KAZAKHSTAN: RURALIZATION OF CITIES AND ESCALATION OF THE CONFLICT BETWEEN “MODERNIST” AND “TRADITIONALIST” IDENTITY

Zhuldyzbek ABYLKHOZHIN


Zhuldyzbek Abylkhozhin, D.Sc. (Hist.), professor at the Ch. Valikhanov Institute of History and Ethnology (Almaty, Kazakhstan)


The rural and urban worlds have always been in sociocultural opposition to each other. The dynamics and topicality of this conflict was affected by the shrinking of rural subculture and expansion in its urbanistically modified segment.

In the course of the 20th century, this phenomenon underwent drastic transformation in Kazakhstan: Emerging as an extremely sluggish process, by the end of the century it acquired dramatic acceleration, showing a quantum leap. The slow start was to a very large extent due to the colonial status of this backyard of the Russian empire: Cities performed noneconomic functions, serving mainly as military-administrative colonial centers. Their infrastructure was essentially designed to advance imperial geo-economic and geopolitical interests.

Nonetheless, cities began gradually to emerge as vehicles of communication between separate districts. In that capacity, they drew rural migration, but, ill-adapted to meet the requirements of all-round regional development, they simply could not absorb surplus rural population. In other words, the cities’ colonial nature and their resultant ethnocultural environment impeded adaptation of rural migrants to urbanized subculture.

During the Soviet era, village-to-town migration invigorated considerably but was far from its potential peak yet. In 1926, a mere 2.1 percent of ethnic Kazakhs lived in towns; in 1959, 24.3 percent; in 1979, 30.9 percent; and in 1989, more than 38 percent. In other words, the last all-Union census showed that by the late 1980s, Kazakhs were still an “agricultural” ethnic group. Their relatively low urbanization level had its causes. It will be recalled that the totalitarian state, intruding as it did into all spheres of society’s life, rigidly controlled, among other things, migration policy. Whereas in rational economies, the market ensured a normal movement of labor resources, the Soviet command-and-administer mobilization system allowed any mass movement of people only within the bounds of party sanctioned campaigns: the virgin soils campaign, the Baikal-Amur Railroad (BAM), etc.

The Stalin-engineered feudalized agricultural system, forcibly tying up rural residents to land, or rather, to a collective farm (they had no internal passports and had no way of getting residence permit to live in town), for years closed off migration to cities. Later on that was done through billions of rubles worth in non-returnable subsidies to keep afloat the stagnant, crisis-stricken collective and state agricultural production system, maintaining acceptable living standards in the countryside. The role of a regulatory instrument was played, inter alia, by ideology that did everything to dispel any doubts in the minds of rural residents about the justification of their expectations and the “high sociopolitical status of rural workers.”

Another factor was the double faced policy by the Union center that declared its commitment to multi-ethnicity but as a matter of fact built a typical model of an enthocentric state oriented toward a dominant ethnic group. That led to, among other things, “Russification” of cities.

Other factors restraining migration were: ethnopsychological motives, conventionalities, and the stereotypes of traditional mass consciousness that perceived town as a hostile antiworld and urbanized subculture as an alien phenomenon. Yet it would be a serious mistake to romanticize the effects of this factor as it was in principle counterbalanced by economic imperatives. In the Soviet Union, the latter were replaced by extra-economic considerations and therefore could not effectively work toward this end. Hence the preservation in the agrarian mass consciousness of an enduring socioregional “village-town” opposition.

Urbanization includes three main demographic components: rural migration, natural growth of the urban population (births exceeding deaths), and urbanization of rural areas. Demographic statistics show that originally, natural growth affected the level of urbanization among ethnic Kazakhs. Arriving in town, the first generation of migrants was objectively still an exponent of rural subculture, its demographic behavior pattern showing an orientation toward the so-called agrarian type of reproduction (i.e., an orientation toward bearing more children). Yet, under the impact of urbanized subculture, in subsequent generations, demographic stereotypes changed considerably (as a rule, city dwellers were oriented toward a one to two child family). Thus the impact of the natural growth factor had a periodic character while its intensity depended on new migration waves.

Urbanization of ethnic Kazakhs was also influenced by urbanization of rural areas. During the virgin soils campaign and the industrial development of territories, many hitherto purely rural settlements were transformed into towns or urban-type communities, and a considerable number of villages was incorporated into urban agglomerations, becoming a subject of urbanization as a component of city infrastructure. Furthermore, commuting flows became a fixture of such agglomerations with rural dwellers daily traveling to work to cities. Nonetheless, urbanization of rural areas went only so far: At some stage, it faded off.

