Friday, October 06, 2006

In Memory of Professor Masanov: Please Feel Free to Add Your Thoughts in Comments

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I am still shocked over the death of colleague and friend Nurbulat Masanov. For most of the scholars of my generation from around the world who have done research in Kazakhstan, he was a mentor and an advisor. I know that many of my colleagues are equally upset about his untimely death, and I have already received emails from scholars from Japan to the U.K. expressing shock over his sudden death. While I hope to put together a proper post on Professor Masanov over the next week as a tribute to him, I thought in the meantime I could at least encourage people to post their own memories or thoughts of him. So, please do so through the comments below. If you do not feel like posting any memories or thoughts, consider a moment of silence for him on Saturday when his funeral will take place. There is also a nice group of photos of Professor Massanov with friends and colleagues posted here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nurbulat was a real mensch--a man of integrity, wisdom, warmth, and humor. He touched more lives than he could possibly be aware of. We will miss him dearly, but everything he stood for--scholarship, principled activism, open discourse, and hospitality among them--will not be forgotten. They will live on.

It's hard to convey the spirit that penetrated Nurbulat and Laura's home on Zheltoqsan. As soon as you crossed that threshold, you knew you were "home." They treated you like a child-come-home, every time. And then the intellectual discussions would begin. Nurbulat, never shy with his analysis, would listen and listen carefully. He respected others' perspectives, even when he disagreed with them. And this made him a wonderful intellectual host at Polyton and elsewhere, as well.

Nurbulat wanted to help people. When he himself couldn't help you, he would open his black book and rattle off phone numbers of his contacts at breakneck speed. But, such was his commitment to open discourse that he routinely included people to contact WHOM HE KNEW DISAGREED WITH HIM. "Ty ne ot menia," he would say, indicating that name-dropping "Masanov" in some cases could be counter-productive!

His wife and children are also people of integrity, intelligence, humor, and compassion. I know that they will carry on Nurbulat's legacy.

We will miss you, Nurbulat.

Ed Schatz

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The passing of Nurbulat Masanov is a great loss for Kazakhstan and great loss for those of us who respect and admire the many virtues of Kazakhstan. I still recall vividly the first time I met Nurbulat in June 1992 at Kazakhstan State University. He impressed me as a talented and dedicated scholar, a seeker of honesty and truth in scholarship and politics and a person with a refreshing sense of humor and a natural optimism. As the years passed Kazakhstan became an independent country. Nurbulat's scholarship and political influence grew. He became a scholar with an international reputation and with political influence in Kazakhstan to be reckoned with. Nurbulat became influential because he was a dedicated defender of human rights and principles of good governance.

Just a few weeks ago in Almaty I spoke with Nurbulat at the presentation of Rasma Karklin's new book in Almaty. Nurbulat chaired the presentation meeting and spoke with the insight and influence of a major scholar and a major political figure. But what impressed me at the time and what will stay with me forever is that through all these years Nurbulat’s honesty, his sense of humor and his essential optimism were his most enduring and important virtues. Nurbulat's books and other writings will live on as a permanent contribution to Kazakhstan. But those who knew him will always feel the loss of his sense of humor and optimism. Nurbulat Masanov will be missed.

1:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nurbulat was a phenomenal scholar who was dedicated to spreading knowledge about the history of the Kazakh people. As we foreign scholars know, he was the "go-to" guy in Kazakhstan, regardless of the topic under exploration, who was always willing to provide information, opinions, and contacts. I cannot imagine conducting research in Kazakhstan without Nurbulat's thoughtful and helpful assistance. He will be missed by people around the world.

Michele E. Commercio

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nurbulat’s sudden and tragic passing away is an irreparable loss to all of us who had the privilege of getting to know him. I have not met anyone else in Kazakhstan, a country I have been visiting since 1992, who combined a deep sense of personal integrity, intellectual depth, moral courage, optimism, warmth, humour, a zest for life and above all, a spontaneous desire to help and reach out to all who wanted to discuss any issue relevant to Kazakhstan.

