OFF THE BEATEN PATH CHRISTOPHER SCHWARTZ

When I first met Andrew Wachtel during an unseasonably warm April day in 2015, what struck me most about him – that is, besides the flash of chrome gray hair, pearly white short sleeves and electric blue plants – was his combination of ambition and realism with a sense of self and mission.

Now, sitting together during an unseasonably cool August day in 2016, he still strikes me as groomed and no-nonsense, yet off-beat, as the saying goes: following the tune of his own drummer. That tune has led him all the way to Kyrgyzstan, and I want to find out where it may be taking him next.

“Surprisingly, coming from America out here to Kyrgyzstan has made me unemployable back home,” says Wachtel in a way that almost sounds like the drummer has bumped headfirst into a tree.

Off-beat, and as it turns out, off the beaten path.

From Berkeley to Bishkek

Wachtel began walking his path as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in History and Literature in 1981. Six years later, he completed his Doctorate of Arts in Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of California-Berkeley.

After three years at Stanford University, he was offered a tenured position at Northwestern University in 1991, eventually becoming the chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature in 1997.

Wachtel’s years at Northwestern proved formative for his career. By 2002, after writing and editing numerous academic volumes and articles on topics ranging from themes of death and resurrection in Lev Tolstoy to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, he had become Northwestern’s Bertha and Max Dressler Professor in the Humanities.

Then in 2003, Wachtel was elevated to the deanship of Northwestern’s Graduate School, a position he held until his move to AUCA in the Autumn 2010 semester. During this period, he carved out time to simultaneously serve for six years as the director of Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies, as well as chairing numerous committees.

What stands out in Wachtel’s curriculum vitae is not actually his administrative experience, but how he managed to combine his duties with scholarship: eight authored books, 11 edited and translated volumes, 17 editorials and policy papers, 57 interviews and book reviews, and a phenomenal 91 articles and book chapters according to the most recent summary of his works on the AUCA website.

What seems to be the core of his research interests – the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union; the role of history, especially the theme of origins, in the imagination of Slavic authors; the connections between authors and cultures during transitions – suggest a mind intrigued by construction, collapse and reconstruction. It seems the path Wachtel’s drummer has brought him down leads to ruins.

Amidst the ruins

It is a fascination I share. Ruins are nothing to fear or lament; to the contrary, as much as they may embody a failure, they also signal a promise. Think of them as nature’s great cyclic principle whispered within human history.

This sense of promise was one of the reasons that I found myself out here in Kyrgyzstan. After all, where else does one find the choicest ruins than on the edge of the map?

Wachtel clearly was already onto this notion long before it occurred to me.

“It would have taken me a decade or more in America to climb the pyramid,” he explains. “Even then, it might not have happened. So I thought to myself: why stay on that pyramid? Why climb it?”

“But it was also never just that, and it’s still not just that,” he adds. “What gets me up every morning is this feeling, knowing that I am building some kind of future here in the lives each of my students.”

Henry Kissinger once remarked about academia, “Never have the politics been so vicious for stakes so small,” and I have heard these words applied quite disparagingly to Wachtel by others. Yet, the man speaking to me right now could not be further from Kissinger’s snide dismissal.

Wachtel does not mince words with himself, noting, “I am too good at making enemies,” and when he talks about his students, he is all the more genuine, not to mention idealistic. 

“My students are very professionally inclined – in a good way. They understand the harsh realities ahead of them, and they want the knowledge and skills necessary to have meaningful adult lives. And many of them will have such lives; many of our alumni already have.”

The stakes are indeed quite large for Wachtel. “This region has so many problems. It is really only through education that it will have any chance.”

This immediately brings to mind Kyrgyzstan as the choice for Wachtel’s hopes. Its neighborhood of authoritarian and teetering regimes is notorious to say the least. Is this country in any way special?

“It is true that Kyrgyzstan is the most open country in Central Asia and one of the most open in the former Soviet Union. Why that is the case is debatable. The Soviets’ mental mapping was very consistent across all these societies, so trying to argue about an essential element in Kyrgyz culture is dubious. Nonetheless, the choices that were made here since independence were certainly different.”

Wachtel pauses, thinks for a moment, then comes to the essence of the matter: “Whatever the reasons behind how Kyrgyzstan evolved, it presents a unique opportunity in this region. I can build something here.”

Building anew

Wachtel and I are in the new campus of the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), and all around us are those themes of rebuilding from wreckage.

The original facility was in an ancient, some would even say somewhat dilapidated, Soviet-era government building in the heart of downtown Bishkek. Professors and alumni from that period of AUCA’s history still remember fondly the old murals of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx on the walls. Indeed, the old campus was nothing less than a relic.

The new facility is enormous and fresh: an 180,000 square foot rectangular cuboid housing 60 classrooms within its nickel-on-ash checkerboard facade and angular gabled rooftop. Designed by Henry Myerberg, principle architect of the New York City-based firm HMA2, according to the company’s official statement of design philosophy, the new campus “speaks to nature and culture”,  combining “local nomadic traditions of mobility and hospitality” with “an American style liberal arts education”.

However, for Wachtel, “It is also about light and transparency. There are hardly any enclosed offices here, a high proportion of the walls are made from clear glass, there are no true corridors but instead wide walkways. Everything is open – literally.”

Indeed, the heart of the building is a 5,000 square foot multi-purpose atrium. Natural light pours in from above and all of the major walkways revolve around it.

“This is an important statement in a country and in a region that has serious problems with corruption and dim ‘behind-closed-doors’ deals, not just in government, but in education, as well,” he explains.

