In Search of Kazakhness or New Age of Nationalist Propaganda?

I have noticed that recently more and more news about Kazakh cultural events have been flashing on the news channels. “President attended Kazakh Eli film premiere“, “1st Republican tournament on national sports to be held in Astana“, “Nursultan Nazarbayev launched festive events dedicated to Astana Day“. Those are some of the headings of those news. Also, there are newly emerging holidays such as the Day of Kazakh mythology celebrated on the same day as Halloween but instead of it, or the Day of Kozy Korpesh and Bayan Sulu which is basically the same as the Valentine’s Day raises the question of why so much attention  the state puts on culture these days.

When the Soviet state collapsed, newly emerged independent states left with collapsing economy and unstable political background were in need to put more attention to economic development and political stability in international arena. However, culture was not one of the sectors highly controlled by newly emerged states such as Kazakhstan in order to maintain development. While in Soviet times cultural realm was financed and controlled by the government, after the collapse Kazakhstan seemed to choose more liberating path towards liberal civic state. Being one of the countries left with big ethnic and cultural diversity it might have been difficult for Kazakhstan to keep to liberal ideas.

In this blogpost I will discuss cultural policies in socialist regime in the context of Soviet State, and analyze evolution of cultural policy in independent Kazakhstan. I will do so by focusing on national holidays and televisual landscape as the products of cultural policy of the states. It can be argued that though Kazakhstan is presented as a liberal state, looking at its cultural policy in different cultural sector it can be stated that it is going back to authoritarian propagandist type of cultural policy regime.

The period of the emergence of the Soviet cultural policy was at the time of political transformation when Tsarist rule was overthrown in civil war and Bolshevik revolution set foundation to socialist regime. Bolshevism was not only the political movement but it was also a movement with cultural revolution and transformation in the center of its project. Socialist state leaders of those times such as Lenin and Stalin, who praised Marxism, believed that it was crucial to ‘educate’ Soviet people and workers to build new culture and ‘new Soviet man’ and have further development of society (Read, 2006). The period of development of socialist cultural policy had features of authoritarian type of regime with state fully controlling cultural realm.

State control of culture could be seen almost in all products of culture be it mass celebrations, media advertisements, or monuments and architecture. All of those artifacts were used for state and Bolshevik propaganda (Roche, 2001). For example, after Bolshevik Revolution Soviet state switched to new Gregorian calendar and added more holidays celebrating communist party and revolution. Holidays such as Labor Day, Day of the Soviet Army and Navy of the USSR, the Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution were added to calendar. Moreover, style of ‘socialist realism’, that is basically showing reality in art works, emerged during Stalinism period and continued to be used throughout the period of the USSR. This style could be seen in many art works such as paintings, posters, and Soviet films. However, it is suggested that they were not mere reflections of reality, but rather representations of how state wanted to see the reality and impositions of ‘state reality’ on Soviet population. Therefore, though state cultural policy had been spreading across all products of culture, its main purpose was to change social values and create new norms and collective ideology.

The same state cultural policies applied to countries and ethnicities belonging to Soviet Union space.  Bolshevik ideology was that to celebrate workers, and create proletariat culture. However, as the Russians were given superior position in social strata, most of other ethnicities, Kazakhs among them were perceived as ‘backward’ and not having workers and proletariat groups to be included in socialist society (Zardykhan, 2004). Therefore, if Kazakhs wanted to be included in society they had to conform to what state wanted from them and get ‘educated’. Many language policies were imposed on Kazakhstan, such as adopting new alphabets (Arabic alphabet in 1923, Latin alphabet in 1928, and Cyrillic script in 1940) making Kazakh population illiterate in a night. Moreover, Russification policy was systematically progressing in Kazakhstan, and people were educated in language and assigned soviet identities rather than ethnic ones. Thus, it can be said that socialist cultural policy was maintained through eliminating individual identities and imposing state ideologies on people’s values.

