Kazakhs Reclaim Lost Heritage

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Lawyer Zhanar Alisheva is a city dweller who has never lived in a yurt, yet for her the round wool tents draped with jewel-box fabrics still carry the promise that Kazakh culture is too strong to die.

"When my father-in-law was still alive, he asked us to put up a yurt in the yard of his huge mansion, and on summer nights he would leave his fancy home and sleep in this ordinary yurt," she said. "Each morning, when he would come in for breakfast, we'd see his eyes were shining. He'd say, 'It was like I was plunged back into my childhood and felt the beauty of traditional life.'"

Under Soviet rule, the Kazakhs endured forced collectivization, sharp population declines and submersion into Russian ways. But Alisheva believes that her sons -- and their children, too -- will always appreciate cultural icons such as the tents that served as the mobile homes of Kazakh nomads.

"Each Kazakh, as he grows older and gets wiser, becomes tied to all these things," she said. "It exists on the genetic level. Maybe these things like the yurt or samovar cease to mean anything in practical terms, but using them, people draw moral and spiritual satisfaction."

The Kazakh people once were a minority in their own land. But now the Kazakh nation is being reborn, thanks in part to cultural nostalgia.

This country faces plenty of problems, including authoritarian rule, deep-rooted corruption and much unhappiness within its large Russian minority, which once nearly monopolized managerial positions. But Kazakhstan can boast a sophisticated urban life, growing oil wealth and a renewed respect for indigenous traditions.

When Kazakhstan became independent after the Soviet collapse, it had more Russians than Kazakhs. But a Russian exodus and high Kazakh birthrates have changed that.

The most recent census, in 1999, put the population at 53 percent Kazakh and 30 percent Russian, and the trend is toward ever-greater Kazakh numbers, power and identity.

Alisheva speaks Russian as her first language but is trying to teach ethnic traditions to her children. "My children treat their past as something very exotic, because they're urban kids."

Dressed in a floral jacket, red skirt and fashionable sunglasses, Alisheva talked about showing her son a traditional Kazakh wedding costume at a museum: "He laughed and said, 'Mama, you didn't have a dress like that!' I got married in a European wedding costume with a long white dress and veil, but I tried to explain to him that this is our real authentic Kazakh culture."

Like her father-in-law, Alisheva's son Sanzhar, 7, is enamored of yurts. "If you open the top you can lie on your back and watch the sky," he said. "I like the way the sky is blue and the sun is shining."

Gulmira Izbanova, who teaches Kazakh music at an elementary school in this former capital, is thrilled with today's Kazakhstan. "Our fathers and grandfathers were dreaming of this independence for more than 100 years, and now that we've got it, we're truly happy."

Izbanova, whose in-laws raise horses, cattle and sheep in the countryside about 100 kilometers west of Almaty, said she thinks of yurts as symbols of the Kazakhs' history, but that to her, the most important of all Kazakh traditions is the big family.

"Fathers and mothers try to make sure at least one child is born every year," said Izbanova, whose husband has nine siblings.

Asylbek Imankulov, one of her brothers-in-law, who lives on the family ranch, routinely perches his preschool son on the saddle in front of him when he herds livestock.

"Our children are taught to raise cattle, even from the youngest age," Izbanova said. "This is how you destroy fear in little kids -- fear of work, fear of the animals -- since they're taught to work from the youngest age."

Her father-in-law, Alimkhan Imankulov, said he thought the country was moving in the right direction. "Life started to change for the better as of a decade ago, with independence."

Russians and other ethnic Europeans can still find opportunity here if they accept the new realities.

"I think that the situation for people like us looks more promising than for people in Russia," said Tamara Solovyova, an ethnic Russian high school student in Almaty who plans to study design. "The country is developing and getting up on its feet. There are a lot of things being built here."