Why are you studying the Kazakhs?

“Why are you studying the history of the Kazakhs?”

I have heard this question many times and it deserves a better answer than I have given in the past. First, I would indicate that the question generally is no more specific than the above. In other words, there is no interest in why I’m studying the 18th century over the 20th century, for example. “Why are you studying the Jüün Ghar wars instead of wars with Russia or Kokand,” no one asks me. “Why all this focus on southern instead of northern Kazakhstan?”

For some small portion of people, the question might be “Why does anyone study history at all?” I’m not particularly comfortable with my answers to this question. In brief, I study history because I want to and because, so far, I am able to do so. I want to study history because I love the stories, the explanations, and the way the stories and explanations change over time.

For more people, I think the real question is “Why are you, Michael, studying the history of the Kazakhs.” What am I, and what am I not? I am not a Kazakh, first and foremost. I am also not a Russian or other non-Kazakh citizen of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, or anywhere in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. So, perhaps this question has various flavors: “Why is an American studying Kazakh history?” or “Why is a white, non-Russian studying Kazakh history?” or “Why is a Christian studying [Muslim] Kazakh history?”

This is a problem in almost any field of history, or so it seems from my limited experience. A study of Indian History in the American academy who is not themselves Indian (or at least an Indian-American) will face similar questions and assumptions of ulterior motives. Similarly a non-indigenous person studying the history of Native Americans will likely face some serious questions as to just why, exactly, are they so interested in Native Americans? It seems that the majority of history is written by outsiders, in some light. At the end of the day, there are no diaries being published as “historical textbooks.” We are separated from the past and our subjects of study by time, if not also by religion, culture, language, and genetics. The measure of that distance may be great, but still we try to overcome through the strength of our arguments, evidence, and perseverance. How else can anyone write anything about the Ancient Greeks or the Han Dynasty in China? Despite what some nationalist policies have intoned, there is very little physically connecting those people to the current residents of our planet. In much the same, the inhabitants of the steppes of Kazakhstan in the 18th century have little in common with the inhabitants of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, or the United States. The way of life alone separates the early Kazakhs from those studying them today, whether they work for a University in Kazakhstan, Russia, or the United States.

One corollary of this assumption is the problem of explanation. When an insider writes the history, very many things get left unsaid, too much information and knowledge is assumed on the part of the reader. In addition, their is a common idea that distance creates clinical disinterest. No one may write without bias. Even the Zulu writing about the Sioux, while perhaps not directly biased in the Sioux’s direction, likely shows some preference to another population which faced near extermination at the hands of English-speaking, rifle-bearing invaders from Europe. In this way, I do not assume that because I am not Kazakh, I am the bearer of the sacred sight, free from tendentious favoritism.

This compartmentalization in history seems to come from at least two sources, one of which I think we can resist. Many people are uninterested in “other people’s history.” One simple example is the programming of The History Channel, which even back in its heyday included very little information on peoples and places unknown to its viewers. While the shows may have included new and interesting information on the construction of the Egyptian pyramids or the military techniques of the samurai, the shows did not need to assume total ignorance on their audiences’ part. The History Channel, even then, was hoping to attract viewers — and reminding viewers that they know very little about parts of the world is not attractive. It seems we can find a similar pattern in the school and university curriculum. If knowing what you don’t know is a sign of intelligence, I can intelligently say I know very little about the history of Indonesia, the history of Somalia, the history of Patagonia, the history of Finland, the history of Namibia (notice the focus on the nation/state as the location of history).

“Ah,” you say, “but the history of Finland is a waste of time for students in the United States. It isn’t important, it doesn’t explain anything, there’s only so much time in the schools.”

I agree, to an extent. The point is that with our limited time in school and at university, many devote their time to a politically and culturally expedient study of history. We study Ancient Greece, perhaps, or Enlightenment France, or World War II, because those are “important,” which I take as a synonym for “helping to explain the way the world is.” However, I think we fail our students in this regard, as many things which might explain the world are left unexamined. There is a proclivity to “explain” why America and Europe are the great powers of the world — even when that is no longer the case. In other words, these stories will not help explain why America and Europe are slipping, why they no longer are (or soon will not be) the great powers of the world.

Of course, history as taught in schools in most places in the world serves another goal: the creation of a patriotic and loyal citizenry. The nation and state gave birth to the schools. And the schools, today at least, are where history is born. The creation of professional historians in universities has little to do with the study of history in the schools, however, which is a topic for another post (or rather, another blog).

I am studying the history of the Kazakhs, then, because anyone can study the history of the Kazakhs. I find them interesting because of my personal experiences in Kazakhstan, which came before my interest in the history of the Kazakhs. There are many positive aspects to studying their history which increase my appreciation for this occupation. However, I do not enjoy defending a non-Kazakh’s rights to the study of Kazakh history. If anything, I wish more non-Americans studied the history of the citizens of the United States.

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