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Tara FitzGerald: Sex and the ’Stan

March 14, 2013

Newly flush with oil cash, Kazakhstan makes Cosmopolitan its own—sort of.

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Image courtesy of the author

By Tara FitzGerald

Sitting on a white leather sofa in the small, open-plan editorial office of Cosmopolitan Kazakhstan, I flick through a recent issue of the magazine. Zooey Deschanel, dressed in a pale pink dress with black trim that shows a little cleavage, gazes winsomely from the deep pink cover with her trademark, piercing blue eyes. “Zooey Deschanel: ‘Eternal loves exists,’” says the headline on the top right of the page. It takes me a moment to figure out that the first two words are in fact her name transliterated into Cyrillic script, and not some Russian words I don’t recognize (of which there are many, I hasten to add).

These are not the type of images we in the West most readily associate with Central Asia, a region that has a history of strong Muslim traditions and, more recently, some less-than-benign dictatorships. But Kazakhstan has always been a little different to the other ’stans, a little more “cosmopolitan” perhaps. As the only Central Asian state that shares a direct border with Russia, it has a close but sometimes turbulent relationship with its northern neighbor. Kakakhstan is home to a significant Russian diaspora, and although Kazakh is now the official state language and is widely spoken in the countryside, Russian is more commonly spoken in urban areas.

“We tried putting a local girl on the cover once and sales were not very good.”

An abundance of oil and other natural resources, plus the foreign investment that came with them after Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union, mean the country’s wealth has grown exponentially in recent years, at least in the cities. The products that appear on the pages of Cosmopolitan Kazakhstan—brand-name cosmetics (Chanel, Givenchy, YSL), smart phones and designer fashions—speak to a level of disposable income that would have been unthinkable here a little over twenty years ago, when the only stores were state-owned and usually empty at that.

The largest front-page headline on the magazine simply says “BDSM: a severe experiment.” This acronym is written in Latin script. I wonder if the implication is that there is no home-grown equivalent to BDSM in Kazakhstan? The cover also promises articles inside on laziness and how to embrace it, a feature on local “Twitter Queens” (Twitter is relatively new to Kazakhstan), a fashion spread on this season’s hottest pants, and a man’s view on why men don’t call you back. On the office wall in front of me hang rows of other Cosmo Kazakhstan covers framed in plastic: Ashley Greene, Zoe Saldana, and Milla Jojovic are among the ladies who smile or pout from the glossy pages.

Kazakhstan is a young country. It has only existed as an independent state for twenty-one years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. It is also a youthful country: the median age of its population is 29.3. But this that state was once peopled by nomads is growing up fast. Its territory is almost four times the size of Texas and its oil and mineral wealth have helped create a class of millionaires and billionaires (at least three of the latter, according to the Forbes 2012 list). President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since independence, and in 2011 was elected to another five-year term with an overwhelming victory of more than 95 percent of the vote in an election which outside observers have said failed to meet international democratic standards. But the nation’s unconventional brand of democracy has not deterred foreign investors—who have flooded the mineral and oil sectors with overseas cash.

Independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union also brought other changes to this part of Central Asia. Alongside typical teenage rites of passage, such as drinking, dating and dancing (now common in urban areas in Kazakhstan, which defines itself as a secular state), young Kazakh women are avidly reading and sharing editions of Cosmopolitan written (mostly) with them in mind. Cosmo Kazakhstan has been around for nine years—almost half the country’s lifespan—and it celebrated its 100th issue last December. In 2011 (the last year for which data is available) readership was estimated at 165,600, a rise of almost 15 percent from the previous year.

It’s now illegal to sell Russian Cosmo in Kazakhstan, but it is still sometimes trafficked to the northern and western regions of the country.

“And I would say that each copy is read on average by five people, sometimes more,” says Maya Akisheva, Cosmo Kazakhstan’s editor. The magazine costs 550 Kazakh tenge (US$3.65) a copy.

I meet Maya at the Cosmo headquarters in Almaty, the nation’s former capital and still, with a population of 1.38 million, its biggest city. Mercedes, BMWs and SUVs jostle along its wide, tree-lined boulevards, and there is a ski resort a half hour’s drive from the center where well-heeled locals go to enjoy the snow.The city is nestled at the foot of the snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau mountains, a southern spur of the Tien Shan range that lies on the border with China.

On Almaty’s swankiest shopping streets and inside its upscale malls, you can peruse the same goods advertised in the pages of Cosmopolitan: Gucci, Armani, Salvatore Ferragamo, La Perla, iPhones, Rolex watches, diamond rings from De Beers. International high-street brands such as Mango and H&M are widely available. Gone are the Soviet days of austere government-run shops, black-market bartering and food rations. It’s a consumers’ paradise, and not a particularly budget-conscious one at that.

