The Kazakh Intelligentsia’s Role in Shaping National Identity

Kazakhstan’s significant history of Russian colonisation almost led to the destruction of the country’s national identity by the twentieth century. Russian policies in the region aimed to eradicate traditional culture and control the population. As colonisation intensified in the early twentieth century, Kazakh intellectuals aimed to reconstruct national identity in order to resist colonial oppression and ensure the survival of their nation.

Kazakhs were traditionally pastoral nomads, living with their animals and strategically moving around the country to take advantage of each pasture at its prime. However, Russia’s fierce policies to suppress traditional lifestyle and seizure of land threatened the nomadic way of life. Catherine II’s policy in the late eighteenth century to give significant portions of land to native leaders who declared their loyalty to the Russian empire aimed to alter the structure of the nomadic economy. Furthermore, Catherine believed that religious people were more obedient and controllable than nomads. Consequently, the Russian state undertook policies which fortified Islam’s influence in the region. By a decree, Tatars would hold power over Kazakh Muslims, who at that time were weakly religious. Catherine, Alexander I and Nicolas I encouraged Islamification of the region due to their belief that Tatar influence would “civilise” the Kazakh population.

By the 1860s, not only did the Tsar control most of Kazakhstan’s land, but the country also saw substantial immigration from Russia. In the two decades preceding 1917, almost 1.5 million European Russians migrated to the Kazakh steppes. By 1911, 40 percent of the steppe’s population was Russian. The sedentary nature of Russian settlers contrasted to the nomadic lifestyle, and they seized important arable land which the nomads relied on. All these factors exacerbated the crisis faced by traditional nomadic lifestyle, as well as lowering the standard of living.

Many instances of uprisings highlight growing frustration with Russian rule, yet any local discontent was suppressed by the police or armed forces. Notably, the Tsar’s decree which conscripted Central Asian men to the Eastern front in the First World War triggered the Central Asian Revolt in 1916. The uprising’s goal was independence from Russian rule but was harshly suppressed and resulted in the exodus of 300,000 Kazakhs abroad and 150,000 deaths. Due to the brutal oppression of any revolts, Kazakhstan struggled to break free from Russian imperialism.

However, during the nineteenth century, an alternative way to break free from colonial influence was realised by the Kazakh intelligentsia, a group initially comprised of those trained by the Russian government for translation, teaching, and science.

Intellectuals at this time realised that a reinvention of Kazakh national identity was necessary in order to establish an independent country. The intelligentsia aimed to incorporate tradition and nomadic roots into a modernised national identity, as this would provide continuity while shaping a uniquely Kazakh nation. Through this modernisation, they sought to create a state capable of resisting foreign influence and control. Nonetheless, intellectuals believed that modernisation required borrowing ideas from other cultures. The editors of the first Kazakh-language newspaper Qazaq considered themselves Westernizers: `We are Westernizers. We do not look to the East or the Mongols in our striving to bring our people closer to culture. We know there is no culture there. Our eyes turn to the West. We can get culture from there through Russia, through the mediation of Russians’. Thus, most borrowed ideas had Russian origins, which is hardly surprising given the Russian education of the elite. Consequently, a complicated situation arose, in which the intelligentsia aimed to break away from colonialisation, but simultaneously used Russian ideas. For example, they aimed to strengthen the nation through promoting settlement, which they presented as crucial to the development of an advanced society.

During the late nineteenth century, Kazakh intellectuals promoted and developed their ideas through printing and publishing. In face of Russian colonisation, the Kazakh intelligentsia aimed to solidify national identity, and unite the country through language and culture. Unity, through strengthening the national language and improving education, was considered the most effective weapon against colonisation.

A prime example of their attempt to unify the country is the newspaper Qazaq, which was the first nationwide newspaper produced in the national language. It was founded by Akhmet Baitursynov, Alikhan Bukeikhanov, and Mirjaqip Dulatuli. and was published from 1913 until 1918, when the Soviet government shut it down. While in print, Qazaq promoted the emergence of Kazakh national identity, in resistance to Tsarist imperial policies. The newspaper’s primary focus was educating the population on the country’s social issues at the time, in particular education, language, and tradition. The intelligentsia believed that spreading awareness of such issues, as well as reducing illiteracy, were crucial to protecting national interests. Qazaq editor Akhmet Baitursynov clarified the intelligentsia’s view, writing, ‘In order to save our independence, we must attempt…to rise to a state of enlightenment’.
The intelligentsia’s quest to redefine national identity included critique of Russian colonisation, as well as critique of traditional Kazakh culture. The editors of the Qazaq newspaper argued that “if the [Russian] government is ashamed of our nomadic way of life, it should give us good lands instead of bad as well as teach us science. Only after that can the government ask Kazakhs to live in cities.” They also identified aspects of Kazakh society which weakened the country and allowed colonisation to occur. For instance, in the sixteenth century, the Kazakh Khanate split into three separate Hordes (Great, Middle, and Little), which resulted in a lack of political unity. These hordes were often feuding and were assimilated into the Russian Empire separately.

An opportunity arose for Kazakh intellectuals to take power in 1917, following the fall of the Russian Empire. The power vacuum was filled by intellectuals. In July 1917, the Alash party, who established the country’s autonomy, was founded at the First General Kazakh Congress. During the congress, the group introduced new policy on many important topics such as land management, the formation of militia, legal and educational issues, and the status of Kazakh women. The program outlined the main principles of Kazakh government building.

Furthermore, at the Second General Kazakh Congress, a provisional autonomous Kazakh government, called the Alash Orda, was established. Alikhan Bokeikhan (leader of the Alash party), Akhmet Baitursynuly, and Mirzhakyp Dulatov all headed the Alash Orda. The movement aimed to restore Kazakh autonomy and uphold the Kazakh language and culture, in response to overwhelming Russian colonization. In particular, the Alash Orda stressed the importance of Kazakh language in education. Given the growing pursuit of higher education, the lack of teaching in the national language presented a threat to students’ Kazakh identity.

Nonetheless, by 1920, the Bolsheviks seized control of Kazakhstan, and thus aimed to reestablish Russian control through a socialist system. They disbanded the Alash Orda, and many of the members were executed or sent to labour camps.

Although short-lived, the Alash Orda’s main goal of forming an independent state has been realised, with Kazakhstan declaring independence in 1991. Furthermore, their principles served as a guideline for the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union, and later the independent Kazakhstan.