The new campus is nothing short of an achievement, and without meaning to sound sycophantic, I cannot help but feel that it is a monument to Wachtel’s own character.

No wonder, then, that he is frustrated by his professional prospects in our mutual homeland.

An “aloof outpost”

In a bullet-point hidden away in Wachtel’s online curriculum vitae he writes about his time as president of AUCA: “Changed image of AUCA from aloof outpost of American values to partner in making a better Kyrgyzstan.”

Indeed, having steered the university for approximately the past five years, one would naturally expect that an ambitious man like Wachtel might already be itching for new endeavors. It is through this question that the topic of America arises.

“The system back home is really risk-averse,” he explains with the tone of a man surprised by his own insight. “Presidents are selected from what turns out to be a very small pool of people – provosts or vice-presidents of Ivy League and Big Ten universities and places like that.”

Fair enough. As any good historian would know, as empires mature and consolidate they tend to increasingly look inward for their human resources. Gradually, they develop a mainstream leadership culture that re-creates itself through institutional means. Yet, the United States is not a normal empire, more Athenian than Roman in character. One would expect it to be far more open to difference.

Alas, this is not the case, says Wachtel. “The decision to come out here is seen as crazy by my colleagues in the United States. The reasons to come out here were and remain clear to me, but not to them.”

“Not only is Kyrgyzstan in their perspective a backwater, but because it’s got a ‘-stan’ tacked onto the end of its name, it’s also somehow a weird and dangerous place. Anyone who would willingly come out here, not just as a visiting researcher but really to have a career, must be by extension a weird and maybe dangerous person.”

American power encompasses the globe, which itself is increasingly, inexorably interconnected in no small part due to the enormous inventiveness and open-mindedness of American culture. Surely American society cannot afford to be so introverted, especially considering the myriad ways, from immigration to terrorism to transnational economic integration, that it is continually pried open?

“Being a provost or vice-president of some well-established American university is simply more intelligible to them than being the president of a small liberal arts institution in a distant country,” Wachtel replies with a shrug. “It’s a signifier of professional distinguishment, respect for an established system, ability to work within and navigate that system, and so on.”

“Look, I obviously don’t agree with them. It’s their problem.” A pause. “Although, unfortunately, because it’s their problem, it becomes our problem, too.”

And as Wachtel says this, he looks at me.

Tulgan jerdin topu

If at the age of 57 Wachtel is facing the final crest of his career, by dint of my younger age I am further behind in the trail, facing the first significant crest of mine – getting my first decent journalistic publications in some years while entering the academic hierarchy as a full-time lecturer at none other than AUCA itself.

I also came to Central Asia to build. Yet, like Wachtel, I do not just want to help build the human terrain here, but also dig out the path of my own life.

It is thus a little bit daunting to hear that our similar professional choices may have inadvertently run the risk of exiling ourselves far from home. Immediately, the Kyrgyz proverb comes to mind: Tulgan jerdin topu-ragy altynThe sand of one’s homeland is as valuable as gold.

“Well, alright, in any given academic year there’s something like 150 American colleges and universities looking for new presidents,” Wachtel says after seeing the look on my face. “I’m sure that one of those would hire me. The real question is: would I really want to work there after here?”

And he is right. Of course, a key part of a scholar’s life exists beyond time and place. For the other parts that are firmly rooted in the tangible, Central Asia has so much to offer. For all of the famed American discourse on innovation and flexibility, the actual structure does appear to be remarkably crystallized.

“As president of AUCA, I have to be involved in every aspect of the operation, from human resources to fundraising to the design of the campus,” says Wachtel. “If I was the president of some small liberal arts college in the United States, my job would be very clear and fixed. It is just more challenging and interesting to be in a context like this.”

Beyond the ruins

Speaking of challenges, we finally come to the crucial question: what lies ahead on the path?

“I don’t know,” he says bluntly. “I’m keeping my eyes open for what may be beyond Kyrgyzstan, but I’ve still got a lot to do here.”

Wachtel’s hoped-for projects seem to rouse him as much as his students. He talks at length about two important ones, both still in the negotiation phase: incorporating the Kyrgyz Institute of Seismology into AUCA and establishing a medical school, replete with a modern hospital.

If these projects are realized, then AUCA will have firmly established itself in Central Asia as an institution of higher education in the fullest sense and provide crucial services to Kyrgyzstan in particular. 

“There are at least two really critical bodies of knowledge that are needed for a mountainous and economically struggling country like Kyrgyzstan,” explains Wachtel. “Earth sciences, like geology, hydrology and seismology, and health sciences, especially medicine.”

Regarding the seismology institute, who is AUCA’s immediate neighbor here in its new campus, Wachtel sings its praises, commending it as “Kyrgyzstan’s sole true scientific body,” with reputable peer-reviewed publications in important journals. He is of a radically different opinion regarding the current state of Kyrgyzstan’s healthcare system, including its medical schools: “It’s a horror.”

Both of these projects are ambitious, and by now one would expect nothing less of Wachtel. They are also the type of endeavors that require long-term commitment – and he knows it.

“I’m coming to a crossroads. There’s definitely no going back, but if I don’t turn left or right, I must continue going straight.”

As Wachtel says this, I can sense that if his path does continue straight, he would be deeply content with such a fate. And when I look ahead at my own path, with all its unknown twists and turns through ruins and beyond, I find that I am very much looking forward to the journey.

(with additional reporting by Alymkan Jeenbekova)

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