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Origins and Outlook

Born in Uzbekistan in 1976, I had a happy childhood in a relatively educated late-Soviet family headed by two construction engineers. There were five children: three sons  - Shamil, Alvirt and then myself, Marat -  followed by two daughters  -  Elvira and Venera 

Soviet Childhood

Soviet childhood

My father’s parents, very conservative Tatars, had fiercely opposed his marriage to the Ukrainian woman who became my mother. Though my was thus all but forced into filial disobedience  - or perhaps because of it -  the marriage was, so far as I can tell, happy. It lasted 29 years until his death from cancer in 2005.

I never fully understood how it was that, despite the fact that my paternal grandparents had been forced to move to Uzbekistan in 1937 by Stalinist repression, my father always remained proud of his Soviet citizenship. He was equally proud of his involvement in the construction of Baikonur space centre, where he worked from 1960 to 1963.

My mother was born in 1943 in Ukraine during the Nazi occupation. In 1947, during the famine, her family moved to Russia. From there, following her graduation as a construction engineer in 1965, she was sent to Uzbekistan’s Hungry steppe to make her contribution to the development of what became my home town, Jizzakh. She eventually became the city’s Chief Architect.

In this way two people from completely different settings, one Christian Ukrainian and the other Muslim Tatar, met in a third, Uzbekistan; where they raised five children in a stable and happy family. But it is quite possible that there had been contact between some of my maternal and paternal forebears some 85 years before my father married my mother: it turns out that both families sent young men to the Russo-Turkish war, where  - who knows -  they may have known each other.

The expansion of Jizzakh was the initiative of Sharaf Rashidov, first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party from 1959 to 1983, who, like me, was born there. The town now has a population of 130,000 and is the capital of Jizzakh province. My mother’s work there brought her several Soviet awards and local prominence.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, in view of their professional successes and personal contentment, my parents came to regard Uzbekistan as their homeland and to hold its people in deep affection and respect. They passed these feelings on to us, their children. Although we are not ethnically Uzbek, we will all always consider ourselves loyal to Uzbekistan. It is a beautiful country and a fine people.

I grew up ambitious and well versed in Soviet ideology, but nevertheless retained a determinedly independent cast of mind. My development as a person was powerfully influenced by perestroika, for which many of us had long felt a need. But the changes it brought were more sweeping than anything we had imagined: the evaporation of the state’s former minute control of many aspects our lives, which was welcomed almost universally, came with extreme economic hardship; and yet we still clung on to certain aspects  - the better ones, of internationalism and social conscience -  of Soviet ideology. All in all, with so much freedom suddenly in our laps, we could not call this an ugly period.

One man exercised an especially profound influence on my personal development both before and throughout perestroika: Vladimir Genadevich, the librarian of Jizzakh’s children’s library. For ten years, from 1983 to 1993, he was not only my teacher but also, in a broader sense, my mentor. Formerly of ministerial rank in the Turkmen SSR, he was highly erudite. He played a major role in shaping my literary tastes as well as my broader views of life and morality. I can never thank him enough.

Another important shaper of my outlook on life has been the number of times  - at least ten that I can think of -  that I have narrowly escaped death, whether by drowning or by accidents at work or on the road. I really cannot explain my survival  - some may call me lucky, others blessed -  but the absence of a rational explanation is of rather less importance to me, naturally enough, than the fact that I am alive. I am grateful to be alive.

Perestroika and the freedoms it brought did not prepare us for the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the almost total freedom, however short-lived, that came with it. What made this more a sorrowful than a triumphant event was our common loss of a great country, the Soviet Union. Although many Uzbeks have moved to Russia, seeking there some kind of replacement, Russia will always be a poor substitute. In the Soviet Union we were brothers, all of us, and shared everything: good times, hardships, and values.

I was among the best of the students at my school in Jizzakh, graduating with a ’silver medal’, and after Independence I became chairman of Jizzakh’s youth union, the successor to the Komsomol. I started learning English on the town’s first ever English course, organised by an American Peace Corps volunteer. I decided I’d like to be a diplomat, and joined Uzbekistan’s first private university, Tashkent Institute of Business and International Relations.

