My Kazakhstan Essay

The most decorated athlete in all of Kazakhstan is a five-year-old Mongolian horse named Lazer. Born wild on the steppe, he lacks the lean grace of a thoroughbred or an Arabian. Except for his large head and broad front haunches, he is small enough to be mistaken for a pony. His coat is a dusty black, tinged with rust, and his unkempt mane hangs punkishly over his eyes. Short-legged, small-eared, with aloof, walnut eyes, he might be any one of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of horses ranging over the grasslands of this enormous, wide-open country.

In the ancient nomadic game known as kokpar (roughly, “goat-grabbing”), Lazer is a champion many times over, with eight Kazakh National Games and two Central Asian Games titles to his name. Kokpar’s premise is simple: two teams take to a chalked-out 200-metre field to compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat, wrestling control back and forth in an attempt to score by flinging it into the opponent’s goal. Lazer has been trained for the game from an early age, learning to evade or dig in against much larger defensive horses. In fierce face-offs and chaotic scrums, it’s often a wonder that Lazer’s rider – a thickset, windbeaten man named Abdijaparov Abugali – can even hold on, let alone swing his body down Lazer’s flank in a headfirst lunge for the trampled goat carcass around which the horses stamp and circle.

Kokpar is said to have originated with Genghis Khan’s early-13th-century mounted raiders, although it may be even older. Traditionally, it was played between villages. The field of play was the distance, often miles, between two nomadic encampments; the goals a garden or animal pen in each. Matches would typically follow a wedding or the birth of a child, with 50 or 100 men and boys on horseback coming together in a pell-mell of sweat and blood, of grunting riders and rearing horses. The game is still played (or perhaps recreated) this way across central Asia, on the same occasions and on national holidays, but in recent years it has become increasingly professionalised, with federations and government ministers responsible for its promotion. There are now salaries for players and televised matches. And, of course, there are stars, none brighter than the one before me, calmly nipping the grass and sniffing the air on a chilly April morning at the hippodrome on the outskirts of Taldykorgan, a small industrial city in eastern Kazakhstan.

Lazer and Abugali form the core of Aulie-Ata (“Sacred Grandfathers”), the team from the southern city of Taraz that has dominated Kazakh kokpar for the last decade. They have come to Taldykorgan hoping to bring home their ninth National Games title. Other teams regularly offer millions of Kazakh tenge (1m tenge is worth around £2,300) for Lazer, to no avail. When I ask Abugali who is more important, the horse or the rider, he doesn’t hesitate: “The horse.”

Horses are ubiquitous in Kazakhstan – as companions, iconography and sustenance – and have been for centuries. The nomads who came to be known as Kazakhs in the 15th century shaped their way of life to this hard, semi-arid land. Horse milk and horsemeat were dietary staples, and skill on horseback was crucial for hunting, herding and warfare.

For 400 years, the Kazakh khanates or tribal chiefdoms maintained their independence, holding various conquerors at bay. But in the early 19th century, tsarist Russia, seeking to outflank the British for influence and control in central Asia, began to colonise this territory, partly displacing its Islamic, ethnically Asian inhabitants. The disruption of a traditional Kazakh lifestyle led to hunger, clashes over water sources and fledgling nationalist backlashes. Imperial mismanagement was at its worst in the 1930s, when the Soviet Union instituted a massive collectivisation programme that forced nomads into farming, with disastrous results: within three years, 1.5m ethnic Kazakhs starved to death. At the same time, the empire banished dissidents to Kazakhstan and resettled Chechens, Koreans, Greeks, Volga Germans and numerous other disparate populations here. Though many of these groups were eventually repatriated, by the 1960s Kazakhs had become a vanishing minority in the very nation named after them, dominated politically by Moscow, with cultural Russification continuing to marginalise their traditions.

Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union fell. A suddenly independent Kazakhstan struggled with food shortages and a monetary crisis. But a recent petroleum and mineral-resources boom has helped avenge these deprivations. Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev – an authoritarian who permits the harassment, arrest and torture of activists and journalists, yet remains popular among Kazakhs– this young nation has grown into the largest, most robust economy in central Asia. Its largest city, Almaty, buzzes with Range Rovers, Rolex shops and a Hard Rock Cafe. The capital city, Astana, meanwhile, has been remade into a surreal showcase for the avant-garde work of architects such as Norman Foster and Manfredi Nicoletti. This summer, Astana hosted the “Future Energy”-themed Expo 2017, aimed at bolstering Kazakhstan’s green-energy initiatives alongside its petroleum riches.

