Archive for March 17, 2008

Yesterday’s Conversation with a Russian-Kazakhstani

As Ken and I were walking home from church, Helen, a Russian-Kazakhstani hurried to catch up with me to ask, “Why did you want to know about Dec. 16, 1986 event?”  I replied that I was curious about what REALLY happened during this tragic time in Kazakhstan’s recent history.  Her response would probably be typical of any remaining Russian in Kazakhstan, “It wasn’t important.”  This callous response to the Kazakh people wanting independence 22 years ago incited indignation in me.  I knew who I was talking to when I answered firmly with a leading question, “You don’t think that it was important for the Kazakh people to have a leader who knew something about their nation instead of someone who was assigned from Moscow?”  She seemed to relent a bit since she knew which side I was taking, clearly not the Russian side of forced domination of 70 years of communism.

Helen is about my age so she was probably a good communist worker more years than having lived the free air of independence these past 15 years in Kazakhstan.  Freedom is all in who owns what now.  She tried a different tack with me.  “They took all my property,” Helen stated flatly.  My response to Helen was, “Under communism, how much did you have taken from you when you weren’t supposed to own anything.”  She didn’t answer me directly but I’m guessing that her flat was taken from her.  She claimed that she signed some papers with Mrs. Nazarbayev’s name on it so she thought she was protected.  She wasn’t and now she harbors ill feelings towards President Nazarbayev.  She accused him of being a “robber” though that is not what it sounded like when she pronounced it, I had to guess at that word.

Yes, Nazarbayev has been accused of many things but I responded that he has been a good leader for Kazakhstan in righting the wrongs committed against the Kazakh people.  He has danced a very delicate dance with the rulers from the north (Russia) and the rulers to his east (China).  We will all rue the day when Nazarbayev’s successor comes along, it will take strong leadership of his kind to follow in his footsteps.  Helen mentioned about his former son-in-law who is stuck in Austria as a former ambassador.  If he were to return to Kazakhstan, he will most certainly be killed.  Running this government must be a huge migraine every day and Nazarbayev has done it for the last 20 years.  Some “democracy” but it is better than the alternative.

Back to Helen, she might be a very valuable source of information for me because she knows the two sides of education under the past communist system.  She knows what is happening under the current Kazakh educational ministry while she currently works with an American system of teaching at an international school.  Her statement about the kids in schools these days is that it is a “prison” for them, the Kazakh “teachers pretend to teach and the students pretend to learn.”  Yes, how many times I have heard that expression especially when I was teaching in communist China (1986-1988) a variant is: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”  She also saw that some of the new rich Kazakh kids attend the same school where there are poor missionary children and they scoff at the westerner children saying that they have money because their daddies are smart and theirs are not.  I’d have to agree with Helen on that score, the Kazakh daddies who can afford an expensive international school with American standards have probably cheated and robbed to get the money they have.  However, that’s another story.

Finally, many Kazakhstani citizens, like Helen, have left by the millions when Kazakhstan became an independent nation.  That means Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, anyone who didn’t look Kazakh.  (when I was here in Almaty 15 years ago, it was a common occurrence to be asked on the street what the time was.  The reason was to find out the accent you had when you answered.  Innocent question with a response that would let the inquirer know if you were German or Russian or a native English speaker.  They don’t ask much anymore)  The Kazakhstani may have been born here but their ethnicity shows up in their names and faces, with the push to fit in with the prior Kazakh culture, they are being pushed out of important positions of leadership.  Helen may have had her title and position taken from her 15 years ago as well as any meager property she may have owned but she is one of the resilient ones.  She admits that she is working hard now as a Russian teacher but it is much more interesting in the American system than under the present Kazakh system where Russian is not needed anymore.

Leave a comment »