Presence is Dominance: The History of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and Russia’s Influence in Post-Soviet Space, by Sara O’Connor (University of California Irvine)

A Brief History of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS)

The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site was built by Kazakh prisoners as commissioned by Joseph Stalin from 1947 to 1949 near a town formerly known as Alash kala[i] and presently as Semey. The SNTS was a vast eighteen thousand square kilometers and was the site of 456 known nuclear weapons tests between its opening and its closure in 1991. Prior to being the home of the most active Soviet nuclear test site, Alash kala and its neighboring city of Karaganda were the home of a burgeoning literary and academic scene due to its role as a destination for Soviet exiles. Dostoevsky’s literary career  started during his time in Semipalatinsk, and its people are featured in Crime and Punishment.  The area is also well known as a native land of Abay Kunanbay uly, father of modern Kazakh poetry.

The climate has a dramatic range between -40 degrees Celsius in the winter and can reach over one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the summer. In the aftermath of the nuclear tests and the closure of the site, Russian scientists declared that they did not follow protocols to bury and protect nuclear material as they could not imagine that anyone would be in the area (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013). Yet it is difficult to imagine that the placement of this project which they wanted out of sight was coincidentally neighboring the village where political dissidents had been sent, and its remoteness circumspect as it has been determined that over 1.3 million people were impacted by the nuclear tests conducted at SNTS (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013).

Photograph from the first expedition of foreign interns to visit the sites at Kurchatov and Semey (2019) with the Center for International Security and Policy.  Photo credit: Oleg Butenko.

From the execution of the first test, the destructive impact of conducting a nuclear test was apparent. The town the Soviets  created as a test site was leveled and the live animals they brought there had all died or were burned and in shock (Kassenova, 2017). Between 1949 and 1963 with the implementation of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, at least twenty-five tests were conducted on the ground and eighty-six in the air, with the last two occurring immediately prior to the treaty signing and in public recollection citizens were only evacuated for one test (Vakulchuk et al, 2014) and otherwise people were informed by radio, or in towns in which there were no radios civilians were informed by letter (Kassenova, 2017); however then like now, many could not afford to relocate or evacuate. From 1963 until the closure of the site in 1991, two hundred and one were conducted tests underground which led to the contamination of ground water and the alteration of the surface ground in the area, yielding an explosive energy release equivalent to more than four-hundred Hiroshima bombs (Vakulchuk et al, 2014)  and  the creation of a new lake known as “Atomic Lake” and to this day unknown consequences in the atmosphere (Kassenova, 2017).

The Soviet government commissioned secret reports on the health and welfare of those within the vicinity of blasts, however when the health of this population became a topic of public debate, the Soviets attributed illnesses and conditions to poor hygiene and diet. A Kazakh institute was founded to further investigate the symptoms and impacts of radiation exposure on the population, and eventually coined “Kainar Syndrome”, named for a village in Kazakhstan where the people had been exposed to radiation due to the tests conducted at SNTS and were deficient in Vitamin C (Atchabarov, 2015). The early symptoms of this syndrome are hemorrhaging of orifices and internal organs, changes in skin, mucus, hair, nails, and extreme fatigue (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). In a report commissioned published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, authors Vakulchuk, Gjerde, Belikhina and Apsalikov categorize the symptoms into acute and early effects (one to ten years post-tests), early-long term (ten to twenty years post-tests) and late long term (twenty or more years post-tests); the early effects most prominently were infant mortality, malformations of the face and nervous system in infants and a doubled rate of leukemia. The early to long term effects include more than thrice-fold increased mortality from cancer, chromosome aberrations which debilitate the body’s ability to fight disease, early onset cardiovascular disease and thrice-fold malformations at birth. The long term effects which are in some cases experienced presently are thrice-fold rates of lung, bronchial and breast cancer and decreased life expectancy (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). This report also included a study conducted by Japanese researchers in Kazakhstan from 2002 to 2004 based on studies they conducted in communities near Hiroshima, and their report concluded that more than ninety-percent of persons within two hundred kilometers felt impacted by the tests, they were told the tests were military not nuclear, and seventy-percent recognized the impact on their community’s health (Kawano and Ohtaki 2006). These issues continuously impact the mental health of the population who while suffering from current known ailments  continue to fear for the future unknown effects.

While some of the land used for the nuclear test site may be restored, large swaths are unlikely to be revitalized and the continuous impacts of the contamination of the Shagan river are unknown (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). Numerous academic and media sources have expressed surprise at the lack of barriers to entry in these contaminated spaces which are both unsafe and have been looted for the leftover metal.

The lake created in 1963 on the Polygon as a result of an explosion that used 20 tons of conventional explosives (an imitation of a nuclear explosion) Photo Credit: Oleg Butenko, retrieved from Voices on Central Asia, “Humans of the Polygon: Travel Notes from the Land of Abai. Karaul, Znamenka (Kokentau), Sarzhal” by Togzhan Kassenova, published 10/9/2016. 

In 1989, a movement since named the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement in reference to the Nevada movement for denuclearization in the United States was launched by a Kazakh writer, Olzhas Suleimenov, in his national television announcement about leaks from the Semipalatinsk website (Cabasso, 2016). He called on Kazakhstanis to protest, and the following day it is reported that approximately one million people took to the streets in response. The Kazakhstani Soviet Socialist Republic government pled and negotiated for the closure of the site, and the USSR regime agreed to a slowing of testing limited to a few tests every few years (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). Upon the fall of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan’s independence, the Kazakh president closed the site and cancelled the two tests planned in 1991. Since that time, Kazakhstan has led a charge for global denuclearization and has been recognized for its efforts on the global stage. However, independence and the closing of this site in no way represented an end to its destructive power and the undue influence of the Russian government in the site’s management and the nation’s governance.

The Cleanup of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and Remediation for the Effected

The closing of the site occurred in a pivotal moment for the new nation which became a nuclear free country and established with neighboring countries a nuclear free zone in Central Asia (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013). Kazakhstan returned the nuclear weapons to Russia; however, they did not have the resources to do so immediately, and so the Russian government de facto maintained nuclear sites in Kazakhstan until the weapons were repatriated in 1995. In addition to not having the resources to return or secure remaining materials, the Kazakh government did not have resources to care for the effected citizens. They created a program with the goal of providing assistance to the estimated 1.323 million persons within the vicinity of the site assigned “radiation passports” which have allowed them to access lump sums, high salaries, salary increases for government workers, additional paid leave, extended maternity leave, and free healthcare for the children of those effected. There are established judicial proceedings for those whose compensation does not meet their needs and thus far the cases have a 79.7% rate of success. However, the Kazakh government was not able to fulfill these obligations for years after they were made, and this compensation is not available to anyone who moved to the area after 1991 for the considerable industrial development here and in neighboring towns. Further, the site was not secured, and it is known that people have walked in and out of the area.

