Empire Lost, Russian People Stream out of Central Asia

Article excerpt

ARCHPRIEST Yevgeny of the Russian Orthodox Church here can see the difference plainly in the suddenly sparse crowd at annual Easter services. More than a million ethnic Russians - and a half million ethnic Germans - have left Kazakstan in less than four years. The apartments they have vacated have created the equivalent of a building boom in parts of Kazakstan. The faces peopling the capital of Almaty, still a rich ethnic mix, have become more Asian and less Slavic. The population of the immense Central Asian steppe shows the tide marks of the Russian empire. When the decade began, there were more Russians than Kazaks in Kazakstan, thanks to a century of Russian homesteading; Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's banishments of alleged dissidents from Russia proper; the moving of arms factories out of Hitler's reach; and Khrushchev's grand cultivation schemes for the "virgin lands" of Kazakstan. But since Kazakstan in 1991 became independent of Russia for the first time in more than two centuries, it has become an increasingly Kazak country. Russians here are growing more anxious over their children's future. One Russian interviewed said that even a year ago he never would have thought of leaving Kazakstan. But now the engineer would move to Russia immediately if he had the money. His children never will receive a high-quality education the way he did, he says, because "Kazaks are in a privileged position for everything." Who the Kazaks are Kazaks are the nomadic people who emerged in the 15th century after the Mongol rule of Central Asia. They are largely of Mongol stock, but speak a language similar to Turkish. The Kazaks were independent and unified under a series of khans, or tribal kings, until swearing loyalty to the Russian empress in 1731. The Kazaks have been under some form of Russian control from then until 1991, when the imploding Soviet Union cut them loose. Kazaks still look over their shoulders warily at Russia. The oil-rich Kazaks must export their oil through Russia for refining and import it back for use. Almost anything the Kazaks want to buy or sell travels through Russia. And Russian nationalists from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Vladimir Zhirinovsky want to annex all or part of Kazakstan back into Russia. Tensions between ethnic Russians and Kazaks here have been mild and getting milder as the balance of power shifts between them. The reason is simple: The Russians are leaving. Those who have left are those with the best prospects, so those left behind tend to be older and poorer. "I expect Russians to continue leaving," says Nurbulat Masanov, a history and ethnography professor at Kazakstan State University, "because Russians living here are second-class citizens." Meanwhile, Kazak nationalists are more concerned with how the Kazak language, culture, and economic position has suffered under imperial Russia. …