World public opinion has heard Kazakhstan spoken about only recently: its oil and mineral wealth in general, its grave ecological problems caused by over four hundred nuclear experiments conducted in the open air at Semipalatinsk or the disaster of Lake Aral, the poisoned fruits of the Soviet era.
That Soviet era when many people finished up in the Gulags of Kazakhstan because of religious or political persecution or simply because of the misfortune of belonging to a ‘suspect’ ethnic or social group.
Before the Soviet era this immense territory, which goes from the Caspian Sea to the Tian Shan chain of mountains, had been crossed by innumerable migratory flows, had been visited by explorers and merchants trying to make their fortunes, and had been the theatre of bloody wars, often real and authentic wars of extermination because, as is known, in the Steppes, which do not have frontiers, the nomads cannot take prisoners.
Kazakhstan, and Central Asia in general, was the cradle of the Tjurk civilisation of which the Turks were only one component. Here lived the Saks, the Huns of Attila, before they moved to the West. Here the Mongols arrived who imposed their dominion and left indelible traces behind them, in the genetic characteristics of the current Kazaks as well. Here the nomads of the Steppe, who had a vision of the world that was in part derived from the religion of Zoroaster and in large measure the outcome of a naturalism that was very rich in religious meaning, met the first Muslim preachers who came from Persia and then from Arabia.
Until the year 1000 the Kazaks remained very resistant to this preaching which contradicted their tradition at too many points. Only with Ahmed Hadgi Jassavy, the great Sufi teacher of Turkistan, did they find a ‘historic compromise’ with Islam and accept its principles, although they continued to maintain their own specific traditions. For this reason, one should not be surprised if today as well, when visiting the Kazak museum, one can find admirable examples of the figurative arts which portray the human body. One should not be surprised if the Kazak cult of the dead is not specifically orthodox in Islamic terms, or if, in 1670, the three great Kazak hordes, when meeting, provided themselves with a real and authentic Kazak system of law (the seven laws) which at many points is separate from the Shari’a.
When in the eighth century Cyril and Methodius taught the Slavs an alphabet with which to write, the ancestors of the Kazak had known how to wrote in their own Tjurk language for a long time and they used alphabets that varied according to the interlocutor. Thus the tribes that had accepted Islam wrote Kazak in Arab letters, those who had become Christians wrote in Armenian letters (the alphabet of a people that played an important role in the control of the silk route), and others, who had commercial and diplomatic relations with the Chinese, used Chinese letters and codes. Then the Russians came. At the outset they were satisfied with building forts along the great rivers that flowed down from the mountains located on the Chinese border. They bought above all the horses that were bred in the great wild herds controlled by the Kazaks, who were very accomplished horsemen.
As Ciocan Valikhanov, a Kazak who became an official in the Russian army, relates, the Russians, differently from the American whites, did not seek to exterminate the nomads of the Steppe. Indeed, the Orthodox Church began a campaign of evangelisation amongst them, even in disagreement with the directives of the Tsar. Unfortunately, relates Valikhanov, the evangelisers wanted the Kazaks to become Russians as well as Christians, that is to say to adopt the way of life, the dress and also the language of the Russians…As a result, the fruits of this ‘colonial’ evangelisation were meagre.
To tell the truth, Christianity arrived early in the Steppe and certainly not as the result of a project of evangelisation. According to the data of the University of Tashkent (Uzbekistan), the first groups of Christians here were certain Roman soldiers who had been taken prisoner after a war with the Persians and deported to Merv, which is now to be found in south Kazakhstan. They soon became mixed with the other Nestorian Christian communities. The Nestorians lived for a long time in peace with most of the tribes who had been more or less converted to Islam, not least because they could more easily be assimilated with the Muslims as they had not accepted the Ephesian formula of Mary Theotokos, Mother of God. Three of the four teachers of Al-Farabi, the fundamental author of Islamic Aran philosophy (and not only), who, although he wrote in Arabic, was in truth a Tjurk of the Steppe, were Nestorians. During the Middle Ages many merchant-ambassadors arrived, that is to say merchants who were also entrusted with an official pontifical mission, and amongst these were to be found Marco Polo and other Venetians.
In his recent essay ‘Il distacco del viaggiatore: itinerari testuali e ricognitivi verso l’Asia Centrale’, published in the small volume Ad Orientes, viaggiatori veneti lungo le vie d’Oriente (1), Prof. Giampiero Bellingeri, amongst others, provides information on this, as does, almost in counterpoint, in the Kazak world, Prof. Dariko Majhidenova, who teaches at the Eurasian National University and at the Diplomatic Academy of the Republic of Kazakhstan. This historian, in her book, ‘The Diplomatic Service in the Context of the Evolution of World Politics’, describes in a special chapter on this subject the intense activity of the Italian merchant-diplomats, above all those of the maritime republics, first and foremost Venice (2). In 1300 a mission of Franciscans, under the protection of the local Khan, settled not far from what is now Almaty. One of the friars, Riccardo di Borgogna, was the first Bishop of Kazakhstan, but when the Khan who had invited the friars died, his brother, a dervish hostile to the Franciscans, exterminated them together with the small community that had grown up around them.