So, of the three aforementioned demographic components of urbanization of ethnic Kazakhs, migration from village to town was the most significant. Yet, as mentioned earlier, it was held back by a number of causes. The main impediment was orientation toward a nonmarket social development model. The latter, furthermore, not only impeded urbanization processes, but also substantially deformed them in so far as it brought about a phenomenal type of agrarian overpopulation (the squeezing of a relatively surplus part of labor force from the agrarian sector).

In industrialized countries, this process was driven by the market, manifesting itself in its classic form. Its reproduction hinged not so much on limited territorial capacity—that is to say, an increasing demographic pressure on resource potential, to critical point—as on intense market competition and falling demand for labor resources as a result of technological progress.

In these countries, the flows of rural migrants effectively dissolved in towns which, being as they were giant market infrastructures, absorbed them, especially considering that such migration was not of the biblical exodus kind, not even in periods of economic crisis. Furthermore, the main channels for migrant absorption were not industrial enterprises but the services sector and numerous small businesses, typical of market towns. The town as the main generator of market policy disseminated its signals to the agricultural sphere which, for its part, in a feedback mode, relayed them back to town, indicating the need for simultaneous reform of infrastructure to adjust to ongoing changes. Rural-urban migration in industrial market economies unfolded in a relatively predictable manner (although there were plenty of problems there, too).

In the so-called southern countries, the movement of rural residents to cities proceeded (still proceeds) under the tremendous impact of essentially different factors, such, as, e.g., heavy agrarian overpopulation, aggravated by a postwar demographic explosion. The backward (in some instances, near archaic) level of agriculture, inherited from the past, with a rapid growth of rural population and degradation of land resources, puts increasing pressure on territory. Combined with global trends—capitalist-era differentiation and impoverishment—it breeds and reproduces pauperization of rural dwellers, expediting their migration. Within the bounds of this model, it is necessary to take into account the pre-capitalist type of agrarian overpopulation or surplus labor—that is to say, the squeezing of surplus labor resources from the agrarian sector to alternative urban employment.

In Soviet-era Kazakhstan, just as in the U.S.S.R. as a whole, the migration mechanism, for understandable reasons, did not fit into any of the aforementioned paradigms. The main incentive for migration to town here was the undeveloped rural sociocultural infrastructure, the impossibility for young people to realize their expectations within its confines, and the extremely hazardous state of the environment. Meanwhile, the post-Soviet village-to-town migration model is “unique” not only in its irrationality but mainly in its hypertrophied scale and spontaneity. Decollectivization of the agricultural sector—i.e., destatization of property relations in the countryside (remarkably, without legitimization of private land ownership)—resulted in the virtually overnight release of a vast mass of people who used to be employed in the state or collective farm type of agricultural production. Waves of impoverished rural dwellers, in search of alternative employment and a more or less stable source of livelihood, overwhelmed urban communities.

And whereas representatives of the so-called European ethnic groups migrated mainly to Russia (ethnic Germans to Germany), the natural poles of attraction for rural Kazakhs were the republic’s cities. A good case in point is Almaty. In the 1989-1999 period (i.e., in the latest census period), population growth here was apparently insignificant: from 1,071,927 to 1,129,356 (by 57,429). Yet in the same period, the number of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Germans shrank by nearly 133,000 while the number of ethnic Kazakhs, Uighurs, and Koreans, quite the contrary, increased by more than 200,000. The population of Almaty grew mainly with rural migrants: ethnic Kazakhs, Uighurs, and Koreans. Not surprisingly, the share of ethnic Kazakhs in Almaty increased from 23.8 percent in 1989 to 38.5 percent in 1999 and Uighurs, from 4.0 percent to 5.3 percent while the proportion of ethnic Russians in the city’s ethnic structure fell 12 percent, to 45.2 percent.

Also indicative is the situation in Astana, Kazakhstan’s new capital, where in the same [census] period, the number of ethnic Russians fell by 22,667 (from 54.1 percent to 40.5 percent); Ukrainians, by 7,984 (from 9.3 percent to 5.7 percent); and Germans, by 9,322 (from 6.7 percent to 3.0 percent).

