Kazakhs Look to Past as They Build Future

Times Staff Writer

Lawyer Zhanar Alisheva is a city dweller who has never lived in a yurt, yet for her the round wool tents draped with jewel-box fabrics still carry the promise that Kazakh culture is too strong to die.

"When my father-in-law was still alive, he asked us to put up a yurt in the yard of his huge mansion, and on summer nights he would leave his fancy home and sleep in this ordinary yurt," she said. "Each morning, when he would come in for breakfast, we'd see his eyes were shining. He'd say, 'It was like I was plunged back into my childhood and felt the beauty of traditional life.' "

Under Soviet rule, the Kazakhs endured forced collectivization, sharp population declines and submersion into Russian ways. But Alisheva, 35, believes that her sons -- and their children too -- will always appreciate cultural icons such as the tents that served as the mobile homes of Kazakh nomads.

"Each Kazakh, as he grows older and gets wiser, becomes tied to all these things," she said. "It exists on the genetic level. Maybe these things like the yurt or samovar cease to mean anything in practical terms, but using them, people draw moral and spiritual satisfaction."

The Kazakh people -- strongly Asian in appearance but often with some European heritage -- once were a minority in their own land. But now the Kazakh nation is being reborn, thanks in part to cultural nostalgia.

This country of 15 million on the Central Asian steppe faces plenty of problems, including authoritarian rule, deep-rooted corruption and much unhappiness within its large Russian minority, which once nearly monopolized managerial positions. But Kazakhstan can boast a sophisticated urban life, growing oil wealth and a renewed respect for indigenous traditions.

When Kazakhstan became independent upon the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the nation had more Russians than Kazakhs. But a Russian exodus and high Kazakh birthrates have changed that.

The most recent census, in 1999, put the population at 53% Kazakh and 30% Russian, and the trend is toward ever-greater Kazakh numbers, power and identity.

Alisheva speaks Russian as her first language but is trying to teach ethnic traditions to her children. "My children treat their past as something very exotic, because they're urban kids."

Dressed in a floral jacket, red skirt and fashionable sunglasses, Alisheva talked about showing her son a traditional Kazakh wedding costume at a museum: "He laughed and said, 'Mama, you didn't have a dress like that!' I got married in a European wedding costume with a long white dress and veil, but I tried to explain to him that this is our real authentic Kazakh culture."

Like her father-in-law, Alisheva's son Sanzhar, 7, is enamored of yurts. "If you open the top you can lie on your back and watch the sky," he said. "I like the way the sky is blue and the sun is shining."

President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, an ethnic Kazakh who has ruled the country since independence, has shifted over the years from a policy that stressed a multiethnic Kazakhstan toward a more explicitly pro-Kazakh state ideology. Partly as a result, most Kazakhs say life is better since independence. But as ethnic Kazakhs rapidly replace Russians in the business and governmental elite, many Russians find it harder to feel that this is their country too.

"At one point, the Kazakhs were on the verge of ceasing to exist as a nation," said Magbat U. Spanov, an ethnic Kazakh who is president of the Institute for Development of Kazakhstan, an Almaty think tank. "We're a small nation, and we don't have any way out but to resort to certain jackboot measures.

"I'm not a great proponent of the system where people are appointed based on their ethnic identity. In due time, I think this will revert to people being appointed on the basis of ability and performance."

Gulmira Izbanova, 32, who teaches Kazakh music at an elementary school in this former capital, is thrilled with today's Kazakhstan. "Our fathers and grandfathers were dreaming of this independence for more than 100 years, and now that we've got it, we're truly happy."

Izbanova, whose in-laws raise horses, cattle and sheep in the countryside about 60 miles west of Almaty, said she thinks of yurts as symbols of the Kazakhs' history, but that to her, the most important of all Kazakh traditions is the big family.

"Fathers and mothers try to make sure at least one child is born every year," said Izbanova, whose husband has nine siblings.

"In 1933, there was a horrible famine in Kazakhstan, but these traditions survived anyway," she said. "They proved stronger than anything else."

Asylbek Imankulov, one of her brothers-in-law, who lives on the family ranch, routinely perches his preschool son on the saddle in front of him when he herds livestock.

"Our children are taught to raise cattle even from the youngest age," Izbanova said. "This is how you destroy fear in little kids -- fear of work, fear of the animals -- since they're taught to work from the youngest age."

Her father-in-law, Alimkhan Imankulov, 69, said he thought the country was moving in the right direction. "Life started to change for the better as of a decade ago, with independence."

Russians and other ethnic Europeans can still find opportunity here if they accept the new realities.

"I think that the situation for people like us looks more promising than for people in Russia," said Tamara Solovyova, 17, an ethnic Russian high school student in Almaty who plans to study design. "The country is developing and getting up on its feet. There are a lot of things being built here."

Although Solovyova is far from mastering Kazakh, she expresses sympathy for the growing emphasis on Kazakh culture.

"Everything's being switched to the Kazakh language, but I don't think it will be a problem," she said. "We know the basics, since they've been teaching us Kazakh since first grade....

"All this repression of the Kazakhs, that was not right. It's their country, and we must respect their traditions. They learn the Russian language. Why don't we learn theirs?"

A majority of the country's most unhappy Russians and other non-Kazakhs, particularly Ukrainians and ethnic Germans, already have left -- more than 3 million of them. Among those who remain, some have found a comfortable niche. Others feel that they face discrimination and long to move away.

"The Kazakh population is repressing and discriminating against the Russians," said Zukhra Tokhtiyeva, 31, a Russian-speaking woman who lives in the village of Muzbel, about 80 miles west of Almaty. "My kid goes to first grade, but I think life was better when I went to school. I went to Russian school. He goes to school in a Kazakh village. It's impossible for him to study Russian."

Speaking Russian used to be the ticket to success, but now not being fluent in Kazakh can be a major handicap.

Spartak Yensebayev, 33, the musician son of a Russian mother and Kazakh father, describes himself as the only hippie in Astana, the capital. Although he speaks Kazakh, Russian is his first language. He studied trombone and saxophone at a music school but ekes out a living as a street musician, wishing that he could hold down a job performing in a restaurant or nightclub.

"They need a person who will be able to sing and play the sax or do something else," he said. "I had a job in a restaurant like that, but I was fired because the customers were unhappy with someone singing Kazakh songs with a Russian accent."

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