But in December 1993 a new state university was established, the University of World Economics and Diplomacy, and the government forced the closure of my Institute. At that time, still the early days of independence, we were naive enough to believe in the power of democratic action, and a number of protest demonstrations took place on the main square outside the Cabinet of Ministers’ building. The demonstrations continued despite many arrests. In the end, I and a few others were allowed to continue our studies at the State Economics University  -  a small victory indeed: we had retained our right to continue our studies, but had lost our university of choice. However, attitudes in the State Economics University, both of the staff and the administration, disgusted me. I left.

I found work at Mustaqilik International Library set up in Tashkent by Central Asia Free Exchange. There I got to know a wide range of other young people, mainly university students from varied backgrounds, who held similar views on how Uzbekistan should progress.

 

Pery Models and Fashion Week

In 1994 I started working as an interpreter for Zarafshan-Newmont, a gold-mining joint venture setting up a gold mine in the heart of the Kyzyl-Kum desert, one of the largest investment projects in independent Uzbekistan’s history. I rose to become On-Site Services Manager, supervising a staff of 30 responsible for accommodation for foreign employees and food and transport for locals, and came into frequent contact with Nikolai Kucherskii, Director of Navoi National Mining Corporation, and other heavyweights including Mansur Maksudi, one-time Director of Coca-Cola Uzbekistan, and Ismail Jurabekov, a former vice-Prime Minister of Uzbekistan. I stayed there for a year and a half.

Then, in September 1995 I moved back to Tashkent and enrolled in the Faculty of Economics at Tashkent State Institute of Architecture and Civil Engineering  -  from which I graduated in 2001. With the savings I had built up during my employment with Zarafshan-Newmont, my family bought a flat in Tashkent and a car for my father, to make it easier for him to visit and tend the bee-hives he had established on his retirement in 1991.

While working at the gold mine I had stayed in contact with my friends from the library (of whom I think more than 90 per cent have by now left Uzbekistan for one reason or another) and in October 1995 I suggested we set up a discussion forum for young professionals. My friends liked the idea, and the result was the Talk Club, a non-profit club which discussed topics of relative novelty and significance  - at least for us at the time -  such as women’s rights, westernisation, personal finance and sexuality. Discussions, held monthly in both Russian and English, involved between 70 and 100 university students and invited experts from the UN and the artistic, business and international commnities. The Club enjoyed considerable popularity,  especially among the more forward-thinking of Tashkent students. As Chairman, I took some pride in this success, but remain grateful for the support of Vladimir Shapiro, the Director of Tashkent’s Russian Theatre, who allowed us to use Theatre premises for our meetings, and to the AIG office in Tashkent, whose financial support was a welcome top-up to our principal source of income, members’ subscriptions.

Around this time, between 1994 and 1998, I also took part in a number of training programmes and seminars organised by the Counterpart Consortium, on topics including establishing an NGO, development issues, fund-raising and social development and research.

In 1996 I made my first foray into private enterprise. Deborah Reed, an American woman I had got to know working alongside her at the library, wanted to open a fashion atelier to cater to Tashkent’s international community, but she needed help, mainly of the sort that a local fixer could provide; and she asked me what I could do. I became a partner in the business  - which we called the Beyond Red Clothing Company -  responsible for government relations, human resources and supply. We thought it would be fun to organise a fashion show for Deborah’s collection, and arranged to hold it at the residence of the German Ambassador; and only then realised that there existed not a single model agency in the whole of Uzbekistan.

One of Beyond Red’s designers, an energetic and enthusiastic young woman called Svetlana, suggested that we ourselves fill this hole in the market by setting up our own model agency to train models and put on fashion shows. This was a very innovative and brave idea at the time: remember that, notwithstanding Uzbekistan’s socialist past, 80 per cent of its population was now Muslim.

