Good conversation is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after
"Lost Enlightenment" – Frederick Starr – professor, author, scholar of Central Asia
Fred Starr in conversation with Behzod Hoshimov about the lost enlightenment in Central Asia. Russian decentralization in the 19th century, Soviet Jazz and who is the most underrated prime minister in Russian history.
Behzod: Hi everyone! This is Hoshimov’s economics and I’m Bekhzod. Our guest today is Frederick Starr. Professor Starr is the most important figure in Central Asian studies right now in the United States. Welcome to show!
Frederick Starr: Pleasure to be here!
Behzod: I’ll start right away. My first question would be about your book. The book that you’ve recently published – “Lost enlightenment”. I read your book before we met.
Frederick Starr: In English or Uzbek?
Behzod: In English. Actually I didn’t know that there’s an Uzbek translation. I found the Kazakh one. And just recently learnt it is translated into Uzbek. I really like the way you present the idea about enlightenment and it is being lost. My first question would be… As a historian as somebody who did not study Central Asian region in Grad School or even before, you came to this idea pretty late. You said that in 1996 you started to think about. How did you study the region? How did you start studying? Being a historian of Russia and Jazz, how does it happen that you can study the region, that is so complicated in terms of religion and in terms of geography, in terms of economics?
Frederick Starr: I have to go back to an early biography. I started my career in archeology and I worked for several years doing archeological work in Turkey, mapping ancient roads. That at a certain point I was working down on Turkish-Syrian border and it became rather dangerous and I decided it wasn't very good for my health. I was traveling all over the place in a little Jeep and talking to all the old men living that village sprint. At that point, Soviet Union was a big presence in our life in the west. I decided to shift towards Russian and soviet studies and I did that and started kind of an institute here in town just still thriving. But then after the collapse of the USSR I realized there were new countries that we had to know about. And we didn’t know about them. The reason we didn’t know is, frankly, books, for example, published in Uzbekistan didn’t get to the United States, didn’t get abroad. Only the books that Moscow wanted got abroad. This was true in other fields too. I realized after the collapse of the USSR we needed really learn about a lot of regions and new countries that we hadn’t studied closely. That’s when I decided to establish Central Asian Caucasus Institute here in Washington and that was 25 years ago and it is thriving today. Because of my Turkish background I was able fairly easily to read my way into Uzbek. I traveled everywhere and then I got involved in planning some universities in the region. And I serve as a Trustee in two of them today. But in that process I had to go everywhere.
Behzod: Just mechanically, how do you think about learning a new culture or new studies? How do you do that?
Frederick Starr: You just do it!
Behzod: What’s your algorithm? Let’s say I am a student of some areas, let’s put it Central Asia, I am an American, let’s say, and I want to study Central Asia. I have never been there and I was born in Vermont or something. And I want to study it. How would you tell me to study?
Frederick Starr: I would say, first of all, go there! Unless you have a very specific concrete knowledge of the place... And not just a capital- travel around. Take your time. Take month. You know I have travelled all over Central Asia and Afghanistan too. You must be there - that’s first. Second - you must have access to languages. I studied Uzbek very hard. Unless I have had fairly generous amount of Uzbek vodka today… I don’t speak publicly… I’m afraid I am allowed to decay of it. But I did study it hard. Languages are important. I had Russian, my wife is German. So I had an access to information from a lot of different sources, but the main thing is - there are 2 things: language and being there.
Behzod: Let’s say I go there. I want to study the history of the land that was 1000 years ago ...like you did for your book, right?
Frederick Starr: Yes
Behzod: So people who live there right now don’t speak the language, probably are in different period historically. It’s just like going to a place...it’s not like descendants. You can’t name this guy being renderence of Al-Khorazmi, right? Maybe a different group of people. You know there was a Mongolian invasion, a lot of things happened that time.
Frederick Starr: They are not the same people.
Behzod: They may or they may not. What I am trying to say is that there are several civilizations in the world. Right now there are countries there. Those civilizations that countries are there they are national countries or even ethnicities or languages are absolutely orthogonal to the people who lived there before. In that sense, how would you do? Most of your sources are Persian, not Uzbek. Where did you study Uzbek?
