Language is harmfully intertwined with politics these days in Eurasia. The swirling debates are raising questions about the boundaries of Russianness.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s March 12 statement that the Kazakh language would move from the Cyrillic to the Latin script by 2025 has renewed political debate over the language question in Kazakhstan. The move has been mooted since at least the 1990s, and was announced as a long-term goal in 2012. It follows similar moves in Turkmenistan (1995) and Azerbaijan (2001), where the transition to Latin has been largely successful; and Uzbekistan, where 20 years since the process began, it remains incomplete, with Cyrillic still in widespread use for writing Uzbek.
There has been considerable speculation over which of these precedents Kazakhstan might follow, and the costs of separating new generations from the vast literary heritage in Kazakh that has accumulated since the switch to Cyrillic in 1940.
The ostensible justification for the change is that the Latin script is more ‘modern’ and better able to meet contemporary technical needs: it is also presented as something culturally neutral. However, many observers see it as an effort to distance Kazakhstan from its Soviet and Russian heritage, represented by Cyrillic. This is how it has been embraced by some elements of Kazakh nationalist opinion within Kazakhstan.
In Russia, the proposed change has been described as a hostile, anti-Russian move which will lead to further emigration of ethnic Russians from Kazakhstan. Inevitably, then, although the reform does not affect the Russian language (something many western media outlets seem unable to understand), it nevertheless is reviving questions over its status and role in modern Kazakhstan.
After decades of decline and marginalization, Kazakh was declared to be the state language of Kazakhstan in 1989, before the Soviet Union’s collapse. At the same time, Russian retained protected status as an official ‘language of inter-ethnic communication.’ The 1990s were marked by fierce debates over the degree of support that should be provided to revive the use of Kazakh in state institutions and education.
Kazakh was enshrined as the sole state language under the language law of 1997, but in practice Russian’s protected status has continued, both within state institutions, as the most widely-spoken urban lingua franca, and as the dominant language in the media. In the north, and in larger urban centers, Russian is usually the first language even for ethnic Kazakhs. However knowledge of Kazakh is in principle now required for state employment, and there have been concerted efforts to improve the quality of teaching and the status attached to the language. In the 2009 census, 99 percent of ethnic Kazakhs and 74 percent of the total population claimed to understand spoken Kazakh, and while this relies on self-reporting and is probably exaggerated, it seems likely that proficiency has increased significantly. Strikingly, the proportion of ethnic Russians claiming knowledge of Kazakh had increased to 25 percent (up from 0.9 percent in 1989). At the same time, 94 percent of the total population claimed to understand Russian, including 92 percent of ethnic Kazakhs: this last figure has actually risen from 64 percent in 1989. It is clear that proficiency in Kazakh has increased significantly in the last 20 years, but it has not come at the expense of Russian.
Despite this evidence, the language question in Kazakhstan is often seen as a zero-sum game – if one language gains, the other must lose. There is also a widespread assumption in Russian, western, and even some Kazakh media that the decline in the ethnic Russian share of the population eventually will lead to a decline in the use of the Russian language in Kazakhstan. There is little awareness that the Russian-speaking world and the political and ethnic boundaries of Russianness do not coincide. Likewise there is little acknowledgement that bilingualism can be a positive virtue, culturally enriching rather than a threat to national unity, or a source of oppression for national minorities. A better understanding of this is needed to move beyond the frequent polarisation of the debate over the status of Russian – not just in Kazakhstan, but in other post-Soviet states, most notably Ukraine.
Scholars of what we now call ‘literature in English’ long ago abandoned the idea that the English language somehow belongs to England, or that the British state has a particular duty to defend English speakers worldwide. Given the dominance of English as a global language, and the number of Anglophone countries, this is unsurprising. Yet it is worth remembering that 70 years ago, India had a very similar debate over the role of English to that which Kazakhstan is now having over Russian.
In the case of India, proposals to make Hindi the sole state language led to protests and even self-immolations in the south. In the end, a temporary retention of English as a state language became permanent, the widespread use of English became one of the key competitive advantages enjoyed by India in the global economy, and today Indian writing in English plays a prominent role in world literature.
While there is some resentment of this by those who write in Indian vernacular languages, there is also recognition that it is far too reductive to view the English language as an alien or colonial import; it has been indigenised, and has become an Indian language, with 12 percent of the Indian population speaking it as a second or third language, far more than in colonial times. French has acquired a similar status in West Africa and the Maghreb, where it is also now more widely spoken than it was at independence: scholars talk of Francophone rather than French literature. There has been a boom in post-colonial writing in both languages – just as literature in English would be hugely impoverished without Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy, Francophone literature is enriched by the works of Yasmin Khadra and Tahar Ben Jelloun.
