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The Savitsky Museum – under attack

6 Apr

The Savitsky museum was one of the most enjoyable features of my month’s stay in Nukus, Uzbekistan.  The story of how a collection of some 90 000 pieces of avant-guard Russian 20th century art ended up in some dusty dead end of central Asia  is one of the most romantic, heart-warming, and – I now fear – tragic stories from my travels.  This tale of isolation, protection from Bolshevik threat and belonging now has another enemy – the current Uzbek regime under Karimov.

Savitsky was an educated Ukrainian artist and aesthete, brought up by well-off parents who lost everything under the Bolshevik revolution.  Though educated in the Moscow Conservatory, he was appalled by the Bolshevik’s destruction of all art that was not social realism.  His sense of alienation from the time,society and place he had been born into meant that he fell in love with Karakalpakstan while on a five year journey as artist of an ethnographic tour of Central Asia, and stayed in this severed enclave of the USSR.   Throughout the following forty years, Savitsky’s bond with his adopted country became only tighter as he explored the history, culture, art and traditions of the area.   He established a museum for the region – and it was to this museum that he brought the many works of art that he smuggled from the rest of the USSR.  At his death in the eighties, Savitsky handed over the control of the Museum to Marinika Babanazarova, a remarkable woman who has acted as custodian for the museum, her culture, and Savitsky’s vision ever since.

Karakalpakstan is a place of great beauty and interest: the semi-nomadic people have oral legends stretching back centuries, of their warrior queens (upon whom the Amazons are based and who sent Darius’ head back to Syria in an amphora of his own blood) and describing their role as custodians of the fertile lands of the Aral seas and 3000 year old ruins of Khworezm.  However, 60 years of soviet misrule followed by 20 years of Karimov’s similar exploitation has devastated the land and its people.  Nukus, main city, is a dusty soviet backwater of concrete and unemployment.   The new Savitsky museum built in the early 2000s is the place to have your wedding photos taken in Nukus, and looked remarkably out of place in the surrounding flat streets with tumbleweed blowing down them.  Tourists would arrive by taxi from Khiva, visit the museum for two hours and then leave.   It’s a sign – in the midst of the cultural, ecological and economic ghettoisation – that Karakalpaks have the potential to shape their life for the better.

This is not a positive prospect for some.  Already when I was there in September, there were rumours of troubles – Uzbek officials trying to move the collection to Tashkent, jealousy about the international attraction of the museum and its Director, concerns that the popularity and presence of a Karakalpak museum threatened Uzbek cultural unity and identity.  I didn’t expect trouble to hit so quickly: whether because a new film (the Desert of Forbidden Art) was being released, or because they want the collection to be sold for government coffers, or because the officials had finally had enough – for whatever reason, one of the museum’s buildings has been closed, the museum is being subjected to multiple inspections, and the museum’s future doesn’t look great.  For more news on what it happening, see here and here.

Full disclosure

23 Sep

49 brick lane photo

The 49-ers ready for action (credit Andrea Mancuso)

The reason why I have been rather lax in updating my blog is because I have been having an unscheduled adventure in the distant north-western part of Uzbekistan. This is how I described it to the Lonely Planet:

Information for travellers to Uzkekistan:

Do not carry sleeping tablets (diazepam, etc) without a doctor’s prescription on you, translated and certified. Many of these drugs are classified as Class B illegal drugs here and you can get into big trouble. I was stopped at the border leaving the country, and handed over my medicine case including these pills which were prescribed by my doctor and brought from the UK. I was informed this was a problem that would be sorted out within hours, and two weeks later, it looks like it will still take another week before I can leave. And I am very lucky that it is only taking that long.

Very quickly, and without my being given the relevant information, the situation escalated until I was being investigated under the trafficking article of the law, with a potential penalty of 5-20 years imprisonment.  I had 14 tablets of 5mg Diazepam in one strip of pills. The amount at which it becomes a serious crime is 60mg. Although I carried only 2 tablets over this limit, the juggernaut of the criminal justice machine was put into action and it has proven extremely difficult to stop it.   There has been no danger of imprisonment or anything else – the only problem is that everything just takes a really long time.