Frederick Starr: Well, they are Persianate.
Frederick Starr: But many are Turkik too.
Behzod: Koshgari or Farabi or?
Frederick Starr: Farabi was probably Persianate. Almost certainly. However, you have Mahmud of Kashgar, Yusuf Balasugun-those were Turkik.
Frederick Starr: Big figures. But it is very interesting. There is one group in Central Asia today who are linear descendants form ancient group. That’s in Yakhnob, Tajikistan- very high valley. Where they are linear descendants of ancient sogdians, of Zarafshan valley. Magic.
Behzod: Not Bactrians?
Frederick Starr: No, sogdians. They have even preserved parts, fragments of the sogdian language. But you're right.
Frederick Starr: These are not the same and it’s a long distance. But on the other hand getting a tacktal sense of the geography is very important. It’s very important to understand… for example, take Samarkand- we think where tourists go boom. There they are: Bibikhanum...but they don’t realize that it was a whole big oasis. There were many towns within this oasis. There were walls around this oasis. This was a microcivilization right there and the same is true for Bukhara, Merv or Balkh or wherever. Just to appreciate, these were complex centuries with all kinds of industries and activities...just to see that on the ground today and to appreciate - it is not just a little city you are talking about
Behzod: I agree with you that probably going there might help margins in terms of studying. But generally when you are trying to read sources and probably you read sources that are mostly written in Arabic, because most of the people your wrote about published their scholar works in Arabic and some...even Makhmud of Kashgar - he wrote essential dictionary of turkik language to arabic. There might be reasons why he wrote it like you in your book you wrote about it. But again his main audience was somewhere in Baghdad or somewhere in the East…
Frederick Starr: However, you have to keep in mind, that there's been 100 years of really serious scholarship. This isn’t scholarship that average person learns about. These are real hardcore scholars. For example, you mentioned Makhmud of Kashgar. There was a man, American and he lived and worked at the University of Chicago for many years, who did an unbelievable edition of Kashgari’s book about Turkik languages. He analyzed every aspect of it, and did a beautiful translation into English, German, Russian, French. All these centuries of scholarship was at my disposal.
Behzod: Let us talk about the book - not the process.
Frederick Starr: Yes.
Behzod: I read your book probably as an average reader, I am not a historian and probably not familiar with the methods that historians use. It reads as a narration. It reads like a story. You start with a correspondence of two people and how this changed. But the main message of the book that I understood, which I may be wrong, and I really want you to talk me out of it if I am wrong... If I am not wrong I want you to say... Is it basically you are saying to the world “There’s this place called Central Asia which we now probably regard it as a black water of the world. Nothing really important happens there as far as the world’s concern. And probably nothing very important happened there too. Because the world thinks too because now nothing is happening” Just say no. There was a time between 8 and 12 centuries or 13 whenever people use, in which this place was probably the most important place in the world in terms of intellectual production, but not only intellectual- it was generally. It was like New York of its time. I am not sure that New York is New York now but this was your message. And in the book you said “For some reason they lost it now. And to understand them-we need to understand that golden age‘. Am I right? Or wrong?
Frederick Starr: Exactly right! By the way writing this book I wanted to be read by the top scholars but I also wanted to be read by people exactly like you, by highly educated people in many different fields.
Behzod: Okay. Let me take my economist head and ask you this question. In economics you know such school which is called determinism, right? You always think about events in terms of ‘what was the reason behind them’ but not necessarily person behind. Determinists ask first question “Why Central Asia?” In your book you tried to make a case that it was trade, it was trading laws and there were lots of things going on and they were close to China and India. They were in the middle of this nothing part.
Frederick Starr: The only one in the Middle
Behzod: But hear me out. But why it didn't happen in the Middle East? The Middle East could use Central Asia, could use China, they could use India. What was special about? Because they were basically the same country politically. Right?
Frederick Starr: Not really.
Behzod: But I mean it was like a one from western ...almost all Khorasan was one. Baghdad was very close. Again politics. Why it didn't happen in Syria?
