I am a petite, baby-faced woman. Many people close to me still joke about it. It is all too familiar—every time I get ID'd at a bar (or worse, at a grocery store), my friends snicker. Every time my little sister’s classmates ask her which grade I’m in, she talks about it for weeks. It is simply comical when I get excited over SpongeBob Squarepants on TV. I always argue that I am content with a portion of my childhood engraved in me because this isn’t just my experience—we as a country live exactly the same way.
I was born almost a decade after the collapse of the USSR, when Kazakhstan was still new and shiny, barely stable after the 90s, the time notoriously hijacked by those referred to as bandits and hooligans. We had to insert ourselves somehow into the world that was—is—rapidly moving, fast-paced, creative, loud. This insertion is a task we still haven’t quite completed, but back then it was even more chaotic. I, an only child back then, lived in a khrushchevka with both of my parents. The ceilings were barely taller than any adult. Four neighboring apartments on the same floor were built during the Khruschev era, as the name suggests. This place was where I resided most of the time. I barely went to a kindergarten; I seemed permanently sick (I went through two major surgeries before I was old enough to go to school) and my babysitters changed every few months. People all around me were looking for things and places but even in preschool it always felt to me like something was stopping us all.
After I turned seven years old, my parents decided to send me to a Russian-speaking school, one of the oldest schools in my city. There were only a handful of Kazakh-speaking ones anyway and they all were new—again, barely older than the country itself. My parents, both Asian and hazardously young to be parents in the first place, put me in a tight blouse, gave me a backpack and dropped me off. They left me at school every morning with an unspoken instruction to be civil, neat, and sensible, the way a white girl would be. Not wild, untamed and horrid—a juxtaposition that only made sense in the young Kazakhstan, with its unchecked, internalized xenophobia.
My first teacher, a ferociously permed Russian lady in her late sixties, I still remember, carried a tiny Soviet flag. Every morning she’d take it out of her bag, place it on the table, unright and static. It was dark red, with a crooked familiar sickle in the middle of it. At the end of the school day she folded it, placed it into her bag and took it home. It was 2007, maybe 2008. The whole world listened to Britney Spears, wore low-waisted jeans and horrible eyeliner, and waited for the first Black American president to come into office. And my teacher carried with her the flag of a country that no longer existed. A dead country, as if the flag were a picture of her deceased spouse.
I liked school but I didn’t like history lessons, mainly because they didn’t make any sense. Pre-Soviet history was full of movement and spoken poetry, pictures of a vast land, not yet uglified by the anthills of khrushcevkas. Even simplified for children, there was solid evidence of many distinct eras, eras very much real until the USSR. After its emergence, there was suddenly nothing, less than nothing: mass arrests, public executions of journalists, poets and writers, two wars where Russia was the winner and us disgracefully erased, and then a state-sanctioned famine, long, crippling famine. Neither the books, nor any of my history teachers called it what it was—an attempt at genocide against the people of Kazakhstan by the Russians. And yet we were taught to be grateful. We were taught we had to pay a price for becoming civilized.
There was no dissonance in this logic. Our white people weren’t evil like the Europeans of the Nazi era, or the American white people of the Jim Crow South, even though they all did the same things to us as these other white people did to indigenous and Black people. On the contrary, our white people were our friends, our friends who knew better, that’s all. If they had not come over and helped us, we would still be living rancid nomadic lives, eating feces, as Moscow-based anthropologists claimed we did. But I didn’t know anybody who ate feces. Every building I had ever been to had a toilet. A toilet, technology invented, incidentally, not by the Russians. For that matter, most of the technology and cultural heritage the Russians supposedly generously shared with us wasn’t Russian at all.
What happened in January of 2022 was the biggest revolution in the history of Independent Kazakhstan. It happened. There was turmoil, and yes, there were lootings and power outages that left us in the dark for days, both literally and metaphorically. But there wasn’t death. There was the Russian army that came and put this death upon our civil protesters.
Now, in the wake of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Kazakhstan is on the brink of realization, a realization bitter and painful. Not only is Russia a colonizer, it is a colonizer unfamiliar with a White Man’s Burden. Our colonizer didn’t leave us colorful cartoons, medieval museums, or a strong currency to depend on. What are we left with? Dostoevsky? Tetris? The first man in space (who, by the way, flew from a land very much Kazakh—the Baikonur spaceport right outside my city)?
Now, when our colonizer gets sanctioned, it is our prices for goods and services that doubles overnight. Our rent that doubles overnight. And it is the people who took and took from us who now claim that we’d be nothing without them, as if it is possible to be in a lesser position than Russia is. And it is the people who took and took from us who now dare to come over and take even more. And instead of making peace like they said they would, they made bullet holes that are still there, right in the city center.
We are Asian now, and now we are proud of that. They still carry their sickle, imperial and ugly, but we no longer bow down to them. We are coming back to our language that was both written and spoken despite what Soviet anthropologists claimed. We are coming back to our music, the one we couldn’t be starved of. We are coming back to our literature, as we are the descendants writers they had shot for decades. We are coming back to who we authentically are. And while there is no way to erase centuries of blood, we have new ideas, ideas we have discovered out there in the big, fast world, to help us understand ourselves and act. Kazakhstan does not (yet) have its very own Clint Smith or Phil Kaye or Toni Morrison, but there are plenty of very big shoes to fill—and I’m filling them.