Despite these gestures toward a more global profile, Kazakhstan remains, for many, a huge blank on the map somewhere between Russia and China, essentially a hinterland. (During my visit, one young Kazakh educated in the US briskly summarised the typical western conception of his country as: “Oil, dictator, Borat.”) In part to remedy its global anonymity, Kazakhstan is in the middle of a quixotic identity-building project, an attempt not only to define itself to the world, but to reclaim and remake the past, and thus reckon with the realities of self-determination. Ethnic Kazakhs are once again a majority, today making up about 65% of the nation’s population, with ethnic Russians at about 25%. (The total population is just under 18 million people, in a country larger than western Europe.) A nationwide programme of Kazakhification has taken hold – replacing Russian with Kazakh as the language of business and politics, rewriting Soviet-era schoolbooks to include an honest account of Stalin’s brutal policies, and emphasising the pre-tsarist history of the khanates.

The pre-Russian period has also been employed to provide the foundation of Kazakh cultural identity in the new century. The signifiers of a nomadic past are everywhere, often commodified and romanticised: placards in Almaty’s airport that showcase eagle-hunting; documentaries on yurt living on state-run Kazakh TV; yurt-themed restaurants; and, of course, countless totems of the beloved horse – in snacks made of dried mare’s milk, in horse-themed techno on the radio, and in miniature riding crops given away as party favours. This simultaneous evocation of an open-range past and the promotion of a sleek, streamlined, 21st-century Kazakhstan – postmodern architecture, luxury shopping, green energy – has led to all sorts of anomalies and juxtapositions. The tribes that descended from Genghis Khan spread their culture across all of Mongolia and central Asia, but nowhere in this region is the contrast between the contemporary and the ancient higher than in Kazakhstan. And nowhere is the interplay between the two more starkly embodied than in professional Kazakh kokpar.

On Monday morning at the Taldykorgan hippodrome, the Games begin with a low-key ceremony. Beneath a huge sky, with the furrowed, moss-green foothills and dagger-like peaks of the Jungar Alatau range as backdrop, a crew from Kazakh TV is filming preliminary interviews. A band in traditional costume plays Kazakh folk music. When they finish, techno blares out from the PA system – some songs sample horses whinnying and galloping; one track uses a “Hi-yo!” seemingly borrowed from The Lone Ranger as its chorus.

Fourteen teams parade before us with their flags and banners: green and yellow for Taraz, black and white for Shymkent, blue and gold for Almaty. Several teams have driven for four or five days to get here, but no one is looking road-worn, just expectant. The players wear round, furry hats and tall, soft leather boots, which are thicker than American cowboy boots and with a lower heel. The horses are unshod, with simple saddles. Their calves are wrapped with felt strips and blue, white or yellow tape – partly for protection, partly for decoration. Some horses are diminutive, like Lazer, while others are so tall that I mistake their riders, big as rugby forwards, for smaller men.

That afternoon, Taraz squares off against the team from Almaty. Four starters from each squad line up on the far sideline, and a small crowd gathers as the equine techno fades out. The referee blows his whistle, and all eight riders whip their horses into a headlong sprint toward what looks like a dirty sack of laundry sitting in the field’s large centre circle. An Almaty player gets out in front, and in a frighteningly casual display of horsemanship, swings his body down the side of his horse. His head and fingers practically scrape dirt. He snatches the goat, but not firmly enough to break for the goal. The seven other riders slam into a scrum, vying to guard or wrench away possession. Everything is limbs, flying clods of dirt, horses rearing, riders whipping them deeper into the fray.

The scrum opens, and an Almaty rider shoots out of its centre, his horse galloping for the far goal. The goat bounces wildly against his mount’s flank. He hauls the carcass up into his lap. The goal – a large, circular mound of hay and earth hollowed out on top – is only yards away. But the other riders catch up, and everyone crashes into another scrum. The goat drops back on to the field. The two teams circle, trying to scoop it up. After two minutes with the goat in the dirt, to keep the action from stagnating, the head referee blows his whistle, and the riders and goat shift to the nearest face-off circle. And here is where Lazer proves his worth.