It is hardly necessary to prove that urbanization is a positive process. Entire history shows that the level of economic, sociopolitical, legal and, finally, everyday culture is higher in a society where urbanization of a particular ethnic group or nation as a whole is higher. In Western Europe and the United States, the rise in living standards was associated with the development of urban areas where labor productivity is higher while social services can be provided to an immeasurably greater number of people. Cities are a concentration of modern technology; this is where intellectual innovations are made and disseminated, and an extremely dense information field is formed. In other words, it is no accident that urbanization is seen as a synonym to progress since modern civilization begins with cities while most forms of activity and processes originate from urban life.

At the same time, the other side of urbanization cannot be ignored. History shows that it (especially in its warped forms) can cause social, economic, and psychological tension, be a source of destabilization, impede effective nation building, foster separatist ideas among certain social strata, and provoke national division rather than consolidation. Moreover, urbanization oftentimes breeds in individuals a sense of loneliness and estrangement, sometimes turning them into destructive personalities.

As mentioned earlier, the quantum leap in urbanization in Kazakhstan (just as in the whole of the post-Soviet area) was directly related to an across-the-board crisis in the agrarian sector and spontaneous flight to cities on a mass scale. This dominant greatly affected urbanization processes and therefore, modified their impact on society. Below, some aspects of this process will be analyzed.

Owing to the aforementioned historical circumstances, ethnically, the settlement of residents in Kazakhstan was quite clearly differentiated along the “village-town” line with ethnic Russians settling mainly in towns and Kazakhs living predominantly in rural areas. So migration flow, at the “point of entry” to town, was marked by a collision of not only two spatially localized sociocultural worlds but also of two ethnically heterogeneous substrata, producing not only diffusion but also mutual rejection.

As exponents of rural, and therefore traditional, culture, migrant Kazakhs in towns, had to assimilate alien cultural values and stereotypes, social roles, and a lifestyle characteristic of both urban subculture and the culture of the dominant ethnic group. Whereas urban Kazakhs (in subsequent generations) came to represent an odd symbiosis or conglomerate of diverse cultural orientations, largely disoriented in their sociocultural identity, rural migrants represented a counter-trend.

As a result of the aforementioned processes, dynamic social fields emerged in cities, marked by multi-vector forces of attraction and rejection, a gamut of socio-group interests: ethnic, regional, professional, elitist, etc. Their exponents could for a long period live side by side in a state of a certain symbiosis but at the same time preserved a sense of potential xenophobia that could, while remaining in diluted form, crystallize from time to time.

Migrants from the countryside to town are urbanites but not native urbanites as they to a very large extent differ from the latter. Having undergone primary socialization in a rural area, they bring to the city their characteristic value systems, mentality, stereotypes, conventionalities, and special needs, setting them apart from native city dwellers. All of this complicates their adaptation to urbanized subculture, producing a complex of negative psychoemotional reactions in their “divided” consciousness. Not surprisingly, urbanization was accompanied by social marginalization on a mass scale. The latter is understood as an objectively predetermined nonadaptability of an individual within a different, alien social and cultural environment, where the stereotypes of his indigenous subculture are eroded while the axiological imperatives characteristic of another social and subcultural stratum cannot be assimilated.

In this situation, marginality can lead to disorientation in the value hierarchy and destroy the motivation system and moral regulation of behavior, which can eventually bring an individual to the brink of de-socialization with all the ensuing consequences. Such urban problems as crime, alcoholism, drug abuse, and hopelessness, which create a rather large fringe element—i.e., individuals who are excluded from the urban mainstream and subjected to discrimination in access to financial and social benefits1—are largely a product of this.

Problems of threshold rural/urban marginality have been studied in depth. This author for one would like to highlight processes that emerged approximately as of the late 1980s. This is the time when flows of rural residents moving to cities in search of a better deal became so heavy that they started virtually overwhelming them while urbanization, in its consequences, increasingly recalled ruralization processes. It was no longer so much rural migrants assimilating urbanized subculture for adaptation purposes as cities, essentially non-market and unable to absorb the entire migration flow, becoming exposed to traditional rural culture and, contrary to their “congenital” function, starting to live according to the rules, stereotypes, and logic of agrarian subculture, succumbing to the rules of its social regulation.

