If a nation does not know its history, if the country loses its history, then its citizens have nowhere to go.
Mirzhakyp Dulatuly

Language at a Crossroads: The Assessment of Russian Legacy in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Part 1

Language at a Crossroads: The Assessment of Russian Legacy in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Part 1 - e-history.kz

At the end of 2013, Aleksey Zhuravlyov, the leader of the Russian Rodina (Motherland) Party announced that he was working on a project to create a working group and later a civil committee that would start collecting signatures in support of making Russian one of the official languages of the European Union. There are 28 nations in the European Union and 24 languages are considered official in it, argues Zhuravlyov. The politician was convinced that the Russian should be an official language of the European Union as there are 1.6 million people using it in the Baltic states and Germany, which are regarded as the shelters for ethnic Germans and Russians who abandoned their countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The share will get bigger if European Union accepts Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia – all former Soviet republics with a significant proportion of Russian-speakers. Everybody is also looking impatiently on Ukraine and waiting the conflict around accession to be resolved. Russian politicians find it just and unjust as well. Some of them argue that this has a positive impact to give a voice to common language speakers in Europe and make balance in the politics of excluding Russia from Europe. Others think that Zhuravlyov wants to promote himself, but most of the members of the parliament admit that it would be a great opportunity to promote Russian language.

Recently linguistic studies applied the concept of power of language. It is constituted of few demographical and sociological factors. In order to determine if language is more powerful than other elements of our human being, we have to take into consideration the amount of people using it multiplied by their revenues, the worldwide dispersion of the language, mobility of language users and the number of important cultural or academic works published in it. The most crucial consequences are the expulsion of ethnic and local languages by international widely-used languages. People who come from very small communities with a specific tradition and language but without means to ameliorate their social situation change the “side in linguistic conflict” and try to become cosmopolitans or urban inhabitants.

The situation mentioned above was described to put stress on conflict, but it’s not a common situation to totally cut off the roots and not to have a contact with mother tongue. To refer to our situation in the European Union, it is thought that they build a specific European identity which is based on so-called same values, common economic policy in many areas and other state-related, and formal settlements which aims to consolidate European countries. The most counter-current factor that still remains and has not yet been changed by globalization is language. We appreciate national languages, even the local dialects which are “discovered” or emerge from the big ones such as Catalan, Kashubian, Silesian and others. The tendencies of language battleground seem not to menace them in the context.

The other interesting connection between language and politics is the direction of influence of these two social categories. In order to not get deep into the theoretical analysis and fundamental questions, I will quote a famous anthropologist, Alfred L. Kroeber, who claimed that there is no culture without language, and there is no language without culture. He also noted that two groups which share common or similar culture but speak different languages are, in fact, different nationsFor Kroeber, it was key to understand national identity. But as Gellner says, “The number of potential nationalism who failed to bark is far, far larger than those who did [create the nation].” He analyses the number of languages that were estimated to ever exist and reaches a number of 8000. Comparing to nearly 200 countries, it gives no much capabilities for many nations to arise. The last thing which leads to important question in connection between a language and politics is the distinction of Kuczkiewicz-Fraś, who analyses the situation of two Southern Asian countries: Bangladesh and Pakistan. The difference between the two nation-states is that the former attempts to create a statehood based on cultural identity, language and generally on existing community. Pakistan already has a political structure but tries to build a state unity in forming a nation containing different ethnical groups to find common field that will attach inhabitants to their state.

I introduced a context of the dominant Russian culture, which still attempts to show its importance and become a lingua franca in the European Union and, consequently, strengthen its political significance in the West. This perspective is easily understood by Poles who always identified themselves with Western culture as opposing to the East personified by Russia. Poles have a long tradition of opposing to Russification and a deep understanding of independence which is still cultivated even in the European Union, even if it is merely in the sphere of language.

In this essay, I would like to refer to the situation in a Central Asian former Soviet Republic – the Republic of Kazakhstan. It will shed light on what kind of problems can cultural domination bring to other nation. It will also serve as an example to examine threats posed from above. Therefore, we have to answer the questions raised by Kroeber, Gellner and Kuczkiewicz-Fraś:

Does nationalism demand a language?

Can a group that already has a language form a nation?

