Decolonisation and Adaption for the Future: Language Politics in Kazakhstan

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Driving down any street in Astana, Kazakhstan’s new, hyper-futuristic capital city, you may be surprised to note the total absence of any Russian-language signage. In fact, insofar as whoever is in charge of Kazakh road marking is concerned, English takes precedence over Russian, with Latin script transliterations of placenames sitting under the Kazakh Cyrillic. This comes in spite of the fact that, statistically, Russian is a ‘majority’ language of the country, with 95% of the population having proficiency as of 2009. On the contrary, Kazakh is spoken by approximately 83.1% of the nation, a lesser, but significant, majority. Having arrived in Astana just over a month ago, I was struck by the bifurcated nature of many of the conversations I was overhearing, with taxi drivers, shop workers, and people on the street shifting seamlessly between Kazakh and Russian. In the process of writing this piece, I interviewed around ten Kazakh speakers, across a wide range of age groups, to gain insight into their lived experience of the language.

The generational gulf in attitudes toward the Kazakh language in Kazakhstan was striking: older people tended to be more engaged with the significance of the language and its implications for the Kazakh identity, whereas younger people, born after the fall of the USSR, were more ambivalent – taking the prevalence of Kazakh as an accepted, intrinsic part of the only linguistic culture they have known. Furthermore, every Kazakh speaker interviewed unanimously positioned themselves against Russia, and spoke in almost exclusively negative terms concerning “Russianness”, the Russo-Ukrainian war, and perceived Russian colonial legacies in Kazakhstan. Whilst this small sample cannot accurately reflect the popular opinion of the whole Kazakh population,  these interviews nevertheless suggest a “decolonial” trend in Kazakh society since the outbreak of war in Ukraine

Historical Context:

Prior to the Russian conquest of Central Asia between 1835 and 1895, the Kazakh language was by and large oral, emerging from the Kipchak branch of Turkic languages, with the first Kazakh texts being written in Arabic script. Both Tsardom and the Soviet Union in turn systematically eroded the Kazakh language, with Stalinist collectivisation resulting in the starvation of approximately one third of the ethnic Kazakh population, alongside a campaign of Russification. Russian, in the Kazakh SSR, became a prestige language – the language of government, and a means of achieving social mobility and a steady career. In 1970, 42% of Kazakhs were fluent in Russian, already a dramatic increase on Russian’s total insignificance through the 1920s and 30s. But by the time of independence, 63% of ethnic Kazakhs spoke Russian, with 30% of this figure having Russian as their sole language. It is pertinent to note that Kazakh-Russian bilingualism was almost entirely unreciprocated on the part of Kazakhstan’s ethnically Russian population throughout the Soviet era. 

With this in mind, it is unsurprising to observe some of the Kazakh government’s post-independence policy concerning language. In September 1989, two years prior to independence, Kazakh gained state language status. In the years following, various pieces of legislation have made inroads toward increasing its uptake. For example, as recently as October, a bill has been drafted to increase Kazakh language output in state media from 50% to 70%.

The Kazakh Language as Decolonisation: 

As such, the use of the Kazakh language has a fundamentally decolonial function. The war in Ukraine and the Kazakh state’s subsequent commitment to sanctions against the Russian Federation has renewed the importance of these language policies. The current drafted plans to entirely do away with Cyrillic script for Kazakh by 2025 is a definitive slight against the Russians, a rally against an alphabet imposed upon them by an imperial power for little more than political convenience. The primacy of Russian arguably serves as a legacy of Russian and Soviet imperialism and therefore enables the Russian state to exercise soft power over its former territories. Speakers of Kazakh, particularly the older generation, are keen to emphasise this, with one interviewee declaring that “the Russians humiliate us through language”, accenting a culture of embarrassment about the notion that the Kazakh state has essentially sleepwalked into a situation whereby their native language has been replaced by a colonial one in the space of one hundred years. The same interviewee, who grew up in Shymkent and spoke Kazakh at home, discussed the importance of ensuring her children’s competence in the language – “it connects us with our heritage, which, in our culture, is incredibly significant”. 

Speaking with younger Kazakhs, it was somewhat predictable to observe their ambivalence on the issue. Many of whom take the speaking of Kazakh as a given, having only known an independent Kazakh Republic; one interviewee, Munira, declared “I don’t think about it at all”. 

What was particularly notable across nearly all of the people interviewed for the purposes of this article, was a keenness to practice and speak English. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the founding father of the independent Kazakh Republic, declared Kazakhstan a ‘trilingual nation’, with the English language comprising the third point of the triangle. English, in the Kazakh consciousness, particularly among the younger generation is, for want of a better word, cool. American television, western pop music, and imported designer clothes are very much in vogue. While many interviewees struggled to articulate the reasons for this, one statement to the effect that, “English is a road to better careers for us, and with that comes English lifestyles” provides an astute explanation. From a linguistic standpoint, it was fascinating to observe in my own conversations the ease with which Kazakh youths switched codes from Russian to Kazakh to English.

Kazakhstan is a relatively young nation and one whose consolidation of identity is fundamentally intertwined with its language. While Russian, in the words of Nursultan Nazarbayev, “enabled Kazakhs to access the great literature”, it simultaneously eroded indigenous Kazakh. Ironically, the Putin regime has been the biggest, albeit inadvertent, catalyst for the use of Kazakh, with the Russo-Ukrainian war triggering a resurgent interest, and pushing the need for derussification to the fore. Nevertheless, a political cognitive dissonance between Kazakh state language policy and economic policy pertaining to the Russian Federation persists: as recently as the start of October 2023 the Kazakh government signed a strategic cooperation deal with Gazprom. Ultimately, the continued growth of the Kazakh language and its consolidation among the younger generation must be fostered and encouraged, for the sake of a future beyond imperial hangovers.