I first met him in early April 1992. Everyone I met in Moscow and St. Petersburg in summer 1991 pointed at Nurbulat (he happened to be in Almaty then). Nurbulat was in Moscow when I arrived in Kazakhstan in early March 1992. In the initial weeks I met several very ‘Soviet’ academics and experts who told me that they had the ‘facts’ that I needed for research, that they will share their ‘findings’ and ‘conclusions’ with me, for a price of course. One ‘distinguished’ academic even asked what kind of gift I had brought, others made similar allusions. Once I managed to get in touch with Nurbulat – he had just returned from Moscow after completing his doctoral dissertation and was leading a somewhat nomadic existence, looking for apartment – everything started falling into place. He suggested meeting at a bookstore on Furmanova Street as he had no personal office at the Kazakh State University where he was teaching then. We used to walk around in parks in Almaty in the first few weeks and discussed issues ranging from how Kazakhstan will survive without Russia and how do I get various library cards and access to a fax machine.

When I mentioned the names of some of the ‘distinguished’ academics who had offered to help me on various conditions, Nurbulat laughed and said ‘vse izvestno i vse ponyatno’. I did not have to explain more. He assured that he will introduce me to scholars who do not solicit gifts or souvenirs and would be excited to talk to me. He took on the role of a mentor but without ever displaying any sense of hierarchy or status.

All through the 1990s, finding telephone coordinates of people, getting them on the phone and scheduling meetings was like assembling the various produkty from the depleted stores in the Soviet days to cook a decent meal. There were many trifling egos to be nurtured, irrelevant or probing inquiries to be satisfied, unsolicited advise to be heeded on what topic one should work on and what ‘facts’ one should know. Whether it was a petulant secretary of any ‘important’ figure, a petty bureaucrat, a highly-placed official, an academic figure of some repute, or a public persona – all had a sense of their own place and worth, along with the conceit to convey these to young researchers (especially women) from abroad. In this new old status-defined post-Soviet world, Nurbulat had no secretary, no office, no business card, no emblems denoting his ‘status’: just a telephone number that one could call anytime and get him directly on line, or leave message with any of his family member who warmly assured that he will get the message and will respond. It is no wonder that for all of us, he was ‘the’ person to go to. He had no official status or influence, but he had a brilliant intellect, an original mind, a warm heart and a cheerful personality to welcome us and guide us in our various research projects.

In those days, Nurbulat wouldn’t use any public transport (‘too crowded’), naturally had no car and refused to flag down a mashina. He wouldn’t go to a cafe and hence we met in parks and walked all over the city to talk. Later a mutual friend told me that at that point he did not have any money and hadn’t yet settled in Almaty. He did take care to see to it that my toes were still intact. We frequented book stores to warm up. It helped that I like to walk and had reliable shoes. These simple things established a close bond.

For all of us doing research on Kazakhstan, no visit to Almaty ever went by without meeting Nurbulat, without enjoying the warmth and hospitality that he and Laura showered on us. I knew that I could arrive in Almaty without a Kazakhstan address and telephone book as Nurbulat had everybody’s coordinates. The only thing Nurbulat couldn’t do for me (or for any of us) was to issue an invitation personally for getting a visa; ‘my invitation will be a sure way of not ever getting a visa’! But he went out of his way to arrange an invitation, warning not to mention his name in any ‘official’ papers. I relied on him to suggest to me who should I talk to. His recommendations on who to talk to included those who would recoil at hearing his name (‘don’t waive a red flag to a raging bull’, he warned me on numerous occasions in the early 1990s) as he urged that I talk to those who labelled him ‘mankurt’, ‘cosmopolitan’ (a slur for Jews), ‘unpatriotic’, and much worse. My tactless mention of his name aroused much rancour and deep insecurity among some of his adversaries. Nurbulat listened intently when I narrated my discussions with people who loathed him, and while he never refrained from voicing his opinion and offering criticism (‘vot marginal’noe myshlenie, vot natsionalist…’), I came to relish these interjections which were always incisive and pungent but never vicious.

We discussed and debated many issues: the role of the Kazakh language, the continuing intersection between nomadic mentality, Soviet rule and post-Soviet ‘transition’, the nature of clan politics, the political and economic orientation of Kazakhstan, the rising oil wealth of Kazakhstan, the challenges of widening political participation and establishing viable opposition, how to put pressures on the regime to democratize, and so on. We held very different positions on many of these issues, such as how democratic institutions can emerge in Kazakhstan, the role of international actors, the policies of Bush and the rationale of war in Iraq, or something as peripheral as the relative merits of football versus cricket.

