How the years have flown by: I only found out now that Dr. Shirin Akiner passed away in 2019. Shirin was a lecturer in Central Asian studies at SOAS. Fresh off the boat from Berlin to start my undergraduate degree in the UK twenty years ago, I chose her class as an elective in my first year.
Shirin had a profound influence on my life. Untypically, she opened her seminar to young students like me (the only other one was my friend Marc), treating us with the same respect as the older, more mature lot in the room. The seminar itself had no more than 10 students registered that year, and we sat comfortably around a large table. I felt immensely privileged to access this type of education two years after graduating from high school; most of my other SOAS classes were lecture-hall introductory units.
Shirin instilled in her students a deep curiosity for the past and the tools to evaluate the present using a long-arched historical narrative. My first essay for her class was on “national delimitation”, or the drawing of borders in Central Asia during the early Soviet Union. I remember the many times I would sit in her small office at the Russell Square campus, listening to her advice and encouragement. I later wrote my final-year BA dissertation on Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industry under her guidance, too.
Shirin was a rare scholar. She was a polyglot who spoke fluent Russian and most Central Asian languages, among others. Despite her credentials, she never felt intimidating; the opposite was true: She was a teacher in the best tradition, and facilitated her class’s discussions and empowered her students. I can still feel the pride of leaving her office with good feedback; or the excitement about the next class. It is so important to feel such encouragement early on.
Her views were at times contrarian but contrary to most of her detractors, she spoke the languages and had been visiting the region during Soviet times as well, allowing her perhaps a more continuous and less stereotypical view of the post-1991 landscape; a view that laid bare the general paucity of Western area studies covering the Soviet Union, to which she was one of the most notable exceptions.
She also described the power structures in the region during the Soviet Union and after with much more nuance, ascribing more agency to local elites–something that sticks with me to this day, and provides a helpful counterpoint to the grand-sweep realist narratives that see the world as a chessboard of competing great power interests.
While her policy work might have been controversial (perhaps no less controversial than that of some of her opponents, though), her scholarly work on the cultural history of the region was second to none, as this obituary by a SOAS librarian evinces.
Her connections in the region were deep and she was generous in sharing them. I remember an audience in Chingiz Aitmatov’s home in Bishkek in 2004 upon her introduction. Alas, the literary icon of Kyrgyzstan was in Brussels at the time (where he was the Kyrgyz ambassador) but I had a great chat and tea with his lovely wife Maria.
I stayed in touch with Shirin intermittently only, as my professional focus shifted from Central Asia to elsewhere. I sent her a copy of our Yangon book, and we just missed each other in 2017 when I visited London, deciding to postpone a meeting to a later date.
The last time I was in touch with her was a year before her death, when she congratulated me on the birth of my daughter with her trademark warmth and eloquence. This was a small woman with an enormous presence and I am glad I had the privilege of having her in my life. I am sure many of her former students can relate.