The idea seemed to make a lot of sense: after all, Uzbekistan is, and was then, one of the world’s largest cotton producers. In August 1996 we registered our new company as Pery Models, and set ourselves the task of organizing Uzbekistan’s first International Fashion Week (Beautiful Pery). Soon afterwards we agreed terms with the Navoi National Ballet and Opera Theatre for the use of the theatre as our principal venue, and I set about using my contacts to find sponsors for the Fashion Week. In August, Nikolai Kucherskii of Navoi Mining agreed to act as general sponsor. I have a lot to be grateful to Mr. Kucherskii for.

I also managed to make one crucial mistake  -  attempting to enlist the support of the Uzbek authorities. I wrote a letter to President Karimov asking for financial and moral support. Whichever presidential advisor it was that received our letter, the hostile reaction was unmistakeable. I received a visit at our offices during which I was subjected to a hysterical verbal attack whose general gist  - I was left in little doubt -  was that modelling and fashion shows must be by their very nature deeply offensive to the Uzbek people.

The following day our agreement with the Navoi National Ballet and Opera Theatre was revoked. The Director apologised but explained that she had no choice but to follow orders, despite the fact that the rent we had agreed to pay would have been much appreciated. If she had defied higher powers she would have lost her job. It was all perfectly clear that it was not her fault. We remained on good terms and continued to meet at various Theatre events, including a gala performance in honour of the Queen of Thailand’s birthday, when we were presented to Her Majesty.

But the President’s displeasure did not stop there. The Uzbekistan Agency for Press and Information (henceforth UAPI) banned any media coverage of the Fashion Week  - should it take place at all, which by then was beginning to look unlikely -  including commercial promotion. The media ban stayed in place for two years and we were never allowed to use the Navoi Theatre. On the other hand, the police, prosecutors and security organs left us alone for a while; and the general effect of these attempts to shut us down only made us more defiant. Moreover, once you have attained a certain critical momentum it is difficult to bring things to a complete halt quickly. After all, if we had no media coverage or venue, we still had money, fashion designers, and models.

My friends from Talk Club at Beautifil Pery Fashion Week, 1996

My friends from Talk Club at Beautiful Pery Fashion Week, 1996

So we didn’t cancel Fashion Week: we just postponed it. By late November, Tashkent’s first 5-star hotel, the Intercontinental, was built and ready to open but had not yet been officially inaugurated. I persuaded Pierre Buyasel, the Intercontinental’s General Manager, to let us use the hotel for our Fashion Week as a kind of pre-opening event. In this way we solved our venue problem. The only remaining difficulty was publicity, which I solved with the help of 50 students I knew from the Talk Club: I paid them to plaster the city with 10,000 posters I had printed. They did it in 48 hours, finishing one week prior to the event itself.

And it worked: Fashion Week was a great success, all seats sold out. I was gratified on the last day of the event to see quite a number of ministers in the VIP seats. Ah battle ad been won.

 

Pery Magazine

But 1997 brought a major new problem in the form of a Presidential Decree ending the free convertibility of the Uzbek currency, the Sum. The Decree resulted in the departure from Uzbekistan of a number of large foreign companies including my sponsors Procter and Gamble, Unilever, Philip Morris and Rothmans. Although we staged another Fashion Week that year, funding was significantly reduced and we again suffered from the government ban on media coverage.

In response, we decided to set up our own fashion magazine. Having dealt with the main questions of format, content and title  - we opted for ‘Pery’, which means ‘Fairy’ in English -  we applied to the UAPI for a licence to publish. Very naive. The application was, of course, turned down: in those days there were no private mass media in Uzbekistan; moreover, I was still blacklisted. On the other hand, there was still a lot we had going for us: we were accepted by Tashkent’s international community; had put on several fashion shows at a number of venues, including the golf club and a number of embassies; and Svetlana, by then my wife, had, thanks to support from the French Embassy, been able to visit Paris Fashion Week.

In 1998 I decided to diversify into advertising and started up New Wave, an advertising agency based in Jizzakh, while Svetlana, taking over the modelling and fashion business, became General Director of the model agency. New Wave’s first project was the erection of the Independence Monument in central Jizzakh in front of the Uzbekistan Hotel. It is still there.