Nurbulat always took a position, never sat on the fence or gave an ambiguous response. He had strong views and convictions and defended these tirelessly. He listened to the opposite perspective. The more you debate and disagree, the more he relished the exchange and respected the opponent. A glaring weakness of the Kazakh official establishment has been the fear among its key members, their lack of prowess to withstand a debate and to listen to different views.

Nurbulat had a passion for sports. But above all, he was a sporting spirit. Alas, I did not share his passion for football or hockey, and he teased me no end for my fondness for the quaint game of cricket. But he epitomised the spirit of the noble colonial game in his craving for decency, fair play, established rules, and above all, an impartial umpire showing respect and appreciation for all players in the game. He wanted a real contest, not a draw or one-sided victory. And match-fixing was an absolute anathema.

He had a vision of an open, democratic, and truly multiethnic Kazakhstan. We may contest his understanding of democracy (and often, his support to Bush), but if democracy is about recognizing difference, allowing voice to those who we do not like and do not agree with, and also propounding one’s own opinions and convictions, then Nurbulat fervently espoused these ideals. Lies, lack of transparency, rule tampering and result- fixing angered him and he grew impatient. Yet, he was a democrat and participated in open public debates with some officials who at least accepted the challenge.

He disagreed even more with his friends, political and ideological partners than he did with his opponents. The only difference is that his friends, colleagues, partners listened to him, they shouted back, but they loved and respected him. The opponents within the regime lacked the wit, moral stature, and even political acumen to engage in a debate with him. Many were troubled by his forthrightness, the ability to call a spade a spade and felt insecure and threatened.

Nurbulat had the strength of character, a secure sense of self, and the greatest asset – humour – to deflect all criticisms, innuendoes and not to let any of the negative labels stick and taint his perception of himself or of his adversaries. He had a loving family, a wonderful partner and soul-mate in Laura, the most vital source of strength and happiness in his life. What we owe to Nurbulat, we owe equally to Laura, and offer our continuing support and appreciation to Laura, Mazher and all members of the family.

For all of us who were not in Kazakhstan when this tragedy happened and could not attend the funeral, the painful reality will unfold during our next visits. As someone said at the funeral, scholarship on Kazakhstan can be divided into two phases, scholarship during the life of Nurbulat and scholarship after him. I cannot imagine what it would have been to live in Kazakhstan and do research without having known Nurbulat. Nor can I imagine what it will feel to go back to Kazakhstan knowing that he will not be there. Yet Nurbulat lives on, his presence is everywhere. It is incumbent on us in the West and on the new generation of scholars in Kazakhstan and Central Asia to build on the ideas and analysis Nurbulat developed, to test these further, and to redefine these in the changing contexts. This is a task that Laura wants us all to accomplish and young Mazher is planning his career to advance Nurbulat’s vision. We will all carry on Nurbulat’s legacy.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Sean R. Roberts, PhD said...

I have thought some time about what to write here, but the words do not come easy. What I want to convey more than anything else is that Nurbulat Masanov for me was the symbol of Kazakhstan’s civil society. I do not mean civil society in the cookie-cutter foreign assistance sense; I mean that segment of society that fulfills its role as active citizens regardless of the consequences. Nurbulat was something of a renaissance man who played various and different critical roles in Kazakhstan’s civil society. In short, he was the epitome of a citizen, and his legacy will long be felt in Kazakhstan.

As a scholar, Prof. Masanov fulfilled his civic duty to his heritage. While not all Kazakhs agreed with his interpretation of Kazakh history and Kazakh culture, Prof. Masanov devoted extensive time to reconstructing a conceptualization of the way of life that the Kazakh people once pursued as nomads. He did so in an environment where such work offered little rewards save the comfort that he was doing a service for his people. His book on Kazakh nomadic civilization survives him as an invaluable contribution to the study of Kazakh history and nomadic civilization in general.

While Prof. Masanov was first and foremost an ethnographer and cultural historian, he essentially also became a political scientist by necessity. When such a profession still did not exist in Kazakhstan, he created it and fostered it through the Association of Political Scientists. Furthermore, Nurbulat was the unofficial “advisor” to virtually every young political scientist from abroad studying Kazakhstan. Scholars from the United States, UK, Canada, Japan, France, and elsewhere all listened closely to his advice and his analysis of Kazakhstan’s political development. The other comments here from various scholars are a testament to that influence, which will undoubtedly also survive him long into the future.

