eurasian region that’s being remade? First of all, I think it’s really important to understand the positionality of the dilemma that Central Asian actors face: the hedging, the neutrality, the sort of impossible and acute pressures that they’re facing from Russia, from economic sanctions, from this renetworking, from the uncertainty of new waves of migration – what that means for stability


in their country, what that means for prices for their citizens, things like real estate markets, food stuffs. So, I would say focus on affirming the principle of Ukraine’s sovereignty rather than promoting the democracy aspect of this; that this war should be about defending Ukrainian sovereignty. But this is also neither sufficient nor prescriptive. I think there should be an avoidance of framing this as a confrontation that pits the West versus Russia and that countries must choose sides. This is what Russia wants to do, and I think it’s doing so increasingly successfully in the Global South. Once you start to buy into the framing of West versus Russia, then all of the other grievances about the US-backed international order start to come into play. Take this ICC indictment of Putin. By the way, there is one Central Asian country that signed on to the ICC – it’s Tajikistan. And Tajikistan actually was pressured in the campaign about forced returns of Uyghurs, along with Cambodia. I don’t think Mr Putin has to worry about going to Dushanbe, but certainly I think the normative fallout of the ICC indictment – and I’m all for stigmatizing Mr Putin – but I wonder how the dynamics are going to play out in the Global South. I wonder actually whether this is going to sort of enhance this theme that the West is selective about who they indict. That the ICC is an instrument of geopolitical power as opposed to actual international accountability. But anyway, this West versus Russia frame is particularly unhelpful, I think, for the Central Asian states. But in terms of the opportunities, let’s think about these new kinds of networks. In other words, not just start thinking about new government-to-government relations and affirmations of sovereignty and support, but other levels of government. Can we support and engage with municipalities? Municipalities that are under strain to cope with the influx of these tech workers, to process them, to create favorable sorts of regimes, but they are also big beneficiaries. Juliet Johnson, in her amazing book about central banks in post-communist states, has a term that I really like. She calls them “wormhole networks” – very tightly coupled global networks that arise in certain fields of specialty. I think that could be the case for IT. When you look at the tech conferences, international spaces, interactions that these companies have. This is a strength of the West – having access to such IT wormholes. I think we need to develop a strategy for dealing with Russian exiles and especially Russian IT workers. It doesn’t have to be a Cold War strategy but there needs to be a strategy. There are too many Russian exiles in the information space and in the knowledge sphere that don’t have alternatives, that don’t have options except to return. This should be a strategic calculation. And then finally, I think within these spaces, these transformative spaces, this is a chance for us to do what we do best, which is to cultivate our own global educational networks and people-to-people partnerships, and really contribute and support this sudden reopening to the world. To conclude, I don’t know if Eurasia has actually been remade, but I do think that some of the assumptions that we have perhaps require some recalibration and some rethinking as well.


Implications of Russia’s War Against Ukraine for Central Asia

Asel Doolotkeldieva, Nonresidential Fellow, GW

Eighteen months since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Central Asian regimes and societies face diverse direct and indirect effects of the war and actively shape the changing regional order. This rapidly changing order demands a delicate balancing act from Central Asian governments while providing opportunities to pursue regime and state interests. The maneuvering of Central Asian governments between divergent interests of great powers in relation to the war produces a complex picture of seemingly contradictory government responses. On the one hand, they show resistance to Russian pressure, which is especially visible in their UN resolution votes and their pursuit of simultaneous talks with China and the West; on the other hand, they continue close, if not increased partnership with Russia within existing economic, cultural and diplomatic frameworks. Following these structural dependencies, international commentators rushed to portray the positions of these states vis-à-vis the war as another reflection of their vassalage to Russia, and the increased attention of China and the collective West to the region as the Great Game 2.0. However, none of these commentaries do justice to what is happening on the ground. If the war seems to thus far have benefited the regimes, it is detrimental to Central Asian societies, as the changing order is accompanied by another tightening of the screws in the form of authoritarian consolidation, soaring prices and uncertainty for millions of labor migrants working in Russia. This memo zooms in on these regional and local developments to provide the context needed to understand the Central Asian government responses to the war.

Changing regional security and trade order Despite Russia’s intensified efforts to bring Central Asia closer to itself, the regional order is changing. For many in Central Asian government policy circles, the current war against Ukraine implicitly symbolizes the failure of Russia’s foreign policy toward its ‘near abroad.’ The Russia-led CSTO could not mitigate the recent armed conflicts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and between Azerbaijan and Armenia, while Russia is also failing to defend itself, as the Prigozhin mutiny demonstrates. Russia’s neo-imperial divide-and-rule policy toward these regions has reached its limits, opening the space for other actors. The security paradigm is shifting, and it remains to be seen whether China is interested in getting more involved in security issues, since its investment projects require stability across the region and, as in the case of the most recent inter-state conflict in Central Asia, its leverage on both Kyrgyz and Tajik authorities is sufficient to play a mediating role. China’s move to create a new multilateral mechanism “C5+1,” showed off in Xi’an in May 2023 – in addition to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Beijing’s bilateral relationships – is a success, which contrasts


with Russia’s failure to bring the region under the Eurasian Economic Union with Tajikistan’s systematic refusal to join it. Second, the invasion has pushed regional actors to find alternative trade routes bypassing Russia. Western partners first seek to promote regional connectivity “so they’re [the Central Asian states] not dependent on any one country or any one source for trade and investment,” and second, to prevent Central Asia from becoming a buffer zone for Russian imports of goods under Western sanctions. These topics have been the reason for high-level official visits, multiplied since the war within the US ‘C5+1’ and EU ‘C5+1’ initiatives, and the recent EBRDfunded study on sustainable transportation links between Europe and Central Asia. Meanwhile, for China it will be vital to speed up alternative routes to secure its exports to Europe. All these developments that were spurred or accelerated by the war bring renewed attention to the region and Central Asian leaders’ work to make the most out of their increased importance. Whereas before Central Asia was treated as Russia’s backyard, today regional leaders can hope to gain prominence in its own right, as the new contours of the regional security paradigm are yet to emerge.

Pursuing national interests within the changing regional order In past months, Russia, China and the collective West have intensified their ties with Central Asia. In an attempt to maintain its few friends left in the world, Russia has increasingly courted Central Asian leaders, holding more than 50 meetings with them in an unusually high number of visits to the region. While most of these meetings and summits take place within the existing inter-parliamentary, inter-governmental, CSTO and EAEU frameworks, what has changed is rather the tone of Russia’s approach to the region. Sources in government circles say that their Russian counterparts have never been so respectful as now, a timely correction to the earlier complaint of the Tajik President Rahmon that Russia “does not respect” Central Asian states. The same tone could be observed during the second high-level regional meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia and the president of the European Council on June 2 in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, where Charles Michel made a 20-minute speech on the importance of “hearing and listening to each other.” At the economic level, the region has become the new home for Russian capital and international companies fleeing from Western sanctions. In Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second major city, sources among city officials observe that there have never been so many delegations of ‘Russian oligarchs’ visiting the country in search of potential investment schemes and local partners. Despite initial expectations of a dampening effect from the war, regional economic growth reached 5.2% thanks to domestic reforms, as well as the influx of Russian capital and China’s reopening. The recent Chinese C5+1 summit in Xi’an demonstrated China’s renewed interest in the region in the form of a promise of $49 billion in investment and a railroad connecting China with European markets through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Central Asian governments are also seeking to diversify their trade partners and are looking increasingly toward Asia, realizing that the West can hardly offer anything concrete to help them to escape from historical dependencies.


Central Asian governments have been also proactive in resuming their bilateral and multilateral relations after the pandemic. Several summits took place; the most interesting was perhaps the Fourth Consultative Meeting of Central Asian leaders in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, in summer 2022, where they all stressed the importance of intra-regional alignment as a response to external shocks. Working toward much-wanted but thorny regional integration, this summit indicated a strong political will for dialogue, compromise, and cooperation across a wide range of spheres, at least on the part of the majority of participants. Diplomats from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan informed each other on their respective UN resolution votes in an attempt at a concerted approach to the war against Ukraine.

A careful balancing act Nevertheless, navigating through these diplomatic and economic changes is a daunting task for smaller states. Since the onset of the war, Central Asian governments have found themselves in a difficult situation of balancing between their own economic and diplomatic contexts, pressures from Russia and the West, and domestic regime-society dynamics. Kazakhstan shares a border with Russia and since the invasion of Ukraine, a significant minority of Kazakh citizens fear the possibility of a Russian invasion from the north, while Kazakh President Tokayev owes his political survival to Putin during the massive antigovernment demonstrations in January 2022. For more fragile states, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the war on Ukraine also means that thousands of their citizens working in Russia and holding double citizenship might be subjected to forced military conscription. The war has also brought significant disruptions to supply chains and high inflation, especially for food. And for all these states, Russia remains the major trade partner and energy and food supplier. In their navigating between domestic interests and Russian pressures, first we see that Central Asian states are pursuing cautious foreign policies that support “strategic autonomy” and do not breach commitments with international organizations. Despite their historical ties, they did not side with Russia and either did not cast a vote or abstained on five UN resolutions in relation to the war against Ukraine. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have explicitly stated their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Kazakhstan’s president refused to recognize the Russia-backed occupied Luhansk and Donetsk republics. However, we also see that the governments participate in the collective commemoration of Victory Day in Russia, forbid local anti-war protests, arrest and deport Russian anti-war emigrants and punish any war-related manifestations. These measures are undertaken within the regimes’ repressive traditions perhaps to limit politicization of the war at home and potential societal polarization rather than to please the Russian leadership. Yet, the zigzagging only attracts criticism from their divided publics that see the authorities constantly balancing on the verge of losing sovereignty and independence.


Authoritarian consolidation amid shifting regional order One important development parallel to the war is that geopolitical realignment is going hand in hand with authoritarian consolidation in Central Asia. Although authoritarian consolidation in each country is an internal regime dynamic, it indirectly benefits from the war, as the international community is keen to turn a blind eye on increased repressions in order to keep its modest leverage in the region. Thus, in Tajikistan, we see a gradual dynastical transfer of power on the way, from father to son. Uzbek President Mirziyoyev orchestrated constitutional changes allowing him to annul his previous terms and extend his time in office at least until 2037. Kyrgyz President Japarov has been ridding the political space of his opponents, claiming the repressions are forestalling attempted coups. Kazakh President Tokayev further took control of elites with carefully orchestrated national elections and by discouraging civic activism. Consolidation of authoritarian regimes in Central Asia is effectuated by heavy suppression of political and civic freedoms. The Uzbek authorities brutally suppressed and criminalized a peaceful demonstration against constitutional changes in Karakalpakstan in July 2022. Labor strikes and civic protests are still forbidden and get repressed in Kazakhstan. In Tajikistan, the harsh crack-down on the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan Region is ongoing, while in Kyrgyzstan the authorities are seemingly set on eliminating the opposition, civil society and independent mass media. Journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens across the region are arrested and sentenced for liking and reposting news on social media. Various bills designed to tighten control over the Internet, social media, peaceful assemblies and NGOs defined the authoritarian trends in the region long before the war. But Central Asia’s renewed geopolitical importance for the West will likely mean that these authoritarian policies are ignored by the region’s most democratic partners. Thus far, besides concerns expressed by the US and EU leadership, they have been rather silent about the real prospects of adopting anti-democratic bills on foreign agents and against independent mass media. At the recent EU summit in Kyrgyzstan in June 2023, Michel paid lip service to the Kyrgyz regime by endorsing its fake commitment to human rights and political freedoms. When assessing ongoing changes in the regional order that were induced by the invasion, one has to keep in mind that it is not only long-term economic interdependencies, but importantly also the authoritarian dynamics of regime survival that bind Central Asian leaders to Kremlin. Considering the CSTO’s first deployment ever (to Kazakhstan to quell the anti-government demonstrations and safeguard the authoritarian regime), Russian authoritarianism goes well beyond its geographic borders, creating a larger space where Putin’s power co-produces domestic autocracies in Central Asia. By seeking to keep their influence in the region and thus turning a blind eye on authoritarian consolidation in the short run, the West tacitly supports the continuation of this power space between Russia and Central Asia in the long run, to the detriment of Central Asian societies.

This is the first essay of a series on Central Asia's perception of Russia.


Popular Imaginaries of Russia and Attitudes Toward the Invasion of Ukraine among Kyrgyz People

Asel Doolotkeldieva, Nonresidential Fellow, GW

In this series of essays, I look at geopolitics “from below” in the context of the invasion of Ukraine and changing constellations in Central Asia. Using a non-elite-centric analysis for most of the essays, I write about changes in affective spaces in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in reaction to Russian “power at distance.” In this essay, I want to draw attention to the tenacious Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan, which persists despite important yet limited grassroots processes of distancing from Russia and changing geopolitical entanglements. I claim that Russian state propaganda and mass media have not primary, but secondary explanatory power and that Russian influence has more complex roots. If we seek to understand how Russia’s power at distance operates in this part of the world, we need to delve into the ways “Russia” has been constructed in local popular imaginaries over the past decades. Such a perspective of “geopolitics from below” matters because if postcolonial entanglements with Russia are to evolve, any distancing will come only from Central Asian populations, not their regimes. The latter are caught in the dynamics of regime survival, which make their distancing from Russia currently an undesirable option for them. To discuss these matters, I will use my ethnographic material, including focus group discussions conducted in 2018 and 2022, indepth interviews with activists, and observation of societal processes and specific events related to this topic since 2010. Conventional Political Science and IR analyses push us to view Russian power in the former Soviet republics as a form of control, exerted in a top-down manner. Thus, many foreign observers have perceived the ambivalent response of Central Asian governments to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as nothing else but the result of Russia’s continuing domination of the region. To be certain, Russia’s neocolonial policies toward independent Central Asian states (I will talk about them in the future essays), interference in domestic affairs and the derogative language used by Russian mass media all support such a view. However, these simplistic Great Game accounts have been challenged by those who identify and stress the agency of domestic elites to show their active part in shaping geopolitical decisions.1 Yet, the elitecentered analyses also adopt a hierarchical and thus limited perspective of how (geo-) politics works. They miss a crucial factor: the ways foreign hegemonies are constructed/supported/rejected by ordinary people and hence the role of societies in shaping geopolitical influences.

