As the decolonial discourse today, these past paradigms included reflections on independence, memory and identity, and importantly laid the foundation for development aid and statecraft. For example, going back to one’s roots, reviving authenticity, building a civic community based on a shared identity were central ideas to such state concepts and programs as Kyrgyz Jarany (Kyrgyz Citizen)
and Kazakhstan’s Ruhani Zhangyru (Spiritual Revival). At the societal level, citizens have long been involved in an identity quest, embracing both globalized and “traditional” paths. In Kyrgyzstan, the “war of billboards” over religious versus secular influences that took place in public spaces in 2016 was one such display of tectonic shifts in identity.
Needless to say, the decolonial optic has been present in Central Asian art and literature. While this memo does not provide space to discuss the depth of intellectual, literary and artistic decolonial content, I will mention aytysh
(in Kyrgyz) or aytys
(in Kazakh, meaning “reciting”) as a “decolonial genre,” to borrow Alima Bissenova’s expression.
This popular Kyrgyz and Kazakh oral art of reciting and transmitting knowledge is a long-established tradition of “telling the truth” about major historical events and societal processes. Asel Mukasheva explores popular topics covered in aytysh
that include collective memory, Soviet repressions and independence, in which poets make use of the Kazakh word otarsyzdanu
(“decolonization” in Kazakh) in the early 2000s.
More recently, the reassessment of independence, identity and the war led to new production of cultural meanings. In 2019, a group of young artists led by Ruslan Zhubanysh created an independent art project täuel[dı]sız
(“[in-]dependence” in Kazakh) using performances to reflect on Qantar events, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, environmental crises and other important topics. Zhubanysh explains how the invasion overlaps with other ideas: “I have been to Ukraine, have Ukrainian friends. A lot of things unite our post-communist countries. We see what politics Russia conducts in Moldova, Serbia, Ukraine. This war concerns us as well.”Wider societal engagement with the decolonial discourse
Discussions about identity and independence took a new turn in the context of the war, further empowered by timid steps at the deconstruction of hierarchies of knowledge. A recent scandal at the American University of Central Asia (Bishkek), where the head of the sociology department refused
to let a student write a thesis on decolonization because such a topic would create enmity with Russia, which became a call to decolonize local education. In Almaty, the Kazakh-German University was criticized by students as an institution where the old generation of “Russophile” instructors is hindering critical discussions.