Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

An illustration for the epic tale of Alpamys Batyr © E. Sidorkin

Elements of Ethnic Identity and Epic Stories of Kazakhstan

Each tale is dedicated to one outstanding soldier—Batyr—and describes his character, personality, and heroic deeds.

Kazakhstan is characterized by ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. However, the nation has not always had such a multiethnic composition. In the 1920s, Kazakhstan was a republic of the USSR and was mainly monoethnic. The Stalinist leadership aimed at eradicating social classes. To reach this goal, terror and intimidation were employed, targeting mostly members of the clergy, opposition leaders, intellectuals, artists, and former tsarist-government officials. Starting in 1934, political repression was particularly strong. Millions of Soviet citizens were exiled to the Urals, Siberia, and Kazakhstan. Opponents to the Bolsheviks from all over the USSR were held prisoner in concentration camps located in Kazakhstan.

In 1935, relocations on a massive scale began. Sixty-four thousand German and Polish people were deported from the Ukraine. In 1937, large communities of Kurds, Armenians, Turks, and Iranians were deported to southern Kazakhstan. That same year, nearly three hundred thousand ethnic Koreans were forcibly moved from the Far East.

The Great Patriotic War came with a new wave of political repression targeting primarily Germans. Hundreds of thousands of Germans were deported, and within three weeks, nearly half a million Germans arrived in Kazakhstan. During the Second World War, Karachays, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Greeks, Bulgarians, Crimean, Tatars, Kurds, Meskhestian Turks, and people from other ethnic groups were deported to Kazakhstan.

Those ethnic groups have become an essential part of Kazakh society. In Kazakhstan, one of the primary goals set by the National Committee for the Safeguarding of ICH involves making inventories of all ethnic groups’ ICH. Each group has cultural centers and associations monitored and supported by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan.

Language is considered a particularly strong element of ethnic identity. The Russian language had a strong influence on Kazakhstan. Under Soviet rule, Russian was used for all official documents, and social activities were conducted in Russian. During the Great Patriotic War, the migration of Russian-speaking employees and their families also contributed to the Russification of the Kazakh people. State policies and ideological doctrine led to strengthening the Russian language while the native Kazakh language was reserved for private and family matters. By the 1980s, the Kazakh language was spoken only in rural areas. And by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian speakers outnumbered native Kazakhs.

Currently, the Kazakh language is the legal state language, and it is used for jurisdiction, public administrative functions, education, scientific research, and mass media. Civil servants, for example, are required to be fluent in the language to perform official duties.

Ethnic identity comprises several other elements besides language, including traditions, which were also affected by Soviet ideological doctrine in Kazakhstan. Soviet rule considered traditional elements as unnecessary remnants of the past that hindered the progressive Soviet man. Thus many elements were irretrievably lost.

After Kazakhstan became independent, a need for a strengthening of ethnic identity emerged, and public attention turned to the reviving of lost traditions. This coincided with the government’s program of bringing Kazakh repatriates back to their homelands from neighboring countries. Those repatriates—the oralmans—brought back with them some of the lost traditions, which they had safeguarded.

After raising awareness among the general public, the National Committee for the Safeguarding of the ICH of the Republic of Kazakhstan began inventorying ICH elements. Various artisan practices, vocal genres, folk instrument performances, rituals and festivals, hunting methods, folk games such as Asyks, and many other elements have been inventoried, and nominations have been submitted for inscription on the UNESCO Representative List.

Among elements included in the National ICH Register are epic tales, which are influenced by the history of the Kazakh people and the military attacks they were subject to. Each tale is dedicated to one outstanding soldier—Batyr—and describes his character, personality, and heroic deeds. The tales have been narrated from one generation to the next, and still serve as patriotic inspiration for younger generations. The epics include other themes besides military ones, the most notable of which is love. Kazakh poetry shows the romantic side of the nomads and also describes their close relation with nature. Epics such as Kozy-Korpesh and Bavan-Sulu, Kyz Zhibek, and Enlik-Kebek speak of treachery and loyalty and illustrate the complex tribal relations among the Kazakh people.

The complexity of ethnic identity in Kazakhstan and the depth and richness of Kazakh epics would each require a much more in-depth analysis to fully understand.

Sabira Kulsariyeva (Professor of Ethnic Studies, Kazakh National University named after Al-Farabi)