See, for example, Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw, Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2017). 1


In what follows I draw on Stefanie Ortmann’s proposal to widen our conceptualization of geopolitical power to take into account the ways that power is produced by larger social forces, using the example of Kyrgyzstan.2 Already before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she stressed that due to the specific post-colonial historical context, images of “Russia” have been involved in the co-production of Kyrgyz state-ness and legitimation of power by Kyrgyz statesmen. Indeed, since independence the successive Kyrgyz regimes have staged public performances of sovereignty by association with Russia and the Russian leadership. “Russia is given to us by God and history” is a famous saying of Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akaev. Far from being limited to elite discourses, “Russia” became incorporated into popular perceptions of Kyrgyz state-ness. For Ortmann, popular geopolitical imaginaries, “which may be reinforced by Russian media outlets, but are ultimately beyond the control of the Kremlin,” play the central role.3 Judging by the current interpretations of the invasion of Ukraine that echo partly Russian state propaganda, Russia’s popular representations are still “sticky” in the country.4

Stefanie Ortmann, “Beyond Spheres of Influence: the Myth of the State and Russia's Seductive Power in Kyrgyzstan,” Geopolitics 23, no. 2 (2018): 404-435. 3 Ibid. 4 Kyrgyzstan swiftly went from an “island of democracy” (it has received more Western aid for democratization than any other in Central Asia) into what can be described today as a Russian “client state.” The closure of the US military base, the rupture of the agreement with the US in 2015, and the accession of the country to the Eurasian Economic Union the same year marked Kyrgyzstan’s proRussian foreign policy. 2


(Kaktus Media: Former Head of Osh province Police Department, Abdylda Kaparov, on a horse displaying Putin’s portrait with supporting words “We are with you!” on 14th of March 2022 in central Bishkek5)

There has been variation in top-down state-building and nation-building projects since independence,6 but some popular imaginaries of Kyrgyz state-ness and elite self-legitimation have involved Russia and the Russian leadership. Popular desires to associate with Russia usually go hand in hand with narratives of fragile statehood. Political power in the region is often perceived as plagued by corruption and nepotism, which is compounded by the fact that the Kyrgyz state often fails to meet the expectations of its citizens. In addition, Kyrgyzstan went through three popular revolts with ensuing economic crises and interethnic conflict, which adds to the feeling of permanent instability. In longing for a strong state, ordinary citizens have borrowed from omnipresent Russian state TV channels hot images of a resolute Putin taming the oligarchs and increasing people’s living standards. In many discussions with Kyrgyz citizens, Russia appears as an economically and militarily robust state, while the Russian leadership symbolizes a type of a sovereign that many in Kyrgyzstan wish for. Ortmann notes that the presence of “Russia” in popular understandings of Kyrgyz state-ness and the legitimation of Kyrgyz elites is so pervasive that it led to a striking blurring of spatial Abdylda Kaparov is also known as an outspoken critic of the Kyrgyz regime and its cronies. Kyrgyzstan’s former President Soronbay Jeenbekov sued him in court for libel when Kaparov publicly accused the president and his relatives of corruption; “Eks nachalnik UVD Oshskoi oblasti verhom priehal k domu pravitelstva s portretom Putina” Kaktus Media, March 21, 2022: vitelstva_s_portretom_pytina.html. 6 See Erica Marat, “Imagined Past, Uncertain Future: The Creation of National Ideologies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” Problems of Post-Communism 55, no. 1 (2008): 12-24; Nick Megoran, Nationalism in Central Asia: A Biography of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan Boundary (University of Pigsburgh Press, 2017) to mention the few. 5


imaginaries of domestic/foreign. For example, it was “normal” for electoral campaigns of Kyrgyz political parties and independent candidates to have Putin in their visibility materials and electoral agendas. Electoral banners displayed local candidates shaking hands with Russian politicians as the most effective campaign message. An electoral law had to be introduced in 2011 banning the display of foreign leaders in Kyrgyz presidential campaigns.7 Yet Kyrgyz candidates – both regime and oppositional – publicly sought Russian support, paying the Kremlin visits shortly before the elections. A political party called SSSR (standing for USSR) made union with Russia a central piece of their program. Kyrgyz elites have made statements about ceding independence and becoming part of Russia, including such highlevel politicians as Felix Kulov, one of the two main candidates for president in 2005. On the societal level, people used to envisage joining Russia as one of its republics, if not just a province, at the time of internal conflicts or tensions with bigger neighbors.8 Further blurring of spatial imaginaries is reflected in the mobile livelihoods developed by labor migrants. In 2015, during my fieldwork ahead of parliamentary elections, people in the southern provinces were saying, “I don’t vote. What for, if Russia feeds me?” Migrants would say that the space between Russia and Kyrgyzstan is one continuum in the ways people can earn a living in between the two countries, in the ways people enjoy double pensions and state allowances, etc. One female migrant told me in a focus group discussion conducted in 2018, speaking on the topic of great power influences: “going to Russia for us is like going to a grocery store to buy bread. It is that easy. Whereas China has been forever closed off for ordinary people like us. We don’t know China, whereas we know Russia and the Russian people well.”9 This spatial blurring makes migrants pay less attention to the lived experiences of xenophobia and racism in Russia and prioritize other existential concerns and pragmatic possibilities. But Russian influence is not static and has been questioned and subverted or endorsed by ordinary citizens on numerous occasions. The invasion of Ukraine is one such big occasion. In spring 2022, I conducted qualitative focus group discussions in all provinces of Kyrgyzstan, where I included questions on the invasion. While the sample of these focus groups is not representative, their results can be useful in outlining the main lines of thinking among the population. On the issue 175 participants of focus groups were polarized, partly along a generational divide. The majority of respondents deplored the war as an unnecessary tragic development, while roughly one third of respondents between 18 and 35 condemned Putin outright, another third of respondents between 40 and 60 supported the Russian leader, and the rest had difficulty formulating an opinion. The latter might be related to the distance of Ukraine from people’s daily concerns and news consumption.

“Vybory: Fotographii s Inostrannimi Liderami Pod zapretom”,, July 26, 2011: 8 For example, such discussions gained steam during the ethnic pogroms in Kyrgyzstan’s southern regions in summer 2010, as well as during the process of demarcation of borders between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan after the border treaty entered into force in 2008. 9 Focus group discussions conducted in Kyrgyzstan’s provinces on the topic of great power influences, 2018. 7


(Bakyt Ordobaev, head of a public foundation, at a single-person picket against the war on October 12, 2023, in Bishkek during Putin’s official visit to Kyrgyzstan)

Younger participants condemned Putin for meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation, showing strong support for an independent politics in Ukraine. But only a few made critical reflections about the ways ethnic groups have been instrumentalized for the purposes of Russian and Soviet wars in 1916,10 World War II11 and in Afghanistan.12 I attribute this failure to see parallels with one’s history to Kyrgyzstan’s unaddressed colonial past and fragmented memory politics. Neither history textbooks nor university curriculum critically assess these major historical events. As we know from other examples, secondary and higher education can remain a product of coloniality long after independence. However, Elmira Nogoybaeva, the head of the Kyrgyz Research Center Esimde, which conducts important public research related to memory of the past, says memories are transmitted orally and by collective practices from one generation to the other, and hence this knowledge persists within society if even fragmentarily.13 What was interesting about those who supported Putin is that they echoed Russian state propaganda word for word. There were typical references to the “evil West” that provoked Putin and that Russia was only defending itself. There were also references to the shared history and culture, however. Many seniors underscored their nostalgia for the “great Soviet Union,” because Soviet identity provided them with a feeling of being part of a bigger, glorious project. The present-day Kyrgyzstan, with its perceived ever-corrupt elites and Aminat Chokobaeva, “When the Nomads Went to War: The Uprising of 1916 in Semirech’e,” in Aminat Chokobaeva, Cloé Drieu & Alexander Morrison, The Central Asian Revolt of 1916. A Collapsing Empire in the Age of War and Revolution (Manchester University Press, 2019), 145-169. 11 Leo J. Daugherty III, “Ethnic Minorities in the Soviet Armed Forces: The Plight of Central Asians in a Russian-Dominated Military,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 7, no. 2 (1994): 155-197. 12 Jiayi Zhou, “The Muslim Battalions: Soviet Central Asians in the Soviet-Afghan War,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 25, no. 3 (2012): 302-328. 13 Discussions with Elmira Nogoybaeva, Bishkek, 2022-2023. 10


ineffective state, could not but offend that image of a great past. So, this nostalgia serves as a bridge between past Soviet belonging and current loyalty to Russia as the USSR’s main successor. The catastrophic transition in the 90s, together with the ongoing difficulties in building a new identity, explains the longevity of nostalgia as an identity specific to the older generation in Kyrgyzstan. From their perspective, the net effects of association with Russia are positive for the Kyrgyz people. “What is bad about a closer partnership with Russia? Russia is building schools, providing teachers with salaries and our children with a hot meal. Russia has opened its doors to our migrants, in the absence of jobs at home, and they can feed their families. Russia sells us its cheap gas and fuel. Kyrgyzstan has only benefited from the partnership.”14 Among this older generation there were, however, also those who categorically disapproved of Russia’s war against Ukraine. While having lived in the same Soviet Union, they were aware of the other, dark side of the Soviet modernization experiment. These citizens were able to connect to the pain of Ukrainians through their own experiences of subjugation during the Soviet period.15 They see in present-day Ukraine the possibility of getting rid at last of Russian domination. “Despite the official discourse of Soviet brotherhood and sisterhood, Russians always came first. If at work and there was just one Russian, we all had to speak Russian. Russians were promoted faster than us. Our village boys and girls received the worst treatment due to their bad Russian. How much humiliation we had to swallow due to this daily feeling of inferiority. Today, our boys and girls are still treated as animals in Moscow.”16 Still others were focused on realpolitik: they see Kyrgyzstan as being geographically stuck between two major powers, and Russia’s defeat would mean falling into China’s hands. The considerable Sinophobia in the country, built up over decades, creates a false geopolitical binary in which Russia appears as a lesser evil. Moreover, strong anti-Americanism, spread by Russian state propaganda and the domestic regime, helps rooting Russian power in these places further. For the majority Muslim population of Kyrgyzstan, Western presence in the region only means LGBT rights, feminism and NGOs, which have been vilified in past decades. Thus, Putin’s conservative ideology centered on family values, religion and clearcut hierarchies between man and woman, between state and society serves as a frame that helps to make sense of larger geopolitical developments. Despite these diverse opinions, when asked how the Kyrgyz government should respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the respondents agreed that due to the heavy historical dependence on Russia, the Kyrgyz government must not openly oppose Putin. These typical narratives of fragile statehood were recently further deepened by the escalating conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. During Tajik aggression in Kyrgyzstan’s border areas in Batken in September 2022, the Russia-led CSTO did little to intervene and deescalate the conflict. Moreover, in Batken and other southern provinces rumors among civilians were Focus group discussions conducted in Kyrgyzstan’s provinces in spring 2022. See also Jeff Sahadeo, “Druzhba Narodov or Second-Class Citizenship? Soviet Asian Migrants in a PostColonial World,” Central Asian Survey 26, no. 4 (2007): 559-579. 16 Focus group discussions conducted in Kyrgyzstan’s provinces in spring 2022. 14 15


spreading about Russia’s backing of Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan.17 People I spoke to at that time were associating this shifting Russian allegiance toward the Tajik leadership with the invasion of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan’s position on it. For them, the escalation of the conflict was nothing else but a signal from the Kremlin that should Kyrgyzstan dare to support Ukraine, the punishment from Russia would be swift. Local people were angry with fellow activists who had been staging anti-war and pro-Ukraine protests in the capital of Bishkek – a careless act of rocking the boat, according to them. Whereas in the previous essay I looked at various grassroots initiatives that aimed at countering Russian hegemony, in this memo I drew on large segments of society who still entertain positive representations of Russia. Because of the ways Russia has been intertwined in people’s understandings of Kyrgyz sovereignty, there is currently resistance to believe that Russia, their historical ally, can be wrong. Hence consumption of only certain mass media is a choice that serves to maintain the image of Russia that people got used to from previous times. Until recently, popular representations of Russia in Kyrgyzstan were hegemonic. However, they are neither permanent nor stable. Future entanglements with Russia will depend not only on developments in Ukraine, but also in Russia. If images of declining Russian military and economic strength come in, they may shake up the established representations of Russia in Kyrgyzstan. More importantly, they will evolve alongside the ability of the current populist regime to shift sources of legitimacy and sovereignty on the one hand, and their perception by the population on the other. Current unresolved security threats to the border areas and the unreliable Russia-led regional security mechanisms argue for cautious changes within President Sadyr Japarov’s government. Russia’s decision not to intervene in Batken shook up popular imaginaries of Russia as Kyrgyzstan’s unfailing ally. Further diversification of partners in the direction of Asia and the Middle East and increased leaning on Turkic identity have become new avenues for shaping Kyrgyz sovereignty.


