Azamat Junisbai was almost 16 when the Soviet Union collapsed around him. But it took Putin's aggression against Ukraine for him to decolonize his Kazakh mind.

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The unapologetically imperialist zeitgeist of Russia’s war against Ukraine has been deeply unsettling and has spurred a great deal of reflection about my own identity and my family’s history. This is my attempt to begin to make sense of my own evolving relationship to the Kazakh language and culture. 

Just like Ukraine, Kazakhstan became a sovereign country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is the ninth largest country in the world, endowed with an incredible wealth of natural resources. Kazakh is one of more than 30 languages in the Turkic language family. Historically, Kazakhs were nomads who traveled vast distances with their livestock making a living in harsh but beautiful environments. Building elegant and lightweight yurts and eagle hunting are among the best-known traditional Kazakh cultural practices. After being conquered by the Russian Empire in the 19th century, Kazakhstan was known as the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakh SSR) for much of the 20th century.

I’m a middle-aged Kazakh man currently living in California. Though born and raised in the Kazakh SSR, my command of the Kazakh language is tenuous at best, and I have but a passing familiarity with Kazakh traditions and culture.  For much of my youth, this severed connection did not bother me. In fact, I was somewhat smug about it. I used to joke darkly about being a mankurt (one who is deprived of memory) as described by the great Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov. Whenever someone would try to question my inability to sustain even the most rudimentary conversation in Kazakh, I would be dismissive and often irritated. 

Lately, I have been trying to understand why.   

From Soviet state to nation

I was almost 16 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Kazakh SSR ceased to exist, and Kazakhstan became a sovereign country. My family is Kazakh, but my first language was Russian. Importantly, Russian was also the first language of my mother and her three siblings, all born in the 1940s. Their bilingual mother wrote and published poetry in Kazakh until her death but raised her four children to speak Russian, insisting that it was essential for their futures.  

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, ethnic Kazakhs made up just under half of Kazakh SSR’s population. Most were concentrated in rural areas. Almaty, the picturesque and cosmopolitan capital of the Kazakh SSR, was less than 20% Kazakh, as it was very difficult for ethnic Kazakhs to get a residence permit that would allow them to settle there.

As a Kazakh kid at an elementary school in central Almaty in the early 1980s, I was one of just a handful of Kazakhs in my grade. Kazakh language class was taught twice a week and it was the one subject that no one took seriously. Needless to say, Russian language and literature were far more prominent in our curriculum. Tellingly, in the entire city of Almaty, with over a million inhabitants and hundreds of schools, there was a grand total of two schools where Kazakh was the language of instruction.

This story is undoubtedly familiar to many urban Kazakhs who came of age during Moscow’s rule in Central Asia. This is the story I have shared countless times over the years in various social encounters in the US.

It is also not the whole story.  

Calling colonialism by name

Growing up, we were always taught that Russia’s presence in Central Asia was a generous gift of modernity and civilization. The word “colonialism” was never used. To this day, describing Moscow’s control of Central Asia as Russian colonialism is likely to generate irate responses from even otherwise liberal Russians, or at least a tinge of disappointment about the lack of gratitude for “roads, schools, and hospitals.” 

In contrast, our curriculum omitted mention of Soviet nuclear testing carried out on Kazakh soil, Stalin-era purges of the Kazakh intelligentsia, the Aral Sea ecological disaster, or even the catastrophic man-made famine of the early 1930s in which an estimated 40% of Kazakhs starved to death. 

Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, I have been increasingly circling back to the uncomfortable memory of contempt for most things Kazakh that I had felt growing up.  I associated Kazakh language and culture with being rural and uncultured. Low status. I was quick to label Kazakhs who spoke accented Russian as mambety—an insult that makes me wince today. Looking back, I can see that it was a derogatory term I reserved for those whose connection to the Kazakh language and culture has not been severed as my own had been.  

It seems that Moscow’s long rule in Central Asia extended far beyond political and economic control or even erasure of language and culture. I didn’t just lose Kazakh language and culture: I learned to feel contempt for them, to be embarrassed by them. I have an uncomfortable childhood memory of thinking how strange and awkward it was that in the Kazakh language the word for “palace” is sarai which corresponds to “barn” in Russian. 

I suppose this is precisely what a thorough colonization is supposed to accomplish. Internalized racism is a term that comes to mind. Another is colonized conscience. Or even self-hatred or self-loathing. Coming to terms with the depths to which my own conscience was colonized is painful. 

I am still trying to process this as I write, but it is clear that Ukraine’s heroic struggle against Russian aggression as well as the clear and present danger of the Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions toward Kazakhstan have rejuvenated my own sense of Kazakh identity as nothing ever has. 

I am starting Kazakh lessons this fall. And I hope that my daughter, born in June of 2022, will grow up proud of her Kazakh heritage. Maybe this is what the beginning of decolonization of consciousness feels like.    

Azamat Junisbai is a Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College. A native of Almaty, Kazakhstan, he moved to Claremont after getting his Ph.D. in Sociology from Indiana University in 2009. His research interests...

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