Global Policy Forum

Kazakhstan's Search for Its Identity


By Natalia Antelava

March 11, 2008

With their arms folded neatly on the desk, and eyes focused on the teacher, a group of five-year-olds repeat diligently the rasping syllables of their new language. But the minute the lesson is over, they turn to each other and break into softer and more familiar Russian. "I try to make sure that they speak Kazakh when they play," the teacher, Irina Kasymbaeyeva tells me. "After all, they are Kazakh." Across Kazakhstan, primary schools and kindergartens are at the very frontline of the national revival. "Often, once children start speaking, parents come up to me and ask me to translate, because they don't understand what their kids are saying," Mrs Kasymbayeva says.

It is not only families that are lost in translation here. Kazakhs are trying to run the country in a language most of them don't speak. Bureaucrats at all levels are now required to take Kazakh classes and pass language tests, there are even financial incentives for those who do well.

'Dangerous search'

"Our language is so far behind, we need to develop it. In 40 years' time, I want everyone to be speaking Kazakh," says Elmira Suymbaeva, who heads the committee for sport, culture and Kazakh language development at one of the municipal administration authorities of Almaty, the country's biggest city. But behind this obsession with language lies a much deeper, much more complex and, many believe, dangerous search for a new national identity. "There is a very big national identity crisis," says Yevgeny Zhovtis, one of the country's leading political scientists.

In the early 1980s, Kazakhstan was among the first Soviet republics to experience the exhilarating rush of nationalism. It later swept through the whole of the Soviet Union, bringing thousands into the streets in demand for independence. And once this independence was achieved, the newly born states tapped into their historic memory, remembering and often re-interpreting their pre-Soviet past in order to learn how to live in their post-Soviet present. But Kazakhstan's historic memory proved to be thin and its statehood had no roots of its own.

Grey cities

It was the Tsarist Russia that first forced the Kazakh nomadic tribes to settle down and swap their oral tradition for literature, art and music shaped by the Russian and European influences. It was the Soviets who altered history by drawing new borders, and filling the vast Kazakh steppe with grey cities and millions of people from all the corners of the Soviet Union. By the 1930s, Stalin had turned Kazakhstan into a human rubbish bin for the Soviet Union. For almost two decades, an uninterrupted flow of millions of men, women and children went through the concentration camps that Stalin built in the Kazakh steppe. And many of those who managed to survive stayed in Kazakhstan.

From all this pain and suffering emerged a hugely diverse and a truly multicultural society. By the time Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, only 40% of its population were ethnic Kazakhs and most of them no longer spoke the language. Their nomadic ancestors left almost no written records, the oral tradition was wiped out, and it proved difficult for the Kazakhs to remember what life was like before the Russians arrived. The Kazakh government faced a task of not only building a new state but also creating a new, unifying identity for all. It was a challenge, but in the region gripped by ethnic tensions, it was also a rare opportunity to create a state where which group you belong to is determined by citizenship and not blood.


President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power since the Soviet days, says he has done just that. "We are the most multiethnic of all post-Soviet republics. As the result of Stalin's policies, we have people of 130 nationalities living here - these are people who lived through true terrible catastrophes and hardships. That's why the first thing we did when we gained independence was to create equality for all," Mr Nazarbayev said in his latest BBC interview.

Most people in Kazakhstan do not argue with the president. And because multiculturalism is one of the pillars of Mr Nazarbayev's state ideology, not many here question how this diversity can coexist with the accelerating process of national revival, which is built on the ethnic Kazakh tradition. Some believe that by turning the nomadic tradition into such an important component of the state-building process, the government is not only alienating almost half of its population - those who are not ethnically Kazakh - but it is also creating a myth for its Kazakh citizens. That was the point argued by the late Kazakh historian and academic, Nurbulat Masanov, who in one of his last interviews compared the legacy of the Soviet Union to a Russian matryoshka doll.

Clear trend

Just like the wooden nesting doll is made up of a set of matryoshkas, each smaller than the other, so the Soviet-era Kazakhstan was created from layers of values and cultures, he argued. The traditional Kazakh values, he said, were that smallest doll, hidden in the heart of the big matryoshka. "Kazakh culture was part of the hierarchy, but it was only a very small part," he wrote in his interview to website. "But now we are throwing out all the dolls and trying to blow our midget matryoshka into a colossal size, and assign her false achievements." An attempt to give the nomadic culture significance beyond historic proof, Prof Masanov argued, gave birth to myths and showed a deeply confused and an insecure nation.

Many in Kazakhstan would be offended by his argument. But even if the opinions of the late professor can be argued, sociological surveys show that whatever is happening in Kazakhstan is making non-Kazakhs feel uneasy. "All surveys conducted since independence show a very clear trend," says Yevgeny Zhovtis, "and the trend is that non-Kazakhs here do not feel that they are part of the nation building process. "They are working here, they are living here, but they also feel like they are guest, and they don't associate their future with the country." Kazakhstan has enjoyed its independence, which has turned it into the powerhouse of Central Asia. The oil wealth brought all the perks of a Western lifestyle, but behind the four-wheel drives and the glitz of Almaty hides a nation that is still struggling to merge its diversity with its desire to revive and reinvent the lost folk traditions.

The fear is that as Kazakhs find their identity, half of this nation will be left behind.

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