I would wager a month’s rent that not a single Facebook friend of mine has Karaganda, Kazakhstan on their bucket list. As of October 15th, Denise and I can now cross it off of ours. As I have already confessed, prior to the possibility of making this trip and beginning to plan for it, I could not have named one city in Kazakhstan, much less the fourth largest. To our surprise, the city was quite pleasant, the people were exceptionally nice, and the students we talked to at the various fairs were very impressive.
Karaganda is described as an industrial town, used to exploit the coal mines located in nearby areas. Prior to the 1950’s, often the mining was accomplished by using slaves, illegally interned in concentration camps. Many of the laborers were incarcerated solely because they were German. Since 1950, more than one hundred thousand people have immigrated to Germany from Kazakhstan. In the last decade of the twentieth century the population decreased by 14%, but that trend has been reversed since the beginning of 2000 and the population is now almost half a million.
Our program in Karaganda consisted of three two-hour fairs at high schools on Wednesday, two one-hour “mini-fairs” on Thursday morning and our normal four hour fair on Wednesday afternoon for any students wanting to attend. At the fairs we were provided with Russian translators, high school students proficient enough in English that they could interpret questions and answers for both us and the students. In some of the schools where testing is used as part of the admission process, almost all of the students, especially in the last two grades of high school, have very good English. The two translators I had in Karaganda and Almaty had a profound effect on my perceptions of the Kazakh students and I admired the incredible level of maturity I observed in them.
In Karaganda our translator was Rauan Pirmanov. His father is a petroleum engineer, and like many sons in countries everywhere, Rauan wants to follow his father’s profession. He is not quite eighteen yet, and is a senior at the Turkish Boys School. The manner in which he performed his duties and enabled us to be so much more productive in dealing with the students made it difficult for me to believe he was still in high school. He was incredibly polite and attentive to all the students who showed up at our table. Should any student enroll at JSU as a result of attending the fair, Rauan would certainly deserve much of the credit. He certainly ensured that the students’ first impression of JSU was a positive one.
On Friday night we had a social event at the Consulate General residence in Almaty. As we were bused back to the hotel, I found myself in conversation with a Kazakh woman who worked at the Consulate. She mentioned that she grew up in Karaganda, and then mentioned a bit of history of the city that I had not read. According to her, during the reign of Stalin, he deported hundreds of thousands of what she referred to as “clever Jews” to Karaganda so that they could work on special projects for the Soviet government.
Based on what I read afterwards, there seemed to have been quite a network of camps comprised of citizens of various nations. According to the Jewish Telegraph Archive, “As many as 1.2 million Soviet citizens — spanning practically all the myriad ethnic groups nationwide — were worked to death or near death in the 75 camps that comprised Karaganda.” There are about 1,500 Jews in Karaganda today, almost all of them descendants of ex-prisoners. The region, sharing the name Karaganda with the city, was home to four special camps renowned for brutality, as highlighted in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s landmark expose “The Gulag Archipelago.”
I was disappointed to learn this aspect of Karaganda’s history. Nevertheless, I am reminded that meeting and engaging people like Rauan and the Consulate employee provide a context for me to reflect on my experiences and feel a sense of gratitude for having the different opportunities that come my way.