oDR: Opinion

“Two fields” within: Lost between Russian and Kazakh in the Eurasian borderland

Russia’s colonial relationship to Central Asia can still be felt in activism and academia. Today, these networks remain a one-way street.

Zhanar Sekerbayeva
11 October 2019, 12.01am
CC BY NC 2.0 Ewan Mcintosh / Flickr. Some rights reserved

My identity as a woman from Central Asia is always between two cultures, Russian and Kazakh. It is difficult for me to decide which is closer or dearer to me: I speak Russian, I understand Kazakh, but I don’t speak it. My hybrid identity as an activist, a lesbian, a woman writing a doctoral thesis, is constantly in question. I am never fully realised in any of these identities: I am somewhere but only to a certain level, to a certain extent. When I express myself, I do not know how strongly I am coming through.

In my article, I problematise the existing relationship of subordination between Central Asia and Russia - which to this day retains its imperialistic self-image with regards to its borderlands - through my own personal experience between Russia and Kazakhstan. This subordination becomes obvious when considering contemporary academia and activism, as well as the historiography of the region conducted by Russian imperial ethnographers in the 19th century. These men travelled across Russia’s Central Asian colonies (then called “Turkestan”) to understand the colonisation process, with its expansion of Russian language and culture to civilise the inorodtsy - a legal term with negative connotations that describes the non-Russian population.

Historian Marina Mogil’ner argues that studying purported racial superiority and inferiority was a part of a flourishing anthropological tradition in Russia, in the same way that Western science examined similar issues in their colonies. I cannot find any research by Kazakhstani scholars about Russian folklore, society and gender in the 18th and 19th centuries. The work of Kazakh poet, scholar and activist Olzhas Suleimenov is a perfect illustration of this. When he analysed the influence of Turkic nomads on the medieval Russian epic poem “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” in his 1975 Az i Ya study, he was accused of nationalism.

In their work, Russian ethnographers engaged in the so-called “imperialisation” of folk tale plots. An example of this is how the character of Zhalmauyz Kempir - a demonic creature in the image of an old lady - was instantly compared and named as only a version of “Baba Yaga” from Russian folklore. Zhalmayuz Kempir is known for her cannibalism; she appears as a woman with seven heads who kidnaps children. Both characteristics overlap with Baba Yaga, who is described in Russian folklore as an old witch that eats human flesh. Yaga lives alone in the forest, in a hut on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of human bones. Zhalmayuz Kempir is also known for asking her victims to let her suck blood from their finger or knee, which can be considered an intimate and even sexual act.

Why the need to blur the line between these two characters, to make one a derivative of the other? These kind of approaches to studying Kazakh, and indeed, Central Asian “indigenous” culture, have solidified all that is known about the region, so much so that it is now very difficult to find materials that cover pre-Russian and pre-Soviet times which are free of colonial optics.

Russia also tried to classify Central Asian societies in the 1920s, with rural people being considered illiterate populations in need of an education, as well as services such as electricity. Villages (auls) were reformed into collective farms, known as kolkhozy, where Kazakhs worked towards a bright Soviet future. In contrast, people from towns and cities were seen as more educated and, given their knowledge of Russian, had access to better career opportunities. My mother, who was born in 1955, learnt by heart the answers for the Russian-language examination to enrol in medical school in Karaganda; she still remembers dreading that one of the examiners could interrupt her, and interrupt the order of what she had memorised.

If these ethnographers would come to Kazakhstan today, they would be surprised at how “clean” the Russian language - which was “not native” in the beginning - is.

Plus ça change?

I remember when I first joined the faculty of journalism at Moscow State University (MSU) in 2007, after being awarded the prestigious Bolashak presidential scholarship. I chose Russia because I did not know English well enough. But also because, in my view, the most prestigious university for journalism in the post-Soviet space was MSU. More importantly, perhaps, Moscow and Russia have a special place in my heart. There I was to meet and study with the authors of the textbooks that we had studied at the faculties of journalism in Kazakhstan. I spoke Russian in kindergarten, at school, at university. It is my native language, in which I write my poems, academic and journalistic works.

Little did I know that I was in for a major surprise. Several of my colleagues from Kazakhstan and I were asked to pass an additional exam together with a group of Chinese students before studying at MSU. Sitting in an auditorium, we were given clean sheets of A4 and an instructor began to read a text in Russian. The exam was izlozhenie, or dictation, a common practice during Russian language classes at school. How had we - Kazakhstani students, people who have experienced the colonial regime of Russia - found ourselves taking the same exam as Chinese students, for whom Russian is a foreign language? My “two fields within” became painfully apparent through this glaringly discrimination. Despite my education in Russian, I was still being questioned in Moscow, at one of the country’s main universities.

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Among Kazakhstan’s feminist movement, young radical activists are always aware of what is happening in Moscow or St Petersburg. But the reverse is never true

These vestiges of imperial attitude towards Russia’s borderlands remain not only in academia, but also in activism. Among Kazakhstan’s feminist movement, for example, young radical activists are always aware of what is happening in Moscow or St Petersburg, be it manifestos, conflicts, sexist attacks on meeting places. But the reverse is never true. It is as though we continue to not exist in the activist and academic space, or rather we exist only as those who need to be trained or who need shelter.

As far as possible, we sign various petitions disseminated by Russian LGBTIQ activists, but this is rarely reciprocated. The experience of activists working in Central Asia are rarely taken into account at the LGBTIQ conferences and workshops in Russia, and so the dissemination of ideas is unidirectional, from Russia to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This goes beyond language barriers, assumed or otherwise: it relates to the not-so-distant and continuing imperial attitude from Moscow towards its borderlands. No matter how good my Russian is, the message doesn’t really get through.

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