A faded radiation warning sign near a nuclear crater. Photo Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Semipalatinsk in Pictures”, by John Mecklin 10/9/2016. Photos Copyright Magdalena Stawkowski.

The Project Managing the Atom (within Harvard University’s Belfer Center) released an extensive report on the cleanup process detailing a tri-lateral deal between the U.S., Kazakhstan and Russia (eventually and reluctantly), funded almost entirely by the United States. The Kazakhstanis conducted the fieldwork, and the Russian counterparts were needed as the experts on the facility, however refused to participate unless the Kazakhstanis agreed to not discuss the level of destruction publicly. The Russian government refused to repatriate all materials recovered and thus they were encased in cement and remain buried in Kazakhstan; the site will never be fully restored to nature and the contract to secure the area was awarded to a Russian company [ii] who is now reaping economic benefit from the continued contamination and lack of security of Kazakh land.

Continued Occupation

In The Right to Maim, social theorist Jasbir Puar describes the purposeful debilitation of bodies through injury, malnourishment, deprivation and exclusion of those deemed expendable or undesirable by the perpetrators. For example, the state’s refusal to address and remedy the water crisis in Flint, Michigan which resulted in sickness in the population is a deliberate maiming of that population. In maiming bodies, and destroying the landscapes those bodies reside in (spacioside) perpetrators avoid the rancor that comes with killing while continuously weakening and controlling a population. Puar posits the following points worth consideration in understanding the SNTS: first, environmental toxins as the result of imperialism, and second, and de facto settler colonialism as an ongoing debilitation (2017). The environmental toxins released into the society and remaining in the Kazakh land have led to the ongoing debilitation of an entire region. The effects may continue to be experienced for generations to come. Securing the remnants of the Soviet nuclear project has led to an ongoing security contract in which Kazakhstan pays a Russian security contractor to secure and surveil the only secure portion [iii]of the site essentially paying the perpetrator of this catastrophe and inviting them to surveil their former territory. The Kazakhstanis have not publicly rebuked the Russian state for the creation of the site, nor in public record asked for financial assistance in handling the consequences of the nuclear tests.

Further, in the creation of the nuclear site and the use of prisoners as laborers, we see a revival of the activity that Marx ascribed to the early days of capitalism being implemented in the state conceived theoretically by Marx’s design. In Capital, Marx describes the criminalization of poverty as a mechanism to create a prisoner class available for labor in the post-Feudal era, the poverty which resulted from the shift from a Feudal economy to an industrial capitalist economy. In the case of the former USSR, under land collectivization plans the implementation of an authoritarian regime Kazakhs whom had previously owned land and subsisted through agriculture were stripped of their land and in their critique of this system became criminals ripe for exploitation. These prisoners constituted the labor that built the nuclear site many of whom died in the process (Kassenova, 2017). This exploitation continued as the laborers who remained, and those occupied the area as merchants and service providers of the scientists the USSR moved to the area were subjected to the effects of the nuclear blasts, and in the case of the one evacuation, were asked to stay behind (Kassenova, 2017). Semipalatinsk and the surrounding region were similarly turned into a laboratory as to those who maintained control, it also appeared remote and the outcomes of the test subject were not only of no import, but on occasion embodied a perceived enemy.

Heating Plant, Kurchatov, Kazakhstan Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers Gallery.  Photo Credit: Business Insider, “These Are The Secret Sites Where The Soviet Union Exploded Atomic Bombs And Tested Radiation On Unsuspecting Russians” by Harrison Jacobs, 9/19/2014

Conclusion: Future

Kazakhstan finds itself at another pivotal moment. Their second president since  independence was appointed then elected and the legitimacy of the results are questioned. The first election and all of those thereafter in which Nazarbayev was on the ballot were not considered free or fair by the international community, but in those first moments he responded to the desires of protestors and of a movement. Nazarbayev closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear site, cancelled the two remaining tests, and positioned Kazakhstan as a force in geopolitics through leadership in denuclearization. It is one of the only known instances of public Kazakh rebuke of Russia since independence in no doubt enabled by the auspices of the revolutionary moment. Yet as Kazakhstan is on the precipice of another new era, the opportunity of the occasion is in danger of passing. Tokayev has come to power, a savvy politician who as interim president chose Russia as the destination of his first official visit. Now that his presidency is official, Tokayev has an opportunity to strengthen alliances with other partners, and open up opportunities for the future of the Kazakh people. Through elevating new equitable relationships he can project strength and a commitment to future prosperity.

Acknowledgements:

Dr. Meruert Makhmutova, Director of the Public Policy Research in Almaty and Jenna Sweeney Jones provided crucial revisions to this piece.

This work would not have been possible without the crucial feedback and support provided by Dr. Meruert Makhmutova, Director of the Public Policy Research in Almaty and Jenna Sweeney Jones. The author also wishes to express her gratitude for the photos kindly provided by Oleg Butenko.

References

  1. Atchabarov A. (2015) “Kainar Syndrome: History of the First Epidemiological Case-control Study of the Effect of Radiation and Malnutrition.” Central Asian journal of global health, 4(1), 221. doi:10.5195/cajgh.2015.221
  2. Bahng, A. (2017) Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times. Durham, North Carolina:  Duke University Press. Chapter: Salt Fish Futures: The Irradiated Transpacific and the Financialization of the Human Genome Project
  3. Cabasso, J. (August, 2016). The Enduring Legacy of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement. Western States Legal Foundation. International Conference: Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: Astana, Kazakhstan.
  4. Guillory, S. (Host) (2019, October 27) The Radioactive Mutants of Semipalatinsk. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from: https://srbpodcast.org/2019/10/27/the-radioactive-mutants-of-semipalatinsk/
  5. Harrell, E. & Hoffman, D.E. (2013) Plutonium Mountain: Inside the 17-year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
  6. Kassenova, T. (2017) “Banning nuclear testing: lessons from the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site.” The Nonproliferation Review, 23:3-4, 329-344.
  7. Marx, K. (1887) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Book One: The Process of Production of Capital. Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR.
  8. Olcott, M. B. (2011) “Kazakhstan’s Soviet Legacy.” Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International peace.
  9. Puar, J. (2017) The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham: Duke University Press.
  10. Sisavath, D. (October, 2018) Global Costs of War: Military Waste Material in Post- Conflict Spaces. Presentation at the University of California, Irvine by invitation of the Global Studies Department.
  11. Vakulchuk, R., Gjerde, K., Belikhina, T., and Apsalikov, K. (2014) Semipalatinsk nuclear testing: the humanitarian consequences. (Report No. 1). Oslo, Norway. Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
  12. Scott, J.C. (1999) Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Endnotes

[i] Alash kala was the capital of the autonomous state Alash autonomy, governed by Alash Orda who allied themselves with the Bolsheviks. The unrecognized existed from 1917 to 1918 in Karaganda and Semey on the territory of the current Republic of Kazakhstan.

