Unease at Focus on Language, Identity in Kazakstan

Russians say nationalist sensitivities have been heightened by Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

Unease at Focus on Language, Identity in Kazakstan

Russians say nationalist sensitivities have been heightened by Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

The Ascension Cathedral in Almaty. Built in 1907, the cathedral serves the local Russian Orthodox community, and is made entirely of wood. (Photo: Deonisy Mit)
The Ascension Cathedral in Almaty. Built in 1907, the cathedral serves the local Russian Orthodox community, and is made entirely of wood. (Photo: Deonisy Mit)
Wednesday, 17 September, 2014

Nina Morozova, 73, a retired history teacher in Almaty, has lived in Kazakstan all her life.

Her family originally came from Russia’s Oryol region, but she was born in Petropavlovsk in northern Kazakstan and considers the country her home. Her daughter-in-law and many of her friends are Kazak.

Recently, however, she says she has sensed a change in attitudes towards ethnic Russians from the Kazak majority.

“Life has now become more complicated. They [Kazaks] try not to speak Russian they way they used to. Occasionally I get treated in a rude manner. Recently a young woman in the shop told me I should address her in Kazak only,” Morozova said. “In the past, when I visited places for work, I tried to speak Kazak with the locals.… If we made mistakes, they’d politely correct us. Now they demand that you speak it.”

Morozova can converse in basic Kazak and supports government policies to promote use of the language in public life. But attempts to impose it aggressively have alienated her.

“I just don’t want to respond,” she said, adding that she often hears comments like “go back to Russia”.

“Going back” is not something she has ever seriously considered.

She is aware of the Russian government’s “Compatriots” programme, which aims to help ethnic Russians living in former Soviet republics move to the Russian Federation. But with no close relatives in Russia, Morozova has no plans to move.

“My family is not going to leave unless we are forced to,” she added.

Morozova is one of about 3.7 million Russians, who make up the biggest minority in Kazakstan. According to last year’s figures, they make up 22 per cent of the 17 million strong population, while ethnic Kazaks account for more than 65 per cent.

As well as pressure to learn and speak Kazak, Russians also complain of feeling sidelined from political decision-making. Knowledge of Kazak is increasingly a requirement for civil service appointments, and only a handful of Russians represented at a senior level in politics.

Many have surreptitiously acquired Russian passports, even though dual nationality is not allowed under Kazak law and the government is cracking down on the practice. Last month, it proposed integrating its migration data with Russia to make it easier to check whether people applying for passports had renounced their Kazak citizenship.

Sensitivities have been heightened by events in Ukraine, in particular Moscow’s annexation of Crimea under the pretext of “protecting Russian-speakers”. This has clear and unsettling implications for Kazakstan, especially in the country’s north, home to a substantial Russian community.


Marina Sabitova, a political analyst, said there was no risk of an imminent exodus. She noted several waves of migration from Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, driven by a range of economic and political factors. In 1989, Russians made up 37 per cent of the population of Kazakstan.

“But now the migration situation has stabilised and people are substantially less willing to change their place of residence. They demonstrate a more rational attitude, and no one takes a spontaneous decision to move to another country,” she said. “These days, only armed conflict or fears for the lives of their children would prompt ethnic Russians in Kazakstan to leave the country.”

Another factor deterring possible emigrants are reports that the resettlement process is hugely bureaucratic.

“It is difficult to provide all those wishing [to settle in Russia] with documents, employment and housing, particularly given the latest political developments and the [east Ukraine] armed conflict,” Sabitova said.

Russians from Central Asia sometimes finds themselves regarded as outsiders when they go “home”.

“Russians living in Kostroma [on the Volga] and Russians from Shymkent [southern Kazakhstan] are different,” Sabitova said, adding that life in Russia could be a culture shock for people who had lived in Kazakstan all their lives.

That view is shared by Margarita Yegorova, a 56-year-old artist from Shymkent. A Russian born in Kazakstan, she told IWPR she could not imagine herself living anywhere else.

“When I’m in Russia for a visit, I like everything about it. But I miss my home. This is my country.”

In her younger years, Yegorova spoke Kazak, but she does not use it much since Russian is so widely spoken.

Yegorova said she personally had not experienced discrimination.

“If someone tried it on with me and said ‘Pack up, get on a train and go to Russia’, I would know how to respond,” she added.

And despite attempts to create what she described as artificial rifts between Kazaks and Russians, Yegorova said both communities generally got along well.

In the late 1990s, Kazakstan passed a law making Kazak the state language and requiring all citizens to learn it, but the government has taken a low-key approach to implementing this policy.

Russian remains widely used, particularly as a lingua franca, and is still the main language for administration and official business.

Some nationalist Kazaks, both officials and among the general public, have become more vocal about supporting promotion of the language. A number of municipalities have removed Russian-language public signs, or declined to provide Russian translations for official communications, for example during court proceedings.

The Kazakstan authorities are sensitive to the importance of maintaining a balance and insist that the promotion of Kazak should not be to the detriment of Russian speakers.

Last month, President Nursultan Nazarbaev told state broadcaster Khabar TV that he wanted the policy of promoting the Kazak language to be a moderate one so as to avoid ending up in a situation like Ukraine.

Referring to attempts by some nationalists to rescind the official status of Russian, he said the right way to promote the Kazak language was a gradual approach, not “putting pressure on people to speak Kazak and [ending up with] violence and loss of sovereignty”.

Language is becoming less of an issue for younger people who learn Kazak at school and have no memories of the Soviet era when Russian was dominant.

More ethnic Russians speak Kazak now than in the past, and many are clear about where their allegiances lie.

In June, Alexander Yakovlev, a young Facebook user from Kazakstan, posted an open letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin rejecting his “hostile rhetoric” towards neighbouring countries under the pretext of defending ethnic Russians. He insisted there was no violation of rights and no threat to the Russian language in Kazakstan.

His letter was hotly debated in Kazak-language media and on social networking sites.

Anna Golosova, 35, is an ethnic Russian from Qaragandy (Karaganda in Russian) in central Kazakstan.

Her entire family has moved to Russia’s Ural region, while she herself has inherited property in Ulyanovsk on the Volga. Despite this, the shop assistant has chosen to stay in Kazakstan and has no interest in moving to Russia.

“I don’t like the Ural region where all my relatives live. I love the steppes, our Karaganda,” Golosova said.

Nadia Bukeikhanova is an IWPR contributor in Kazakstan.

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists