Grassroots Struggles for Rethinking History, Debating Identity, and Restoring Dignity of People in Central Asia
Asel Doolotkeldieva

In this series of essays, I look at geopolitics ‘from below’ in the context of the invasion of Ukraine and changing constellations in Central Asia. Using a non-elite-centric analysis for most of the essays, I write about changes in the affective space in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in reaction to Russian “power-at-a-distance.” In this memo, I will focus on new entanglements along with grassroot processes of distancing and decolonization. Observing the growing interest in decolonization in the region, some commentators quickly dismissed it as “hype” generated by a narrow intellectual elite, hence suggesting it is not a significant phenomenon. Others took it negatively, anticipating and fearing the worst consequences decolonization might produce in terms of nationalism and separatism. Still for others, decolonization lost its meaningful content since all sorts of populists, nationalists and dictators have appropriated the decolonial discourse today. But none of these approaches reflect what this term stands for in the Kazakh and Kyrgyz contexts. While domestic elites face an impossible geopolitical choice in response to the war, activists and citizens manifest their long-term choices for dignity, political rights and democratization under the relatively new umbrella of decoloniality. For specialized milieus of artists and intellectuals it is not a new term.
Intellectual, art and literary production of decolonial knowledge and meanings

In Almaty, Bishkek and Astana, one can currently attend multiple specialized events on post-colonial and decolonial discussions and performances. From the recent intellectual talks, one can mention the presentation of Madina Tlostanova’s book Деколониальность бытия, знания и ощущения (Decoloniality of Being, Knowledge and Feeling), translated into Kazakh by the Tselinny Institute;[1] the presentation of the Alima Bisenova et al. book Qazaqstan, Казахстан, قازاقستان: Лабиринты современного постколониального дискурса (Qazaqstan: The Labyrinths of Contemporary Postcolonial Discourse); and the publication of Бұғауды бұзған қазақ даласы or Деколонизация Казахстана (The Kazakh Steppe Broke the Shackles: Decolonization of Kazakhstan) by Ainash Mustoyapova, to mention a few.

Important historical publications preceded these post- and decolonial reflections. A number of books by local and international scholars reevaluated the Central Asian anti-colonial uprising of 1916, the Holodomor, Stalinist repressions and more. In Bishkek, in March 2023, the Esimde[2] Research Center organized a third regional conference on memory and decolonization. Publishing an interdisciplinary journal called Nemonomif since 2019, Esimde seeks to offer publication opportunities to authors in various formats with the aim of “decolonizing local language.” Not only does Esimde do important research and provide a public service, it began shaping local decolonial practices. In 2022, the center organized a 12-day public tour to places of repression from the anti-colonial revolt in 1916 and the subsequent exodus of the Kyrgyz to China, known as Urkun.[3] Both Esimde and Tselinny, which can be considered decolonial institutions, have been carrying out critical public work for years.

The past and present work of these intellectuals is related to the question of the temporality of decolonial ideas and practices in the region. The supposedly “new” decolonial turn builds on memories and reflections of imperial and Soviet policies, but also authoritarianism as a continuum of the Soviet political system. The topics of Urkun, the famine, political repressions, Jeltoksan,[4] late Soviet social movements,[5] and the recent Qantar uprising,[6] among others, were already present in public discussions and fragmented state policies.
Previously, these discussions were framed in other themes such as nation-building, re-traditionalization and globalization.
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)[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.”[11]

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.
As knowledge-producers, Kyrgyz historians have used the decolonial turn to empower themselves and shake off the existing monopolies of knowledge.
As knowledge-producers, Kyrgyz historians have used the decolonial turn to empower themselves and shake off the existing monopolies of knowledge. Fighting their struggles against Russian and Western readings of Central Asian history, they look with hope at new opportunities to produce alternative knowledge. They plan, for example, to use YouTube to cover a wider audience, with a decolonial slant. They seek to reassess and raise public awareness about Kyrgyzstan’s early pre-imperial statehood and polity. These public talks are designed to ultimately “challenge widespread myths about Russia’s civilizational mission” and “produce shifts in people’s understanding of history and themselves.”[12] The deconstruction of hierarchies of knowledge, and further the decolonization of Central Asian studies, is a crucial step toward restoring the region’s histories and people’s dignity.[13]

The above intellectual, literary and art products have emerged in response to public demand. Journalists and independent mass media reflect this demand by producing a large volume of articles and historical material on Stalinist repressions, famines and other imperial policies. A special project led by the Kyrgyz journalist Bektour Iskander in Ukraine is worth highlighting. Way before the war, Iskander sought to create a “post-colonial solidarity” between Ukrainian and Central Asian societies, because for him “the attitude toward Ukraine immediately reveals the attitude toward us, the Central Asians.”[14]

In 2017, he created a network of Ukrainian and Central Asian journalists with the aim of producing independent news and minimizing the influence of Russian news media, omnipresent in the region. Since then, Central Asian journalists made trips to Ukraine to directly cover the war for Central Asian audiences. Against the backdrop of scarce resources and the decline in Central Asian and global readership of Ukrainian news, Iskander nevertheless positively assesses the achievements of this media community. There is a sizable number of local independent mass media that manage to stay away from Russian propaganda. In addition, multiple podcasts such as О’деколон and DOPE SOZ emerged and information resources sprang up on social media, involving public influencers, journalists and researchers to create simplified explanations of decolonization. The last TEDx Kazakhstan included multiple talks on the topic, as the titles suggest: Olga Mun’s “О деколонизации и эпистемологической несправедливости в науке Казахстана” (“On decolonization and epistemological injustice in Kazakhstan’s science”) and Elmira Kakabaeva’s “Личная деколонизациячерез письмо - исследуем историю своей семьи” (“Personal decolonization through writing – researching own’s family history”), among others.

Personal decolonial projects

This snapshot of existing intellectual and artistic engagement with post-colonial and decolonial practices and discussions might convey a privileged image of a narrow group of people. However, from my interviews with Kazakh and Kyrgyz citizens, it is clear that
The decolonial discourse is used more widely than assumed and that individuals appropriate the decolonial discourse to rethink their colonial past and to challenge and problematize inequalities in society.
Kyrgyz citizens participate in the memory march to commemorate the 1916 uprising. Boom gorge, monument dedicated to Urkun. Copy right permission
They use the decolonial language to make sense of their family history, often deeply scarred by repressions, deportations, dissidence and late authoritarianism. Decolonial language helps them to position themselves within this complex history and reevaluate their standing in present day society. For example, the Qantar uprising and the Ukraine war pushed many respondents to rethink their belonging and multiple identities. They realized that fellow citizens live in parallel worlds, separated by means of language, lifestyle, rural/urban inequalities, socio-economic conditions, etc. This observation made many respondents appreciate privileges given to them as members of liberal cosmopolitan “centers,” which discriminate against the “rural, uneducated, backward other.” This difference was on the utmost display during the Qantar uprising, when cosmopolitan residents of Almaty blamed “marginal” elements of society supposedly responsible for the looting and destruction of their dear city. Almaty and Bishkek are in many ways a local Moscow for these post-colonial states: hierarchies of language and status imposed previously by the metropole continue to be embodied by these capitals today. A rural resident is a second-class citizen compared to a Russified urban middle class dweller.

Realizing these “postcolonial differences” and seeking to “smooth them out,” individuals engage in what can be called “personal decolonial projects” such as learning the Kazakh language, studying the country’s history and/or their own family history, traveling to the aul (village), and being conscious about these divides in public discourses. Other, “costly” projects include participation in anti-war and other political protests. Some individuals are making this choice now, while others have made it before, like bloggers from ethnic minority origins who speak Kazakh to popularize it among other non-ethnic-Kazakh groups.[15]

Their messages gain wide popularity, showing the momentum of a conversation between different groups about identity and language. The language issue is very sensitive because of the heavy and complicated nature of Soviet colonialism in which hierarchies were constructed and imposed along linguistic lines and cultural erasure. These personal decolonial projects show that for these individuals there is still the possibility of choosing where to go and with whom. This begs the question whether the decolonial discourse would concern other subaltern Kazakh and Kyrgyz groups, outside of the liberal centers but who carry the heaviest burden of Soviet colonialism. The latter were born in the village, spoke their mother tongue since birth and have less starting capital to climb the social ladder. Since they make up the majority, their membership in the nation does not necessitate a decolonial project, though it certainly does require a political project based on democracy and the fair distribution of resources within society. The changes in geopolitics and ensuing economic challenges affect these subalterns more than the privileged ones.