Not wanting to give up on Pery, our magazine project, we thought that we might be able to get round the UAPI ban if we brought Pery out as a fashion catalogue rather than as a magazine. Pery Models would be responsible for editorial content, and New Wave would take care of advertising. In June that year I went to Thailand to arrange the printing of our first number. It was my first overseas trip, and I fell in love with the place. As a child I had read my fair share of travel and adventure; but actually to be there, and at the age of just 22  - and moreover to be there not as a tourist but as a publisher -  that was just great. I’ve probably been to Thailand more than 20 times now, and I’ve made trips to other countries in the region such as Malaysia and Singapore, but Thailand is my first love.

The printing and delivery of the 3,000 copies of our first 28-page issue kept to our schedule and we launched Pery on July 1st at the Shodlik Palace Hotel in Tashkent. It looked superb. We were immensely proud.

Promotion also seemed to go smoothly: we had posters printed and placed in every carriage of Tashkent’s metro and all over the city. However, we had not reckoned on the authorities’ continuing displeasure at our progress and, as we very soon found out, they stopped at nothing to destroy that first edition and have the company closed. They succeeded. In restrospect, it is clear that unwittingly we gave them quite significant help. 

Pery Fashion Magazine. issue # 1/1998

Pery Magazine. issue # 1/1998

The problem was that our promotion had in a way been too good, on the one hand; and on the other, that we had not considered the authorities’ sensitivities to potential (and wholly unintended) cross-linguistic misinterpretation and offence. That first issue’s cover featured a photograph of Julia Feliciano clothed only in wet fabric: nothing offensive was on direct view, but little was left to the imagination. That probably didn’t help. Worse: the cover also highlighted a number of articles in the issue, of which one was called, harmlessly enough you might think, ‘I am a Model’. This was the cover story, about Julia. The problem arose with the English-language version, the word ‘am’ meaning, in Uzbek, ‘vagina’. Nor is the Uzbek word a particularly polite way of referring to that item of anatomy.

Whether the misunderstanding was genuine or intentional, it gave the authorities all the ammunition they felt they needed: all our posters were removed and all non-subscription copies of Pery’s first issue were destroyed.

It took me a year of meetings, negotiations and compromises to sort out my problems with the UAPI, but it seemed at the end of it all that, finally, everything was in order. The new magazine flourished and we even managed to persuade Lilia Atakhanova, who was married to Uktir Sultanov, the former Prime Minister, to serve as Chairwoman of the jury in our first Pery Cover Face competition.

That year, 1999, I finally got to know London, invited there by Helen Mole to the Arts and Crafts of the Silk Road event, held at Chelsea Old Town Hall. Helen, who is married to Salif Keita, an amazingly talented Malian singer, showed me sides of cosmopolitan London I would never have dreamed of.

The new millennium started well. Svetlana and I got married in 2000, and we moved out of Tashkent to Chirchik, where I bought a small flat for us. In December 2001 Svetlana gave birth to our son Timur.

Business was good too. In 2000 and 2001 Pery became Uzbekistan’s most popular lifestyle magazine, and in 2001 Pery Models took part in the Silk Road Fashion Festival in Istanbul  -  for us a new city and a new culture.

I had always been interested in travel and geography, even winning a national geography competition at high school. So when the tourism committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Tashkent suggested launching a travel magazine, I was immediately interested: I had by then quite a background in printing and publishing, and was convinced of Uzbekistan’s tourism potential  -  the country has a long history, it straddles the Silk Road, its climate is inviting throughout the year, and the tradition of hospitality strong. Even during Soviet times, Bukhara and Samarkand were prime tourist destinations, for visitors not only from the Communist bloc but from throughout the world; and having grown up just 60 miles from Samarkand I had gone there often enough with my parents, to visit relatives and to browse the weekend market there, to understand the captivating appeal of its atmosphere. At the same time, I knew what a life-saver tourism might be to the millions of people suffering under long-term unemployment. A travel magazine could simultaneously increase local incomes and raise the international profile of Uzbekistan’s natural beauty, its people, history and culture.