Despite my excellent embassy involvement, a copy of the prescription from my UK doctor plus proof of purchase, and a presidential amnesty (due to the fortuity of the timing – National day of 1st Sept), the bureaucratic process is so slow and complex here that things take forever. All civil servants seem to be scared of taking responsibility for any decision. Everyone in the system – lawyers, chief prosecuters, police, customs, and the ministries in Tashkent – all want this process to stop and have individually been very pleasant and helpful, but the process takes its time.

I am lucky that I am being treated very well – I am staying at a hotel, have not been charged, or had my passport confiscated. I am also very lucky with the timing of the presidential amnesty (the other amnesty period is the 8th December) and the fact that there are good relations between Uzbekistan and the West at the moment. However, this is a word of caution for travelers.

28 days later, it’s over. I am going to make my brother’s wedding after all (I was considering changing my residency permanently to Uzbekistan if I’d missed that one).  Everything is now sorted out with the Uzbek authorities.  And I bet no-one – but no-one – has ever felt such a feeling of liberation on crossing the frontier into Turkmenistan. A massive Thank You goes to the British Embassy in Tashkent, especially the consular service team, and in particular to Denise and Timur for their help the whole way through as well as troubleshooting a last-minute glitch.

Apart from a handful of hairy moments, it was actually an amazing experience. The most stressful part was having an IT-‘expert’-aided computer meltdown, losing half of my photos, all my writing, and having the rest of the hard drive totally scrambled. Which shows that wherever you are, IT (and IT support) is still the biggest source of hassle in 21st century life. Oh, and having two separate root canal treatments, which proves – I REALLY hope – that bad luck does come in threes.

Of all the places to be stranded for four weeks, Karakalpakstan – the region of Uzbekistan that I was in – would not have been my first choice. 1000km from the capital, home to the Aral sea disaster, closed off from even the rest of the USSR during the Cold War as a biological testing site, and spartan in landscape and amenities (desolate some would say), it’s not the most touristic of places at a quick glance.

But it was an absolutely fascinating place to be and it was a privilege to spend time with Karakalpaks. They are a people living in extraordinary times and an extraordinary place described in 1990 as ‘an ecological ghetto plagued by poverty, unemployment, disease and shortage of food.’ And it’s only got worse since then. Their culture and art are superficially supported by the Uzbek government. But their political and economic relationship with the centre is complex, especially around the production of cotton – and new gas and oil explorations will only exacerbate these tensions. The Aral sea gave them their identity, existence, way of life, inspiration and materials for self-expression – and as the Aral sea disappears, so do the prospects of these people.

The journey: over the Volga and through the Steppes

5 Aug

The terrain is fairly industrial for the first day of the journey, but then consists of the Steppes – a never-ending landscape of yellow wheat and grass – until we got to the south of Kazakhstan and went through the old silk towns of Turkestan, Shymkent and Taraz before hitting Almaty.  To give you an idea of what I could see outside the window, play the video below:


Mostly flat steppe, either fertile with grass/wheat (which is another story, given the state of the Aral sea) or more sandy towards the South.  Either way, it looks all the same to my untutored eye, except the occasional camel, salt lakes, and mausoleum.  Beautiful in a flat and awe-inspiring way.  Nevertheless, you’ll understand why the colourful and fragrant stations of South Kazakhstan were so welcome after three days of sameness.  I’m looking forward to visiting those cities themselves later this weekend – Taraz and Shymkent razed by Tamberlaine, and Turkestan, where he built a shrine to a Sufi mystic.



9 Jul


…I spend a pedestrian life trying to find excuses to return back to the region.  I have set up FromOverHere, a consultancy providing international affairs and strategy advice.  Its mission is to support organisations navigate a complex world.  I’m especially interested in how governments might address 21C challenges.  Given my motivating principles are a focus on social justice and the need to bring different sectors together to jointly address the challenges of the 21st century world, it seems like the right place to be at the moment.


