What I Learn from my Kazakh Students (Part III)

Today’s blog is in keeping with Kazakh language learning based on my talking to a Kazakh man yesterday who wanted to practice his English with me. Two way street: he builds confidence in his speaking English while I learn more about his Kazakh culture. It is amazing what the Kazakhs have endured.  I maintain that in order to understand present day Kazakhstan, all expats, foreigners and “aliens” MUST know Kazakhstan’s past, even as recent as 100 years ago.

My Kazakh “student” claimed that the change of Latin alphabet of Kazakh to Cyrillic happened around 1935.  This would have been soon after the devastating famine of 1931-1933 where half the Kazakh population was wiped out.  Their cattle, sheep and horses were destroyed and so many of his grandmother’s neighbors perished as a result of no food.  Everyone on their street had their livelihood stripped from them and thus died of starvation.  The question I asked was how did THEY survive?  His grandparents’ family went fishing which is not a typical thing to do especially when the Kazakh nomads were used to breeding livestock.  Their will to live forced them to go to the Irtshk River to provide for the family along with planting a vegetable garden and eating the fruits of those labors.  His grandfather was also a well known carpenter.  He created wood closets and chests for the yurtas and window frames for houses.  He was skilled in his work and some of his work exists in their village even today.

What’s interesting is that my older Kazakh student didn’t find any of this past history out from his own parents, who were good communists.  No instead, his Kazakh grandmother talked freely of this era of famine, she had many stories to tell.  Also, she told of how MORE Kazakhs were killed during the Great Patriotic War where his grandmother said, “All Kazakh men went to war.”  Only one man returned to her village from her classmates of 20, but he returned with no legs.

The Soviet soldiers in the Red Army were ill-prepared for the battles against the German forces. Especially true of those Kazakh men who had already fought to live from those impoverished years of the famine in the 1930s.  For the Soviets, the war started as early as 1939 or 1940.  Not a lot of time to re-group after having survived a famine 8-9 years earlier.

His grandmother died last year at the age of 90 years old which was more of a celebration in her leaving of this earth because she had witnessed so much heartache. She had lived a good life during VERY hard times.  This reminds me of a saying another of my Kazakh students used recently, I’ll not forget it.  It is a kind of prayer, “God, you sent me to earth to be human, let me die as a human.”  I understood this in the context to mean that no matter how much barbarism and violence has happened on Kazakh soil in the name of whatever ruling policies or wars, the petitioner asks to not turn into an animal.  To die with dignity as a human even though one has been treated inhumanely, is the key for how some of the Kazakhs exist now.  Many older pensioners have seen too much death and bloodshed in their recent past being part of the Soviet Union, the main thing in the young nation of Kazakhstan is peace.

I may return to the post-modernist thoughts from a western point of view where some arrogant, western elites would like to think of themselves as descended from apes. (we have an expression “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” but that indicates a disbelief or an incredulous come back to something preposterous to believe) These western academicians would prefer to teach others that we are all animals without a conscience, they are convinced there is no soul or spirit in each of us human individuals.

However, instead today’s guest speaker will come to our PDP class and talk more about the Kazakh language and how important it is to resurrect it from the ash heaps of bygone Soviet policies that affected every single Kazakh in this country.  Yesterday’s language policies affect today’s laws of the land, for better or for worse.

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