Dispatch From Kazakhstan

Who am I? Russian identity in post-Soviet Kazakhstan.

As a child, Clara Simenova * watched from the window of her schoolhouse as the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in Semipalitnsk, Kazakhstan. It would be another three months until the authorities warned residents to keep their children off the streets away from the radioactive material. Today, she blames her damaged eyes on the total disregard the Soviet authorities had for their people and their health.

Shortly before Tatarstan came under Soviet control, her grandfather performed his Muslim duty of the hajj. He traveled to Mecca entirely on foot. Her family would soon be forbidden to make that journey or practice their religion. They would also be forced to leave Tatarstan as a result of Stalin’s vicious resettlement and repression of ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union. Stalin did to people what hurricanes do to lawn furniture: He swept in uninvited, ripped them from the ground, and then threw them down, beaten and lifeless, miles from home.

By all accounts, this is a woman who should have rejoiced in the collapse of the Soviet Union. A member of a repressed and persecuted ethnic group, her family endured years of hardship in a region that suffered tremendously under Soviet rule. (Up to one-quarter of Kazakhstan’s population perished during collectivization.) Yet, like a hostage who comes to love her captors, Clara will bluntly tell you that independence has done nothing but destroy Kazakhstan.

Today, this sixtysomething Russian professor with a Ph.D. spends hours discussing the beauty and richness of the Russian language. She refuses to watch Kazakh-language news or read a Kazakh newspaper. And as for her grandfather’s faith, Clara is completely unable to understand organized religion and remains an ardent atheist. For her, the center of the cultural, political, and moral world will always be Moscow.

Though not necessarily typical, Clara’s story is a stunning example of the ethnic confusion and dislocation caused by the borders drawn by Stalin, intentionally designed to confuse and divide his people. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, lines that were once merely internal boundaries now define nation-states.

Clara was a Soviet. Today, she must search for a new vocabulary to define her identity. She has no ties to the land of her ancestors and is neither Kazakh nor Russian.

This search for identity is mirrored in millions of ex-Soviet people of all ethnic groups. One of the more interesting cultural shifts in post-Soviet Central Asia is the status and identity of ethnic Russians. During Soviet rule, the Russians comprised more than half of the population in Kazakhstan, exiled by Stalin during the 1950s and ‘60s mass migration under the “Virgin Lands” campaign, when Russians were encouraged to cultivate northern Kazakhstan’s pastures.

Under Soviet rule, Russians were not just an ethnic majority, they were also the political, cultural, and social elite. Soviet policy emanated from the Kremlin, and while a Kazakh headed the local Communist Party, Moscow was firmly in charge.

Today, the tables have turned. Kazakhs now call the shots from the highest levels of government to patronage positions that cover the countryside. Under the thumb of Russian rule for decades, there is a backlash against Russia and the Soviet way of life. Kazakhstan has embarked on a campaign to promote national pride where before there was none. Across the board, nationalist policies are now the norm: One must speak Kazakh to serve in the government, media outlets must provide content that is at least 50 percent Kazakh, and new holidays have popped up all over the calendar celebrating Kazakh traditions and history.

So where does this leave ethnic Russians with no ties to the new but living in the place of their birth? Rootless.

Vera Gatilova, an office manager with an international law firm in Almaty, arrived in Kazakhstan when her father was stationed here with the Soviet Foreign Office. After contracting tuberculosis, he was forced to remain and soon passed away. She and her mother chose to stay in Almaty. Now, a citizen of Kazakhstan, she has no particular affinity for her country but few ties to Russia.

Lack of roots is not the only cause for distress. Russians are also dealing with an increasing sense of powerlessness. Cut out of the power structure, they resent the current Kazakh government, the decline in educational standards, rampant corruption, and even the rise in religiosity (both Christian and Islamic). No longer supported by Soviet subsidies, the social services that were once readily available came to a screeching halt—schools couldn’t pay their teachers, roads and buildings deteriorated, and runaway inflation plagued the economy. While Kazakhstan’s oil wealth has done much to assuage the faltering economy, the billions of dollars flowing through the oil fields in western Kazakhstan are seen by only a thin layer of society. While those with government connections cruise through the streets of Almaty in their Mercedes SUVs, most of the population (especially in the rural regions) still lack functioning social services.

In this environment, Russians often long for the days of old, when grandmothers’ pensions were paid, when they had equal access to good jobs, when mobsters were only characters in American movies. While many Russians fled when the Soviet star burst, according to the 1999 census, about 30 percent of Kazakhstan’s population is still ethnically Russian.

For those who remain, the future is unclear. Soon, there will be few ethnic Russians who remember the Soviet days, and the majority of Kazakhstani citizens will have lived their entire lives under the baby-blue Kazakhstan flag. If nationalistic trends continue and increase in fervor, it is likely that disenfranchised Russians with means will leave for opportunities abroad. But there is also a chance that ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan will come to identify with this diverse country and discover a unique identity not rooted in the past but rather in the future.

One thing is certain: Russians, and the other 150 or so ethnic groups who now find themselves living the consequences of Stalin’s accidental melting pot, will continue to struggle with questions of national and ethnic identity. The mass resettlement programs that disrupted and destroyed millions of lives have come to an end, but the legacy of Soviet policy is not easily forgotten. 

* Name has been changed. (Go back.)