After the collapse of Soviet Union Kazakhstan was left with big ethnic diversity where Kazakhs comprised less than half of the population. Nevertheless, in the first decade of independence the state decided on following liberal cultural policy and at the same time define the state as a homeland of ethnic Kazakhs (Adibayeva & Melich, 2013). Cultural policy in liberal regime is when state’s control of cultural products is low and culture is highly commodified. For example, though televisual landscape was attempted to be controlled by the state, it was done so just because of political reasons; however, cultural policies or regulation on what and in what language the content should be aired were not enforced (Laruelle, 2015). Additionally, the doctrine of National unity has a statement where any ethnic or racial discrimination is prohibited and recommendations provided for mass media production. Such liberal and civic policies can also be seen from national holidays created in the first decade of independence of Kazakhstan, such as Kazakhstan’s People’s Unity Festival celebrated on the 1st of May instead of initial Labor Day, or the Day of Languages of People of Kazakhstan. These holidays were made up to celebrate interethnic and interreligious unity, and show respect to different ethnicities living in the country.

Nevertheless, in recent years it has been noted that Kazakhstani state is going more towards conservative cultural policy and nationalization process. According to Bourdieu (1994), a state uses cultural capital collected from its citizens and redistributes it back in order to ‘educate’ the citizens about the state’s ideology. Such process can be called nationalization as it designates national identities to people living in that state. Kazakhstan still seems to be influenced by Soviet legacy, and recent membership in Eurasian Economic Union and Customs Union emphasized national content in products of culture such as television. The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, emphasized the role of media in building patriotism in youth. The state has sponsored many documentaries and programs about Kazakh nation aired in local television channels. Furthermore, local television channels were required to air their programs in Kazakh one third of the airing time (Laruelle, 2015). Another thing that might have reinforced strengthening nationalizing cultural policy is Russia’s president Vladimir Putin’s speech in 2014 where he stated that “Kazakhs never had a state of their own”. After that speech many cultural programs celebrating Kazakh origins and nation were created, such as the celebration of 550th anniversary of Kazakh Khanate.

Though cultural policy in post-Soviet Kazakhstan was likely to be inclined more towards cultural policy in liberal regimes it seems that eventually because of some external threats to nationhood the state has been following conservative cultural policy which is more like the one practiced in Soviet times. A lot of similarities may be observed between Soviet like cultural policy and the one in the last decades in Kazakhstan. In both regimes many cultural institutions and products are under the high control of the state and regulated according to the state ideology. For example, Soviet state used tools such as posters for socialist propaganda, whereas Kazakhstani state is using media products to control what’s being produced and mostly showing the state in good image. Furthermore, both states emphasize and give privilege to one particular culture, which is Russian in case of Soviet Union, and Kazakh in case of Kazakhstan. If the former directly imposed Russian culture to its citizens through Russification and ‘indigenization’ processes, the latter has been doing it indirectly through educating people through mass media products avoiding sensitive issues such as Soviet legacy and strengthening the role of Kazakh language in different institutions. Such similarities of state cultural policy to socialist-type regime proves Kazakhstan’s state to be authoritarian in nature and questions its further development towards liberalism.

In summary, this blogpost discussed cultural policies in Kazakhstan and Soviet state. Soviet socialist state was likely to oppress culture and use it as a propaganda tool of socialist ideology, whereas post-Soviet Kazakhstan developed its cultural policy more towards liberal type in the first decade. However, with increasing threat from neighboring countries on Kazakhstani nationhood the state chose more conservative path of cultural policy development and took control over institutions producing culture, thus, going back to authoritarian type of ruling and policy. So, if current regime very much looks like socialist regime, can we say that the state is going to fail as it happened with Soviet Union collapse? Or is there still hope for better days?

∼Zhanerke Shakhina∼


Christopher Read. 2006. “Krupskaya, Proletkul’t and the Origins of Soviet Cultural Policy”, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 12:3, 245-255.

Laruelle, M. (2015). In search of Kazakhness: the televisual landscape and screening of nation in Kazakhstan. Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization23(3), 321-340.

Maurice Roche. 2001. Modernity, cultural events and the construction of charisma: Mass cultural events in the USSR in the interwar period, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 7:3, 493-520.

Melich, J., & Adibayeva, A. (2013). NATION-BUILDING AND CULTURAL POLICY IN KAZAKHSTAN. European Scientific Journal.

Pierre Bourdieu. 1994. “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field” Sociological Theory 12:1, 1-18

Zardykhan, Z. (2004). Russians in Kazakhstan and demographic change: imperial legacy and the Kazakh way of nation building. Asian Ethnicity5(1), 61-79.


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