Russian Speakers of the Kazakh Steppe
Russian Speakers of the Kazakh Steppe
A frozen road as Varvara drives north, March 2015. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko
Our Journeys / Europe & Central Asia 10 minutes

Russian Speakers of the Kazakh Steppe

In late 2014, consultant and former Crisis Group researcher, Varvara Pakhomenko, journeyed to the northern Kazakh steppe, and the towns and villages along Kazakhstan’s Russian border, to learn more about the interwoven relationship between the Kazakh and Russian speakers of the area.

The Kazakh Steppe

I grew up in deepest Siberia, so I’m used to the cold. The iciness surrounding me gives me a sense of home. On the morning when my driver and I leave Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, the thermometer shows minus 30 degrees. The sky is almost as white as the steppe unfolding in front of us. The frozen roads are extremely slippery, and our car keeps drifting to the left and right.

Our destination is the northern Kazakh steppe, and the towns and villages along Kazakhstan’s Russian border. The two countries share a 7,500km-long frontier, and I want to find out more about the interwoven relationship between two main parts of the local population, the Kazakh and Russian speakers.

Kazakhstan’s 3.7 million Russians are the second biggest ethnic group in this vast country, and as such may have an important role in future Russian-Kazakh relations. Some in Moscow consider northern Kazakhstan as part of the so-called “Russian World”. Worryingly to some in Kazakhstan — given Russia’s interventions in the name of the Russian speakers of Ukraine, another country on the Russian border — Russia has in recent years become more outspoken on the violation of rights of ethnic Russians abroad.

Kazakhstan stresses that it is a multi-ethnic and multi-denominational state but some minorities feel that ethnic Kazakhs enjoy advantages not available to others.

Varvara's car on the icy road, as she and her driver head north, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

With each hour that we drive north, the air becomes drier and the frost less piercing. The scarce vegetation becomes a little richer, we see more and more trees stretching their white branches like protective shields against the icy wind.

Looking at the vast, lonely fields gives you an idea how big this country is. Kazakhstan is the size of Western Europe, but with 18 million people has only a slightly bigger population than the Netherlands.

Map of Kazakhstan CRISIS GROUP

In Soviet times, the native Kazakhs, a Turkic people of Central Asia, were a minority in their own lands. Since Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, the percentage of Slavic Russian speakers living here has shrunk from over 50 per cent to roughly 20 per cent. The interconnectedness of Russian and Kazakh land and history is felt everywhere, especially here in the north. The small wooden houses with their chimneys and haystacks for example look the same as in my home country Russia.

A small village house along the road in Northern Kazakhstan province, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Ukraine: No Longer So Distant

When the war broke out in distant Ukraine — where the houses look the same too, but are whitewashed — most Kazakhs were shocked. Putin’s rhetoric as he justified annexing Crimea with his “duty” to protect the rights of the Russian population reminded them of their own situation. I have often heard Russian leaders talking about Kazakhstan, just like Ukraine, as a country within their sphere of influence. And like eastern Ukraine, northern Kazakhstan has a particularly large population of Russians and Russian speakers.

As I make my way northward, talking to many people in many communities, I hear that ethnic Kazakhs fear that a separatist movement loyal to Russia might grow in Kazakhstan. And I hear about worries that after Moscow’s support for separatists in Georgia and Ukraine, it might target Kazakhstan next. Even so, not many believe that there’s a real risk of open war. In the 24 years since its independence, Kazakhstan has been one of the most stable of the former Soviet republics.

A Kazakh herder in the northern Kazakh steppe, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Especially among Russian speakers in northern Kazakhstan, when I ask if what happened in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas over the past year could happen here as well, the answer I usually get is: “No, conflict is unlikely”.

But that doesn’t mean that Kazakhstan doesn’t have its own challenges. Take, for instance, the sometimes divergent view of Kazakhs and Russians as to whom the steppe belongs. Both ethnic groups are equally attached to the land and consider it their home.

Driving out of Kokshetau, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Land of Our Ancestors

For the Kazakhs, an originally nomadic people, the northern Kazakh steppe is their ancestral land, where they came to graze their herds during summer. They view the arrival of Russian settlers in the 17th century as the beginning of a history of Russian colonisation that continued throughout the Soviet period. Under Stalin, the region received many hundreds of thousands of deportees from all ethnic groups, as well as prisoners in the Gulag system. In the Second World War, more people arrived, evacuated from Central and Western Russia. Later, from the 1950s on, Khrushchev’s so-called “Virgin Lands Campaign” sent in over half a million non-Kazakhs, mostly Russians, to turn Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union’s bread basket.

