Kazakhstan is a real melting-pot of different nationalities. Estimates put the number of resident ethnic groups to be in excess of 130. The government likes to harp on about ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan with all these nationalities living side by side with few problems. The biggest ethnic group after Kazakhs is Russians, descendants of settlers from the late seventeenth century onwards. In the south the Uzbeks form a sizeable minority. There are also significant communities of Uighurs, Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Tatars and Greeks. During World War Two, many groups seen as unreliable in the fight against fascism, such as Koreans, Germans and Chechens, were deported from parts of Russia en masse to the bleak Kazakh steppe and left to fend for themselves. Many of their descendants are still living in the country.
A few generations ago the Kazakhs were nomadic and the Soviets never quite managed to fully tame this tendency. While the Kazakhs in the towns and cities appear fairly Russified, lurking not far below the surface is a wild streak. These days this is mainly manifested in driving – try crossing the road in Almaty and you’ll see what I mean – and brawling. A recent incident in the oilfields near Atyrau saw 400 Kazakhs and Turks involved in a fight, with a few Filipinos and Indians thrown in for good measure. Some 200 people were injured in the brawl which was caused by Kazakh resentment of Turkish workers stealing their jobs and women – so much for the famous ethnic harmony.
Ethnic Kazakhs have always had a healthy disregard for authority. In the 1980s, they were the first group to openly demonstrate against Soviet power. Rioting broke out on 16 December 1986 in the centre of Almaty in protest at Moscow’s imposition of an outsider as the local party boss. The demonstration was brutally suppressed – it has never been established what the final death toll was, but relaiable sources estimate it to be around fifteen.
Coming from a nomadic tradition, ethnic Kazakhs are more used to strangers turning up and do not treat them with the same suspicion as their settled neighbours might. They are a frank and open people – they will speak their minds rather than say what they think you want to hear, again in contrast with some of their neighbours.
The locals are a superstitious lot – I have been told off for whistling, sitting in the Kazakh mourning position and asking people where they are going. Other serious transgressions that will cause offence include being disrespectful to food, in particular bread, wearing your shoes indoors, blowing your nose in public and putting your bum or feet on pillows. They are great believers in the malign influence of the evil eye and will use charms and amulets to fend it off.
They are sociable and will share all they have with their guests even if this means they have to go short as a result. Traditionally an animal would be slaughtered for visitors, and this continues to now with a lamb or goat often the victim. Ethnic Kazakhs tend to be generous hosts and if you are invited somewhere, then the host will usually pick up the tab.
The ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan are not like the ones living in mother Russia. They tend to be more tolerant and less nationalistic then their northern cousins. They have been tempered somewhat from living in Central Asia, with aspects of local culture rubbing off on them. Kazakh Russians, returning to Russia, often have trouble adapting to life there as they do not drink as much vodka and are not as xenophobic as the locals in Russia.
Ethnic Kazakhs are now in the majority in Kazakhstan, but this was not always the case. In Soviet times they made up around 40 percent of the population. Since forming the majority in the country, the Kazakhs have started to assert themselves with issues related to language, religion and nationalism coming more into the open.
Kazakhstan is a secular state, but Islam, the religion traditionally favoured by ethnic Kazakhs, has been taking a more visible role in state affairs of late. An impressive Qatari-funded mosque has opened in Astana. However, Islam always had a fairly weak hold on this formerly nomadic society. Historical monuments such as mosques and medressas are rare in Kazakhstan as the people tended not to live in settled communities, preferring to roam the steppe and mountain pastures with their animals. Seventy years of Soviet domination also weakened Islam’s influence.
Many ethnic Russians belong to the Russian Orthodox church. A synagogue recently opened in Astana – the first to open in a predominantly Muslim country for centuries. Catholic and Protestant missionaries are active in the country along with the usual assorted sects like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Hare Krishnas have a presence in town and they run Central Asia’s only vegetarian restaurant, Govinda’s. They have been experiencing some problems with the Kazakh authorities of late.
A program supporting the return of ethnic Kazakhs to their ancestral homeland has added to Kazakhstan’s multicultural mix. The returnees, known as Oralman – this comes up with some interesting links if you google it – have come back from other former Soviet republics and Iran, China, Mongolia and Afghanistan. These returnees have experienced some problems integrating with society as they tend to be more conservative than their Kazakhstan-born compatriots and speak Kazakh, not Russian – a major obstacle in everyday communication in towns.
With the ethnic Kazakhs now a majority in the country, language concerns have taken on a greater immediacy. The state language is Kazakh and moves are afoot to strengthen its presence in the public domain. Russian remains an important communication language both within the country and the former Soviet Union. But its position is likely to be diminished with time as Kazakh becomes more widespread. There is talk of the Cyrillic alphabet, used for Kazakh, being replaced with a Latin one, although this is still a way off.