With the teams in position, the ref gives the signal. Lazer and an Almaty horse dart into the circle, and Lazer immediately twists around the goat, drops his centre of gravity, and uses his short, unyielding body to box his opponents out, giving Abugali, his rider, just enough time to swing down and grab the carcass.

They’re off – charging down the field, getting enough of a lead to give Abugali time to pull the goat up to his chest and fling it forward for a goal. One of the line judges, a weathered, moustached man named Kulzhatayev Maulebkazi, points in astonishment. “You see?” he says. “You see this horse? Best horse in all of Asia!”

By the final whistle, Taraz has routed Almaty, 10-3. Two men grab the goat and lug it off the field. After a whole day of being thrown around, stamped on by horses and nearly ripped in half, it’s time to retire this particular specimen. They drop it on the grass. I ask if I can pick it up, and gingerly take a rear leg. It’s heavy – regulations put it between 30-35kg – and with all its organs rolling around inside, it practically writhes out of my grasp. “What do you do with this now?” I ask, as I strain to hold it up.

The men who brought it off the field look at me skeptically. “Dinner,” one says. Maulebkazi explains: if you eat meat from the kokpar goat, then go home and sleep with your wife, you are sure to have a male child. Everyone nods solemnly.

Nearly every middle-aged manI speak to at the Games recalls playing kokpar “village-to-village” as a boy, and nearly every one of them stopped due to grievous injury. A broken shoulder, a broken arm, a broken back – the list of ailments goes on. In most matches at Taldykorgan, two or three riders fall or are thrown. A few get trampled by the horses. In one match, a player comes off the field with his uniform splattered in blood from head to toe: in a scrum, a horse bit his palm. “Kokpar,” one rider tells me, “takes eggs.” My translator searches for the right word. Embarrassed, he makes a cupping gesture near his groin. “We play kokpar because it’s in our blood,” I’m told several times. “Because we’re nomads.”

The nomadic legacy, and its attendant virtues of independence and toughness, do seem to loom over the Kazakh psyche. Yet the sport does not appear to be enormously popular outside of a small group of hardcore fans. Away from the hippodrome, most of the residents of Taldykorgan I ask about the National Games aren’t even aware that they are hosting. And while kokpar is featured regularly on state TV, most Kazakhs I speak to prefer watching Premier League football or Russian music videos or movies.

Because of this narrow but passionate interest, the financial support for kokpar comes mostly from the top down. Wealthy and politically connected individuals regularly sponsor exhibition matches, in which pros and semi-pros take part. A prize is given to the highest-scoring player: typically a certain number of horses or, more often, a car. At Taldykorgan, a star player for the Shymkent team, Bak Tobay, is introduced as having “won 20 cars and nine Land Cruisers”. The National Games, meanwhile, are played for cash, most of which comes from the state-run National Bank of Kazakhstan. And while a team might be backed and managed by, say, the owner of a large ranch, with sponsors for boots and saddles, much of the broader, institutional support for professional kokpar comes from the government.

The many billboards around Taldykorgan touting government initiatives – nearly all of which feature Nazarbayev – attest to his fondness for reminding Kazakhs of his largesse. Likewise, Nazarbayev’s government has put plenty of sporting people on the payroll. At Taldykorgan, at least half of the men I speak to introduce themselves as a national coach, a national trainer, a deputy minister or a Master of Sport (a title that qualifies one to coach or play at the national level). Nazarbayev has also put his nephew (and possible successor) Kairat Satybaldy in charge of the Kazakh Association of National Sports, the body that oversees kokpar and other traditional games. Without this kind of government investment, kokpar might well fade away or limp onas an equivalent of the Highland Games in Scotland or a lumberjack competition in Wisconsin – as nostalgic spectacle, or even kitsch. That said, kokpar’s atavistic symbolism is pretty high. Its expression of fearlessness and daring, along with its pre-Soviet, pre-tsarist authenticity, are no doubt part of its appeal for Nazarbayev’s government. After all, a nation defines itself by what it reveres, and the totems of a distant, seemingly nobler past can be invoked to enormous effect. Nazarbayev’s great project is his architectural playground, Astana, but he is also careful to be photographed and filmed playing a traditional two-stringed lute, the dombra, and in interviews attributes his good health to horsemeat and kumis (fermented mare’s milk) – two nomadic staples.

