A Linguistic Awakening in Kazakhstan


Photo source: American Councils

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was not a serious debate about the role of the Kazakh language in society. The war somehow gave a wake-up effort to Kazakh consciousness.

After the war began, many people switched from words to actions. After that, they attended language courses and understood that speaking Kazakh was a matter of national security. They suddenly realised that they needed to urgently speak Kazakh because they were bordered by a hostile, imperial country.

The war in Ukraine has precipitated significant social movements across Eastern Europe and Eurasia, if not globally. It has united the European Union on an unprecedented scale and catalysed NATO expansion, with Finland recently joining the alliance and Sweden about to follow suit. It has inspired greater diversification of trade and energy networks and isolated Russia as a cultural pariah.

As Russian forces fight a physical war in Ukraine, a shadow war is being fought across Eastern Europe and Eurasia: a war against the legacies of Russian imperialism. In countries such as Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Ukraine, the Russian imperial and Soviet past are increasingly being reconsidered through the lens of European colonialism. Social media channels promoting decolonial thinking have garnered thousands of subscribers since the war began. Clubs promoting the study of national languages have gotten significant followers. According to the US Congressional Research Service, ‘the war has led some scholars and intellectuals to re-evaluate the imperial and colonial dimensions of Russia’s presence in Central Asia.’

The local language has emerged as a key offensive in this war, as thinkers, writers, activists, and politicians across the post-Soviet space speak out against the primacy of the Russian language and advocate for the rights and privileges of national languages, which were historically suppressed during the Russian imperial and Soviet periods. Language activism has therefore become an increasingly charged topic in Kazakhstan, where the young urban middle class ‘increasingly uses the Kazakh language, looks for Kazakh-speaking content, and discusses… national identity, which had previously been a largely marginal debate,’ as Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The Diplomat in 2023.

Kazakhs are increasingly reclaiming their national histories and rethinking their national identities in light of the imperial and colonial dimensions of Russia’s presence in Central Asia. Maqsat Mälik, a language activist, told Jack Leydiker in an interview: ‘if the choice is between preserving our identity and reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the original language, I would rather preserve my identity.’ Botakoz Kassymbekova, an assistant professor in modern history at Basel University, concurred with him: ‘Russian literature teaches us to love Russia and despise ourselves.’

Alexander Morrison, a professor of Central Asian history at Oxford University, connects this new national linguistic setup to broader postcolonial trends across Eurasia: ‘The war has generated a sense of solidarity across the post-Soviet space, which is facilitated and catalysed by common fluency in the Russian language. The dynamic resembles the Indian anticolonial movement, in which English was used as a lingua franca between decolonial thinkers and activists fluent in various regional languages.’

Some individuals also highlight the difficulty in holding decolonial conversations with Russian scholars and in the Russian language. They think that there is no hope for a better Russia because it is a brutal colonial empire that suppresses non-Russians and does not see it. For them, Russian scholars are unwilling to recognise the need for decolonisation and colonially appropriate the discussions. It is because Russian scholars are in a position to speak rather than ask and listen.

Many social media channels have posted content to help Russian citizens migrating to Kazakhstan assimilate to their new environment.

Conversely, Kazakh accession into the Russian empire references to local Kazakhs a language of imperialism consistently reproduced in Russian historiography that ‘obscures and denies’ the history of Russian colonialism. To this end, Russian scholars have used language such as ‘voluntary integration’ or ‘peaceful assimilation’ to portray Russian imperial expansion as a peaceful, natural process of ‘reincorporation’ of lost territory to its historically rightful homeland.

The local Kazakhs also think that offensive and racist language is accepted in Russian academic circles, indicating a general ignorance of Russian colonialism and an unwillingness to seriously and publicly consider the issue in Russian national consciousness.

Kamila Smagulova, a Kazakh researcher of nationalism and coloniality, offers a sound answer: ‘Decolonial debates are still taking place via the Russian language, but for decolonisation to be successful, these debates will have to shift to national languages.’

In addition to the myriad social movements that the war in Ukraine has impacted, it has also catalysed a mass retrospection of linguistic, cultural, and national identities across the post-Soviet regional space. Jack Leydiker summarised the issue in The Diplomat: ‘As decolonial discourse moves into the mainstream and national histories and identities are reclaimed, the Kazakh decolonial movement may serve as a guide to better understand the many expressions of decolonisation across Eurasia.’


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