Not Your Meme: Kazakhstan in the western imagination6 min read
Buildings aflame, screams of fear, anger, and confusion in the streets, an internet blackout, and over 100 individuals dead. These were the visceral scenes from Kazakhstan only two weeks ago. The most recent protests and political unrest in Kazakhstan were international news in early January 2022. Western media coverage included harrowing pictures and videos created by the Kazakh people who took to the streets to protest various issues. Meanwhile, however, a curious development in Western discourse about the protests reveals just how little Americans know about Central Asia and Kazakhstan.
Along with the stories explaining why the Kazakh people are protesting against President Tokayev’s government, there are explainers: Where is Kazakhstan? Why should we care? Even the BBC’s coverage of the protests includes a “Kazakhstan Basics” section. Beyond Western coverage of current political unrest in Kazakhstan, there has been a glaring lack of knowledge and willful cultural ignorance about the country. From popular culture to American Presidential Cabinet confirmation hearings, Kazakhstan and Kazakh people are the victims of the Western imagination of the Soviet Union and its erasure of Central Asians.
Borat’s creation of Kazakhstan in the West
The 2006 Sacha Baron Cohen film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and its 2020 sequel Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan have become cultural keystones in America. Borat’s face and “very nice” comments are frequent memes on the internet. Even in articles covering the 2022 protests, Borat is often mentioned. For example, a recent NBC News op-ed describes Kazakhstan as a “country most Americans have only heard of in the Borat movies…”. These references remain the prevailing image of Kazakhstan even though they operate on a racist and thoroughly misleading depiction of Kazakhstan and Kazakh people.
A 2006 NPR article on the first Borat film included both rebuttals by a representative of the Kazakhstani Embassy and a ten-question true/false quiz to test readers’ knowledge about Kazakhstan, including the statements “Horses have the right to vote but women do not” and “the oldest man in Kazakhstan is 39 years old.” One hopes that readers would know these claims are false, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. While Kazakhs on social media made waves in 2020 with the “cancel Borat” hashtag, posts, and Facebook groups about the damage Borat did to Western perceptions of the country, we must ask ourselves how Kazakhstan became the country that Baron Cohen chose to exploit for Western laughs and critical acclaim?
Soviet whiteness and Kazakh foreignness
These depictions result from the Western understanding and imagining of the Soviet Union as a Russian and Slavic (read: white) country. Kazakhstan and Kazakhs disrupt this imaginary and reveal the harm of the implicit racialization of the Soviet Union as a white country. One of the best works to explore the “whitening” of Russian and post-Soviet emigres is Dr Claudia Sadowski-Smith’s The New Immigrant Whiteness: Race, Neoliberalism, and Post-Soviet Migration to the United States. In the book, Sadowski-Smith demonstrates how the perceived whiteness of post-Soviet immigrants shapes the pressures on them to assimilate, their cultural and social positions in the United States, and their attitudes toward non-white immigrants.
Although Russian and Ukrainian immigrants are the focus of Sadowski-Smith’s book, her analysis can be extended to highlight how the perceived whiteness of post-Soviet immigrants serves to erase the presence of non-Slavic, non-white people of the former Soviet Union. Kazakhs are not read as white, and thus, when it comes to their treatment in America or the greater Western world, they do not benefit from opportunities that other, Slavic immigrants and residents do.
From Ivan Drago in Rocky IV to the famous Cold War-set television show The Americans, Soviet citizens are rendered as white. Their English may be contrived, or they may even be portrayed as robot-like physical machines, but their racialization renders them legible and thus “believable” to Western audiences. Therefore, Kazakhs experience two layers of othering in Western discourse. They are perceived both as non-white and politically foreign.
On the other hand, Kazakhs still bear the burden of their Soviet legacy in the Western imagination. The most recent and shameful example of this burden is the Senate confirmation hearings of Dr Saule Omarova. Despite Dr Omarova’s extensive experience and expertise, she was met with hostility and racism from members of the Senate. Louisiana Republican John Kennedy threw the Soviet mythos into her face questioning her loyalty to the United States with the statement, “I don’t know whether to call you ‘professor’ or ‘comrade.’”
A September 2021 Wall Street Journal editorial board article assassinated Omarova’s character, emphasizing her education at Moscow State University with disingenuous comparisons to China and Venezuela —the typical American anti-socialism dog whistles. While media outlets discussed the Red Scare and gendered elements of Omarova’s treatment, race was a missing analytical factor. Omarova, a post-Soviet émigré and arguably a shining example of the American Dream, is denied the privilege of post-Soviet whiteness because of her Kazakh heritage.
Depictions of Kazakhstan say more about the West than Kazakhstan
The examples of Borat and Dr Omarova illustrate the double-edged sword of the Western, Anglophone perception of the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan, not Poland, Belarus, or Ukraine, was chosen as a country whose authentic culture and ethnicity could be put forward and bastardized for widespread consumption. Kazakhstan is a country that has explainers of basic facts about it, including why anyone in the West should care about it. Kazakhstan is the country for which NPR had to dispel the idea that there was such a thing as “the running of the Jew.”
Moreover, we need to consider what it says about Western, i.e., the American culture, that a film made to poke fun at American racism and bigotry engendered the very aspects it sought to undermine and yet, became so popular that it heavily influenced our understanding of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan and the Western treatment of Kazakhs further show how American racial mores can shape the experiences and acceptance of immigrants from the post-Soviet region with which we must reckon.
Western discourse needs to shift its public perception and portrayals of both the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan. We must disabuse the public of their false assumptions that equate Soviet with Russian. We must also recognize and analyze Kazakhstan in its own right. We should start our discussions of the country from a Kazakh perspective, not from that of Russian or American policy interests. Note that these steps require the West to do the labour. It is not the responsibility of Kazakhstan or Kazakh people to change the often-ridiculous conceptions of their country.