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Modern Kazakhstan is Becoming a Cultural and Spiritual Cornucopia

A demure cultural revolution has taken root in Kazakhstan ever since it detached itself from the Soviet Union in 1991. As one of the world’s biggest producers of uranium and rare metals, this Central Asian country is charting a course to craft a prosperous, multi-ethnic Kazakh identity.

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A demure cultural revolution has taken root in Kazakhstan ever since it detached itself from the Soviet Union in 1991. As one of the world’s biggest producers of uranium and rare metals, this Central Asian country is charting a course to craft a prosperous, multi-ethnic Kazakh identity.

By Sandeep Dikshit

For centuries, the vast and rolling steppes of Kazakhstan have remained wrapped in an enigma. It had several towns on the Silk Route, but none became as well known and heavily visited as neighbouring Uzbekistan’s Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

After Imperial Russia conquered Kazakhstan in the 1860s, Moscow and other Slav cities gained prominence. As with the case with Kyrgyzstan, one of the five ‘Stans’ with which its people share ethnic commonalties, Kazakhstan also remained cut off from the international tourist circuit.

Its isolation deepened during Soviet rule after the Communists decided to locate their rocket launch complex and nuclear testing facilities on either side of Kazakhstan. Both were closed cities.

The country’s soil underneath holds so many riches that to paraphrase a Baloch proverb, ‘A Kazakh child may be born without socks on his feet, but when he grows up, every step he takes is on gold’.

Besides this coveted metal, Kazakhstan is the world’s biggest producer of uranium. It is now mining rare metals such as lithium and graphite that are so essential as the world turns to green energy.

However, Kazakhstan has been undergoing a silent change ever since it detached itself from the Soviet Union in 1991.  Powered by sales of precious metals and crude, Kazakhstan has undergone a serious makeover.

Ten years ago, when ex India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived to ink a deal for an oil block in the Caspian Sea, the sustainability of the newly created capital of Astana in the middle of the steppes seemed doubtful. From a couple of cars serenely cruising along, today, there is a concerted rush hour.

Bars hum with customers and upscale malls buzz with the laughter of children. The number of skyscrapers in this gleaming capital, created in 1997, has quadrupled. Its proximity to China results in goods coveted by Indians competitively priced with those in Dubai or Hong Kong. Advertisements on TV offer vacations to Hawaii, while BMWs and the Chinese ‘Tank 500’ dominate airtime.

Extrication from Russia was not easy. Probably the first large protests in the Soviet Union took place in 1986 and may have caused the first fissures in the empire, leading to its eventual dismantling. The Jeltoqsan (December uprising) began in Alma-Ata after then Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed Dinmukhamed Kunaev, an ethnic Kazakh and the Communist Party boss of Kazakhstan. The people did not take kindly to his replacement with an ethnic Russian who had never lived in Kazakhstan.

Protests spread to other large cities of Shymkent and Karaganda. As Soviet forces bore down on the protesters, only one leader stood up to resolve the situation — Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former metal worker. Three years later, he emerged a leader of Kazakhstan and, on Independence, its first President for the next 28 years.

Now retired, he ceded power to his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2022 when he resigned as Chairman of the Security Council. Kazakhstan’s current makeover can be traced around those months. In January of the same year, several cities were rocked by protests over high energy prices.

According to the authorities, international bandits had hijacked the protests. Dilara Isa, a journalist who livestreamed the protests remarked that she “noticed that the protesters who smashed windows and damaged cars were different from the peaceful protesters who’d put forward demands, sang the national anthem, and advised others in the crowd not to destroy property”.

It seems that now, there is an active desire to craft a multi-ethnic Kazakh identity, where Islam is positioned differently from the several streams that are prevalent in the neighbouring regions of Turkey, North Caucasus, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia.

According to a report from the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, by international comparison, it claims that Kazakhstan’s believers stand out by opposing political manifestations of religion.

“There is exceptionally low support for Sharia law and these numbers are off the charts in comparison with the rest of the Muslim world and are indicative of a society deeply steeped in coexistence between religious communities,” claimed the report.

There are some who claim that the strain of Islam Kazakhstan wants to be steeped in is Sufism. It is exemplified by the careful curating of Khoja Ahmad Yasawi’s imposing mausoleum in Turkistan city, which is growing rapidly from a sleepy spiritual capital of the Turkic world to a modern centre of tourism and pilgrimage.

The “astoundingly beautiful” — as The Lonely Planet puts it — glorious blue, turquoise and white tiling on the outside of Yasawi’s tomb or ‘Little Mecca’ is replicated in the reconstructed mausoleum of Rabiya Sultan Begim, the great-granddaughter of the Timurid dynasty’s founder Timur and whose successors ruled parts of the region till 1920, when the Soviets rolled in. The right-hand corridor in the Begim’s mausoleum contains the tomb of Abylay Khan, leader of Kazakh resistance to the Zhungars (Mongols) in the 18th century. The messaging is unambiguous.

Homegrown Sufism and local dynasts have been in charge in the medieval era.

Museums, with multi-lingual displays, delve deeper into Kazakhstan’s existence and portray unique stands on the emergence of the country. There is no hint of rancour with any of the dramatis personae of the past. Despite the rough brushes with the Russians and the dogged promotion of Kazakh language, Tokayev in a speech pointed out that the Russian language is “necessary for all of us”, given the world’s second longest border it shares with Russia and the demand for the language in the Eurasian space.

“The characteristic features of the citizens of Kazakhstan are national tolerance, respect for traditions of the past and different cultures, knowledge of the state and other languages. Each holder of the turquoise passport enjoys all the privileges of a citizen of Kazakhstan, regardless of ethnicity, views and beliefs,” says Tokayev.

Kazakhstan and its former capital Almaty have never been far from wanderlust minds. This quaint Silk Road town, delicately dissected by clear mountain streams and ringed by the snow-flecked northern Tien-Shan mountains invites reflections from Abay Kunanbaev, Kazakhstan’s late revered poet, philosopher and composer who wrote of his love for the homeland, shared the romance of the nomadic Auls way of living, all the while condemning imperial usurpers and advocating for enlightenment.

On the political front, the 5 +1 format, as the interaction with the five Central Asian countries is called, has become popular with all major nations, including the US. Its National Security Adviser Ajit Doval has had multiple interactions in the last two years with leaders of Central Asian counterparts, both in the collective format as well as during meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

At the last such meeting in Kazakhstan, Doval claims that all five Central Asian countries will become a member of the India-Iran-Russia (International North-South Transport Corridor — INSTC) corridor. Doval also flagged another area for future cooperation — rare earths cooperation and strategic mineral collaboration.

Recently, Indian diplomats suggested organizing a seminar between leading scholars and ulemas from India and Central Asian countries to facilitate a deeper understanding of the history and context of Islam.

As prospects of trade continue to open up new industry routes and with greater connectivity, as religious and cultural tolerance grows, Kazakhstan is definitely a space for tourists, students and entrepreneurs to deep dive into its rich offerings. Watch this space!

Notes from the Editor: This feature was edited from its original publication here.

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