Frederick Starr: I take a very economist approach to this issue. First of all these were rich and successful because of trade and manufacturing. These were not passive traders. They were actually producing huge amounts of goods that were being exported in every direction. We forget that. They invented this tarde network. It wasn’t done by Chinese, Europeans or Arabs, so the Indians.
Behzod: But again “Why?”
Frederick Starr: Because location is really important. The Arabs did not do this because they had their breed flower. It wasn’t ...It didn’t attend the high level. That was achieved in central Asia. It wasn't sustained. Why? I think that interaction between open minded contact with the world and economic contact is very important. For example, you know Central Asia - deep underneath the soil is the layer of Zoroastrianism which was invented there, which was created there. It is a kind of an archetype religion. Then Buddhism and the Greek gods and Judaism and Christianity and flavors of Islam. Thus was a very rich complex plays, and very complexities all these threats feeding in stimulated the mind. That is something that is as important as economics.
Behzod: How much in equation was importance of Arabs conquest of Central Asia? And most of it happened after the Central Asia became both under caliphate and became Muslim. So most of the people were second or third generation converts
Frederick Starr: And many Muslims.
Behzod: And you argue in the book that some of them are devoted Muslims and some of them were… I wouldn’t call it liberal, but let's put it this way - liberal Muslims, those who did it not for religion but for …
Frederick Starr: Let me take it from the other side. The Arabs destroyed much culture in CA. Khorezm, for example, had its own language, its own literature, its own books - gone.
Frederick Starr: This is true also for zoroastrianism. Everything is gone. I think what they did bring was a common language, which is very important- playing the role of Latin in the west. That was very important. But I think you underestimate how much there was before. If I were to write the criticism of my book- I would say you should have started much earlier and explained the riches intellectually and culturally and economically pre- this golden age.
Behzod: Most of whatever happened in golden age was not due to conquest of Arabs and Islam, but it was before that.
Frederick Starr: Because of the rich heritage.
Behzod: If that’s true-why it didn't happen before Arabs conquest. Why Central Asia had their Golden Age from the 3d century to the 6th. But it happened right after the caliphate…
Frederick Starr: Again I have to remind that all the great writers of Central Asia - none of them are known to us except through 10% of what they wrote - the rest is gone, lost. Before this Golden age, that I wrote, they were also important writers and we don’t know them. Their Works have disappeared. I told you on a few that we know that we have fragments of… but the lost, cultural destruction that have occurred was very important. This did not come out of a barren soil. This came out of rich and deep culture which my friend Mr. Rtveladze devoted his life to studying premuslim era. What happened in pre-muslim era , this was open-minded and tolarant people and there were, as you say, very paise, people who were less paise, there were people who were completely secular, there were people who were antireligion. They all were there. They were all interacting and different religions were still there. Don’t forget.
Behzod: I agree with you in terms of that them being tolerant about religions. What I was trying to get you at was like to repel with those two questions. First is that they were flourishing because they were a part of this larger empire, was it because …
Frederick Starr: No, I think that larger empire was flourishing because of them and don’t forget they took over. The Abbasid empire …
Behzod: After Kharrun ar Rashid’s death right? So his son lived in Merv and the they moved
Frederick Starr: Yes, exactly. People never point this out. They think of Baghdad as a Middle -eastern and Arab phenomena. It wasn’t.
Behzod: Can you explain to me this thing: Central Asia was a part of the Abbasids. I would assume, again as an economist not as a historian, that because they were a part of the Ambassid Empire and because trade routes were protected by the government (that wasn’t by that moment of time), basically area from West China till Lebanon or something like that were almost like one country. Trade..so on and so forth. And therefore being part of that bigger economy those people could scale their businesses and their goods were sold in Damascus and Baghdad. If it wasn’t for and Arab Conquest...the question is why it didn't happen before Arab conquest? My opinion was maybe because they were a part of larger empire.
Frederick Starr: Let me agree with you partly that certainly this was a factor. This was the fact that they were so close to India, so close and accessible to China. Look on the map - India, Lahore- great capital, is a really culturally almost a part of Central Asia. Your Point is right. The Abbasids did help, but who protected those trade routes. It was the Turkik gays in the countryside and those were done because they had a reciprocal arrangement not with Baghdad but with these great urban centers. They were mutually dependant. The Turkik nomads were manufacturing and they were producing all kinds of goods, they were producing masses of goods which they sold in the great urban centers. The urban centers found the market among nomads and the Turks. So this didn’t require and it didn’t ever get trade support from Baghdad, from the Abbasids. Even the currency. When Abbasids produced their currency, locals in Central Asia produced their own or they changed it, so that their stamp was on it.
