New East Digital Archive

Joanna Lillis enters the world of Kazakh ‘returnees’ in an extract from her new book

Veteran journalist of Central Asia Joanna Lillis uncovers the workings of Kazakh society in her new book, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan. Read an exclusive extract here

30 October 2018

A journalist with over a decade of reporting experience from Central Asia, Joanna Lillis is an expert on the contemporary culture and politics of Kazakhstan. Her new book, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan, takes in the country’s dust-blown deserts, majestic mountains and glitzy cities to tell the story of the people who live there.

In this extract, Lillis travels across Kazakhstan and to neighbouring Mongolia and China to meet the oralmandar, Kazakhs who heeded the call to return to their “historic homeland” after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For Amangul Akilbek, Kazakhstan is the land of promise. She was born in a far-flung village in China, but moving to Kazakhstan has turned her life around. “It’s actually called Kumak, but I call it End of the Road,” she jokes, speaking of her birthplace in Xinjiang on China’s north-western fringe. Amangul, slight, bright-eyed and looking younger than her 32 years, arrived in Kazakhstan in 2004 at the age of 19, driven by a determination to escape a life of drudgery in a village where she saw no prospects. “There’s nothing, there’s no work, there’s no opportunity to work,” she says. “People just survive day by day. They only live off the land…because that’s the only income.”

There are around 1.5 million Kazakhs living in China. For much of the 20th century they were cut off from their brethren in Kazakhstan by the Sino-Soviet border — but nowadays Astana is luring them to come and live in the motherland. Amangul is one of around a million Kazakhs who have resettled here from foreign lands in the quarter of a century since independence, uprooting from countries near and far to throw in their lot with the new Kazakhstan. She is an oralman, the name given to foreign-born Kazakhs who have, with Astana’s encouragement, chosen to make Kazakhstan their home. The word means “returnee”, implying a “return” to their “historical homeland”, although many of them have never set foot in Kazakhstan before.

There are around 1.5 million Kazakhs living in China, cut off from their brethren during the 20th century by the Sino-Soviet border

Amangul’s first glimpse of the country came after she gave up her old life in China and uprooted 1,500 kilometres west to make a new one in Kazakhstan. Chafing at the limitations of village life in Xinjiang, she could have opted to join China’s rural-to-urban exodus and moved to the bustling provincial capital, Urumqi, or further afield to the industrial powerhouses on China’s eastern seaboard. Instead she looked west, to her “historical homeland”, enticed by the prospect of new opportunities in a country that welcomes Kazakhs from around the world with open arms. Like many oralmandar, Amangul found settling into a strange country a struggle: she faced not only a massive culture shock, but also a totally unexpected language barrier in Kazakhstan, where the lingua franca is not Kazakh but Russian, of which she spoke not a word. Yet despite a few hiccups acclimatising, Amangul has never really looked back. “I feel here is home,” she says contentedly, looking out of the window of her flat in Almaty at the snow-dusted trees on a February evening in 2016.

News of the oralman programme reached villages in outlying areas of China both from Kazakh diplomats, who toured Kazakh-inhabited regions publicising the perks Astana was offering, and also by word of mouth, from tales brought back by oralmandar returning to visit relatives — which is how Amangul heard of it. In the teeth of opposition from her parents, she badgered an oralman uncle who was a cross-border trader between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan to take her to live with his family in a village in south-eastern Kazakhstan. It was a scary move, but also an exciting one. “I didn’t know my destiny,” she says. But through sheer grit and determination to make a better life, she arrived in Kazakhstan as an oralman at the age of 19.

Amangul is one of a million Kazakhs who have answered the clarion call Astana put out after independence to its brethren around the world: come “home” to Kazakhstan, your “historic homeland”. “The doors of Kazakhstan are always wide open for every Kazakh who loves their motherland,” as President Nursultan Nazarbayev put it in 2017.

The emotional tug on their heartstrings was backed by hard-nosed financial perks, which have varied over the years but have included relocation payments, travel subsidies, housing, fast-tracked citizenship, support in finding jobs and credit to start businesses. Astana presented its oralman programme as a way for Kazakhstan to do its historical duty by the Kazakhs blown abroad by the winds of history — but it was also a response to the demographic conundrum the country confronted when it was parachuted into independence. Kazakhstan’s demographic potpourri was a national security concern, albeit one the government avoided voicing for fear of affronting the Kremlin and its own minorities. But with Kazakhs in a minority and separatist sentiments erupting along the Russian border, there was a nagging worry that the ethnic mix could prove combustible. Luring some of the Kazakhs living abroad at the fall of the Soviet Union (around 5 million, compared to 6.5 million in Kazakhstan at the time) to their “historical homeland” could ease the demographic legacy. Officially, it was an economic imperative to boost the tiny population of this massive country, where at independence 16.5 million people were living in a state the size of western Europe — but as Nazarbayev cast around for a way to redress a demographic balance knocked out of kilter by the tumult of the Stalin era, the oralmandar were the answer.

Amangul arrived full of high hopes for a new life in Kazakhstan, but culture shock soon set in. For many oralmandar accustomed to village life in rural China or Mongolia, modern lifestyles in Soviet-influenced Kazakhstan, particularly its Russified urban areas, come as a surprise. “For me everything was shocking,” laughed Amangul — but nothing more so than the unexpected language barrier that arose to cut her off from her new countrymen. “I thought for me it wouldn’t be difficult, I speak Kazakh,” said Amangul, her eyes widening in amazement at the memory over a decade later. “But in Almaty everybody spoke Russian! It really struck me. When I first came here I only survived by speaking Kazakh.” At independence, many Kazakhs who grew up speaking Russian at school and at home were unable to speak Kazakh at all. There is even a derogatory term for such people: shala kazak, a “halfway” Kazakh who has lost the language and culture.