It’s increasingly hard – which is a nice thing – to separate work and fun time.  I’m reading, writing, rediscovering cooking, travelling, and catching up with people (whether my Portuguese family, friends from UK or studying abroad, living in Brick Lane, my adopted Senegalese family, or the many fascinating people whose ideas I get to listen to).  What has been most precious about life since my silk route journey is the freedom to follow my somewhat wibbly, often sartoriously challenging, always entertaining star.

Origins of the blog

This blog was started for my trip through Central Asia in 2010. Eight years previously, Christian Aid had sent me to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Before my visit, Central Asia was a place I hadn’t really thought about, that had no defining features in my consciousness. Yet once there, I was captivated by the two countries and wanted to learn more about them. My experience was shaped by the tension between the sense of an ancient heritage and modern soviet anonymity. Complex fluid identities were feeling their way through evolving nation-statehood – while remaining proud of their importance to the world’s history over the past 4000 years. I saw great beauty in the places and people I visited, facing hospitality and suspicion, and contrasts of arid and fertile landscapes. The fascination of my brief stay there meant I developed an addiction for reading about this region, from Alexander the Great to the Silk route travelers, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Tamerlaine, Genghis Khan, the Great Game, Andrew of Lonjumeau and Tavernier. On leaving my job in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, I decided to match words to places and seek out the 21st century reality of the silk route region. Russia | Kazakhstan | Uzbekistan | Kyrgyzstan | Turkmenistan

My Route

The original route

The original route

The best-laid plans…in fact, what happened was that I got detained for a month in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan on the border with the closed-off section of Turkmenistan. As I was under lax oversight by very nice people and got to know this fascinating part of the world – where one ‘walks on the bones of history’ as Savitsky puts it – this was a great adventure. But it did mean that my time soon disappeared and I had to fly from Turkmenistan to Turkey, missing the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Syria. Given developments over the past year in that part of the world, I am somewhat sad I missed these countries. However given the people I met and the experiences I had in Karakalpakstan, I would not change my itinerary as it occurred.

Flatmates prepare for intervention

Flatmates prepare for intervention

Oh for the best-laid plans… In fact, what happened was that I got detained for a month in Karakalpakstan in North Uzbekistan on the border with the ‘closed-border’ zone of Konye-Urgench in Turkmenistan. I was held captive as many before me in the palm of Old Urgench, Khwarezm, Khiva and Parthia. As I was under lax oversight by very nice people and got to know this fascinating part of the world – where one ‘walks on the bones of history’ as Savitsky puts it – this was a great adventure. But it did mean that my time soon disappeared and I had to fly from Turkmenistan to Turkey, missing the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Syria. Given developments over the past year in that part of the world, I am sad I missed these countries. Given the people I met and the experiences I had in Karakalpakstan, however, I would not change not one day of my expedition.


Savitsky | Nukus | Aral Sea | Karakalpakstan

New Psychoanalytic Organisational Consulting Services Available for Businesses

7 Mar

Ben Metz, a consultant who has been supporting civil society organisations in the UK and internationally for over 20 years, is now offering a new range of Psychoanalytic Organisational Consulting services to  social enterprises, charities and not-for-profit organisations across the UK and internationally. Ben has been committed to developing his understanding of psychological processes personally, in groups and across organisations for some years, and has trained at The Tavistock Centre, and is an associate member of APPCIOS, The Association for Psychodynamic Practice and Counselling in Organisational Settings, a membership institution of the British Psychoanalytic Council.

This experience has led Ben to develop his own bespoke courses that advise clients in understanding and addressing a range of challenges so their organisations may become healthier and more productive. These include:

  • Competing or unclear objectives stifling an organisation’s direction of travel;
  • Problematic team dynamics;
  • Tensions between stakeholder groups (for instance funders or investors) and the objectives of the organisation to serve a particular client group; and
  • Challenges associated with growth and scaling.

