When is the name of a railway station more than just a name?
Tina Kandelaki, a well-known Russian TV presenter and the deputy general director of Russian government-controlled media holding Gazprom-Media, has views on the matter.
Earlier this month, she took to her Telegram account to upbraid Kazakhstan for having the temerity to give a number of train stations more Kazakh — and, accordingly, less Russian — names.
This is a certain first step to the exclusion of ethnic Russians from public life in Kazakhstan, she argued, citing what she described as a “dangerous” precedent set by the former Soviet Baltic republics.
“There too everything started small, and then it really snowballed. Russian schools were shut down, Soviet monuments were removed, the Russian language was banned and, finally, pensioners were kicked out into the cold,” she wrote in a January 16 post teeming with falsehoods.
The remarks generated much indignation in Kazakhstan, not to speak of some mockery. Businesswoman and activist Togjan Qojaly expressed bemusement at the name-changes Kandelaki found so troublesome. Some of the old names were just numbers, so “Railway siding No. 13” becomes “Akshi railway siding,” “Railway station 26” becomes “Zhetitobe railway station,” and so on. In almost all other cases, Kazakh names are substituted with other equally Kazakh names or the transliteration is changed.
“What other than 'Opornaya' [Note: one of the old station names] belongs to the Russian language? The numbers 13, 460, 10?” Qojaly asked in a Facebook post.
Undaunted by the criticism, Kandelaki doubled down. In a follow-up post, she reminded her readers that the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization had, as she put, helped Kazakhstan restore stability after the violent political unrest of January 2022. This is a characterization of events that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has flatly rejected. For Kazakhstan to be doing anything to somehow disrespect Russia and its culture and language is ingratitude, Kandelaki suggested.
This is not first flare-up of this kind. Kazakhstan has earned the ire of Russian ultra-nationalists for failing to be sufficiently loyal. Astana has studiously avoided registering any support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while also similarly refraining from criticizing it. At the same time, it has been eager to be seen as complying with Western economic sanctions against Moscow for fear of also getting caught up in the same punitive policy.
Kandelaki’s status as an important executive at the owner of one of the Russian state’s most fierce propaganda outlets — one which can be viewed in Kazakhstan, incidentally —makes her remarks difficult to ignore entirely.
And so the Foreign Ministry in Astana reacted. On January 22, ministry representative Aibek Smadiyarov announced Kandelaki had been included in a list of people barred from entry to Kazakhstan.
“If you don’t like someone, you do not let them into your home. We will do the same,” said Smadiyarov.
That same day, however, NTV, a station owned by Kandelaki’s Gazprom-Media, broadcast yet more content aimed at ruffling Kazakh feathers.
Speaking on a political talk show, a historian called Mikhail Smolin, known for his pro-Russian imperialism views, shared the opinion that before the Russian Revolution, there were no such peoples as Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Azerbaijanis.
That forced Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova to do some damage limitation. In an official statement, she spoke of the importance of Russia’s strategic relations with the “sovereign, independent states” of Central Asia.
“[Smolin’s] odious statements are purely subjective in nature, and have nothing to do with … reality … and they remain entirely on the conscience of their author,” Zakharova said.
Sergei Yershov, a member of Kazakhstan’s upper house of parliament, on January 25 described this recent string of remarks by public Russian figures as an attempt to sow instability in the region.
“[The aim] is again to throw things into the mix: ‘This one is bad, this one is bad, but we are good,’” he said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.