Open futures

The decolonial optic has made human dignity once again central to Central Asians’ views on imperial politics, past traumas and struggles against authoritarianism. Yet, it also provokes concerns and tension within societies.
The deported ethnic minorities who have also picked up on the decolonial discourse to reflect on their own positionality within these societies
pose critical questions about their culture and Russian as the lingua franca. What is inspiring is that these concerns can be openly addressed and there is still space for debates, as again exemplified in TEDx talks (Nargiz Shukenova’s “Деколонизация - инклюзивна. Важно признать разные практики” (“Decolonization is inclusive. It is important to recognize various practices”) and Yuri Serebryansky’s “Русский язык - наше колониальное наследие. Решение за нами” (“Russian is our colonial legacy. The decision is ours”). Decolonization speaks to many ethnic, religious and gender minorities, not only the so-called “titular nations” (a colonial term). Most vividly, this is spelled out by LGBTQ+ activists, whose call for decolonization encompasses respect for gender pluralism. The decolonial discourse, as an additional lens, gave these groups and individuals an opportunity to restore dignity to their places through the reflection of personal and collective losses and traumas. What is clear: though it leaves these societies with an unfinished process that will generate various political projects in the future – perhaps, nationalist, even more authoritarian or religious – the increased self-respect will help them to navigate in a world dominated by big powers.
[1] Tselinny Center of Contemporary Culture is an Almaty-based Institute that combines gallery, publishing, research, cinema, music and education. It is supported by the Kazakh oligarch Kairat Boranbaev.

[2] Esimde (‘I remember’ in Kyrgyz) is a Bishkek-based Research Center, founded by Elmira Nogoibaeva, that deals with memory politics (

[3] For more information, see Aminat Chokobaev et al., The Central Asian Revolt of 1916. A Collapsing Empire in the Age of War and Revolution, Manchester University Press, 2020.

[4] “Jeltoksan” or the December Uprising was a peaceful youth mass protest that took place over two days in December 1986 in Kazakhstan against the metropole’s decision to nominate Genady Kolbin as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. The protests were brutally repressed by the Soviet army.

[5] Late Soviet social movements include primarily the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (DDK) and a youth and workers’ movement. DDK was founded in 1990 by large networks of historians and other public figures, who later were elected to the country’s first independent parliament. The movement organized many anti-communist, pro-democracy and pro-independence protests. The youth and workers’ movement rallied for the distribution of land and access to housing.

[6] The “Qantar events” were a massive anti-government uprising that took place in many cities and villages of Kazakhstan in January 2022. Initially provoked by the rise in prices for liquefied gas, the protests evolved into the most critical political conflict in the contemporary history of Kazakhstan. The protests were brutally repressed by the Kazakh police with the help of the Russia-led CSTO intervention.

[7] Концепция Развития Гражданской Идентичности - Кыргыз Жараны в Кыргызской Республике на Период 2021-2026 годы,

[8] Emil Nasritdinov & Nurgul Esenamanova, “The War of Billboards: Hijab, Secularism, and Public Space in Bishkek”, Central Asian Affairs, 2017.

[9] Alima Bisenova (ed.), Qazaqstan, Казахстан, قازاقستان: Лабиринты современного постколониального дискурса, Tselinny Publishing, 2023, p. 20.

[10] Asel Mukasheva, “Ot Predsovetskogo k Postsovetskomy”, in Alima Bisenova (ed.), Qazaqstan, Казахстан, قازاقستان: Лабиринты современного постколониального дискурса, Tselinny Publishing, 2023.

[11] Personal communication with Ruslan Zhubanysh, author and producer of the art project täuel[dı]sız, July 17, 2023.

[12] “Studentka AUCA Zaiavila o Davlenii iz-za ee Diplomnoi Raboty na Temu Dekolonizatcii” [AUCA student claims pressure over her thesis on decolonization], March 21, 2023,

[13] Personal communication with historians of Kyrgyzstan’s Academy of Sciences. Since the term decolonization is sensitive for this state institution, they preferred presently to keep their anonymity.

[14] Many scholars have already began reassessing Central Asian studies. See Алима Бисенова & Кульшат Медеуова, «O проблемахрегиональных исследований в/по Центральной Азии», Антропологический Форум №28б 2016; Аида Алымбаева & Аксана Исмаилбекова, «Рефлексия из «поля», или «антропология у себя дома»: О региональном подходе и маргинальности тематики Центральной Азии», Антропологический Форум №28б 2016; Erica Marat, “ Introduction: 30 years of Central Asian studies –the best is yet to come”, Central Asian Survey, 2021; Asel Tutumlu, “Central Asia: From Dark Matter to a Dark Curtain?” Central Asian Survey, 2021; Asel Doolotkeldieva & Stefanie Ortmann, “Amidst Authoritarianism, Global Capitalism, and Geopolitical Marginalization: an Emergent Area Struggling Between Discipline and Area Studies,” International Studies Review (forthcoming) to mention just few in the long list.

[15] Personal communication with Bektour Iskender, the co-founder of Kloopnews.

[16] See merkul_standup blogger in Instagram for example.
  • Asel Doolotkeldieva

    Nonresidential Fellow, GW
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