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A glimpse of Kazakhstan

Reading about the roots and shaping of the country one comes to live in is a must for all expatriates. Kazakhstan is one of the countries in the Caspian region the history of which leaves much to be studied and pondered on. Concise sources are often superficial while in-depth studies are fragmentary and mostly in Russian and/or Kazakh. A brief introduction with some exhortation to read further.

Charles van der Leeuw

A brief History

The Kazakhs say they owe their existence to Alasha-Kagan, a princely warlord who led a group of Turkish Kypchak tribes of Naiman Segiz-Oguz origin from their original Nogay homeland north of present-day Mongolia to the west in the late 10th or the early 11th century AD, as part of a migration wave that disrupted the uneasy stalemate between indigenous tribes living in the area of what is now most of Kazakhstan and the lands to its immediate northeast and their early Mongol overlords. Many contemporary historians and anthropologists consider them the core element of the present-day Kazakh nation's ethnogenesis and the cradle of Kazakh statehood. Alasha-Kagan had three sons, from which the "Three Hordes" (or Ulus - Hundred in Turkic) were to descend: the Senior, the Middle and the Junior Horde. The early Kazakh community consisted of a feudal confederation, with the military acting as a privileged class that held it together and protected it from attacks.

            The next Mongol invasion under Ghengiz Khan with its massive destruction of life and property disrupted the sustainability of a dual state divided between communities and a ruling military class in the late 13th century. But in time, it did not make the basic pattern disappear. As the Mongol grip weakened, but under the leadership of Ghengis Khan's scions, the Kazakhs picked up the tradition of old and consolidated their dominion over an immense area stretching from east of today's Kazakhstan, western Mongolia and the utmost northwestern corner of present-day China to the east bank of the Aral Sea, pushing the Kyrgyz and Uzbek nations towards the south and the Uygur and Kalmyk ones towards the southeast.

The rise of nationalism

            It was thus that in the late 15th century the new Kazakh khanate rose on its territory's ashes, a state that was to last until the completion of its incorporation into Russian territory in the 19th century. Within its structure, however, the Kazakh Khanate preserved much of its features of old, including the main division into the three aforementioned Hordes, and a rather sharp distinction between power-wielders and common folk.

            Russia's occupation with the region started under Ivan IV, but its actual entry into Kazakh territory only dates from the early 18th century, after the khanate was all but annihilated in 1723 by invading Dzhungars, and it was only with the help of Russian gunfire that they were finally driven out. Unfair land redistribution and property regulation, most of which was to the detriment of Kazakhstan's cattle breeders used to freedom of movement, while paying tribute to the privileged military class and their warlords, became the main cause in the 19th century for numerous uprisings and the gradual formation of a nationalist movement in Kazakhstan.

            When the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia put an end to the Romanovs' reign, hopes prevailed that, within a federal republic of Russia, nations within its borders could gain enough autonomy to preserve their integrity without taking the hazardous path of total independence to begin with. In July, the First All-Kazakh Congress officially installed the Alash Orda as party-in-power and adopted its 14-point program that the party itself had formulated in June on the occasion of its establishment.

            In January 1918, the Red Guards took Orenburg, driving both the Cossacks and the Alash Orda straight into the arms of the Whites, and the Provisional Siberian Government they controlled, based in Omsk. On July 10 the next year, the Alash Orda officially surrendered and promised to transfer power to the Soviets, who, in their turn, promised a "total amnesty" for the party's leaders and members.

            However, hundreds of other arrests were followed by thousands throughout the next decade, with some people shot but most of them deported and never heard from again. The remainder was to go under in the process of forced collectivation one more decade later, and the lured and betrayed Alash party only revived following Kazakhstan's newly obtained independence in late 1991.

A whirlwind of impressions

            There is not much choice for those who look for a specific concise history of Kazakhstan and its nation in a west-European language - in sharp contrast to the amplitude of literature available on the region where the country is situated, especially on the period when the murderous and devastating hosts of Ghengiz Khan and his successors ravaged the area and the lands to its south and its west. The book "The Kazakhs" by Martha Brill Olcott is a pioneering work and thereby of immense value for those who want to have a basic overview of one of Central Asia's most peculiar nations, but since the book is a first step on virgin territory it also has its limitations concerning exactly those peculiarities. The same can be said about Catherine Poujol's otherwise very accurate factual booklet about Kazakhstan in the French series "Que sais-je" by Presses Universitaires in France.

            In Soviet times, historians employed by the authorities of the "Prison of Nations" treated those nations mostly in a thorough, and not even disrespectful, but uniform way, according to Marx's fatalist historic methodology. Each nation had to have had a tribal, later a feudal, still later a monarchic and eventually an imperial history until its integration into the proletarian brotherhood of peoples.

            Following Kazakhstan's independence, there has been a wave of romanticism dragging historians along and resulting in a boom of Walter Scott epigonism in the approach to every former Soviet member state's past. One of the most striking examples is the voluminous work "The Nomads" - available in an English translation - by Ilyas Yesinberlin, an apparently knowledgeable historian but expressing himself in the form of a whirlwind of impressions. Thus, the first part of his book, entitled "The Charmed Sword", starts with: "Is not death the most reliable weapon in your hands? Was it not your forebear Ghengiz Khan who unsheathed it to vanquish the world? [...] Abulkhair was lying on a large leopard-skin, his elbow resting on the snarling head of the beast. He turned to the other side and was plunged in thought again..." And so the book goes on for nearly 550 pages, like a whirlwind of events with rare chronological indications and far from always in chronological order. Remarkable - phenomenal how a region of the world that has produced several generations of the dullest possible scientists one can imagine can make them go wild all of a sudden and in such a spectacular way...

A lot left to be done

            On the whole, books varying enormously in style on Kazakh history written after independence in Kazakh and Russian are numerous and some if not most of them are genuine attempts to get even in terms of putting the formerly predominant Soviet ideology in its place without dismissing its historical role. Remarkably enough, in many cases scholars team up to publish their work in a collective bundle. The most useful encyclopaedic works in this domain include "History of the Republic of Kazakhstan" by Amanzhol Kuzembaiuly and Erkin Abil, and two collective works: "History of Kazakhstan, Nation and Culture", with articles gathered from a pool of historians led by Nurbulat Masonov, and "History of Kazakhstan and Central Asia", produced by a collective also including Masonov.

            More fragmentary is the bundle of essays on Kazakhstan's history published in 1998 by the Valikhanov Institute of History and Ethnology of the Kazakh Academy of Sciences. The advantage of it is that there exists a translation of it in (not very good) English. Most other books available in western languages are more glossy, often beautifully illustrated but once more empirical in terms of content. In all: a lot left to be done within the framework of a cultural approach between Kazakhstan and Europe.

Discovery Central Asia #20

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