The White Gold Immigrant
December 5, 2017
Oybek Kimsanbayev’s life is like a Hollywood film: a brilliant scientific career, crushing failure, departure from his native country, work on a construction site, and his first experiments with cotton in Russia.
A heated discussion was underway at Volgograd State Agricultural University. Local and university officials were telling a visiting deputy agriculture minister about the local curiosity: cotton. Imagine, they told the deputy minister, it grows here, and the quality is even excellent. They dreamed aloud how it would be grown on an industrial scale. All that was needed was state support and processing complexes.
While the officials were singing cotton’s praises to the deputy minister from Moscow, a man with a haggard face stood in the doorway of the conference hall. He nervously bit his lips, alternating his gaze between the floor and the audience. Oybek Kimsanbayev heads a group of scientists who have developed varieties of cotton capable of growing in the Volgograd Region’s climate. The region is recognized as the northernmost point in the world where it is possible to grow cotton. Although he was the most important person in the room, Kimsanbayev was not on the list of speakers.
Oybek Kimsanbayev waiting to be interviewed. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela
Everyone except the man who had made the conversation possible talked about cotton and the prospects of its cultivation in Russia. (Given a skillful approach, Russian cotton might challenge the US and China’s hold on the market.) However, at some point, the university’s rector realized the discussion lacked something and gestured for Kimsanbayev to come and sit down at the round table at a place that had happily been vacated.
Construction and Cotton
Kimsanbayev tells journalists nearly the same story when asked why he started researching cotton in Russia, adding that he is very grateful. Were it not for reporters, few people would know of his work, and he scarcely would have been able to get the ear of the authorities.
“In 2006, a cooperation agreement was concluded between Taskhent State Agricultural University and Volgograd State Agricultural University. Researchers launched projects on alternative crop production, meaning cultivatings crops that have not usually been grown in a particular area. One lab worked on reviving cotton growing in Russia. The outcome was a project for generating ultra-early ripening, high-quality varieties with a high fiber yield,” Kimsanbayev says at one go.
“And the non-official story? Why did you start researching cotton in Volgograd?”
We are sitting in small cafe in the Hotel Volgograd. It is pouring rain outside. Opposite our table is a group of foreigners. Judging the by patches on their blazers, they are FIFA officials, who have arrived in the city to monitor construction of the city’sstadium for the 2018 World Cup.
Kimsanbayev is forty-three years old. Aside from Tashkent Agricultural University, he has a degree from the University of Seoul, taught at Columbia University, ran a lab, worked for the president of Uzbekistan in the early noughties, and at the age of thirty-five became the youngest doctor of agricultural sciences in his country. He has published hundreds of scientific papers, and he has developed and co-developed some two dozen varieties of cotton. Until 2012, he led an international project for creating ultra-early ripening cotton varieties.
Kimsanbayev shows the work his lab does. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela
It was at this high point that Kimsanbayev’s life, chockablock with prospects and ambitious plans, fell apart overnight. Due to a mistake he discusses reluctantly, he was forced to leave Uzbekistan.
“Yeah, I have a big mouth. I was working with a Russian university. We had established a distance-learning platform for Uzbek children. But not everyone liked what we were doing. So it happened I lost my job and could not find another one.”
Professor Kimsanbayev was forced to go to Russia to work as an ordinary migrant worker. An acquaintance in Volgograd hired him to work for his company, to “make some moves,” as Kimsanbayev puts it.
“The helter-skelter was not my thing, and I went and got a job at a construction site. I was an ordinary unskilled laborer, along with other men from my country. I don’t see anything shameful about working with my hands. If I have to, I’ll wash floors. Or work on building the stadium.”
Chance brought Kimsanbayev together with good people who took him to Volgograd State Agricultural University. After a long interview with the rector and after he supplied the university with his academic credentials, Kimsanbayev was appointed a lecturer in the agricultural technology department. Realizing the worth of their new faculty member, the university rented a flat for him. He was given the chance to do what he does best: experiment with cotton.
Not Just Cotton Wool
The first year, Kimsanbayev planted only 25 acres. The professor did everything himself in a field the size of four typical dacha plots. He sowed it, plowed it, watered it, and did battle with weeds and pests. Many people doubted the seeds would sprout.
“I brought an international collection of cotton seeds to Volgograd: 97 varieties from all the cotton-producing countries, from Latin America, the US, China, India, and so on. I selected 25 varieties, which sprouted in the local climate. I narrowed these down to three varieties. That is how we arrived at an ultra-early ripening cotton in Volgograd, a variety that matures between April and September.”
The following year, the experimental cotton field had grown to eight hectares. To help him with the work, Kimsanbayev hired Uzbek agronomists and encouraged the university’s students to join them. The outcome: not only did the cotton seeds sprout, but the field turned into a white carpet in due time.
“As they say, I woke up famous one day. Reporters and local officials came to see me in the field. Now everyone believed Volgograd cotton was a reality. However, we are faced with other problems. We have to convince farmers it is worth growing cotton, that the crop is economically profitable: the price of one kilo of raw cotton is equal to the price of thirty kilos of wheat. In addition, we need specialist agronomists. So, basically, I promote cotton and, of course, train students. I don’t work alone. Several scientists, including Igor Podkovyrov and Taisiya Konotopskaya, have been working on cultivating new varieties with me and training specialists.”
Kimsanbayev now heads the university’s Center for Applied Genetics, Selective Breeding, and Cotton Seed Production. In total, 109 hectares were planted with cotton this year.
Oybek Kimsanbayev in the lab. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela
Kimsanbayev says that Allah loves him. Otherwise, he would not have sent him so many trials and so many people, willing to help him just like that, without asking anything in return.