As a political figure, Prof. Masanov also fulfilled a unique niche in Kazakhstan. As he recently stated in one of his last interviews, Nurbulat went into politics unwillingly because he felt the need to do so for his country. Furthermore, he suffered the consequences of entering politics by losing his teaching position at Kazakhstan State University and by facing frequent harassment. But, Nurbulat was resilient. It was probably Prof. Masanov more than anybody else who defined the platforms of opposition political parties in Kazakhstan over the last decade. As such, he helped to define a political sphere in Kazakhstan defined by issues rather than purely on the basis of personalities. While the fruits of this work may not yet be entirely visible, as Kazakhstan’s political culture becomes more and more sophisticated, I am confident that Nurbulat’s contributions will be remembered as key to that development.

Nurbulat Masanov, however, was probably most comfortable in his role as a political commentator and a mediator of political discussion. After the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement fell into disarray in 2001-2002 and Prof. Masanov’s close friend Sergei Duvanov was imprisoned, Nurbulat gradually moved his attention away from the center of political struggles and increasingly towards the sidelines to occupy the role of Kazakhstan’s most respected political observer. Part of his new role was the establishment of the Polyton political discussion club in Almaty. Polyton was an oasis of critical thinking during a difficult time in Kazakhstan’s political development, and it also served as a constant remembrance of Duvanov’s imprisonment through its prominent display of photos of the interned journalist. After Duvanov was released from custody, it remained a critical place for free-thinking individuals to meet and discuss political happenings. After the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, for example, the room at Polyton was packed as people in Almaty sought a place to freely discuss what had become taboo elsewhere in the public sphere.

Shortly before his death, Nurbulat was given a new state-funded position as the Director of an Institute on Nomadism. He told me he intended to continue his work at Polyton, and he would refuse to allow his new role to restrict his freedom of expression. In many ways, his appointment to this new position was a testament to his resilience and his never-dying importance to Kazakhstan’s civil society. Whether or not he was critical of the government of Kazakhstan, the state had no choice but to recognize this man’s contributions. His contributions will long be remembered, and they will long continue to influence the development of his homeland of Kazakhstan. Nurbulat will be sorely missed, but his legacy will certainly live on.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

During my stay in Almaty in 1999-2001, most of the time I lived on Zheltoqsan Street, just a few blocks away from Masanovs. Their countless invitation to their home gave me invaluable opportunities to meet with a variety of academics and other interesting people from within Kazakhstan and all over the world. At other times, Nurbulat and Laura, perhaps worrying that I felt bored or lonely, invited me just to go out with them to the outskirts of Almaty, and we enjoyed the “banya,” swimming, and skiing together.

Once I accompanied Nurbulat and his friend Sergei Duvanov on a trip to Astana. On our way to the train station, Nurbulat signed his autograph on a piece of crumpled paper upon the earnest request of an unlicensed taxi driver. Later, when we got on the train, a conductor ardently asked to shake hands with Nurbulat, saying somewhat stealthily like "we support you." Perhaps there was nothing surprising about such reactions from ordinary people, but they impressed me as I had got used to widespread political apathy in Kazakhstani society. In addition, my frequent socializing with Nurbulat sometimes made me almost forget how respected and influential a figure he was. As all of us who knew him would agree, he was a frank and open-mined person with a good sense of humor.

At home, Nurbulat was like a loving child with his wife. As I remember, he always asked Laura's assistance with the simplest things like changing his clothing. If it often seemed like it was Laura who “sat at the wheel,” Nurbulat commanded how to drive the car. But Laura is also not an "Asian" meek woman who would simply follow her husband. Living with a person with conviction like Nurbulat meant that you have to be strong enough to endure being regularly watched, videotaped, and having your door blocked with concrete (which actually happened to them once!). Laura managed to live with all these harassments because she, I believe, shared intellectual principles and political views with her beloved life partner.

I cannot agree more with pervious postings as to his significant academic and civic contributions, his openness and hospitality, and the generous assistance he offered to all of us. I just want to add that we are proud of having published his work (you can download it at, which is one of a few (if any) his academic writings in English available on the web.

Nurbulat, we all love you, and will miss you.

Natsuko Oka
Institute of Developing Economies
Tokyo, Japan

2:31 PM  

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