More than 30 interviews conducted in 10 villages in Batken province and Osh city, October 2022.


Grassroots Struggles for Rethinking History, Debating Identity, and Restoring Dignity of People in Central Asia

Asel Doolotkeldieva, Nonresidential Fellow, GW

In this series of essays, I look at geopolitics ‘from below’ in the context of the invasion of Ukraine and changing constellations in Central Asia. Using a non-elite-centric analysis for most of the essays, I write about changes in the affective space in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in reaction to Russian “power-at-a-distance.” In this memo, I will focus on new entanglements along with grassroot processes of distancing and decolonization. Observing the growing interest in decolonization in the region, some commentators quickly dismissed it as “hype” generated by a narrow intellectual elite, hence suggesting it is not a significant phenomenon. Others took it negatively, anticipating and fearing the worst consequences decolonization might produce in terms of nationalism and separatism. Still for others, decolonization lost its meaningful content since all sorts of populists, nationalists and dictators have appropriated the decolonial discourse today. But none of these approaches reflect what this term stands for in the Kazakh and Kyrgyz contexts. While domestic elites face an impossible geopolitical choice in response to the war, activists and citizens manifest their long-term choices for dignity, political rights and democratization under the relatively new umbrella of decoloniality. For specialized milieus of artists and intellectuals it is not a new term.

Intellectual, art and literary production of decolonial knowledge and meanings In Almaty, Bishkek and Astana, one can currently attend multiple specialized events on postcolonial and decolonial discussions and performances. From the recent intellectual talks, one can mention the presentation of Madina Tlostanova’s book Деколониальность бытия, знания и ощущения (Decoloniality of Being, Knowledge and Feeling), translated into Kazakh by the Tselinny Institute;1 the presentation of the Alima Bisenova et al. book Qazaqstan, Казахстан, ‫ﻗﺎزاﻗﺴﺘﺎن‬: Лабиринты современного постколониального дискурса (Qazaqstan: The Labyrinths of Contemporary Postcolonial Discourse); and the publication of Бұғауды бұзған қазақ даласы or Деколонизация Казахстана (The Kazakh Steppe Broke the Shackles: Decolonization of Kazakhstan) by Ainash Mustoyapova, to mention a few. Important historical publications preceded these post- and decolonial reflections. A number of books by local and international scholars reevaluated the Central Asian anti-colonial

Tselinny Center of Contemporary Culture is an Almaty-based Institute that combines gallery, publishing, research, cinema, music and education. It is supported by the Kazakh oligarch Kairat Boranbaev. 1


uprising of 1916, the Holodomor, Stalinist repressions and more. In Bishkek, in March 2023, the Esimde2 Research Center organized a third regional conference on memory and decolonization. Publishing an interdisciplinary journal called Nemonomif since 2019, Esimde seeks to offer publication opportunities to authors in various formats with the aim of “decolonizing local language.” Not only does Esimde do important research and provide a public service, it began shaping local decolonial practices. In 2022, the center organized a 12day public tour to places of repression from the anti-colonial revolt in 1916 and the subsequent exodus of the Kyrgyz to China, known as Urkun.3 Both Esimde and Tselinny, which can be considered decolonial institutions, have been carrying out critical public work for years. The past and present work of these intellectuals is related to the question of the temporality of decolonial ideas and practices in the region. The supposedly “new” decolonial turn builds on memories and reflections of imperial and Soviet policies, but also authoritarianism as a continuum of the Soviet political system. The topics of Urkun, the famine, political repressions, Jeltoksan,4 late Soviet social movements,5 and the recent Qantar uprising,6 among others, were already present in public discussions and fragmented state policies. Previously, these discussions were framed in other themes such as nation-building, re-traditionalization and globalization. As the decolonial discourse today, these past paradigms included reflections on independence, memory and identity, and importantly laid the foundation for development aid and statecraft. For example, going back to one’s roots, reviving authenticity, building a civic community based on a shared identity were central ideas to such state concepts and programs as Kyrgyz Jarany (Kyrgyz Citizen)7 and Kazakhstan’s Ruhani Zhangyru (Spiritual Esimde (“I remember” in Kyrgyz) is a Bishkek-based Research Center, founded by Elmira Nogoibaeva, that deals with memory politics ( 3 For more information, see Aminat Chokobaev et al., The Central Asian Revolt of 1916. A Collapsing Empire in the Age of War and Revolution, Manchester University Press, 2020. 4 “Jeltoksan” or the December Uprising was a peaceful youth mass protest that took place over two days in December 1986 in Kazakhstan against the metropole’s decision to nominate Genady Kolbin as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. The protests were brutally repressed by the Soviet army. 5 Late Soviet social movements include primarily the “Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (DDK) and a youth and workers’ movement. DDK was founded in 1990 by large networks of historians and other public figures, who later were elected to the country’s first independent parliament. The movement organized many anti-communist, pro-democracy and pro-independence protests. The youth and workers’ movement rallied for the distribution of land and access to housing. 6 The “Qantar events” were a massive anti-government uprising that took place in many cities and villages of Kazakhstan in January 2022. Initially provoked by the rise in prices for liquefied gas, the protests evolved into the most critical political conflict in the contemporary history of Kazakhstan. The protests were brutally repressed by the Kazakh police with the help of the Russia-led CSTO intervention. 7 “Концепция Развития Гражданской Идентичности - Кыргыз Жараны в Кыргызской Республике на Период 2021-2026 годы,” [The Concept of Civic Identity Development – Kyrgyz Citizen in Kyrgyz Republic for the Period of 2021-2026] 2


Revival). At the societal level, citizens have long been involved in an identity quest, embracing both globalized and “traditional” paths. In Kyrgyzstan, the “war of billboards” over religious versus secular influences that took place in public spaces in 2016 was one such display of tectonic shifts in identity.8 Needless to say, the decolonial optic has been present in Central Asian art and literature. While this memo does not provide space to discuss the depth of intellectual, literary and artistic decolonial content, I will mention aytysh (in Kyrgyz) or aytys (in Kazakh, meaning “reciting”) as a “decolonial genre,” to borrow Alima Bissenova’s expression.9 This popular Kyrgyz and Kazakh oral art of reciting and transmitting knowledge is a long-established tradition of “telling the truth” about major historical events and societal processes. Asel Mukasheva explores popular topics covered in aytysh that include collective memory, Soviet repressions and independence, in which poets make use of the Kazakh word otarsyzdanu (“decolonization” in Kazakh) in the early 2000s.10 More recently, the reassessment of independence, identity and the war led to new production of cultural meanings. In 2019, a group of young artists led by Ruslan Zhubanysh created an independent art project täuel[dı]sız (“[in-]dependence” in Kazakh) using performances to reflect on Qantar events, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, environmental crises and other important topics. Zhubanysh explains how the invasion overlaps with other ideas: “I have been to Ukraine, have Ukrainian friends. A lot of things unite our post-communist countries. We see what politics Russia conducts in Moldova, Serbia, Ukraine. This war concerns us as well.”11

Wider societal engagement with the decolonial discourse Discussions about identity and independence took a new turn in the context of the war, further empowered by timid steps at the deconstruction of hierarchies of knowledge. A recent scandal at the American University of Central Asia (Bishkek), where the head of the sociology department refused to let a student write a thesis on decolonization because such a topic would create enmity with Russia, which became a call to decolonize local education. In Almaty, the Kazakh-German University was criticized by students as an institution where the old generation of “Russophile” instructors is hindering critical discussions. As knowledge-producers, Kyrgyz historians have used the decolonial turn to empower themselves and shake off the existing monopolies of knowledge. Fighting their struggles Emil Nasritdinov & Nurgul Esenamanova, “The War of Billboards: Hijab, Secularism, and Public Space in Bishkek”, Central Asian Affairs, 2017. 9 Alima Bisenova (ed.), Qazaqstan, Казахстан, ‫ﻗﺎزاﻗﺴﺘﺎن‬: Лабиринты современного постколониального дискурса, Tselinny Publishing [Qazaqstan: The Labyrinths of Contemporary Postcolonial Discourse], 2023, p. 20. 10 Asel Mukasheva, “Ot Predsovetskogo k Postsovetskomy” [From Pre-Soviet to Post-Soviet], in Alima Bisenova (ed.), Qazaqstan, Казахстан, ‫ﻗﺎزاﻗﺴﺘﺎن‬: Лабиринты современного постколониального дискурса, Tselinny Publishing, 2023. 11 Personal communication with Ruslan Zhubanysh, author and producer of the art project täuel[dı]sız, July 17, 2023. 8


against Russian and Western readings of Central Asian history, they look with hope at new opportunities to produce alternative knowledge. They plan, for example, to use YouTube to cover a wider audience, with a decolonial slant. They seek to reassess and raise public awareness about Kyrgyzstan’s early pre-imperial statehood and polity. These public talks are designed to ultimately “challenge widespread myths about Russia’s civilizational mission” and “produce shifts in people’s understanding of history and themselves.”12 The deconstruction of hierarchies of knowledge, and further the decolonization of Central Asian studies, is a crucial step toward restoring the region’s histories and people’s dignity.13 The above intellectual, literary and art products have emerged in response to public demand. Journalists and independent mass media reflect this demand by producing a large volume of articles and historical material on Stalinist repressions, famines and other imperial policies. A special project led by the Kyrgyz journalist Bektour Iskander in Ukraine is worth highlighting. Way before the war, Iskander sought to create a “post-colonial solidarity” between Ukrainian and Central Asian societies, because for him “the attitude toward Ukraine immediately reveals the attitude toward us, the Central Asians.”14 In 2017, he created a network of Ukrainian and Central Asian journalists with the aim of producing independent news and minimizing the influence of Russian news media, omnipresent in the region. Since then, Central Asian journalists made trips to Ukraine to directly cover the war for Central Asian audiences. Against the backdrop of scarce resources and the decline in Central Asian and global readership of Ukrainian news, Iskander nevertheless positively assesses the achievements of this media community. There is a sizable number of local independent mass media that manage to stay away from Russian propaganda. In addition, multiple podcasts such as О’деколон and DOPE SOZ emerged and information resources sprang up on social media, involving public influencers, journalists and researchers to create simplified explanations of decolonization. The last TEDx Kazakhstan included multiple talks on the topic, as the titles suggest: Olga Mun’s “О деколонизации и эпистемологической несправедливости в науке Казахстана” (“On decolonization and epistemological injustice in Kazakhstan’s science”) and Elmira Kakabaeva’s “Личная деколонизациячерез письмо - исследуем историю своей семьи” (“Personal decolonization through writing – researching own’s family history”), among others. Personal communication with historians of Kyrgyzstan’s Academy of Sciences. Since the term decolonization is sensitive for this state institution, they preferred presently to keep their anonymity. 13 Many scholars have already began reassessing Central Asian studies. See Алима Бисенова & Кульшат Медеуова, «O проблемах региональных исследований в/по Центральной Азии», Антропологический Форум №28б 2016; Аида Алымбаева & Аксана Исмаилбекова, «Рефлексия из «поля», или «антропология у себя дома»: О региональном подходе и маргинальности тематики Центральной Азии», Антропологический Форум №28б 2016; Erica Marat, “ Introduction: 30 years of Central Asian studies –the best is yet to come”, Central Asian Survey, 2021; Asel Tutumlu, “Central Asia: From Dark Matter to a Dark Curtain?” Central Asian Survey, 2021; Asel Doolotkeldieva & Stefanie Ortmann, “Amidst Authoritarianism, Global Capitalism, and Geopolitical Marginalization: an Emergent Area Struggling Between Discipline and Area Studies,” International Studies Review (forthcoming) to mention just few in the long list. 14 Personal communication with Bektour Iskender, the co-founder of Kloopnews. 12


Personal decolonial projects This snapshot of existing intellectual and artistic engagement with post-colonial and decolonial practices and discussions might convey a privileged image of a narrow group of people. However, from my interviews with Kazakh and Kyrgyz citizens, it is clear that The decolonial discourse is used more widely than assumed and that individuals appropriate the decolonial discourse to rethink their colonial past and to challenge and problematize inequalities in society. The decolonial discourse is used more widely than assumed and that individuals appropriate the decolonial discourse to rethink their colonial past and to challenge and problematize inequalities in society. They use the decolonial language to make sense of their family history, often deeply scarred by repressions, deportations, dissidence and late authoritarianism. Decolonial language helps them to position themselves within this complex history and reevaluate their standing in present day society. For example, the Qantar uprising and the Ukraine war pushed many respondents to rethink their belonging and multiple identities. They realized that fellow citizens live in parallel worlds, separated by means of language, lifestyle, rural/urban inequalities, socio-economic conditions, etc. This observation made many respondents appreciate privileges given to them as members of liberal cosmopolitan “centers,” which discriminate against the “rural, uneducated, backward other.” This difference was on the utmost display during the Qantar uprising, when cosmopolitan residents of Almaty blamed “marginal” elements of society supposedly responsible for the looting and destruction of their dear city. Almaty and Bishkek are in many ways a local Moscow for these post-colonial states: hierarchies of language and status imposed previously by the metropole continue to be embodied by these capitals today. A rural resident is a second-class citizen compared to a Russified urban middle class dweller. Realizing these “postcolonial differences” and seeking to “smooth them out,” individuals engage in what can be called “personal decolonial projects” such as learning the Kazakh language, studying the country’s history and/or their own family history, traveling to the aul (village), and being conscious about these divides in public discourses. Other, “costly” projects include participation in anti-war and other political protests. Some individuals are making this choice now, while others have made it before, like bloggers from ethnic minority origins who speak Kazakh to popularize it among other non-ethnic-Kazakh groups.15 Their messages gain wide popularity, showing the momentum of a conversation between different groups about identity and language. The language issue is very sensitive because of the heavy and complicated nature of Soviet colonialism in which hierarchies were constructed and imposed along linguistic lines and cultural erasure. These personal decolonial projects show that for these individuals there is still the possibility of choosing where to go and with whom. This begs the question whether the decolonial discourse would concern other subaltern Kazakh and Kyrgyz groups, outside of the liberal centers but who carry the heaviest 15

See merkul_standup blogger in Instagram for example.


burden of Soviet colonialism. The latter were born in the village, spoke their mother tongue since birth and have less starting capital to climb the social ladder. Since they make up the majority, their membership in the nation does not necessitate a decolonial project, though it certainly does require a political project based on democracy and the fair distribution of resources within society. The changes in geopolitics and ensuing economic challenges affect these subalterns more than the privileged ones.

