top of page

William Fierman: “The Soviet education system by and large taught people what they were supposed to know, not how to think.”


Having made his first trip to Central Asia in 1976 as a Harvard University student, William Fierman is recognized these days as one of the world's leading authorities on language policy of the region. With Russian and Chinese languages acquired at the time of his undergraduate studies at the Indiana University, Fierman was keen on doing comparative studies of Soviet and Chinese language policies towards minorities.

However, plans to spend time doing research in Russia were modified when in the fall of 1975 when he applied for the exchange of scholars between the US and USSR administered by the International Research & Exchange Board (IREX).

The interviewers suggested that rather than doing a broad study of Soviet and Chinese policies Fierman should learn a specific "minority language." And this is how the journey into the world of Soviet Central Asia began for him.

It led him to learning Uzbek, followed much later by Kazakh, as well as various levels of proficiency of Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Tajik.

Fierman returned to Uzbekistan with a second Fulbright grant in 1983. He served as a Russian- and Uzbek-speaking guide for a USIA exhibit in Tashkent in 1988 and worked on a translation project at the Uzbek “Cholpon” Publishing House in 1989.

Because of the difficulty in receiving permission to conduct research, most of his work on Uzbekistan until the collapse of the USSR relied on periodical and other published sources.

Among other topics, he investigated belle-lettres as a reflection of Uzbek identity. Since 1991 he has conducted research in all five post-Soviet countries Central Asia.

Former Director of the IAUNRC (the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center at Indiana University, Bloomington), Fierman played an active role in facilitating and organizing the work of students from Central Asia at Indiana University, as well as scholars who spent various amounts of time working at Indiana.

As professor at Indiana and IAUNRC director he taught courses on Central Asia, nationalism, and language policy and played an active role in outreach activities which disseminated knowledge of Central Asia to broader American audiences.  

In 2002 Fierman became the founding director of CeLCAR (Center for the Languages of Central Asia) at Indiana University.

In 2018 Central Eurasian Studies Society awarded Fierman with the Edward Allworth Lifetime Service to the Profession Award, and parts of his extensive collection of Central Asian newspapers and periodicals — which he began developing in the late 1970s — have recently been microfilmed by the Center for Research Libraries. These materials now serve as an important resource for the study of Central Asia in the United States and include sources not available in any other American libraries.

Given the havoc Russia's invasion of Ukraine is wreaking across the field of all post-Soviet studies, I begin my interview with Professor Fierman with the inevitable question about the role of Russia in Central Asia.


Alissa Ordabai: Bill, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I appreciate your time and your support. My first question is both simple and difficult: Is Russia’s influence on Central Asia waning or expanding?


William Fierman: I would say Russia's influence in Central Asia, in Kazakhstan, and in fact everywhere in Central Asia, is waning. This is perhaps paradoxical, given that Vladimir Putin's declared goal of the "special operation" in Ukraine was supposed to be what he imagined as the "Russian world." Although part of this operation was to make sure that forces not friendly to Russia were kept distant from Russia's borders, I think that the "special operation" has in fact increased the distance between Central Asia and Russia and accelerated Central Asia’s movement away from Russia.

At the time of the beginning of the Russian "special operation" — if you want to call it that — in Ukraine, I think that there was a much more positive attitude toward Russia in Kazakhstan than there is today.  In the past year and a half people in Kazakhstan by and large have become worried — especially the ethnic Kazakhs — that Russia might try something in Kazakhstan, analogous to what it is doing in Ukraine.

I personally don't think it is likely to happen because Mr. Putin has his hands full. And even if Kazakhstan does not have a very robust military force to deal with a hypothetical Russian "special operation" or — if you will — invasion, there would be a lot of popular opposition to this inside Kazakhstan.

Yes, some people in Kazakhstan — and elsewhere, by the way — would welcome the Russians. Above all — the ethnic Russians, perhaps, but especially also many older generation Kazakhs who still have the Soviet mentality. Many of them have very positive memories of Soviet days, though I would argue that some of these idealized pictures have become distorted over the past three decades.

I would also say that there's been apprehension created by the Russian "special operation." There’s some real concern in other countries — among the population and the leaders. They do not want to get too close to Russia, or be too dependent on Russia.

On this issue Turkmenistan is a big question mark in my mind. I really do not know what is going on there. I have heard from some people that there is actually a very high level of support for Russia among the population of Turkmenistan. I've heard this from some Turkmens, but to the best of my knowledge, no one outside Turkmenistan has a good sense of popular attitudes there.

Nevertheless, overall, the level of support for Russia and trust in Russia has declined in Central Asia since early 2022.

No doubt large numbers of citizens of Kyrgyzstan support Russia. (And to think we in the U.S. used to call Kyrgyzstan "the Switzerland of Central Asia!") During the last couple of years under President Japarov, there's been a real tightening of relations with Russia. And indeed right now — that is as we are speaking today — there is a law being debated by the Kyrgyzstan parliament that is very similar to Russia’s legislation "on foreign agents." Perhaps it will not be adopted, but still…

Kyrgyzstan has been very aggressive with regard to Radio Liberty, which is supported by US taxpayers and fancies itself as a free voice in countries where media are not free.  Leaders of Kyrgyzstan got their hackles up during the hostilities on Kyrgyzstan’s border with Tajikistan partly over water rights and land. And Japarov’s regime claimed that Radio Liberty was one-sided in its coverage, favoring the Tajiks, and practically closed RL Kyrgyz Service down. So I don't know how it operates at present. Somehow they are producing programming. I've seen them online. One sign of the Kyrgyz government’s attitude is that it froze RL’s bank accounts.

Kyrgyzstan, surprisingly — at least right now — is very much under Russia's influence. And the country is a member of the Eurasian Economic Community, as well as a member of the CSTO — the security organization. [The Collective Security Treaty Organization is an intergovernmental military alliance consisting of six post-Soviet states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan - Ed.] And this, of course, ties Kyrgyzstan closely to Russia.

All this said, I believe that over the long term, China's influence in Central Asia is going to overshadow that of Russia. And I think it's particularly apparent today in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but even in Turkmenistan it is strong. Turkmenistan sends most of its natural gas to China, and I think the Chinese are making great inroads into the country. There is no great love for China among most Central Asian ethnic groups or, for that matter among Russians, but Chinese influence is growing. This complicates Russia’s efforts  to maintain its level of control or influence in the region. It also gives the Central Asian countries some wiggle room in their relations with Russia.

For example, President Tokayev of Kazakhstan got Xi Jinping to announce that China recognized the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan when he came on his first post-COVID trip to Astana — and so Kazakhstan and Tokayev personally have the Chinese there balancing Russia. On the other hand, there has been great opposition inside Kazakhstan to an agreement signed just recently between China and Kazakhstan that will allow citizens of the two countries to travel to the other without a visa for a period of 30 consecutive days.

It’s not as if Russia or China totally overshadows the other at this point, but Tokayev has spoken out a number of times emphasizing that Kazakhstan has the multi-vector foreign policy that means cultivating relations with many countries, including Russia, China, Turkey, and the European Union, and also with the United States. But in most domains the U.S. is not a major player in the region.

So in answer to your question: yes Russia is still a major force in the region. Let’s not forget that, after all, Kazakhstan has a more than 7,000-kilometer border with Russia, and there are no natural land formations like mountains that would keep the Russians out along most of the border. But I think that the influence of Russia is waning and that this has been hastened by the Russian action in Ukraine.

A.O.: Another huge question everyone is discussing is Russian propaganda. I did an interview with a British historian a couple of months ago who wrote a book titled Into the Heart of Russia's Fascist Youth. He is adamant that propaganda works, that people in Russia have been brainwashed. And I am saying, no, propaganda doesn’t work. People in Russia know exactly what is going on, just like under Stalin they knew perfectly well that their neighbor — who got shot the other day — did not commit any horrible crimes. But what would you say? Does Russian propaganda work in Central Asia?


W.F.: For some people, yes. For a certain segment of the population. Indeed, a substantial part of the population. In Kazakhstan — where there is still is a high level of competency in Russian — people watch and listen to broadcasts from Moscow. And some people definitely believe it.


On the other hand, I think especially the young people pay less attention and they believe less the kind of propaganda that comes out of Russia.

As I understand, even in Turkmenistan Russian television is quite popular. The level of knowledge of Russian is quite low among the young people in Turkmenistan, so how many people are really watching and understanding it is hard to say. Turkmenistan has its own kind of propaganda with a cult of personality of the president — or maybe I should say the presidents, plural — because they have both the father and the son—Gurbanguly and Serdar Berdymukhamedov. The father (Gurbanguly) stepped down from the presidency in favor of his son Serdar.  But the father continues to play a key political role even if he is not formally the president.  In any case, it’s really hard to judge how many citizens of Turkmenistan believe the propaganda. 