This trend manifested itself in, among other things, increasing instances of “reverse” marginalization of urban dwellers. In certain circumstances, they had to adapt to and assimilate (or at least take cognizance of) agrarian mentality and stereotypes. After all, the latter, possessed of a broad fringe/pauperized base, far from dissolving in town, quite the contrary, acquired expanded reproduction capacity. Say, recently, a large number of “native” urban dwellers all of a sudden began to recall their clan origins and genealogy. The oddity of the situation is reflected in the media. While the so-called Russian-language press applies the definition “marginal” to rural migrants, Kazakh-language media apply it to ethnic Kazakhs who were born in town and broke away from their spiritual roots (a special cliche was even coined for them: “asphalt-jungle Kazakhs”). The paradoxical part of it is that formally (proceeding from the definition of marginality as a peripheral status with regard to a particular sociocultural environment), both the former and the latter are right, depending on the subculture that is accepted as a reference point. Be that as it may, this warped process not only holds back urbanization of an ethnic group, understood as its modernized sociocultural transformation, but also impedes its consolidations.

In contemporary conditions, the Huntington thesis about the clash of civilizations can in a certain sense be projected to urban reality. This refers to the confrontation between modernist identity and traditionalist identity within urban bounds. The former is understood as an individual’s ability and aspiration for self-identification, when he becomes free from all forms of personal dependence. In this situation, an individual cannot, and does not want to, relate to traditionalist society.2 Traditionalist identity is understood as orientation toward the communal, collective type of socio-cultural regulation. Within its bounds, the role of the individual is reduced to the minimum, when he does not conceive of himself outside the group, seeing himself only as part of it. A clan, tribe, religious or regional community, ethnic group, etc. can serve as such a reference point.

To avoid misunderstanding, it is necessary here to clarify our basic assumption: Within the confines of this article, traditionalism is not in any way taken to be synonymous to the concept of “tradition.” This is especially important since certain followers of belligerent jingoism of the post-Soviet kind, who are in fact hard-core traditionalists, regard themselves as “fighters against Mankurtism”—that is to say, the sole defenders of “national traditions.” Yet tradition manifests itself in any social model—be it historical or contemporary. This to a very large degree predetermines the differentiation and specifics of social systems. Tradition performs the function of social memory, translator of information and social experience; finally, without it, collective adaptation to the environment or cultural socialization is impossible.

Whereas tradition is understood as continuity and preservation, in various forms of activity and ideology, of conceptual models, knowledge, values, standards, ideas, cultural symbols, social relations and institutions, traditionalism is seen as a reaction, based on a particular worldview, to any attempts to overcome sluggishness, a reaction to any movement, change, or a prospect of change. Within the bounds of this ideology, appeal to the past—that is to say, to tradition—is the sole argument, the pivotal element of the rationale behind the status quo.

Jerzy Szacki, a well-regarded social-thought historian, pointed out that traditionalism sanctifies social legacy as a whole solely because this legacy per se does not require any additional explanation while this worldview has, as it were, no alternative: There is no problem of choosing behavioral principles in so far as a particular set of principles has been adopted once and for all as natural and solely correct; there is no room for drawing a distinction between the concepts of “as is” and “as should be.”3

So traditionalism is a fanatical, near subconscious apologia of the past, a dogmatic interpretation of its undivided integrity as the sole yardstick of the adequacy of thinking and behavior. And if, as Edward Shils writes, tradition, while reducing the pace of changes in society, still allows them, thus ensuring its free development and order, traditionalism definitely depresses the social organism in so far as it blocks penetration of all innovation that is not sanctioned and sanctified by the past.4

Amid the new challenges of the contemporary era, traditionalist identity is no match for modernization identity. It has to be said, however, that resistance by the former is not entirely hopeless. First, traditionalist trends have the capability to appeal to such state sanctioned concepts as “national identity,” restoration of historical roots,” “language proficiency,” etc. This direction also lends itself to promotion of latent ideas and sometimes veiled calls for ethnocentrism and ethnocracy.

The second resource is the still extensive base for reproduction of potential “agents” of traditionalism—i.e., more than 50 percent of the rural population under the imperative influence of agrarian sociocultural regulation.

Recently, the critical mass of traditionalist identity in cities has been growing so intensively that its depressing function penetrates virtually all spheres of public and individual life. There are ample manifestations of this invasion. We will now consider some examples to this effect.