Open futures The decolonial optic has made human dignity once again central to Central Asians’ views on imperial politics, past traumas and struggles against authoritarianism. Yet, it also provokes concerns and tension within societies. The deported ethnic minorities who have also picked up on the decolonial discourse to reflect on their own positionality within these societies pose critical questions about their culture and Russian as the lingua franca. What is inspiring is that these concerns can be openly addressed and there is still space for debates, as again exemplified in TEDx talks (Nargiz Shukenova’s “Деколонизация - инклюзивна. Важно признать разные практики” (“Decolonization is inclusive. It is important to recognize various practices”) and Yuri Serebryansky’s “Русский язык - наше колониальное наследие. Решение за нами” (“Russian is our colonial legacy. The decision is ours”). Decolonization speaks to many ethnic, religious and gender minorities, not only the so-called “titular nations” (a colonial term). Most vividly, this is spelled out by LGBTQ+ activists, whose call for decolonization encompasses respect for gender pluralism. The decolonial discourse, as an additional lens, gave these groups and individuals an opportunity to restore dignity to their places through the reflection of personal and collective losses and traumas. What is clear: though it leaves these societies with an unfinished process that will generate various political projects in the future – perhaps, nationalist, even more authoritarian or religious – the increased self-respect will help them to navigate in a world dominated by big powers.


Voluntary exile: Kalmyk migrants’ views of Kalmykia from Moscow

Edward C. Holland, University of Arkansas Elvira Churyumova, University of Cambridge

An office worker in her downtown office is mistaken by her colleagues for the cleaning crew. A man is stopped by the police and moves along without incident only after showing his Russian passport and Moscow residence permit, all while speaking flawless Russian. A pregnant woman on a city bus is made to stand as no one offers her their seat. These vignettes illustrate the experiences of Kalmyk migrants in Moscow, Russia’s capital. Each is drawn from a paper we recently published in the journal Caucasus Survey, “Internal Migration from a Russian Republic: The Everyday Experiences of Kalmyk Migrants in Moscow.” The study is based on interviews from January and February 2020 with 53 Kalmyks living in the Russian capital, right before the pandemic began. The paper explores Kalmyk migrants’ experiences with racism and xenophobia, and notes a generally improved racial climate in Moscow compared to the 1990s and 2000s. However, as reported by our interlocutors, instances of discrimination still occur, notably in the housing market, for workers in unskilled employment sectors and on city streets during interactions with less educated and lower-status ethnic Russians (oftentimes Russians encountered by our whitecollar Kalmyk interlocutors outside their places of work). Figure 1: A street in Tsagan-Aman, a Kalmyk village that has been affected by outmigration (photo by Edward C. Holland)

Our paper on internal migration from Kalmykia to Moscow, as well as the lived experiences of Kalmyk migrants in the Russian capital, is part of a special issue about the republic. The volume foregrounds two broader themes: 1) the historical experience of the Kalmyks within


the Russian and Soviet polities, as a formerly nomadic population that was sedentarized before being deported to Siberia and Central Asia during World War II; and 2) contemporary challenges facing the republic revolving around pilgrimage and Buddhist practice and economic marginality. As two of the guest editors for the issue, we used the idea of decolonization to frame the papers, with particular emphasis on the value of scholarship from and about the margins of Russia as a colonial state. Focused interventions on republics like Kalmykia work toward the decolonization imperative by decentering the study of Russia and its environs away from the metropole and to the periphery. In this memo, we further develop this research thread by returning to our interviews with Kalmyks in Moscow, exploring how these migrants view their native republic that they left in pursuit of better opportunities.

Outmigration from Kalmykia Outmigration from Kalmykia is significant, and though there are no accurate figures on how many Kalmyks live outside of the republic, we estimate that between 20,000 and 40,000 live in Moscow and Moscow Region. The issue of outmigration was highlighted in an Instagram post by the oppositional account “Elista is our city” made in January 2020, which showed long queues of migrants at the bus station in Kalmykia’s capital Elista leaving the republic. A trio of questions asked during each interview prompted interlocutors to reflect on migrants’ views on Kalmykia, the effects of outmigration on Kalmyk society and the possibility that migrants would one day return.

Migrants’ critical views on Kalmykia Migrants’ views on Kalmykia can be quite harsh and critical. For instance, on its level of development one interlocutor said: “There is no running water in Kalmykia. We are accustomed to civilization...not to no water being the norm” (in areas of Elista, water can be shut off for periods of time while the system is repaired). Another decried the lack of investment in Elista in particular and Kalmykia in general, particularly compared to Moscow, where money is invested to build out the city. A third pointed to corruption among the political leaders both in Kalmykia and Russia, framing the issue in existential terms: “We are on the verge of extinction. In another 200 years, Kalmyks will cease to exist.” To quote a fourth: “I do not believe that our republic will become civilized and self-sufficient, to be honest.” Others identified a wide range of issues facing Kalmykia: the republic’s lack of connectivity to Russia’s rail system and the high costs of getting a taxi; lack of employment opportunities due to deindustrialization; the absolute reliance on subsidies from the federal center and a need to develop an economic base; low wages that barely rise above subsistence levels; failure to develop Kalmykia’s tourism potential; and population loss from rural areas and the “inertia” found in these places (e.g. the settlements of Yashkul and Tsagan-Aman, among others mentioned). Some respondents communicated a perception of stagnation and hopelessness about the republic: “I have not lived there for 15 years, and for 15 years I have not noticed anything good, I have not noticed any positive changes in the republic.” The


percentage of those who leave and subsequently return to Kalmykia is likely low, on the order of 10% or 20%, another interlocutor estimated.

Migration’s strains on Kalmyk society These views on Kalmykia underpin other perspectives on the impact of internal migration on Kalmyk culture and society, as well as the republic’s economy and politics. Many of our interlocutors viewed outmigration as a net negative, particularly in terms of culture. The loss of the Kalmyk language — see the article in the Caucasus Survey special issue by Elza Guchinova — is amplified by outmigration. For example, one interlocutor notes that she no longer speaks Kalmyk with her family and that few other migrants in Moscow do. A broader concern with assimilation, cultural loss, and the drawbacks of the diasporic condition was articulated in multiple interviews. One respondent noted increased tensions within families, with mothers-in-law, for example, being the butt of jokes in ways that they were not previously and that reflect the erosion of elder authority — whether this is anecdotal or a broader trend is difficult to say, though it does inform concerns about cultural and social change broadly defined. Other interlocutors emphasized the negative effects of outmigration on families and parent-child dynamics, most commonly when parents leave their children with grandparents and move elsewhere for work. Interethnic marriages, previously pursued by Kalmyk men, are now often initiated by Kalmyk women. Some pointed to gender norms and expectations of wives within Kalmyk society as an explanation for this trend. As one interlocutor put it, characterizing how men approach domestic relationships, “they just lie around and that’s it, [making demands like] I want, I want, I want, the wife must, must.” Other informants expressed concern about the deracinated nature of younger Kalmyks born elsewhere in Russia: “How can I drag my children there and how can I make them love their hometown (Elista) when they don’t know it?” Another interlocutor suggested that Kalmyks’ being raised outside the republic would undermine any spiritual connection with Kalmykia, its land and history. Despite a host of issues identified by our interlocutors, a thread of nostalgia for Kalmykia ran through many of the conversations. From one interview: “it was and remains my homeland (in Russian: rodina), as I loved it, I love it still.” Another respondent spoke about their love of Kalmyk culture, music and dance, the celebration of holidays such as Zul (Kalmyk New Year celebrations that usually occur around the start of the year in the Gregorian calendar), and many good memories of time spent in the republic: “I love Kalmykia very much...I love our culture and am proud of it.”

Migrants’ views on economics and politics The economic consequences of outmigration are more ambiguous. Certainly, salaries in Kalmykia motivate people to leave — a number of interlocutors gave a top end of RUB 15,000 per month (about $180 at current conversion rates; approximately $240 at the time of the interviews) — and discourage many migrants from returning. (For those on disability and pensioners, another interlocutor gave an income range of RUB 6,000 to RUB 9,000 per month.) According to one interviewee: “it seems to me that there is an even greater outflow of the


population.” Outmigration has usually been seen as undertaken by the most ambitious and talented, whether students or professionals. This brain drain deprives the republic of people with ambition: “the best leave, those who want to live better, but there is no way to live better there (i.e. in Kalmykia).” The outmigration has been linked to larger structural processes in the Russian economy: “regions are not developing and there is no way to stay where you were born and [previously] lived.” However, some interlocutors identified an economic silver lining in outmigration, what could be viewed as a brain gain in the future. Those Kalmyks working in Moscow develop a skillset that can benefit the republic if they return while also establishing a capital base for future investment should the climate for that improve. Others pointed to the economic benefit of remittances for the republic as a positive that results from migration. Some interlocutors demonstrated a serious familiarity with politics in Kalmykia, particularly the protests that resulted from the appointment of the ethnically Russian Dmitri Trapeznikov as Elista’s mayor in September 2019 (though not part of the special issue, see the paper on these themes by Edward Holland in press in Caucasus Survey). One respondent interpreted the situation: “Moscow told [Batu Khasikov, Kalmykia’s current head] that Trapeznikov needed to be stuck someplace (in Russian: pristroit').” Others were more sanguine on Khasikov’s leadership — he had been in office officially only for a handful of months at the time of our interviews — and pointed to “positive change” in the republic since he took over. As opposed to the previous two leaders of the republic, Alexei Orlov and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who worsened the situation in the republic, Khasikov’s tenure at the time of our interviews was viewed by some as trending in the right direction.

Plans for the future: to stay or return to Kalmykia? About a third of our respondents indicated that they intended to return to Kalmykia at some point in the future (Figure 2). (We either directly asked this question about returning or it came up organically in the interviews with 50 of the 53 respondents.) This desire to return was linked to a number of factors, including the nostalgia noted above, spending old age in their place of birth, the desire to get married and start a family, and the simplicity of life in Kalmykia in comparison to Moscow. For example, one said that “I will definitely return to Kalmykia, I will live there and die there.” If remote work were a possibility, a handful of interlocutors indicated that they would base themselves in Kalmykia and maintain their current positions and salary (while perhaps these opportunities increased with the pandemic, due to Russia’s war in Ukraine it would be difficult to speculate as to whether these individuals returned to work in Kalmykia).


Figure 2: Responses to the question: Would you return to live in Kalmykia permanently?

Twenty-two respondents (41% of the total interviewed) indicated unambiguously that they do not have plans to return to Kalmykia. Those that did not want to return cited salaries, lack of employment opportunities (particularly without connections necessary to secure a good job), inadequate health care and sustained outmigration by family members. Other justifications were more abstract. As described in one interview, “Kalmykia for me is something distant, alien, like a void.” Another interlocutor suggested that the provincialism of a place like Elista was a negative compared to Moscow. The capital allows “you to fail 3,000 times, and no one will say anything to you, it's much better here.” Yet others dream of retirement internationally: “in old age, we would like to live in Miami Beach.”

Conclusion Although Kalmyks’ exile from their home republic is today voluntary and economically motivated rather than politically dictated — in contrast to the deportation during World War II — the effects for the ethnic group are arguably similar in terms of cultural erosion. There are genuine challenges in preserving cultural markers like the Kalmyk language beyond the borders of the republic, challenges which have not been fully reconciled by those who have moved elsewhere. Even here, though, there is some ambiguity; one interlocutor emphasized the benefits of broadened horizons: “I believe that for... life experience, it is useful to live in different places, not only in your hometown.” As we found in interpreting migrants’ views on Moscow and the lived experiences in the Russian capital, internal migrants from Kalmykia offer a range of opinions when thinking about their home republic and the social, cultural and economic outcomes of the move. These various interpretations underscore the particularity of the migrant experience as shaped by region of origin and destination, but also race, citizenship, educational level and employment sector across a range of other factors.


