Posts tagged Martha Brill Olcott

“Why We Teach Overseas” series

What’s all this flap about a Russian spy ring caught in the U.S.?  I know some Kazakh teachers/administrators thought I was a “spy” when I was teaching in Almaty, perhaps some of my American friends think I am too.  I can attest that Cold War sentiments may die hard or take a long time to go away. I’ve witnessed or heard of some things up close and personal that makes one wonder how long this Cold War will go on. Okay, I admit it, I’m a “neo-con” as opposed to a “revisionist” for those of you historians out there who read this blog. But you knew that already if you have consistently read my daily writing rants for the past few years.

The next several days I will try to explain why my husband and I live overseas in a country, such as “Kazakhstan,” that seems difficult to pronounce.  Kazakhstan IS a land of mystery and undeniably creates more questions than answers. But I have a few answers for my dear blog readers as to WHY we are in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. A much earlier film series directed by Frank Capra titled “Why We Fight” was about WWII and might help explain MY blog title above.  Sometimes living in a foreign venue while trying to teach in English feels like we are “fighting” for a just cause.

When I first arrived in the Almaty airport on May 1, 1993, I quickly learned what a challenge it would be to train 32 American Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) to eventually be English teachers scattered throughout the huge country of Kazakhstan. At that time, I could only tell these young, impressionable PCVs to expect teaching to be “different” based solely on my two years teaching in China (1986-88). What did I know about Kazakhstan back in 1993 beyond reading Martha Brill Olcott’s classic titled “The Kazakhs” and various other exotic, travel articles?  Kazakhstan was a vast, unknown land back in those early days after the fall of the Soviet Union, (regrettably it still is unknown by many westerners.)

In 1993, we were the first Peace Corps group to enter Central Asia, an area that had been closed off for over 70 years to anything western except for the Russian and German influence that was still noticeably prevalent in those early days beyond perestroika. Ironically, our Peace Corps training site was the former Communist Party School for all of Kazakhstan.  Also, strangely enough this very same campus became a well-known western university in Almaty with a current student population of over 4,000 graduate and undergraduate students. Little did I know then that I would return to this same campus 15 years later in 2007, with my husband, to teach academic English courses in the Language Center.

After two years of teaching, I am now living and working in Astana, the ten year old capital of Kazakhstan, which had formerly been in Almaty.  Bottom-line, my years spent in Central Asia, I have learned to be flexible. The Kazakhs have necessarily made major changes economically from a planned economy, according to the dictates of Moscow, to that of a market economy ready to compete against the top players in the rest of the world. Kazakhstan has a real chance to succeed with their rich oil and mineral resources and do just that with the inauguration of the New University in Astana.

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Dr. Olcott’s “turn of phrase” about the Kazakhs

Dr. Martha Brill Olcott wrote a much more scholarly book about Kazakhstan, titled “The Kazakhs” than did Colin Thubron in his short chapters of “The Lost Heart of Asia.”  That is, if you can manage to navigate past the minute detail she got from her plethora of other “scholarly” sources.  My husband bought this book in 1992 which was published by Hoover Institution Press at Stanford in 1987.  Judging by Olcott’s sources, 100 western (in English, not counting her own) and around 350 Russian, obviously she knows Russian and adeptly translated all her sources. But my question is, are they accurate even though this volume on the Kazakhs was in a Hoover Institution series about the Crimean Tartars and Volga Tartars, Estonians and Georgians as well.

 

What is also obvious to me is that she shows a dearth of writings in the Kazakh language, only 17 that she documented in her bibliography.  My husband wrote in the margins of this book which he read over 17 years ago that he suspected Soviet or communist propaganda was bleeding through her Russian sources about the Kazakhs.  I would posit that someone else needs to write about the Kazakhs in English for curious western readers and have a more thorough going approach to the history of this great country.

 

What I found of interest in Olcott’s seminal work was in her Conclusion about Olzhas Suleimenov.  Remember as you read her words that it was before the Soviet Union dissolved and there was an internalized tug-of-war going on over the nationalities question.

 

“A group of Kazakh writers and historians has provided particular trouble for the regime because of their preoccupation with the Kazakh past and with the historical figures who helped shape it.  These individuals seek the right to present a Kazakh-centered view of history, one which implicitly rejects Moscow’s contention that all history must be told from the Russian point of view.  However, these people are often treated as though they have taken the first step toward ideological heresy.  A case in point is the book Az I Ia (Alma Ata, 1975), by the poet Olzhas Suleimenov, which seeks to retell the “Igor’s tale” from a Turkic perspective….

 

…Kazakh scholars may study individuals who opposed Russian conquest, but the conquest itself must still be depicted as voluntary submission by the Kazakhs, since Russian contact with the Kazakhs must always be construed as positive.  Because Suleimenov’s book reversed this relationship and denied the Russians a central role in the history of the medieval period, Moscow reacted furiously. (p. 253)

 

Still, Kazakh intellectuals remain preoccupied with preserving the historical legacy of their past, particularly since the economic policies of the 1960s and 1970s obliterated the nomadic way of life in all but the desert regions of the republic.  These intellectuals, like many of their Third World counterparts, are glorifying a past that poses them no direct risk.  They no longer have to suffer the wrath of traditional leadership, and so the past may be romanticized.  Many prominent contemporary Kazakh poets – such as O. Suleimenov and K. Murzaliev – and novelists – such as S. Sanbaev, A. Alimzhanov, and I. Esenberlin – have made their reputations from works that rely heavily on historical themes in a tradition as old as Kazakh oral literature itself.  Some of these writers, such as Suleimenov and Sanbaev, talk about the old values and tell tales about nomadic life before the revolution; others write historical novels about important personages in Kazakh history, such as Esenberlin’s Khan Kene (1971, about Kenisary Kasimov) and Kochevniki (1979, a three-volume portrait of Khan Abu’l Khayr).

 

These books, romantic treatments of times long past, reflect the influence of socialist realism as much as of traditional Kazakh themes; they are in no way meant to incite Kazakhs to resist Russians.  The books were published and many were widely distributed and translated as well; they are meant to portray the distinctive heritage of which all Kazakhs should be proud.  However, Moscow tends to view any increase in Kazakh national self-awareness as dangerous and so watches the Kazakh authors closely…” (p. 254)

 

“The philosophy of the Kazakh intellectuals is far more difficult to categorize and may ultimately be more dangerous.  Apparently harmless demands for greater Kazakh cultural self-determination potentially threaten the status quo, although the search for a modern Kazakhstan has thus far been restricted to cultural autonomy (witness Suleimenov’s reinstatement) – appear to have been met, and Moscow’s attack on erring Kazakhs has been relatively low-key.  Were the Kazakhs to demand greater control of their economic and political lives, they would be unlikely to receive a mild response.” (p. 255)

 

“The impact of the tradition of Kazakh secular nationalism on present political developments in Kazakhstan is difficult to assess, but some points are clear.  A minority in their own republic, the Kazakhs have managed to exert strong control not only in their political life but in cultural, social and religious affairs as well; they have politicized cultural issues in a way that other Central Asian nationalities have not.  As a result they have managed to preserve at least part of their history from complete reinterpretation by the Soviets.  Their literature is strongly linked to that of the prerevolutionary period, and although heavily ideological hack writers exist whose works receive wide distribution, they do not overshadow the large group of serious Kazakh writers.” (p. 256)

 

Yes, I would like to meet these serious writers, or at least read their works if translated into English.  I want to be able to read about this buried treasury of Kazakh history from what has been handed down orally for centuries.  I would hope that some of my own Kazakh students would take up this challenge and let the western world know what an amazing culture and country this really is!

 

 

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