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Kazakhstan - One Nation’s Fight for Regaining Its Identity

Kazakhstan, known as the home of apples and its nomadic history, is a country filled with steppes, horses, and wonderful people. At one point in time, even the famous author of Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, called it home. Unfortunately, many people in the West only associate this history-rich country with the comedic film Borat. The film portrays the country in an inaccurate and unfair light.

Kazakhs date their nationhood back to the establishment of the Kazakh Khanate in 1465, which accelerated its evolution into a single ethnic group that shares the same language, culture, social organisation, and more. It turned into an extremely successful khanate during its heyday in the 16th century, when it had a population of approximately 1 million people. During this time, they conquered a mass amount of land; however, the division of the khanate into three zhuzes (hordes) weakened their long-term influence in the area. They were able to defend themselves until the 18th century, when they succumbed to the Russian empire, supposedly as a means of receiving protection. 

Following the Russian Revolution, the tsarist colonial rule over the region transitioned into Soviet colonial rule. Due to the Russification of the nation, there was an attempt to establish the Alash Orda (Authonomy). It was a proto-state that aimed to establish an autonomous Kazakh state within the Russian empire and to create a Kazakh people’s militia. However, the Bolsheviks soon banned it. Kazakhstan did not gain independence until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was the last country to claim independence after the fall of the USSR.

The question remains. How did a nation of medieval origin become a minority in its own country and lose touch with its native tongue? During their rule, Russia stifled Kazakh identity in various ways. During the Soviet era, efforts were made to promote communism. They forced major Kazakh tribes to abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyle in favour of settled agriculture.


Following the start of the First Five-Year Plan, certain activities crucial to the nomadic way of life, including the seasonal movement of livestock across borders for grazing and the winter slaughter of animals, were even made illegal. Due to these changes, they had to adopt new migration and diet patterns, which made them more susceptible to hunger.


The Soviet Union expected to free up large areas of land for grain cultivation through the sedentarisation of a large nomadic population, such as Kazakhstan. Consequently, Russia encouraged colonial settlers to move to Kazakhstan, where they would farm nomad land, dispossessing it from Kazakh tribes. 


The situation was exacerbated when the Russians started building new factories in the north and staffing them with settlers during the Second World War. During the same time, Stalin decided on the collective punishment of Chechens, Tatars, Germans, Poles, and others by deporting them to Kazakhstan. More than 1.5 million peasants from European Russia settled in Kazakhstan, drastically impacting the tribes’ nomadic lifestyle and the steppe’s environment. The number of settlers further spiked during the Virgin Lands Campaign. The aim was to boost agricultural production and offset food shortages. Before the Soviet Famine, only 60 per cent of Kazakhstanis were ethnically Kazakh, while the remaining 40 per cent were Russians, Ukrainians, Chechens, Koreans and others.


The Soviet Union launched several campaigns to encourage nomads to settle. These campaigns included redistributing land and confiscating livestock. These did not have much effect. This was until collectivization came into play. The rules were not clearly outlined. The authorities demanded that the nomads permanently settle and join the collective farms. Many of the collective farms demanded the confiscation of animals, and when Kazakhs had slaughtered their animals for food or to fulfil the grain quotas, the regime apologised as confiscations were not supposed to happen. For Kazakhs, life in the steppe surrounded by livestock was the only way life made sense. Collectivisation took away all traditional ways of life and animal husbandry but did not replace them with an effective system that would not result in a catastrophe. This resulted in a shocking decline in cattle, from 40 million in 1930 to 4.5 million in 1933.


As a result of these ineffective policies, the Soviet Famine broke out, known as Asharshylyk. Authorities confiscated much of Kazakh grain to feed those living in cities. Authorities confiscated more than one-third of the livestock. European comrades and directors often excluded Kazakhs from provisions, and even when provisions were available, the official rations were insufficient for survival. Due to a lack of grain and livestock, denomadization, unfair treatment and unsanitary conditions, more than one-third of the Kazakh pre-famine population died of disease and hunger. This amounts to approximately 2.1 million people based on Makash Tatimov's estimates; however, the exact numbers are unknown as Stalin’s government persistently denied the existence of the Soviet Famine. Some scholars also suggest that Asharshylyk should be classified as a planned famine and genocide. 

After centuries of being under Russian rule, their demographic and linguistic identity was taken away. They were pushed into the minority on their land until well after their independence. Their nomadic identity was taken away. European Russians and other non-Kazakhs did not speak the Kazakh language, nor were they willing to learn, and Kazakhs had to learn Russian as it was the lingua franca of the Soviet Union. Teaching Russian in non-Russian schools became mandatory. With Kazakhs being the minority, it meant that Russian was the most used language even after Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991. Many parents decided to put their kids into fully Russian-speaking schools due to better integration into society and also because Russian schools tended to be of higher quality as they had a longer history of teaching. This resulted in many Kazakh-speaking schools closing down for good. Aneta Pavlenko reports that Russian-speaking Kazakhs had higher rates of academic and professional success, while Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs tended to be poorer. 

Nowadays, the government is going out of its way to re-establish the Kazakh language as the official and majority language in the region. After all, language plays a crucial role in shaping a nation's identity. By promoting the use of the Kazakh language, the country can enhance its interethnic unity and foster a sense of togetherness among its people. While the nomadic culture is not making a reappearance, the Kazakhs are determined to value their culture and language. President Tokayev stressed that learning and mastering the state language must become a norm as it will become an important part of the country’s policy. The aim is to unite Kazakh citizens and create trust in one another, which was lost during Asharshylyk. In 2021, Kazakhs made up 70.4 per cent of the population, and the efforts of enforcing the Kazakh language seem to be paying off, as 80 per cent of the population now speak the Kazakh language. 


An important aspect of repopulating a language is outlining the rules and objectives in the county’s legislation. Some of the reforms include state-language use in court and legislation, using state language in mass communication, increasing the number of Kazakh-language schools, and modernising the Kazakh language, including the switch to a Latin script. The government also aims to expand the use of the state language in science, media, public administration, and more. Additionally, in 2023, the Kazakh language will be required for all civil servants. Interestingly, a Moscow journal complained that this is a creeping occupation of Kazakhstan, and many Russian speakers perceive the promotion of the Kazakh language as unfair towards them. Additionally, some leaders of the Slavonic Public Movement deem the Kazakh language unfit for modern politics, science, and education as it was never a language of civilisation but simply a language of poetry.


Citizens are also getting involved by pressuring the companies to use the Kazakh language for their campaigns. The Kazakhstan Nation appears resilient to centuries of occupation and is proud to share its culture. Brands such as The Nomad Child and Qazaq Republic are built on Kazakh pride, and it is inspiring how many people decide to represent their nation every day. Additionally, when walking around Almaty, you can see many individuals of all ages incorporating traditional wear into everyday outfits. It does not hurt the national pride that the most famous brand of chocolate is wrapped in a Kazakh flag. The Kazakh story is one of resilience and the constant fight to regain its identity that was stifled by Russian rule.

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