Russian Regional Science in an Asymmetric System

Chimiza Lamazhaa, PhD and a non-resident fellow at the Russian Program's Global Academy at The George Washington University

As researchers of Russian science have already acknowledged (see here, here and here), the academic field in the country has become differentiated and polarized. Moreover, we must also recognize that the space it occupies has become a mirror image of the Russian model of asymmetric distribution of power and budgetary roles, and as a result experiences the same “diseases” and problems of asymmetry. On one side are the “central” scientists, who are “strong,” “authoritative,” and “commanding,” and on the other are the scientists in the regions, who are “weak,” “submissive,” lack independence and only act on instructions from above, waiting for commands from the Center. They are considered regional scientists and regional authors, while the research they conduct from the regions is called “regional science” (not to be confused with the concept of “Area Studies” as a scientific discipline studying human interaction with the social and political environment in a certain territory, currently being developed by The Regional Science Association). Despite the fact that Russian regional science has taken shape and developed almost parallel to capital science from the beginning of the history of post-Soviet Russia, i.e. for more than thirty years, it still remains nearly unexplored for a number of reasons. Scientists from central Russian scientific institutions have little interest in the internal lives of their colleagues in the regions. Foreign researchers of Russia are more likely to turn to a more general view of Russian science, or at least individual areas of research. In addition, it is obviously difficult for either group to obtain a lot of insider information on the other. Most often, they discuss general issues of the internal differentiation of Russian science and general systemic problems that are holding regional science hostage. Regional scientists themselves do not raise issues concerning their work, since they may not even be aware of them or reflect on them. If these issues are discussed, then they are no longer discussed publicly, since they reveal the difficult conditions faced by regional scientists in their work. Discussion of these conditions would not be welcomed either by the leadership of their institutions or by the governmental authorities of their region. After beginning my work as a regional Russian scientist and continuing to communicate and observe my colleagues from the regions, I can identify several problems facing regional science that are emerging from within. In doing so, I would like to note that my field of observation is limited to regional arts, humanities and social sciences, which, in my opinion, are more vulnerable than the natural sciences.


Science policy requirements Under conditions of waning access to foreign grants and support through foreign research programs in recent years, and given the fact that since 2022, accepting foreign funds may even lead to criminal prosecution, the number of funding sources for regional scientists and their areas of research have dropped to nearly zero. Practically speaking, only two remain: the federal and regional budgets, which provide salaries and/or allowances in the form of grants. Moreover, the share of funds channeled towards federally funded research projects far exceeds the amount allocated for regional research. Therefore, “central” science (which accounts for more than 30% of all scientific organizations and employs more than 60% of the country’s PhD holders), actually determines the scientific policy and how funding is distributed, and clearly holds a more advantageous position (the situation is also characterized by the concept of monocephaly). Under these conditions, regional science receives both instructions on what to research and the means to do so. The interests of the regional scientists themselves becomes secondary. For example, policy regarding the study of ethnic cultures in Russia (the most important topic in regional science) is written from a standpoint that places the position and interests of Russian culture at the forefront. Since the 1990s, this emphasis has only increased, culminating in the Russian ethnicity being recognized as the “state-forming people” in 2020, as stated in the amendment made to the Russian Constitution (article 68, point 1). Consequently, scientific policy on the whole did not remain untouched by this “symbolic elevation of the Russian people to the role of ‘big brother.’” Therefore, the usual questions regional scientists must address in order to receive a federal grant are more tied to imbuing their own research with some sort of federal significance: why Russia’s ethnic cultures must be considered important/correct/correlated to Russian culture. When viewed in this light, ethnic cultures of regional communities become “small” and “insignificant.” The prevailing belief that it’s useless to suggest these topics for a large grant, as they’ll immediately be cut down. But even in studies of ethnic cultures of the regions themselves, the guidelines are also set by the general scientific policy. Firstly, it is dominated by research that fits within the framework of classical scientific rationality, where the object of study must be abstracted as much as possible from those studying it in order to obtain “objective” scientific results. This leads to the formation of the belief that studying the present is wrong, and even harmful, since the scientist is immersed in a constantly changing object of study that is, in essence, still indistinct. Secondly, common discourse across all Russian science states that in order to work with a subject in the present, it is important to study the negative impact of external factors from outside the country: “globalization,” “Westernization,” and “modernization challenges.” Some metropolitan culturologists spread the belief that “traditional culture, included in civilizational processes, is already fragmented,” and “the cultural integrity that we recorded at the turn of the 19th–20th centuries and which was associated with the traditional way of life is this integrity today broken into fragments.” And restoring these cultural fragments, included through the forces of the national intelligentsia in the regions, is seen as the prime 40

directive. Therefore, regional science remains focused on topics of cultural heritage, its preservation, and reconstruction of old traditions. In general, culture itself is understood as a valuable element of the past, and the present is not even considered a part of the culture. This attitude also leads to a significant imbalance of scientific interests (in turning to the history of the regions, regional science ceases to deal with the present) and the loss of the social significance of science itself (scientists who lose touch with this reality are criticized by regional authorities and the community). Issues of variations in cognitive activity, interaction between the subject and object of knowledge, methodological flexibility and open-mindedness — all things that have been discussed in the global scientific community for several decades, remain essentially beyond the scope of the training and interests of Russian humanities scholars.

Level of professionalism In an asymmetric system, central science not only dictates the science policy across the whole country, but also reduces the quality of training that scientists are given. It continues to preserve the Soviet traditions of training “national professionals,” who must be helped to defend their dissertations in order to be sent back to their homeland to strengthen and develop the spheres of science and education back home. As a whole, this approach to dealing with graduate students from the regions is maintained to this day. Scientists willingly accept young people from the regions and offer their scientific guidance, especially because there aren’t that many of them. And since these students do not remain members of these scientific communities for long, they remain on the periphery of the work they are training to do, and no significant requirements are, or historically have been demanded of them. They are given the assistance they need to conduct applied research on their own cultures on the basis of their own developed theories and nothing more; they are trained only as “applied specialists.” In addition, very little effort is exerted to give these graduate students a broad, theoretical education. The practice of writing articles for them, or sometimes, on the contrary, exploiting their free labor, was and is still prevalent to this day. The most motivated youth from the regions try to study only in Moscow or St. Petersburg. But a significant part of those who live in regions farther from Moscow are trained not in central scientific institutes, but in other regional scientific centers that are closer, as finances also pose a problem here. Not every family from the more remote regions has room in their budget to send their children to study in the capital. Nevertheless, the system of training scientific personnel in post-Soviet Russia itself has begun to experience big problems: excessive bureaucratization, formalism, custom dissertations, low mobility, low level of training of graduate students, etc., which led, among other things, to the creation of a free online community known as “Dissernet” in 2013, where activists began a public campaign against various forms of abuses within the sciences. As noted in their latest report, published in 2023, in light of the war for funding, which gives rise to conspiracies, unstable and uncertain work conditions, etc., all sorts of deviant practices have been


normalized within the Russian scientific community. Moreover, these practices are growing within Moscow and gradually spreading to the regions. Therefore, the quality level of professional training in regional science continues to fall and the bulk of these scientists become “applied specialists.” There is a strong belief in the regional scientific community that the scientists there cannot deal with theoretical issues, flesh out concepts, or conduct science in general. This, incidentally, is a belief shared by metropolitan scientists. At a meeting at one Moscow academic institute, the statement that there was a theory-based scientific school in some Siberian city was met with a telling chuckle from the audience. The specific features of conducting scientific work in the regions means that the main task of leadership becomes providing the community with material and organizational resources, while scientific reputation and scientific activities fade into the background. Therefore, a general dissatisfaction with the working conditions and an attempt to change them leads young ambitious scientists to leave for megacities outside of Russia as well, which observers characterize as a centripetal trend and the collapse of the institution of regional science.

Journals and Conferences This asymmetry is also visible in the hundreds of conferences held annually throughout Russia across all branches of science. In addition to the natural divisions between scientists along their particular fields of study, we can also see the dividing lines between metropolitan and regional conferences, depending on who is organizing them. Both kinds of conferences may have the status of international, all-Russian, etc. But the scale and real significance of these conferences always depend on the organizers and their scientific connections and interests. More often than not, if a scientist from the regions speaks about studying regional culture at a “central” conference, the organizers and audience will primarily be interested in it as an “exotic” topic. In this case, what is important for listeners is not even the result of the research itself, but rather the geographic remoteness of the topic and the territorial diversity that the speaker brings. Incidentally, the majority of Russian associations within individual branches of science are organized in approximately the same way: the leading role is played by metropolitan scientists, and the regional scientists’ main role is simply their participation; their geographical diversity serves only to demonstrate the “all-Russian” coverage of the organization’s activities. The demand for research reports from the regions at metropolitan conferences is so low that scientists from the regions have a tendency to speak in a promotional style, i.e. to simply talk about certain traditions or share their opinion about the situation with ethnic cultures. Preparations for presenting the report are correspondingly scant—it is enough to gather information about the tradition, then talk about it and speculate about the prospects for its preservation and development. But these reports from the regions meet with more substantive interest at relevant conferences, where the speaker will receive professional interest, topical


questions, and relevant discussions. Therefore, regional science can only communicate fully with those who share its concerns. Practitioners of regional science themselves place metropolitan science on a pedestal. It is considered important to invite a metropolitan scientist to your conference in the region and include his report in the most honorable segment of the program: the plenary session. It has become an unspoken rule that scientists who come to the regions from the capital, often with their travel and accommodations paid for by their hosts, are met from the airport, accompanied everywhere, given cultural tours of the area, taken to restaurants every day, and given gifts before leaving. Regional scientists visiting Moscow, on the other hand, must get to the hotel room they paid for on their own, eat on their own, and leave on their own—overall, they are essentially left to their own devices. There is also a noticeable division into “metropolitan” and “regional” in the editorial boards of scientific journals, and a corresponding attitude towards authors in both categories. The peer review system, even without discussing the shortcomings of the organization, etc., at its core also demonstrates an imbalance of power. Scientists from the regions have a strong belief that they should work their way into Moscow journals, and that they cannot do without personal connections. Although in recent years, thanks to the work of the Association of Scientific Editors and Publishers, the structure and organization of scientific periodicals in the country has noticeably improved, this division still remains. This is due to the fact that the largest scientific publishers are primarily concentrated in Moscow, in the hands of large scientific and educational organizations. With the exception of publications specializing in the study of ethnic cultures, the general policy of other metropolitan journals is as follows: either authors from the regions thematically fit into their metropolitan discourse, or they exotically dilute the geography of research. The question of studying the content of the study itself may fade into the background. The interests of regional authors and regional research centers are taken into account only when it comes to ordering a special issue of a journal, for example, dedicated to a region and paid for by a customer from this region. Yakutian sociologist U. A. Vinokurova characterizes the gap between metropolitan and regional science in the following way: “We indigenous scientists have our own focus and perceptions of everything that is happening on the ancestral lands of our peoples, while other scientists come from egocentric, maybe postcolonial, even imperial mindsets, and it is extremely difficult to have an open dialogue with them.” The contrast of interests gives rise to two trends: some regional scientists, resigning themselves to the attitude with which people view them, submits to the logic of “native thinking.” The others—more advanced, ambitious and critical—are trying to escape this attitude (by either leaving the sciences altogether or collaborating only with foreign colleagues, and then going abroad).


Patronage and patriarchy Patronage in pre-Soviet (tsarist Russian) and Soviet science is described as a system of personal relationships between patron and client that arise within the framework of state support for science, just as they develop in the political system. In this case, the system of clientelistic relations contains chains of relations between scientists who occupy key positions, those who have personal connections and high patrons in the government and political system, and young people. It is obvious that this same system has been preserved in postSoviet science in Russia, repeating itself and intensifying in regional systems. There is the opinion that, in general, the main goal of most scientists in the USSR was to defend a dissertation, and not to publish an article or offer new analytical tools. “Hundreds of thousands of candidates and tens of thousands of doctors of science fought for titles and degrees tooth and nail, so that they could then rest on these laurels until retirement. In the regions, this situation is colored by the local flavor of ethnocultural traditions (especially in regions with culturally Asian and Eastern indigenous populations) and becomes even more visible in areas with small populations. Older generations of scientists in the regions occupy more advantageous positions, receiving social status, bonuses, benefits, and honor along with higher academic degrees. And they form the highest “caste,” living outside of scientific competition, outside of criticism and without serious professional development. They grow accustomed not to working, but to performing “science-adjacent activities,” writing and publishing only when they are invited and in places where their work is not met with criticism, working on the same topic for years, or even decades, presenting outdated reports at conferences, sitting in on different local events as important figures who give their opinions. They begin to behave not so much as scientists, but as elders, primarily instructing, teaching and criticizing. In these conditions, ambitious young people, who also strive to obtain academic degrees, to develop themselves and advance scientific knowledge, are seen as competitors who may disrupt their quiet positions, as people who could elevate them to even greater heights of honor, and could also take away their extra pay. The system of social relations between the sciences and the government is thus strengthened by the patriarchal system of social and cultural relations in regional communities.


Conclusions On the whole, the results of modern regionalization of the Russian scientific community are isolation from national and international scientific communities, loss of variety and innovative potential, decrease in human resources, and increased dependence on regional authorities. In light of the lack of demand from the “center,” unable to collaborate or compete with scientific communities outside the country, squeezed in the grip of limited funding that only comes from Moscow and the regional budget, and beholden to its own internal hierarchy, science in the Russian regions is experiencing significant difficulties in development and positioning. Regional scientists cease to recognize themselves, to view themselves as part of Russian science or as representatives of a larger scientific community.


“Preserving a Language Involves Everything that Makes a Language Popular… It’s not Something that Lies in Your Grandmother’s Old Trunk and Only Comes out at Festivals”

Dmitry Oparin, Université Bordeaux Montaigne Vlada Baranova, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies

This interview is part of a collaborative project between the Russia Program and Perito, an online media platform on culture and territories. Through a series of translated interviews and essays, we introduce Perito's content on Russia and Russia's minorities to English-speaking audiences.