Having secured the support of Andrea Leuenberger, a hospitality and tourism consultant running a long-term project out of Bukhara who agreed to take responsibility for layout and English language editing, we published our first issue of Discovery Central Asia in May 2002 with Andrea as editor-in-chief. We had put in six months’ preparatory work before that first issue came out, but it was worth it: we were very pleased with the result. Discovery was published as a free supplement to Pery so that we would not have to go through the nightmare of obtaining a new licence from the UAPI. Predictably enough, however, they responded by revoking our licence for Pery.

So Uzbekistan and I lost Pery Magazine and with it a dedicated and enthusiastic readership of more than 10,000, among them thousands of entrants to our annual photo competitions. Pery was a success: created by young people of Uzbekistan for young people of Uzbekistan, it provided real help, guidance and encouragement to readers who thirsted for information not only on fashion but also on entertainment, education and other topics of interest to young Uzbeks. Pery ignited my passion for publishing. Its closure was inevitable given the attitude of the UAPI; but that didn’t make it any less sad.

 

Discovery

Pery, it was clear, was finished, but I still thought that its travel supplement, Discovery Central Asia, could be published as a magazine in its own right, so in April 2003 I applied to the UAPI for a licence for Discovery. It was turned down. A press corps trip that year to Antalya in Turkey didn’t lift the gloom for long.

Discovery Central Asia magazine #25/2008

Discovery Central Asia magazine #25/2008

Nevertheless, I still believed in what had almost become a mission for me: I was not prepared to give up quite yet. I applied for support to the US government’s Business Community Connections Program. There were 300 candidates for 10 internships in the States, and I was fortunate enough to be among the 10 that the US Embassy selected.

We were sent on a one-month internship to Oregon, USA where I worked for Northwest Travel, a magazine based in Florence, Oregon. It was fascinating to see how the magazine was run; but the level of press freedom was simply staggering. There were  - of course -  no licences, no ministries, no secret police and indeed no police involvement at all. This may go some way towards explaining why Oregon is visited by 5 million tourists every year, as compared with Uzbekistan’s 180,000. The town of Florence itself is more or less completely dependent on tourism, but nevertheless prospers because it does a competent job of promoting itself as a tourist destination. I returned to Uzbekistan inspired and determined to at least try to so something similar for Uzbekistan.

As far as my personal life was concerned, however, things had taken a very definite turn for the worse during my absence: Svetlana wanted a divorce. In October we went through with it; at Svetlana’s request I took custody of Timur. I left her the flat in Chirchik and with Timur and a single suitcase of belongings moved back to Tashkent and a one-room rented flat. Venera, my younger sister, helped me look after Timur.

It was at that time that the advice I had received fairly persistently, from friends, relatives and even state officials, to leave Uzbekistan and to develop my publishing career elsewhere, might have appeared most rational: there was no marriage any more to tie me to Uzbekistan, and the Uzbek authorities seemed determined to prevent me publishing. Ethically, however, I couldn’t to leave my country  -  it would have been against everything I stood for: my family, my principles and my country. Moreover, my by now quite lengthy experience of publishing in Uzbekistan had if anything sharpened my resourcefulness, and I thought I saw a way of bypassing most of the obstacles the authorities seemed bent on putting in my way. The solution was for me to publish as an accredited representative of a foreign-registered company  -  which is what I did. With Moscow friends I set up the Silk Road publishing company in Russia, which designated me as its representative in Uzbekistan. Then, in 2004, Silk Road applied for a licence to publish a travel magazine, the perhaps crucial difference being that this time the application went through the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs rather than through the UAPI. After a wait of three months, our application was approved.

In those two years, 2003 and 2004, I did more travelling and built up more contacts than ever before. Many of the people I met not only inspired me: they provided essential operational support. In September 2003 I met Ian Claytor, of the Celestial Mountains Tour Company, whose advice and support were, and remain, vital to our activities in Kyrgyzstan. In Kazakhstan I renewed my contacts with Folke von Knobloch, of Central Asia Tourism Corporation, whom I had known since 1999.

