The last full day of our visit is here. On waking and dressing this morning, I note that my clothes seem just fractionally tighter than they were at the beginning of the week, a direct consequence of the nutritional hospitality of our hosts. Food here is both plentiful and excellent. Much like ascending the mountain yesterday, just when you think the summit of a meal has been reached another course appears, leading you in new directions. I make some classically indifferent commitment to live off salad and leaves when I get home and embrace Kazakh food fully while I’m in-country.
Today, I completed the poet interviews, ending my week in the company of two truly engaging individuals: Nadezhda Chernova and Valery Mikhailov. Both are of Slavic ethnicity, but Kazakh in outlook and affiliation, so bring a unique frame of cultural references to their work, crossing borders and regions. They were equally enthusiastic and kind, sharing their stories and views on poetry without restraint.
It was something that Nadezhda told me that I want to leave with you. During the years of terrible, Soviet-imposed famine in the 1930s, Nadezhda’s grandfather worked in a flour mill. With unwavering ideological cruelty, the guards at the factory prohibited any flour to be taken home for personal consumption; the penalty for sneaking even a few grams out for the family would likely be death by hard labour or bullet.
Yet moved by the horror of some new neighboursdying of starvation, the grandfather nevertheless managed to smuggle a small amount of flour out to the beleaguered family, despite almost everyone being reduced to near-skeletal form. Nadezhda explained that when her grandfather was young, he moved to Kazakhstan and received great hospitality from the local people, it was therefore imperative he gave his new neighbours the same hospitality even if doing so had potentially mortal consequences.
It is a story of extreme kindness, but one I find totally believable after my years in Kazakhstan. One of the persistent questions I’m asked by people in the UK about Kazakhstan is ‘Is it safe?’ For a start, from my experience Astana and Almaty are far safer than most cities in Britain. But more than that, hospitality and kindness seen stitched into the very DNA of the nation. This week proved that once again, with new friendships born, seemingly on a daily basis.
The poetry anthology, which I will have the honour of editing, is an invaluable window through which to view Kazakhstan’s unique culture. I strongly recommend that you both read the work and, crucially, visit the country. You will not regret any investment in this remarkable nation.
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My sincere thanks go to the National Bureau of Translation team for your hospitality, professionalism and good humour, and for giving me an exceptional insight into your beautiful land, people and culture.