Dmitry Oparin: Please tell us about your scientific career. What do you do as a researcher? What subjects excite you? Vlada Baranova: There are two main fields in my life that are important to me both emotionally and academically. The first is Mariupol a city in eastern Ukraine that was heavily damaged during the Russian invasion and is home to a large Greek community. Two groups of Greeks live there: one is Turkic-speaking, they call themselves Urums, and the second is the Rumeans. I went there for the first time when I was still getting my bachelor’s. In 2010, I published the book Language and Ethnic Identity. The Urums and Rumeans of the Azov Area about how language and ethnic identity are connected, and how these multilingual groups perceive themselves. A little later, I wanted to change my subject of study and research field for a while, and I was invited on an expedition in Kalmykia to learn Kalmyk. For the past five years, I’ve been studying Chuvash and traveling to Chuvashia, in the Poshkart Region. In tandem, I was working on the sociolinguistics of migration in Saint Petersburg — I studied how a multilingual city works, how newcomers learn or do not learn Russian, how they use or do not use their native languages. I was interested in how multilingualism works visually. We had great projects with an interactive map of multilingual signs and announcements that people created by sending photos through the LinguaSnapp SPb mobile app.

Now you’re primarily engaged in studying Kalmyk. What place does it occupy on the map of Russian languages? Kalmyk, to my great regret, is not yet counted among the most well-preserved minority languages in Russia, unlike Tuvan, Yakut and Tatar. This is partly due to the history of deportation and the subsequent hardships the community faced. But the Kalmyks have their own federal subject, the Republic of Kalmykia, and they are a relatively numerous people. At the same time, the actual preservation of the language is at a much lower level than that of many other languages with their own republics, even Chuvash, Udmurt and Mari.


Isn’t there a correlation between the wealth of the region and the level of preservation of the native language after which it is named? Tatarstan and the Republic of Sakha have the funds, while Kalmykia is one of the poorest regions, with residents constantly leaving. I’m not sure if it’s that straightforward. Tuva is one example of a relatively poor region, and in Buryatia the level of language preservation is still higher than in Kalmykia. In the republic of Ingushetia, in the North Caucasus, the language is highly preserved and their economic position is not particularly favorable. Of course, the wealth of a region affects its ability to invest in its native language policy. There are a lot of programs in Tatarstan that are supported by the republican government, from summer camps for Tatar-speaking children to television broadcasts, podcasts and cartoons. It’s obvious that the poorer the region, the less opportunities they have. Of course, migration also affects the situation. But this is not the only factor.

You say that the condition of the Kalmyk language was affected by the deportation of Kalmyks and other disasters. What disasters are we talking about? The current bad economic situation and high outflow of people from Kalmykia can certainly be considered one of them. And another thing — I wouldn’t even call it a disaster, but the reaction after the deportations was a desire to be even more Russian than the Russians themselves. Higher education is also highly valued. Everyone wants their children to get a higher education, so they study and teach children to speak Russian very well. Being a competent Russian speaker is prestigious. It would seem that valuing higher education could only be a positive thing. What could be better for the region’s development? On the other hand, there’s some trauma behind this decision, and an attempt to be a loyal group within the Soviet imperial project. The people were willing to sacrifice the Kalmyk language to travel this path. Another feature of Kalmykia is very strict, repressive control. The government control has always been stricter in the ethnic regions than in St. Petersburg or Moscow. Because of this, they shut down the lively youth dance parties, where people gathered and danced together in the central square of Elista to the dombra, to native melodies. Participation required minimal knowledge of the language, at least basic greetings. But on the whole, it simply entailed the symbolic presence of Kalmyk youth, representing their Kalmyk-ness on Elista Street. Unfortunately, the organizer was forced to leave, and these events stopped being held.

What language initiatives exist in Kalmykia? They are varied and extremely good. Awareness that the language is being lost has become a very important issue for the younger generation of Kalmyks. I, for one, am a big fan of this culinary blog, where the creator Bairt cooks and explains what he’s doing in Kalmyk. There’s a famous stand-up comic in Kalmykia, Bair Khodzhaev (“Mandjik’s Notes”). He and his team have made several full-scale comedic films based on his Instagram videos. This is an example of the popularization of the “Baldyr” Kalmyk spoken by young Kalmyks, with a


large number of Russian borrowings and strange syntactic constructions. “Baldyr” is what Kalmyks call children from a mixed family, and “speaking Baldyr” is when a Kalmyk speaks badly, with a Russian accent. The idea is that Baldyr can also be spoken in a funny, fashionable and interesting way, and that people have the right to speak the way they speak. This is a very important message and I hope it will spread. Kalmyk will survive if it is spoken by many people, preferably a younger age group. And, of course, when they start talking, they’re not speaking some high, archaic beautiful version of Kalmyk.

I think it’s important for these minority languages to come into fashion, that knowledge of the language is placed as high as possible on the hierarchy of prestige. Then, I presume, people will start thinking about the language — not just native speakers who inherited it in their childhoods, and not just language activists completing their latest project, but ordinary families who lack freedom of language. In Soviet times, minority languages were often associated with the village and the elderly. I haven’t seen this lately. On the contrary, it is prestigious to know your own language. People used to be ashamed to speak it, now it is shameful not to know it. I remember one Chukchi woman told me, “At first you forbade us from speaking ‘foreign’ and laughed that we did not know Russian or spoke with an accent, and now you say that we do not know our native language, we have lost our culture.” It’s shameful either way. Yes, it’s terrible, actually. A language has many layers, and there’s always the memory of its previous states, as well as the current context. And so people remember how the language was persecuted or how unfashionable it was. In the 2000s, Kalmyk speakers in Kalmykia were teased and called “kolkhozniks” or “Gascons”. Each individual exists with all these levels of symbolism and tries to withstand them. I have also seen the growing prestige of minority languages in many communities — it’s commendable, fashionable, and good to speak your native language. At the same time, those who don’t speak the language, or do so poorly, are stigmatized. But this is actually connected to the Russian linguistic ideology as a whole: it is monolingual and, as the American linguist James Milroy writes, focused on standardization. Russian should be very standard, unified, it should be spoken beautifully. And therefore Udmurt, Kalmyk, and Chuvash should be the same. That’s why it’s important when projects like “Manjik’s Notes” promote speaking a mixed language.

Are there any projects in Russia related to language activism? Not just symbolic, but actually influential? Symbolic ones also have influence, they make the first push. How wonderful it is to speak your own language! What do you gain from it? Or why don’t you speak your own language?


But, of course, people are often more focused on what has a lasting effect, and above all, this is working with children. The most effective tool for revitalizing a language — that is, to bring it back from the brink of extinction — is a language nest. This is where children are surrounded by adults who speak the minority language, in a kindergarten or other community setting. In Russia, there is only one successful language nest, in Karelia, which is being organized by Natalia Antonova from the Karelian Language House. It is very laborintensive work, but it produces significant results. Short-lived, but evocative projects are also very important. Preserving a language involves everything that makes a language popular, everything that makes a language accessible and part of the everyday lives of the younger generation. It’s not something that lies in your grandmother’s old trunk and only comes out at festivals, but something that is a part of the city culture, of youth culture, of online communication and various interesting collaborative projects. This is already well underway in Izhevsk or Kazan, for instance. Everything that provides language-related opportunities is significant. For example, Vasily Kharitonov, a linguist and Nanai language teacher in a village in the Khabarovsk Krai, believes that it would be good to have some form of secondary education, like a technical school with important, interesting, and in-demand subjects in minority languages. Or there was a project in Yakutia with editing and vlogging courses only available in Yakut. Want to participate? Great, you can come. If you know Yakut well enough, you can learn how to edit videos — something that many teenagers want. Don’t know it? Well, sorry — learn Yakut and come back later. Intentionally learning a language can be quite boring, but when we learn it while cooking meat or shooting vlogs, it’s a completely different matter.

Why are minority languages such a painful subject? Why are they so politicized? Language is always very politicized, it’s not just in Russia. The topic of having signs in the Basque language in Spain is also a very painful subject for the Basques. But, oddly enough, these are not the most important elements of preserving a language. Whether or not there are signs in a language is less important for its preservation than the language that the children are exposed to in kindergarten or at home. But the issues that are of the greatest symbolic significance are school instruction and signs, something that’s regulated by the state.

And does the language they speak with the children at home depend on the state? It depends primarily on the community. But the state language policy certainly has an impact. What is important is the general context in which the ethnic group is located, how much they realized they were being persecuted, how much they understood that their language was not considered prestigious, how much direct political repression was carried out against this group — deportations, for example.

How can one characterize the state language policy in Russia after the collapse of the USSR? It seems to me that it wasn’t the same story across all of Russia, and we didn’t start from a blank slate. There’s the memory of the deportations among the Kalmyks, or, on the contrary,


the idea that the Karelian language will advance us and make us part of the Finno-Ugric world. After the fall of the USSR, the same people continued to engage in language politics. They simply reprinted all the textbooks, and new ones only appeared in the early 2000s. It was a big problem. The old textbooks were written back in the 1960s and are aimed at children who had a good command of the language. If we’re trying to highlight common features, then after collapse there was a feeling that you could now take symbolic political action aimed at promoting the language. But in reality, their work with the language was clearly not enough. Evidently they lacked the resources. Then the centralization and restriction of linguistic rights began to creep in. It was against this backdrop that the demand for the use of minority languages rose in many regions. Some of the regional elites responded to this.

Let’s talk about the 2018 amendment, after which study of official native languages in the national republics of Russia has ceased to be mandatory, and has instead become voluntary, at the request of parents. In 2017, Vladimir Putin delivered a speech saying that no one should be forced to learn a language. In 2018, the amendment was adopted. This caused a lot of anxiety, there was a lot of emotional pressure on parents when choosing the language of instruction, there were protests in the regions, which were quite severely suppressed, especially in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. The sense of injustice associated with this law has greatly affected all speakers of minority languages. At the same time, it was clear that people outside the republics were doing a lot of wonderful things. There has always been language activism, and in the last 10 – 15 years it has begun to grow noticeably. My second book, Language Policy without Politicians. Language Activism and Minority Languages in Russia, turned out to be a little about what could have been. I wanted to write about the fact that, regardless of the official language policy, a lot can be done from the bottom up, grassroots, and how much you can change, what you can respond to. But in the current setting, even this version of language policy is not very feasible.

How do you see this transformation? In recent years, especially during the pandemic, a lot of fantastic online communities, forums and groups popped up: Strana iazykov (Land of languages), Za iazyki RF (For RF languages), and others. Before, language activists only knew about people in their own circles, those who were doing something to preserve Kalmyk or, for example, Buryat. With the development of these communities, language activists began to exchange views, meet, organize collaborative projects. There was a wonderful series of video conferences titled “Best Practices for Preserving the Languages of the Peoples of Russia,” where they talked about children’s bilingualism in Yakut or Udmurt, discussed how to draw comics, how to set


a background on your phone or use a voice assistant. Alas, these initiatives are crumbling, there are too many problems, and some of the language activists have left the country. Researchers often distinguish two main dimensions of language activism. The first is protecting linguistic rights, a social movement in support of language (language advocacy), as defined by the linguist from the University of Oslo, Haley de Korn. This is when language activism becomes part of civic activism, the struggle for rights, for the inclusion of the language in the education system, for the opportunity to hold votes or some kind of events in the native language. Protecting linguistic rights is all about being included in the legislation and transformation at a large political level. And the second part is cultural initiatives. Russia’s language activists, perhaps because they existed in a repressive regime, focused on cultural and linguistic projects: they filmed cartoons, recorded rap, organized free courses. Very few have engaged in language activism as a defense of linguistic rights — demanding that the law on education not be amended or that they comply with current legislation. There is a famous video in which a Komi activist demands that the judge speak Komi to him. But in general, this dimension has never been very well developed. Now, language activists have felt that language activism is impossible without a struggle for rights and a coherent political agenda related to language and the rights of minority groups. And they radicalized, moved in the direction of protecting linguistic rights, which became completely incompatible with linguistic activism focused on collaboration with the state, on cooperation. The word “collaboration” in Russian doesn’t sound very good now, but it didn’t necessarily have such a derogatory connotation before. Some language activists expect this kind of work and cooperation to continue. For example, at the beginning of June 2023, the Literary Megapolis was held on Red Square in Moscow — an event dedicated to different cultures and languages. And the part that has become very radicalized believes that language activism is now impossible without revising linguistic rights, without a social movement, without a clear agenda of decolonization.

Guzel Yusupova and Karina Ozerova published an article in 2021 stating that in modern-day Russia, different ethnic communities do not have the opportunity to enter into the political conversation and therefore replace the political conversation with a cultural one. Hence the horizontal initiatives to preserve local languages. This is also political language, just veiled. Now the opportunity does exist, but only for those who left. Yes, and those who remained, of course, do not have such an opportunity. Guzel Yusupova connects this with politics, fear, and anticipation of backlash. And it also shows that many initiatives have moved online, as it’s a safer space. But I'm not sure it's just fear. Many of the activists I interviewed really just wanted to do their language projects. 52

We have a very weak political culture in general, so people, whether they like it or not, move towards culture and avoid talking about politics. Yes, and this is noticeable in many republics. Indiana University anthropologist Katherine Graber has a note about Buryat media in her book. From American experience, she expected that everyone would talk about the rights of indigenous peoples, but these words, this rhetoric, this discourse turned out to be inapplicable to the Russian context. People almost never used the term "indigenous.” It is actively used by those in the foreign category "indigenous peoples of the North,” Nivkhs or Udege for example, but those who have a republic almost never used these words. Now we see how these ideas and the language itself are spreading among activists. The word “indigenous” is heard more and more often, they talk about decolonization, about the empire. I see this in the expatriate community of Kalmyks and Buryats in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Decolonization and discourse on the empire are still minority concepts held by young and more or less educated people. They do not find any understanding or support, I assume, among the majority. Or am I wrong? Yes and no. It’s true, these issues have become the lot of a small number of people who have mostly left the region. People are looking for answers: What's going on? Why is it dangerous for them to stay in Kalmykia, Buryatia or Tuva? But the ideas they’re appealing to — the injustice of the leaching of resources from the regions to the center, the injustice of forcing different groups and members of different regions to participate in the war — these ideas easily find support.

