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Leaving Kazakhstan

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I’m not really sure what to write. I’m not really sure I even want to write. On Wednesday afternoon, standing coatless in a soft snowfall, I learned that I would be forced to leave Kazakhstan in just a handful of days. The voice on the other end of the line, a voice tired and scratchy from relaying the day’s news to countless volunteers sequestered in North Kazakhstan, told me that after 18 years of work, Peace Corps would no longer be serving Kazakhstan; that next week, we’re gone.

As it is, we’re departing only eight months into a 27 month commitment. Projects are still fledgling. Integration is still incomplete. Language skills are only just sticking, and our teaching impacts are only just sinking in. We’ve just finished our second round of trainings, learning how to parse grant options and further implement community projects. We’ve just finished learning how to manage both schedule and expectation as English teachers in the Kazakhstani school system. We’re only just now beginning to make a legitimate impact. In a sense, we’ve only just begun. And now it’s all being wrested from us, halted by a slew of suits who believe they know what’s best.

And maybe they do. They’re the ones, after all, who’ve compiled both numbers and stories. They know how many of us have been attacked and assaulted, according to our Country Director Kazakhstan has earned the highest rate of any country in Peace Corps, and they know exactly what pressures have begun emanating from oblast- and national-level governments. Volunteers will never be privy to all of the information, but we have enough of a patchwork network that we can piece together a picture of what serving in Kazakhstan is like. KNB agents sitting in classrooms. Upper level ministers all but booting volunteers from numerous oblasts. Questions of espionage and revolutionary tactics. The shooting in Taraz, which saw eight Kazakhstanis die, taking place only a block from two volunteers’ houses. Brass knuckles, attempted breakins, bizarre opium plant-and-frisks, to say nothing of the near-daily harassment, and worse, for the female volunteers, all added up to a setting those DC-based officials deemed far too dire to pursue.

And so, we leave. Eight months down, and none more going forward. Bolda. Fsyo. Peace Corps, finished in Kazakhstan.

Before arriving last March we’d read that Kazakhstan maintained a manageable and enviable stability, serving as an oasis of tranquility among its besieged neighbors. It stood out among the ‘stans for its balance of temerity and growth, for its ability to manage disparate populations and divergent neighbors. It managed, as the billboards state the country over, 20 Years of Peace and Unity.

And it did, really. The 1990s threw it, wrung it of infrastructure and population, but the mixture of Caspian oil and capital investment, and Nazarbayev’s magnificent handling of ethnic relations, set Kazakhstan on a path of sustained growth. Despite the imagery of Borat, the last ten years in Kazakhstan have been among the brightest of any nation.

Tengiz. Astana. The demise of irredentism, and the ascension to the OSCE chair. Staking deep oilfields, and buffeted as it was from the subprime and Euro crises, we arrived in a Kazakhstan sated in promise, into a land as self-assured and self-reliant as it had ever been. Twenty years in, and the future was as bright as you could find in the post-Soviet world.

Then, something shifted. This summer provided a sort of hinge, a passage from a much-lauded stability to something far less. Reality of a nation post-Nazarbayev began settling in. The nation’s largest strike, and the myriad beatings attached, revealed the sinister sides of a promising energy sector. Religious restrictions found both legal course and fatal response. Discussions of sovereignty bubbled once more, as Putin floated, and then cemented, the idea of a Eurasian Union, all while dozens of prominent Kazakhs called language allocations into question. Toss in a handful of seemingly disparate cases of terrorism, and Kazakhstan’s stability looked both farce and façade.

And amidst it all, Peace Corps volunteers turned up harassed, beaten, and raped at a rate far higher than anything one could reasonably expect. For the first time in nearly a decade, the rose-colored image Kazakhstan maintained turned a darker hue. And we, and those teachers and school children with whom we worked, are the ones who now pay the price.