Another crucial contact was Neville McBain, then Director of the British Council, whom I met at a tourism committee meeting at the American Chamber of Commerce in Tashkent. He was an enthusiastic supporter of tourism development in Uzkebistan and knew our magazine, still the only English-language travel magazine in Uzbekistan, and, of course, privately owned and run.

David De Villiers, Deputy General Secretary of WTO (World Tourism Organisation) november 2004, WTM, London

I told him that there were plenty of private-sector tourism companies in Uzbekistan that would benefit from some kind of presence at the World Travel Market in London  - one of the biggest and highest profile events in the tourism trade calendar -  but which were not, for whatever reason, being promoted by the national government’s Uzbektourism stand. Nor could these companies afford their own individual WTM stands. My suggestion was for a Discovery Central Asia stand to promote these private-sector companies collectively. Neville liked the idea, and the stand was a great success: over the three years 2004-6 we represented over 20 tour companies at the London WTM. David de Villiers, who was then deputy General Secretary of the World Trade Organisation, became a regular visitor to our stand. He said he liked our work.

The British Council became a major partner in many of our projects over the next two years, not just sponsoring the Discovery booth at WTM, but also supporting the first editions of our travel guides Discovery Uzbekistan and Discovery Tajikistan. We also collaborated on a superb catalogue, the first, of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus and its collection, the world’s second-largest, of art banned by the Soviet authorities. I remain very grateful to Neville, to the British Council and to Britain.

Another important step I took in London that year, 2004, was to establish the Silk Road Media Company, in which I was joined by a number of partners. Silk Road Media was to become our main vehicle of international corporate development.

Although our presence at the WTM in London was not our first experience of tourism promotion at international trade fairs  - we attended international travel fairs in Astana and Istanbul in 2003 -  our regular travel fair-based tourism promotion work can be said to have begun in London. Since then we have maintained a presence at  annual tourism fairs in Astana, Istanbul, Berlin, Hong Kong and of course London. We have also participated in fairs in Moscow (2004 and 2005) and Baku (2005 and 2006).

In 2004 and 2005 I received significant support in the form of training and professional input to improve our tourism- and publishing-related work. In 2004 I attended a WTO seminar in Tashkent; and in the same year an OSCE-sponsored workshop on tourism-sector small and medium enterprise development in Central Asia, held in Almaty. The workshop suggested new ways in which I could use our website and our magazine to further promote tourism in Central Asia. Support came also from the government of the Netherlands, which paid for Dutch marketing expert Ton Kortweig to advise us on an effective marketing strategy for our publications.

In 2004 I learned that I was to be awarded the 2005 Chevening Scholarship. Awarded by the UK Foreign Office, the scholarship allowed me a year’s study in the UK at my choice of institution, and I chose one of the longest-established media schools in the world, the London College of Communications. It dates back to 1870. On my graduation in 2006 my fellow students kindly voted me that year’s best foreign MA Publishing student.

While I was at the London College of Communications I learned a great deal about the practical aspects of publishing through volunteer work at the British Council stand at the London Book Fair. The work also brought me into contact with Richard Charkin, CEO of Macmillan, and Liz Calder, co-founder of the Bloomsbury imprint. Another London acquaintance of immense importance to me is Hamid Ismailov, head of the BBC’s Uzbek radio service, whom I met when he was promoting his Railway Novel. His devotion to Central Asia is extraordinary.

In London  - through the Society of Young Publishers -  I met a huge number of young people in the publishing business that I came into contact with whose optimism and energy gave me a tremendous boost. I don’t think I could have encountered such a variety of people anywhere in the world but London: it was then, and remains today, a truly inspirational city.

One crucially influential person I met while in London, although initially not face-to-face but on the internet, was a young woman called Aleksandra, from Samarkand. In due course, in 2007, we married. A wonderful woman  -  what more needs to be said?

