CULTURE AND THE ARTS IN KAZAKHSTAN
Traditionally Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures have been described as mixes of Mongol and Turkish culture and have influenced greatly by their nomadic and horse-mounted traditions. Since claiming independence the Central Asia nations have revived language and culture suppressed by the Soviet Union. Kazakh culture was hurt by Russification more than the cultures of other ethnic groups. As Kazakh nomads were forced to give up there nomadic ways and move to dreary cities and collective farms, they lost their traditions and identity. The Soviet Russification program was largely successful. Many Kazakhs speak Russian better than Kazakh.
The Kazakhs, men and women alike, are good horse riders. Young men like wrestling and a game in which horsemen compete for a sheep. There are horsemanship displays on the grasslands during festivals. The young people like to play a "girl-running-after-boy" game. The boys and girls ride their horses to an appointed place; the boys can “flirt with” the girls on the way. However, on the way back, the girls chase the boys and are entitled to whip them if they can as a way of "vengeance." Such merry-making more often than not terminates with love and marriage. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Kazakhs are fond of music and are good at singing and dancing. Their music and dance has many unique features but also has many things in common with the music and dance of Mongolia and Central Asia. For Kazakhs the summer has traditionally been the best time for merry-making. They often sing and dance during summer nights on the pastures. Their music and dance is not only enjoyed by Kazakhs, it is enjoyed by Chinese and other ethnic groups. The "Dombra" is their favorite instrument (See Below). The Aken playing and singing festival is held every summer on the open steppe pasture. It features poems and arts as well as music and dance. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Kazakh arts and crafts are also plentiful and colorful. Kazakh women are good at needle work and embroidery. They know how to make yurts, felt products, woolen products, traditional clothes and accessories. Some Kazakh men are skilled at making wooden crafts, silverware and bone artifacts and accessories are made of gold, silver, jade and semi-precious stones.
Traditional Nomadic Kazakh Culture
Before the Russian conquest, the Kazakhs had a well-articulated culture based on their nomadic pastoral economy. Although Islam was introduced to most of the Kazakhs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the religion was not fully assimilated until much later. As a result, it coexisted with earlier elements of shamanistic and animistic beliefs. Traditional Kazakh belief held that separate spirits inhabited and animated the earth, sky, water, and fire, as well as domestic animals. To this day, particularly honored guests in rural settings are treated to a feast of freshly killed lamb. Such guests are sometimes asked to bless the lamb and to ask its spirit for permission to partake of its flesh. Besides lamb, many other traditional foods retain symbolic value in Kazakh culture. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
Because animal husbandry was central to the Kazakhs' traditional lifestyle, most of their nomadic practices and customs relate in some way to livestock. Traditional curses and blessings invoked disease or fecundity among animals, and good manners required that a person ask first about the health of a man's livestock when greeting him and only afterward inquire about the human aspects of his life. *
The traditional Kazakh dwelling is the yurt, a tent consisting of a flexible framework of willow wood covered with varying thicknesses of felt. The open top permits smoke from the central hearth to escape; temperature and draft can be controlled by a flap that increases or decreases the size of the opening. A properly constructed yurt can be cooled in summer and warmed in winter, and it can be disassembled or set up in less than an hour. The interior of the yurt has ritual significance; the right side generally is reserved for men and the left for women.
Although yurts are less used for their original purpose than they once were, they remain a potent symbol of "Kazakhness." During demonstrations against Nazarbayev in the spring of 1992, demonstrators and hunger strikers erected yurts in front of the government building in Almaty. Yurts are also frequently used as a decorative motif in restaurants and other public buildings.
Impact of the Russians and Soviets on Kazakh Culture
The Russian conquest wreaked havoc on Kazakh traditional culture by making impossible the nomadic pastoralism upon which the culture was based. However, many individual elements survived the loss of the lifestyle as a whole. Many practices that lost their original meanings are assuming value as symbols of post-Soviet national identity. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
For the most part, preindependence cultural life in Kazakhstan was indistinguishable from that elsewhere in the Soviet Union. It featured the same plays, films, music, books, paintings, museums, and other cultural appurtenances common in every other corner of the Soviet empire. That Russified cultural establishment nevertheless produced many of the most important figures of the early stages of Kazakh nationalist self-assertion, including novelist Anuar Alimzhanov, who became president of the last Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, and poets Mukhtar Shakhanov and Olzhas Suleymenov, who were copresidents of the political party Popular Congress of Kazakhstan. Shakhanov also chaired the commission that investigated the events surrounding the riots of December 1986.
An even more powerful figure than Shakhanov, Suleymenov in 1975 became a pan-Central Asian hero by publishing a book, Az i Ia , examining the Lay of Igor's Campaign , a medieval tale vital to the Russian national culture, from the perspective of the Turkic Pechenegs whom Igor defeated. Soviet authorities subjected the book to a blistering attack. Later Suleymenov used his prestige to give authority to the Nevada-Semipalatinsk antinuclear movement, which performed the very real service of ending nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. He and Shakhanov originally organized their People's Congress Party as a pro-Nazarbayev movement, but Suleymenov eventually steered the party into an opposition role. In the short-lived parliament of 1994-95, Suleymenov was leader of the Respublika opposition coalition, and he was frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.
