KAZAKH HOSPITALITY: Genghis Khan Notwithstanding

first posted in 2014



Step One:  2000 years of Kazakh History in 200 words

Like most countries, Kazakhstan’s geography has colored its history. Sitting between two of the largest powers in the world — China to the east and Russia to the north and west — the nomads of this middle land strived for centuries to stay out of the way of the battles between these two major powers; not easy to do.


Kazakh history is essentially a series of invasions. Persians, Usans, Huns (yes, Attila the Hun, of “bringing down the weakened Roman Empire” fame, was here too), and Mongols (under the equally infamous Genghis Khan) all sacked the steppe at one time or another, some more than once.


Thanks to torrentbutler.eu Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe
Thanks to torrentbutler.eu
Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe


By the end of the 15th century, a unified Kazakh Khanate encompassed the land that is roughly Kazakhstan today. Within this Khanate were three hordes (or zhuzes): the Great, the Middle, and the Small, each containing a dozen or more tribes. And, though the first question a Kazakh asks upon meeting another Kazakh is “What horde are you from?” (or what tribe) there’s no problem if it is different, only delight if it’s the same.


Beginning in the early 18th century, the leaders of the three hordes (separately, over about fifty years) sought the protection of the Russian monarchy under Catherine, and later Peter the Great. Soon, Russian forts dotted the landscape.


A 2012 Russian stamp showing a generic fort -- It was the closest I could find!
A 2012 Russian stamp showing a generic fort — It was the closest I could find!


With the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Republic of Kazakhstan was born. And, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan as well as 14 of the other Soviet bloc countries suddenly found herself independent.


Step Two: What’s Real?

The more I understood the complexity of Kazakh history, the more fascinated I became. The contradictions, the interpretations of historical facts that were different from what I’d been taught, grabbed me.


Living in Kazakhstan, I learned that Genghis Khan was seen as less the schoolyard bully of Western lore than a fearless and intelligent warrior whose reach in the 13th century extended to four times beyond that of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). And his was pretty big:


With thanks to Kids.Britannica.com
With thanks to Kids.Britannica.com


What also stood out for me as I read numerous accounts of Kazakh history was the Kazakh people survived each wave of invaders. Essentially, they posed no threat. Indeed, they were downright hospitable.


“Guests are a gift from God,” one of the many Kazakh proverbs I would hear over those two year, is still taken literally. Now, I may have romanticized this. But frankly, I think I’ve got it pegged. What is unmistakable is that hospitality is deeply embedded in their national psyche.


Step Three: Hospitality as a national defense mechanism?

As I piece together Kazakh history, I realize their nomadic heritage left them with no written history. How could it? Their traditions and history were passed orally. And, while a few written histories have now been published, I find they often contain conflicting or vague information. And I have yet to find an unbiased English-language history.


Were the Russians who came in 1731 welcome saviors, invited by the local Kazakh leaders seeking protection from the east? Or were they conquerors of the land for purely their own gain?
Did the Kazakh Khans act in the long-term best interests of their people?  Or were they seeking short-term gain for themselves?

I’ve found it depended upon who was speaking. In either case, what’s clear is that once the Russians got to Kazakhstan, they didn’t leave.


They built forts, they confiscated land, they initiated the steady decline of the nomadic lifestyle the Kazakhs had had for thousands of years. And, later, they sent new waves of Russians, Chechens, Georgians, Slavs and others into Kazakhstan: political prisoners, agriculture workers, even Cossacks, those Russian mercenaries who took their name originally from the well-feared Kazakh warriors to the south.


The Kazakh reputation as fearless warriors is also legion. And over the years, some did try to revolt. Twice in fact: once in the mid 1800s when the Russian land grab made life brutal for the nomads, and another after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia when Kazakhs were being conscripted into service in World War I. Both revolts ended badly for the Kazakhs.


Which brings us to another proverb. I’ve lost track of the number of times I was told, “Kazakhs will feed a guest first, and then ask his name.” I saw this first hand in Kazakhstan too, and I became curious to see if it’s connected to the absence of names in all those introductions I went through. Someday I hope to find out.


Thanks to centralasiarally.com
Thanks to centralasiarally.com


Another Kazakh proverb will help tie the hospitality theme and oppression together. “If someone offends you, serve him a meal.” I saw remnants of this attitude in the Kazakh resistance to speak ill of the Russians who still live there. At schools when I was there in 2004 – 2006, children still studied Russian heroes as their own. While most street names have been changed to reflect Kazakh heroes, not all were.


And then there’s the Russian language. Rather than being banned outright, as it was in Uzbekistan and a few other former Soviet Republics, in Kazakhstan the Russian language is officially the “language of inter-ethnic communication.” Officially. No longer the state language, to be sure, but still with a major presence.