Which path Kazakhstan has already taken: from state to nation or from nation to state?

I will refer to these questions after a deep overview of the process of the formation of the Kazakh nation, especially focusing on language and the situation of Kazakhs during Soviet rule and how it has changed in the independent country.

Soviet and Russian Domination

History of Kazakhstan, according to language and the development of national identity, can be divided into three main periods: the influence of imperial Russia under the rule of tsar Soviet domination, modern and independent times. I will introduce the Kazakh specific situation at the beginning of the formation of the nation, but it is most important to focus on the second period, because of changes that were made by different Communist leaders towards Kazakhs. Thus, I consider Lenin, Stalin and post-Stalin periods. Each of them has their own significance and should be described separately in order to show the changes that were imposed on Kazakhs in the domain of language. This will lead to well-based understanding of contemporary situation of the state and national identity and a Bataille for revival of language.

Kazakhs from the oblivious past lived on the Central Asian steppes as nomads and their habits were specific in particular hordes. They haven't yet created a uniform nation. It is from the half of 18th century that they entered into relation with their northern neighbor, the tsarist Russia, which saw an opportunity in vast Kazakh land and also an appendage for their emerging empire. Kazakhs were not yet consolidated, with interethnic conflicts and some of the khans decided to participate in semi-domination with Russia to raise their position among the other zhuzs (hordes or great tribes). Russia fortified their southern border and kept military divisions in the region which implied their intention to build an administrative infrastructure. By creating their own agenda in the far south, they had put seed on the land that would have blossomed in the next century and facilitate their cultural domination upon Kazakhs. Russian administrative apparatus was also a tool to introduce the language and was a first form of the function that it had afterwards – a formal language of the state and intercultural communication. It is important to notice that neither Russians nor Kazakhs haven't been yet established and self-conscious nations. Russians also had not have the interest in annexing Kazakh land nor exploiting nor changing their identity. They wanted Kazakhs to be loyal, they let them to follow their religion and hadn’t involved into their internal affairs. Although, they had grasped the external policy and encouraged Russians to settle in the peripheries of their empire and introduced the language in restrained areas.

The situation changed in 19th century by accelerating the expansion of Russian agenda. The Tsarist regime decided to eliminate the traditional structures of Khanate and imposed bureaucratic apparatus with Russian officials or natives trained in Russian values and language. Kazakhs started to show their disagreement by reinforcing masses against tsar. Kazakhs were consequently marginalized from their external and internal affairs as well until the October Revolution. To show how the accents were displaced during the whole tsar period we have to note that at the beginning of education native Kazakhs, Russian-speaking bureaucracy had intention to better manage the people and to understand their ethnical specificity when at the end it was simply the idea to create a russified agenda which shared Russian values to inflict a domination of Russian culture over the steppe nomads. One of the most visible aspects of a new policy of Russification was the change of alphabet from Arabic to Cyrillic. Russia tried to cut off the eastern roots of Kazakhstan, which meant the deprivation of Islamic culture. Subconsciously, the process has been strengthened by Kazakh parents, who were sending their children to secular Russian schools rather than to traditional Muslim ones. Russia offered a bridge to the European culture, which had become a medium of academic thought and was giving prospects for youngsters to make a carrier amongst some part of Kazakh intelligentsia.

The beginning of the October Revolution started a very complex epoch for Kazakhs in terms of providing them with more freedom and prospects for building the national culture. Lenin’s period is marked by a partial rebirth of nationalism among Kazakhs after an oppression of the Tsar. Natives eagerly joined Bolsheviks in overthrowing the imperial tsarism. From the outset, Bolsheviks rule had a hard nut to crack: they were heading an outburst of well-formed nationalities in the empire which supported them and became even stronger during the liberalization of the February Revolution and the civil war after the October Revolution. Bolsheviks had to give the nations some space for free expression to prevent the separatism and put a fundament for building a supra-national Soviet identity based on politics, not on the ethnicity. Lenin realized the need for diversity, and took steps to gain the trust of the steppe people to support the new political order. Bolsheviks announced an act in which they declared a self-determination and equality of nations and languages which were included in “Declaration and Treaty on the Formation of the USSR.” Surprisingly, they followed these directions and implemented them in administration and in education as well. Communists also encouraged the promotion of local press, theatres, literature, with an obligation to follow the ideology. That idea served to spread a new way of thinking among natives by organizing propaganda in more familiar form. It should be admitted that Lenin’s agenda made a lot to open a great amount of schools in the country that were teaching national languages and also to codify and develop the written language. In Kazakh case, it was also a concession since the apparatus implemented a Latin alphabet, which was a compromise between maintaining Cyrillic and Arabic. They neither wanted the Kazakhs to turn to East nor to be dominated by Russia, because of official doctrine not to favor any of Soviet nations, especially “Great Russian” sentiments. All these factors made Kazakhs more friendly towards Russians and laid a ground for creating a “Soviet citizen”.

When the Soviet identity started to settle among Kazakhs, the new Soviet leader Stalin took the power. His first step was to exterminate the intelligentsia, which dictator found a potential enemy. At the same time, collectivization started and deprived middle class of its properties. The inefficiency of collectivism brought many regions of USSR into a huge hunger problem, which in the end caused over 3 millions of deaths among Kazakhs. Political repressions provoked many Kazakhs who survived to leave the country for China, Mongolia and Middle East. It was also a period of a mass settlement of Russians and refugees from the other republics of the USSR, which influenced the country’s demographics and set Kazakhs  in a position of minority on their own land. Also, due to the administrative system that was dominated by Russians or Russified Kazaks since decades, natives have lost an ability to influence the politics of the Republic. People started to use Russian in intercultural communication and that was a main reason why it became highly popular. Simultaneously, in the 1930's, the Kremlin started an open promotion of the Russification process that was gaining more and more political impetus. Unlike the Sovietization during Lenin epoch, which ensured the development of ethnic identities throughout the vast conutry, the Russification process intended to create Soviet people committed to Russian values and language. Stalin was willing to centralize the empire to make the management easier. He went back to the Cyrillic alphabet and  started mass indoctrination in schools. Ironically, due to Lenin’s liberalization and subsequently warming of the image of Russians and also the rise of patriotism during the World War II, Kazakhs were being gradually deprived from ethnic identity with a benefit for the Soviet one.

After Stalin, the politics towards nation and language were not as well planned as it was before. Sometimes it was more close to Lenin’s differentiation or Stalin’s centralization. There was no general language policy or strategy, but it rather promoted Russian as the Party saw no alternative. That period marked also a rise in the role of Republican leaders who had to deal with central and local demands. During Brezhnev, Kazakh political elite received more autonomy. It can be explained by the fact that he was a former First Secretary of Kazakhstan Party and gave more attention for this region. Kunayev, his successor, had a great support of Brezhnev. During his tenure, Kunayev surrounded his administration with native Kazakhs which allowed the promotion of Kazakh ethnic identity. The importance of linguistic revival was still a big deal, but the dominance of Russian in higher class and the domains including business, administration and science was pushing parents to put an effort to educate children in Russian schools even by the cost of neglecting their own language, but to provide capabilities for social advancement. Russification from that time was caused mostly by different factors than the Soviet policy. A low demand pushed the local people to abandon the Kazakh language classes.

These concerns were visible in a commission of language that had been set in 1972. The native culture was preserved mostly in writings of contemporary Kazakhs, which were not banned if they were not criticizing the system. The majority of the literature was about persevering Kazakh culture. Also, apart from using Russian in official domain, it was used at home, especially in smaller and rural  communities. The half of the population of Kazakhs was using Russian in everyday life, but over 98% were convinced that their mother's tongue is Kazakh. Despite this, Bhavna Davne, a researcher who started to learn Kazakh in the 1990's, noticed a specific disproportion over declarations and a factual use of native language. She remarks also a specific competition among central Asian Muslim nations to master proficiency in Russian and that Kazakhs have surpassed others in that field. This will probably explain also the effort of parents trying to teach their children Russian. But it has also the other, not very bright side. Akseleu Seidembekov, a prominent Kazakh writer expressed a concern over the outcomes of Soviet Union social policy. Rather than creating a society of Soviet people, it deprived them of national identity – many people became mankruts, as he describes in a specific Kazakh term. Mankrut is characterized by cultural amnesia, someone who tries, but can’t remember his ancestors and history and of also speak their own language.