[ii] Eben Harrell and David E. Hoffman, “Plutonium mountain: Inside the 17-year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing,” (Cambridge, Mass.: The Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, August 2013).

[iii] Only one-fifth of the site is secured, the rest is open and accessible by the public. (SRB interview with Magdalena Stawkowski https://soundcloud.com/srbpodcast/nf02)

 

Becoming an activist scholar: towards more politically engaged and socially accountable research practices in Central Asian studies, by Mohira Suyarkulova (American University of Central Asia)

Editor’s note:  Here we present the full text of one of the invited key note speeches at this year’s annual conference, which was held at George Washington University in October 2019.  We thank Mohira Suyarkulova for her permission to reprint this transcript of the speech here.

Becoming an activist scholar

It is a great honour and privilege for me to be here today and have this opportunity to address a room full of ‘Central Asianists’, people who have dedicated a significant period of their lives, their intellectual capacities and passions to the study of the region I call home.  I myself embody the dual identity of a Central Asian and a ‘Central Asianist’, a native researcher, a kind of a self-referential scholar, socialised and trained through a combination of home schooling and academic migrations.  I am a Central Asian in a truly transnational sense – in that I was born in Tajikistan, from where my family had to leave during the civil war. We then migrated to the hometown of my maternal grandparents – Bukhara – and then to Tashkent, the capital of the newly independent Uzbekistan, where I went to a Turkish high school and completed two years of undergraduate studies at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy; I then received a George Soros-funded scholarship to become an exchange student in Vermont for a year, and then transferred to the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. My postgraduate studies were all in the United Kingdom at St Andrews University, where Will famously met Kate. During my masters’ year funded by a Chevening scholarship, my family back in Uzbekistan were subjected to background checks and told they did not qualify for Uzbek citizenship – our citizenship was revoked, passports taken away, new identities of ‘persons without citizenship’ issued.  Since then I have received a Russian citizenship, and while the rest of my closest family members now reside in Kaliningrad (a curious geopolitical exclave of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania), I have moved back to Bishkek, where I teach at my alma mater. (I am telling you this personal life story not because my life has been extraordinary, but because it reflects some of the processes and events in the region which I tried to reflect on in my research.) My move to Bishkek for the second time signified another watershed moment in my life – I became an activist.

Illustration of the author, by Michael Feaux.

In this talk, based on my personal journey as a researcher, teacher and activist living and working in/on Central Asia, I will share my reflections on whether and how research done in and on the region of ‘Central Asia’ has an emancipatory potential.  Born out of the orientalist tradition and Cold War rivalry, and resurrected as part of the War on Terror, can area studies serve the interests of the “wretched of the earth”? Who is an academic accountable to? How can we engage in a more responsible intellectual labour under the conditions of permanent crises and precarity? What is at stake when we ask certain questions and pledge our energies to specific intellectual pursuits? These are some of the dilemmas that I would like to invite my fellow Central Asianists to reflect on.

When I received the invitation to give this keynote address, I had to fight an urge to decline due to a nasty flare-up of a condition called “imposter syndrome” – ‘chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence’, which makes me feel inadequate and undeserving of the position I occupy, despite the external proof of success and competence I may get.  I spent the months since in constant anxiety, pondering possible topics, takes, arguments. Despite all the doubts and concerns I might have, the most pressing matter to me today is to talk about my transition from a native researcher to an activist scholar. I am a queer woman, a communist and a feminist and my research and teaching reflect my politics. I teach courses on critical theory, discourse analysis and theories of sexuality. I am also one of the founding member of the “Queer Academics AUCA” initiative at the university, which organises public talks and serves as a peer support group. When I wrote my short bio for the announcement of this talk I wondered if such public self-representation was a smart career move.  Will I be taken seriously, I asked myself.  Is my recent focus on the politics of gender and sexuality a professional suicide? In this talk I am in search of myself and the particular position I occupy within the field of social sciences and Central Asian studies by researching and teaching on gender and sexuality.

Four years ago Sarah Kendzior delivered a keynote address to the Central Eurasian Studies Society at Indiana University and entitled it “The Future of Central Asian Studies: A Eulogy”.  With striking clarity and precision, she identified the key issues at stake and mapped out the landscape of a field in a state of crisis. “Our field is a great example of how funding impacts knowledge, and how without money and jobs, research on a region declines. Our field is also a cautionary tale on the dangers of linking independent academic research to military intelligence, and what happens to scholars when the wars that indirectly fund their training end. And our field is also a fine example of the challenges of research in authoritarian states, and the limitations of what scholars can do in restricted information environments,” she said. While all of these still very much hold true, in my talk I would like to present a different set of challenges as they are seen by me as an activist scholar living and working in the region, albeit, admittedly, I occupy a rather privileged position residing in Bishkek, the San Francisco of Central Asia, while teaching at the region’s most liberal university.

Kath Weston in her book Long Slow Burn (1998) makes a case for placing the study of sexuality at the center of social sciences, reclaiming its historical influence in shaping the intellectual foundations of all social science disciplines as we know them.  She argues that the formative debates in many a social science discipline relied on examples from the ‘realm’ of sexuality: “… consider, for one, that eminently contemporary and highly contentious debate on reflexivity in social science. As researchers ponder whether or not to use “I” in their work, they are in effect, grappling with aspects of cultural categories (narcissism, confession, self-indulgence, kiss-and-tell) that have become parcelled off, boxed up, and increasingly marketed under the rubric of sex” (4).

Billboard on a street in Bishkek reading ‘Folks, where are we going?'” Source: Kaktus.media

For all the attention recently garnered by studies of gender and sexuality in Central Asia (as evidenced, among other things, by the programme of CESS conferences in recent years), this subject remains marginalised and viewed as a soft-touch area of knowledge. Inspired by Weston’s call to overcome the ghettoization of the study of gender and sexuality in the social sciences, I want to also emphasize that one can never ‘just’ study gender and sexuality in a neat separation from the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues of concern to the social sciences/Central Asian studies – history, class, ethnicity, race, diaspora, migration, environment, urban politics, religion, electoral behaviour, community mobilisation, to name a few. Once you start deploying the gender and sexuality sensitive optics, you begin to perceive a myriad of phenomena and events in a new light.

My own work since I completed my PhD on Tajik-Uzbek relations in 2011 has evolved to examine the less ‘hard-core’ yet no less complex intersections of nationalism, gender and sexuality and dress, urban life, sociality and human-environment interactions. Nationalist movements in Central Asia have constructed certain conceptions of authenticity, pride and autonomy on the backs of local women and gender-and-sexually-variant-and-noncomforming people. Dress modestly. Clothe yourself to swim. No talking to men who are not mahram/ men of other ethnicities. Behave like a man. Control your women. I am interested in uncovering how these gendered beliefs and practices are implicated in larger structures of oppression, and whether and how a radical change is possible.

