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Window on Eurasia — New Series: Kazakhstan De-Russifying in Two Ways, Observers Say


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Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 1 – Kazakhstan is de-Russifying in two ways, only one of which has attracted much attention. Russians have been leaving that Central Asian countries in enormous numbers opening the way for Kazakhs to become the predominant nation in a republic where until a little over a generation ago they did not have a plurality.

            But at the same time, and in a development that may have more profound implications, the ethnic Russians who remain in Kazakhstan are changing. They are no longer “Russian Russians,” some Moscow observers say. They have become “Kazakh Russians,” a distinctive group which sees itself as different from Russians elsewhere.

            On the one hand, that suggests that in Kazakhstan today, the Kazakhs rather than the Russians are increasingly influential in determining the values of the Russians, a pattern that may be greater there than in many other post-Soviet states but is found elsewhere and that suggests the linguistic-based identity Putin has been counting on may be far weaker than he imagines.

            And on the other, and equally important, this means that Kazakhstan is on its way to becoming ever more Kazakh and less Russian not just because there are fewer Russians but because the Russians who remain, converging as they are on Kazakh values, are not exercising the integrating power they did as recently as a generation ago.

            Petr Svoyk, a Kazakhstan economist, says that on the basis of his own experience he can say that Russians in Kazakhstan remain somewhat Soviet and somewhat Russian but that “ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan are not Russian Russians but already Kazakh Russians” (pravda.ru/world/1614473-russkie_v_kazakhstane/).

            His own family, he says, consists of Kazakhs as well as Russians, adding that he himself having spent so long living among Kazakhs is both a Kazakh and a Russian. Language isn’t the dividing line because Kazakhs speak Russian, but the two cultures are converging with Russians now becoming more like Kazakhs just as Kazakhs in the past became more like Russians.

            There are ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan who insist that they are only Russians, but the number who recognize that they are Kazakh Russians is rising. For them, that identity rather than a narrowly ethnic identity is the future, Svoyk says.  For most, however, they are part of a country which “lives in two worlds.”

            “We have remained a product of the Soviet system: it hasn’t disappeared. Perhaps it is not always visible, but we remain part of it.” At the same time, “we are part of the Western economy and we would not want a return to the past.” Hence the drive to change the alphabet so as to set ourselves apart.

            And this means something else, he says. Even those in Kazakhstan who are oriented toward Russia have as their hero “not Putin but Navalny.” They don’t want to go back to what was as the current Kremlin leader seems to but rather to move toward the future. Fortunately, those who feel that way and those who don’t aren’t in particular conflict.

            “We are no Ukraine, thank God,” Svoyk says.

            A second article in the Moscow media this week makes a similar point but from a different direction. Writing in Vzglyad, Natalya Makarova and Andrey Samokhin say that Kazakhstan, including its ethnic Russians, is becoming ever less Russian precisely because the government there has allowed things to develop naturally (vz.ru/world/2021/5/2/1096791.html).

            Nazarbayev and his successor have not tried to force Kazakh down the throats of Russians or prevent Kazakhs from continuing to speak it. As a result, the two journalists say, language has not become the dividing line and source of conflict that it has elsewhere; and there has been convergence instead of conflict.

            De-Russification is really happening, they acknowledge. Ethnic Russians are leaving Kazakhstan, and Russians who remain are learning Kazakh. But Kazakhs are continuing to speak Russian and to view Russia as the place to go for higher education. As a result,  the two groups can talk to each other and are becoming increasingly similar. 

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