Oralmandar are criticised by some Russians and other minorities who resent the influx of Kazakhs that is altering the country’s ethnic and linguistic mix, but also by some Kazakhstan-born Kazakhs who begrudge the provision of financial incentives to incomers. This is not helped by stories — many apocryphal, some true — of oralmandar moving to Kazakhstan to pick up the cash then immediately heading back home.

Yet many oralmandar are the opposite of the stereotype, like Amangul or Bekzat Dalilbek, another young oralman from Xinjiang working as a translator in Kazakhstan’s oil business: bright, ambitious, determined and go-getting — qualities any country would dream of harnessing for its workforce. Bekzat, who has a degree in Mandarin and English from a Kazakh university, is used to taxi drivers complaining to her: “Why does the government give people from China and Mongolia so much money? Why don’t they give it to people from Kazakhstan to make their lives better?” Kazakhstan should, she says, “celebrate as a country” the arrival of the oralmandar; after all, the reunification of Kazakhs scattered far and wide was made possible by the fall of the Soviet Union. Her family is a case in point: her father had been separated from his sister for three decades by geopolitics until the USSR collapsed, making contact possible again. In 1965, her aunt left China for Soviet Kazakhstan during the Sino-Soviet split, and her father did not see his sister again until he visited her in Kazakhstan in 1993.

Some view Kazakhs from non-Soviet countries like China and Mongolia as the guardians of a language and culture that were eroded in Kazakhstan during colonial times

Some view Kazakhs from non-Soviet countries like China and Mongolia as the guardians of Kazakh language and culture that were eroded in Kazakhstan during colonial times. Oralmandar have not only swelled the ranks of Kazakh speakers in Kazakhstan, but they have also “brought with them the culture that we forgot when Russification occurred”, as Kazakh community leader Dos Kushim once put it. “They’ve brought with them the culture of our ancestors, the culture of our grandparents.”

“There are more prospects there,” said Adilbek, a young driver from the town of Olgiy in western Mongolia, who was mulling making the move to Kazakhstan himself. This is the provincial capital of the province of Bayan-Olgiy, a sleepy place where yurts jostle for space with houses and paved roads peter out into muddy tracks. This is where most of Mongolia’s Kazakhs live, 1,600 kilometres west of the capital Ulaanbaatar. The closest city is Ust-Kamenogorsk in eastern Kazakhstan (500 kilometres as the crow flies across the Altai Mountains, or 850 kilometres by road through Russia), whose hustle and bustle contrasts with Olgiy’s laid-back rural vibe. Here, the nomadic way of life that was wiped out in the 1930s in Kazakhstan lives on. In August, the Kazakhs were still up in the zhaylau (summer pastures), and the rolling green lowlands were strewn with belongings they had left behind to return to when the time came for the autumn kosh (migration). In one meadow, a wooden shanyrak — the crisscrossed wooden top of a yurt — stood propped against a cattle stockade alongside a sheepskin and a lone cowboy boot.

In China, it is a different story. “We were born here, this is our homeland — but now we have to buy it,” grumbled an elderly Kazakh man in August 2007, sitting by the shore of the crescent-shaped glacial Lake Kanas glittering turquoise in the Altai Mountains in the north-western tip of China, not far from where Amangul was born. Surrounded by dense taiga giving way to sweeping meadows, this is a prime area for livestock breeding, which is the mainstay of the Kazakh nomadic lifestyle — but this way of life was under threat in this far-flung corner of the world. “Pressure’s increasing with every year,” complained Kayrat, a twenty-something Kazakh speaking under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals from the Chinese government. “We have to move out of here.”

Kayrat’s ancestral roaming grounds fell inside a national park created to promote tourism and protect the delicate ecosystem, but now the Kazakhs were being displaced by development. It was late summer and the family had moved to the kuzdeu (autumn pastures), where four generations of his family were living in their small wooden house, but he believed it would not be long before they were pushed out of the park and off their ancestral lands altogether. Others told similar tales: they had been “requested” to relocate their homes, or banned from pitching their yurts in parts of the park. There were yurts in the main tourist village in the middle of the park, but they were kitschy souvenir shops rather than family dwellings.

Lake Kanas is part of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, where most of the Kazakhs in China live. The prefecture itself is part of the larger Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a troubled area where Beijing has for years struggled to quell a separatist insurgency waged by Uighurs fighting for their own homeland on the borders of post-Soviet Central Asia. The Kazakhs have stood largely aloof from this conflict, although reports in 2017 and 2018 of mass arrests of Kazakhs, who were being sent along with Uighurs to “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, may well draw them in at some point in the near future. Beijing’s signature policy for Xinjiang is nicknamed Go West, and it has brought Han Chinese flocking there. Officially, this is part of a strategy to encourage economic development, but it is also a tacit plan to coax recalcitrant minorities to integrate their lifestyles with the Chinese mainstream. But the Kazakhs of Xinjiang can already Go West — to Kazakhstan.

Joanna Lillis’ Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan is out today with I. B. Tauris and can be purchased here.

Images from top: Maya Baklanova, Samuel Goff, Maureen Barlin, Paul Bartlett under CC licences