-By Darren Byler, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology and Ellison Center affiliated student
The 2017 Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) conference brought together more than 300 scholars from around the world. Hosted by the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies on October 5-8, 2017, the conference featured academic presentations and discussions, film, music and storytelling. It filled the rooms of the Husky Union Building and Denny Hall with the conviviality of friends reunited from across the globe. For four days the sound of Turkic, Mongolic, and Persian languages mixed with Russian and Chinese underscoring the diversity of cultural and political systems that extend across the Central Eurasian region.
As one international scholar said regarding these Central Eurasian connections, “It was good to reconnect with scholars who we know from our research field and receive updates on what they are up to. It was great in particular to see that so many scholars from Central Asia were able to make it to the conference.” Continuing she said: “I like how this conference is so tightly focused on what we (as scholars from Central Asia) are all interested in, it means that we can really cut right to the heart of our scholarship and get direct feedback on what we present. This is such a comfortable space to share our work.”
As in years past, this year’s conference placed a large focus on historical issues with 17 panels focused on history and historiography. The largest increase in focus was in the areas of Anthropology, Gender Studies and Cultural Studies with a total of 19 panels. At last year’s conference at Princeton University only 12 panels focused on these themes. Other areas such as Politics, Religion, Regional Studies and Society received nearly the same attention as they did in the past.
As one veteran of a number of CESS conferences noted regarding these shifts in focus, “It was good to see more and more young scholars
joining the field. They bring new perspectives, bridging the gap between generations of scholars.” She said, “It was great to see so many panels on exciting topics such as gender studies and political activism. Sometimes these panels were happening at the same time, so we were a bit torn when it came to deciding which one to attend!”
As part of the conference proceedings one of the key figures in the history of Central Asian Studies, Ilse Cirtautas, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, was honored by a number of her former students and colleagues. The roundtable event which was chaired by Talant Mawkanuli (UW), featured commentary and memories from Selim Kuru (UW), Ali Igmen (CSU-Long Beach), Arienne Dwyer (University of Kansas), and Uli Schamiloglu (University of Wisconsin) and Professor Cirtautas herself. All of these participants, including Professor Igmen, the president-elect of the Central Eurasian Studies Society, ensure that the legacy of UW Central Asian Studies, as it was embodied for so many years by Professor Cirtautas, will not be forgotten.
One of the highlights of the conference was the powerful keynote address by Sarah Chayes on “Transnational Kleptocratic Networks” in and around contemporary Afghanistan. Ms. Chayes, a former NPR correspondent and special advisor in cabinet-level decision-making on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, described how severe corruption can help prompt political violence and environmental degradation. She argued that failures in the rule of law are what lead populations to rely on violent movements for protection.
Other highlights of the conference included the awarding of the CESS 2017 Book Award to Joo-Yup Lee for his 2016 book Qazaqlïq, or Ambitious Brigandage, and the Formation of the Qazaqs: State and Identity in Post-Mongol Central Eurasia as well as the 2017 CESS Annual Conference Best Graduate Student Paper Award to UW Ellison Center alum Taylor Zajicek for his paper “The Seismic Colony: Earthquakes, Science, and Empire in Russian Turkestan.” The 2017 Public Outreach Award winner was The Music of Central Asia, a site that serves as a digital companion to a new text book by the same name.
The CESS conference continues to grow and expand. More than 300 scholars attended this year’s 18th annual conference, continuing the trend of increased number of presenters and attendees.
Next year the 19th Annual Conference will be hosted by the University of Pittsburgh in October.