At least for Turkmen propaganda — given that there is a huge chasm between people’s lives and what is portrayed for the population in the country’s mass media — probably there's a lot of doubt inside the country about how truthful it is; as for the Russian propaganda in Turkmenistan — it probably seems irrelevant to the daily lives of a large share of the population.

The level of Russian knowledge in Turkmenistan has been declining. But even if we consider just the Turkmenistan domestic media — and here we are definitely talking about propaganda — the level of hyperbole in portraying the achievements of Turkmenistan is so "over the top" that I think people couldn't possibly believe all of it. And incidentally, although there are no authoritative statistics on it. I've read reports that a third of the Turkmenistan’s citizens currently are outside the country. And it's not because they don't want to be in Turkmenistan at home, but rather because of economic necessity. There are no jobs to be had.

Kyrgyzstan had a very lively press ever since independence. And so, certainly, access to varied opinions in the mass media has been quite free in Kyrgyzstan. Even now, I'd say it's probably the freest of the countries in that regard. That isn’t to say that there is no propaganda in that country’s more official media. And, unfortunately, it looks like government control of media is tightening.

I don’t have much to say in that regard specifically about Uzbekistan or Tajikistan except that, yes, a lot of people, especially among the older generation, probably do still believe the propaganda from Moscow and from their own governments. That said, unlike in the Soviet era, people have access to other sources of information, especially through the internet. Even if websites are blocked, there are channels like WhatsApp, email,  and text messages.  So we’re not back in something like the Soviet days… at least not yet. The availability of alternative sources of information probably undermines a lot of propaganda.


A.O.: In this regard, I’d like to bring up Brezhnev’s policies from back in the 1970s. He would talk about, "the necessity of merging all Soviet republics into one indivisible Soviet nation," which would "adopt a Soviet socialist culture unified in spirit and in essence." Obviously, the project did not entirely succeed, as we see now. But did it succeed perhaps not in the way that people believe certain facts, but in the way that people think about the world? In shaping people’s mentality? What would you say?

W.F.: It did succeed in some ways. I think that is apparent in the mindset of the older generation that grew up during the Soviet era. This was perhaps particularly true for ethnic Russians who identified with the regime most closely, whereas many Central Asians were inclined to view the Soviet regime — especially the upper levels of the Communist Party and state — as something imposed from above, i.e., from outside. Of course that is not to say that Central Asians did not feel they were part of Soviet society. So in some ways the Soviet project of creating a common identity succeeded.

I saw that here, at Indiana University when I was Center Director of the Inner Asian and Uralic Center. We had visiting scholars from various post-Soviet countries, including Central Asian countries, Georgia, Ukraine, you name it. And I’d observe the common Soviet identity when, say an Uzbek from Uzbekistan would refer to the Georgians from Georgia who were here as "nashi." ["Nashi" ("наши") is a Russian word meaning “our folks” - Ed.] The shared Russian language played some role in that.

Although it has faded over time, in the 1990s it was natural that people who had grown up in the Soviet Union, watched many of the same television programs, gone through the Soviet educational system with its uniform textbooks, joined the Pioneers and Komsomol, etc. shared some sense of identity with the Soviet regime. Many of these people held negative attitudes towards the Soviet heritage, but that was not as important as the shared experience.  During the Gorbachev era other identities had surfaced and it began to be safe to express pride in them.

You asked me earlier about propaganda. No doubt many Central Asians believed that they were better off under Russian tutelage than they would have been without it. The Soviet regime constantly told them how backward they were before the Russian settlers came, and certainly before the Bolshevik Revolution. "And look now, how backward Afghanistan is, and you wouldn't want to be like that, would you?" So a Soviet upbringing, which included a lot of propaganda, convinced many Central Asians that they shared an identity with other Soviet citizens.

Propaganda often contains a lot of truth. So I don't mean to say that propaganda was all lies. And certainly with regard to such services as healthcare and education, the Soviet regime had some positive things to point to in regions like Central Asia. 

The idea of an internalized shared identity was less true in some regions (for example, the Baltic countries) than in others. Soviet identity often combined with an ethnic identity. By the last decades of Soviet rule, most people whose passports indicated that they were Uzbeks did share a sense of being Uzbek; but they were simultaneously conscious of being Muslims, coming from a certain locale within Uzbekistan or elsewhere, etc. But for most of them this combined with a Soviet identity. Even in the case of Georgians, who were generally very conscious and proud of their ethnic identity, most also felt a sense of commonality with other Soviet citizens.

If we take any group, say the "Uzbek" population, the balance of Soviet, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and other identities was not uniform.  During the Gorbachev era, throughout the Soviet Union, though, members of the creative intelligentsia played key roles in promoting identities that were risky to display openly. The importance of these more parochial identities spread rapidly during the Gorbachev era, when it became possible to discuss issues related to identity that had been unmentionable for decades.  And as this happened, I would argue, Soviet identity weakened.

I was editor of a collection of essays that I titled Soviet Central Asia: The Failed Transformation. And my thesis was that over the years of Soviet power, Communist Party leaders had tried to shape Central Asia into a certain mold, and that ultimately this project was unsuccessful.

I was criticized by colleagues for saying that the Soviet project "failed." My interlocutors argued, "Well, Soviet leaders did transform the region." They argued that, after all, Central Asians had come to believe that they were helped by Russia. Sort of the same mindset of a colonial people that was conquered and came to believe that on balance this experience was positive.  I would agree that those critics were right, but my point was that by and large Soviet power had not been successful in carrying out the kind of transformation that the Party had set out to do. The people that I saw, when I spent an academic year conducting dissertation research in Tashkent in 1976-77, did not have their brains infused with everything that Moscow wanted them to believe. So there was a transformation, but even so it was different from the sort of transformation that the Soviet, mainly Russian, leaders endeavored to promote.

This was and is observable in many subtle as well as not so subtle ways. Whether we call this just Soviet or something broader… Take the educational system. I would characterize the Soviet educational system as one that by and large taught people what they were supposed to know, not how to think or analyze. It gave them a lot of facts that they were to memorize. And even in learning foreign languages, students generally had to memorize words and grammar rules, but not how to use languages.

And many of these approaches survive in various degrees even today in Central Asia. For example, the Kazakhstan exam for secondary school graduates stresses mainly — unless it has changed very recently — a test of what young people have memorized, not if they can do any sort of reasoning. So here’s an example of a phenomenon that survives. Just so it is clear, I don’t mean to imply that memorization as the core of education was uniquely Soviet.

Another thing that I think has survived — although I wouldn't blame or credit entirely the Soviet system for it — is the culture of hierarchical organization. If we consider Uzbeks, one might say that this was part of their culture with roots far deeper than the Soviet period. Yes, that’s true. However, the Soviet system reinforced this, at least partly because the country was ruled by a centralized party directed by and from the top echelons.  One can go further in this direction and perhaps trace it deep into Russian history, but the Soviet system reinforced it.

One of the things that I've noticed when I visited Central Asia, is that if I was trying to do some work at a university, usually it involved an initial visit to the rector of the institution.  And the rector would be sitting behind not just a door, but there is a door and then a space between that and the next door. It reminds me of the movie The Wizard of Oz, when I'm going to see some divine and holy person with mysterious powers. And this is just a rector of a university whose status seems to tower over the instructors and staff, never mind the students.

I view this kind of obeisance (or, if you prefer, "respect") towards authority figures as something that survives from the Soviet era.  It is not universal, and perhaps this is changing. And, as I mentioned above, it’s possible that the roots in parts or all of Central Asia predate Soviet rule. I would also mention that this kind deference seems to be stronger in some areas of Central Asia than in others — thus, for example, stronger in most of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan than, say, in an area like central Kazakhstan.


A.O.: They say nomadic culture is more laid back.