Behzod: Yes, all currencies were gold. They would not have a feat currency at that time. My question is “Why didn't it happen in Baghdad?”. If all the things that are in there ..but why
Frederick Starr: What I am suggesting here is that Baghdad itself… which was designed and constructed largely by people in Central Asia… and then was the Abbasid rule was totally dependent on Central Asian Turks, entire military was... They were completely... And how many of these great intellectual figures we would always you know “Oh Farabi, Al Khorezmi”...and all these people. Well of course they may have been in Baghdad for a while. They were all spreading Central Asian culture, just as later they spread it to China, and certainly spread it to India. There are still to this day Ibn Sina hospitals in India, that depend on its tradition of medicine...so what I am suggesting is a dynamic element. In Eurasia at that period of time for several hundreds of years came from this very fertile, intellectually and economically fertile region of Central Asia. What we think of that the west wasn’t.
Behzod: Let’s say I buy this. One question I want to ask is that why do you call it “Lost Enlightenment” but not Lost renaissance?
Frederick Starr: I’d think that there was much more deep continuity and cultural and intellectual continuity in Central Asia than we have yet recognized. I’ll give you an example. I would love to read a book that examines how traditions of Buddhism ended up appearing in a new renaissance, if you will, in Sufism. Go to Termez where two were like this. I think that there was more continuity than we realize
Behzod: That’s why the name of Renaissance would not do the job to justify…
Frederick Starr: The renaissance applies to something that died..
Behzod: What I am saying is that the world map of intellectualism and the credo was probably somewhere in the Middle East then it went to Greek towns and .. Plato and Aristotle. Afterwards pretty much the world was silent - science and the books that al Khorazmi or Avicenna wrote were Greek philosophy and Greek logic-Greek science..
Frederick Starr: How did they know them?
Behzod: Arabs brought it?
Frederick Starr: Because Syrian Christians
Frederick Starr: They are ethnically Arabs but they are Syrian Christians who happened to know
Behzod: Both Greek and Arabic?
Frederick Starr: Why were they bringing this knowledge to Central Asia because all over central Asia. They were very active all the way down to India, by the way. To this day there are Syrian Christians and Indians.
Behzod: So Syrian Christians lived in the eastern Byzantine empire?
Frederick Starr: No, they lived in every city on central Asia.
Behzod: How they came from Syria?
Frederick Starr: Yes, Sure
Behzod: Because they were a part of the eastern Roman Empire and then when Arabs came they were a part of a big country that’s why they were able to move freely, relatively freely within one country, they wrote the works and Central Asian scholars were able to read them.
Frederick Starr: I don’t think that the Abbasids rule was a country in the sense that you use the term. Repeatedly used it.
Behzod: How should I use it?
Frederick Starr: I think it was a method of collecting taxesand spending them on an army to fight external enemies.
Behzod: But as we know the country or state is usually defined as the place where you have ……what was the second thing missing from Abbasid empire?
Frederick Starr: I think my impression is that it is relatively thin, and all empires were thin compared to what we think of today. By comparison, if you will… city-states in Central Asia, this great oasis based centers were relatively much more important than we think today. This hasn’t been studied adequately, there's a lot of evidence on this, but these cities whether it’s Bukhara, Samrqand, Merv, Balkh, you name it, and 50 others. These were very sophisticated places that had a solid economic base
Behzod: Like federalism, like they were …
Frederick Starr: It’s a kind of ...yes. They had to have. My prosperity depends on good relations with you-my neighbor, maybe it’s 3 days away …Therefore there were understandings that developed, which I’ve been studied. There was… I like your term “federalism”, but it was not formalized that way.
Behzod: I mean like… If you look at the U.S. history too, by like 19th century for example. Federal taxes were less than 5% of the GDP, of the United States.