My contention is that not only do such studies enrich our field with invaluable empirical materials, but also that significant theoretical insights and methodological advances can be made. Most importantly, critical studies of gender and sexuality bear emancipatory potentiality – they are already generating a possibility of praxis – a process whereby theories and knowledge gained through research are enacted, embodied and realised through action aimed at advocacy, community mobilisation, education and political direct action.  Gender and sexuality scholarship in and on Central Asia is a budding curious “assemblage of paradigmatically dissimilar studies and academic practices” (Kondakov 2016, p. 114). As Alexander Kondakov beautifully put it in relation to the field of queer studies in Russia (but which also applies to Central Asian scholars of gender and sexuality),“It is activism and science at the same time, but even more, it is love in the form of scholarship” (115).

I am by no means a lone warrior in this army of lovers. I am preceded by pioneers of the field such as Marriane Kamp, Adrienne Lynne Edgar, Deniz Kendiyoti, Anna Temkina, Douglas Northrop and Collette Harris.  More recently, Juliette Clezou, Lucia Derenberg, Aksana Ismailbekova, Diana Kudaibergenova, Sophie Roche, Julie McBrien, Cai Wilkinson, and many others have made invaluable contributions. And walking along with me are faithful comrades, whose faces and names I recognise not only from the seminar rooms, conference halls and article pages, but who have been engaged in feminist and LGBTQ organising and activism in Central Asia –  Anara Moldosheva, Mehrigul Ablezova, Altyn Kapalova, Syinat Sultanalieva,  Zhanar Sekerbaeva, Dilya Mamadshoeva, Elena Kim, Nina Bagdasarova, Asel Myrzabekova, Georgy Mamedov, Joanna Hoare, and Anna Kirey.

Yet, though I do not feel lonely and isolated in my intellectual pursuits, the context my fellow gender and sexuality scholars function in is far from nurturing and encouraging. John D’Emilio once wrote in reference to university professors’ stance on LGBTQ issues, “Having been granted the extraordinary privilege of thinking critically as a way of life, we should be astute enough to recognize when a group of people is being systematically mistreated” (quoted in Kondakov 2016:108). This is not the case in Kyrgyzstan, supposedly the most liberal of the Central Asian states, and certainly not true for the rest of the countries in the region.  In many institutions of higher learning and research centers in Central Asia, the scholars fear the consequences of speaking out of turn and engage in self-censorship. Some even appoint themselves as mouthpieces of the ruling ideology, purporting to speak on behalf of the ‘common people’ and ‘national interest’.

It would be easy to label Central Asian scholars as belonging to either ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ camp, according to the place of their employment, their educational background, their working languages, where they publish their research and the names of the authors they cite in their texts. However, such classification would not be an accurate reflection of the complex institutional politics and contradictory personal positionings of individual scholars within these configurations of power and ideologies. Unfortunately, a PhD from a prestigious western university is not a very good predictor of one’s politics, as evidenced by one recent encounter I had with a professor at AUCA, who accused a former colleague of having ‘openly promoted LGBT among students’.  This was dropped into the conversation casually as an example of how one must not teach gender studies at the university during a discussion of a gender studies concentration offered to the students of the Liberal Arts department of the university.  The exact wording of this ‘casual’ remark in Russian was ‘открыто пропагандировал ЛГБТ’, which is a direct reference of the homophobic law adopted in the Russian Federation in 2013.

The ‘gay propaganda’ norm in Russia outlawed any positive or neutral discussion of the issue of homosexuality among minors. Propaganda of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ bill framed homosexuality as a menace to the whole nation brough from outside. Essentially, it gave a licence to discriminate against the LGBTQ people, has led to the dramatic increase in hate crimes and violence crimes against non-heterosexual and gender noncomforming people (Kondakov 2017).

A similar bill was proposed by some members of Kyrgyz parliament in 2014, but it went even further than the Russian version – criminalising any positive depictions of homosexuality regardless of the age of the audiences.  If passed, the law would amount to outlawing the work of LGBTQ organisations and would send to prison anyone who dared discuss this matter publicly.  A coalition of civil society actors united in opposition to the bill, galvanised further due to the fact that the ‘gay propaganda’ bill was being pushed through in conjuction with a sister-bill (also plagiarised from a Russian counterpart) on ‘foreign agents’ that in reality targetted all NGOs.  Although, thankfully, the bill has not been passed (it has been stuck in the pipeline after the second reading and no one has so far tried to resurrect it), it still has had a negative impact on the lives of LGBTQ people in Kyrgyzstan.

Despite not being an official law of the land, the homophobic norm already exists in the minds of people who enforce it in their interpersonal and professional relationships, leading to fear and (self-)censorship.  So now, even though I have a legitimate reason and right to discuss LGBTQ issues in my classroom and in my research, I can easily be labelled as having an agenda/engaging in propaganda, thus threatening my employment status and future. This is a case of a law which doesn’t exist becoming a part of the transnational shared media field and shaping everyday social relations and institutional arrangements. Despite bearing the proud title of an ‘associate professor’, I am not tenured or on a tenure-track, and like most of my colleagues I have a one-year contract, which means it is extremely easy for the administration to terminate my employment.  Along with many other academics in the world, I am part of the growing class of precariat.

Nevertheless, feminists and queers have persisted and the past several years have been remarkably prolific.  Despite the increased vigilantism and violence of nationalist groups, paranoia of the authorities, police harassment, secret services’ surveillance and the media hype that accompanied and followed the debates regarding the ‘propaganda’ bill, the past several years have been really productive. For instance, Labrys, one of the region’s oldest LGBTQ organisations (founded in 2004), succeeded in advocating for the adoption of a manual for medical and social workers regarding assistance for transgender people. This means that people are no  longer required to undergo surgery in order to receive new identity documents.

Image from the call for applications to become a co-researcher in the participatory action study of LGBTQ lives in Bishkek (Labrys 2018) led by Mohira Suyarkulova.

Additionally, Central Asia has entered the European chapters of international LGBT organisations and advocacy groups like ILGA-Europe, TGEU and EL*C.  This means that now the region is viewed as part of the same political field as European and Caucasian former Soviet republics, aligning with the existing activist networks and funding streams. Initiative groups in other Central Asian countries, where it is impossible to officially register a feminist or LGBT organisation and to work openly, get supported by their Kyrgyz counterparts, who serve as fiscal sponsors, with Bishkek being the regional hub for training and meetings. Local LGBT organisations run community centers and a shelter, engage in hidden advocacy as well as open political action.

There is a sense of pride of what we have been through and what we have managed to accomplish despite the odds. And although international support and solidarity are key, local activists have increasingly sought to articulate specifically Central Asian agendas and visions, resisting the homogenizing influences of global identity politics whereby the loudest voices and concerns tend to be those of North American and Western European counterparts.  People in activist circles who have access to resources and educational opportunities have already started to write the history of the local feminist and LGBT movement through their PhD dissertation and publications. Yet once again, such opportunities are usually found far away from Central Asia and often do not reach the audiences they concern the most.

