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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Essel's Postcard from Kazakhstan

Little Politics

by Dave Esssel

I am always amazed at how some people claim to be apolitical and say that “all this” has nothing to do them. The fact of the matter is that tomorrow’s history is today’s politics; we all live in one world and we are all affected. You can’t opt out of history except by jumping off a high building or whatever. Furthermore, politics, which is actually the life of a country, affects everything and everyone, from matters large to matters small.

La Russophobe talks about the big picture and big politics but it is interesting to note that LR’s analysis and conclusions work just as well for, and can be just as well illustrated and exemplified in, the smallest of matters.

Just such a small matter was drawn to my attention the other day and I thought it a perfect example of how great power politics has tendrils reaching down to the very lowest level.

This little sotry is about Russia and Kazakhstan and the Russians in both countries. Back when the Soviet Union collapsed, a great many Russians in Kazakhstan thought that this would be the end of their world, that the “aboriginals” would take over and a) make their lives hell and b) take over everything and through ignorance and stupidity completely mess up the country. [The general Great-Russian chauvinist attitude is very apparent in this as well as a recognition that as Russians they were due for some “pay-back time”.] In Kazakhstan, millions of Russians upped their stakes and returned to Russia, usually to out of the way places as not that many had relatives in developed towns and, having sold up in Kazakhstan, could only afford to live in cheaper places than Moscow or Leningrad. However, millions of other Russians stayed and took their chances. This backwater of the Soviet Union was a fairly friendly place since Communist ideology was more of a gloss over the generally laissez-faire ways of Central Asia.

The wake-up and shape-up of the former Soviet Union ran its course and today Kazakhstan, for all its many problems of corruption and inefficiency, is better off in many respects than Russia. The essential capitalist reforms were done quickly and fairly thoroughly (unlike in Russia) and the country now has a vibrant economy aided by an efficient banking system and a future to look forward to. There was little or no pay-back against the Russians as the people of Kazakhstan and generally easy-going. Today the place presents itself as a fairly pleasant and tolerant multicultural society.

The result of the early exodus from Kazakhstan of many Russians is that families were split up, with some branches remaining in Kazakhstan and others restarting their lives in Russia. Today the main upheavals are over, communications and transport links are up and running again, Russia is heading headlong towards fascism and Kazakhstan towards its future as a moderately rich and corrupt third world country with aspirations.

It is now possible to travel again and families once again have the time and opportunity to visit each other. A Kazakhstani Russian friend of mine was at last able to travel to see his mother in Southern Russia after a ten-year gap. The journey was via Moscow. On his return, he vowed never to go back to Russia voluntarily. He had found everything to be horrible from the moment he landed in Moscow: the behaviour of immigration and customs (harsh and unsmiling), the service on Aeroflot for the flight to southern Russia (snarling), the depressiveness of the small town he went to, and so on endlessly. His summary: in Russia, people are just plain nasty to each other at every opportunity. As a Russian, he was surprised to find himself heaving a sigh relief to be back home as he boarded his Air Astana flight from Moscow to Almaty and was greeted by a friendly crew.

Just recently his mother made a return visit to Almaty, her home-town which she only left at age forty. The trip was funded by the Kazakhstan family, an indication of the relative advances of the two countries’ economies. This visit was an interesting failure because this former citizen of Almaty was unable during a 10-day visit to relate properly with the people there. A little over ten years in Russia had made this person harsh, impatient, intolerant, and hurried Ð characteristics not appreciated in Kazakhstan where the initial approach to any, even minor, social encounter is to smile and take one’s time. This was epitomised during a visit to the market, Almaty’s Green Bazar, during which the visitor from Russia succeeded in aggravating every single one of my friend’s long time vendors of eggs, fruit, chickens, and vegetables.

In fact, he was sufficiently embarrassed by his mother’s uppity and bossy behaviour with his favourite sellers, with whom he has a light and friendly social interaction each week while he does his shopping, that the next week he found himself doing a round of shopping and apologising. His fruiterer’s response was the most telling, however:

“She’s from Russia, isn’t she, your mother? My father and brother live in Russia and they’re like that too.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All the above is just a slander.
Russians are the nicest human beings in the world.