Frederick Starr: Yes, decentralized.
Behzod: Very decentralized. So, they were partly like that. So maybe 2 or 3% of the economy were collected by taxes, but the rest was pretty much federalized.
Frederick Starr: I think your point is… I like the term “federalized”, but the rule of this great Central Asian culture did not require a big boss. There were big bosses like Mahmud of Ghazni. But they did not help particularly. It did not require them because there were so many practical understandings between the leaders, business leaders and others, and political leaders of these great urban centers.
Behzod: So basically the recipe is the following. If you have free trade, law tariffs, more or less adequate level of security and more or less tolerance to way people believe and open-mindness towards thinking…
Frederick Starr: and open windows in every direction…
Behzod: Yes. Then you’ll probably get innovation.
Frederick Starr: This sounds like Mister Mirziyoyev’s formula.
Behzod: Let me think about this as innovations… like as we know it currently. The current centers of innovations in the world are probably like Silicon Valley. There are places; they are struggling with it… I mean… Probably the second best place is somewhere around Tel-Aviv in Israel. Other places in the world more or less are doing that. But they are a way behind more than Silicon Valley. Then people really tried to study what’s going on. And current leadership of innovation and technology tells us that clusters or big cities are really important. So there is a Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser, who has a book called “Triumph of the City”, the work on clusters and how one industry or one type of presude will help others. And if we major by that margin, Central Asia is basically not doing that. It was pretty autarkic. If you look at average tariff’s size in Uzbekistan is probably very high, because it is part of …
Frederick Starr: Modern Central Asia.
Behzod: Modern Central Asia, yes.
Frederick Starr: Autarkic, absolutely.
Behzod: Yes, very autarkic. But it was not autarkic only in 96, in 1996. It was pretty autarkic in 1596 too.
Frederick Starr: In 1596, but not in 1096.
Behzod: Yes. Why I’m trying to tell you this is to hear the following story. In your book you basically say a name of the person who basically was responsible for demise of that. And I find it not very adequate of an explanation for people like me in terms of saying… oh, we’ll talk about him in a minute… But I’m saying if the recipe of goals is the following: trade, openness and so on so forth, why the recipe of demise is not doing the opposite? They were pretty open, when they started decline. And you argue that, very vividly I would say, there was not Mongol invasion that made them go down. They were pretty weak already when Mongols came.
Frederick Starr: I think you are absolutely right to distinguish between different kinds of decline, different kinds of flowering. Intellectual flowering can have various types of its own. There is that which is focused on science-mathematic-abstract thinking, that which is focused on art and other forms of culture. Then on the other side you have the economic prosperity. The world is full today of areas, that are extremely prosperous economically and linked integrated, you name it, but which are not producing significant intellectual products.
Behzod: So you are saying, that places in the world, that are rich, are not producing new technology?
Frederick Starr: I mean intellectual production in several sub centers is far less than the level of their economy…
Behzod: Can you give an example?
Frederick Starr: I think this is true in large parts of the Gulf for example. They are super rich, but…
Behzod: Oh, I get. Most of their wealth comes from their oil, right.
Frederick Starr: Look. There are very few moments in civilization, when economic prosperity and intellectual prosperity coincide. The Roman Empire produced extraordinary achievements in many areas, especially in law by the way. But it did not produce scientific achievements on the level of what the Greeks intend. The Greeks were so far ahead.
Behzod: Oh, I would argue. I think Greeks are scientists and Romans are engineers. I mean in terms of civil engineering, in terms of roads, in terms of water, in terms of a lot of things that makes people’s life better. Romans did a tremendous job.
Frederick Starr: Absolutely. But it was not the same type of intellectual flowering that is our focus here.
Behzod: Ok. Let end by this.
Frederick Starr: Abstract thinking.
Behzod: I get. You are saying basically, if you can produce treaties of logic or trigonometry or mathematics or chemistry or thinking about philosophy of science or whatever… This is very important. And Central Asians are actually striving that, they did poetry and everything. I want to hear your short version of “Why the decline happened?” I read your book obviously and I know what you say, but maybe I did not get it. Let me hear what you think.