The mass consciousness of agrarian society is characterized by a powerful (if not absolutely predominant) presence of the conservative trend. Unlike that which arises out of doubt and dissatisfaction with the past experience and is oriented toward change in the existing social order, manifesting itself in a more or less clear-cut opposition to reality and its rejection,5 this trend works to stabilize the status quo and keep it intact, and so can also be described as “stabilizing.”6 The conservative, stabilizing trend is an attribute of traditionalist society exactly because it is based on noncritical recognition and conservation of past experience and inherited traditions as an ideal sociocultural norm.

The psychology of the new as a threat to stability and reliability, the complex of near fatal fear of the risk in the name of the unknown and therefore problematic “better lot” (so the perception of a “better lot” in rural mentality is that of a “bad lot, but one that is understandable, stable, and reliable,” as recorded in a great many proverbs of the “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” type) is related to yet another apparent projection—in particular, into the sphere of society’s electoral behavior. This refers to what is at first glance the remarkable predictability of the numerous surveys and polls where, asked “Do you see an alternative (to a particular leader)?” respondents mainly say, “No.”

In light of the aforementioned, there is reason to suspect that it is not that voters believe in the charisma of their leaders or are satisfied with their moral and business qualities: What is at work here is the aforementioned psychological trend to resist everything risky and new as a threat to stability. So they vote for the accustomed way of life and therefore for its exponents: “old” leaders. Not surprisingly, in the course of election campaigning, political spin doctors appeal to stability and “spiritual accord,” carting out the bugaboo of “civil war” (there is no shortage of such scares as the Tajik or Yugoslav scenario syndrome).

Reciprocation, an institution that still preserves its informal function, has also been transferred from the traditional system of distribution and exchange into the contemporary realities of urban life. In the conceptual apparatus of cultural anthropology, the latter is understood as such a circulation of material benefits and services between people that comes across as a manifestation and confirmation of obligations that exist between them.7 In other words, this refers to the idea of equitable and fair exchange on the “one good turn deserves another” principle. The concept of “equitable and fair” is but relative as in reality the payoff can prove far more substantial. Say, a person who has spent a large amount of money on a present for the wedding of somebody’s daughter, may (in addition to prestige) get a far more generous present, in return, for the wedding of his own daughter or son. But, to reiterate, the main rationale behind the exchange of gifts consists in that it in effect issues an IOU for reciprocal obligations and services.

Reciprocation is a major element of the cognitive map of traditionalist society, a generally accepted norm deviation from which leads not only to misunderstanding but also to censure. This is why what in a post-agrarian ethnic community is classified as graft and corruption, is interpreted entirely differently within the bounds of traditionalist mentality. Parties to an “exchange of gifts” may not even be aware that they may be acting at odds with the law, but even if they are aware, they feel no guilt or pangs of conscience, on the assumption that law may be important, but traditionalist values come first. Those who have violated them (i.e., by failing to offer a good turn in exchange) are doomed to have the stigma of “debtor” attached to them.

Not surprisingly, a special survey, Perception of Corruption in Kazakhstan, commissioned by the U.N. Development Program and the republic’s Agency for Civil Service Affairs, showed that 50 percent of civil servants polled at 15 state administrative agencies and 14 members of parliament believe that presentation of gifts to public sector officials is perfectly acceptable. Approximately 20 percent of respondents do not see anything wrong about employees giving bribes to advance corporate interests with 15 percent saying they are ready to provide services in circumvention of existing procedure.8

In agrarian communities, a business entity, denied the legitimate right to private property ownership (above all, land ownership) and tied down by collectivist/corporate institutions and conventionalities, is unable to dispose of surplus product, introduce it into the sphere of commercial commodity circulation, and use it in the context of market, commodity/money relations.

So the product here was not only and not so much sold as distributed (commodity/money relations playing but a secondary role)—i.e., was exchanged for various services or distributed in the form of benefit, gift, buyout, allowance, assistance, preference, privilege, reward, etc.9 This accounts for the special importance that the distribution sphere took on in the traditional community.

The degree of access to the “distribution pie” on the lower levels of this command chain was contingent on their obedience to superior levels and their readiness to act in compliance with the aspirations and wishes of the latter. Naturally, this bred not only conformism among the dependents but also a “slave complex,” absolute servility, toadyism, sycophancy, flattery, and so forth while all attempts to stand up to this led to an internal conflict of the personality that is resolved either through “protective” rationalization (the search for an acceptable justification) or transition into an adaptive regime of multi-tiered (multi-role) existence: thinking one thing but saying another; wishing so and so, but acting differently.

