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Seaver Professor Alexander C. Diener Examines Kazakhstani Cultural Identity in New Book
Alexander C. Diener
In 1991, the independent Republic of Kazakhstan was formed out of the political rubble of the fallen Soviet Union. Kazakhs from around the world were encouraged to relocate to the state now bearing their ethnic name. Eighteen years later, Seaver College professor Alexander C. Diener evaluates how such developments have affected the political institutions and cultural identities of various Kazakh communities. His latest book, One Homeland or Two?: The Nationalization and Transnationalization of Mongolia's Kazakhs (2009), focuses specifically on the Mongolian Kazakhs and their efforts to determine where they belong.
"The collapse of the Soviet Union was truly a geo-political moment, when internal borders became international borders. I wanted to study how ethno-national groups, who often have been living abroad for four or five generations in Mongolia, had their homeland conceptions recast," explains Diener, a professor of geography. "I wanted to ask, is home in Mongolia, or is home the new independent land of the Kazakhs?"
Diener conducted a comparative study of the Kazakhs in Mongolia who chose to stay, and those who decided to migrate to Kazakhstan. He also delved into the notion of belonging to a place by looking at those who had moved to Kazakhstan from Mongolia, but then changed their minds and returned to the land they had left.
"One of the oddities was that for many of those who moved to Kazakhstan, the new state bearing their ethnic name did not feel like home," Diener says. "They were certainly in the land of the Kazakhs, but in coming back it felt foreign to them. They thought, is this home?"
The Kazakhs are traditionally a nomadic people and for that reason culturally suited to the vast, steppe country of Mongolia. Explaining that the book falls into the realm of human geography and political anthropology, Diener remembers his travels to Kazakhstan and Mongolia between 2002-05, where he explored the complex relationship between cultural identity and place.
"Part of the nomadic cultural ideal is hospitality, and I can tell you some very interesting stories about the food," he laughs. "Kazakhs eat horse and nomads don't have a lot of vegetables, so we ate a lot of horse. Hospitality is such an innate part of the Kazakh culture, and I really felt it among this extraordinarily warm and kind people."
He also notes that Kazakhs feel honored when a visitor is comfortable with and able to converse in the native language. Diener learned Kazakhstani, Mongolian, Uzbek, and Russian in researching the book while traveling to some of the most remote parts of the world on camels and horses. "There were all kinds of Indiana Jones moments in the researching of this book!" he says.
Diener began writing the book in 2006 and likens the relief of finishing the process to "a giant sneeze." He previously authored a book about Germans and Koreans in Kazakhstan, titled Homeland Conceptions and Ethnic Integration Among Kazakhstan's Germans and Koreans (Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), and is already working on a follow-up book, having found a rich reserve of research material relating to the Kazakhstani culture. He also has a new book coming out in December, titled, Borderlines and Borderlands: Political Oddities at the Edge of the Nation State (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009/10) and is contracted to co-author A Very Short Introduction to Borders for Oxford University Press.
A Pepperdine graduate, Diener earned his bachelor's degree in international studies in 1991. He followed with a master's degree in international relations from the University of Chicago in 1994, and a master's of political geography in 1995, from the University of South Carolina. He earned his Doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003 and was a research fellow at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington DC in 2004.