In Kazakhstan and in Ukraine, Russian plays a far more central role than English does in India or French in Africa. Here, Russian is spoken by a much larger proportion of the population as a first language, and it has a long history as a literary language for ethnic Kazakhs and Ukrainians – not just for those who identify as Russian. It is also the native language for the large diaspora populations of Kazakhstan, mostly descendants of groups deported there by Stalin – Germans, Poles, Chechens and Koreans – as well as for an estimated 30-40 percent of ethnic Kazakhs. This suggests that native Russian speakers are probably still a majority of the Kazakhstani population, even if increasing numbers of them are now bilingual or proficient in Kazakh.
The influence of Russian is reflected in the media, literature and the wider culture. A particular Kazakhstani sensibility is already present in some Russian literature of the Soviet period, most notably Yuri Dombrovsky’s The Keeper of Antiquities, set in 1930s Alma-Ata. Perhaps the most famous Kazakh poet, Olzhas Suleimenov, who during perestroika led the Nevada movement to abolish nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, writes exclusively in Russian, and reflects in some of his poems on what it means as a non-Russian for this to be his native language.
I recently attended a reading by the poets Anuar Duisenbinov and Kanat Omar, both of whom write in Russian, though weaving distinctively Kazakh themes and hybrid language into their work. Other important contemporary Russophone Kazakhstani writers include Rollan Seisenbaev, Duisenbek Nakipov, Pavel Bannikov, the author and film director Ermek Tursunov and many, many more. Almaty hosts an open literary school in Russian, and in 2015, the leading literary journal, Novyi Mir, devoted an entire issue to Kazakhstani Russian writing. Poetry competitions at Nazarbayev University are held in three languages – English, Russian and Kazakh, with Russian receiving the largest number of entries, the strongest literary influence probably being that of Sergei Esenin.
I have listened to students without a drop of Russian blood, who hail from Chimkent or Taraz, in the ethnic Kazakh heartlands of southern Kazakhstan, wax lyrical about their love for Bulgakov, Turgenev or Pushkin. For them, it is as much a part of their cultural heritage as if they had grown up in St Petersburg – and it does not prevent them from appreciating the giants of Kazakh literature such as Abai or Auezov. In the same way, 60 years ago, Nirad Chaudhuri and C. L. R. James could write about their love for English literature, and their sense that Dickens or Thackeray belonged to them, while simultaneously opposing British colonialism in Bengal and in Trinidad.
Russian is in every sense a Kazakhstani language – Kazakhstanis share in the wider Russian literary heritage, and have developed a distinctive Russophone culture of their own. This was a widespread phenomenon within the Soviet Union, where some of the most prominent non-Russian writers, such as Fazil Iskander, chose Russian as their language of literary expression.
Now we can talk of a Russophone world, one that extends beyond the boundaries of the Russian Federation, and does not necessarily identify with it, or with ethnic Russianness.
Russia has long claimed the right to protect the interests of Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders; in the case of the Baltic States, where Russian is not recognised as an official language and Russian-speaking populations are denied citizenship rights, there are genuine grievances. At the same time, Russian questioning of the sovereignty and language politics of Kazakhstan (where Russian is an official language) and Ukraine (where it is a recognised minority language) is damaging to precisely those it claims to be protecting.
As Volodymyr Kulyk has argued for Ukraine, such heavy-handedness confirms linguistic nationalists in their mistaken belief that the Russian language is an existential threat to Kazakh or Ukrainian, and that Russian speakers are somehow undermining ‘national purity’ – or even that they are a political fifth column. This in turn leads to the kind of counterproductive reaction seen recently with Ukraine’s ban on the import of books from Russia, or the demands of more extreme Kazakh nationalists not just for the revival of Kazakh, but less use of Russian.
So long as language is used as a tool in political battles on both sides, these tensions will continue, and ordinary people, who just want to continue speaking the language they grew up with, will be the victims. To ease tension, it is necessary to recognize that there is now a Russian-speaking world beyond Russia, culturally Russophone, yet politically distinct from the Russian Federation, with its own literary heritage and distinctive worldview.
Alexander Morrison is Professor of History at Nazarbayev University, Astana, Kazakhstan. He is the author of Russian Rule in Samarkand 1868 - 1910. A Comparison with British India (Oxford, 2008) and is currently writing a history of the Russian conquest of Central Asia. Morrison’s web page can be found at: https://nu-kz.academia.edu/AlexanderMorrison The views expressed in this commentary are Morrison’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of Nazarbayev University.