Maya is thirty-two years old and has been the magazine’s editor for over five years. She is tall and slim, and wears her dark brown hair in a pixie cut. She speaks English quickly and fluidly, with just the slightest trace of an accent. She tells me she first read Cosmo when she was sixteen and attending high school in Washington, D.C. Of the year she subscribed to the American magazine as an adolescent she says: “It was a revelation.”

But there are cultural differences between the magazine she read in her teens and the one she edits now. “The U.S. version is more focused on sex than the Russian-language editions,” she says. “We have less sex. Of course we pay enough attention to it, but we are more of a traditional society, we are not as open yet.”

The sex tips and “techniques” often come from the U.S. edition.

“We have more articles focusing on careers, which is obviously not such an urgent topic in the U.S., as women have been working for decades there and pursuing independent careers,” Maya tells me. “In Kazakhstan that’s relatively new, because during the Soviet Union there were fixed jobs and no market economy, so people always knew what they would be doing with their lives.” While many women here now hold down jobs as journalists, teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, it is still unusual to see them employed at the top levels of business and government.

Maya says the typical Kazakh Cosmo reader is between twenty-three and twenty-five, lives in a city, is single and career-oriented. She is probably working at an entry-level job or studying at university. “The modern Kazakh woman is changing. She’s different to what our mothers used to be,” Maya says. “She will probably not have a kid until the age of thirty or closer to thirty, she earns her own money and she’s more open-minded.”

But how can a magazine that is written in Russian and puts foreign celebrities on its covers be seen as a reflection of the modern Kazakh woman, I wonder. It’s easy to see that it’s Cosmo. What makes it Kazakh?

Maya says there are plenty of publications in Kazakhstan that run local celebrities on their covers, but there are not many foreign magazines on the market. “We tried putting a local girl on the cover once and sales were not very good. I think people want something else, an insight into Western stars’ lives,” she explains. “We do often try to use Asian-looking models for our fashion shoots, but Kazakhstan is also a very multinational society and we have a large Russian diaspora, so seeing a blonde woman, for example, on the cover wouldn’t seem alien to our readers.”

“Russian is our second national language and most of the glossy publications here are published in Russian,” Maya says. “Historically, almost all of the Kazakh population spoke Russian in addition to their own language, so people are used to it. It was not a political decision, but rather a common sense one.”

I think there’s more to it than that. Yes, in a nation comprised of ethnic Kazakhs, Russians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Uighurs, Tatars, Germans, and others, Russian has been deemed the language of “inter-ethnic communication.” But it’s also true that because Russian dominates in the cities and Kazakh is spoken widely in the rural areas, there is an unspoken sense that Russian is the language of business, education, fashion, sophistication and—most importantly for the glossies—of glamour.

In fact, Cosmo Kazakhstan started life as a thin supplement to the Russian edition. It’s now illegal to sell Russian Cosmo in Kazakhstan, but it is still sometimes trafficked to the northern and western regions of the country. It is a thicker publication, with more advertising revenue to draw on. On average, Cosmo Kazakhstan takes around 40 percent of its total content each month from its Russian sister, 20 percent from the U.S. mothership, and the rest is locally produced. The sex tips and “techniques” often come from the U.S. edition.

Kazakhstan is still a relatively conservative society, where women in rural areas are expected to marry young and produce a brood of children. Many of these women also cover their hair as a sign of respect to their husbands. Though officially secular, Kazakhstan is still very traditional, particularly when it comes to questions of sexuality. As a single woman over the age of twenty-five who was traveling around the country on my own, I was often inundated with questions about my lack of husband and children, and sometimes even approached with the occasional marriage proposal.

“Women have many rights here, not like in some other Muslim countries, but it’s still very prudish,” Maya says. “You cannot talk about sex openly if you are a girl from a traditional Kazakh family.” She sees Cosmo Kazakhstan as a safe forum for women to explore their sexuality. The majority of letters they receive are from readers asking about sex and relationships.

“We’re very proud to be promoting sex before marriage in the pages of Cosmo, and telling women it’s fine to enjoy sex. It used to be considered unladylike to flirt with guys, but now girls are pretty much OK with having pre-marital sex and using oral contraception, especially in the cities,” she says. “But we also say it’s your right to choose when to start having sex, and no one can make that decision except you.

Tara FitzGerald is a writer, journalist, and translator based in New York. She worked in Mexico City for six years as a freelance reporter, and prior to that was a correspondent for Reuters news agency in the UK, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Tara is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Literary Translation at Columbia University. Her writing and translation have appeared in The Common, TWO LINES, Words Without Borders, and Guernica. She is currently at work on a book about the people who live on the shores of Central Asia’s dying Aral Sea—commonly referred to as the largest environmental disaster in the world.

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