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Alash Orda

The largest landlocked country on earth, Kazakhstan remains for most foreigners a vast, arid void, somewhere between Russia and China. A couple of films showing the exploits of Borat, a hapless Kazakh official travelling around America, have given the country any sort of recognition factor abroad. Except for a short period known as the 'Alash Autonomy' (or Alash Orda) between 1917 and 1920 when a proto-state roughly the size of present day Kazakhstan was founded during the Russian Civil War, the country has rarely been autonomous.

Commanding the plains of Central Asia, a thoroughfare for ambitious empire builders across the ages, Kazakhstan has long been ruled over by foreign powers - from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan and on to its incorporation into the Soviet Union in the 1920s. When, on a visit in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin mused that "the Kazakhs never had any statehood", a few months after annexing the Crimean peninsula, his comments caused outrage among a proud people who did not appreciate being told that their future lay in being part of the "greater Russian world".

When the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991 Kazakhstan ironically remained its last member for a brief period of four days. Thereafter it had to construct an alternative discourse of national cohesion, an attempt to define itself in the eyes of the world, but also to claim a distant glorious past, in order to remain definitively in control of its destiny.

This is a complicated challenge, given that its territory was an open-air laboratory for the industrial, atomic, agricultural, political and social experiments of the USSR - traumatic experiments whose after-effects are still felt in the national psyche. The task was made more difficult by the fact that Kazakhstan's intellectual elite had been strangled by Stalinist purges and Soviet Union's power balance was tilted in favour of Slavic groups and Russian speakers.

At independence, the Kazakhs were a minority in their own homeland. Periodically, obscure deputies of the Russian Duma still call for the annexation of Kazakh territories under the pretext of allegedly ostracised Russian-speaking minorities, an argument familiar from the current conflict in Ukraine's Donbas region.

The subtle mixture of geopolitical invisibility, relative prosperity from its hydrocarbon reserves and a highly authoritarian political environment was pulverised in January 2022 during unrests that were as brief as they were bloody. The official death toll of 238 hardly bears witness to the trauma in Kazakh society.

This project looks at the slow process of constructing a distinctly Kazkah identity after centuries of foreign rule.
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