W.F.: Yes, I think that's true. I am not an anthropologist, but, related to this, I have heard explanations which refer to greater power for women among the ancestors of today’s Kazakhs and Kyrgyz than among Uzbeks, and that this is related to the fact that women in nomadic societies often had to run the household while men were away for extended periods.  In any case, it has almost always been easier for me to establish professional relations with women among Kazakhs and Kyrgyz than among Uzbeks.  Today in Kazakhstan the nomadic society is often idealized, but I believe that nomadic traditions are responsible at least in part for what you refer to as "laid back." And on the subject of gender, I probably should mention that Soviet power introduced great changes. No, not in the way that Soviet histories of social change claimed "emancipation" of women, but Soviet power did introduce change.  Is this a sign that Soviet power successfully "transformed" society? Then there is the return of practices that are popularly associated with Islam — whether indeed they were really "Islamic practices" is a separate issue.  I’m thinking here in particular of bride kidnapping among Kyrgyz and among Kazakhs in the south of Kazakhstan. There is a widespread belief that this is "Islamic." From what I’ve read, though, this was not so widespread, say, in the early twentieth century as is popularly believed in the region today. In any case, I’d point to gender roles as an area where Soviet power did not produce a "transformation" along the lines that Soviet leaders attempted to execute, but did set in motion major changes.

In the educational system, there are signs that rote memorization is not as dominant as it was in the Soviet era.  But it’s still a greater part of education in Central Asia than, say, in the US or most of Europe. I’m curious to see how the educational systems of Central Asia and the attitudes towards learning and knowledge will be affected by the likes of ChatGPT. How will that change the relations with and attitude towards the bastyk? ["bastyk" ("бастык") is the Kazakh word meaning "boss" - Ed.] There will no doubt still be some continuity of attitudes towards those with authority and power. Lest it seem that I am "blaming" Soviet power for this entirely, let’s not forget that the Baltic countries were also a part of the Soviet Union, albeit for a shorter period. 

A.O.: But so reluctantly.

W.F.: Yes, very reluctantly.

A.O.: And then the Soviet Union collapsed all of a sudden. Who could predict? I think Kazakhstan was reluctant to leave.

W.F.: Before talking about Kazakhstan, I want to comment on the "suddenness" and things being unexpected. At some point in the 1990s, Mikhail Gorbachev came to Indiana University to give a public lecture.  In advance of the evening event, I was one of a small number of Indiana University faculty invited to have lunch with Mikhail Sergeyevich. When Gorbachev came to the private dining room in the Indiana University Student Union for lunch, someone from IU briefly introduced each of the IU faculty who had come to the lunch.  One of those present was Darrell Hammer.  The person doing the introductions said, "… And this is Professor Darrell Hammer, eminent scholar of Soviet politics."  At this point Gorbachev asked:  "Well, Professor Hammer, did you predict the collapse of the Soviet Union?" Hammer admitted that he had not but then continued, without missing a beat, and turned the question around to Gorbachev, "Did you?"  I might also mention here that at his talk in the IU Auditorium Gorbachev answered a number of questions from the audience.  One of these was "What do you consider your greatest mistake when you led the Soviet Union?" Gorbachev gave a surprising (at least for me) answer. He said the greatest mistake was the harsh response to the December 1986 disturbances in Kazakhstan. These took place after long-term leader of the Kazakhstan Communist Party, ethnic Kazakh Dinmukhammed Kunaev was replaced by Genadii Kolbin, an ethnic Russian with no experience at all in Kazakhstan. These disturbances, known by the Kazakh word for December, Zheltoqsan, was a key event that left many Kazakhs disillusioned with the leadership in the Kremlin.

So, returning to your question about expectations for Kazakhstan after the demise of the USSR: Yes, many observers thought that Kazakhstan could not survive as a single country and that it might be torn apart by internal pressures.  Kazakhstan was demographically unique among the 15 Union republics into which the USSR was divided for administrative purposes. Although Kazakhstan’s population included representatives of over 100 ethnic groups (or, as they were called in the USSR, nationalities (natsional’nosti)), there were in fact only two dominant groups, Kazakhs and Russians. Countries with this kind of division — take Canada, Cyprus, or Belgium — tend to have particular problems in defining a common identity that is shared by all citizens. 

To understand the situation at the time of the Soviet collapse and subsequent changes, it’s useful to keep in mind the ethnic categories used in the USSR, their relation to the individual and their significance in relation to the republics in which they lived as long as the USSR survived. Adult Soviet citizens had an identity document called a "passport" on which the fifth point indicated the individual’s natsional’nost’. This is what I have been referring to in some of my responses above as "ethnic identity." These "passports" were issued at age 16, and as a rule were determined by the "nationality" of one’s parents. If the parents were not of the same ethnic group, generally the child selected or was assigned the natsional’nost’ of one of the parents. The decision of which to choose is a long story that I won’t go into here. Let me hasten to add here that republic of residence was not a primary category for most Soviet citizens’ identity. This is because the administrative borders between republics were relatively unimportant. Soviet citizenship, shared by virtually the entire population of the USSR was much more relevant because it was quite easy to move within the Soviet space. Thus, for example, it was easy for young people who studied in the Kyrgyz SSR’s Uzbek schools to enter and study at higher educational institutions in Uzbekistan. The significance of common Soviet space was represented in a song that became popular in the Brezhnev era, "Moi adres Sovetskii Soiuz" (My address is the Soviet Union).

Let me get back to the details of Kazakhstan’s unique demographic composition. According to the last Soviet census (1989), Kazakhs were the most numerous natsional’nost’ in Kazakhstan, but the number of Russians was not far behind: The share of each was a bit under 40%. The majority of the remaining 20-plus percent were Ukrainians, Germans, and Uzbeks, along with many other less numerous groups. So when suddenly Kazakhstan found itself cut off from what had been the strong Soviet center in Moscow, it was not a foregone conclusion that it would survive as a single country. More than three decades later we can see that the country has held together, but from time to time separatist movements (mostly by Slavs) have appeared in Kazakhstan. Given what has been going on in Ukraine and Kazakhstan’s border with Russia of over 7000 kilometers, it’s clear why even today some people in Kazakhstan worry about their country’s territorial integrity.

With the arguable exception of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Soviet Union’s collapse felt threatening to many members of non-titular groups throughout the USSR.  Under Soviet power both “titular” citizens of each republic and "non-titulars" were all Soviet citizens, and Soviet commonality was a fact of life. So when the USSR imploded, non-titular groups lost the protection that had been offered by the central Party and government in Moscow. Thus, for example, ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs in Turkmenistan had Uzbek and Kazakh-medium schools to attend. These were all to close in the years after Turkmenistan became independent. 

So this one way in which dissolution of the USSR was a critical event. That said, I would point out that by the late 1980s, many young people in the USSR didn't identify with the political system in the way their parents or grandparents had. The shared memory of World War II was fading. Brezhnev, in ill health, was the butt of many anecdotes, and faith in the Communist Party membership had declined. People talked about how they "вступали в партию" [joined or "stepped into the Party" - Ed.], using this expression, as if they were putting their foot into something unclean and repulsive. Undoubtedly such cynicism about the Party also had begun to undermine the foundation of the idea of a single “Soviet people.”

And so, yes, the USSR ended.  The system collapsed, and in the months leading up to dissolution, despite the apparent weaknesses, it was somehow unimaginable for most people in the USSR and beyond.  Even with the breakdown, though, the bonds that had developed among much of the multiethnic population over preceding decades did not suddenly dissolve.

A.O.: Nobody believed in the communist set of values by the time the Soviet Union had collapsed. But those formal communist values still held institutions together. The way the Soviet institutions functioned was built on that set of values. So how do you go about nation-building and building your national identity after a country collapses, and with it — its set of values?

W.F.: Let's first go back to the Soviet period a little bit. The Central Asian countries we have today — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan — you won't find them on the map before the years of Soviet power. These were Soviet creations. I don't mean to say that the people, the great-grandparents or the grandparents of today's Kazakhs, Uzbeks, etc.  didn't have a sense of common identity. But one thing I am saying is that the lines could have been drawn differently. This was especially true in the case of Uzbekistan. The category “Uzbek” brought together into one natsional’nost’ a great variety of people, many of whom probably didn't think of themselves as Uzbeks. And the Soviet government created a standardized Uzbek language that did not exist at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.

If you go to Uzbekistan and you listen to how people speak in the Fergana Valley, and how they speak in Tashkent, and how they speak in the far west — in Khorezm or in Khiva — these are very different. And the regional identities continue to be quite strong, even today, in Uzbekistan. And in language, these people speak different forms of Turkic that could have been made into separate, i.e., independent languages.

You know, we could take the language of Southern Mississippi, write it down phonetically, and include in it some special words that people in Southern Mississippi know, but which almost nobody else uses in the United States. We could call that a separate language. People think of English as a language, but we need to really think about English as languages, plural. The unity is in the eyes of the beholder. If we define a language by the degree of mutual intelligibility, it's arguable whether all "Englishes" are a single language.