Frederick Starr: Well. First of all, I agree with you entirely. The economic decline actually was slower and unquestionably the hit from the Mongols affected that, although to an amazing degree they did recover economically. But not in the same degree, dinamism. I would say that the decline first of all … we don’t need to explain it, because they were intellectually highly productive for hundreds and hundreds of years. Nothing lasts forever. Let’s not start blaming them. But I think that biggest reason was that the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims created an environment of intellectual combat. And this kind of abstract thinking which produces such phenomenal results in Central Asia came under attack.
Frederick Starr: I of course speak of specific writers and thinkers. I think that the bigger part is the conflict of Sunni and Shia which was reflected then to a conflict between Sunni Baghdad and Shia Cairo and these two competing caliphates.
Behzod: Khorosan was homogeneously Sunni, right?
Frederick Starr: Yes. But the conflict… On a Sunni side they were saying this speculative staff is irrelevant and not germane to the most important issues of life. Their argument was very fundamentals one namely the all life questions can be solved, resolved by tax from Holy Koran and from the Khadis.
Behzod: So, you are telling Al-Ghazali’s argument.
Frederick Starr: And he eventually came to that, now ... There is people who ask me “Why are you so hostile to Ghazali?” and I’m not. Because later on in his life after this episode as a younger man in Bagdad, he lost his “krisha”, he lost his political protection.
Behzod: You know… important words in Central Asia…krisha…
Frederick Starr: He lost his “krisha”, he really did. And then he focused on faith and Ghazali wrote about faith, is important to all religions and highly respected in Christian and Jewish worlds as well. But early alone he did terrible thing. And that is he frontally attacked on the kind of learning…
Behzod: Here I can disagree. I did some homework on that… So there is this book that he basically does not really… There is this book that he wrote about problems of the philosophers, right. I think it’s called Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). Problem, troubles, reputation of the philosophers. Before that he wrote a book called Maqasid al falasifa (Aims of the Philosophers). In that book, that Ghazali wrote, he talks basically about Avicenna’s logic. Avicenna or Ibn Sino, as commonly known to our probably listeners…
Frederick Starr: And suspected to be very Shia. Let me put it in this way. Free intellectual enquiry got caught between two Khalifats. The one of which happened to be Sunni, the other happened to be Shia. And this was caught between. Ghazali’s work was to be the voice of one of this. Key moment. Now. Interestingly, the relative moderation of a lot of Central Asian thought, which you know Hanafi tradition and so on. It is relatively more moderate. Would have allowed this to continue, but eventually though… The development which you rightly have underscore namely the eventually waning of this great land roots to the eves. This is not the economic base of under it. And so… But I want to repeat… When I said earlier… We were talking about this as for mourning someone who died early, died too young. But in fact this flowering that I wrote about did last for hundreds of years. In criticism of my own work had we more documents, we could probably trace it earlier too. Let’s not worry about blaming, because…
Behzod: Ok. I think a lot of things well-grounded are fairly sustainable.
Frederick Starr: This was sustainable for 400 years, that’s amazing.
Behzod: So, let me speak a little bit about Fred Starr – professor. How do you came about this? So, look through your biography, you did a history at Princeton, you studied …
Frederick Starr: classics…
Behzod: Wow, ok. But you wrote the book on decentralization in Russia in 19th century, basically before Alexander II, right.
Frederick Starr: Under Alexander II.
Behzod: Just before Alexander II.
Frederick Starr: Not under Nikolas, flourished under Alexander II.
Behzod: But Before them, cancelation of this law, “krepostnoye pravo”…
Frederick Starr: …before Alexander III.
Behzod: Yeah. And then… So you wrote about this, which is an important topic. After Napoleonic wars in Russia. Why did you think about this at all?
Frederick Starr: Very simple. My life has been lived above all in the Mid-West and the South, not in the East coast, not in the West coast.
Frederick Starr: And leader, non-leader, self-designated leader is a better term, I think by the way. Because of this I never expected look to Washington solutions to life’s problems. We never trusted things this way. Decentralization is the core of our Constitution, seems to me. Giving so much authority to the state… local solutions are always better than things invented far away. Therefore, I was curious… Everyone said “Wow, Russian tradition of Zoroaster centralization” … I said “Is there another tradition there turns out? Yes, there was”. And that’s what’s I wrote about.
