Kazakh Dualism

Bogenbai Batyr

My apartment building is just off Bogenbai Batyr Street (ул. Богенбай Батыра). Batyr translates roughly from Kazak as “hero,” but applies specifically to warriors. Bogenbai was a Kazakh general in the mid-18th century who gained renown for rebuffing the Zhungars (Kalmyks) and Chinese Qing forces at a battle near contemporary Turkestan (in Southern Kazakhstan) and driving them back to Urumqi (in Chinese territory).

But no one calls my street Bogenbai Batyr. Even most taxi drivers only know this street as Kirov (ул. Кирова), after (I believe) Sergey Kirov. Kirov was a Russian Revolutionary who rose to become the Leningrad (Petersburg) Communist Party boss in the 1920s under Stalin, with whom he was good friends. After publicly disagreeing with Stalin in 1934, however, Kirov happened to be shot in the back of the neck; although many suspect Stalin’s complicity in this act, it also served as the pretext for Stalin to begin purging the Party of supposed subversives. He was never officially condemned by Stalin, however, and many cities and streets were named after him.

Sergey Kirov

Mine is not the only street with two names. Throughout the city, street names with Communist resonances (e.g. Cosmonaut, Lenin, Peace) now have new, Kazakh names (respectively Baitursynova – a Kazakh Turkologist and linguist; Dostyk – Kazak for “friendship”; Zhambul – December, commemorating an uprising in Kazakhstan in 1986). According to the few people I’ve asked, the street names were changed soon after independence, which would make the new names almost 20 years old. Nonetheless, long-time residents here insist on using the Soviet-era designations, meaning that people here have to know and use two sets of street names.

This speaks to what one friend of mine called “Kazakh dualism.” As he put it: “In Kazakhstan, we have two capitals (referring to Astana, the new capital since 1997, and Almaty, the political capital from 1927 and still the cultural and financial capital); roads have two names; the country has two languages; and we all have two wives!”

While the last part was definitively a joke, the point he is getting at is legitimate. As far as I have seen, Kazakhstan and its population straddle many binaries and divisions: linguistically, Russian and Kazakh are both official languages, but many people can only speak one or the other; ethnically and religiously, unofficial estimates calculate the population of ethnic Slavs (primarily Orthodox Christians) and ethnic Kazakhs (Muslim by heritage) as about equal; and culturally and intellectually, the country is either shared or torn (depending on one’s point of view and the issue at hand) between East and West, Soviet and post-Soviet life, modernity and tradition. This was made real to me today when I was served a large cappuccino in a bowl similar to that out of which Kazakhs traditionally drink kumiss (fermented mare’s milk).

In many cases Kazakh dualism makes life here rich and fascinating, but it undoubtedly also presents challenges to nation-building and to the basic tasks of business, government and society. I’m far too new here to make sense of it all yet, but I look forward to exploring how this duality crops up in different aspects of life in Kazakhstan.

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