I have written before about the fact that, after independence in 1991, the new government in Kazakhstan changed many street names to commemorate Kazakh heroes and, equally, as an act of cleansing the city of its Soviet history. What hadn’t fully appreciated at the time, however, is that as many street names were preserved as were changed, and the names that survived independence were overwhelming those that evoke Russia’s Soviet and pre-Soviet literary heritage: Pushkin, Gogol, Gorky. While even Peace Street (у. Мира) became “December” (in Kazakh: Желтосан) in honor of the December 1986 nationalist uprising here against Moscow, decidedly Russian artistic luminaries retain their honors.
This observation speaks to a major paradox facing post-Soviet Kazakh “nation-building” (the project of reviving or fabricating a national identity for the benefit of social, economic and political cohesion and loyalty). While there is no dearth of national heroes here, these tend to be military figures – batyrs (батыры, meaning “warrior” in Kazakh) who variously defended or vanquished enemies of the Kazakh nation. But pre-Russian Kazakh history is lacking in artistic and scientific figures. There are of course a few: for instance, Korkut-Ata, a legendary figure credited with inventing the kobuz, a traditional stringed instrument. However, Kazakhstan’s histories of fine arts, as this term is understood in the West, and science are by and large coterminous with Russian occupation of the region. Russian’s brought with them artistic and scientific sensibilities, traditions and techniques that had a penetrative influence upon nascent Kazakhstan. Therefore, while Kazakh nation-building attempts to define itself in opposition to over a century of Russian subjugation, it cannot deny wholesale Kazakhs’ debt to some Russian figures lest it also repudiate its shared artistic heritage and ancestry. Doing so would make it difficult to explain artistic and scientific advances in the region.
But the result is that it is difficult for Kazakh nation-builders at all levels to draw clear lines between where Kazakh identity ends and where the Russian begins, especially when one is talking about fine arts in the last century. This is particularly evident in the Kasteev Museum of Fine Arts. Even in the organization of the holdings, the lack of clear boundaries is evident. Some works by artists of Russian ethnicity, such as those of Pavel Filonov (b. 1883 in Russia) are held in the Russian art collection, despite the fact that Filonov lived and taught in Almaty for several years; others, such as those by Sergei Kalmikov (b. 1891 in Samarkand, in present-day Uzbekistan) are under the purview of the Kazakh painting department. There may be a logic to this; I will have to ask some of the administrators at the museum. Even if there is a rational explanation, it nonetheless illustrates the point that contemporary Kazakhs are confronted in many ways with having to (and having the opportunity to) chose what to consider their own and what to discard.
The task of selection is more complicated, however, when what is being selected is not an object, like a painting, that can be sorted, but a sensibility or a style. The heyday of Kazakh painting is in the 1960s when the first generation of young Kazakh painters trained in Moscow and Petersburg returned to Almaty to apply techniques learned from Russians (who were, in turn, by and large part of European artistic development) to national events and landscapes. Almost all art historians here acknowledge, therefore, that Kazakh painting owes its existence to the Soviet Union. Having acknowledged this fact, should contemporary Kazakh artists engaged in nation-building abandon the styles and lessons absorbed from Russia? Some have, preferring to use traditional applied arts techniques such as textile crafts, but many persist to paint with oils using historically “European” techniques.
Interestingly, this problem does not exist in the new Central Asian states only in relation to Russia; it also exists between the new states. I realized this while I was visiting Tashkent, where I saw the monument to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Gagarin was ethnically Russian, born in Russia, but was launched into space from headquarters of the Soviet space program, Baikonur, which is in Central Asia. Presumably, therefore, the Tashkent monument was constructed after the first cosmonaut’s April 1961 space flight in the region’s then-largest city to mark Central Asia’s contribution to Soviet scientific accomplishments. However, Baikonur isn’t in Uzbekistan – it’s in contemporary Kazakhstan. Thus, Kazakhstan is now left sharing (and making a competing claim to) its heritage of the Soviet space program with its southern neighbor.
Similar competing claims exist not only with regard to Soviet figures, but also to historical figures that pre-date defined borders between the Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik people (which is to say, before the 1920s). Thus multiple Central Asian nations claim the legacy of Babur, Timur (Tamerlane), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and others. In more than one instance, there are mausoleums to the same person in two different countries, each claiming to be authentic.
In light of the lack of clear boundaries between national histories and heritages, it is understandably very difficult and contentious to revive nations and create national identities in post-Soviet Central Asia. Exclusive claim to certain historical figures is important to demonstrate, for example, Kazakhs’ historical supremacy relative to Uzbeks at the musical arts. The solution, in my eyes, is to reduce the importance placed on exclusive claims and to instead acknowledge the complicated history of this region and the fluidity with which people moved through this land – and therefore the dynamic nature of “nations” in Central Asia. This would mean sharing historical figures, landmarks, artworks and events in cultural narratives, which would be relatively unprecedented and attack the concept of “nationalism” at one of its roots. If they do not do this, however, and refuse to recognize the mutual, and often equally valid, claims to national icons, Kazakhs are going to spend the next fifty years imagining complicated and implausible circumlocutions to explain how self-evidently (because of their surnames) Russian painters belong in the Kazakh painting holdings of the national art museum.