There is, perhaps, an irony here: a 21st-century state is being built on a tradition that resisted the very idea of centralised power. The nomad represents an ideal – one that is used to sell everything from Nomad Insurance policies to Air Astana’s Nomad Club frequent-flyer programme – but as the oil boom continues, more and more ordinary Kazakhs are heading to urban centres. Yet, even as many now work in offices instead of on a ranch, or drive trucks and taxis rather than ride horses, they can still identify with the kokpar pros who risk life, limb – and eggs – for glory in the saddle.

Wednesday at Taldykorgan promisesone of the week’s most anticipated matches, Shymkent versus Mangystau – pitting the hard-charging, Land Cruiser-winning Bak Tobay against another star player, Aleksander Popchenko. Popchenko and his brother, who plays for the city of Kyzylorda, are the only Caucasian players on the field. They are Ukrainian, not Russian, but their pale, wind-chapped complexions are a reminder that kokpar is a very Kazakh game.

The promotion of traditional Kazakh practices is entangled with some brutal history. In the 1920s, Stalin drew the borders of the central Asian republics so as to splinter linguistic and ethnic groups and thwart possible revolt. This policy fed bloody conflicts across the former Soviet Union in the late 20th century, and continues to cause ethnic and religious strife in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Perhaps because Nazarbayev has been careful to balance Kazakhification with policies aimed at “unity in diversity”, Kazakhstan has been largely free of such violence. And since Kazakhstan still relies on a certain amount of patronage from Moscow, Nazarbayev also seems to scrupulously avoid out-and-out Kazakh nationalism, which may explain why relations between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians have remained largely calm. Still, some ethnic Russians resent the incursion of the Kazakh language into official life, as well as the widening wealth gap between themselves and the ultra-rich Kazakhs connected to the president.

For their part, individual Kazakhs often have an ambivalent relationship with their Soviet past. I speak with Mangystau’s coach, a rancher named Kanagat Suyebaev, about his father, who taught him to play kokpar when he was five. “He loved the motherland,” he says, sounding a little like a Soviet-era textbook. “He was a patriot.” His father fought in the Red Army’s cavalry and served in the party after the second world war. Kazakhs of a certain generation were, on the whole, loyal communists. (Kazakhstan was the final Soviet state to declare independence, trailing even Russia itself.) Suyebaev is old enough to remember the long breadlines and hyperinflation caused by the Russians dithering with the value of the rouble during the collapse of the USSR, but when I ask him about those difficult post-independence years, he falls silent.

“It wasn’t as bad for us on the ranch,” he finally says. “We were self-sufficient. We were OK.” My translator leans over and quietly explains: not many Kazakhs like to talk about those lean, uncertain times.

Or perhaps Suyebaev is just focused on the match. Shymkent and Mangystau are mounting their horses. Shymkent, former national champions, are one of the few teams to challenge Taraz’s dominance, so this contest has drawn a noticeably larger crowd, with spectators pushing closer to the field as the players steady their horses on the far sideline.

The ref blows his whistle. Bak Tobay blocks out ferociously and goes for the goat, but Popchenko snatches it away and breaks for the goal. Tobay catches up, gets hold of a leg, and the two stars wrench the animal in different directions, threatening to rip it apart. The announcer’s commentary is percussive and freewheeling, mixing in proverbs and bits of poems that I am told defy translation. Shymkent dominates the first half, keeping the action dangerously close to Mangystau’s end. But goals elude both teams.

In the second half, a series of fouls slows the match to a fitful pace. “Come on, play!” one spectator yells. Finally, Popchenko yanks the goat out of a snarl of riders and horses, flashes his way to the goal and scores: 1-0, Mangystau. He gallops back to the sideline, arms above his head like a showboating footballer.

Tobay try to answer. It’s one violent scrum after another, players whipping and screaming at their horses, one another, the ref. In the waning minutes, Tobay almost gets one back but leaves the goat hanging on the rim of the goal. Mangystau regains possession, and the crowd cheers, perhaps angry with Shymkent for playing dirty. The announcer counts down the last 30 seconds, and the horse techno comes up.

Mangystau has pulled off an upset. Having only played together for two years, they are the youngest team here. Now they are headed to the match that will determine third and fourth place, which promise their own cash prizes. But this last match was rough, and no one’s in the mood to celebrate just now. “It’s a shame you were here to see this,” Maulebkazi, the line judge, tells me.

