History’s a Laugh

My apologies for having become less consistent about posting. I’ve been quite busy since returning from India. Soon my life should settle back into a routine, after which time I will once again be a consistent and thrilling blogger.

Today I heard a couple of jokes (neither about Brezhnev, and I’m not clear on the origins of either) that were more tragic than humorous. An artist friend of mine told me the first over beer, cognac and black tea (all at once, though not mixed. Having this many diverse drinks in front of one is not uncommon here. The tea is supposed to soften the effects of the cognac, and the beer must be to nullify the effect of the tea. It is like an alcoholic game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”):

History is the most exact science. As we write it, it becomes fact.

As I’ve suggested before – and as almost any history of the USSR or Communist China will note – “Stalinist regimes” are guiltier than most at exploiting the logic of this quip.

But they are not alone. Kazakhstan is a country very much in the process of re-writing its own history. Those in charge are not erasing and inventing episodes to nearly the same extent as past dictatorial administrations, but they are selectively downplaying and exaggerating in bold, if not unique, ways. For instance, the large room devoted to the Soviet era in Kazakhstan’s Central Historical Museum begins with a festive selection of the minority populations represented in the country (Belorussians, Ingush, Koreans, Kurds, etc.). Scant mention is made of the fact that most of these populations are represented here because their grandfathers and grandmothers were induced to move here by the Soviet state. The entire Chechen population of the USSR was relocated to Kazakhstan in one week in 1944. If the NKVD couldn’t deport you, they shot you. Breezing over this complicated history, the path around the room culminates in a celebration of Kazakhs’ contributions to the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Then the exhibit ends – in 1945. The next room picks up the story in 1991.

Can I blame them? Over the past 500 years, Kazakhs have enjoyed few opportunities to write their own story; for much of the time that historians believe Kazakhs constituted a self-conscious nation, they’ve been subject to external rule and pressure. This has created a terribly complex history and an even more fraught relationship to that history. The layers implicit in the second “joke,” told to me by my Russian teacher, illustrated that point.

When Timur (Tamerlane – probably an Uzbek, but claimed by the Kazakhs as a native son) conquered new lands, he was in the habit of collecting punishing taxes from the people. He’d send out his troops to requisition grain, animals, etc. Then, when the commanders had returned, Timur would summon them to him.

“Did you take their grain?” he’d ask.
“Yes sir, we did.”
“And how did the people react?” he’d continue.
“They cried.”
“That means they have more to give,” he’d conclude, and send his troops back out.

His troops would return, and each time, Timur would go through the same questions:

“Did you take their grain?”
“Yes sir, we did.”
“And how did the people react?”
“They cried.”
“That means they have more to give.”

Eventually, however, the troops would return with a different answer.

“Did you take their grain?”
“Yes sir, we did.”
“And how did the people react?”
“They laughed.”
“Then they have nothing left.”

Hilarious, right? This short story caused me to reflect on the human psychology, but not with regard to the ostensible lesson. Instead, it dawned on me that this was a Soviet joke on the surface about the cruelty of the pre-Soviet cultures and heroes in Central Asia. But discussion of Genghis Khan, Timur, and other towering figures of regional history was, I am lead to believe, largely forbidden throughout much of the Soviet period. Therefore, this is probably a Soviet joke about the Soviet system disguised as an “illegal” joke about Central Asia.

And the layers of the onion multiply as I consider that I’m being told this joke in contemporary Kazakhstan – in which it is all but a rule that one must celebrate the age of Genghis Khan and Timur, even though neither were Kazakh – by a Kazakh woman who does not speak Kazakh and identifies more closely with “her people’s” past colonizers. And there are many like her.

In short, Kazakhstan’s history is immensely difficult to untangle, but it is also incredibly intricate and fascinating. Instead of celebrating its richness, however, those who are writing the new national historical narrative are approaching this fragile structure with a hammer. In so doing, they are repeating old mistakes; they really should know better.

1 comment
  1. I completely agree with you. Being in the middle of the Eurasia.. Kazakhstan has a totally complex blend of history.. with its beautiful and colorful culture. Perhaps history scholars do some justice to it as we cannot expect much from the governments anyways.

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