We’ve been discussing language activism for a while, but what exactly is it? It’s an interesting story, because not all language activists call themselves language activists. In essence, language activism is any activity that aims to support and restore a language that is in a vulnerable position, or increase the number of native speakers.

Is an elementary school teacher a language activist? By default, no, but if this teacher uses their experience in teaching a language, makes a cartoon and puts it on the Internet so that people learn a minority language, then this is the work of a language activist.

But many are working to popularize the language, promote native-language instruction and integrate into the public school system. They broadcast on public channels, on the radio, they teach in public schools, and they are generally part of this state policy of multilingualism, however superficial it may be. Where is the activism here? Does activism always imply some kind of opposition, something informal or non-state-run?


Actually, no. The careers of language activists are fluid, and indeed they may at some point cooperate with the official language policy. But activism suggests that these are grassroots initiatives that the people first devise for themselves, and then seek support. At the same time, the degree of personal loyalty to the state can differ wildly, and a significant part of Russian language activists wanted—and some still want to cooperate with the state. And I must say, that even in a normal political system, this is even necessary, because a language policy can’t be a slapshot effort. At the same time, if the language policy is developed entirely by the state, it is very immobile. Language activism is able to quickly respond to regional peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, to changing technologies, the spread of TikTok, whatever.

The main milestones of the state’s negative interference in regional language policy happened in 2017-2018 and 2020, when amendments to the Constitution were adopted regarding Russian as the official state language. The first was practical, the second was quite symbolic. So as it turns out, this was a methodical move on the part of the state? Yes, the ideas of centralization and reduced autonomy aren’t new at all. Previous reforms did not directly concern the language. For example, the 2007 education reform led to a significant reduction in the so-called regional component. A lot of things related to local history and minority languages, literature, in addition to the existing subjects "native language and literature" and "native language,” were carried out within the boundaries of this 25% regional component. It was a very significant step. Some researchers, such as Dilyara Suleimanova, an expert on migration, Islamic education, and cultural policy in Tatarstan, believe that the introduction of the Unified State Exam (USE) also affected the language situation. The format of the exam anticipated that more and more people would be inclined to write it in Russian [the USE and Basic State Exam (OGE) can be taken in a native language, but few standards have been developed. The OGE is usually taken in the 9th grade in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. It is now impossible to take the Mathematics Unified State Exam, for example, in a native language. — Author’s note].

Do we consider the government of recent years to be an enemy to minority languages? At this point, yes, to some extent. The language policy of recent years has not been unequivocal, including the ethnic language policy. On the one hand, it had repressive dimensions, such as changing the law on education, which abolished the compulsory teaching of minority languages and made it optional, by choice — a dubious choice that often has led and still leads to Russification. Or some symbolic moments, like the changes to the Constitution and the idea of a “stateforming people and language,” which became a strong symbolic blow to minority languages. Against the backdrop of various restrictions in the ethnic republics, this meant that in a sense, the state was acting as the enemy.


On the other hand, programs to support both minority languages and interethnic diversity continued to operate in Russia. They are still in operation today. Some language activists believe that even in the current political context, efforts should be made to ensure that the state supports the publication of textbooks in minority languages or gives money to make cartoons.

What kind of state policy do you envision that would be, on the contrary, positive? What would be the ideal language policy? I think it would be very flexible and connected with the local level, with language activists — they really respond most quickly to a changing agenda, to requests from native speakers. They know best what the community needs. The overall umbrella part of the language policy could be spelled out, but only the most important things, such as the fact that all languages are equal. The second point, which I think is very important: linguistic rights are individual-level rights, like any human rights. And we always talk about linguistic rights as group rights, and often in relation to territory. But in general, the language policy should be focused on the rights of the individual, so that these are not the prescribed rights of the indigenous group that lives in the villages, in groups, collectively, but rather the rights of each individual person in this group.


Gold, spirits and dead rivers: How the Shors, Khakas and Teleuts fell hostage to the wealth of their native lands

Alexandra Gaganova, Independent researcher Ilya Cheberin, Independent researcher

This interview is part of a collaborative project between the Russia Program and Perito, an online media platform on culture and territories. Through a series of translated interviews and essays, we introduce Perito's content on Russia and Russia's minorities to English-speaking audiences. For many years now, indigenous peoples in the Kemerovo Oblast and Khakassia have been fighting industrial corporations. The Shors, Khakas and Teleuts have become hostages to the wealth held within their ancestral lands: coal and gold. Miners and prospectors have blocked off the forests with fences, yellow water replete with dead fish runs downstream, and indigenous sacred land is being blasted and turned into quarries. Communities, shamans, officials, and even one of the main Turkic goddesses have been drawn into the conflict. Residents of villages in the taiga are faced with a choice: defend their traditional way of life without compromise or make a deal with the industrialists. The consequences of either option remain unforeseen. This multi-layered conflict was the subject of the podcast The Three Woes of the Shaman (U Shamana Tri Bedy), one of the best narrative podcasts of the last six months (as of March 2023), according to the editors of Perito. Its creators, Aleksandra Gaganova and Ilya Cheberin, traveled to Mountain Shoria, a Siberian region at the junction of the Sayan and Altai mountains, and brought back dozens of hours of conversations they had with the people there. Ilya and Aleksandra spoke with us about how they came up with the podcast idea, its main characters, and what was left out of the eight-episode season. Gaganova and Cheberin are the founders of the “Gonzo Ethnographic Society” Chernozyom — an association of journalists, documentarians and artists who create projects based on their travels and research. See Chernozyom’s website or Telegram channel for projects with Novaya Gazeta, 7x7, the Gulag Museum and others. We sat down with the hosts of the fascinating narrative podcast, The Three Woes of the Shaman, to learn about their expedition. [The following essay is a slightly shortened version of the original text in Russian]


Shamanic opposition The idea for the podcast The Three Woes of the Shaman came after a member of our team rewatched Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke — a well-known anime that tells a tale of demons, gods and heroes of the forest who fight back against the city people cutting down their forests to gain access to iron ore. Someone joked that it wasn’t even fantasy, but an actual reality for the native people of Siberia. We started to discuss what the plot of the anime would look like in a Russian context. Eventually we started taking it seriously, then decided to find similar stories in the news and make a documentary. We stumbled across a long document written by environmental activists on coal mines, Shor shamans and a strange ritual. The author wrote about how in March 2020, on the outskirts of the city of Myski, not far from the Kiyzassky open-pit coal mine (a mountain quarry intended for the development of a coal deposit), Shors held their traditional celebration of the spring equinox, Chyl-Pazhi. Usually two fires are lit, one for feeding the spirits and one for burning chalam — ribbons with knots tied in them. This is how the Shors rid themselves of all evil. But this time, the shamans also burned a plastic toy excavator as a form of protest against coal companies, whose open-pit mines destroy Shor villages in the taiga. A month after the ceremony, as reported by one Kemerovo activist, news spread across the region that billionaire Dmitry Bosov, owner of the Sibanthracite company (which owns the Kiyzassky mine), had shot himself in his mansion near Moscow. To make it even more convincing, the author embedded a Youtube video of a toy excavator burning with unsettling music in the background. Journalists discovered that on the evening of the incident, Bosov had been on edge, firing employees, taking out large loans and preparing assets for sale, so the role that shamanic forces played may have been greatly exaggerated (or, on the contrary, were the cause of his woe. Who knows?). But we also dug up other details of the Shors’ struggle against mining companies, and they proved even more fantastical.

A test of character Our first guide through Khakassia was Olga Domozhakova, an activist trying to save an ancient cedar grove from being cut down by another industrial company. It turned out that in addition to activism, Domozhakova organizes shamanic expeditions, not for tourists or pilgrims, but for those who are looking for a mentor and healer. Not everyone gets to visit with the shamans. Domozhakova hears the problems of those who come to her and decides how sincere they are in their request. If they pass her test, she helps them contact the right shaman. This is not snobbery or elitism, but caution. For many years, the shamans were literally hunted down. First they were killed by missionaries coming to baptize them into the Orthodoxy, then they were shot down by the NKVD, and in the 1990s many of them simply couldn’t bear the experience and drank themselves to death. There are very few real shamans left, so they must be protected, and they themselves shy away from pressing interviews and idle curiosity. The


“shamans” with tambourines we see on TV or performing for tourists are simply costumed entertainers, as the locals say. Before Domozhakova agreed to share her contacts, she hopped on a Zoom call with us to test our “adequacy” and “understanding of moral and ethical standards,” as she put it. Evidently, we passed — we were able to record our podcast, where you can hear the voices of the people she introduced to us. True, none of them were shamans. Evidently, Domozhakova decided that they weren’t essential for our purposes. But we did manage to record an interview with the niece of the last remaining kaichi, Chyltys Tannagasheva. She is perhaps the most famous modern Shor singer performing songs in her native language. Kaichi are storytellers of heroic legends who used to wander through Shoria in olden times. The epics were relayed through throat singing, with performances sometimes lasting up to nine hours. Kaichi had incredible memory and would sometimes go into a trance while singing, in which they communicated with spirits and traveled through the world of ancient god-heroes. The Shors believe that the kaichi were no less powerful than shamans, because the spirits themselves spoke using their voices. When a kaichi launched into a new tale, no one knew what it would be about or how it would end — each song was dictated “from the other side.” Anyone, man or woman, could become a storyteller. The spirit of the throat song visited them in a dream and showed their chosen one what instrument they would perform with. Usually, it was a kai-komus — a Shor musical instrument resembling a dombra. The last kaichi, who lived in the 1970s and 1980s, were no longer able to communicate with spirits. These were the descendants of the first legendary storytellers. One such kaichi was Vladimir Tannagashev, Chyltys’s uncle, and thanks to him, much of the Shor epic canon was preserved — he left behind 44 legends. It turns out that Chyltys produces CDs with money from the Kiyzassky coal mine — the very same mine that the shamans oppose. The singer actively performs at city festivals, openings of children's playgrounds and outdoor sports areas, also built with funds from coal mines. It is common practice for the industrial companies to support the culture of the Shors whose land they mine. But the price of this support proves exceedingly high. Viacheslav Krechetov, a documentarian from Myski and our second guide, has been reporting on the harm that industrial corporations cause to the taiga and local residents for many years. He does so by both making films on the subject and writing reports to environmental organizations. Krechetov has become an invaluable door into the closed Shor community, which is distrustful of outsiders, especially journalists. We went on the expedition during Maslenitsa, and Krechetov used the occasion to introduce us to a man who would become an important character in our podcast — a Shor whose daughter had to leave the country due to harrassment by coal mining corporations. Krechetov invited the man over for pancakes as a friend, where we, a couple of ethnographers interested in Shor culture, just happened to be. We talked about early Shor culture, forest and river spirits, and Kashkachaks — grimy cannibals who stole children to eat in forest hideouts


somewhere in the vicinity of Myski (which, apparently, is completely true, as historians and ethnographers later affirmed!). This allowed us to smoothly steer the conversation towards coal mining and unobtrusively ask about the tragedy that had befallen our subjects native village and others like it.

Bargaining for Spiritual Centers Mezhdurechensk is a small city neighboring Myski in the Kemerovo Oblast. Many Shors who were forced to leave their village in the taiga now live there. Just 70 kilometers from the city are the Shor villages of Orton, Il’iinka, Uchas and Trekhrech’e. In 2021, prospectors arrived in search of gold. While exploring the mineral deposits, they dug up the land the indigenous population had been farming for years and trashed it with construction waste. Then they polluted the surrounding rivers — the only available local source of fresh water. Fish disappeared from the reservoirs, which hit the Shor fishing industry hard. The animals were pushed deeper into the forest by the roar of the industrial machines and crowds of workers, causing local hunters to suffer. That makes it all the more interesting to learn that one of the gold mining companies, PAICHER 2, sponsors traditional hunting competitions. At these events, which are sort of trapsetting biathlons, it’s possible to win a snowmobile, which are both expensive and a very necessary means of transport for Shor hunters in the taiga. These hunting competitions help Shor communities determine whose men are stronger, more dexterous, and more resilient. The marathon consists of five stages throughout the mountainous, rugged taiga: shooting a gun, setting traps, climbing to the top of the mountain, coming back down, and lighting a fire below a taut string of twine until it burns through. Only then do competitors cross the finish line. The Shors ski approximately four kilometers with the help of a kayk — a paddle-like object. Hunters use it both as a ski pole and to get out from under snow drifts or ice. PAI-CHER 2 likely has nothing to do with the environmental damage being done in Orton, Il’inka, and neighboring villages, and we can’t accuse them without good reason. But gold mining in the Kemerovo region and Khakassia, where the Shors live, is carried out on such a large scale and by so many artels that one is skeptical of any gold miners. Businessmen create and register companies in neighboring regions, open new branches, and buy several dozen exploration licenses in different areas. This creates bureaucratic confusion, which makes it difficult to try to prove that toxic substances entered the local river from this particular site, and not from a neighboring one owned by another company. Why do gold mining cooperatives sponsor Shor hunting competitions? According to the law, even after receiving mining authorizations in Moscow, industrialists cannot begin work on the land of indigenous residents without their permission. To achieve this agreement, they make deals with the locals: “You give the go-ahead, and in return you receive money, food and firewood; we fund sports and hold children’s parties for you.” There are a lot of different variations. But industrialists are not always honest and don’t always keep their promises.


