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The War in Ukraine Is Catalyzing a Linguistic Awakening in Kazakhstan

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The War in Ukraine Is Catalyzing a Linguistic Awakening in Kazakhstan

As Russian forces pursue a physical war in Ukraine, a shadow war is being fought too: a war against the legacies of Russian imperialism.

The War in Ukraine Is Catalyzing a Linguistic Awakening in Kazakhstan
Credit: Depositphotos

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biybarıs Seitak said, “there was not a serious debate about the role of the Kazakh language in society.”

Seitak is the founder of the Kazak Bubble Instagram channel, which posts content in and about the Kazakh language.

“After the war began, many people switched from words to actions. They attended language courses and understood that speaking Kazakh was a matter of national security. We realized that we urgently need to speak Kazakh when we are bordered by a belligerent, 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 catalyzed NATO expansion, with Finland recently joining the alliance and Sweden slated 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 swelled in ranks. According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, “the war has led some scholars and intellectuals to reevaluate the imperial and colonial dimensions of Russia’s presence in Central Asia.”

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 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 a policy brief earlier this year. 

I traveled to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, to learn more about how Russia’s war in Ukraine is catalyzing the linguistic debate in Kazakhstan, and what this debate indicates about decolonization in the post-Soviet space more broadly.

“Before the war began… people generally agreed that the Kazakh language should be promoted, but people disagreed on the means to do so,” Seitak told me. After the war began, interest in learning and speaking the Kazakh language surged. This heightened interest in the Kazakh language caused by the war is indicative of a broader development in Kazakhstan — as one of the creators of the Qazaq Grammar initiative, Nursultan Bagidolla, told Mediazona in May 2022, “the war has had a wake-up effect on Kazakh national self-consciousness.” 

Kazakhs and Kazakhstani citizens 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 who delivered a TedX talk on transforming the Kazakh language into the language of interethnic communication, told me “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, concurs: “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 configuration to broader postcolonial trends across Eurasia. “The war has generated a sense of solidarity across the post-Soviet space, which is facilitated and catalyzed by common fluency in the Russian language.” This shouldn’t surprise us, Morrison added. “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.” Morrison sees the Russian language, at least temporarily, being activated as an instrument of anticolonialism across post-Soviet states.

Kassymbekova, however, highlights the difficulty in holding decolonial conversations with Russian scholars and in the Russian language. “There is no hope for a better Russia because it is a brutal colonial empire that suppresses non-Russians and does not see it. Russian scholars are unwilling to recognize the need for decolonization and colonially appropriate the discussions. They still think they are in the position to speak rather than ask and listen. This is why the most profound decolonial discussions will have to take place in national languages.”

Kassymbekova’s experience with Russian scholars is not atypical. Colonial amnesia suffuses most Russian scholarship, with some notable exceptions. Many social media channels have posted content attempting to help Russian citizens migrating to Kazakhstan assimilate to their new environment. In one such post by the Qazaq Grammar account, a line reads: “In Kazakhstan, the historical term ‘Kazakh accession into the Russian empire’ is not used. In Kazakhstan, this event is called ‘colonization/capturing of Kazakh land by the Russian Empire.’” 

The post’s explicit use of the term “Kazakh accession into the Russian empire” references 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. However, as Morrison reminds us, “Central Asia and the Caucasus were conquered violently, and not ‘peacefully assimilated.’” He specifically references “the most notorious massacre coming in the taking of Gök-Tepe in 1881, where 14,000 Turkmen were killed.” 

That this offensive and racist language is accepted in Russian academic circles indicates a general ignorance toward Russian colonialism and an unwillingness to seriously and publicly consider the issue in Russian national consciousness. If Russian scholars are unwilling to debate the history of Russian colonialism, where does that leave the future of decolonization in the post-Soviet space?

Kamila Smagulova, a Kazakh researcher of nationalism and decoloniality, offers one answer. “Since language issues affect peoples’ day-to-day realities – their opportunities, rights, ability to find work – I see the future of decolonization in negotiating language politics,” she told me. Kassymbekova concurs. “Decolonial debates are still taking place via the Russian language, but in order for decolonization 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 catalyzed a mass reconfiguration of linguistic, cultural, and national identities across the post-Soviet space. 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 decolonization across Eurasia.