For today’s Russians in Kazakhstan, their ancestors tamed, ploughed and cultivated an empty plain. Certainly, the years of Russian domination have left innumerable echoes, linguistic, cultural and political.

Many towns for example were founded as Russian military settlements, like Kokshetau, a city of 140,000, where we arrive after a three-hour drive. It was formerly called Kokchetav and given a Kazakh name only after Kazakhstan’s independence, like hundreds of other places, particularly here in the north.

The end of the Soviet Union was seen as a chance by the Kazakh government and many citizens to restore Kazakh culture and language to its rightful place. But renaming streets and cities was a controversial thing to do. In some cases, the old Soviet name did not mean much to the Russian-speaking locals. In others, changing it hit a sensitive nerve and divided the local communities.

Children attending Sunday school in Kokshetau, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Under the Soviet Union, Russian influence in Kokshetau was so strong that by 1991 there was only one Kazakh-speaking school for children from rural areas. Today, there are two, compared to four Russian-speaking ones and sixteen mixed schools. While the number of both mixed and Kazakh schools is growing, that of Russian schools is shrinking due do the ageing of the ethnic Russian population and immigration of native Russians to Russia. The average age of Kazakhstani Russian speakers is 39, but only 26 for Kazakhs.

Two Languages

Compared to other post-Soviet countries, Kazakhstan has developed a model education system. Scholarships are distributed in an ethnically blind way and there is a full offering of education in both Russian and Kazakh. More ethnic Russian children in Kazakhstan can speak Kazakh than people of the older generation, who often neither speak nor understand the language. Their refusal to learn the language sometimes still goes along with a sense of superiority. “Why should we study this language if we, the Russians, gave them civilisation?” one tells me.

Since 1991, Kazakh is the only state language, while Russian is now a “language of inter-ethnic communication”. This means that state and municipal agencies should use Russian on a par with Kazakh. Recently, the government started to provide grants to students from the majority Kazakh south to study in the north, to balance out the number of Russian-speaking students. Universities have faculties with staff who teach in both languages and implement a curriculum meant to defuse ethno-confessional issues. In the academic year of 2014–2015, all third-year students of Northern Kazakhstan State University in Petropavlovsk were instructed in the customs, traditions and beliefs of all of Kazakhstan’s peoples.

Many Russian speakers, though, prefer to study in Russia, not in Kazakhstan. They believe the quality of education there is better and cheaper. The Russian government provides a range of free places for them each year.

A billboard on a road into Petropavlovsk, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Children of One Home Land

“All Kazakhstanis are children of one homeland” the billboard on a main road into Petropavlovsk proclaims in welcome in both languages. The region that once offered religious tolerance to the persecuted now addresses the challenge of its modern history. The image that Kazakh authorities try to promote is: regardless of our ethnic roots, we are all people of one Kazakhstan. “Kazakhstanis” is the word the president uses. But this policy is challenged by the many ethnic Kazakhs, especially the younger ones, who are proud of their traditional culture and language and want to showcase it. And it is opposed by the many ethnic Russians who are scared of what they call “soft assimilation”; they want to be Russians, not Kazakhstanis, and to keep an official identity as “Russian” in their passports — as in Soviet times.

Statues of Abay Kunabaev and Alexander Pushkin in Petropavlovsk, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

The statues of two great men of Kazakh and Russian national literature — Abay Kunabaev and Alexander Pushkin — were erected side by side in front of the main provincial administrative building in 2006 to proclaim the best of both cultures and promote multicultural tolerance.

So, how much reality is there in this worthy official brotherhood, I wonder?

