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International relations in Bishkek

Friday September 22, 2006

Clare Staunton

A student once earnestly asked me what people in Britain thought of 'our little Kyrgyzstan'. Surprised, I didn?t have the heart to tell him that if anyone at home had heard of the former Soviet republic they were unlikely to have an established position on the subject. I had known next to nothing about the country even after I had decided to go there.

The choice of Kyrgyzstan as a destination was down to an eccentric careers advisor obsessed with Central Asia. He hypnotised me with pictures of snowy mountains and crystal lakes then used his contacts to get me a job in the International Relations department of the Kyrgyz State National University (KSNU) in Bishkek, the capital.

Worryingly, I heard nothing from the university in the two months before my departure, and disappointingly there was no welcome party with flowers to meet me at the tiny yet chaotic airport. I had to find a taxi (convinced the driver was going to murder me) and then a hotel room (convinced that people were watching me through cracks in the walls, waiting to murder me).

After two confused, fear-filled days I tracked down the dean of the department, an impressive woman built along monumental Soviet lines. ?You are Clare!? she cried upon seeing me. ?But I did not think you would really come. I thought you would be too afraid!?

The prospect of actually teaching was more terrifying than any of the many dangers I had been warned of in the rather hysterical guidebook. I had three classes of third-years, most bound for positions in the government or the diplomatic service. Shamefully, my only training was a week-long 'Introduction to Tefl' course, where, with the help of brightly-coloured laminated teaching aids, we played cute little games designed for children.

One of the few exercises I learned that I tried on my students was a game in which they had to make a list of five people they most admired. Stalin appeared on at least half, alongside more modern icons such as Madonna and that Central Asian favourite, David Beckham.

This was typical. Everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, stern, old-fashioned Soviet values sat jarringly alongside imported western trash. While some of my students had studied abroad, watched MTV at home, wore Nike and spoke casually fluent and slangy American English, others had come from the remote mountain villages, flashed smiles of gold teeth and spoke in polite and archaic circumlocutions, like ?would you be so kind as? or ?may I be allowed to?.

The university, like the country itself, was going through an awkward period of transition. During Soviet times, according to my colleagues a golden age of compulsory and free education, KSNU had been the largest and most prestigious of the country?s many universities and colleges.

But since independence in 1991 things had become difficult. Government funding was drying up. Fewer families could afford to educate their children now that it was no longer free, and in the brave new world of deregulated capitalism, smaller private colleges had sprung up for the offspring of the elite. Their most serious rival was the American University, object of much bitter envy at KSNU. This was an exclusive institution partly funded by the US government and staffed by foreign academics working in a flashy building with modern lecture halls and an American-style cafeteria.

The KSNU building, a mouldering neo-classical monster, stood in sad contrast. The roof leaked, the classrooms were cold and damp, there weren?t enough books, the few computers never seemed to work and the halls were haunted by a dispiriting smell.

The dean was fighting hard to reverse this decline. She spent her time tirelessly promoting her department, with some success. A large charitable foundation sent an American academic to the department. A new library was opened. We hosted high-profile events in which much was said about the place of education in the development of civil society in Kyrgyzstan, and how it was our role to encourage critical thinking in our students.

But these changes were largely cosmetic. I may have been an unprofessional, untrained teacher, but I knew enough about modern teaching practices to know that they weren't being used at KSNU. My students? advanced English was especially impressive when considering the dullness of their classes.

When they were unruly I would threaten them with the official textbook, the dreaded Arachan, with its thin tissue paper pages and column after column of badly printed grammatical exercises. These were interrupted only by the occasional extract from a Soviet-approved work of literature (selected Dickens, a lot of George Bernard Shaw, and oddly, Agatha Christie) and strange little homilies pertaining to English life; the grammar school system, or the foggy weather (everyone seemed to believe that the English are blinded by permanent dense mists), described in a tone awestruck yet appalled. Many of the older teachers did not actually speak English; they were present to supervise as the students worked in silence through the book.

I flattered myself that my methods were more freestyle and creative. I would hand out photocopied articles about controversial, contentious subjects, of which there were plenty in the aftermath of September 11 and the war in nearby Afghanistan. The class would then have a discussion, and I might chalk up some vocabulary on the board as we went along. Arguments often became heated as they lapsed into Russian and I was left helpless as they threw terrible insults at each other.

Some of their views made my eyes water. ?I am sorry about your World Trade Centre,? one said to me, ?it is a terrible thing.? ?Well, that?s very kind,? I replied, ?but you know, I am not actually American.? ?Oh! Well?, he answered, ?didn?t they deserve it!? But their favourite subject was British life. What did young people in London do, they would ask me, fascinated. I would reply that they went out to bars and clubs, danced, drank, generally hung about leading lives that were not so very different from their own. They never believed me, but it was true.

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