Take another example — what used to be called the Moldavian language, but which really was Romanian with Cyrillic letters. In 1989, when all the language laws were being adopted in the Soviet Union, members of the Moldavian intelligentsia decided they didn't want their language to be written in Cyrillic anymore and the writing system was shifted to the Latin script. Today that language in the independent country of Moldova — the successor to the Moldavian SSR — is called Romanian. So was there ever really a separate Moldavian language? It depends on how you’re going to define what "a language" is.

I actually did a paper on this as a graduate student. When I went to speak with a professor of Romanian at Harvard at the time, and I asked him about "Moldavian" language, he practically laughed me out of his office, saying that other than the infusion of Russian vocabulary, it wasn't that different from other forms of Romanian.

On the other hand, today, instead of Serbo-Croatian — which used to be referred to as a single language — we have Serbian, and Croatian, and Bosnian and Montenegrin. So, four languages. Granted, some changes may have occurred in these former "dialects" since the collapse of Yugoslavia, but basically things are the same.  Four languages? One language? Take your pick.

And look at Chinese. I think that we should talk about Chinese languages, really. Because although people can communicate in writing, the speech of a person from Shanghai talking in his or her native form would not be comprehensible to someone from Beijing. Yet they would write things down the same way.

So, language is not a cut-and-dried kind of concept. And, to go back to your question, I would maintain that Soviet power created the borders to delineate the Turkic languages that we refer to today.  I hasten to add that there were some natural fault lines among Turkic forms of speech in the early twentieth century, but the choice of which forms to combine and call a single language was not entirely linguistic.

I think that the Soviet language planners could have decided that Kazakh and Kyrgyz were one language. Because they are, as you know, quite close. But a political decision resulted in Kazakh and Kyrgyz as independent languages.

Or take Turkmen: the dialect differences in Turkmen are very great and by and large they represent different tribes. Soviet language planners could have cultivated each into a separate language; they also could have created a single language out of the dialect (of what we today call Turkmen) nearest to Uzbekistan and combined it with the far western dialect of Uzbek to make that a separate language rather than those two sets of dialects being just of the respective Uzbek and Turkmen languages. So Soviet power did create lines or, if you prefer, borders between, languages. And by the way, going back to your earlier question, this is another example of how Soviet power did make a difference. And what is out there today certainly shows the imprint of Soviet rule in the region.

A.O.: So how do you go about nation-building when the entire ideology collapses? For example, people like Nazarbayev and Karimov are finding themselves at the helm and thinking, "What am I doing here? What am I ruling over? What is this? How do I put this whole thing together? How do I make sure different regions don't declare independence?"

W.F.: Let me start off by saying that the task of creating a sense of belonging among the population differed among the newly independent post-Soviet countries. There were some common tasks in all cases, but each country began at a unique starting point. As I indicated above, the demographic composition of Kazakhstan made the work of creating a common identity particularly problematic. Faced with this, Nazarbayev laid out a nation-building project that was inclusive. On numerous occasions he stressed that Kazakhstan was the homeland of all those living in the country at the time, even though, because Kazakhstan was the historical homeland of the Kazakhs, the Kazakh population had a special sort of attachment to the territory and therefore a unique status. In Kazakhstan, as in the other post-Soviet states, individuals carried identity documents indicating their natsional’nost’ as defined by the Soviet system.  By and large, people accepted their assigned natsional’nost' which most often reflected ethnic group and "native language." Curiously, at the end of the Soviet era, among those whose identity documents registered them as "Kazakhs," even those who hardly knew any Kazakh language more often than not claimed that Kazakh was their mother tongue.

The "nation-building projects" of the Central Asian countries varied from country to country. Kazakhstan’s was the "broadest" or most "inclusive." By this I mean that there was greater accommodation for the non-titular ethnic groups. A radically narrow nation-building project in Kazakhstan would have relegated over 60 percent of the population to second-class status. So I would say that Nazarbayev’s project probably helped to avoid civil strife. However, this inclusive project did not satisfy the many ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan who felt, "This is our own land and — by George! — Kazakh language, culture, history, etc. must be actively promoted above all others by the government."  This line of thinking was supported by the recognition that "We're now an independent country with our own flag and political system, so 'Kazakh identity' must be dominant and reflected in all domains of Kazakhstan’s state identity."

When, in 1989, i.e., before independence, the language law was first adopted in Kazakhstan and most other Soviet republics, many Kazakhs with the more exclusive ethnic aspirations for Kazakhstan envisioned a rapid language shift in their country from Russian to Kazakh. A plan for implementation of the language law — already in 1990, i.e., still under Soviet power — indicated that the language of office work was to shift to Kazakh over the next few years. This was to occur even in those oblasts of Kazakhstan where Kazakhs were far outnumbered by Slavs and other ethnic groups, and where most of the urban Kazakhs did not know much Kazakh.

A.O.: I remember that so vividly. All the members of my family, which is very mixed — Russian, Bashkir, you name it — they rushed to private tutors to learn Kazakh. Everyone was going, "Oh boy, we're going to lose our teaching jobs, we need to learn Kazakh." And then the government initiative petered out and people said, "Oh, thank God."

W.F.: Right. So many Kazakhs — I’ll call them "nationalists" here — saw themselves as patriots of Kazakhstan, with the emphasis on Kazakh culture, language, etc. Their hopes for a rapid language shift were unrealistic. And at the same time, on the part of your non-Kazakh relatives and others who were not Kazakh (and, by the way, many russified urban ethnic Kazakhs) there was something of a panic: they thought "Oh, we're going to be second-class citizens, and we're going to lose our jobs, and lose this and that, and we're going to be made uncomfortable."  So although neither the hopes of the "nationalists" nor the fears of the non-Kazakhs and russified Kazakhs were both unrealistic, they probably fed on one another.

And so here we are, in 2023: The question of how "Kazakh"  Kazakhstan should be is still out there, not resolved. That said, the balance has shifted significantly from a broader, inclusive nation-building project to a narrower, exclusive one.

A major reason for this is the shift in demography. Language repertoire and "nationality" are linked, but one does not determine the other. Thus, increase in share of Kazakhs in Kazakhstan’s population is a major reason for the increased use of Kazakh in the country, but there are still many Kazakhs who know little or no Kazakh, and a small but increasing share of other ethnic groups in Kazakhstan today know Kazakh, even though in many cases their Kazakh language skills are rudimentary.  


Regardless, ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan are much more likely to have good Kazakh language skills than non-Kazakhs in the country.  For this reason (not to mention others) it is very significant that whereas at the time of independence the shares of Kazakhs and Russians in Kazakhstan’s population were about equal, today Kazakhs, at over 70 percent, outnumber Russians (something over 15 percent) more than four to one.  And because the balance of Kazakhs to Russians is even more pronounced among Kazakhstan’s young people than among the entire population, the ratio of Kazakhs to Russians is bound to grow. Though the picture is more complicated than numbers of each nationality, it nevertheless is telling that among higher education students in Kazakhstan, Russians comprise only about six percent.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has given an additional impetus to the shift towards greater use of Kazakh language in Kazakhstan. I have only anecdotal information on it, but many of my friends in Kazakhstan have told me that both among ethnic Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs in the country, the last year and a half has seen a marked increase in people wanting to learn Kazakh and actually studying it.

Has increased study of and knowledge of Kazakh been a result of policy? Perhaps to some extent. Even former president Nursultan Nazarbayev advocated that "Kazakhs should speak Kazakh with one another" and promoted the idea of knowledge of Kazakh as the "patriotic duty" of all the country’s citizens regardless of natsional’nost’.  That said, I would argue that, overall, the Kazakhstan government’s policies to promote Kazakh language have been ineffective and vague, not to mention that much of the population opposed expansion of Kazakh into new domains of use. In any case, things have changed since the beginning of 2022.


In the Nazarbayev era, much of the population probably assumed that even though the government would continue to talk about everyone learning Kazakh, in fact nothing much would change.  President Tokayev continues to stress that citizens should not be penalized or discriminated against based on language. And in 2022, following a meeting with Putin, Tokayev proposed creation of an international organization to support and promote the Russian language throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States. (I don’t think anything has come of this; at least I haven’t read of any activity). Yet about the same time Tokayev also said "Our native language should be in the first place in importance and become a priority for all of us. I want to stress that this will happen." In many ways this sounds like the same balance as in the Nazarbayev era. Today, however, the environment has changed. Demography underlies the change, but I feel that Putin’s Ukraine gambit has also played a major role.

The dynamics of nation building in Kazakhstan might be clearer if I briefly compare it to the other countries in the region. Let me start with Kyrgyzstan. Unlike in Kazakhstan, no non-titular ethnic group in Kyrgyzstan ever comprised a share of the population anywhere close to that of the titular group. At the time of the last Soviet census, ethnic Kyrgyz comprised about 52 percent of the population. Russians were almost 22 percent, and Uzbeks were around 13 percent. Initially Kyrgyzstan’s nation-building project was fairly inclusive, but over time became much narrower, more Kyrgyz-centered.