The Kazakhstani education minister has claimed that, due to his nation’s development, Peace Corps’ departure was a “logical step.” Christ. If you’ve worked for one week in a Kazakhstani school, if you’ve seen the faces of colleagues light up at your mere presence, and the tears that stream when you tell them you’re leaving, you know that your presence in these classes fills a marked vacuum. Part of Nazarbayev’s 2030 goal is a “Trinity of Languages,” in which every Kazakhstani has achieved fluency in Kazakh, Russian, and English. A constituent part of this goal is the presence of native speakers. And while some volunteers are misappropriated, the majority of us are both feted and needed. Peace Corps still filled an enormous void in the Kazakhstani educational system. That’s not to paint us as some kind of ubermensch teaching corps; rather, it’s to simply show that there was no logical outgrowth of the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. The minister’s line of reasoning is naught but a PR pitch, spin for an event that blackens all parties.

Likewise, while the recent surge in Islamo-inspired attacks may provide an easy excuse for both the US and Kazakhstani governments, that reasoning seems far too facile. Colin Thubron once wrote that Islam rests lightly on these people. I would argue that it still does. Those members of Jund al-Khalifa have targeted neither infidels nor foreigners; rather, they’ve gone after ministers and officials, using Islam as a vehicle to express antigovernment sentiments. Plus, Peace Corps countries, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan among them, have suffered much worse, and still maintained a volunteer presence, at least in a limited capacity. There’s no reason to think Kazakhstan shouldn’t be able to do the same.

In the end, it was neither jihadist bombings nor logical progression that is forcing us to leave. It was the multi-level strains, from the KNB’s growing surveillance, to the impunity with which the drunks attacked us, that drove us from Kazakhstan. It was averaging one rape or serious sexual assault per month since June. It was school administrators allowing KNB agents to sift through both belongings and apartments. It was appointed government officials refusing to meet with Peace Corps administrators, out of either pride or contempt or grandstanding. It was these dozens of seemingly unrelated incidents that, yes, were set amidst a backdrop of terrorist activities, that now tear us from our new homes and drop us back in a jobless line we’d thought ourselves fortunate to escape. It was a series of degrading relations, arising from both parties, that keeps us from showing this Soviet land that not all Americans are impudent, imperial assholes.

The reactions I’ve had have been diametric. I’ve thrilled at finding a new home, either in America or abroad. But I’ve also carried knowledge that I’ll likely never see my Siberian hermitage of Presnovka again. I’ve realized that I can finally reacquaint myself with ESPN and Mexican food, but I’ve also grasped that those I’ve come to love within my village: my counterpart, my schoolchildren, are people I’ll now only see through photo or memory. I see an opportunity to forgo the minus-40 winters set to fall, but I also no longer have an excuse (“need that winter fat!”) to gorge myself on pechenyas and barsak. I swing from waves of relief to waves of melancholy, all because of a bizarre confluence of events, a confluence threatening enough that some DC official decided it was time to close shop.

Our service is cut, and our program is shuttered. I’m leaving Kazakhstan far earlier than I ever wanted. There’ll be no Nauryz in Shymkent, no Kreshenya in Petropavlovsk, no summer camps at Balkhash. I’ll neither climb Baiterek, nor stroll the esplanade in Pavlodar, nor see the marine graveyards of the receded Aral. I, and all of my fellow Volunteers, don’t get to see any of those plans through. And I don’t get to show these nationals how much I appreciated their hospitality, and how much I’d grown to love them through the last eight months.

Since 1993, Peace Corps has served in Kazakhstan. Volunteers have helped guide small business, have aided in orphanages and special-needs homes, and have, as I did, taught young Kazakhstanis English. All work came at the specific request of President Nazarbayev, under whose reign we arrived and now depart. All work was sorely need in a still-fresh nation, among a people now opened to an entirely new way of economy and education. All work, our work, is still required. And we won’t be here to provide it.

It is, as the Kazakhs would say, maskhara. It’s a mark of shame for all parties involved, and I can only offer my thanks, and my regret. My time here was too short, and my experience in Kazakhstan far too stunted. I’m going to miss this country, this hard, wind-swept land; these genial, weathered people, for years to come. Someday, the sting will dull. Someday, I’ll be back. Someday, I’ll know what to write. But all I can do is leave, and wait for that day to come.

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About Casey Michel

  • Kenn Jacobine


    My wife could empathize with you. Her Peace Corp experience in Ghana was cut short after only 6 months in country due to a tribal war. She was evacuated, but found herself working back on the continent after only a short period of time. Keep your chin up, your tough break will turn into a new journey. Best to you.