There I was, at the top of a very large NFL Championship Trophy, looking over the Central Asian steppe, surrounded by Kazakhstani school children-humming. The tune? “Put your Hand in the Hand of the man…” Half-way around the world, on a scholarship to help me and other teachers learn about Central Asia, adorable middle-schoolers took their turn at what one of our professors referred to as, ‘legacy building.’
At the top of Bayterek Tower in Astana, Kazakhstan, is a two-storied Golden Sphere. On the sphere’s second floor sits a pedestal with a golden hand imprint. That imprint is not the hand of Johnny Unitas or Peyton Manning. It is the hand print of Kazakhstan’s first and only president, President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The students took turns placing their hand in the presidential imprint and made a customary wish. I took my turn at the pedestal, but forgot to make my wish. I was more worried about getting a good photo for the folks back home, you know, for my own legacy building.
Nazarbayev has run Kazakhstan, formerly part of the USSR, for the last twenty-nine years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. He’s basically self-appointed. When he runs for elections, he runs uncontested because, well, that’s how things roll in Kazakhstan. He’s seventy-nine and recently announced that he would remain president for life. He will name his successor before too long.
We stayed at Nazarbayev University, the country’s flagship university. All courses are taught in English by international scholars, many of whom hail from the USA. In our conversations with students- many spoke excellent English and studied economics, mining, engineering, medicine, etc.- we asked them to opine about their long-standing president. We astute teachers, prefaced our remarks by questioning the lack of democracy. Few students we spoke with were critical. Very few. They reported that they hoped that the transition between Nazarbayev and his successor would be stable.
We also traveled to Uzbekistan, also once part of the USSR. Mosques and beautiful Islamic mausoleums replaced the Nazarbayev’s golden sphere. We went back in time along the Silk Road, to Alexander the Great’s stomping grounds. I met tourists from all over the globe. On the steps of Remnant Square in the city of Samarkand, I asked our Uzbek guide, Moshkura, to share her take on Uzbekistan politics. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Uzbekistan’s economy went with it. Moshkura was seventeen. She and her people were worried about having enough food to eat. She told me she had great love for her deceased president because he brought food to the republic and, here’s that word again, stability. That president served twenty-five years and now his successor, just two years in, is trying to strengthen Uzbekistan’s economy.
Of the many things I learned on this adventure, I learned that when a relatively young country is formerly part of one of history’s most powerful and aggressive nation-states, then stability moves up the chart as a priority, even surpassing things like free and open elections.
I’ve traveled some and I’ve noticed when Americans travel, they often see the places they visit through the lens of their own reality. It’s impossible not to do that. We have such a high regard for our democratic institutions and economic abundance, that we tend to critique other lands and peoples by our own standards. The longer I was in Central Asia, the less critical I became. So many of the people I met, even despite the language barrier (and lack of democracy), were generous, kind, and welcoming. They embraced me and my colleagues-and our questions-with grace.
They too, see the rest of the world through their own lenses. So many times, when I identified myself as an American, hands went skyward, and young people gushed their affection for the USA, announcing their dream to travel here one day.
This land of ours has built its own legacy, and it continues to be the envy of many on this planet. I return to the classroom intent on teaching about that legacy-the full legacy- in hopes that the imprint I and my students will leave will be one of freedom, stability, and respect for all of humanity.