This occurred as most of the Russian population left the country; today Russians comprise only four percent of the population. So what might have appeared the greatest risk to national consolidation of the two largest ethnic groups upon independence, the problem largely solved itself. Including Uzbeks in a Kyrgyzstani state identity has been much more fraught. Continuing a pattern from the late Soviet period, there have been repeated outbreaks of ethnic violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan’s south. One of the reasons for this is that some Uzbek organizations have sought territorial autonomy within Kyrgyzstan. For Kyrgyz nationalists, who see this as a possible step in the direction of possible secession, this is anathema. Incidentally, today the Kyrgyz share of the country’s population is approaching 80 percent, whereas Uzbeks comprise over 14 percent.

Language has been linked to national identity in Kyrgyzstan in a unique way. Even as the ethnic composition of the city has become increasingly Kyrgyz the dominant language in Bishkek, the capital, continues to be Russian. It’s also the case in some other parts of Kyrgyzstan’s north. Uniquely in the region, Russian is legally designated as the "official" language.  Please don’t ask me to tell you the difference between a "state" and an "official" language. I find the terms confusing. Some observers find it puzzling that Kyrgyzstan should have a more positive attitude than Kazakhstan towards Russia and Russian language. 


Part of the answer may be that, unlike Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan does not border Russia and thus Kyrgyzstan — even theoretically — has no territorial disputes with Russia. Moreover, Kyrygzstan’s small size and weakness compared to Uzbekistan — never mind China — make Russia look more attractive. And as if that were not enough, Kyrgyzstan has a still disputed border with Tajikistan and neighbors with Afghanistan.  Then, if you add to all that Kyrgyzstan’s poverty, the attitude towards Russia perhaps becomes clearer. 

Unlike Kazakhstan, which has been able to invest in language corpus development, publishing, and many other domains related to language, Kyrgyzstan’s higher education is still mostly in Russian. I will be interested to see how education in Kyrgyzstan will be affected by some other changes:  Just recently, in May, Kyrgyzstan adopted a law mandating use of the state language in many domains, and requiring knowledge of Kyrgyz by candidates for many government positions. I suspect that in fact Russian will continue to be in wide use in government offices, but it will probably decline markedly over the next decade or so. And this will likely bring changes in language of education.

So, to sum up, the nation-building project in Kyrgyzstan started off as a fairly inclusive one, but then it became narrower,  i.e., rooted in ethnic Kyrgyz identity. A separate Russian identity is no longer a major issue in most of the country because the share of ethnic Russians has dramatically decreased. On the other hand, the Uzbeks are still very much present in Kyrgyzstan, and they are not going anywhere. Although Kyrgyz tend to view the Uzbeks in their own country as outsiders, Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks see consider themselves indigenous. Aside from the strong tribal and regional Kyrgyz identities, I see the Uzbeks as the greatest challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s nation-building project.

Identity at the center of nation-building projects in the other three post-Soviet Central Asian countries has consistently been that of the titular group. Tajikistan is the only post-Soviet Central Asian country where there was a civil war. Strong local geographic identities were one of the Important factors that contributed to the conflict. Like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan is very mountainous and many parts of the country are isolated from others. This is likely also one of the reasons for the great differences among dialects of Tajik. In any case, creating a Tajik, let alone a Tajikistani identity, has been extremely challenging.

Compared with Kazakhstan or even Kyrgyzstan, Russians have always been a relatively small minority in Tajikistan. At the time of the last Soviet census, Russians comprised under eight percent of Tajikistan’s population. Today they are under one percent. As in Kyrgyzstan, in Tajikistan, too, the largest minority population has been Uzbek: in the 1989 census they comprised almost a quarter of the republic population.

In the Soviet era there was a lot of talk about Uzbeks and Tajiks being like one nationality with two languages. Indeed, the stereotypical respective Uzbek and Tajik cultures — whatever they might be — certainly resemble one another. The overlap and geographic location made drawing borders between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan particularly difficult. As the Russians say, ne sluchaino (it’s not chance) that after the Soviet delimitation of Central Asian borders, today’s Tajikistan remained an autonomous unit within Uzbekistan. And when in 1929 Tajikistan was separated from Uzbekistan it acquired territory which had been part of Uzbekistan proper (i.e., not part of the autonomous republic).


There are all sorts of stories that Stalin had borders drawn in such a way that left the republics dependent on Moscow for their power and as arbiter of disputes. I don’t know whether that is true, but it would have been impossible to draw borders between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that would have left all "Tajiks" on one side and "Uzbeks" on the other. As it happened, the two greatest historical centers of "Tajik" culture — Samarkand and Bukhara — ended up in Uzbekistan. And the main artery for travel from Tashkent (Uzbekistan’s capital after 1929) to the most densely populated part of the republic (the Ferghana Valley) — crossed through Tajikistan.

Regardless of this (or, perhaps, because of this?), Tajikistan’s nation-building project since 1991 has been very Tajik-centered. This policy has been promoted in education, where, I believe, if you look at the statistics for the period right at independence, the share of children in Uzbek-medium schools was not much less than the share of Uzbeks reported in the data for the Tajik SSR in 1989.

Since that time Uzbek has been in sharp decline as a language of education. Uzbek scholars in Uzbekistan and Tajik scholars in Tajikistan have been in a long debate over whether the first inhabitants of Central Asia spoke a form of Turkic or an Iranian dialect.  (Sometimes it almost seems they are arguing whether Adam and Eve spoke to one another in Tajik or Uzbek!) Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were very poor from Tajikistan’s civil war until the death of Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov in 2016. Most transportation links were suspended. Meanwhile, inside Tajikistan some Uzbeks were reclassified as members of certain "tribes" (e.g., Lokays). This accounts for part of the decrease of Uzbeks in Tajikistan’s population, though some other things were also going on. In any case, by 2010 the share of "Uzbeks" in Tajikistan’s population had dropped to only about half of what it had been in 1989, and this was not because half the Uzbeks emigrated.   The shift of identity was facilitated by the similarities in "Uzbek" and "Tajik" culture I mentioned above and the fact that many of Tajikistan’s Uzbeks were bilingual (Uzbek, Tajik) in the first place (or trilingual: Russian, Uzbek and Tajik).

In some ways Uzbekistan’s nation-building project is a mirror image of Tajikistan’s. That is, whereas Tajikistan has sought to minimize the importance of Turkic peoples and their culture in their history and contemporary society, Uzbekistan has sought to play down the role of groups speaking Tajik or other Iranian dialects. Uzbekistan’s nation-building project claims Timur (Tamerlane) as an ancestor to today’s Uzbeks. Schools with Tajik as the language of instruction were still common in the Soviet era in Samarkand and Bukhara. I am not sure about today, but a decade or so ago there were reports that no Tajik schools remained serving children living in the cities of Bukhara or Samarkand.

Slavs were never a major component of Uzbekistan’s population. Even in the last Soviet census Russians comprised about eight percent. Today they are only two or three percent. As I have tried to illustrate above, the titular groups in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all comprise a large majority of each respective country’s population and the share of Slavs has shrunk. Lest anyone understand me as trying to say that nation-building is easy in any of these countries, let me stress that sub-ethnic or regional identities remain strong everywhere in Central Asia. These also complicate any efforts to create a shared sense of national unity, even if just among members of the titular natsional’nost’.

This is certainly true in the one country whose national project I have not yet discussed, Turkmenistan.

And Turkmenistan — in terms of their nation-building project — is a nation of tribes. There's a very good book by Adrian Edgar called Tribal Nation. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about how Soviet leaders created a Turkmen identity. As Edgar shows, differences among Turkmen tribes in terms of their culture, including their dialects, are politically very salient.  The official language is based on the Ahal Teke dialect, which is spoken in the region around Ashgabat, the capital. In terms of demography, at the time of the 1989 census, Turkmens comprised over 70 percent of the republic’s population, both Russians and Uzbeks each accounted for something under 10 percent, and other minority groups the remaining approximate 10 percent.

Turkmenistan has pursued the narrowest nation-building project in the region, i.e., the one most centered on the titular national’nost’. So if you look at the level of emphasis on the titular nationality across Central Asia, one goes from Kazakhstan, where Kazakhs are living on their historical homeland — as stated, I think, in the Constitution — but with much more recognition of non-titulars than elsewhere in the region. On the other extreme of the continuum is Turkmenistan, where today, as a reflection of this, I believe there's only one totally Russian school which is run by the Russian Embassy, but a number of mixed schools where kids study in Turkmen and in Russian. No education is provided in other Central Asian languages.