Through this approach Ben assists people to improve their understanding of organisational dynamics in order to effect change and instigate new behaviours and innovations. Systems Psychodynamics, the core approach that he uses, draws direct parallels between the psychology of individuals and the psychology of organisations. Accepting this, within the context of one in four people experiencing mental health problems annually, and that these problems increase with social exclusion, it is simply astounding there are no psychological health services in the UK meeting the needs of civil society organisations.

Healthier staff make healthier and more productive organisations. For instance research on employee ownership shows that greater employee engagement can improve rates of innovation, business sustainability and productivity and build resilience over business cycles, and while the private and public sectors acknowledge and address this, it is not even on the UK civil society sector’s radar. It is with this in mind that 2014 sees Ben recalibrating his offering to the sector.

This is a fresh and progressive new way to meet the needs of organisations attempting to effect social change. If you are interested in finding out more about this, email Ben on mail(at)benmetz(dot)org or visit his website

Sustaining US Global Leadership: strategic guidance in the short-term within a pre-defined context – not a new strategy

9 Jan

The NYT assessed the new US Defence Strategy as a pragmatic way to deliver a half trillion dollars of defence cuts with a relatively strategic focus.  The Atlantic identified 6 strategic shifts reflected in the new military approach.  A candid Australian view didn’t hold back its punches in identifying the US’ need to address an inflated defence industry and ‘buck-passers’.  A Turkish perspective suggested that the US is preparing for the key challenges of China and Iran.  Deutsche Welle stated that there is not much change in the strategy, just an attempt to take control of excessive DOD spending and reinforce the President’s position as commander -in-chief.  There was positive reaction from Taiwan and India who focused on China’s reaction.

Domestically, US critics labelled the strategy ‘a self-fulfilling defeatist and unpatriotic view of American global leadership‘, which is a suicidal strategy from a historial viewpoint.  Left wing Media Matters responded to the right wing press response by collecting experts’ responses ing that the strategic direction is about right, the cuts are feasible, and capability will not be dramatically affected.

On the whole, Sustaining US Global Leadership is a pretty sensible paper providing useful strategic guidance over the next couple of years.  It acknowledges that the role played by an effective military in national strategy and security needs to be less dominant, more joint and takes a different shape in the 21st century.  Although it calls itself a strategy, in fact it is a short-term document that is nested within and alongside a wider set of strategies (2011 QDDR and 2010 National Security Strategy) to tackle the immediate need  to: 1) underline the DOD’s role in the whole of US government approach in refocusing on Asia; and 2) control government expenditure.

As such, the eight page paper is a strategic communications document intended to signal a shift in DOD’s capabilities in line with wider policy and the end of the gravy train for a historically high level of defence expenditure – and the industry supported by it.  In focusing on ambitions and activities, it doesn’t look at the outcomes it is trying to achieve in the world nor does it look at the world through the eyes of other nation-states or participants.   And it doesn’t really look particularly far out into the future.  And it is not really trying to do so – the NIC’s Global Trends 2030 work due later this year will provide a more sophisticated understanding of trends out to the future and views from countries across the globe.  Judging it by the standard that one would want to assess a standard strategy is inappropriate given the purpose of the document as a strategic communications tool, and the associated lack of insight we have into the degree background work.  The proof of the quality of underlying thinking will be in the budget later in January.

What is clear on the strategic communications side is that although Obama may have persuaded the policy wonks in Washington, he lost the short-term media war.  A Google search on the document on Thursday, the day it was launched, returned two dominant headlines: ‘Smaller military means extra risk’ appeared five times more frequently than ‘Leaner military will maintain superiority’.  Whether this stays the dominant view remains to be seen.  For the UK reader, there are parallels in much of the reaction to the UK’s own Strategic Defence and Security Review.  Similar statements were made in the UK almost word-for-word as GOPUSA‘s assessment:  ‘He claims that it is now a “national security imperative” to reduce our federal deficit “through a lower level of defense spending.” That’s a strategy driven by dollars — not by the threats and risks we face.’  Defence establishment claims in the UK were similar to those in the US who cry the government is ‘playing Russian Roulette due to cuts in their pet projects.

