The planned performances of Russian comedians in Kazakhstan have fueled much frowning all around.
On September 14, the organizers of a scheduled tour of a comedy troupe announced that the performances would be canceled following complaints about the group’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Explaining their decision, one of the promoters, Olga Lee, said in a statement on Instagram that Kamyzyaki were nixing their dates in Almaty and Astana over “negative public feedback on the … public conduct of the artists.”
There has been better news for another highly popular Russian comic who has, by contrast, openly expressed his opposition to the war in Ukraine. After seemingly being shut out of holding concerts in Kazakhstan because of an unspoken ban, Maxim Galkin revealed last week that he is to do stand-up concerts in Almaty and Astana in October.
The diverging fates of Kamyzyaki and Galkin are providing a useful insight into how officialdom and the politically engaged public in Kazakhstan are often at odds over what stance to adopt toward Russia and its war.
Kamyzyaki owes its origins to KVN, a Soviet-vintage comedy cabaret format that pits teams from various cities and countries against one another. The format, which trades heavily on verbal jousting and commonplace tropes, enjoys huge popularity in Russia and many neighboring nations, although it is widely disdained by younger audiences increasingly attuned to American-style stand-up comedy.
While ostensibly satirists at heart, KVN performers very seldom engage in mockery of the ruling order. It was, accordingly, fitting that far from taking a position against the invasion of Ukraine, Kamyzyaki instead over the weekend visited a region of that country seized by Russia’s armed forces. At one performance, the troupe sang approvingly about Russia’s missile reserves, suggesting that they should give the West pause in opposing Moscow’s will.
The routine was led by Kamyzyaki frontman Azamat Musagaliyev, a Russian citizen of Kazakh heritage.
A couple of days after the concert, indignant activists in Kazakhstan set up an online petition demanding that Kamyzyaki’s concerts be canceled.
“We, Kazakhstanis... do not want to see in our country people who support aggression against the sovereign country of Ukraine. We are a peaceful country and a peaceful people,” the petition reads. As of September 14, the petition had been endorsed by almost 20,000 people.
Precedent suggested a cancelation would be quick to follow. And it duly did. Kamyzyaki have yet to comment publicly on the situation and have not intimated whether they will try to hold concerts with other promoters in Kazakhstan.
In June, authorities in the Almaty region gave in to pressure from a similar activist-led initiative to call off a planned concert that was to feature Russian singer Grigory Leps, who had likewise registered strong support for the invasion of Ukraine. Leps was one of many Russian pro-war performers that were to sing at the same concert.
Meanwhile, artists who have made a point of criticizing the war have met the approbation of a vocal segment of the Kazakh public. That company includes veteran Belarusian-Russian rock band Bi-2. The comedian Galkin is in this group too.
But Galkin’s own difficulties with getting to Kazakhstan illustrate another aspect of this politically complicated question.
In late August, the comedian uploaded a video to his Instagram account in which he alleged that authorities in Astana were impeding his attempts to hold concerts in Kazakhstan. While the claim has not been definitively confirmed, the turn of events hinted that the Kazakh government was uneasy with being seen as greenlighting the performances of a critic of the actions of Russia, an important if often awkward ally and economic partner for Kazakhstan.
Astana does not only have Moscow to worry about. Given how taboo the whole issue is, it is difficult to be certain about the scale of sentiment inside Kazakhstan for or against Russia’s conduct on the international stage. But it is probable that support is not inconsiderable, in particular among ethnic Russian communities in northern regions of the country, many of whom rely on strongly propagandistic Kremlin-produced television for their news.
People with virulent pro-Russian views are treading on thin ice, however. In the camp that opposes them, their position is often seen as a tacit endorsement of the idea that majority ethnic Russian-inhabited areas of Kazakhstan might one day seek to secede and petition Moscow for its intervention. Even alluding to that possibility is enough to land offenders behind bars.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.