At the invitation of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, Aleksandra and I attended the September 2005 Silk Road Festival in Damascus. It was a memorable experience, adding to my already quite well developed knowledge of the history of the Silk Road an Arab element of which before then I had been almost entirely ignorant. Some of the aspects of Arabic culture which were revealed to us on that trip, which took us to all of Syria’s most historically prominent cities, were truly breathtaking.

 

Business, Books and New Projects

On a trip back to Uzbekistan in late 2005 we launched a new project, Business Connections, Uzbekistan’s first English-language business magazine. Its main purpose as specified by its sponsors, the American Chamber of Commerce in Tashkent, was to provide potential foreign investors with reliable information on Uzbekistan’s investment climate and to acquaint them with local success stories (not as numerous as one might have hoped) and some of the pitfalls that they might face should they invest in Uzbekistan. In 2007 we set up a similar publication for the American Chamber of Commerce in Bishkek, which we called Amcham Kyrgyz Republic magazine.

In 2006, the award of my Postgraduate Diploma in Publishing marking the completion of my studies at the LCC, I returned to Uzbekistan refreshed and full of new ideas. Despite the enormous difficulties, I felt an obligation both to my people and to the various foreign organisations who had helped me in the past to continue my efforts to contribute to Uzbekistan’s development.

We published an issue of the British-Uzbek Society magazine in London to improve Uzbekistan’s UK image and thus to stimulate investment. We also launched our children’s imprint, dojdik.com, selecting our first children’s book project by online competition. The winner was Olesia Petrova, with her book Pool of Stars, illustrated by Askar Urmanov  -  we are always on the lookout for more titles to add to the series. We consider this a particularly worthwhile project because education is such a key contributor to national development and stability.

To improve the availability of foreign books in Uzbekistan, and simultaneously to improve sales of our own publications, we detected a need for an independent distribution network  -  so we decided to enter the book distribution market ourselves by opening a bookshop to be run by Aleksandra. The first Discovery bookshop was opened in August 2006 at the very popular Dedeman Silk Road Hotel in Tashkent, part of the international hotel chain. Sales were quite good because we radically improved the supply of books in English: we had plenty of regular customers from the diplomatic community, and local students, teachers and lecturers were also frequent visitors. However, there was much more we could do to broaden the range of English-language publications available in Uzbekistan, and the shop began to carry publications produced by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Lonely Planet and Stacey International. In May 2007 we opened another shop at the Tashkent Palace Hotel. Additional sales points followed in Samarkand, Bishkek and Almaty.

Today Discovery books has two main emphases: we retail any publications relevant to Central Asia, including Lonely Planet and Oddyssey guides and a wide range of maps; more recently we have developed our range of English language teaching titles. Book sales operations are managed by the very talented Anastasia Lee, who started with us as a plain sales assistant in 2006.

All our Central Asian operations are managed by Rushana Bayramova, a very loyal, enthusiastic and imaginative woman. Within a surprisingly short space of time she has successfully brought her incredible energy and initiative to bear on the task of developing our publishing business. She gets better all the time and, thanks to her, so do our flagship publication Discovery Central Asia and our national travel guides to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Another important member of the team is Anton Kovalenko, whom I have known for 15 years since our Talk Club days. A talented photographer whose pictures appear throughout our publications, Anton is also an excellent editor and, above all, a sage advisor.

There are of course many, many other people who have played important roles in the birth and growth of Discovery: too many, in fact, for me to mention here. If you are one of them, please accept my apologies for not being thanked individually  -  I am, truly, grateful.

You may have noticed during your reading of this short account that I am not particularly inclined towards modesty. Well, I admit it: I like to excel and see no reason to conceal my achievements. Perhaps it’s something to do with coming from Central Asia, which very possibly offers more such opportunities than other places. Certainly it’s a long way from herding sheep in Jizzakh to publishing in London: looking back on my life so far, I don’t find it so hard to believe now that anything really is possible. Relocated now in London, Aleksandra and I are busy right now with two professional projects and one personal one. The professional projects are a coffee-table book on wildlife in Central Asia and a new magazine, Open, by and for the Central Asian community in London. The personal one? Our son Daniel, born just a few months ago in June this year.

And I’m only 32!

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