Some of the criticisms made in the UK about the SDSR were legitimate, however.  The UK’s National Security Strategy was not an effective strategic document, there was a lack of an underlying strategic political vision for the UK within a complex 21st century world and a failure to surface the cross-Whitehall policy shifts that were necessary.  There seems to be a clearer idea in the Obama administration about these issues – whether it can shift the machinery of state and its many capabilities and delivery chains to reflect its ideas is another matter.

US critical materials strategy & Canadian national strategy | Cat’s daily selection of top links FromOverHere #54

6 Jan

Here are today’s hot links on strategy and international affairs:

1. The risk of war and conflict in Central Asia: spot on, Louise Arbour, who focuses on short-term drivers of conflict in the region in 2012.  In the more medium term, something I have commented for some time is the parallels between North Africa pre-conditions late 2010 and likely shape of Central Asia political social economy in five years.  See also concerns for the wider Eurasian region

2. The US revised military strategy –  ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense‘:  Comments on what it should look like from Cato Institute on the right and Center for International policy on the left.  Comments from sensible US commentators will obviously only come out tomorrow.  Interestingly, a Google search on the strategy returns ‘Smaller military means extra risk’ versus ‘Leaner military will maintain superiority’ by about 5:1…

3. Critical Materials Strategy: I missed this earlier December US dept of energy launch about short-term risks facing rare minerals used in clean-tech

4. This is a very interesting piece from Canada on national strategy that underlines the importance of looking at ‘means’ as well as ‘ends’.  Spot on – examining capabilities and maximising national assets and comparative advantages within a sensible framework is an effective way to address uncertainty and complexity

5. South Sudan, eight months on: facing challenges around long–suppressed grievances, inflation and high-expectations.  The leadership need to ‘diversify their economic interests and start perceiving the population as a resource rather than a burden’

Happy holiday greetings to you all. Krugman, IEA, Open Govt, Women, Riots, Vatican. FromOverHere’s best 2011 hot links

24 Dec

Happy holiday greetings to you all.  Enjoy the end of the year and festivities with friends and family.   And have a great start to the momentous 2012.

If you’re bored over xmas, dip into this selection of the most interesting, prescient or important news from 2011.  And even better, it’s not all unrelenting misery – so it won’t put you off your mince pies:

1.  One of the most important trends of 2011 is the politicisation of social media, power of crowds, and other forms of peer-to-peer interaction.  In parallel, open government has become a critical area of political focus and accountability.  It is important not only to protect negative rights around citizens’ access to the internet, but also to enable the positive use of citizens’ knowedge, resources and political energy within governance.  Various endeavours to track government transparency and innovation globally are therefore on the rise.

2.  Because Krugman is often proved right – here is a blog post of an interview I did with him in April this year, where he is prescient about the UK’s performance and economic policies

3.  Having just spoken to Anne-Marie Slaughter yesterday, and been impressed again by her fabulous capabilities, intelligence and dynamism, I cannot fail to include a link on top foreign policy women – in this, the year in which women made huge steps to reassert themselves in foreign policy, both in the profession and in world events.  This article on the top tweeting foreign policy women gives you an idea of who to follow

4.  We called it right on the riots: NHJ consulting (who I work with) have been consistently ahead of events in 2011 on both the UK rioting and the severity of the economic situation among others.  This is a NHJ Chatham House article on these very issues from earlier in the year

5.  The hugely important IEA World Energy Outlook stated that in order to avoid huge waste of energy infrastructure investment, the world needs to radically alter investment in energy by 6 years time.  It was criminally under-reported in the press, but the messages should make all policy-makers and politicians across the world really sit up.

5.+1. For sheer interest factor on challenges associated with managing the most traditional of political organisations – here is an account of recent concerns about the lack of strategic leadership from the current Pope Benedict XVIX

Have a great festive season, y’all, and come back in the New Year refreshed and happy, Cat