One night, I meet up againwith Shyngys Nurlanov, the young professional who had so neatly summarised western ignorance about Kazakhstan, and his friend, Aidos Aikhojayev. Both men were educated at the University of Washington in Seattle, and came home to start careers in business and IT, respectively. We find a table at an upscale cafe full of prosperous young Kazakhs, many of them on dates. Over tea and hookahs, we talk about a favourite Kazakh pastime: reconstructing detailed genealogies and tribal lineages. You are Kazakh because you know who your grandfathers were.

Shyngys has a problem with this. He points out that, geographically, Kazakhstan is a somewhat arbitrary entity, and that before Stalin drew new borders – distinguishing between Kazakh and Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Turkmen, Kazakh and Tajik – few would have thought of themselves in such terms. For nomads roaming back and forth between territories, the tribe, not the nation, was paramount.

Aidos seems troubled. “But I’m Kazakh!” he says, “I know I’m a Kazakh!” Shyngys leans back, takes a drag on the hookah, exhales a long stream of smoke. “There are no Kazakhs,” he says. “Stalin made us up.”

Perhaps Nazarbayev’s top-down cultural project will lead to similar contradictions. On Kazakh TV, for example, a commercial for Expo 2017 featured a serene young couple emerging from a yurt, the husband carrying a Kazakh flag. He drives it into the cracked earth, and a kind of green-energy miracle spreads outward, transforming the parched steppe into a utopia of wind turbines and solar panels. Meanwhile, the couple’s humble yurt multiplies by the thousands.

The Expo’s emphasis on renewable energy was a tacit acknowledgment that Kazakhstan’s reliance on petroleum leaves its economy vulnerable to the volatile price of oil. In the interest of diversification, Nazarbayev’s government has been promoting tourism and courting foreign investment. But the country struggles to attract visitors, and international companies remain wary of political corruption and nepotism.

Abai was born August 10, 1845 in Chingiz Mountains Semipalatinsk region (under the current administrative division) from one of the four wives Kunanbai, senior Sultan Karkarala district.

Abay's family was aristocratic, his grandfather (Oskenbay) and grand grandfather (Yrgyzbay) dominated in their tribes as governors and biys (judges) 

Ibrahim was lucky in the sense of coziness and family education, as his mother Ulzhan and grandmother Zere were extremely gifted and charming natures. Due to his attentiveness and thoughtfulness, which differentiated him from other children, his mother changed his name topet name "Abay".

Homeschooling and introduction to the folklore, which were started in early childhood, was continued at madrassas of Imam Ahmad Riza. At the same time Abay studied at Russian school and by the end of the five-year study began to write poetry.

Hegel wrote that philosophy is an epoch grasped in thought. However, to grasp in thought the era, it must be a thinker in the highest sense of the word. Abay Kunanbayev was among one of these thinkers in the second half of 19th century in Kazakhstan.

In this case, under thinker we do not mean someone who works as a monk locked in a narrow cell, delving into ancient manuscripts and trying to fish out some important laws of social development. Despite that Abay belonged to the elite of Kazakh society, he never fenced himself from the disaster and needs ofordinary people. On the contrary, as a philosopher, he lived with what his people lived, shared with them their pain and deprivation. Joys were little, but how he could live and enjoy himself? Abay's feat, in fact his whole life was a real feat and only about the interest of his people, their pain reflected on his big heart, the heart of philosopher and person. 

Wealth and cattle did not concern him. As a thinker and patriot of his homeland, his heart was crying blood, as he knew all the needs and hopes of his people in order to be satisfied with surroundings. 

Communication with exiled Russian social democrats, E.P.Mihoelisom, N.Dolgopolovym and S.Grossom, gave impetus to his potential abilities. Abay's treatment of Russian literature, which experienced creativeimpulse at that time, was natural, where poetic in Eastern tradition was treated very high.

Morality and languages take paramount part at Abay's universal system. He considered that language opens a window into the vast world. Humanity and liberality oblige learn languages of other nations, as only in this way for  human-thinker can feel a connection with the geniuses of the spiritual world.

There are dozens of definitions of man. Certainly, the most acceptable usually relies on scientific: representative of the genus homosapiens. However, is it always that every man justifies such a flattering definition? It is says, that, person is that and that, but sometimes it represented that every definition is not accurate, as some people born to manage and others to obey. They are majority, but Abay as peak of mountain rises high above drab existence of reality of his time.

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