Since I moved to the U.S. for graduate school, people here tend to think that I am Chinese or Japanese first time they see me. But, I like to see how their faces become confused when I start to speak and they hear my (quite notable) Russian accent. And the faces become even more confused when I say that I am not from Russia, but that Russian is my native language.
It is important to emphasize that there exists a Kazakh language, and it is spoken by most of the population in Kazakhstan now. But Russian remains very common – almost everyone in my home country at least understands it. Its official status in Kazakhstan is a language of intercultural communication (if I translate it correctly). But how did it happen? There are not only geographical reasons for that.
People familiar with the world history of the 20th century may immediately say that another reason for that is the fact that Kazakhstan was a part of Soviet Union. And they will be right. To some degree. In sixties, the Soviet government started a program aiming to create “a Soviet nation”. At that time as well during next decade, cultural diversities including native languages and old traditions of all nations living in USSR were strongly suppressed. Learning and knowing Russian was, in some sense, forced by the officials. Both of my parents were born and grown up at that period. As a result, none of them can speak Kazakh, so I was born in Russian-speaking family. I learnt Kazakh only at the classes in elementary and high school as well as some from my granny. And in Kazakhstan, there are many people like me, there are many people like my parents, who consider Russian as their main language. Currently, a damage to Kazakh language and culture done by that Soviet politics is being fixed, but with relative success, in my opinion. But this is another story.
One can actually look deeper into a history of my country and notice that Russian started to spread over the area of Central Asia way before the USSR. Trading relations as well as the geographical proximity mentioned above played their significant role. From my point of view, the major step that led to the increase of Russian influence on Central Asia happened in the XVIII century. At that time, Kazakh Khanate existed at that time on the territory of modern Kazakhstan was in the difficult military situation due to the invasions of Dzungars and pressure from Qing dynasty. This stimulated frequent diplomatic interactions with Russian Empire, which, in turn, led to the penetration of Russian population, culture and language.
There are many aspects of this historical process that one can find interesting to investigate. Hopefully, my post will trigger readers to dedicate some attention to the history of Kazakhstan and Central Asia in general.
Blog written by 2019-2020 ICSC Member Alisher Duspayev