We want to write our own history and empower our communities through research and education. One such project is the ongoing participatory action study of sexual lives of LGBTQ people in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which I designed and led.  The study started in 2018 and involved co-researchers recruited from among the LGBTQ people in Bishkek, who were trained in research methods and conducted over 90 in-depth biographical interviews with their peers. The purpose of the study was to create a sex education curriculum that reflects the experiences and needs of LGBTQ people in Kyrgyzstan, not simply reproduce the heteronormative medicalised view of our sexuality. We have now transcribed over one hundred hours of audio recordings. The resulting data set is a unique archive of queer lives in Kyrgyzstan, which will become the basis for assessment of the needs of the community, inclusive and sensitive sex education curriculum, and advocacy efforts.

The study has already resulted in a series of public sessions on queer sex ed at a community center, which I teach each month.  Every lesson starts with a set of direct quotations from the interviews, we pose questions about our relationships, bodies, desires, practices and families, and I take my audience on a journey through the ideas and concepts I discovered when reviewing existing literature. These sessions have proven to be among the most popular and well-attended events at the community center. It has definitely been the most fulfilling teaching experience for me. We plan to make the knowledge generated by the project accessible as a book and/or a website.

Another noteworthy event took place this year in Bishkek. In collaboration with AUCA’s Center for Critical Gender Studies, Labrys organised a conference dedicated to LGBT lives and politics in Central Asia. My comrade Georgy Mamedov and myself were the connecting links between these two institutions and the chief organisers of the conference, as we are both AUCA faculty and LGBTQ activists (Georgy is the Chairman of Labrys’s board, while I am a member of the General Assembly of the organisation, also having worked in their Advocacy and Education Programme).  The conference title was “В теме”.  Non-heterosexual and gender nonconforming people in Kyrgyzstan mostly refer to themselves and others in the community as tema or v teme (Russian, literally ‘theme’ and ‘in the theme’). This code-word means people “in the know” or those with the insider knowledge.  The word has many derivatives (temnyi, tematicheskii, temshchik, etc) and is primarily used to refer to specific modes of queer sociality rather than sexual identity, desire or practice (Mamedov 2018). This word is used pretty universally in the post-Soviet space, as opposed to the ‘LGBT’ used in activist circles and kvir used also by some activists, scholars and people from the contemporary art scene. We chose such title deliberately – as a prompt and a provocation to start a conversation about LGBTQ lives in Central Asia.

Open call for submissions to participate in symposium “In the Know: Sex, politics and life of LGBT people in Central Asia”, 22-23 march, 2019, AUCA.

The conference took place in the central forum of AUCA’s new building, with conference presenters speaking into a microphone, in Russian, their presentation slides and videos projected on the large screen, so that despite it being the spring break it was a visible event.  Additionally, the conference program was published on Labrys’ web page, where it was picked up by local journalists, who then reprinted on their sites.  This was an important intellectual and activist event (even if I say so myself), where leading scholars and activists from Central Asian countries, Russian provinces, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as established scholars like Dan Healey, Elena Gapova, Julie Cassiday and Olga Sasunkevich spoke. It was very different from the usual formats of conferences where LGBTQ issues are discussed, where the main focus in usually on HIV prevention, human rights and psychological well being. The above issues are of course of great importance, but they do not reflect the entirety of queer existence in Central Asia.

We believe that social life can be recorded and made sense of in a variety of ways, which is why we encouraged a variety of formats – not only academic presentations, but also works of art, performances, poetic, journalistic and activist notes from the field. We talked about recording and valorising local queer histories and history writing methods, about LGBTQ (auto)ethnographies of the region, about queer cultures and institutions, about the influence of the global LGBTQ politics and agendas on us, and about how we could go beyond the politics of identity that we are offered as the ‘bright future’.  The conference also featured a series of cultural side events, which were held at the local LGBT club “London”, as well as an exhibition and a fashion show at the university.

What was remarkable to us, however, is that the reactions of our colleagues to the event fell into one of two positions, both devaluing the intellectual merit of the event although each in its own way. The first type of reaction was easy to confuse with admiration or a compliment. It went something like “You are so brave! I did not think such a thing would be possible here.” The second reaction pointed out the contentious nature of the subject matter in either an overt or covert form – “It is such a sensitive issue” or “Why don’t you go and discuss these disgusting things behind closed doors and away from children.”  Further, the university administration received calls from the authorities and warned us that in the future we should coordinate (read, seek permission for) such events with them.  Such concern was justified by the complex political situation in the country. “We do not want jigits (lads) on horseback to come to the campus and destroy everything here,” the polite warning was.

Just a couple of weeks prior to the symposium, feminist and LGBTQ groups participated in the march dedicated to the International Women’s Day, which this year attracted a record number of participants and a lot of media attention, due in part to the attempts by nationalist groups, secret police and city authorities’ to ban it and stop it happening.  March organisers published a manifesto listing a broad range of social and political issues, yet the detractors of the march chose the age-old strategy of trying to discredit the movement by pointing out its links to the ‘gay agenda’.  One local newspaper front page headline read “Fags and lezzos staged a coven gathering in the center of Bishkek” with pictures of my comrades and myself posing with rainbow and trans flags.  This, however, once again brought media and public attention to the feminist and LGBTQ agenda – journalists sought comments, live TV shows broadcast debates between nationalists and feminists, and major news sites reprinted Labrys’ statement on “What do the LGBTQ people have to do with it? Why Labrys marches on the 8th of March”, which I authored.  As many activists jokingly noted after the homophbic bill was introduced back in 2014, the attempt to ban propaganda had become the greatest propaganda for the LGBT movement since it sparked a public discussion on the matter.  Likewise, attempts to stop the Women’s march and to smear the protest by calling it a ‘gay pride’ brought into the relief the invisibility of lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer women (even for the international and local organisations whose mandate includes the defense of the rights of all women) and the affinity between the causes of feminism and LGBTQ people. And since the authorities are likely to continue this tactic, we are likely to get even more attention in the future, which we should use to our advantage.

Women’s Day march, 8 March, 2019, Bishkek. Source: Kloop.kg

My intention is to continue to unapologetically engage in ‘propaganda’ in the classroom as well as outside of it.  We must recognise that our work as scholars is always already implicated in politics, whether we intend it to be or not.  Being deliberate and self-conscious about our political and social positionings is what sets apart critical scholarship.  We are all already engaged in some kind of propaganda – the question is not whether you engage in politics, but rather what are your politics. Yet it is usually only those politics that are challenging the status quo that become visible, while the established views are naturalised as eternal, universal and ‘common sense’.

So I would like to conclude this talk by echoing the call from previous generations of radical and critical scholars – for Central Asianists of the world to unite in a praxis – action or engagement upon the world that seeks to create emancipatory change.  Social scientists must aim their research at the alleviation of social problems and must make their results available and informative to the people they concern (Osmond 1983: 50). Marx gave us the legacy of praxis most famously in his eleventh thesis on Fuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. This might not be an easy path to follow, I recognise that, but I believe it is the most meaningful and rewarding one.

i Mamedov, Georgy. 2018.  Unpublished conference paper, Indiana University.

Call for papers: SACRED GEOGRAPHY: MULTI-DISCIPLINARY APPROACHES IN SPACE AND TIME, Nazarbayev University

SACRED GEOGRAPHY: MULTI-DISCIPLINARY APPROACHES IN SPACE AND TIME

International Conference

Nazarbayev University, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

September 24th to 26th, 2020

This conference aims to bring together multidisciplinary approaches, including in the fields of religious studies, cultural anthropology, archaeology, history among others, to sacred landscapes, religious sites, and spatial dimensions of religion. The conference is dedicated to any set of themes, regions, religious traditions, methodologies and technologies that advance the theoretical and analytical paradigms of space and place.

We are also interested in bringing together scholars from both the humanities and the social sciences who employ novel methodologies and collaborations in exploring the role of space and place in religious traditions.  Projects with a digital humanities or social science component including technologies such as photogrammetry, e-Atlases, mapping and GIS for conservation, pedagogy, and tourism would be welcome.

Call for Papers

We welcome individual papers, papers sessions, and roundtable proposals for topics exploring space and place as they relate to religion. We are particularly interested in papers and sessions that employ theoretically or methodologically self-conscious and innovative approaches to understanding space and place as they relate to, condition, and constitute aspects of religious life including: belief, ritual, meaning, aesthetics, and experience. We also welcome ethnographically-informed studies of sites and historically-informed studies of texts that shed light on the role of space and place in religious traditions.  We are interested in sessions on the following topics and questions that include but are not limited to:

  • Sacred Sites and the State
  • Conservation Ethics and Tourism
  • Gender, Power, Place
  • Sacred Geography through History
  • Digital Humanities and Visualization Technologies
  • Big Data Approaches to Sacred Geography
  • Sacred Landscapes of Eurasia
  • Sites and Ways of Pilgrimages
  • Innovation Methodological Approaches

In order to participate in the conference, please submit by February 15th, 2020 a title and 250-word abstract along with your name and affiliation to the registration page found at:

Participants will be notified of the committee’s decision by March 2020.  The conference will take place in the capital city of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan, on the campus of Nazarbayev University, one of the leading universities in the region.  Kazakhstan offers visa-free travel to many countries.  More information about visa, accommodation options and events of interest will be provided on the conference web pages.  In addition, we will arrange fee-based workshops related to the conference as well as short excursions in and around Nur-Sultan, the details of which will be posted at a later date.  For questions and concerns, you may contact us at nusacredgeography@gmail.com. Submit your application via https://eatlas.kz/?page_id=105.

 

САКРАЛЬНАЯ ГЕОГРАФИЯ: МУЛЬТИДИСЦИПЛИНАРНЫЕ ПОДХОДЫ В ИЗУЧЕНИИ ПРОСТРАНСТВА И ВРЕМЕНИ

Международная конференция

Назарбаев Университет, Нур-Султан, Казахстан

С 24 по 26 сентября 2020 г.

Цель этой конференции – обсудить междисциплинарные подходы в области религиоведения, культурной антропологии, археологии, истории и др., в изучении сакральных ландшафтов, религиозных объектов и пространственных измерений религии. Конференция включает любой спектр тематик, регионов, религиозных традиций, методологий и технологий, которые связаны с теоретическими и аналитическими парадигмами пространства и ландшафта.

Организаторы конфренции приглашают к участию исследователей из сферы гуманитарных и социальных наук, использующих новые методологии в изучении роли пространства и места в религиозных традициях. Особо приветствуются презентации проектов с цифровым гуманитарным или социальным компонентом, включая такие технологии, как фотограмметрия, электронные атласы, картография и ГИС в деле сохранения культурного наследия, педагогики и туризма.

Темы докладов

Оргкомитет принимает заявки на индивидуальные доклады, тематические секции и круглые столы по темам, связанным с исследованиями пространственных измерений религии. Особенно приветствуются доклады, в которых используются теоретические или методологически инновационные подходы к пониманию пространства и места, если они связаны с различными аспектами религиозной жизни, включая веру, ритуал, значение, эстетику и опыт. Мы также приветствуем этнографические и исторические исследования географических объектов и текстов, проливающие свет на роль пространства и места в религиозных традициях. Мы приглашаем подавать заявки на организацию секций, включающих, но не ограничивающихся следующими темами и вопросами:

  • сакральные объекты в государственной политике;
  • этические вопросы сохранения наследия и развитие туризма
  • пол, власть, место;
  • сакральная география в историческом измерении;
  • цифровые гуманитарные науки и технологии визуализации;
  • big data в применении к сакральной географии;
  • сакральные ландшафты Евразии;
  • места и способы паломничества;
  • инновационные методологические подходы в изучении сакральной географии

Чтобы принять участие в конференции необходимо до 15 февраля 2020 года представить название и тезисы доклада или секции в объеме 250 слов, а также личные данные на странице регистрации.

Все подавшие заявку на участие в конференции будут уведомлены о решении оргкомитета в марте 2020 года. Конференция состоится в столице Казахстана г. Нур-Султан в кампусе Назарбаев Университета, одного из ведущих университетов в регионе. Казахстан предлагает безвизовый режим гражданам многих стран. Более подробная информация о визе, вариантах размещения и достопримечательностях Нур-Султана будет предоставлена ​​на веб-странице конференции. Кроме того, в рамках конференции будут организованы платные семинары, а также обзорные экскурсии по Нур-Султану и его окрестностям, подробности о которых будут опубликованы позднее. За дополнительной информацией обращайтесь по адресу nusacredgeography@gmail.com. Подать заявку можно по этому адресу https://eatlas.kz/?page_id=27&lang=ru.

Connecting the dots around the XUAR Camps: bringing together a year of diverse research, by Rune Steenberg (University of Copenhagen)

Scholarship and advocacy

It has been a good year since the international media and organisations world wide have begun to pay increased attention to the internment camps in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. With the Chinese state clouding the issue in secrecy, even the most basic facts about the camps have become grounds for contestation. This ranges from contesting the number of detainees and types of camps and their actual conditions, to debating the intended purpose of the mass internments and their place in contemporary Chinese politics, to still farther discussing the contextualisation of the camps within global political economic structures and which historical comparisons are adequate or even permissible. The debates call to mind the late Elliot Sperling’s brilliant NYT opinion piece “Don’t know much about Tibetan history,” in which he reminds us that simplistic narratives of complex processes rarely stand the test of facts. This does not mean, however that the truth is necessarily to be found half way between the two extreme versions, nor does it mean that the accounts of the victims should be disregarded. On the contrary, they should be listened to attentively in detail.

