„Iron“ summer school on the move

Photo by Egor Muleev

Two years ago, a group of scholars from several Central Asian universities formulated the idea of an experimental summer school. They called initiative “Zhelezka”. It is a general word in Russian for all things made out of iron, and also a slang name for a railroad. The experimental stance of a summer school was supposed to be a two weeks ride in various trains by a diverse group of scholars, activists and artists.

The development of the idea did not go smoothly, and at the beginning of the event this year, almost all initial organisers had cancelled their participation. It did not stop our IfL colleague Lyubomir Pozharliev and Nurzhan Bekenkyzy from the American University of Central Asia to make it happen. Finally, 16 people from 8 countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, India, New Zealand, UK, Russia, Germany) spent two weeks travelling, researching and discussing, primarily on railroads across Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan covering almost 5000 km.

© Mapbox ©OpenstreetMap ©polarsteps

Participants made a couple of stops in universities that helped to understand a local context a little bit better. Some participants used this opportunity to fill the programme with activities by delivering presentations and documentaries. Others had a chance to experiment and organise events in unexpected places such as a hotel lobby, a train station library, waiting hall, bus, dining cars (wagon-restaurant), train corridors and compartments, as well as cafes, city streets and courtyards. Sometimes events happened in a very harsh environment. For instance, my own presentation took place in the dining car right amidst a sandstorm in Karakalpakstan. But we can also look back on less tiresome experiences: Frank Maracchione and Rozana Lee organised a workshop on artistic methods in a very pleasant hotel’s courtyard in Samarkand.

The variety of topics covered was also quite vast. Probably, the most popular and bright discussions arose around issues of colonialism and imperialism. Topics like the Aral Sea catastrophe, Russian and Chinese involvement in the region, together with Spanish trains and white Chevrolets perpetually fuelled the discussion. Furthermore, participants covered topics related to political economy and feminism. A remarkable example is the criticism of neoclassical economics in Kuat Akizhanov’s presentation and the following discussion on decoloniality in Westminster International University in the centre of Tashkent. Contributions on linguistic similarities, heritage preservation and art methods were also fruitful and inspiring.

Backgrounds of participants were not specifically rooted in transportation or mobility studies. Yet, the constant movement made the school truly mobile. The programme did not presuppose a special session on methods, negotiations around fieldtrips, sometimes even daily rounds of reflections did not happen due to the lack of time. Regardless of organisational difficulties, I am convinced that on the personal level each participant carries a lot on the way home. Fahreen Nahvi highlighted during the final session at the end of the school: „I found a new research interest“. Frank Maracchione was fascinated by the participants who tried to catch the changing surroundings by taking pictures and videos. Gulzat Egemberdieva, for instance, carried a huge camera with the ambition to create a documentary inspired by a “Turksib” movie from 1928.

It is not an easy task to give such an experimental summer school a precise evaluation. There are definitely lots of things that might be done in another way. Simultaneously a lot has happened spontaneously and it is hard to imagine it better. But for sure Zhelezka summer school was full of constant discussions, deep reflections, nice food, diverse people, noticeable tiredness and pure happiness.

Egor Muleev is part of the Mobilities and Migration research team at the IfL.