And of course, Turkmenbashi, the first president after independence, wrote this book — Rukhnamah about the history of the Turkmen. It was a main pillar of the educational system during his life and even a while beyond that.

A.O.: It’s a talking book as well. Remember that memorial in Ashgabat where the book talks?


W.F.: Yes. And Turkmenbashi even changed the names of the months, calling January after himself. It was a very Turkmen-centered identity.

As for the range of broad-to narrow nation building projects, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are between the poles of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. That said, throughout the region the projects have narrowed over time. Today, even in Kazakhstan, the official identity is certainly more Kazakh-centered than it was at the time of independence. Far behind the Turkmen's example, but in part this is a reflection of the demographic change.

One can see the gradual shift in Kazakhstan’s nation building project in the increased traction in the past couple of years of the proposal to adopt a separate law on the state language.  The proposal to supplement the language law of 1997 with one specifically devoted to Kazakh was initially made decades ago. Today, however, it is actively promoted by some members of Kazakhstan’s lower legislative chamber.

I’d like to mention that I believe that in the Nazarbayev era, competing versions of the nation-building project were represented through contradictory statements and actions as well as deliberate obfuscation. Here’s an example: When independent Kazakhstan’s second Constitution was adopted in 1995, there were passionate debates about whether the Constitution should state that Kazakhstan had one state language or two.  Some parliamentary deputies insisted that there be two state languages: Kazakh and Russian. The more “patriotic” Kazakhs (that is, those who favored a less inclusive nation-building project) objected to this. They dug in their heels and argued that in the independent  homeland of the Kazakhs there could only be one state language, and it had to be Kazakh.

The fallback position for those who had wanted two state languages was like this:, "OK, let there be one state language, but we’ll make Russian the 'official' language." The proponents of the more Kazakh-centric national project in parliament objected to this "solution," too, saying that making Russian the "official" language made no sense since, they claimed, it was impossible to distinguish between a "state" and an "official" language.

So what happened? As adopted, the 1995 Constitution has this very strange formulation saying "Russian language shall be officially used on equal grounds along with the Kazakh language in state institutions and local self-administrative bodies." The language law adopted in 1997 incorporated these same words, which are interpreted in many different ways depending on one’s preference. The obfuscation on language is nowhere better illustrated than in the title of that 1997 law: the Kazakh title is "Law on Language" (Тіл туралы заң) but in Russian it is called titled "Law on Languages" (i.e., plural) (Закон о языках). 

A.O.: But here's a crude question any Kazakh would ask you. Knowing that the Kazakh language offers many advantages in terms of career advancement and earning more money, why are the Russians who live in Kazakhstan reluctant to learn the Kazakh language?

W.F.: I think this is another holdover from the Soviet period, even from the tsarist era. Many Russians — and this is not a secret to any Central Asian — have had this colonial or, if you will, imperial  mentality. To overstate it a bit, many Russians exuded an attitude that amounted to "you people in Central Asia didn't have the wheel before we Russians brought you civilization with a capital C." So there has been this attitude toward the Central Asians that they are barbarians. And the Russians point out that in the case of the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, "you didn’t even have a tradition of literacy! You were uncivilized!" Unfortunately, echoes of this attitude persist even today. Beyond that, there is the argument that Russians often  make regarding Kazakh:  "Why should I learn it? Many Kazakhs don’t even know it, and, anyway, most of them know Russian."

A.O.: Because you can have a career. You can become a civil servant and make a successful career.

W.F.: They can, but they don't need to know Kazakh. Although things are changing, many can still do it without knowing Kazakh.  In fact, recently President Tokayev reminded those advocating a narrow nation building project that "In no case should linguistic principles be used to justify infringement of rights of citizens who have not studied the state language and do not know it to the required extent."

I imagine that in practice things work out in very complex ways. Imagine, for example, when the boss or other person in charge of whatever unit, begins to require that work be conducted in the same language as he (or, less often, she) prefers to use. Questions no doubt also arise at informal meetings when different members of the work unit prefer to speak in different languages and not everyone understands the language that some associates may use.

A.O.: Including for the office gossip.

W.F.: Yes, the office gossip. Over time, if an employee wants to understand what is going on, s/he will increasingly need to know Kazakh to get it all straight. And s/he will experience more and more discomfort if s/he can’t at least understand what others are saying. I would argue that in the past, in many — or maybe even most — parts of Kazakhstan, people have really needed Russian skills to enjoy upward mobility. But it's changing. Kazakh is used more and more. I think that official government data purport that over 70 percent of higher education students in Kazakhstan are enrolled in Kazakh-medium divisions or groups. I don't believe that every individual in the Kazakh-language divisions or groups receives all of his or her education in Kazakh. Today it’s just not possible: Kazakh materials have not yet been created or translated for some things. This is especially true in technical disciplines. In the study of medicine, for example, for now you cannot do without the Russian language.

But even if you've studied in a Kazakh-language group, you've likely been exposed to Russian and, at least on paper, you have studied Russian in your primary and secondary education. So, even if difficult, you manage to read some materials in Russian.  On the other hand, from what I understand, for most students in Russian-medium divisions or groups, it’s still possible to get by with little or no knowledge of Kazakh. But that is changing.

In any case, it seems to be increasingly common for young Kazakhs — even those whose dominant language is Russian — at least to understand Kazakh. So if your boss at work decides to use Kazakh, you are not totally lost. So the language balance shifts. Let’s not forget that in Kazakhstan it’s common for Kazakhs to mix languages, so in a given conversation half may be in Kazakh and half Russian. We should not imagine a "Great Chinese Wall" between the two languages. Code switching is very common. One of the reasons for greater comprehension is that it is increasingly viewed as “bad form” for people in Kazakhstan — especially ethnic Kazakhs — not to know Kazakh. People talk about ignorance of their "mother tongue" by Kazakhs as "ұят". ["Ұят" is a Kazakh word meaning "shame." - Ed.] As in, "Shame on you, ұят." As a Kazakh it’s expected that you at least know how to greet people in Kazakh, take leave of them, and give a toast in Kazakh. And if you're a Kazakh and you're stopped by a Kazakh traffic cop — who is likely a Kazakh speaker — you're going to get off with less of a fine if you speak to that person in Kazakh.

And yet, when I've been in Kazakhstan and gone into a restaurant, and let's say a waitress would bring me a menu in Russian and English, I'd say to her in Kazakh, "Do you have the menu in Kazakh?" Often the response would be in Russian, "I’m sorry, but I don’t speak my native language." That’s a curious way to put it. If this comes from a Kazakh, it implies that his or her "native language" must be Kazakh. But the fact is that for many Kazakhs the "native language" is Russian. I mean it’s Russian if we’re talking about urban dwellers who learned Russian as their first language, who were educated in Russian, and whose dominant language of communication in most settings is Russian. The Kazakh who doesn’t know his/her "native language" is especially common in Kazakhstan’s north, east, and central regions.  

It used to be that when I walked into a bookstore, I'd go to the Kazakh section, and the salesclerks would say, "The books over there are in Kazakh!" This implied that someone who looked like I did would not be able to read anything in Kazakh.

The more nationalistically inclined Kazakhs insist that Kazakh children must be taught in their native language. And what they mean by that is that Kazakh children must be taught in Kazakh. But what if "native language" is not determined by recorded national’nost’ but by experience and linguistic repertoires? One could turn the "nationalist" argument on its head and say, "You really need to teach these kids in Russian because that's their dominant language, i.e., the one they grew up speaking." That is not something that the more nationalistically-inclined Kazakhs would accept.

So, after all that I can go back to your initial question, i.e., what has happened in terms of identity and language since the beginning of Putin’s Ukraine gambit. It appears that since the beginning of 2022, large numbers of both Kazakhs and members of other ethnic groups in Kazakhstan have signed up for courses or joined clubs or to begin studying or improve their Kazakh skills. I have a Kazakh friend who is in her early 60s, a Russian-speaking woman from Almaty, who recently joined a Kazakh conversation group, so that she could learn to speak the language. So, thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, for the push to learn Kazakh!

A.O.: I suppose every awful thing has a silver lining.

W.F.: Yes, I think that's happening now. And every wonderful thing has a dark inner lining. Unfortunately, the more nationalistically minded throughout the region often use language as a weapon. I know Kazakhs who have tried to learn Kazakh, and, at least until last year, I often heard from them something along the lines of, "I tried to speak Kazakh, but, you know, when I do that, I make mistakes, I speak with a Russian accent, and I get criticized, I get mocked because I sound like it's not my native language." They perceive this, correctly in my view, as, "You should be ashamed of not being able to speak your own language. Ұят."