Kazakh Culture in the Post Soviet Era
The collapse of the Soviet system with which so many of the Kazakh cultural figures were identified left most of them in awkward positions. Even more damaging has been the total collapse of public interest in most forms of higher culture. Most of the books that Kazakhstanis buy are about business, astrology, or sex; the movies they see are nearly all American, Chinese, or Turkish adventure and action films; most concerts feature rock music, not infrequently accompanied by erotic dancing; and television provides a diet of old Soviet films and dubbed Mexican soap operas. Kazakhstan's cultural elite is suffering the same decline affecting the elites of all the former Soviet republics. Thus, cultural norms are determined predominantly by Kazakhstan's increasing access to global mass culture. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
According to the U.S. Department of State: “The law enables the government to restrict media content through amendments that prohibit undermining state security or advocating class, social, race, national, or religious discord. Owners, editors, distributors, and journalists may be held civilly and criminally responsible for content unless it came from an official source. The government used this provision to limit media freedom. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kazakhstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]
Art, Architecture and Crafts in Kazakhstan
Abylkhan Kasteyev (1904-73) is regarded as Kazakhstan’s greatest painters. The Museum of Fine Arts in Almaty is named after him. The new Kazakhstan capital of Astana showcases many trophy architecture pieces, including Norman Foster's Palace of Peace and Harmony and the Khan Shatyr, or the "king's tent," a regal, translucent structure vaguely evocative of a yurt, which together cost over $12 billion. Kazakh architect Akmyrza Rustambekov designed the Astana-Baiterek tower and Kaldybay Montakheyev designed the President’s Palace.
Kazakh art is mainly in the form of carpets, wall hangings, clothing, and decorated yurt parts and everyday objects. Kazakh men are considered skilled woodworkers, leatherworkers, goldsmiths, silversmiths and metalworkers. Kazakh women are good at needle work and embroidery. They know how to make yurts, felt products, woolen products, traditional clothes and accessories for yurts. They have traditionally been widely praised for the intricate wall hangings they make for their yurts. Some Kazakh men are skilled at making wooden crafts, silverware and bone artifacts and accessories are made of gold, silver, jade and semi-precious stones.
Kazakhs produce multicolored felt carpets ( koshma), teased and unteased carpets, colored rugs and bedspreads, cotton or silk wall carpets ( tus-kiiz) and reed screens ( chiy). These are often features stylized animal motifs. Pieces made in northeast Kazakhstan, near the Altai region, are said to be particularly fine. Kazakh is famous for its colorful traditional clothes, which include long dresses with stand up collars, brightly-colored decorated velvet waistcoat, jewelry, conical hats and fur-trimmed headdresses with crane plumes for women, and long quilted shapan (wool or cotton robes), high black boots, baggy pants, sleeveless jackets, skull caps, fur hats, tasseled felt hats that looks like something a leprechaun would wear, and goatskin cloaks for men.
Kazakh and Central Asian arts and crafts are plentiful and colorful. Made are associated with horses, the nomadic life and the Silk Road. Traditional Central Asian items include silk scarves, decorated daggers and swords, embroidered skull caps, hand-dyed and hand printed silks, hand-carved wooden cases, hand-made silver belts, felt rugs, hand-woven carpets, wall hangings, hand-painted miniatures, hand-carved wooden decorative objects. Many carpets come from Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
Kazakh women are good at needle work and embroidery. They know how to make yurts, felt products, woolen products, traditional clothes and accessories for yurts. They have traditionally been widely praised for the intricate wall hangings they make for their yurts.
In 2014, traditional knowledge and skills in making Kyrgyz and Kazakh yurts was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: “The yurt is a nomadic dwelling used among the Kazakh and Kyrgyz peoples. It has a wooden circular frame covered with felt and braided with ropes, and can be easily assembled and dismantled within a short period of time. The bearers of yurt-making knowledge are craftspeople, both men and women, who produce yurts and their interior decorations. Yurts are made from natural and renewable raw materials. Men and their apprentices make the wooden frames by hand, along with wooden, leather, bone and metal details. Women make the interior decorations and exterior coverings, ornamented with traditional zoomorphic, vegetative or geometric patterns. [Source: UNESCO ~]
As a rule, they work in community-based groups supervised by experienced women artisans, and employ weaving, spinning, braiding, felting, embroidering, sewing and other traditional handicraft techniques. Yurt creation involves the whole community of craftspeople, and fosters common human values, constructive cooperation and creative imagination. Traditionally, knowledge and skills are transmitted within families or from teachers to apprentices. All festivities, ceremonies, births, weddings and funeral rituals are held in a yurt. As such, the yurt remains a symbol of family and traditional hospitality, fundamental to the identity of the Kazakh and Kyrgyz peoples. ~
According to UNESCO Kyrgyz and Kazakh yurt-making skills were placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because traditional yurt-making knowledge and skills are transmitted from generation to generation in families and through various formal and non-formal educational activities; part of Kyrgyz and Kazakh peoples’ everyday life, yurt-making provides its practitioners with a sense of identity and continuity and highlights a harmonious relation between nature and human creativity.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016