It is noteworthy that domination and submission within the hierarchy are taken for granted in inner-group relations between people, as normal mutual obligations, and a kind of an “equivalent exchange” (with obedience and loyalty at the bottom rewarded with protection from above). Furthermore, they come across here as a factor in social integration and a demonstration of solidarity with a corporate moral community—in other words, such relations are a norm for the entire group.10

Should a member of such a group rise to elite status (say, by becoming a big shot in town), he will remain part of this moral community (his native village, region, familial-clannish group, ethnic group, etc.) all the same and will still be expected to bear certain responsibilities and obligations before members of this community. At the same time, the fact that such obligations can come into conflict with his new official functions is totally disregarded, and this person has to watch his own behavior very carefully, always mindful of the role that he is playing at a given moment.11 This often results in the double standards of behavior within such an “elite.” In relations with representatives of its moral community (departmental, regional, clannish, ethnic, etc.), it is free to ignore its duties, violate professional ethics, even entering into conflict with the law (to reiterate, not gratuitously, but in return for certain services).

On the other hand, petitioners associated with an “alien” moral community will have all sorts of rules and regulations thrown at them. This largely accounts for the massive spread of nepotism (i.e., the giving of special favor by a person in high position to his relatives) in agrarian society. The poll showed that 35 percent of civil servants consider it perfectly acceptable to give a cushy job to relatives or friends.12

Traditionalist identity is to a very large extent an aggregate of deeply frustrated individuals. Having lost old values but not as yet having grasped the essence of new values (democracy and freedom, the possibility to freely advance one’s interests, participate in the political decision-making process and public life, and so forth), these people also lose their basic orientation. On the level of mass consciousness, they sink into a state that Viktor Emil Frankl very aptly defined as existential vacuum or existential frustration, losing their bearings.13

The dashing of hopes and expectations and the sense of the loss of the meaning of life, which permeates fringe mentality, make a deeply frustrated individual the most common type of personality while a frustrated individual shows a high level of aggressiveness, irritation, anger, guilt, and inferiority. This gamut of emotions in and of itself destroys an individual’s creative potential, making it incapable of participating in positive, constructive processes, turning a person into a dogmatic opponent of the latter. Such an individual, therefore, is particularly exposed to traditionalist ideology. And since this worldview is an attribute primarily of rural mass consciousness, the frustrated individual of the post-Soviet era is even more of a traditionalist. By sanctifying tradition in its entirety and idealizing the past, a frustrated individual perceives it as the sole yardstick in assessing contemporary life. All attempts to break out of sluggishness and seek change or reform that are unsanctioned by the past evoke rejection and protest in the frustrated traditionalist mass consciousness.

Failing to identify himself with ongoing changes and therefore losing self-respect and self-assertion, a frustrated personality tries to find them in the glory and grandeur of the past, in old achievements and spirituality. His dreams are geared not into the future but inverted into the past. The mass stratum of frustrated individuals constitutes a social base and electorate for all sorts of revivalist movements—from autocratic to communist.14

A frustrated individual, affected by an inferiority complex, is obsessed with the aspiration to restore self-respect and enhance the status of the group that he identifies himself with. If it is an ethnic group, this produces a strong nationalist motive. The perceived impossibility of self-fulfillment in present-day reality can be compensated by entering the realm of the ideal—through identification with the most attractive pages of history, by elevating selected elements of the past to an absolute model for development of a particular ethnic group as a tangible symbol of its greatness.15

Traditionalist orientation fosters dilettantism and ignorance in so far as, contrary to populist demagoguery, its task is not so much to assert “own” cultural values as to ignore (or even directly obstruct) the principles of respect for, knowledge, and understanding of another culture.16 As for knowledge of own culture (in particular, the study of history), here the main aspiration is not to attain rational cognition or objective information but a sense of comfort; not to resolve outstanding problems, fathom the past, and understand the present, but to create myths and stereotypes stimulating group narcissism, including ethnic arrogance and conceit.

This goes some way to explain why the post-Soviet area is experiencing a literal myth-making boom. Say, in Uzbekistan, the image of Timur, chosen as a token figure in the jingoist concept of Great Uzbekistan, is being intensively exploited (in various contexts). (In so doing, as is often the case in myth-making, Uzbek myth-makers oftentimes slip into the absurd. Take, e.g., the attempts by some of Timur image-makers to put him across also as one of the most humane personalities in history.)