Despite Kazakhstan’s new oil wealth, there’s a growing wave of immigration to Russia. Passing in front of the Russian consulate, people are lining up to apply for Russian citizenship. Some wish to move to Russia, others want to buy property or send their children to Russian schools. When I ask their reasons they tell me they believe it will be easier for them in Russia. It is true that Russians willing to learn the Kazakh language have no problems integrating, but the majority do not know the language. They feel that Kazakhstan has become a country for ethnic Kazakhs and that they don’t have equal opportunities. Russian entrepreneurs tell me that while they experience almost no day-to-day discrimination, they feel they are being frozen out of Kazakh networks when it comes to government contracts. A man working for a Petropavlovsk construction company says: “If you have a relatively big company you depend on state contracts. But our director has difficulties receiving such contracts because he’s Russian”.

That’s why many Russian speakers decide to start a new life in Russia. Indeed, the Russian state encourages them to do so, especially young Russian speakers and families with children. It offers legal, practical and financial assistance to obtain Russian citizenship and move to Russia. All mothers in Russia, for example, benefit from a $10,000 maternity bonus for their second baby.

While many Russians leave, Kazakhs living outside Kazakhstan, so-called Oralmans, are being encouraged to settle in the country. They come from other parts of Central Asia, Russia, Mongolia or China. The government encourages them to move to northern Kazakhstan by offering them social housing. But that has created tensions. The local population’s living standards in this part of the country are often low and the influx adds pressure on social services. Some locals say the newcomers often don’t speak Russian and don’t adapt well. Many think that the Kazakh authorities have recently re-activated this kind of resettlement due to the crisis in Ukraine: they don’t want to have too many Russian-dominated areas along the Russian border.

When I look at a list of officials in a Petropavlosk government building, it strikes me that 80 per cent of the names sound Kazakh — that’s a lot for a city whose population is 65 per cent Russian-speaking. While everyone can apply for official positions, the requirement is that they know the Kazakh language. Many Russian speakers tell me that access to government positions is a big problem.

Cossack Ataman Victor Taranov, leader of the local Cossack organisation in Petropavlosk, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

That’s why people like Victor Taranov call on Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev to give full constitutional status to the Russian language and to appoint government officials based on ethnic proportions. Victor proudly bears the honorary military title Cossack Ataman. I meet him in his office on Constitution street in the local Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, an extra-parliamentarian institution that represents Kazakhstan’s various ethnic groups. “There are two main nationalities in Kazakhstan, Russians and Kazakhs, and they should make decisions about all main issues together” he says. “Russians are not less patriotic than Kazakhs. I was born here, my ancestors lie in this soil. I do not feel like a guest. This is my land, but the land of others as well”.

Portrait of President Nursultan Nazarbayev in a room of the local Cossack organisation, in Petropavlovsk, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

A Bird With Two Wings

But Taranov and others admit that the situation is improving. Since the uprising in Russian-speaking majority areas of Ukraine began, President Nazarbayev has repeatedly underlined the need for Kazakh unity and inter-ethnic harmony. He has called for renewed respect for the Russian language — state agencies for example have started to answer enquiries in both Russian and Kazakh, as required by law — and started a number of projects meant to highlight the country’s multicultural tolerance, trying at the same time to keep all ethnic and religious movements under control. That means support for two main religions, Orthodox Christianity and Sunni Islam, but under relatively tight supervision. When I meet the Bishop of Petropavlovsk, he appreciatively repeats what the president likes to say: “Kazakhstan is a bird with two wings. One is the traditional Islam. And the other is Orthodox Christianity”. These wings need to be balanced. To showcase this balance, the state made sure that the construction of the new Kyzyl Zhar mosque and the Cathedral of Ascension in Petropavlovsk were completed on the same day in 2005.

The Church of the Ascension and the Kyzyl Zhar Mosque in Petropavlovsk, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

At present, Northern Kazakhstan province has three times more mosques than churches. Orthodox Russian speakers are still the majority, but Muslims are the more active worshippers. Russian speakers are usually baptised but visit church only on the main religious holidays. The older generation is much more attached to the church than the young generation. They feel that the church helps them to keep in contact with others from the community and maintain ties with their historical homeland.

Woman in the Archangel Michael Cathedral of Kokshetau, 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Despite their different confessions and ethnicities, most people in Kazakhstan believe that the Ukrainian crisis, and the death and destruction it has given rise to, show how crucial it is to find a peaceful solution for their problems. “All of us from the former USSR countries have to live as friends”, Musa Dadaev, a native Chechen, tells me. He is, like Taranov, a volunteer for the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan. “We have to live as friends, there is no alternative”.

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

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