All states engage in nation-building, young independent states like Kazakhstan especially. Kazakhstan feels this urge most acutely because of its multi-ethnic population, its cultural diversity and the history of its origins. It was, in a sense, the field for an unprecedented experiment, the ‘laboratory of the peoples’ friendship’; Kazakhstan experienced a profound change in its ethnic composition during Stalin’s mass deportations, his repressions, and again following the Virgin Lands campaign, Khrushchev’s huge effort to increase agricultural production in the USSR. Soviet nation-building and cultural policy assaulted Kazakh traditional society, including in the policy of sedentarization in which nomadic peoples were forced to settle. Kazakhs became a minority in their own republic, alienated from their way of life, and provided with strictly determined frames for their cultural development.
So, after officially declaring its independence in December 1991, as well as facing quite new geopolitical challenges, Kazakhstan was presented with a great potential for internal conflict. The large number of different ethnic groups, all living in one territory under conditions of social, economic and political uncertainty could easily have led to unrest. The country avoided the worst of these problems in the following years, but development has been mixed. In spite of relative stability there still remain systematic or structural problems that need to be solved, and this will be impossible without deep reforms to Kazakhstani society.
As such, the President of Kazakhstan presented his programme article ‘The Course towards the Future: the Modernization of Kazakhstan’s Identity’ in 2017, also ushering in what he called the third modernization of the country, with the first taking place in 1991 and the second in 1997 when Astana was made the capital city. The ‘Rouhani Zhangyru’ (Spiritual Revival) programme was also developed, and is deserving of some interest from historians, political scientists and other scholars because of its major implications. They are comparable to other iterations or models in the field of ‘traditions’, ‘traditionalism’, ‘modernization’, ‘nation-building’ studies and so on, and are indicative of the Kazkahstani administration’s governing assumptions.
There are several aspects of the ‘Rouhani Zhangyru’ programme. It is manifested in a broad range of activities and projects: the search for new symbolic archeological or cultural artefacts; an interactive electronic map called ‘The People of Kazakhstan’; the production of one hundred new textbooks, covering subjects from philosophy and sociology to business management and economics, all translated into Kazakh, and so on. It also has some operating themes or principles. A key priority affirmed by the programme is the “Preservation of National Identity” but in order to be preserved, it is argued, key elements of national identity must also change and become more unified. One of the programme’s main assertions is, therefore, that: ‘The best traditions should be a prerequisite, an important condition for the success of modernization.’Proceeding from this principle, the notion of national traditions and customs come to the forefront, as do their preservation and continuation. If we are talking about the future, about modernization, about modernity, about departure from the old, why the emphasis on traditions? This depends on how tradition is defined.
In the Soviet era, tradition became seen as ‘elements of social and cultural heritage that are handed down from generation to generation and persist in certain societies, classes and social groups for a long time; tradition encompasses objects of social heritage (material and spiritual values); social inheritance… Certain social institutions, standards of behaviour, values, ideas, customs, rituals, etc., serve as traditions.’
The modern Kazakhstani government is more concerned with an alternative definition of tradition whereby ‘…its functions are limited to legitimization (often symbolic, and simply verbal) of certain orders and norms…’ At the same time, tradition often performs a regulatory function in those areas of society, where the usual regulatory mechanisms characteristic of the respective society are applicable to a lesser extent: ethnic, family and domestic, and other relations. What is the implication of all this?
To cite the words of the Kazakh President, in order to move forward, the Republic must abandon those elements of the past that prevent the nation from developing; ‘A certain balance is recommended: blind imitation of tradition creates conservatism and stagnation in public life; the scornful attitude towards social heritage leads to a breach of continuity in the development of society and culture, to the loss of valuable achievements of mankind.’ Regionalism and regional differences, as a presumption of governance, is one thing to be jettisoned, as is nepotism, but the argument is also being made that ‘without reliance on national cultural roots, modernization will hang in the air … history and national traditions must be taken into account.’ In the context of the development and implementation of government programs, it is also important that some types of tradition can be directed towards maintaining certain moral, often patriotic, feelings that give consciousness to belonging to a certain social group.Language, literature, wedding customs; these things should stay. The Kazakhstani President’s key conviction here is that any understanding of ‘modernization’ as transition from some national model to some single, universal one, is wrong.
It is no coincidence, however, that the Kazakhstani Head of State sees the most important goal of this particular, spiritual modernization as the reconciliation between various divisions in the national consciousness. It is impossible here not to mention the work of Edward Shils who writes on the problem of pitching ‘rural traditional culture’ against ‘urban modern non-traditional culture’. The specificity of this problem lies in the fact that, as the author notes, one way or another, both are built from complexes of traditions, with the only difference that these complexes differ in nature.
We are now at an important historical stage for Kazakhstani society; it is in many ways a turning point. Given the aims of the ‘Rouhani Zhangyru’ programme, during its implementation, the boundaries established by traditions will most likely be adjusted. At some stage certain traditions and historical precedents will come to the fore, will be updated, will be used as models for modernization or something comparable. We will have an opportunity to see first-hand the applicability and effect of all those developments, which have been briefly sketched out here, for the modernization of a society.