Born and brought up in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders, Baroness Alison Suttie is
perhaps not the most likely of fluent Russian speakers you might expect to meet.
However, having graduated from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University in 1990 with a
degree in French and Russian she then went on to study at Voronezh University in
the Soviet Union in 1988, witnessing the time just prior to the great changes that
were about to unfurl as the Central Asian states gained independence one by one.
Baroness Suttie’s career has focused around her love of foreign affairs and
European politics. For 10 years she worked as a policy adviser and press secretary
in the European Parliament and then as press secretary to the President of the
European Parliament, Pat Cox MEP, from 2002 to 2004 during which time she
worked extensively in the countries of central and Eastern Europe in the run up to
their accession to the EU. In 2006, she returned to the UK to become Head of the
Liberal Democrat Party Leader’s office and later as deputy chief of staff to the
Deputy Prime Minister for the first 18 months of the Liberal Democrat coalition
government with the Conservatives.
Although Baroness Suttie now works as a consultant, running a variety of training
courses on effective campaigning and influencing for UK civil servants, NGOs and
charities, she also has begun to explore the once hidden countries of Central Asia.
Open Central Asia finds out more.
Open Central Asia: You studied Russian as part of your course at university and
spent time in Russia. What is it about the Former Soviet Union that appealed to you
then? And why does it continue to attract you today?
Baroness Suttie: Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s against the backdrop of the
cold war, we were constantly being told that the Soviet Union was the enemy. From
the age of about 15 I became determined to go and see the country for myself and
meet the Russian people and to be able to speak to them in their own language. I
was fascinated by the music, literature and art of Russia and the Soviet Union as
well as by its frequently tragic and complex history.
In 1988 I went to the Soviet Union for the first time to study for three months at
Voronezh University in southern Russia and I met students in my hall of residence
from all over the Soviet Union, including from Central Asia. I was fascinated by the
similarities as well as by the differences of culture and was constantly struck by the
warmth and spontaneity of the hospitality.
And so after university I went back to Russia to teach English in St Petersburg
(Leningrad as it was then) in 1990 and 1991. It was the dying days of the Soviet
Union and life was extremely tough. I often had to rely on the friendship and
generosity of my Russian friends at a time when food was rationed and there was
very little in the shops.
The complexities and contradictions of a country that can never quite decide whether
it wants to look east or west continue to fascinate me today.
OCA: You visited the Festival of Language in Kazakhstan in 2014, which was your
first visit to Central Asia. What were your first impressions of the country and its
BS: My visit to Astana in September 2014 was my first time in Central Asia. I was
immediately struck by how modern the Kazakh capital city is with all of its amazing
contemporary architecture. Interest in the arts is clearly a very important part of
Central Asian culture as can be seen by the brand new museums as well as by the
huge new opera house in Astana.
I visited three different universities while I was in Astana and was extremely
impressed by the dynamic, young multi-lingual students that I met.
I also have a powerful memory of our drive out of Astana to visit a former Gulag from
the Soviet era, which has now been turned into a museum. I was struck by the sheer
scale of the country. The physical environment of the steppe obviously has a
powerful impact on the culture and the people.
OCA: What were the objectives and outcomes of the festival?
BS: The festival aimed to promote cultural understanding and highlight the
importance of learning foreign languages through performing the play, “The Transit
Passenger” by Dulat Issabekov, in three different languages – Kazakh, Russian and
English. Each evening the theatre was full with about 500 people in the audience. It
was extremely interesting to see three different interpretations of the play on three
consecutive evenings and to feel the impact that language has on the interpretation
of a play.
The play is about life, love, loneliness and the fear of growing old, which are themes
common to all humans, no matter which culture. But each of the three performances
had a slightly different emphasis, which also illustrated the power of language and
Through visiting three different universities in Astana, the Kazakh students we met
were able to practise their English and to have debates about cultural and topical
issues. Many of the students also attended the performances of the play.
OCA: You are also a great supporter of Orzu Arts, the first Central Asian theatre
company in the UK. What do you think this theatre group can bring to English
BS: I met Yuldosh Juraboev, the founder of Orzu Arts, during our visit to Astana. I
have been extremely impressed by his drive and commitment to introducing Central
Asian writers, dance and theatre to UK audiences. I have had the privilege of
watching several of the cultural events produced by Orzu Arts in London, as well as
being introduced to Central Asian cuisine by Yuldosh! I think that generally speaking,
very little is known about Central Asia in the UK and a theatre group like Orzu Arts
can help to introduce British people to Central Asia through the performing arts.
OCA: Do you have further plans to visit (and/or work with) Central Asia in the near
future? If so, what are they?
BS: I don’t currently have plans to do further work in Central Asia (I am currently
doing quite a lot of work in North Africa and the Middle East) but I would really love
to go on holiday at some point soon to go and explore the sights and sounds of the
Central Asian section of the Silk Route.
OCA: Since the days of the British Empire, the British have played a role in Central
Asia. What role do you think the British Government should play in the region today?
BS: Fortunately the days of the British Empire are far behind us! The British
Government, along with our European partners, can play an important role in
promoting trade between our countries as well as through promoting educational
exchanges between our universities, which I think is vital for the future development
of the countries of Central Asia.
I think that cultural exchanges through organisations like the British Council can also
play an extremely important role in promoting mutual understanding, as well as
through providing English language programmes.
I think through trade, cultural and educational exchanges we can each learn from
each other and will be enriched by a greater understanding of one another’s cultures.