Uncannily graphic testimonies of violence and abuse in the camps and beyond have been supported by ample evidence. Likewise the purge against Uyghur elites and the surveillance and indoctrination in XUAR more broadly have been convincingly documented. The death sentences of top ranking academics with a history of supporting party politics like Tashpolat Tiyip,[i] Sattar Sawut,[ii] and Halmurat Ghopur,[iii] are but some of the most obvious demonstrations of political motivation and ethnic targeting in the courts. It is beyond doubt that crimes are being committed and great wrong has been done in XUAR, but our analyses and understanding of the situation is still fairly fragmented. Many of our attempts at reaching a larger picture, include extrapolations and estimations based on overly limited information. The still much needed testimonies and other evidence do not always fit neatly together to form a coherent whole. This does not mean that any of it is wrong. It means that we are missing pieces in the puzzle. Denying access to information, as the Chinese state does on XUAR, is a mighty tool of those in power and one that works well with an international media-scape dominated by profit-based outlets. To counter it we need fact focused, critical methods that make maximum use of the limited information available – including those sources we prefer to dismiss.

Political teaching rally in southern Xinjiang. This is not in a camp. Image circulated publicly on Chinese social media spring 2019

If we want to approach a deeper understanding of what has happened, is happening and might come to happen in XUAR, serious scholars working on the issue need to meticulously hold on to two methodological principles: 1) Keep explicitly distinct established facts from estimations and extrapolations. 2) Bring together our results and as far as possible share the data from which they derive. This does not mean that scholars have to stop advocacy. After all, we are not instruments but human beings with a political conscious that we need to express and follow. Most of us have our reasons to choose to engage with certain issues and not others that reflect our political convictions. Yet, it means that we do not let those convictions obscure our methods when moving from empirical data via analysis to conclusions and the honest presentation of those conclusions.

Sources of information

The past year has been impressively productive in terms of research on the camps, policing, surveillance and various issues of labour in XUAR. It is no easy task to bring all of this together, and I harbour no illusions of being able to do it justice here. Not least because the methods used and the scholarly backgrounds of those involved have varied so broadly. Yet this also provides a great chance: that of triangulating and double-checking conclusions reached by one approach with those of others. The connecting link is the reality as it is now playing out behind the veil of CCP propaganda and restrictions on access and reporting. This veil has been perforated by many different means over the past year and as a result we have come to feel several different parts of the elephant behind it.

Government propaganda poster promoting ethnic unity, Kashgar 2016, by author.

In spring 2019, a Central Asian Survey Special Issue[iv] on the situation in XUAR convincingly portrayed the ongoing securitisation of the region. Uyghur diaspora activists and the Uyghur journalists at Radio Free Asia have likewise provided invaluable information even if their analyses sometimes require earnest source criticism. The website shahit.biz run by Gene Bunin has documented an impressive 4800+ testimonies about people detained or disappeared in the Chen Quanguo-era and also provides statistics. The testimonies have been collected in large part with the help of the Almaty based advocacy group Ata Jurt and Uyghur voices are still underrepresented. Based on his cases, Bunin has recently argued that we need to pay less attention to camps and more attention to prisons. Camp inmates are being transferred to prisons in massive numbers, as has also been reported by the New York Times.[v] The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who provided satellite imagery evidence of massive camp extension[vi] in 2017-2018, is according to a Twitter-thread[vii] by Nathan Ruser preparing a new report. He has already concluded that many facilities are being downgraded in terms of security levels and other sources report that schools and other institutions that had come to serve as camps have in part been transformed back to their original functions.

Gate of an early small-scale re-education camp.  Photo August 2016 in Karakash by author.

These reports should not be hastily interpreted as either the problem being solved due to international pressure or as lies and pure cosmetic maneuvers. Rather they should be brought together with other information, such as the transitions of inmates from internment or re-education to forms of coerced labour, recently reported by Adrian Zenz and others.[viii] This also applies to the announcement in late July by XUAR governor and Uyghur face of Chen Quanguo’s reign, Shohret Zakir, that most camp inmates had been released and 90% of those had found work (in many outlets mistranslated as 90% having been released). Instead of whole sale dismissing such a statement as propaganda lies unworthy of our time, we need to consider what it may mean. What is it intended to show and what kind of distorted information does it carry if read critically against the grain of its speakers intent? The camp landscape in XUAR is evidently changing, with inmates being transferred to prisons with an extensive history of forced labour and to sweatshop-like factories. Signing a contract looks voluntary, but is for many the only way out of camp. Read in this light, Zakir’s words sound darkly cynical rather than fabricated and the security downgrading looks less like a solved problem than an obscured one.

Generally the economic aspects have begun to receive increased attention. This includes the involvement of western companies as exposed in the work of Benjamin Haas[ix] and on the website ChinaFile.[x] Yet, the full connection to China’s more general economic strategy, including the Belt and Road Initiative that has continuously been mentioned as a motivating factor for mass detentions in XUAR, has to my knowledge not yet been convincingly established. Again, this does in no way mean that it does not exist. It is merely another one of many bricks in this giant puzzle that is still not in place. The same is true for connecting the XUAR camps to global trends of forced labour, mass incarceration and surveillance more generally. Such contextualisations provide fruitful fields for further study.

The flag raising ceremony, since 2016 a weekly event for most Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang. Image circulated publicly on Chinese social media spring 2019

It is important to stress that honest uncertainty about details or numbers does not imply a general questioning of the unlawfulness and violence of the detentions. The same is true for calling out the political motivations of involved actors: US condemnations of China on the issue of XUAR and their sanctions put on individuals and companies[xi] involved in the securitisation of Xinjiang, welcome as they are, seem to come at a conveniently opportune moment for the White House and others intent on retaining US domination of markets and political spheres of influence. To recognize this fact certainly invokes skepticism towards particular “facts” and numbers presented without evidence or as CIA intelligence by an administration infamous for its strategical relation to the truth. But it in no way implies that the atrocities committed in XUAR do not take place. This is one of the factors that makes critical, scientifically committed research on this issue, independent of governments, companies and other actors with vested interest in it so crucially important.

Asking the right questions: Testimonies in Context

I have myself been involved in the collection of testimonies of former detainees of centers and camps in XUAR. I have personally interviewed about a dozen camp survivors now residing outside of China and read or seen testimonies of about as many more. Some of these testimonies offered hours of embarrassingly minute detail. The picture they provide, cross-verifying details repeated by people who did not know of each other and lived on different continents, documents a very sophisticated and highly government-controlled system of abuse around the so-called re-education camps.