Behzod: Ok. Russia is a natural place of decentralization, one of the most centralized regimes in last 600 years… it is really hard to find place as centralized as Russia. By the way, I’m not saying about Soviet Union, I’m not saying about current Russian Federation. I’m talking about the …
Frederick Starr: …the whole thing…
Behzod: …the whole thing…
Frederick Starr: Yes. I’m with you. I’m not arguing.
Behzod: Isn’t it very curious to study decentralization of the country, that is most centralized?
Frederick Starr: Very important stand in their thinking. Their whole legal thought in 19th century went in this direction. Even the people whom Mister Gorbachev studied in law school, the song they were singing. It is there, but under the surface.
Behzod: What do you think of a new deal and increase of Federal government?
Frederick Starr: I think we have much too much federal government today. I think Washington should…
Behzod: What about the new deal, like …
Frederick Starr: Well, that started then. And I think we have gone too far in the direction of centralization too much bureaucracy, too much Washington, we need more local rule. And by the way, this takes us back to what we were discussing in Central Asia. Even though there was no big governmental structure. These cities, states, they are not quiet city-states, we need a better term… They manage to solve the most important economic and political problems, and security problems.
Behzod: What do you think of government financing innovations and technology? Because it is important.
Frederick Starr: I think it is important and I mean after all governments control currency, they have fundamental role in all key financial transaction...that goes without saying.
Behzod: I mean, what do you think of government financing innovations, scientists?
Frederick Starr: It’s been very positive. But on the other hand it is not the sole source. It should not be the sole source of sport or innovation.
Behzod: Let’s talk about this.
Frederick Starr: Because governments are subject to their own politics.
Behzod: Let me talk a little brief about 20 century’s architecture of the Soviet Union. You wrote the book on that. What’s up with that? What fascinates me is that how orthogonal the topic you write about: The decentralization of Russia before Alexander III, then Soviet architecture, then Soviet jazz and then Central Asia in 11th century. How do you?
Frederick Starr: My interest in architecture has other sources. But I was intrigued by the fact that in 1920th and early 30th there existed in the Soviet Union a very innovative current architecture. It was usually thought to come from so called constructivist group and they were logically close to communists. There was also another group, led by Konstantin Stepanovich Melnikov, great innovator, whose home is now a museum in Moscow. They finally embraced him after prosecuting him throughout his entire life. But this other group was the same kind of free thinking imaginative mixing of philosophy and architecture, which I found this among Central Asian thinkers.
Behzod: Yes, interesting. Sounds like a polymath.
Frederick Starr: Yes. And another aspect of this important is that I was interested both in architecture and in jazz with occurrence in Soviet life that existed in spite of rather than because of this thing. This book is very much about jazz, but it’s really about inability of the highly centralized ruthless Soviet state to control people’s values and people’s taste.
Behzod: Ok. Let’s talk more on modern Russia. You have this report on Putin’s Grand Strategy in Central Asia and Eurasia, Eurasian Union. Right now people in Uzbekistan talk about this quiet seriously. They are basically discussing that. In your report, that you wrote, I think, with your Institute, you basically are not very positive about that. Can you elaborate?
Frederick Starr: Well. Look. If the idea is to create a real trade zone like the EU, it’s failed, because trade within the region reached the peak in 2012 and it’s never come back to it. It is just the Eurasian Economic Union looks to, I think, any fear minded observer as a kind of Trojan horse for the Russian to export its goods to protect the market.
Behzod: So it’s like USSR 2.0?
Frederick Starr: Well. Statistically that is what it will be so far. Maybe there will be a change. Maybe in policy of Putin will be different. But so far it has been Russia exporting goods to the small countries. How could it be otherwise, when you have so called economic union that is totally dominated not only in size but in power by one member?
Behzod: Russia question. Who is more underrated Prime-minister of Russia: Stolypin or Gaydar?
Frederick Starr: That’s a hard question. I would say Stolypin.
Behzod: He is more underrated
Frederick Starr: More underrated. What do you think?
Behzod: I think is Gaydar.
