In Central Asia, speaking the Russian language used to be a sign of education, high culture, and a marker of the upper class. Its mastery also presented more opportunities in terms of employment. For the region’s most well-educated and prosperous, Russian remained the primary language after the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991.
Now that Russia is fighting a genocidal war in Ukraine to capture territory and impose its identity on the Ukrainian people, speaking the Russian language has turned into a symbol of lasting colonial repression of local identities. Today, more Central Asians, especially in urban areas, are asking themselves: Why do we continue to speak the language of a neighboring country that once occupied us, and not our native languages?
The region’s search for language, historic memory, cultural heritage and – above all – dignity outside of Soviet propaganda started two decades ago, but until recently lived mostly among Central Asian scholars and civil society. In politically freer Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, activists, scholars, and art communities have notably rebelled against old Soviet notions of the region. Criticism of Russian imperialism has spilled over into the mainstream.
Especially in larger cities, numerous public events have openly called for rejecting Russian colonial stereotypes about Central Asian cultures. The topics of these discussions range from recasting Soviet occupation as violent colonialism, to learning to speak regional languages, to searching for indigenous traditions in attire and cuisine.
Decolonial discussions are omnipresent – at conferences, parties, and podcasts. Families grapple with memories of who they lost in the violence under the Soviets, who among their relatives in Russia might have been drafted to fight in Ukraine today, and why some within their communities still blindly believe the Kremlin’s propaganda. Across the region, people ask: Are we, without realizing it, mankurts – mindless slaves who suffered torture in captivity, as described by the famous Kyrgyz writer Chyngyz Aitmatov?