Cold War and Future Energy in Kazakhstan

In my current project, I examine the refashioning of the historical arms race infrastructures that Kazakhstan inherited from the USSR in response to more recent Western concerns with climate change and energy security. What role do nuclear power and space exploration (as a means of harnessing minerals and solar energy from space) play in pursuit of energy transition? And importantly, what role could countries such as Kazakhstan have in this pursuit, which is predominantly about power and domination? I pay close attention to historical trajectories of energy futures and the social life of hegemonic concerns – past and present – in what is commonly seen as the periphery of global development.

More information about this project can be found at:  Saulesh Yessenova (2015) “Atom and Cosmos Exposed: Cold War and Future Energy in Kazakhstan”  Calgary Institute for Humanities.

I also invite you to check out After Oil, an open-access book that has been published by the Petrocultures Research Group (Edmonton, 2016  This book is co-authored by an interdisciplinary team of 35 artists and academics, including myself.

The black box of international oil contracts

The Tengiz oil field, 1997 @ Photo by the author.  This field, containing nine billion barrels of recoverable light oil, put Kazakhstan on the global hydrocarbon map when it was discovered by a team of local oil specialists in 1979. Tengiz is a Kazakh word for ‘sea.’

My current project on the atomic and aerospace industries in Kazakhstan grew out of my earlier interest in political and cultural economy of oil. My primary focus in this research is TengizChevroil (TCO), a multinational project exploiting the Tengiz oil field, which is the very first oil concession established in the post-Soviet space in the aftermath of the USSR. Seeking to examine the processes the multinational oil projects have set in motion in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, I conducted fieldwork in several locations in Kazakhstan, including an oil town (Kulsary), regional urban centers (Atyrau and Aktau), and Almaty and Astana, which are the old and the new capitals of Kazakhstan. This multisite ethnographic engagement led me to a particular type of the oil infrastructure – international oil contracts (Production-Sharing Agreements and Concessions). Examination of these oil contracts, which are internationally sanctioned legal forms, from the social sciences’ perspective underscored their role as instruments of power and domination within the global political economy of oil.

Open Access Article:

Saulesh Yessenova (2007) “Worker Riot at the Tengiz Oilfield: Who is to Blame?” Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst John Hopkins University, Washington DC, February 21, 9/4: 6 – 8.

Nomad for Export: Kazakhstan’s public diplomacy project

This state-sponsored motion picture (Nomad, 2005), which was made in Kazakhstan, stimulated my interest in creative nation branding and artistic production intentionally designed to reach international audiences and simultaneously shape collective historical imagination at home. In this writing project, engage with a variety of literatures and sources, including business management, Kazakh oral history, conventional history accounts based on archival documents, and artistic visions. I critically assess a nationalist mythology suggested by the film, arguing in favor of historical accuracy that, once approached creatively, is a stronger foundation for future national imaginaries.

Poster for the film’s English version distributed in Europe and North America by the Weinstein Company, 2005

More information about this project can be found at: 

From post-Soviet market reforms to the 2008 global financial crisis: informal economy

Oil exports increased Kazakhstan’s international credit rating that generated a construction boom in the country that redefined the skylines of its major cities and increased the visibility of corporate business nation-wide. This construction boom exposed the vulnerability of residential quarters and informal businesses – the backbone of local economies – to corporate developers and state agents. I began documenting informal economic  activities in Almaty in 1999, when the bazaar, including an amalgamation of interconnected market places, was still the largest commercial operation in this city.

Image of Astana’s new downtown and surrounding new suburbs from the Cascade condominium complex in 2015 @ Photo by Yermek Kosherbaye  eastkzyk

Retail sections of the bazaar in Almaty in 1999 @ Photo by the author

Occupying a gray area between the ‘informal’ and ‘formal’ spheres of economic activity, the bazaar survived aggressive state policies against this institution demonstrating a ‘flexible’ nature of its economic organization. Similar argument can be made about those who either work there or inhabit informal settlements. I have examined the way the government of Kazakhstan confronted informal (squatter) settlements and their property in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2006, linking subsequent local developments to the global credit crunch that hit the country in 2008. Attention to local-global connections allowed me to refine scholarly claims to a relationship between formal economy, state practice, and squatters’ experiences.

Shejýre and nationhood in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse

In my doctoral study, I have examined the manner in which Kazakh historical narratives (the shejýre) have been used in cultural construction of Kazakh nationhood during the Soviet period and its aftermath. This focus on indigenous oral history as opposed to Russian and Soviet colonial sources, which is so characteristic of existing social sciences research on Kazakhstan, allowed me to develop a new way of conceptualizing the vitality and the role of genealogical reckoning within the Kazakh society as a means of linking oneself and one’s family to the nation.

The top portion of the shejýre created by a coal mining engineer in Karaganda that sketches his family’s genealogical relation to the Kazakh nation. @ Photo by the author, 1999.  This product of historical research and imagination highlights the way the author tries to link his family and their immediate ancestors to the national universe, consisting of multiple historical lineages and their founders.

The Three Biys Monument in Astana. This is one of the first monuments that were erected upon the relocation of the capital to Astana in 1997.  In Kazakh historical imagination, these three historical biys (traditional supreme judges) symbolize the unity of the politico-geographic traditional structure of the nation. Photo @ Yermek Kosherbayev eastkzyk