Thursday, 22 February 2007
Don't Mention The Film
Owen Powell – 22nd February 2007
What could be more unusual than spending a morning with a genuine Hare Krishna who was also a tennis fan? How about having lunch with someone from an incredibly famous country that no-one really knows, someone who was about to become a top-secret Soviet space scientist but instead married the leading cricket statistician in the world?
The country was, of course, Kazakhstan, and our Kazakh, Irina, met us in the Lounge Bar, near to where she works in Holborn. It seemed almost impossible that we’d get through the whole chat without mentioning Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent film, and even though neither Alex nor I had seen it, it was one of the first things that came up. “Before Borat,” said Irina, “when I told people where I was from there were two reactions. Firstly, most people would just say, ‘Where is that?’ Secondly, some people who thought they knew where it was would say, ‘Stan ... stan ... stan ... but you don’t look Asian’.” And after Borat, we wondered? “Don’t go there,” she replied. We didn’t go there for the rest of our half hour with her.
Luckily, there was plenty else to talk about. Irina had been a student during the late 1980s, and spent six years doing a degree in Physics and English. It was a highly sought-after course (only two people were accepted onto it each year) and was supported by the KGB. After her degree, she went on to do a Phd researching solar cells for satellites, but before she got to work in what I like to imagine as a James Bond-style lair, the USSR collapsed. The future of the Soviet space programme didn’t seem to be very secure, so Irina found herself working in the EU embassy – the first the EU had established in central Asia. As she wryly pointed out, one of the consequences of the collapse of communism in Russia was that lots of London city firms started targeting the massively qualified ex-Soviet mathematicians and scientists who were looking for alternative work. Irina came to London 12 years ago, spent a year studying economics, a year doing an MBA, and has been an actuarial consultant ever since.
Going back to Kazakhstan for visits is proving troublingly difficult. The last time she tried, in 2002, she was nearly arrested after an immigration official had some concerns with her having a long-term UK visa. Since then, her family have been visiting her in London instead. Kazakhstan itself has a quirkier history than even some recent films that we’re not mentioning would have you believe. Its old capital Almaty (in the south-east) was downgraded and replaced by a new capital in 1998. This city, in the centre of the country, was originally known as Akmola (until 1961), then Tselinograd (until 1991), then renamed Aqmola (different spelling) after Kazakhstani independence. Aqmola is generally taken to mean ‘White Grave’, which wasn’t considered a good name for the new capital city. So it was again renamed, and the new capital city of Kazakhstan is called Astana, meaning ‘Capital City’. Irina had lived in Almaty, and said that although it was frequently minus 15 degrees there, she never owned a hat. There was absolutely no wind, and no moisture in the air. “Once you fix your hair in the morning, that is it for the rest of the day, it does not change,” Irina said. “You ask any woman from Kazakhstan who is now in London, they will tell you that this is the one thing they miss most from Kazakhstan. In London ...” Irina tailed off, and made a face. We got the impression that London was not good for hair.
Irina also said that Kazakhstan had a strong international feel. In her school class of 32 pupils, there were 14 different nationalities represented. Dotted around on the steppes are clusters of German villages, moved wholesale from their original location in western Russia by Stalin during World War II, as he feared they might try to help the invading German troops. If you’re wondering what German villages were doing in Russia in the first place, it was down to Catherine the Great (herself of German extraction) who, 250 years ago, invited Germans to farm land near the Volga, allowing them to keep their culture and language. There are now an amazing 300,000 Volga Germans living in Kazakhstan.
Like many of the people we have met who are now raising children in London, Irina is keen to give her family a good sense of their heritage and speaks to her children only in Russian. They also attend a Russian school in Hampstead. She met her husband, David, in the company she now works for, not, as she was at pains to point out, “in the desert, in a yurt, drinking horse milk”. Intrigued by his un-English surname, Kendix, they managed to trace back their respective family trees to discover that their great-grandparents were from villages 50km apart in what is now Ukraine. Kendix, to Irina’s ear, sounds very similar to the Ukrainian word for ‘stomach’. David also works as an actuary, but more excitingly (probably – I don’t really know what an actuary does) he developed the statistical system that the ICC uses to rank international cricket teams. He and Irina had been to the cricket World Cup in South Africa four years ago, and plans were afoot to visit the forthcoming tournament in the Caribbean. However, before Alex and I thought to ask her if she had any spare tickets she had finished her chicken salad, and headed back to work.