Then, much later, the Russians arrived. The leading exponents of Kazak culture, beginning with the great poet Abai Kunanbai, a national bard, had a very open relationship with them. Abai (1845-1904) argued that through the relationship with the Russians and the use of the Russian language the Kazaks could move out of their isolation, on the one hand enabling the world to know about their traditions, and, on the other, learning everything that was of a useful character from Europe. After the October Revolution, which officially promoted internationalism, Central Asia began to experience a forced Russianisation, and not only at the level of language but also at a social level. Thus at the time of compulsory collectivisation the Kazaks, who were Steppe shepherds, were obliged to become peasants and workers and to live in towns and in collective farms. Thus in a few years no less than two million Kazaks, out of the eight million who lived in the country, died because they were unable to adapt to their new way of life, but first and foremost because of the ‘great hunger’ which was the primary outcome of this social revolution. In these circumstances quite a number of them fled to Mongolia and China, and only now are they returning to their homeland. They do not speak Russian, they have conserved the traditions and language of their people, but specifically for this reason at times, and despite special laws for them, they encounter difficulties in becoming integrated into contemporary post-soviet Kazak society.
This is a society in ferment and not only at an economic level. In politics it is difficult to speak about an authentic and true democracy in line with European standards, but it is undoubted that a process of democratisation is underway, even though often more at the level of principles than in actual practice. The real Kazak miracle, and this is an interesting example for the whole world, is, however, the peaceful co-existence, even though, obviously enough it is not always easy, between more than a hundred ethnic groups and between the great religions, above all Islam and Christianity, which are beginning to flower again in the popular consciousness. After years of persecution, of a religious character as well, which led to a generalised atheistic culture, religion is even becoming fashionable. In the Muslim world, which here has always been very open and tolerant (with some exceptions), new tendencies are beginning to manifest themselves which have arrived, together with conspicuous funding, from the Arab world, and this is causing distinct worry to the government.
Within the Christian world, the Orthodox Church is evidently an important element in the Russian community (about 30% of the population); the Catholic Church and the Lutheran community for the most part coincide with the relevant ethnic communities which ended up here primarily because of mass deportations. Then there is the new phenomenon of sects where it is not always easy to distinguish the religious aspect from economic or political interests. For that matter, the danger of extremism of a specific Islamic world and of the sects runs the risk of reintroducing into society a priori suspicion of the truest religious experiences which are also those that are the most alive.
The real challenge of the next years will be played out in the field of education. It is not possible to imagine a real democracy, of whatever kind it may be, and true and lasting development, without new forces in the cultural and spiritual field. Here it is important to remember the historic visit of John Paul II, who went to Astana, the new capital, on 22-24 September 2001, that is to say eleven days after the upheaval of the terrorist attacks in America. The Rector of the Eurasian National University, Prof. Myrzatai Zholdasbekov, who at the current time is the director of the cultural centre under the aegis of the President of the country, wrote at that time: ‘despite all the worry [caused by the terrorist acts], Kazakhstan has been the first country with the majority of its population Muslim that the Supreme Pontiff has visited after the attacks, and he has not paid attention to warnings about the purported absence of safety of his visit’. And he went on: ‘the Pope has expressed sincere interest in the people of Kazakhstan, its religious culture, its tradition, and in every person belonging to it’ (3).
For his part, John Paul II during his visit, which he had wanted to engage in for a long time, wanted, and not by accident, to utter particularly authoritative words on certain subjects that were fundamental for the political, cultural and religious debate. Addressing the students of the Eurasian National University, and live by TV broadcast the students of the whole of
Kazakhstan, he wanted to touch on the subject of repression, on the relationship between the repressed and repressors, after the fall of the Communist illusion: ‘I am happy to meet you, descendents of the noble people of Kazakhstan, proud of your indomitable desire for freedom, without bounds like the Steppe in which you were born. You have various events behind you, not without suffering. You are seated here, next to each other, and you feel that you are friends, not because you have forgotten the evil that is in your history but because rightly you are more interested in the good that you can build up together. Indeed, there is no real reconciliation without a blossoming into a common commitment. You are aware of the value that each one of you has and you know how to accept each other with your respective beliefs, albeit searching for full truth together. Your country has experienced the mortifying violence of ideology. May you not now be the victims of the no less destructive violence of the void’. And when speaking about the particular role of Kazakhstan in the field of encounter and dialogue between cultures he added: ‘I address a particular greeting to the Rector and the academic authorities of this recent and already prestigious university. Its very name, Eurasian, indicates its special mission, which is the same as your great country, located as a hinge between Europe and Asia: a mission of connection between two continents, between their respective cultures and traditions, between different ethnic groups that have met during the course of the centuries. In reality, yours is a country in which co-existence and harmony between different peoples can be held up to the world as an eloquent sign of the call to all men to live together in peace, in mutual knowledge and acceptance, in the progressive discovery and appreciation of the specific traditions of each people. Kazakhstan is a land of encounter, of exchange, of news; a land that stimulates in each person interest in new discoveries and induces people to experience difference not as a threat but as enrichment’.
(1) Giampiero Bellingeri, ‘Il distacco
e ricognitivi verso l’Asia Centrale’,
in Ad Orientes, viaggiatori veneti
le vie d’Oriente
di Montecchio Precalcino, 2006).
(2) Dariko Majidenova, Diplomaticheskaya slujba
(Ed. Kultegin, Astana, 2003).
Historic mission: Pope of Rome John Paul II
at the Eurasian University