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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?