Ethnic-linguistic identification of repatriates in modern Kazakhstan

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №1 - 2010

Author: Bokayev Baurzhan, Eurasian National University in honor of L. Gumilyov, Kazakhstan

While studying issues of ethnic-linguistic identification of a personality we will make an attempt to trace the origin and development of the concept of identification, to draw a demarcation line between the concepts ‘identity’ and ‘identification’, to define factors which influence the ethnic-linguistic identification of repatriates, to define the role of the language and linguistic processes in ethnic identity.

Identity is a broad concept which includes all properties of combinations of personalities and which is conditioned by a great number of biological, psychological, social and cultural factors. According to the data provided by an identity researcher G.I. Marcia there have been conducted more than 300 scientific studies in the field of psychological science in the past 25 years. There has also been formed a scientific direction or school called psychology of identity (7, 1). In the second half of XX century this term entered the scientific circulation and became an object of inter-disciplinary research. There are lots of works dedicated to identity by psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, historians, political scientists and specialists of many other fields.

In the present work we have made a strong accent on the concept of identity and in its basis there are two things: language and ethnos.

Now let us trace the formation of the concept of identity in the light of fundamental works in the field of psychology, philosophy and sociology dedicated to this subject matter.

It is common knowledge that the scientist, who introduced the concept of identity to the world, is E. Erickson. In his work “Identity: Adolescence and Crisis” which is devoted to the problems of pre-adult age related to the social development of a personality, the author tracks down individual life cycles, the succession of generations and structure of the society. The fundamental notion elaborated by Erickson is the notion of identity. It means a firmly mastered and personally adopted image of oneself in all possible relationships of a personality with the surrounding world. Identity is above all an indicator of a mature (adult) personality whose background is concealed at the previous stages of ontogenesis. It is such a figuration which integrates constitutional predisposition, peculiarities of libido, preferable potentials, active protective mechanisms, successful sublimations and roles being realized.

According to Erickson’s theory, a person through his life experiences a number of psychosocial crises. The scientist singles out eight stages of development of identity, and at each stage a person chooses between two alternative phases of decisions and solutions in age-related and situational challenges of his own development. The pattern of choice has an impact of his whole further life in terms of its successfulness and unsuccessfulness.

At the first stage an infant has to decide a fundamental, first important issue of his whole further life – if he trusts the world around him or he doesn’t. The progressing autonomy of an infant (and first of all the ability to make progress by creeping, later by walking; development of speech, etc.) enables him to move onto the decision and solution of the second important life task – achievement of independence (alternative / negative variant – uncertainty in himself or lack of self-confidence).

At the third stage (at the age from 4 to 6) there is a choice to be made between initiative and feeling of guilt. In this age range the space of life activity becomes wider and a child starts setting his own goals, finds activities, and demonstrates his ingenuity and resourcefulness in speech and fancy.

The forth stage (at the age from 6 to 11) is associated with proficiency in various skills (including efficiency of reading) as well as with the system of cultural symbols. Here he forms a feeling of competence and a negative process results in the inferiority feeling. While mastering rudiments of knowledge children start identifying themselves with representatives of specific professions. A very important thing for them now is public approval of what they are doing and their activity in general.

The fifth stage (at the age from 11 to 20) is a key stage for obtaining a feeling of identity. At this period of time a teenager hesitates between the positive side of identification (“I”) and the negative side of confusion of roles. A teenager faces a new challenge to combine everything he/she knows of himself/herself in the capacity of a son or a daughter, a schoolchild, a sportsman, a friend, etc. He/she has to combine all this into a single entity, to understand it, to connect it with the past and project it for the future. If the crisis of juvenile age is running successfully, a feeling of identity is formed with a young man or a young woman. But if this process is not favorable they obtain a mixed or confused identity coupled with tormenting doubts concerning oneself, one’s place in a group or team, in society and uncertainty of life prospects. Here Erickson introduces or coins quite an original term – “psychological moratorium”, which means a crisis period between adolescence and adulthood. During this moratorium there are multidimensional complicated processes of adult identity and a new attitude towards the world. This crisis gives rise to the state “diffusion of identity” which forms the basis of specific pathology of adolescence or juvenile age.

The sixth stage (at the age from 21 to 25) is signified by Erickson as a transition to facing quite adult challenges which have been formed by psychosocial identity. Young people enter into friendly relationships, or enter into a marriage and have children. They solve a global issue of a very fundamental character when they choose between establishing these friendly or family relationships with a view to bringing up a new generation – and isolationism which is typical of people with a confused identity and other even earlier mistakes which may happen in the course of their development.

The seventh stage (in the age range between 25 and 50/60) which takes up the lion’s share of human life is concerned with contradiction between the ability of a man to be developing which he acquires during previous stages and personal stagnation which is a slow regress of a personality in the process of everyday life. The reward for obtaining an ability to self-develop is the formation of human individuality and uniqueness.

The eighth stage (after the age of 60) terminates life course and here reaping the fruits of his spent life a person either finds peace and balance which is the result of integrity of his personality or finds himself doomed to hopeless and irreparable despair as the result of confused life.

So in the course of adolescence every person in one way or another experiences a crisis concerned with the necessity of self-determination in the form of a whole range of social and personal choices and identifications. If a young man cannot solve these issues in time then there is an inadequate identity formed within him. Diffusion or vague identity is a state when an individual has not yet made a responsible choice, for example, in his job or world outlook which makes his “I” image quite blurred, indistinct and uncertain. An unsettled or unpaid identity is a state when a young man has adopted some specific identity having escaped from complicated and tormenting process of self-analysis. He is already included in the system of adult relationships but this choice is made not consciously but under an influence or according to already existing standards.

As Erickson says it was W. James who laid the foundations in understanding identity. Although he has not yet used this term and called it a character or a manner, but this rather subjective, inspirited writhing sensation of identical equation and integrity is experiencing of identity rather than a character or manner in the common meaning of this word. W. James wrote: “The character of a person is seen in his mental and moral state when he is experiencing a deep and intensive feeling of his own activity, energy and vital force. In such moments his inner voice tells him the following: “This is my real self!” Such experience always presupposes “an element of active tension, some steadfastness and belief in the fact that external circumstances will help him but without being fully confident about that. In case he is fully confident this state changes into something inert, sluggish and blunt. Take away my confidence and I will experience (provided I am in this energetic state) some rapturous enthusiastic bliss, bitter resolution to do everything I need and to overcome it… and even though it is just a mood or emotion which couldn’t be expressed in words or speech, it is the deepest foundation for my practical and theoretical aspirations (1, 26).

There are also other definitions of identity found in works of Z. Freud. It is true to say that this scientist in his various works gave a varied understanding of this notion. First of all in his “Interpretation of Dreams” he uses the term ‘identity’ for the first time in the following context: “A patient has a heightened sensation level; as a result of an early experience and on the basis of his subconscious expectations he from the outset pays a special attention to everything that favors reiteration and creates perceptive identity”. In the second case Freud in his later works uses the notion of identity in some ethnic meaning. “Conscience of inner identity” according to what Freud is saying includes a feeling of bitter pride which is preserved by persecuted, dissipated, absent-minded and often hated people. And the third understanding of identity by Freud can be found in his “Project of Scientific Psychology” which was published posthumously in 1950. “Thus the purpose and completion of all mental processes is an achievement of the state of identity”. “Let us suppose that an object in our perception reminds of a subject – we mean a person. If it is so, the theoretical interest [it attracts or provokes] can also be explained by the fact that an object like this was at the same time the first satisfying object [for the subject] and further his first hostile object as well as his only source of help and assistance. Therefore a person gets to know first of all namely human fellowman. In this case perceptive complexes which originate from this human fellowman will be partially new and unmatched, for example, his features in visual sphere; but the subject’s other visual perceptions, for example, movement of hands, will coincide with recollections of a quite similar visual impressions related to himself and his own body [recollections], which is associated with recollections of movement he had been doing himself. Other moments of the object’s perception (for example, a shriek or a shrill) will arouse his recollections of his own suffering from pain (1, 98).

Among well-known and outstanding philosophers, culture experts and sociologists paid tribute to the same scientific problem the following people should be mentioned: K. Popper, J. Habermas, V. Hesley, A. Giddens, M.Serto.

K. Popper while studying identity (selfness) says that “selfness has a biological sense. It serves the purpose of adaptation: in overcoming difficulties, finding adequate decisions, in choosing irregular ways of actions, in realizing control over the system of actions. A person doesn’t come to this world with selfness; he acquires selfness while developing an inborn disposition to language acquisition. Only language enables a person to see himself in his imaginations as an object, evaluate himself and react to reflexes. Both in phylogenesis and in ontogenesis selfness develops in parallel with language acquisition and an ability to operate with ideal objects…” (8, 112)

According to the theory of the German philosopher J. Habermas a determinative technique in establishing a balance between social identity and personal identity is language (4, 32).

V. Hesley calls the determinative component in identity the preservation of an object in time (5, 114). This opinion is shared by E. Husserl. “Observations over ‘one’s own I’ cannot be included in observations over other subjects. We cannot say that mental condition is positioned in space. Time is a substantial characteristic. Temporal and non-spatial nature of conscience breeds specific principles. While real identity of a physical object presupposes a continuous existence of his inner structure, identity of a mental act is based on other conditions… A mental act doesn’t take place in space, it can extend its existence only in another mental act” (3, 18).

Problems of ethnicity as a whole and of ethnic identity have been studied by a great number of researchers. At the same time it should be mentioned that all these works are characterized by a variety of theoretical concepts, methodological approaches and logical schemes.

In social and philosophic sciences there are three fundamental theoretical approaches to studying ethnicity and ethnic identity: primordialism, constructivism and instrumentalism.

Representatives of primordialism examine and scrutinize ethnicity as an objective fact, in some way an initial (primordial) characteristics of mankind (for example, P. van de Berge, K. Girts, E. Shills, A. Smith, and others). The essence of the theory is in the fact that ‘ethnicity’ is a fundamental category of a person as of a social and even biological creature. From the point of view of primordialism ethnicity is first of all a cultural community shared by its members and having objective characteristic features: territory, language, economy, race type, religion, worldview and even mental make-up.

An instrumental school appeared in the 70s of the last century. Its fundamental thesis is the determining role of social interests in the formation of ethnicity (D. Khorovits, A. Koan, R. Brubaker and others). Instrumentalists were above all looking for reasons which give rise to ethnicity and make it an important social factor. From their point of view ethnicity is a new social construction and doesn’t have any cultural roots. Those cultural features which it uses as ethnic symbols don’t have any organic origins, they are somehow snatched out or withdrawn from culture and are nothing more than just signs of ethnic solidarity.

During the same years one more school was being formed – constructivism. The basic distinctive features of this approach – ethnos and other substances associated with them – are regarded as ideal models, constructions which are created by political elite in order to achieve some purposes (F. Bart, E. Gellner, B. Anderson, A. Hobsbaum and others).

In this work we define language as a fundamental component of ethnic identity.

As scientists assert, in the process of identification of ethnic-cultural norms the greatest importance is given to language which being one of the factors of general ethnic identity is reflected in it as cultural ideas of an ethnic language (2, 300).

Sharing the opinion of the Finn scientist S. Iskanius we understand linguistic identity as a process of comparing a mother language with a language of an ethnic majority and with speakers of a native nationality (6, 32).

Making use of a rather rich theoretical basis of the research we are trying to analyze the process of the formation of ethnic-linguistic identity of repatriates that live or belong to Kazakhstan.

It is common knowledge that since 1993 the Republic of Kazakhstan has been taking great pains and doing a lot of work in order to return ethnic Kazakhs to their historical motherland. As of today the number of repatriates makes up around a million of people and is an essential “influential force” in a multinational country with sixteen million people. That is why we think that there is a long-felt need to hold research into the ethnic-linguistic identification of repatriates of Kazakhstan. Here we have a purpose – to reveal problems, propositions and recommendations for eliminating drawbacks or introducing changes into the policy of the state.

We have conducted a social-linguistic experiment among oralmans which was made up of the following phases:

1. Holding or conducting a social-linguistic survey (questionnaire poll, interview);

2. Writing “ethnic autobiographies” by repatriates devoted to the theme “Who am I?”

The age of repatriates was from 17 to 25 (According to E. Erickson’s theory, these are fifth and sixth stages of development – “identity crisis” and “a formed psychic-social identity”). Level of education is secondary. Place of birth of repatriates in shown in Diagram 1.

Diagram 1

In accordance with Diagram 1 the greatest part of repatriates returned to their motherland Kazakhstan from China (48%), Mongolia (22%), Uzbekistan (19%), Tajikistan (8%).

Place of birth plays an important role in the analysis of ethnic-linguistic identity of repatriates at the initial stage. It is significant from the point of view of linguistic policy of states towards national minorities, the role of Kazakhstan in the development and support of Kazakh diasporas and the state language outside the Republic.

Thus in Uzbekistan there are 522 schools where teaching is held in the Kazakh language; 234 schools of them are Kazakh proper, the rest are mixed or co-educational. It means that the Kazakh diaspora has all opportunities to choose a language of education and teaching.

The greater part of the Kazakh diaspora of China speaks Kazakh in their everyday life and uses written language based on Arabic graphics. The majority of Chinese Kazakh citizens know the basic dialect of the Chinese language, and many village residents know Chinese as well. The major part of Kazakhs of China profess Islam. The assimilation which is taking place between Chinese people and khan people is accompanied by replacement of religious beliefs for atheistic or Buddhist denominations. In all institutions of higher education of China classes are given in Chinese, which is why a lot of Chinese Kazakhs choose so that their children can get higher education from institutions of higher education of Kazakhstan.

The government of China is trying to turn all national minorities into «Zhunguo zhemin» and by this people are torn away from their mother language and religion. The situation of the Kazakh diaspora is very complicated and full of conflicts. In the Internet resources there are now addresses of representatives of the young generation of Kazakh nationality who live in China to our President N. Nazarbayev. Young people write about the fact that the Kazakh diaspora in China is the most educated compared with other national minorities. It has also completely preserved its originality and uniqueness – the native language, customs and traditions. But recently we have been witnessing a reverse process – the language policy of China has its own course during which the greater part of young people found themselves unemployed. We can see another sorrowful fact that nowadays city Kazakhs one and all choose for their children schools with Chinese language of teaching and thus next generations are deprived of their roots. The case with country people is no better – these people can see and understand that even with higher education their children won’t probably get a regular job they simply stop educating their children after secondary school and in this way they choose a living death for themselves. The continuation of the things said above makes the future of Kazakhs in China vague and uncertain of whether there is a future at all.

In Mongolia there are Kazakh schools in a small number, the Kazakh language in chiefly taught to children in their families and at home. In places of disperse settlement of Kazakhs there is a partial mongolization observed. Kazakhs of Mongolia generally profess Islam of sunit sense. However those Kazakhs who have been assimilated with the native Mongolian population profess Buddhism (as well as tuvints).

Experts also write about the fact that Kazakh intellectuals who live and reside in Mongolia are trying to preserve customs and traditions of Mongolian Kazakhs who have practically no spiritual connection with their motherland in particular due to the lack of periodicals from Kazakhstan. There are problems with Kazakh primary, secondary, infant and nursery schools.

Kazakhs in Tajikistan as well as Kazakhs who live and reside in other adjacent state of the region start getting assimilated with the local population and losing their roots and origins. In Tajikistan there is no opportunity for Kazakhs to receive higher education in their own mother language. In the past Kazakhs lived near to each other and they were more compact. Nowadays they have changed it and now live by 5-15 families in various villages of Tajikistan. Due to this reason there is now a chance to open a Kazakh school. Kazakh children go to a Tajik, Russian or Uzbek school.

Starting from the next year teaching in secondary schools of Turkmenistan will be done only in the Turkmen language. The Government of Turkmenistan has made a decision to put into effect practice of “bilingual” school starting from the next year (for example, Russian-Turkmen, Turkmen-Uzbek, Turkmen-Kazakh). These schools are very scare in their number – around only 20 round the whole country. In “bilingual” schools the introduction of the state language was gradual but not forceful. In institutions of higher education teaching is carried out only in the Turkmen language where there are a lot of restrictions of opportunities for students whose mother language is different from that of local. In “bilingual” schools the number of hours of teaching national languages has been steadily decreasing for a long period of time already. An only exception is Turkish schools financed by the Government of Turkey where the basic language of instruction is Turkish but there are also English and Turkmen languages taught there. Representatives of the Kazakh diaspora state that the situation has become even worse as now ethnic Kazakh schools are deprived of the right to teach their children in their own mother language and to preserve ethnic originality. Besides all schoolboys no matter what their nationality or religion is have to attend school in a Turkmen national cap (which is called “takhiya” in Turkmen language) and schoolgirls have to wear a dress with national embroidery and study “Rukhnam” which is a manual of norms of Turkmen people written by the President Saparmurat Niyazov.

There are around 30 thousand ethnic Kazakhs who live and reside in Turkmenistan. These Kazakhs as well as Turkmen people are Turkic Muslim – and in the past nomad – people. They differ from Turkmen people in their language, history and traditions. A few years ago the Kazakh diaspora in Turkmenistan numbered up to 90 thousand people.

Therefore the formation of Kazakh identity of linguistic as well as ethnic repatriates occurs in different ways depending on their place of birth and residence. It also depends on linguistic as well as extra-linguistic factors. Linguistic and social-economic situation in states where the Kazakh diaspora live and reside the work of state bodies of Kazakhstan concerning ethnic Kazakhs in the near and far abroad – all these make up a number of factors. We can refer to the use of writing based on Cyrillic alphabet, Roman alphabet, Arabic graphics in one or another region as linguistic proper factors.

One more important sign which in our view influences the ethnic-linguistic identification of repatriates is proficiency in languages. According to Diagram 2 oralmans speak Kazakh language (84 %), (84%), Chinese language (71,3%), Russian language (24%), English language (14,7%), Mongolian language (10,7%).

Diagram 2

The analysis shows that the majority of ethnic Kazakhs to a sufficient degree know the state language – Kazakh language, repatriates from China to a deficient degree know written standards of the Kazakh language based on Cyrillic alphabet due to the use of Arabic graphics in China. This circumstance makes the process of reading literature in Kazakh even more difficult and of course hampers any successful adaptation of repatriates from China. As experts say “Kazakhs that live and reside in China and Mongolia write using Arabic graphics. In Kazakhstan since 1928 Kazakhs have been using Cyrillic alphabet. As a result ethnic Kazakhs do not know the writing in their mother language, they now have problems while receiving their documents” (Makhmudova Sholpan,

We find it interesting that many oralmans from Mongolia and China do not as well know either Mongolian or Chinese language. This can be explained by the attempt of ethnic groups to preserve their own culture, language and traditions abroad choosing Kazakh speaking schools for their children of there are any and using their mother language in everyday life.

As we have already said before it is very difficult for ethnic Kazakhs to preserve ethnic and linguistic identity which happens due to the national policies of these countries. It is common knowledge that in a number of states there is a chauvinist attitude of a certain layer of local population to ethnic national minorities. As the survey has known many ethnic Kazakhs have to face the problem when their rights and freedoms to choose language, religion, etc. are restricted. In Diagram 3 we can see the fact that among oralmans 46 % of respondents have witness and experiences cases of nationalism in the countries where they had lived and resided before they became repatriates. First of all it is related to the lack of conditions to get education in the Kazakh language, great difficulties in obtaining information from the Internet and mass media in their mother language.

Thus a respondent who has arrived from Turkmenistan says: “I have had everything in Turkmenistan: a house, a decent piece of land of about half a hectare, two camels, five cows, and I never counted my chickens and turkeys. With local people who were just as simple as we were, we went on quite well. We have never had any conflict situation in our everyday life. We enjoyed our life as it was, we had bread, meat, milk, vegetables, melons and watermelons. I would never have left this country but only for my children. There were no prospects in Turkmenistan for them. All Kazakh-speaking schools had been closed up including one in Yzmykshir. Kazakh, Uzbek and Russian children were forced to study Rukhnam, to wear Turkmen national clothes, and those who were not Turkmen in their nationality were being driven out of state bodies and law enforcement agencies.

Diagram 3

The analysis of the situation shows that oralmans now have a greater interest in preserving and developing traditions and cultures of the Kazakh people; while speak they prefer to do it in their mother tongue – Kazakh. In their “ethnic autobiographies repatriates write that “in their sole, body and thought” they are Kazakhs.


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4. Habermas U. Democracy. Reason. Moral. – Moscow, 1995.

5. Hesley V. Crisis of Individual and Collective Identity. Issues of Philosophy, 1994. – № 10. – С. 112-123.

6. Iskanius, Sanna. Language and identity of Russian-speaking students in Finland// STUDIA SLAVICA FINLANDENSIA, Helsinki, 2004, 228

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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №1 - 2010

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