Staunton, October 21 – Many people know that in the years before the Bolshevik revolution, the people who are now called Kazakhs were called Kyrgyz, but few know that they were called that because of a mistake by a Russian journalist at the time of Peter the Great and the use of the name Kazakh was not a Soviet innovation but the restoration of historical truth.
That may seem like a small thing, but at a time when some in Kazakhstan are talking about renaming the country Kazakh eli in order to distinguish it from the other “stans” of Central Asia and when relations between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are often anything but settled, such linguistic discussions are not unimportant. Indeed, they may provoke real conflicts.
In the Almaaty newspaper “Express-K” at the end of last week, Kazakh journalist Erik Aubakirov tells the story. He notes that if any resident in Issyk Kul will tell you that “before the revolution, the Kazakhs were called Kyrgyz” and that “at the start of Soviet times, there was no Kazakhstan but there was a Kyrgyz SSR” (express-k.kz/show_article.php?art_id=100301).
Both assertions are true, he says, but they are hardly the end of the story. Instead, they conceal as much as they reveal.
Aubakirov said he spoke with Irina Yerofeyeva of Kazakhstan’s Institute of History and Ethnology about the history of this issue. She noted that the people who are called Kazakhs today were called Kazakhs from the 15th to the early 18th centuries, and no one thought they should be called anything else.
But then things started to go wrong. Nikolas Vitzen, a Dutch writer assigned by Peter the Great to collect information on the peoples of the Russian Empire published a book in which he was at pains to distinguish between the Kazakhs of the steppe and the Kazakhs of Siberia and elsewhere.
Even that would not have been a problem except for one development. When the emir of Bukhara visited the Russian court in Peter’s time, the “Sankt Peterburskiye vedomosi” asked a journalist to prepare an article about the peoples of Central Asia. The journalist did, but he didn’t read even Vitzen’s book carefully.
As a result, the journalist was confused by the distinctions Vitzen had made and decided to call the Kazakhs of the steppe Kyrgyz. Because the editors didn’t know any better and because this was an official government publication, the name stuck even though scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries struggled against it.
And things stayed that way right into Soviet times and this journalistic error might have stood forever had it not been for the efforts of Saken Seyfullin, a Bolshevik and senior official in the steppe. He began writing articles in the early 1920s calling for the return of the correct name, and in 1925, he succeeded, and the republic became Kazakhstan and the people the Kazakhs.
But as the Kazakh journalist points out, Seyfullin suffered for his actions. He was subsequently denounced as a nationalist, purged from his senior posts, arrested in1938 and shot a year later.