The Khakassia Prospectors Artel, LLC received consent to mine for gold in the village of Nikolaevka when it stated that it would provide electricity to the village and build a road. We arrived in the village late in the evening and saw the quarry a few hundred meters from residential buildings. But we had to leave the car at the entrance to the village and walk through snowdrifts in pitch black — neither lamp posts nor a clear road had been constructed in Nikolaevka. Negotiating with coal mines and gold mining cooperatives is a controversial topic that has divided the Shor community. In every place the industrialists had touched, where the damage they caused was obvious, we nonetheless met supporters among the indigenous population. Whether or not to trust coal and gold mines is a big question with an indefinite answer. The same company can invest in projects to build infrastructure and preserve the Shor culture, while at the same time destroying the conditions necessary for their traditional way of life. In Mezhdurechensk, we had a conversation with a teacher. She spoke bitterly about the horrors that industrialists had brought and accused them of destroying the native village of Il’inka. And then she proudly showed off her new Shor language textbooks. The flyleaf stated that they were published with money from the Kiizasskii coal mine. This mine is located very close to the village of Kazas, where unknown felons set fire to the houses of Shors who refused to sell their land for coal mining. Another Shor man we know is building a spiritual center, children’s playgrounds, and setting up trading stalls where local grandmothers can sell wild plants. He created a charitable foundation for his public work, which receives funding from the same mine. In exchange for this help, he acts on behalf of the indigenous people in transactions with coal mines when they need to obtain permission from the Shors. In a conversation with us, he did not hide the fact that he understands how mines affect the environment and threaten the population. He simply believes that nothing can be done about this and it is better to at least gain something from the industrialists, rather than simply tilting at windmills.

Hunters without compromise From Mezhdurechensk, we took a train further east, to the border with Khakassia. To get to the village of Neozhidannyi (lit. “Unexpected” in Russian), we get off at the station near the village of Balyksa. There we are met by our next guide, a Russian man who was born among the indigenous people, married a Shor woman and, together with her and her relatives, created a tribal community with the sole purpose of bolstering their rights when confronting gold mines. He says that Russians and Shors never quarreled in the village; on the contrary, they always went to the taiga together and helped each other with public maintenance tasks. In his red Lada Niva, he drives us past the snow-covered hills to the village. Sometimes he stops to show us the prospectors' plots. The forest at the foot of the mountains is pitted with quarries, and a barely visible smoke rises from metal huts at the bottom. “Now,” says our guide, “in winter, the quarry isn’t as visible, you need to come when the snow begins to melt.” Then, the rivers will run with dirty yellow water.


We spent a whole day visiting the houses of local residents and talking with their families. In Neozhidannyi, the local mine has been producing gold since tsarist times. But in the 1990s, the mine was sold and the equipment was dismantled for scrap. There were no more jobs, and the indigenous people had to return to the traditional way of life: hunting and collecting cedar cones. This is hard work, but it wards off starvation, and even allows them to earn money. That’s why now, when corporations come to the village, the locals do not trust them and don’t give their consent for working the land. “I used to do seasonal work. Worked at a mine in the summer, went to the taiga for the season. I’ve spent a lot of time living in the taiga,” said one long-time resident of Balyska. “For just a few months at a time?” “No, why? I have a snowmobile. I’ll come home after two or three weeks. I’ll go to the bathhouse, stock up on groceries and leave again. My life is mainly the taiga.” He only stopped hunting within the last three years, as he was recovering from surgery. He was diagnosed with cancer, and is not the first villager to receive that diagnosis. Locals blame the chemicals flowing into the rivers from the mines. For hunters, cedar cone collectors, and others who have spent a lot of time in the taiga, the efforts of fellow tribesmen to build spiritual centers and playgrounds seem insufficient. After all, what they gave up in exchange was clean drinking water, usable fields and a place to graze their cows. And employees of mining companies often block the roads that locals use to travel between the taiga and the city. The Artel’s plan to build a facility for processing wild plants makes the Shors laugh — first, the industrialists tell the locals their crafts are so “last-century” and that this is no way to live, and then they’re building a factory to make money selling berries and wild garlic to China.

Don’t shoot without warning The life of a Shor is closely connected to the taiga. It’s actually better to say Taiga, with a capital “T.” Because for them this is not just a forest, not just a source of firewood or berries, not just a place for hunting, but something much larger. Shors are always breathless when talking about the taiga. All our interview interlocutor shied away when we asked them about life in the forest collecting wild plants, and the tales they have from chasing wild beasts. They reacted this way because their answers almost certainly entailed a conversation about the spirits and otherworldly forces living in the taiga. And they didn’t know how a stranger might react to these tales, which are extremely important for Shors. They wouldn’t want people thinking they’re crazy, after all. The locals have a mythological mindset — everything around them is inhabited by guardian spirits. Tag-ezi is the spirit of the taiga and mountains (in the Kemerovo region there is mountainous terrain covered with taiga, so one is inseparable from the other), Su-ezi is the spirit of water, Ot-ezi is the spirit of fire. Every tree, every animal and almost every thing has its own ezi. If you don’t know how to act around them, you might get killed in the forest, or even in your own home. For example, here’s one valuable lifehack from the Shors in


Neozhidannyi: don’t forget to thoroughly shake yourself off after returning from the forest, otherwise you will bring home spirits that will scurry off to the corners of the house and strangle the whole family at night. One place you definitely won’t drive the spirits away from is the “zimnik,” or small cabin used by hunters during their long expeditions into the taiga. The most haunted cabins are those in which a hunter who has died left his things behind — a mug, a blanket, a knife. As soon as darkness falls, you’ll feel a presence and the objects will start to rattle. One person we spoke to told us about how a tin mug flew into his forehead, while another was taught to always spend the night with a knife at the head of the bed and a gun under his working hand. But there’s a caveat: if someone knocks on the door at night or you feel like something is about to enter, never shoot immediately. First shout: “If you are a man, come in, if you are a spirit, I will shoot through the door.” And wait for an answer. There’s a reason for the rule: hunters have been known to actually shoot through the door, and it isn’t always a rogue spirit they hit. In Neozhidannyi, we were told of one case in which the shot had actually hit its intended target. In the 1990s, a shaman got into a fight with a hunter in a nearby village. After this skirmish, the hunter realized that he had to be careful, as he was just about to go into the taiga to hunt. Just in case, he loaded the gun with a long pin charmed to ward off evil spirits, and went into the forest. At night, a dark shadow fell across his cabin. The hunter immediately grabbed the gun and fired. The shadow vanished on the spot. In the morning he ran back to the village, immediately went to the shaman, and found him with a bandaged hand. “Was it you who came to me in the night?” “It was.” “Were you trying to kill me?” ”Yes.” And the hunter shot the shaman. “It’s true, the man later served time for murder,” nodded the Shor man telling us the story. Of course, not all ezi are hostile. Some help hunters or come into the village just to peoplewatch, perhaps reliving memories from when they were alive. The Shor man who gave the advice to shake off the spirits at the threshold, told us a story about one time when his father asked him to fetch water for the horses. As he approached the river, he saw a tall white figure coming down from the mountains. In the light of the moon, the pale man crossed the river and moved through the village. All the dogs became quiet and hid, not even daring to bark at the stranger. The spirit simply sailed down the street and disappeared into the taiga. This is when he realized that it was an ezi. In Neozhidannyi, we met another Shor who claimed to have prophetic dreams. His father was an experienced hunter and taught his son to interpret dreams in order to know whether they would have good luck in the taiga or not.We recorded everything from the Shor dream book that we could, and have compiled it here for you:


Swearing. When a Shor’s mother or sister shouts at him in a dream, it means he will have no luck on the hunt. He should wake up in the morning and return home. Money. It’s important to note whether it was banknotes or coins. Paper money is lucky and a sign of a successful hunt, but small change does not bode well. Vodka. Alcohol predicts imminent death. The night before his father’s death, our Shor guide dreamt of him drinking vodka in a faceted glass. A herd of horses. If you were driving horses or heard the clamber of hooves in your dreams, run quickly to the hunt — there should be sables nearby. The dead. Being pursued by the living dead means that you will meet a bear while hunting the next day. Stay alert.

Land of conspicuous antiquities From Neozhidannyi, we made a roadtrip to Abakan. There, in the Minusinsk Basin, in the ancient bed of the Yenisei River, lies the unique Koibal Steppe, a place seemingly nature-made for farming. Here, both the climate and the landscape are temperate enough that livestock can be grazed almost all year round. High winds blow away the snow and prevent snowdrifts from forming, so it is easy for animals to find food, even in winter. In Abakan, we met with residents of the steppe and activists who are trying to prevent it from being destroyed by the coal mines that arrived a few years ago. In our podcast we discuss the problems faced by Shors and Khakas, or more precisely, the Koibals, a Khakas clan living in the Koibal Steppe. The Shors and Khakas are two related Turkic-speaking peoples with quite similar cultures. Their folklore and mythology intersect, and local tales even contain stories about the relationship between the two peoples. Among the Shors, for example, the Khakas are cannibals who threaten to eat entire Shor villages. And in Khakass legends, Shor shamans steal the souls of steppe children. Soviet bureaucracy added to the confusion: passport officers registered some Shors as Khakassians, and they weren’t entirely offended by it. One of our main subjects told us how he himself hid his own ancestry, because many Shors faced problems when entering a university or getting a job. As a team we decided (and I hope this comparison will not offend anyone) that in a fantasy world, the Shors and Khakassians would be related, but different, like forest elves and steppe elves. The steppe is not entirely smooth. The landscape is made jagged by the huge number of mounds and idols, which are called stone women. The pillars reach up to three meters high and are likely covered in ritual etchings. They were carved by the Okunevo people, a tribe with a wild imagination who, according to scientists, lived in the Minusinsk Basin around 2600 BC. More than 30,000 such archaeological sites have been found within the republic. Local Khakas have grown up playing around these ancient artifacts, herding cattle, and simply living their lives.


Because of these artifacts, coal mines cannot officially dig quarries in the Koibal Steppe as soon as they receive a license. They are obliged to first order an survey so that archaeologists can excavate and preserve the monuments. This slows down corporate schemes, and sometimes even prevents them altogether. So, when the Koibals tell us: “Our dead will protect us,” they’re not speaking in the abstract, but referring to very real legislation.

Tomb Raiding with Laura Croft While working on our episodes about the Koibal Steppe, we were a little disappointed by the historical monuments, which is probably typical for residents of Central Russia. We imagined an ancient burial ground, some artifact of a vanished civilization, and it seemed fair that a treasure like that shouldn’t be left to decay in the ground, but should be preserved by archaeologists, studied and displayed in a museum. Inhabitants of the Koibal Steppe see things entirely differently. In their minds, they have a strong connection with those buried in the mounds. Khakassians perceive burial grounds as a completely ordinary element of the steppe landscape, something that is and will always be, and treat mounds with deep respect. Even if they are very ancient, the residents of the nearest settlement treat it like their grandmother’s grave. The locals don’t see archeologists as their friends, because “they hide behind rescue work, but in the end they drag our heritage down into the basements of museums.” Scientists are called “grave diggers” and are considered the accomplices of the coal mines. “They seem to have a good public image, like Indiana Jones and Laura Croft, ‘yeah, we’re coming in and ruining everything, digging up burial mounds.’ But the monument is destroyed forever. It won’t be there anymore. It’s a burial ground with its own genetic history, its own internal logic. Maybe you could afford to sell a million tons less coal and leave us our monument?” Stanislav Ugdyzhekov PhD of History and associate professor of the SayanoShushenski branch of the Siberian Federal University, explains the position of steppe residents. We had no idea about this point of conflict. We assumed that since archaeologists preserve monuments, they should be on the same side as the local residents, and that their commentary would only enrich our project. We tried to contact them for several months. Only Igor Kyzlasov, leading researcher at the Department of Medieval Archeology at the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, responded. He refused to talk much, explaining that the Koibal Steppe was a sore spot for him, an old wound he did not want to reopen. However, he admitted that he considers archaeologists the only force capable of preserving at least some part of the Minusinsk Basin.

Captured by dragons in Mordor The Koibal Steppe is home to an area known as Mayrykh. The Koibals believe that this name is translated into Russian as “The Bosom of the Goddess Ymai.” This is one of the main goddesses in the Turkic mythology. Nearby there is a mountain that bears her name. In Khakas legends, when a woman could not give birth to a child, the shaman flew on a


tambourine to this mountain where Ymai lived, surrounded by souls of children and animals, and tried to negotiate with her to allow the child to be born. A kind of ancient shamanic IVF. If you couldn’t convince the goddess, then you could steal the soul of a newborn from another family. The shamans created an entire black market, allowing failed parents to “order” children. The Mayrykhsky coal mine was established in the “Bosom of Ymai”. In 2019, Chinese dry coal preparation plants were purchased for the open-pit mine. They were placed on the territory at first as an experiment, and when considered successful, they were left to stand. The facilities dry the coal using a strong stream of hot air, thus increasing the value of the final product. In the process, small particles of rock are ejected high into the air in a column of black smoke. Looking at the gaping hole in the landscape surrounding the coal mine, it’s hard not to think of Mordor. The model name of these Chinese facilities, “Dragon,” only adds fuel to the fire. Thus, a new legend is born in the Koibal steppe. Locals say: “Ymai was captured by dragons.” The elders are all doomsayers: the spirits won’t leave things like this, there are troubled times ahead. In recent years, fires have become more frequent in the steppe, water levels are changing, and the air is growing more polluted. Local mystics explain the climate crisis as nothing more than Ymai's anger.


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