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A Weekend of Central Eurasia

Indiana University has for decades had a strong presence of Central Eurasianists on its Bloomington campus. But on the weekend of October 18th to 21st, 2012, it played host to an even more concentrated gathering of scholars, professionals, and artists of Central Eurasia. On this particular weekend, the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center commemorated its fiftieth year as a Title VI center with a keynote address by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert O. Blake, Jr., as well as a memorable performance of Central Eurasian music by the International Vocal Ensemble of IU’s Jacobs School of Music.

In conjunction with these commemorative events, nearly 300 professors, students, and researchers from all over the world participated in the annual conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS). Marking its 13th year running, the conference had over 50 panels that brought scholars together to discuss a broad range of topics spanning the breadth of the Central Eurasian region. Panels were organized around contemporary issues in nationalism, international relations, politics and identity, economic development, language and educational policies, religion, gender, rural societies, and media, as well as those organized around topics in history, literature, and linguistics. The presence of so many specialists of Central Eurasia in Bloomington proved the perfect setting to celebrate fifty years of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University.

In his keynote address, “Central Asia: Great Gain, Not a Great Game,” Assistant Secretary Blake recognized the contribution of the IAUNRC to a region that continues to be of central importance in global affairs.

“This is a very important and momentous anniversary, the fiftieth anniversary. This has always been known as one of the real, premiere centers of learning on Central Eurasia.”

The importance of the Central Eurasian region can be seen in the priorities of U.S. foreign policy commitments there. Blake discussed the security engagement in Central Eurasia, particularly in Afghanistan, the vision for the integration of the Silk Road region, human rights and democratic reforms, and the creation of a space for civil society.

“This is really quite a momentous time for the Central Asian region…. U.S. foreign policy priorities there…will not lead to another round of the ‘Great Game’ but rather will contribute to the achievement of a great gain for Central Asian countries and all of us who partner with them.”

In the spirit of collaboration, the keynote lecture was recorded by another Title VI center, the Center for International Business Education & Research (CIBER) at the Institute for International Business, Kelley School of Business. The video of the full lecture can be viewed here.

As part of the anniversary celebrations, the IAUNRC and the Jacobs School of Music sponsored an evening of music from Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Hungary performed by the International Vocal Ensemble. A unique group within the School of Music in which American singers learn foreign languages to perform foreign popular and folk music, the International Vocal Ensemble was started under the directorship of Emerita Professor Mary Goetze. Currently under the energetic directorship of Katherine Strand, the concert marked the first time the Ensemble performed such a wide selection of Central Eurasian songs, which were greatly enjoyed by concert goers. A podcast of the concert is available on our website here.

Bridging the commemorative and conference events was the symposium, “Empire on Her Mind: The Travels of Catherine the Great,” organized by IU’s Volga-Kama Initiative that has grown out of the unique convergence of four IU institutions—the IAUNRC, Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, Russian and East European Institute, and the Islamic Studies Program—and their common research interests in the Central Eurasian region. The symposium featured Dr. Güzel Vazykhovna Ibneeva, Professor of History at Kazan Federal University, who discussed the imperial politics of the travels of Catherine the Great in the 18th century. IU professors Dr. Toivo Raun, Dr. Jeffrey Veidlinger, and Dr. Edward Lazzerini and Harvard’s Dr. Kelly O’Neill responded to her monograph with discussions of the reception of Catherine the Great’s travels and politics by her various imperial subjects across the Central Eurasian region.

In conjunction with the 13th Annual Conference of CESS, the exhibit “The Satire and the Punditry of Molla Nǝsrǝddin: Selected Cartoons” featured a miscellany of twenty cartoons that appeared in the earliest issues of Molla Nǝsrǝddin, one of the first Turkic-language satirical periodicals published in the Russian Empire at the turn of the last century. The iconic character of the molla is able to say things that others cannot because of his public persona as something of an eccentric or fool. Molla Nǝsrǝddin brought this figure to life in cartoons and textual humor, often biting, as a form of social criticism in a modernist spirit that challenged economic, social, and political inequities as well as the debilitating entrenchment of traditionalists in the face of sweeping global changes of that era. A selection of images from the exhibit can be viewed on our online gallery.

The exhibit, which ran for the duration of the conference, marks the beginning of a larger project—to set the works of Molla Nǝsrǝddin within the broader genre of cartoons globally and to afford it the international recognition it deserves for its visual artistry, satirical genius, and historical importance. With the existence of institutions such as the IAUNRC, we can expect to enjoy the continued development of initiatives such as these, bringing the wisdom of unlikely teachers from distant corners to the rest of the world.