In the summer issue of VQR, Will Boast has a fascinating piece on kokpar, a traditional Kazakh sport in which in two teams of men on horseback “compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat, wrestling control back and forth in an attempt to score by flinging it into the opponent’s goal.” At the end of the game, the goat is dinner.
While many young Kazakhs would rather watch soccer than kokpar, the state is committed to promoting all things Kazakh after years of Soviet control that saw ethnic Kazakhs become a minority in their own country.
Despite these gestures toward a more global profile, Kazakhstan remains, for many, a huge blank on the map somewhere between Russia and China, essentially a hinterland. (During my visit, one young Kazakh educated in the US briskly summarized the typical Western conception of his country as, “Oil, dictator, Borat.”) In part to remedy its global anonymity, Kazakhstan is in the middle of a quixotic identity-building project, an attempt not only to define itself to the world but to reclaim and remake the past, and thus reckon with the realities of self-determination. After coming dangerously close to disappearing into history, ethnic Kazakhs are once again a majority, today making up about 65 percent of the nation’s population, with ethnic Russians at about 25 percent (the total population is just under 18 million, in a country larger than all of western Europe). A nationwide program of Kazakhification has gradually taken hold—replacing Russian with Kazakh as the language of business and politics, rewriting Soviet-era schoolbooks to include an honest account of Stalin’s brutal policies, and emphasizing the pre-tsarist history of the khanates.
The pre-Russian period has also been employed to provide the foundation of Kazakh cultural identity in the new century. The signifiers of a nomadic past are everywhere, often commodified and romanticized: placards in Almaty’s airport that showcase eagle hunting; documentaries on yurt living on state-run Kazakh TV; yurt-themed restaurants; and, of course, countless totems of the beloved horse—in snacks made of dried mare’s milk, in horse-themed techno on the radio, and in miniature riding crops given away as party favors, to name just a few examples.