As a result — and this happens, I think, probably everywhere, not just in Central Asia or the former Soviet Union — the targets of the criticism for mistakes become even more reluctant to try to speak "their own" language. I even know a Kazakh woman who had a pretty good grasp of Kazakh.  Her surname identified her as a likely member of a prominent Kazakh family. I am sure that, as she claimed, her Kazakh was good but not perfect. She told me she was afraid to give interviews in Kazakh because she would make small mistakes in the language. However, she said, when she went to Kyrgyzstan, she gave interviews in Kazakh because the Kyrgyz would understand most of what she said and, most importantly, they wouldn't complain about her mistakes in Kazakh.

So language is used as a club sometimes against others. As in, "I am entitled to this job because I know Kazakh and you don’t." Still, more people who never spoke Kazakh are beginning to learn and use it. Most of my contacts inside Kazakhstan agree that the aggression against Ukraine has reduced the critical attitude towards those who speak Kazakh imperfectly.  This makes it easier for both Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs to use the state language in public. So this is another silver lining.

A.O.: How did you come to study Central Asia? Why Central Asia?

W.F.: I started studying Russian when I was in junior high school, in the 8th grade. I grew up in University City, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, where Russian was one of the five foreign languages to choose for study. Given the atmosphere of the Cold War my parents wanted me to study any other of the languages—Spanish, French, German, or Latin. Just not Russian. So, naturally,  as a rebellious adolescent I chose Russian.  In addition, a grant from Washington University paid for an instructor to teach Chinese at our school. So I started Chinese as a junior in high school. After graduating high school I went off to Indiana University, which I graduated with majors in Russian and Chinese. I applied to graduate school in political science at various schools. I ended up at Harvard thinking I was going to study Sino-Soviet relations.

Well, I didn't find that as interesting as I expected, and eventually I realized that what I really wanted to do was learn about language policy. I was fascinated by things that were distant and unreachable, which made me begin to think about going to the USSR (it was impossible in those days for Americans to go to China). So when I finished my course work at Harvard I applied for the only academic exchange that existed at the time between the US and USSR. This was administered by IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board). Only about 30 people from the entire United States went on this exchange  every year to the USSR, mainly graduate students and other young researchers. And 30 participants came to the US from the Soviet Union, mainly spies, of course. [Laughs]. The Soviet side primarily sent people in the hard sciences and technology, whereas most Americans who went to the USSR were carrying out research in the humanities and social sciences, and overwhelmingly on topics related to the USSR as a whole or Russia, not the non-Russian areas of the Soviet Union. With few exceptions, American scholars who went with IREX sponsorship to the USSR spent all or most of their time in Moscow or Leningrad. At the time I applied I assumed that, if accepted, I would go to one of those places.

The research proposal I initially submitted to IREX was very broad: I hadn't studied any minority languages yet. I  intended to work on issues related to language policy, and I hoped that eventually I would be able to compare Soviet minority language policy to China’s. The people who interviewed me for IREX found my proposal interesting, but too broad. "Well, you know, you really need to learn a specific language if you're going to study policy." This was both welcome and unwelcome news. On the one hand I wanted to do my overseas research, write my dissertation, graduate, find a job, and get on with life. On the other hand, I have always loved learning languages, so in some ways this was like taking a kid to a candy store and asking him to choose his favorite sweets. And what could have been more remote than Central Asia?

So I picked Uzbek because Uzbek is very close to Uyghur. Uzbeks and Uyghurs can talk to each other in their own language. For most subjects it’s not a problem. I was thinking that starting with Uzbek would allow me to study the Uyghurs on the Chinese side. But I never got around to studying the Uyghurs. I studied Uzbek for a year on my own in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The materials for learning the language were very poor. Actually they were horrible. The Soviet textbooks — in Russian, of course — had lessons with such exciting texts that went sort of like "Masha lived in the kolkhoz. She liked to drive a tractor. She fell in love with her tractor. They got married and lived happily ever after picking cotton."

So, it was tough studying Uzbek on my own. There were few Uzbeks in the United States and, as far as I knew, none in the Boston area.  Nevertheless, I posted notices near Harvard in three languages "Do you know Uzbek?" I did find someone who claimed to know Uzbek, but she had been born in Xinjiang to parents who fled from Uzbekistan. She grew up in Shanghai, but her parents spoke what she said was Uzbek. During China’s Cultural Revolution her family fled to Turkey. So she grew up speaking aralash / aralas (some kind of mixture).  That was my initial language informant from whom I would learn Uzbek. Well, what I didn’t realize was that she didn't really speak Uzbek and it must have contained a lot of Turkish. She made some tapes that I listened to over and over and over. I tried to imitate her pronunciation. I have a pretty good ear for languages and think I managed to imitate her speech rather well. To this day when I speak Uzbek, people often say, "You must know Turkish." (I don’t!) I believe it’s at least partly because of the mixture of forms of Turkic that my language informant used.

In any case, IREX awarded me what at the time they called a "preparatory grant" for 1975-76; this grant allowed me to prepare for research a year later in Uzbekistan. This, however, did not guarantee I would be picked for the exchange by the following year’s US selection committee nor that I would get a visa to conduct research in Uzbekistan. The main reason for hoping that I would get the visa was that a Soviet refusal would mean that the US Embassy would reduce the number of Soviet scholars coming to the US for every "nyet" on the Russian side.  My topic of language policy in Uzbekistan was at least potentially a sensitive one. I suspect that the Soviet personnel reviewing my application assumed I was some sort of linguist pursuing an obscure topic and figured I was harmless.

As it happened, it was not until the end of July 1976, days before my scheduled Moscow arrival, that the Soviet visa was issued in Washington. In those days Soviet visas were a separate piece of paper that was inserted in one’s passport. Because I was already in Prague at the time, my visa was hand carried by another IREX participant to Vienna and left at the American Express office. I had to travel to Vienna to pick it up. In those days it was common for Soviet embassies to issue visas for researchers at the last minute, so, knowing this might happen, I had obtained a double entry visa to Czechoslovakia. (Otherwise I would have been unable to catch my Prague-Moscow flight!) 

After a month in Moscow, my wife, Harriet, and I took the 54-hour train ride to Tashkent. (Besides my wife and myself, the rest of the American community in Tashkent that year consisted of historian Robert McChesney, his wife, Connie, and their two young daughters.) So here I am in Tashkent ready to conduct research but never having spoken Uzbek with a native speaker. This meant I had no listening comprehension to speak of, and I had no practice in expressing myself in Uzbek. On the ground in Tashkent, I usually fell back on my Russian skills. If I'd address someone in Uzbek, s/he would probably think, "This guy doesn't really speak Uzbek." Occasionally I would get a response in Uzbek after addressing someone in that language, but then I'd usually have to ask the person who responded to repeat what s/he had said. At that point people would shift into Russian. (People assumed I must know Russian, and never dreamed they were talking with an American. On occasions when people would realize that I was an American they would often ask how I got across the border).

Over the academic year my Uzbek improved somewhat, mostly in reading. After I returned to the US, I obtained some recordings of Radio Liberty Uzbek broadcasts. These, however, were of limited value, especially in developing active language skills. It wasn’t until 1988 (my dissertation research was 1976-77) that my Uzbek speaking and writing skills substantially improved when I went with the USIA exhibit titled "Information Technology in the Life of the United States of America." I worked mostly on exhibit stands showing how word processing worked (which back in 1988 was a big deal) and how lasers read bar codes of products in a grocery store: There was a grocery cart with boxes and cans of US food products and a cash register hooked up to a scanner. 

People were excited to encounter an Uzbek-speaking American. It was about as unusual as if I had come from Mars or Jupiter. My Uzbek was not great, but my passive vocabulary was extensive. So, I activated it somehow. And I managed to improve a lot. Even when away from the exhibit in Tashkent people would recognize me and point to me. I was a celebrity!

And then, in 1994, I had my adventure at the Tashkent airport. [In January 1994 the Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan used visa restrictions to thwart William Fierman’s trip to the country. - Ed.] After that, I realized that my chances of doing research in Uzbekistan did not look good. But I did recognize that in Kazakhstan language was a much more interesting political issue than in Uzbekistan. So I began to work on Kazakh. I wouldn’t say that I don’t make mistakes, but my Kazakh is good enough.

