The Essence Of Russian World’s Attitude Towards Titular Ethnicity Of Kazakhstan: ‘About Kazakhs Either Bad Or Nothing’ – Analysis


In nowadays Russia, a country 60 percent of whose territory has historically belonged to ethnic groups of [East] Asian origin, it’s practically impossible to find someone with Mongolic facial features whose identity would have been widely known all across the country from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. The only exception to this seems to be Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. And his case is indeed unique.

However, this uniqueness is simply explained (more information about this can be found in the article “Why Should Russia, ‘The Last Living White Nation’, Have S.Shoigu, A Tuvan, As Its Top General In The Ukrainian War?”) and does not prefigure any positive changes in attitudes towards Russia’s minorities with [East] Asian appearance, such as Russian Kazakhs, Buryats, Kalmyks, Yakuts and Khakasses. There is not a single ‘talking head’ (i.e. TV presenter, television talk-show host etc) with Asian facial features on the central TV channels of Russia.

The same has been and is being observed among actors in the film industry and people involved in the show business and other similar areas in Russia. But it by no means follows from this that it is impossible to find individuals with Asian facial features who would be fit to take those kinds of roles. The point is totally different. The general notion prevailing in Russia’s public opinion seems to look like this: It is not at all worth carrying out the popularization of those with Asian facial features. 

The truth is that such approach has never been a secret. Speaking at a panel discussion at the 2016 St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Vladimir Medinsky, the then Culture Minister of Russia, said: “There have been appearing in Russia animated films, where there’s nothing Russian but the ‘Made in Russia’ labeling… There, even cartoon characters have Asian facial features”. He next noted that the Russian Ministry of Culture was prepared to give financial support only to genuinely Russian animated films.

Thus, the path to the Russian world of film making has become almost officially closed to those (not only the cartoon characters, but also actors wishing to get roles in movies) with Asian facial features. This has been a landmark moment in the steadily growing trend of the negative and discriminatory attitudes and practices towards ethnic minorities of [East] Asian origin on the part of the Russian state and society. Vladimir Medinsky just publicly told Russian filmmakers to do what had long been known to them and was already being done by them. 

Here are a couple of examples of how this works. In 2009, a movie called ‘Laskovy May’ and based on real story of the Russian cult band under the same name was released. In this movie, Raisa Ryazanova, an ethnic Russian, played the role of Valentina Tazekenova, an ethnic Kazakh, who had become for Yuriy Shatunov, a Russian singer, best known as having been the frontman of Laskovy Mai, his second mother. In 2017 a historic drama called ‘Going Vertical’ (and also known as ‘Three Seconds’) and based real events that occurred in 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and notably on a legendary final battle between USSR and USA basketball teams was produced. In this film, James Tratas, an ethnic Lithuanian, appeared as Modestas Paulauskas (USSR Team-N5); Otar Lortkipanidze and Irakli Mikava, ethnic Georgians, respectively, as Mikhail Korkia (USSR Team-N11) and Zurab Sakandelidze (USSR Team-N6). And Alexander Ryapolov, an exemplary Russian guy, played the role of Alzhan Zharmukhamedov (USSR Team-N7), an ethnic Kazakh.

There is nothing to wonder at here. What has been described above actually represents a direct continuation of the tradition going back to the Soviet times, where the ones upon whom the formation of preferences and aesthetic tastes of the inhabitants of the USSR depended, weren’t, to put it mildly, kind to the Kazakhs, and their like.

In short, there appear to be a number of reasons for this unfavorable trend. Let’s dwell on two of them – the historical lack of readiness by the Russian public as whole to receive any person from among the peoples having East Asian facial features as their hero, and the persistence of certain preconceptions at the decision-making level in Russia – and start with the second one.

The Russian entertainment industry’s decision and opinion makers had only once contributed significantly to the emergence of a hero who looked (East) Asian. This case was connected with the name of Viktor Tsoi, a Soviet rock musician and songwriter who co-founded Kino, one of the most popular and musically influential bands in the history of Russian music. And until now, there have been no sequels to it.

There have never been any TV presenters, or TV hosts from among the Kazakhs on Moscow’s mainstream television channels, although they were the largest (East) Asian nation within the Soviet Union and are the largest (East) Asian minority group in the Russian Federation today. Yet this was and still is not seen as a problem out there. Kazakhs were last heroized in Moscow over eighty years ago. In the autumn of 1941, when the Germans were close to Moscow, Russian writers and journalists actively wrote on the heroism and courage of Kazakh officers and soldiers.

