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The Meaning of Words in Modern Day Kazakhstan
Words do matter, in some places more than others, and at some times more than others. The great 19th century Kazakh poet '''Abay Qunanbayuli''' (Abai Kunanbaev in Russian) understood this, as he embraced the oral tradition of Kazakh folklore and turned it into a written tradition promoting Kazakh nationalism.
In his major work, The Book of Words, he encouraged his fellow Kazakhs to embrace education, literacy, and good moral character in order to escape poverty, enslavement and corruption.
Today, Abay is a national symbol, considered a pillar of modern Kazakhstan, and revered for his work and promotion of Kazakh culture and identity. A major statue of him in Almaty serves as a regular meeting point for political dissidents, human rights activists, poets and intellectuals. The statue of Abay in Moscow became the locus of protest of the Occupy movement in that city, with the hashtag OccupyAbai trending on Twitter for some days in May 2012.
In Almaty, meeting some of the leading members of civil society and independent media, it becomes clear that language and words are carefully measured. Not out of fear for what they say, but to be precise and clear about the myriad of ways in which the state targets those who challenge it. And what the state says also receives due attention, though often resulting in derision or mockery or exasperation.
Kazakhstan 2012 is not your grandfather’s Kazakhstan. Sure the internal intelligence agency KNB (or KGB or NSB or whatever acronym feels right that day) still operates, intimidates and worse. But it has become almost comical the methods it employs to monitor and harass human rights defenders. Even those who do time in prison emerge with a healthy sense of humor at the crude methods.
A modern day poet, Takezhan Utegaliev, used his words and art to support the oil workers in Zhanaozen, of which Roza Tuletaeva was one of the representatives. His rap song was a hit and the authorities quickly moved to stop any broadcast of the track on radio. But it is alive and well on YouTube, and more importantly, in people’s minds.
Abay Qunanbayuli may not recognize Kazakhstan today (though some methods of the state are decidedly retro), but he would surely find inspiration and pride in the creativity and determination of civil society, human rights defenders, bloggers, rappers, etc. to have their words have meaning.