In Kazakhstan, the abundant publications on the so-called alternative history lay down the axiom that Genghis Khan had Kazakh roots or that Gascon Joachim Murat, a Napoleonic marshal, was related to the Kypchak substratum (the “discovery” is presumably based on sheer consonance in the name Murat) while common roots are being actively sought with Attila, Shumers, etc.

The saddest part of it is that science cannot successfully compete with dilettantism and that “folk history,” not academic studies, is seen as genuine historical knowledge. This is hardly surprising. After all, any myth positing that “my people is the most ancient, the strongest, and the most intelligent” is balm for traditionalist mentality. Creators of new mythologems never even bother to consider that conflicts such as, e.g., in Karabakh or Kosovo were in fact provoked by “ultra” historians whose consciousness was morbidly agitated by conceived inferiority complexes.

It does not take sophisticated analytical procedure to demonstrate the mounting pressure of traditionalist identity. Suffice it to analyze sociological surveys. They show that in the early 1990s, Almaty (compared to other cities of the republic) was traditionally characterized by a more advanced mass consciousness and a higher level of political culture. But at the turn of the 21st century, the southern capital began to give in to such regional centers as Semipalatinsk, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Uralsk, and others.

It would of course be wrong to suggest that traditionalist consciousness only passively records collisions unfolding in society. Its reaction to their dynamics is quite tangible. Yet this tangibility consists in that protest impulses do not go beyond mere dissatisfaction with the quality of life, healthcare or education; rejection of corruption; a sense of indignation over instances of nepotism, official arbitrariness, growing crime, poor performance by law enforcement agencies, and so forth. As far as really fundamental problems are concerned—e.g., evolution of democratic institutions and advancing market reforms—within the confines of traditionalist mentality they are not seen as topical or are perceived with a sense of aggressive alienation.

At the now remote period of history, known as New Economic Policy, or NEP, there were two possible development trends competing in society: capitalist (market) and socialist (reflecting the idea of a “non-commercial market utopia”). In so far as the conduit and guarantor of the latter was the power and will of a “proletarian state,” society embarked down a path of “social progress” that proved a dead end.

Today the situation seems to be repeating itself. Throughout the post-Soviet area—and Kazakhstan is not an exception here—the modernist and traditionalist vision of social development are in a state of confrontation. The state apparently links its future to ideas of modernization that is understood as following in the footsteps of the developed countries—the vanguard of the world’s historical evolution. However, traditionalism—a system of historically evolved and therefore long established views—continues to play the role as a major mass opposition institution while its competition with the modernizing trend over influence on the quality of sociohistorical dynamics is growing stronger. It is the outcome of the rivalry between these cultural-civilizational “parties” (not political parties) that is key to society’s choice and the prospects of its development—whether it will really move forward or stagnate under the slogan “Onward into the past!


1 See: N. Tikhonova, “Sotsial’naia eksliuzia v rossiyskom obshchestve,” Obshchestvo i ekonomika (Moscow), No. 12, 2002.
2 See: Sotsiologicheskiye issledovania (Moscow), No. 2, 2003, pp. 56-57; No. 3, pp. 84-87.
3 E. Szacki, Utopia i traditsia, Moscow, 1990, pp. 369, 377.
4 Ibid., p. 377.
5 See: K. Dobrovolskiy, “Traditsionnaia krest’anskaia kul’tura,” in: Velikiy neznakomets, Moscow, 1991, p. 1996.
6 Ibidem.
7 See: Iu.I. Semenov, “Teoreticheskie problemy ‘ekonomicheskoy antropologii,’” in: Etnologicheskie issledovania za rubezhom, Moscow, 1973.
8 Ibidem.
9 See: B.S. Erasov, Sotsial’no-kul’turnye traditsii i obshchestvennoe soznanie v razvivaiushchikhsia stranakh Azii i Afriki, Moscow, 1982, pp. 18, 20.
10 Ibidem.
11 See: F.G. Bailey, “Predstavlenie krest’an o plokhoy zhizni,” in: Velikiy neznakomets, p. 231.
12 Ibidem.
13 Ibidem.
14 See: G. Blumer, “Kollektivnoe povedenie,” in: Amerikanskaia sotsiologicheskaia mysl’, Moscow, 1994, pp. 213-214.
15 Ibidem.
16 See: Afrika: vzaimodeystvie kul’tur, Moscow, 1989, p. 121.

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