The book by Alexander Beck ‘Volokolamsk highway’, and the article by Ilya Ehrenburg ‘Kazakhs’ (the Russian Defense Ministry’s official newspaper ‘Krasnaya Zvezda’, October 18, 1942) are proof of this. Yet by the end of that war, the attitude of official Moscow towards the Kazakhs markedly changed.

In this respect,, in an article entitled “Who had planted the Soviet Banner of Victory over the Reichstag Building? In Kazakhstan they think that the feat accomplished by a Kazakh officer had been stolen by propaganda”, gives the following story: “Rakimzhan Koshkarbayev’s relatives claim that it was he who, along with Grigory Bulatov, had first planted the Banner of Victory over the Reichstag on April 30, 1945. And for that they had been nominated for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, but they were never given this title, and in the history books, the feat was attributed to [Mikhail] Egorov and [Meliton] Kantaria. Rymzhan Musabekova, Rakimzhan Koshkarbayev’s sister, claims that her elder brother, commander of the reconnaissance platoon of the 674th Infantry Regiment of the 150th Infantry Division, repeatedly told her how exactly he, together with Private Grigory Bulatov, had raised the Banner of Victory over the Reichstag. And before that, he had been trying for 9 hours to overcome the distance of 300 meters. But according to official history, the flag was planted over the Reichstag only a day later by Mikhail Egorov and Meliton Kantaria, although by then Koshkarbayev and Bulatov were nominated for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.[Because] Marshal Zhukov said: “Why do we need an [East] Asian when there are a Russian and a Georgian”. This case seems to be very revealing. In it, as in a drop of water, the Russian political, cultural and media elites’ traditional attitudes towards the Kazakhs and their kind is reflected. The examples of the above mentioned two Russian films appear to be once again confirming such a conclusion. 

Now let’s talk about the first of the two above-mentioned reasons. Dmitry Bykov, a journalist, poet, critic, radio personality and novelist, who is generally described as “one of the few figures in contemporary Russia who can be called a public intellectual”, has become famous in Kazakhstan for his words about “the squint-eyed Kazakh guest workers”. Squint (also known as strabismus) is actually a physical defect. Thus, that can be perceived as seeing in the Kazakhs “people with physical handicaps”. In the Western Europe and the US, any public personality who said such a thing, would be condemned by their fellow colleagues. In Russia, no one gets condemned for the similar thing. 

Moreover, among the majority of ethnic Russians, expression of contempt or disgust to even the most prominent members of other racial groups is perceived as an act to be proud of. So the people of the Central Asian or Buryat, Karmyk, Yakut origin and the ones of their kind, who face verbal and physical abuses regularly in Russia, should not hope for some kind of public sympathy. It’s a country, where ‘so many people openly and even proudly declare their racism’. As Guardian once noted, ‘racism is rife in Russia’.

The matter also is in that the model of racial contempt to Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, as well as to the Russian Federation’s ethnic minorities of [East] Asian origin, is often being shaped by leading Russian politicians and Moscow television celebrities in front of millions-strong audience across the national TV networks and multiple digital and social media. Thus, Vladimir Zhirinovky, Russian politician and leader of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) from 1991 to 2022, once recalled the idea of calling Kazakhs ‘zveri’  (‘animals’, ‘beasts’), just as, according to him, Kazakhstani Russians did in the Soviet period. Evgeny Fyodorov, a State Duma deputy, called the titular ethnic group of Kazakhstan, the Kazakhs, ‘nitshebrody’ (‘vagrants and beggars’, ‘trash’, ‘homeless people who beg for alms’).

In Russia, these verbal offenses, of course, met no objection by anyone whatever. This is hardly surprising since resorting to humiliation of others as a form of national self-affirmation seems to become increasingly popular in the country. Uttering such offensive words against members of Russia’s minority groups of [East] Asian descent is also a common practice among those considerably influencing Russian public and political opinion.

Thus, based on the foregoing, one can conclude that the essence of the Moscow-led Russian world’s attitude towards the Kazakhs and their kind fits into the formula, ‘About them – either bad or nothing’.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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