Frederick Starr: That is interesting.It is clever. I can see your point. It is important insight. Bravo. Interesting.
Behzod: So you are with me?
Frederick Starr: Yeah, I think I would give you…
Behzod: Cause I think Stolypin was killed, but Gaydar was not. Or he was, I don’t know. So, let me finish with very dismal question. Nice. Harper’s Magazine. They wrote you’ve been apologized to Central Asian regimes. I want ask you a personal question about this. You basically devote very big chunk of your life in terms of studying this region. You did a research, like Turkmenistan, for example and so on. And you say that in Central Asia you have to play by certain rules. You can’t really research Turkmenistan being a constant critic of the regime. You have to do research. I feel like, nor in Central Asia, nor in the U.S., if you’ll do like that, people kind of appreciate you. Central Asia still thinks that you are American diplomat or you work in the Administration… maybe there is something about you, that…
Frederick Starr: I’ve never been employed by the government.
Behzod: Yeah, but… The Centers are, in which you’ve been studied, a part of government…
Frederick Starr: Absolutely no.
Behzod: No, no, no. I mean the one…
Frederick Starr: The Kenneth Institute?
Frederick Starr: No. It is not governmental, it is part of Wilson Center, which has its own board of Trustees, its like a national mumorial, it’s like a Washington monument
Behzod: What I’m trying to say is… In Central Asia if you make a case “I’ve never was a part of federal government”, nobody is going to say “Oh, that must be right”. They will still think that you are a kind of … And neither here if you say “I’m not a puppet of regimes in Central Asia”, nobody will say… people are pretty critical about what you write. How do you reconcile being not very sympathized in both parts of the world?
Frederick Starr: What is the serious disease today, that people are concerned about?
Frederick Starr: Cancer. Ok. I do not mean to imply comparison here. But if I am a scientist studying cancer, it doesn’t mean I’m in love with cancer or somehow affiliate of cancer. My objective in Central Asia is not political ladder, I could care less. It is to understand. And to understand you have to have face to face contact, you have to understand. And that does imply explaining in the West and in the East by the way. These are equally valid in Japan and China. Often implies explaining to skeptics, who just say “oh, this is all bad”. There is something that you are not grasping.
Behzod: How do you live with this? My question was again personal. Neither here, nor there they fully believe your intentions. I understand you are a scholar. But most of the people, I’m sure in government buildings in Central Asia, in Caspian… they were still thinking about you as an American person meaning American as being from the government.
Frederick Starr: What you are saying I’ve never thought of that this way, I’ll tell you. But I would say this is amazing sign of success if you are criticized from both sides, because simultaneously for 25 years we found a many support here for what we are doing in Central Asia and for 25 years I formed deep friendships all over Central Asia and these are entirely compatible.
Behzod: Ok. Final question. Hundreds years from now, if historian will write a book about you, what do you want to be remembered for? And the second question is: what do you think you’ll be remembered for?
Frederick Starr: Well. First, no one is really remembered.
Behzod: I mean as an author, as an intellectual. They’ll think “Oh, Fred Starr is Jazz historian” or they will say“Fred Starr is a Central Asian historian”? What do you think gets you more like...
Frederick Starr: I think in different places in different times people might be…
Frederick Starr: I don’t think so.
Behzod: Like Google search will come with musician or with central asian… Just guess, I’m not saying you have to predict the future.
Frederick Starr: I really have no idea.
Behzod: Ok. What do you want to be remembered for?
Frederick Starr: I think that I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to pursue my interest in a lot of different areas that are actually much more related to one another than may have first appear. And this is what a free person in this country in 21st century is able to do. I don’t deny it, I’ve been very fortunate. I was fortunate with my parents, with my family, the place I grew up. And in my education I had to work hard. But on the other hand, I think, if any were to look into my life in the future, they would probably conclude that I was fortunate to live in a very favorable environment and to make good use of it in several different areas. Whether it’s me or someone else that’s an important message.
Behzod: Alright. Thanks for being here. Thanks for your time. Really enjoyed it. Thank you.
Frederick Starr: Well, I thank you. This has been fascinating and a lot of fun too.
Behzod: Alright, thanks.