Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Letter from Kazakhstan


University of Arkansas School of Law Professor Christopher Kelley recently traveled to Kazakhstan to teach three courses to students at Zhetysu State University. Kelley reflects on his experience in this Letter from Kazakhstan.



Dear Reader,

I write to you from Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan. The largest of the "stans," Kazakhstan extends from the Caspian Sea to China. To the north is Russia; to the south are Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan dominates Central Asia – spin the Google Earth globe east, stay west of China, point your curser mid-continent, and Kazakhstan will appear before you.

Getting to Kazakhstan from Arkansas is not easy as spinning the Google Earth globe half-circle. Traveling from Fayetteville to Taldykorgan, with stops in Atlanta and Amsterdam followed by a three-hour drive from Almaty to Taldykorgan, took me about 40 sleepless hours. Eleven time zones separate Fayetteville and Taldykorgan. 

Yet, globalization being what it is, my seatmate from Amsterdam to Almaty was a law clerk for a federal magistrate in Illinois. He was traveling with his Kazakhstan-born wife to visit her family in Almaty and Astana. Globalization has its gaps, however. When their young son awoke from a nap asking for a bagel with peanut butter, my last Cliff bar was the closest substitute. KLM airliner galleys have yet to be stocked with bagels or peanut butter.

I am in Taldykorgan to teach for two weeks at the Zhetysu State University named after I. Zhansugurov. Professor Zhansugurov was killed at Stalin’s behest, a fate suffered by many other intellectuals during Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union. During those years, Kazakhstan was a destination for exiles – Trotsky, Dostoyevsky, and Solzhenitsyn, for instance, were exiled to Kazakhstan. Later, Kazakhstan suffered more insidiously when it became the principal test site for Soviet nuclear weapons, and residents of an area known as The Polygon were used as human guinea pigs to assess the bomb blast’s effects on those nearby.

Today, Kazakhstan is a young nation, having declared its independence in 1991. Appropriately, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev is investing heavily in educating Kazakhstan’s youth. Indeed, I am here because of his initiative to bring foreign teachers to Kazakhstan and to send Kazakhstan students abroad to study. In addition to teaching here, I am the foreign dissertation adviser for two Zhetysu State University Ph.D. in Law candidates. This fall, these students – Daniya Nurmukhankyzy and Aigerim Ozenbayeva – will come to the University of Arkansas School of Law to research their dissertation topics and to observe our classes.

From my Zhetysu State University classroom, I can see the blue minarets of a large mosque, the snow-covered mountains that straddle Kazakhstan and China, and dozens of Soviet-era apartment buildings. Now with a population 100,000, Taldykorgan was on the verge of extinction until President Nazarbayev decided to make it the Almaty region’s administrative center. Mostly desert, the Almaty region is thinly populated outside of the city of Almaty. On this day, the air is gritty with wind-blown sand and powder-dry soil.

Like the students I have taught in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Lithuania, the students here are at once conscious of their nation’sancient traditions; its decades as a part of the Soviet Union; its modern, international influences; and the continuing challenges of shaping a new society. They walk sidewalks where the remaining few and fading Soviet icons have been supplanted by ubiquitous signs touting the products of the world’s leading consumer brands – Coca-Cola, Adidas, Danone, Samsung, and the like. And while not immune to the lure of consumerism, most are committed to living in a way that makes a positive difference, implicitly if not explicitly recognizing they will opportunities and responsibilities that their parents did not.

The changes in the past twenty-five years in Eastern Europe and Eurasia have been profound. They have tested and will continue to test personal and institutional resilience and the robustness of values. Because of this, they offer insights for all of us, especially to lawyers interested in how the law and its institutions lead and respond to changes of all sorts. 
 
The casebooks we use in American legal education tell of changes in American and international law. Yet, necessarily, their accounts are brief; three sentences might transverse three or more decades. A better way to teach the interplay and interaction of time, events, and the law is to be in a place where change is accelerated, as its is in young, developing countries. Alongside of this better way is yet another – bringing students and faculty from new, transitional, and developing countries to the University of Arkansas School of Law.

Fortunately, the Law School is doing both. In the past two years, as part of a course, our students have traveled to Moldova and Belarus. This fall, others will travel to Ukraine. Indeed, when the next semester ends, several of our students will have traveled to Moldova and Belarus and to Belarus and Ukraine, places none of them thought they would be when they entered the Law School. 
 
And students from transitional and developing countries have come and continue to come to the Law School. The Law School’s Graduate Program in Agricultural and Food Law has attracted students from Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Nigeria, Malawi, Ethiopia, and other transitional and developing countries. Our new Accelerated J.D. Program will include Nigerians in its first class this fall.

Combined, this is a change for the Law School — a valuable change, a change worth nurturing. And it is a change that reflects the Law School’s current skilled and energetic leadership, which has been remarkably supportive of new ideas and new ways of teaching at the Law School.
 
I am teaching three courses here in Taldykorgan – negotiation, legal writing in English, and agriculture and the environment. I have taught each of these courses before. Still, I have been asked questions here that I have never been asked before; I have used illustrative examples to explain concepts that I would not have thought of using had I not been teaching these students; and I have had to adapt to teaching across a wide range of English language skills. This has changed me in small, but significant ways. I have learned. And part of what I have learned is that I want to return to Kazakhstan. 

I wish you well in Arkansas. My students here wish you the same. Kazakhstan hospitality is legendary, for good reason. I am eager to introduce the two Kazakhstan Ph.D. students I am advising to Arkansas. I know they will learn from you, including from your gracious hospitality.

I wish you the best.

Christopher R. Kelley

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