In 2013, Central Eurasian Studies Summer Institute (CESSI) alumnus Dennis Keen moved abroad and made a name for himself as the urban explorer behind Walking Almaty, a project that finds beauty and meaning in the peculiarities of modern life in Kazakhstan’s cultural capital. In the nearly five years since, Keen has expanded his activities to become an advocate for the preservation of Soviet-era art, a walking tour mogul, and the host of a television show on Kazakhstani television.
CREECA interviewed Keen for more on his professional life since studying Kazakh at UW-Madison.
When did you study at CESSI?
That was the summer of 2012. I rode my bicycle from New York City to Wisconsin, so even before I got there it was this big adventure. And then I was taking Kazakh.
There is kind of a longer story there, going back to when I was 17. I went on a summer exchange program to Kazakhstan. I was in Almaty for two months, and that got me really interested in Central Asia in general. When I graduated from UC-Santa Cruz I got a Fulbright scholarship and went to Kyrgyzstan for a year. Then I went to grad school at Stanford, and they started looking for ways I could study Kazakh over the summer.
How was your classroom experience at CESSI?
My teacher was a great professor named Zaure Batayeva. From the beginning I realized that I had a very special instructor because she had basically written the book, the first competent book in English for Kazakh-learners. That gave me the confidence to know that this was a world expert in this language. You could just tell she was a brilliant linguist and a good pedagogue, too.
There were five of us [in class], and we all kind of came from different backgrounds and had different goals, but quickly we had something in common because not everyone studies Kazakh.
After that, I was able to go study Kazakh in my grad program for another whole year, and then I moved to Kazakhstan, and now have lived here for almost five years. So I always think of that summer in Wisconsin as being that first stepping stone to bringing me to where I am today.
People ask, “You speak Russian, why do you need Kazakh?” I answer that knowing the language helps you get closer to a Kazakh speaker. You gain a level of trust and respect, because they can see you are really interested in their culture and country.
Aside from Walking Almaty, what else have you been doing in Kazakhstan?
My latest project is something called Monumental Almaty. The project is all about monumental art: mosaics, murals, and stained glass works that were made during the Soviet period in Kazakhstan. Really, this is a project to document these works of public art with photography, to research their authorship, and preserve and possibly even restore some of these works.
Anybody who has been to a “Soviet” city is drawn to [Soviet-era] art; it is part of the urban landscape. But you rarely find much information about it.
In Almaty, dozens of these works have already been lost, and only now there is starting to be this shift where people can talk about the Soviet legacy, separate it from politics, and see that maybe there is something here—artistically, at least—that is worth saving.
Tell us about your TV show!
I host a show called Discovering Kazakhstan with Dennis Keen, a travel show on Kazakh TV, which is a state TV channel. They send me around the country and we get to explore beautiful places.
That is one of the ways I really apply my Kazakh. Almaty is a very Russian-speaking city. But with the TV show, we go out to these villages where they speak Kazakh. My film crew is all Russian-speakers, and none of them speak Kazakh. So they often look to me—the American—to be their Kazakh translator!
I have to say, the show has been an amazing experience. It has afforded me the opportunity to do what I love, which is to travel and see more of Kazakhstan. We have been able to visit some beautiful places, and none of that would have been possible without the show.