“There have been deplorable circumstances when my life was not worth a penny. Yet people helped him. But there are things I really regret. I once behaved disgracefully and therefore moved away from my family. So the burden of guilt would not drag me down, I simply shoved off to Russia, frankly. That is why I have worked so hard, so that, down the line, my family—my dad, my brother, my wife and our three children—would be proud of me. That is my own real goal in the work I do.”
“What did you do that was disgraceful?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“When was the last time you were in Tashkent?”
“I constantly have meetings and business trips. My schedule is crazy. I just got back from Astrakhan, where the region’s governor and I discussed a plan for sowing 200 hectares of cotton in the spring. I haven’t been home for four months.”
Kimsanbayev suddenly falls silent. The expression on his face changes noticeably when the conversation turns to family and children. His eldest daughter and son are seventeen and sixteen, respectively, while his youngest son is five.
“I miss them, of course. I’m really afraid of losing my family due to my work.”
“Why don’t you move them to Volgograd?”
“Where would I put them? In a rented flat on a monthly salary of 27,000 rubles [approx. 390 euros]? Listen, your questions are making me depressed, and it’s raining outside as it is.”
Later, Kimsanbayev confesses he bought tickets for home right after our interview.
Potatoes on Mars
The cotton harvest is nearing completion in the university’s experimental field. The agronomist Bahadir or, as he introduces himself, Boris, specially recruited from Tashkent for the experiment outside Volgograd, shows me how to pick cotton. It is fairly straightforward. You pull the fiber from the boll. If it gives, you keep pulling until you have all the white cotton in your hand.
University students help pick the cotton. The white caps from the cotton plants are quickly deposited into sacks. Soft as a cat’s paw, the fiber is pleasant to the touch. The softness is a small reward for one’s efforts. Pulling the cotton from the boll without being pricked is nearly impossible.
A student from Volgograd State Agricultural University picks cotton. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela
There are several unusual rows on the edge of the large field. The cotton there is not white, but dirty yellow and brownish green. It transpires that this year the Volgograd researchers bred a special variety of colored cotton. Someone joked the military ordered green cotton for sewing its uniforms.
Since Oybek Kimsanbayev joined its faculty, Volgograd State Agricultural University became the only university in Russia where cotton scientists are trained.
“Do you know how I enticed students into studying cotton? I said they would be rare specialists, and they would especially in demand abroad. But I hope, nonetheless, that Russian farmers realize the crop is quite profitable economically. This year, for example, there was overproduction of wheat in southern Russia. Farmers cannot sell the grain at a good price, while there is simply nowhere to store such yields. Consequently, they are making a loss. And this isn’t the first year we’ve seen this scenario. So, farmers need to switch to other crops, including non-traditional crops. Cotton could be one of those crops.”
“Where else in Russia could cotton be grown?”
“Currently, Volgograd Region is the northernmost area in the world where cotton is planted. The crop could be planted farther south, in Astrakhan, Kalmykia, Stavropol, and Krasnodar. Just imagine, in Volgograd Region, in one of the districts along the Volga River there are one and a half million hectares of cropland lying fallow. If you sow all that land with cotton, and the yield from one hectare is around one ton, Russia could reshape the world cotton market. It would simply crash it. Russia would not be dependent on imported cotton, which is especially vital given ongoing western sanctions and Uzbekistan’s refusal to export raw cotton to Russia. The really funny thing is that cotton was once grown in these parts. However, the technology was lost over the last decades. So now we folks at the university are once again developing techniques for cultivating cotton and breeding new varieties.”
The harvested cotton is loaded into a trailer for the journey to the warehouse. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela
The cotton from the experimental field is of very high quality. Its quality has impressed the local textile mill and a Moldovan company, almost the only full-cycle plant in the CIS where raw cotton is processed and fabric produced. It is they who are hurrying the researchers in Volgograd to breed varieties that would yield 3,000 kilos a hectare.
“Next year, six times more cropland will be sown with cotton seed in Volgograd Region alone: 630 hectares. Plus there will be 200 hectares in Astrakhan Region. We are negotiating with Kalmykia. We provide scientific support to all the farmers. Recently, at an ag expo in Moscow, I spoked with your agriculture minister, Alexander Tkachov. He told me a program for supporting cotton growing in Russia was in the works. I think the availability of state support would ultimately convince farmers to take up cotton.”
“Do industrialists try and recruit you? The salaries are definitely higher in industry than at a regional university.”
“I’ve had offers. But I turned them down. I would have to work as an agronomist or seed cultivator whose job would be to increase gross crop yields. I don’t find that interesting. I’m a scientist. I’ve created a variety, I’ve let it go to work, and I’ve set myself a new goal.”
“Do you have a new goal?”
“I do. Roughly speaking, our project aims to study alternative crop production. Meaning that we cultivate crops in places where they usually don’t grow. Have you seen the movie The Martian, in which an astronaut grows potatoes? They took the idea from reality. Thirty years ago, the Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov was the first person to grow cotton in outer space. My objective is to cultivate varieties of different crops that would adapt to all natural conditions, so that no amount of frost could damage them. I have proven this is possible. However grandiloquent it might sound, the job of farmers is to feed the world. If plants can yield crops under any conditions, imagine how that would change a country’s economy.”
The agronomist Bahadir shows off Volgograd’s know-how: colored cotton. Photo by Alina Desyatnichenko for Takie Dela
Cotton is the only crop that has several sets of genetic chromosomes. That is why it is perfect for different experiments.
“How do they relate to your work and success in Uzbekistan? Are they kicking themselves for letting such a valuable employee go?”
“I don’t know whether they’re kicking themselves. But I have been offered a prestigious job and a high post. I’m not ready to go back yet.”
Translated by the Russian Reader