During the Soviet times, there was a particular history, Russian history, and the people of Kazakhstan fit into that from the Russian point of view only. Kazakh history teachers, I can only imagine, walked a narrow tightrope during those years.


Who decides which facts are worth remembering and which to toss on the editing floor of the past? Historical facts are always open to interpretation. Our own Boston Tea Party might be remembered as no more than a minor rebel uprising but for the fact that American colonists won and, therefore, got to write the history of the time.


From http://weaselzippers.us/164565-this-day-in-history-boston-tea-party/
From http://weaselzippers.us/164565-this-day-in-history-boston-tea-party/


Feminist deconstruction shows us how the passage of time allows historical events to settle into what we come to call “his story.” Even once settled, “history” continues to be dynamic, changing in response to new information, new ways of perceiving reality, new ways to tell the story. In Kazakhstan, not enough time has passed.


There are still Russian interpretations and Kazakh interpretations. And, I’m finding, interpretations by authors of other countries intent on “helping” Kazakhstan mold itself into a particular image of their choosing.


The Kazakhs seem to be open about this “evolving history” as a problem they are addressing. When I say I am confused, they smile and agree that there is much reason to be confused.


They are, after all, a most hospitable people.


What about you?  Are there aspects of your history that you look at differently today from when you were a child? 


11 Responses

  1. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    This makes a fascinating footnote to your book. We understand too little of societies like the Kazakhs’ and, as you point out, the moment others begin to write their history down it becomes subject to untold outside bias and political perspective. Finding the truth after that has happened can be difficult, but you had the benefit of going right to the source – the Kazakh people themselves.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Many excellent points here, Ian. Thank you for adding them.

  2. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    I have a new friend who lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia where I also have a home. She wrote the following email to me following this post, and has given me permission to add it here in the Comments section. Thanks Jan. I think your words add much to this conversation.

    So true… histories are so inaccurate, written by the victors, and so many histories were never written anyway. I used to think that was so terrible, but in my old age and the age of FAUX NEWS, I realize many written histories are just pure BS.

    I was also amused at the painting of the Boston Tea Party with the imitation Indians wearing imitation Siouan head dresses. God bless Hollywood, eh? I wonder how many “white” people had even seen a Sioux Indian in 1773.

    Made me think about the lies we have been taught as truth here both in words and pictures, both in history books and entertainment. Maybe we are not so different from your friends in Kazakhstan.

  3. Nancy Gregory
    | Reply

    Janet, I have just returned from a trip through Central Asia. I traveled with Far Horizons Tours and the leaders were an astronomer and an archeologist. I learned a lot; the history of the area is fascinating (and confusing). We traveled through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan (for 10 days)and Kazakhstan. We only spent a short time in Kazakhstan, seeing the site of the first mosque in Kazakhstan, then going to Turkestan where we saw the Yassavi Mausoleum, and then stayed in Altmaty where we saw the nearby Tamgaly Tash petroglyphs.
    As a Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Kyrgyzstan, I extended my trip and visited my friends in Bishkek. I was particularly interested in their current state of affairs. Prosperity (for some) is certainly apparent. Many countries are investing in the area; i.e. the Chinese are building roads. Kyrgyzstan is the only C.A. country who still has Peace Corps Volunteers. There are multiple reasons, but one may be the increasing influence of Russia in the area.
    I am trying to digest all that was presented to me the last month and it is difficult–I am overwhelmed with information. I am certainly glad I had the opportunity to visit and it seems tourism is increasing in the area. We saw at least one additional U.S. tour company there. I encourage your readers who are interested in ancient cultures to visit Central Asia.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Welcome home, Nancy. Glad your travels went without too much drama. It’s an interesting take on why PC left so many of the Stans. Russia evicted them too, many years ago now, though the story I heard was that too many PCVs were getting drunk. Love to hear stories from different perspectives.

  4. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    I don’t remember history from when I was a child but when I was a teen it seems history I was told or read is not the same now—maybe it isn’t all one sided now—whoever writes the history book but we can now tap into may people and sources and form our own decision on what we believe

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, Susan. I think the idea that “he who wins gets to write the story” has been gaining much traction in the past 40 years or so. Makes a lot of sense, I think, to revisit some of those early points of view.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Embracing the Bookshelf: The Dilemma of ChoiceMy Profile

  5. Fancy
    | Reply

    Killing with kindness! I like the polite approach to dealing with issues.

  6. Heidi Love
    | Reply

    I love the line, “…the interpretations of historical facts that were different from what I’d been taught, grabbed me.” Thanks for this post.
    Heidi Love recently posted…THE ELECTRIC WOMAN by Tessa FontaineMy Profile

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