A.O.: But your Russian is impeccable. You must know a lot about Russia and the Russian language. And I have a question about the Russian language that has been perplexing the community of Russia observers for a few weeks now. I don’t know whether you are familiar with the personality — his name is Viktor Shenderovich — who is a liberal commentator speaking out against Putin’s policies.

W.F.: I think Svoboda carries things by him sometimes.

A.O.: Sometimes it does, yes. The personality in question is not as important as what he had articulated recently to someone on Facebook, which is this: "Because you write and think in Russian, you are Russian to me."

W.F.: If you follow this logic, then Brighton Beach in Brooklyn becomes a part of the "Russian world." So maybe Putin will pluck up courage to send his troops over there? Why not? It’s all "Russian world," isn’t it?

There is a Russian scholar who I know, who I met at a conference at Peoples' Friendship University in Moscow (which has a lot of students from all over the world, including the former Soviet Union), and among other things he studies the levels of the Russian language proficiency in different countries.

At the conference this scholar gave a paper — this was probably about six or seven years ago — in which he stated that the Russian language is in decline in the world as a whole. And it's true. I don't think he said it at the conference, but I have read his articles in which he says that Russian will continue to decline unless or until Russia has more than raw materials to offer to the world, i.e., if can export ideas and education.

A.O.: But the Russian language has taken such a reputational hit. I don’t know how the Russian language is going to recover.

W.F.: A lot of Tajiks who know little Russian work at construction sites in Moscow and other cities. Would you suppose Shenderovich would call them Russians?

A.O.: Some of them have Russian passports, though.

W.F.: Yes, the Russian passport is a strange issue, particularly how Russia has been distributing passports to citizens of other countries. Kazakhstan doesn’t allow dual citizenship, but Kyrgyzstan does and Tajikistan does. I am not sure about Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan does allow it with Russia in some special cases. But I’ve seen reports quite recently — this past week — about Tajiks who also have Russian citizenship who are being sent off to the meat-grinder, and they are not allowed to leave Russia. I know people in Bloomington, IN, who have Russian passports and who are also U.S. citizens. They are not of the age to be drafted, but at the end of the day — why not?

But going back to Kazakhstan, I don’t know what is going to happen there. As I mentioned, over 70% of students in higher education are enrolled in Kazakh-language divisions or groups. But it seems to me that for the time being they cannot dispense with the Russian language in education.  Even in the Kazakh-language groups a certain share of textbooks and other literature used in higher education are in Russian and in English. Yes, some students today speak Kazakh and English well, but speak Russian poorly.  So, as I mentioned above, while students in the Russian-language divisions or groups can get along without knowing Kazakh — i.e., they don’t need study materials in Kazakh — those in the Kazakh groups still need to know Russian and/ or English, at least for their academic work.

A.O.: Remember how Alain Besançon in his foreword to Andrei’s Amalrik’s Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? writes about the great gap in the body of knowledge available in the Russian language — knowledge about the West and about culture in general? Gaps in the knowledge of psychoanalysis, modern art, etc. He says, "The Soviet citizens have no idea what Western culture is."

W.F.: I think that’s right.

A.O.: And when you look at Kazakhstan, the gap is even wider. I don’t know how they are going to catch up.

W.F.: Look at Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. In Tajikistan they can understand Persian when it is being read out. No, for all sorts of reasons most publications from Iran cannot be used in Tajikistan. But language is not really the primary problem. In Kyrgyzstan, though, they don’t have the money for making translations, or even for developing, standardizing, and disseminating new terminology. Kazakhstan has invested quite a lot into creating dictionaries, such as, for example, something like The Russian-Kazakh Dictionary of Transportation and Logistics or The Russian-Kazakh Dictionary of Medical Terms, etc. This doesn’t mean that everyone is using those "officially accepted" terms, but in Kyrgyzstan they have no money even to create these kinds of dictionaries. I imagine that because Kazakh and Kyrgyz languages are so close, in principle Kyrgyz could "borrow" thousands of Kazakh terms, but I’m confident that would be anathema to most Kyrgyz. At times I have suggested to Kyrgyz scholars that they could offer short intensive Kazakh language reading courses so that Kyrgyz speakers could take advantage of Kazakh translations. Whenever I have mentioned this, it has been absolutely rejected. In any case, compared to what is available in the Kyrgyz language, the Kazakh corpus is in much better shape.

With regard to Tajikistan, I’d be curious to know if anyone has been converting the Farsi texts into Tajik, and I mean simply converting the alphabet to make it readable for Tajiks. I would think that if something like this is taking place, there will be a lot of influence from Farsi on Tajik. I say this realizing that some people consider Farsi and Tajik (as well as Dari) all one language.  So we’re back to the question of when is a language a language.  Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the poorest post-Soviet countries of the region, and I suspect that this will tend to make those countries more dependent on Russian and/or English than in Kazakhstan. I sometimes wonder whether computer A.I. might accelerate corpus development and translation. Who knows?

In the case of Kazakhstan, they already have a lot of materials, and even rather interesting TV programs in the state language. This is something that wasn’t available before. And — what is important — children’s programs are also appearing, which is something that should have been done 30 years ago — making interesting children’s programs. Some programs about historical Kazakh figures such as some batyr ["batyr" ("батыр") is a Kazakh word meaning a daring strongman. - Ed.] or Abai might be interesting to some kids, but I think more thought needs to be devoted to developing things that children find interesting: space, computers, Harry Potter. Harry Potter, by the way, has been translated into Kazakh. To make a positive contribution, the quality of translations has to be high, because no one needs or wants bad translations. No one wants to read, say,  a manual for a device in the Kazakh language if it is so poorly written that one needs to access the original English or Russian to understand it.  In any case,  unlike Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, Kazakhstan has money. Whether it spends it effectively is another issue. And yet… leaders of some countries may view language planning as a luxury that they cannot afford.

A.O.: But everything becomes so complicated in authoritarian countries.

W.F.: Maybe true. But developing policy priorities and implementing them is often more difficult in democratic countries. Stalin decided to spend a lot of money to promote Russian language. Russian language was a privileged school subject in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. Funds were devoted to assure small class size, publish journals in most or all republics devoted to teaching the Russian language, holding conferences at all levels devoted to teaching Russian, etc. So at least as long as the USSR survived, there were signs of success. But that empire collapsed. It was not eternal. Indeed, Russian language today is in decline in most of the former USSR.

A.O.: Stalin, at the same time, obliterated the entire stratum of the Russian culture from the curricula: Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Kharms, the entire literature of the Russian Silver Age. So the Kazakhs had to learn a greatly impoverished version of the Russian culture.

W.F.: And Stalin is again hailed as a hero in Russia. He is being praised and monuments are being put up in his honor.

A.O.: At times it seems that this current state of affairs can only be analyzed in metaphysical terms, the way Dostoyevsky did it in Demons.

W.F.: As someone who spent most of his life studying things related to Russia, the USSR, and post-Soviet states, I find it depressing to view what is going on today. And at the heart of this mess is Putin’s Ukraine gambit. But I am worried about what will happen with Russia. Yes, whatever happens in the war, Ukraine will be in ruins; it already is. It’s horrible what’s happened. But what is going to happen to Russia? They are cutting themselves off from the developing knowledge of the rest of the world! What kind of future does this country have?

I  recently read that at the prestigious Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) students used to study a lot of English, as well as often some other foreign languages they would choose. But this spring the university administration announced that some of the hours for English and other languages were being reassigned to the mandatory study of Chinese. And this was for students who would be starting off with no Chinese language background! I think the plan was for students to attend Chinese lessons twice a week for two years. How much Chinese could they learn?  The rationale for the proposed change was that a lot of literature in technical fields is being published in Chinese only.  Students at MIPT started a petition to protest the change of policy regarding language study. I don’t know whether the institute administration changed its position and backed down. However, if this change is implemented, it will reduce students’ knowledge of English and ability to communicate with specialists throughout most of the world. As for improving Russians’ ability to read technical texts in Chinese — well, I believe that the cutting edge literature in China is mostly published in Chinese as well as English, or even exclusively in English. Anyway, this is just one way that I see Russia isolating itself from most of the world. 

A.O.: But they want to move closer to China.

W.F.: I wish them luck. Is this going to be like in the days of the Soviet Union — the eternal Soviet-Chinese friendship?

A.O.: We should all congratulate them.

W.F.: We all should.  Было бы смешно, если не так грустно!  



A.O.: Bill, thank you for such an enlightening excursion into the subject of language and identity in Central Asia. Your wealth of information and knowledge will no doubt broaden the horizons of our readers. Today I have learnt things I never knew about the country I was born in. Our readers will be delighted by your honest and thorough approach to such a complex subject.


bottom of page