From inside the camps we know as established fact that torture and abuse take place. We cannot say for certain how wide-spread or frequent it is across the camps and in time. We also know of camps where such abuse was not experienced by particular inmates during their months of incarceration. We know that many inmates were given pills on a regular basis and that several have reported experiencing memory loss and halting of their menstrual cycle. We cannot establish a proven causal effect between these facts. We also know of suicide attempts and that many former inmates suffer from post-traumatic stress. We know of deaths in camp by both old and young inmates but mostly we do not have reliable data on their exact causes. We know that almost every corner of camps, homes and neighbourhoods is surveilled, but we also know that many arrests and interrogations still take place on the basis of personal denunciations and that even inmates in their cells have managed to outsmart the guards to a degree. We know that in many camps the inmates were forbidden to communicate with each other and speak their native languages, Uyghur or Kazakh. But we also have ample testimony of inmates who could relay long and detailed stories of those they shared a cell with, and we know that Uyghur and Kazakh in some camps were used as languages of instruction.

This does not mean that the testimonies contradict each other or are invalid! It means that things are complex and more research is needed. A big part of this is to connect the information we already have, as we are closing in on being able to ask the right questions. The most effective strategy is not to try to consolidate our various attempts at extrapolation but to connect the actual data and thus test and continuously revise our understanding of the larger picture.

Family members visiting detainees in an unknown facility in Xinjiang. Image circulated publicly on Chinese social media spring 2019

As a small contribution, I would like to share with you some of the lesser discussed facts I have come to know through interviews. While nightly raids had been common in many parts of XUAR since 2014, in early 2017 a new element was added. Instead of merely searching the house, family members were taken away for hour-long interrogations at night and brought back before sunrise. Questioning often took place in regular government offices that had been equipped with a so-called “black box” of iron inside which the person was handcuffed onto an iron chair. In the months before, high ranking cadre had been informed about the re-education facilities in secret meetings. In several villages neighbours disappeared one by one until many places were left half empty.

Nathan Ruser has described different security levels of camps, but in our interviews we also heard of the inmates being sorted into different levels of security within the same compound. Depending on behavior they could be shifted up and down the ladder. While in some camps rote learning of propaganda and regulations was examined in multiple-choice tests, in others the teaching was very informal being administered by a chosen prisoner with good language skills who was made responsible for a cell of 30-50 people. Here most teaching and examination happened orally amongst the inmates themselves. In several facilities, methods reminiscent of behavioristic cognitive psychology were used such as excessive repetition of one sentence for a full hour, morning routines involving expressing loudly the three gratitudes (to the party, to Xi Jinping and to the country) and three wishes (long life for Xi Jinping, prosperity of the country and – ironically – ethnic harmony) as well as daily rehearsals of self-criticism and repentance.

Much effort seems to have been spent on erasing paper trails from the camps. Much crucial communication took place orally and we have reports of papers being routinely collected and burnt. Still, many inmates report signing documents with camp rules and regulations when entering, policy papers explaining the purpose of the camps were shown to its teachers, and we also have reports of archive files about each interned person. So far the most important p aper traces from the camps reaching us are release certificates and three published letters written by inmates to their relatives. More is likely to appear and serve as central points of reference for analysis.

Some of our interviews suggest that camps of the type shown to foreign journalists on the carefully curated government guided tours really do exist, though actual dance or art classes have not been described. Vocational training also seemingly takes place to prepare inmates for their transfer to factories. This in no way legitimates any of the camps. Even under acceptable conditions, internment is still a traumatising experience and most all have stayed in overcrowded detention centers previous to the camps. We need to recognize all the evidence we can collect – even the parts that do not at first sight fit with our own understanding of the larger picture or our political inclinations – in order to reach at a picture that is complex enough to be trustworthy. A differentiated picture created in genuine effort to understand the situation in all its aspects, besides being closer to the truth is also much more solid and less easily dismissed than those based on selective evidence and estimations.

The scientific method may prove to be a sharper tool than the various shades of propaganda regularly put forth by all sides, as well-meaning as some of them may be.

[i]  https://www.centraleurasia.org/2019/statement-concerning-disappearance-and-sentencing-of-tashpolat-tiyip-former-president-of-xinjiang-university/; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-49956088

[ii]  https://sinopsis.cz/en/appeal-to-stop-the-execution-of-three-uyghur-intellectuals/

[iii] https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/sentence-09282018145150.html 

[iv] https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ccas20/38/1

[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/31/world/asia/xinjiang-china-uighurs-prisons.html

[vi] https://www.aspi.org.au/report/mapping-xinjiangs-re-education-camps

[vii]https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1175353408749891584.html

[viii] https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/8tsk2

[ix]   https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/opinion/xinjiang-business.html ; http://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/features/which-european-companies-are-working-xinjiang

[x] http://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/features/here-are-fortune-500-companies-doing-business-xinjiang

[xi]  https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/08/business/us-china-xinjiang-black-list-intl-hnk/index.html; https://www.state.gov/u-s-department-of-state-imposes-visa-restrictions-on-chinese-officials-for-repression-in-xinjiang/

Call for Papers: The Eighth Annual Doctoral Research Workshop on Central Asia, Royal Holloway and the University College London

Call for Papers: The Eighth Annual Doctoral Research Workshop on Central Asia
Senate House, London, WC1E 7HU
Saturday, 25 January 2020
History and Historiography of Central Asia
Convened by Dr Harun Yilmaz and Dr Gai Jorayev
Organising Committee: Dr. Gül Berna Özcan, Dr. Katherine Hughes, Dr. Gulzat Botoeva and Rosa Vercoe

The history of Central Asia has shown a dynamic character with substantial movements of different civilisations in various directions. From Zoroastrianism and Shamanism to Buddhism and Islam, all major religions and beliefs have influenced and crystallised in this vast geography. The influence of ancient Iranian and Chinese civilizations, the waves of Turkification, the rise and fall of the Silk Roads and ancient trade cities, the Great Game in the nineteenth century, and the Soviet modernization are some of the isolated episodes that can be counted from this rich history.

The workshop aims to provide a platform for historians who conduct original research on the history of Central Asia. The research papers can cover any subject from ancient history to the contemporary period until 1991. The subject of history can be political, social, cultural, juridical, gender, religious, ideological, or intellectual. We also invite historiographic papers examining and comparing national or regional narratives or constructions of the past. Very often modern borders do not overlap with the political or cultural frontiers in history. That is why, the geographical scope of the workshop covers not only Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, but also Afghanistan, Xinjiangand Tibet regions of China, Mongolia, southern Siberia and north Caspian territories of Russia, and northern Iran.

The organisers will give priority to the paper proposals that are part of a PhD or postdoctoral research.

Submission details:
• Author’s name, institutional affiliation and e-mail
• A 300-500-word paper summary
• A 100-word bio

Deadline for Submission: 15 November 2019
All submissions should be sent to Dr Gai Jorayev (g.jorayev@ucl.ac.uk)