In January I went to Kazakhstan. It’s a big country–ninth largest in the world and five times the size of Texas–yet virtually unknown until the 2006 spoof film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan by Sasha Baron Cohen. Though the British comedian Cohen has no connection with the central Asian country, he invented and played the character Borat as a Kazakh TV reporter who visits the US. The sexist, racist, homophobic movie at first enraged Kazakhstan leaders, but emotions cooled when they saw that tourism went up by 1000 percent after the movie’s release. For an obscure country, any publicity is good publicity.
Here are a few observations from my brief visit:
- It seems strange to hear Asian-looking people (Kazakhstan borders Mongolia and China) speaking in Russian. How in the world did Russia manage to impose its culture and language on so many different countries? The US invades a country, stirs up a hornet’s nest, and gets out none too soon. Russia dominated a huge part of Europe and Asia for decades, and to my surprise some young Kazakhs look back nostalgically on a time when life seemed more calm and orderly. Two common names are Marlen, which combines Marx and Lenin, and Mels, an acronym for Marx/Engels/Lenin/Stalin.
- The post-Soviet culture endures in the form of bureaucracy and sometimes-surly service. When a waitress offers you three “specials,” you may find that your first two choices are no longer available. Hotel staff stand around with their hands in their pockets. It took three people to check me into the hotel’s fitness center (which doesn’t open until ten a.m.) and four calls to get a leaky toilet fixed in my hotel room. And not once during my visit did I hear the words, “Have a nice day.”
- The landscape of Kazakhstan resembles western states like Colorado, where I live: grassy plains, arid regions, snow-capped mountains. Appropriately for such a setting, Kazakhs have a love affair with horses. They love them so much, in fact, that horse meat is a favorite delicacy. I declined all offers but I did sample horse’s milk, which tastes like milk that has been left out in the heat all day. (Camel’s milk is only slightly more palatable).
- Villagers still practice bride-stealing. I heard one teenage girl’s terrifying story of being “ kidnapped” by a boy and his collaborating friends. All night long the boy’s family surrounded her, first cajoling her and then threatening her if she didn’t agree to the marriage. Finally, at five a.m., she managed to escape. Some women aren’t so lucky, including those who are plucked off the street and subjected to a forced marriage. Women’s rights have a long way to go in much of the world.
- Kazakhstan pursues a “multivector foreign policy,” and so far has managed to stay on good terms with Russia, China, and the US. I’m sure it has nothing to do with their large oil reserves…
- The Russians used countries like Kazakhstan as a dumping ground. Stalin forcibly moved and deposited 172,000 ethnic Koreans there because he didn’t want them in Russia. When the Soviets developed nuclear weapons they used Kazakhstan as their test site, resulting in deformed animals and high cancer rates among humans.
I went to Kazakhstan at the invitation of a Christian group that I won’t name, in view of the potential for harassment in this Muslim country. “After the Soviet Union collapsed,” a phrase I heard often during my time there, many Kazakhs converted to Christianity, a trend that has slowed in recent years. It was fascinating to spend time among young, first-generation Christians who are concerned about their atheist or Muslim parents—quite the reverse of the pattern in the West. Alcoholism is rampant, and most converts I talked to have stories of drunken fathers who beat and abused them.
I always find my own faith strengthened when I hear stories of listless lives turned around, and in Kazakhstan I heard plenty. No one goes to church because of social pressure or because it’s expected—quite the contrary, in a Muslim country becoming a Christian complicates family and social life. Christians have little influence in politics and as a result tend to focus on what matters most: living out the basics of the gospel as Good News in a land still recovering from decades of bad news under communism.