The subtitle of this book was perhaps not necessary: The work’s scope is by far not limited to issues of ethnicity, language and power. Dealing with post-Soviet Kazakhstan, the author offers one of the best histories ever written on this country. Revealing the complexity of Kazakh social reality, her work is refreshing if compared with usual publications on Central Asian autocracies. Seeing Kazakhstan a good place for investigating the contradictory legacy of the Soviet multinational state, the author shows how this legacy continues to shape its post-Soviet transition, arguing that Russification was not simply a “top-down” process. With oral history showing involvement of ordinary people, the author has written a vivid history of Kazakhstan by taking into account the suitability of the Soviet cognitive frame, institutional framework and ideological categories.
The book is divided into two chronological parts: chapters 1 to 4 analyse the collaboration of Kazakh élites with the Soviet system and the appropriation of its categories; chapters 5 to 7 delineate the adaptation of Soviet identity categories, institutions and practices in the shaping of post-Soviet order. In a successful attempt to enlarge the soviet nationalities studies, the first chapter brings together three distinct frameworks to enrich the debate on the nature of the Soviet state (“colonial”, “imperial”, “modernising” or “state building”): the post-1991 historiography of the Soviet Union, postcolonial theory and ethnographies of the post-Soviet transition. This new historiography highlights the participation of all strata of local society in forging the Soviet regime. In parallel, postcolonial theory illuminates the constitutive effects of the Soviet legacy, and studies of transition help to understand the reconfiguration of existing categories. Situated at the crossroad of these frames, the present book uncovers the different layers of identity (pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet) and points out their hybrid character. Presenting the conditions in which a sense of nationhood was forged and how the Soviet state was characterised from the viewpoint of the Kazakhs, the author offers an opportunity to understand the post-Soviet processes of state building and identity formation.
The second chapter focuses on the pre-Soviet history of Kazakh tribes. Explaining how internal weakness of the nomadic society facilitated the incorporation of the Steppe into the Tsarist Empire, the author presents interesting statements on the transformation of pastoral nomadism. Because identities were fluid in pre-modern communities, the term qazaq referred to a form of nomadic self determination and logics of ascription were imported by Russian geographers and Tsarist administrators. Similarly, after expected considerations on the formation of Kazakh national identity, an interesting assertion is made on the narrow social basis of Kazakh élites: a majority of Alash Orda leaders were originating from the northern and central parts of the Steppe territory, the land of the Middle horde. In the more innovative third chapter on language issue, the author analyses the Russification and loss of cultural identity connected with the ability of the Soviet state to distribute the fruits of modernity to the most disadvantaged strata. The hypothesis of forced Russification as top-down policy imposed from the metropolitan centre is sharply criticised: The Kazakhs actively involved themselves in learning Russian and seeking integration within the Soviet community of nations. Using testimonies of urban Russian-speaking Kazakhs and works by Russian researchers who first analysed this shift to the adoption of Russian language, the author provides relevant remarks on the promotion of bilingualism by the Soviet state. Stating that language patterns are fluid in multilingual societies undergoing rapid socio-economic change (p. 54), B. Dave establishes a direct link between the processes of urbanisation and Russification. The decline of Kazakh-language schools is convincingly presented as a gradual process coming from Kazakh officials rather than from Moscow. Testimonies are precious to contextualise the process: Using the choice given by 1958 education law “the intelligentsia always sent their children to Russian schools (p. 66).”
In the fourth chapter, the author questions the Soviet institutionalisation of a structure of titular ethnic entitlements. Coming back to the affirmative action policy of the 1920s, she notices that its effects were visible only after the 1950s. At that time, as a result of demographic change and social mobility, the Kazakh share in the regional and local party organisation began to rise. The combined effects of urbanisation and the expansion of higher education produced an indigenisation of the republic. Moreover, the long rule (from 1964 till 1986) of D. A. Kunaev paved the way for the rise of a new titular-dominated ethnic hierarchy in which southern Kazakhs exerted considerable influence. In the framework of patron-client relationships, clans acquired a new political salience during Brezhnev times, a period when N. A. Nazarbaev was chairing the Supreme Soviet of the Kazakh SSR. With plenty of details, the author examines the ability of the titular communist élites to portray themselves as representatives of their titular nation. In a convincing assertion based on oral testimonies, the author states that the well-known protest of December 1986 in Almaty had no “nationalist” overtone. Focusing on the Post-Soviet period, the fifth chapter explains the gap between the statistical and political success of Kazakhstan language policies. In 1989, a first language law declared Kazakh as the “state language” and Russian as language of “inter-ethnic communication”. However, the pragmatic Nazarbaev administration made no attempt to break the prevalent sociolinguistic context and opted for a formal, bureaucratic and thus “softer” implementation of the language law (p. 107). The 1997 law reinforced the governmental efforts to depoliticise the language issue. Finally, the formalistic implementation of the language legislation reduced the potential for interethnic conflicts by allowing individuals to pursue their own preference (p. 116). At the same time, whence Russian remains dominant among urban population, in both symbolic and statistical terms, Kazakh language has established itself as a state language, as denoted by the data that over 99 per cent of Kazakhs have a “proficiency” in the state language.
The sixth chapter deals with the challenges of ethnic diversity management. To explain why Kazakhstan did not witness separatist mobilisation by its Russian-speaking groups, the author provides a set of locally-certified argumentations: From the demographic viewpoint, about two millions Russian-speakers have left Kazakhstan in the decade from 1989 to 1999; from a political viewpoint, the Nazarbaev administration considers internationalism as an attribute of the state; from an economic viewpoint, the northern regions of Kazakhstan have maintained close links with Russia. B. Dave’s statements on cultural rather than political representation of nationality and her descriptions of nostalgia for Soviet Union enrich reflections on identity structure in present-day Kazakhstan. In her last chapter, the author examines the nature of this “nationalising state” which led to the emergence of Kazakhstan as a patrimonial state. The Nazarbaev administration has maintained its clientele by monopolising its control over strategic resources and allocation of preferences. Consequently, the transition from a centralised administrative economy to a more competitive system has favoured the titular élites. Some critics of the over-representation of the titular nationality contradict considerations on the more crucial role played in recruitment practices by political reliability and personal networks (p. 154). When B. Dave considers that obstacles to forge civic statehood come from the authoritarian and patrimonial regime (p. 136), she also contradicts some of her previous statements on the hybrid nature of identities.