"There will be no new Russia until Russians, in particular liberal ones, realize that they are colonizers" - Kazakh researcher
There are many parallels between the history of Ukraine and Kazakhstan. In particular, both countries were once Soviet republics and both have been going through a painful process of decolonization in recent years. The sooner they both go through this path, the sooner they can move on.
As the Kazakh academic Aynash Mustoyapova notes, there are two important things that our peoples should realize in order to achieve a new interpretation of history.
We published the abstracts of her speech on the YouTube channel of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
You can subscribe to the channel about Ukraine and the Middle East here (in Ukrainian)
Translated by Dmitry Lytov & Mike Lytov
Read this article in Ukrainian
We are entering the post-colonial period. But simply being in it is not enough, it must be used to decolonize our consciousness. Are we doing enough for this?
“No, not enough. Decolonization has two parallel sides: the first — in the minds of those who were colonized, the second — in the minds of those who carried out this colonization, that is, the Russians.”
"Russians must get rid of their imperialist syndrome"
I state with regret the fact that free-thinking Russians do not pay due attention to this issue. They focus on the fight against Putin's regime — which they consider the main evil. As if all Russians are not responsible for what happened, in particular in Ukraine. The Russian opposition is trying to promote the idea that if they remove Putin's regime, then it will be possible to build a new democratic Russia. But is it really so? I doubt it very much.
There will be no “new Russia” until people's consciousness changes. At the moment, this consciousness is imperialist. And this brings us back to the process of decommunization.
We have to decolonize ourselves, in particular free ourselves from the stereotypes and myths that have been imposed on us. At the same time, the same process of decolonization must take place in the minds of the Russians, that is, they should be liberated from imperialist syndrome. Without this, the conflict with Russia will continue, as the Russians will not be ready to hear the voice of Ukrainians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and even their own minorities, such as Tatars, Bashkirs, Nogays and others.
Let's take Great Britain as an example. When the British colonies gained independence, two things helped the English to change their consciousness: first, they got rid of their imperialist syndrome, and second, they began to recover their identity by turning to the history and literature of pre-imperial Britain. This country has come a long way: it is both the responsibility they have taken on themselves and the guilt that has led to the fact that Britain has been opened up to people from the former colonies (in particular, they have the opportunity to study, work and live freely).
In Ukraine, as in Kazakhstan, imperialist symbols are still woven into the local identity of cities. These markers of the Russian Empire are preserved in the topography and commemorative politics of cities. But now, against the backdrop of the war, the process of rethinking old symbols is actively underway. [Translator’s note: the number of these markers has been steadily decreasing since 2014, and the process accelerated after the open Russian aggression in 2022]
This problem is relevant for us (Kazakhstan — author), moreover, it is relevant for all regions of the country. As for toponymy, there were many initiatives to rename Russian city names to Kazakh.
This story is also connected with the colonization of our territory, when Russian settlers founded small settlements and named them in Russian.
For example, it could be the name of the governor-general or his daughters or the name of the head of the resettlement district to whom this land was allocated.
In Soviet times, many toponyms had names related to the Communist movement (the names of Lenin, Voroshilov, Stalin etc.).
During the years of independence, the question arose of returning these territories to their original names. After long discussions, we changed some of the names and kept some others.
To this day, in the big cities of Kazakhstan, streets are named after Russian writers who have nothing to do with the country and have never even been there. However, there are no streets named after Kazakh writers. There are many monuments to Lenin left, which the authorities say should stand as long as the older people for whom they are important live. However, these monuments became markers, signs of Soviet ideology and power. When we preserve monuments, it is as if we are showing affection for Soviet history.
"We built cities for you"
Some cities in Kazakhstan have Russian names (for example, Petropavlovsk), because they are believed to have been built by Russians. I want to reconsider the well-known stereotype from the Russians that "we built cities for you."
First, they did not build cities, but fortresses. They were erected along the perimeter of the steppes - it was called the "bitter line". Villages were built around the chain of settlements-fortresses, because peasants were forcibly transported there so that they would grow bread and provide food for the soldiers. Later, small markets appeared on the border with this line, where Kazakhs drove cattle and exchanged them for Russian goods. And then these villages began to develop, to liven up, houses were built here. This is how provincial small towns appeared.
And the first cities, such as Karaganda, were built several centuries ago not by the Russians, but by the English, who mined coal here.
New large cities in Kazakhstan also began to be created in Soviet times. However, in the 1940s, they were built by German, Latvian, Lithuanian and Japanese prisoners of war, not by Russians. For example, my family lived in a house built by Japanese prisoners of war.
In the 1950s and 1960s, industry developed, and the state built a lot of "Khrushchyovka"s (low-cost apartment buildings for workers). But Kazakhs did not get jobs in the cities and so the state did not provide them apartments for free. [Translator’s note: the author refers to the Soviet practice where people who worked at large state enterprises received their apartments from the state “for free” - at the cost of having to be in long waitlists of many years and the impossibility to transfer to another enterprise without losing their place in those lists].
Therefore, the thesis that "we built cities for you" is deceptive. Firstly, cities were not built by Russians, but by foreign prisoners of war. Secondly, they were not built for Kazakhs (only 5% to 15% of the Kazakh population originally lived in them). Thirdly, when in the “zero years” (the early 2000s) Russians and other peoples began to leave Kazakhstan, Kazakhs had to buy out the apartments they abandoned for a lot of money: which means that the ostensibly “free apartments” were not free.
"The Soviet Union is collectivization and repression, not free apartments and tasty ice cream"
Returning to toponymy, I would like to note that each nation must decide for itself what to call its towns and cities, and the Soviet monuments will be demolished no sooner than changes in public consciousness take place.
When we understand that the Soviet Union is not about “apartments provided by the state for free” and “tasty ice cream [of the childhood]”, but collectivization, famine, mass repressions, punitive bodies, loss of identity, culture, language, deported peoples... Only then we will learn to listen to the voice of others, then we will finally abandon Soviet history with its ideologically biased and uniform interpretation of events.
When we study the history of the 20th century - read it independently and see it not through the eyes of Russia, the Soviet government and the metropolis, but through our own (from the perspective of the Kazakhs), then we will be able to compare these two discourses and free ourselves from imposed stereotypes. And it is very important that when interpreting Kazakh history, we should hear the voices not only of Kazakhs, but also those of the peoples deported [by the Soviets to Kazakhstan: Koreans, Crimean Tatars, Germans, Chechens etc.] who also have their own view of history.
Prepared by Aliona SEMKO