Yulya: I’m Russian, but Kazakhstan is my home

Yulya: I’m Russian, but Kazakhstan is my home

I’m often working nights at this point, and I take dinner in the cafeteria. Sitting down one evening with a pear, tea, and a pastry, I was joined by a young woman named Yulya. I learned that she is at our university this year for “PHP,” or professional development training in subjects like English, pedagogy, and other things. Around 100 young teachers from around the nation were brought here, like her, to be trained to work at some elite prep schools opening soon.

Yulya is from the city of Karaganda, and tells me she’s only ever seen Almaty, and now Astana, within Kazakhstan. “I guess I always figure I have time,” she says, “so when I have the chance, I go to visit the Netherlands.” After getting her bachelor of science here, she won an Erasmus Mundus award for developing world students (it sounds like) to study for her masters in the Netherlands, living in a small town outside of Amsterdam on 1,000 Euros a month. Was it hard? I ask. Yulya smiles and says she had to pass a TOEFL (English test) and write essays, but it wasn’t too bad.

This year, Yulya graduated and applied for this PHP program, writing a motivational essay, interviewing, and taking the IELTS English test. But she wasn’t worried. “I’m very confident,” she says, “because I know I’m well prepared!” You must be good at writing essays, I say!

Russian settlers with a group of peasants, in Tsarist Kazakhstan (Prokudin-Gorskii, 1911)
Yulya’s pretty but plain, with flushed cheeks and blond hair, lightened to an ashy color, with dusky low tones. Her hair’s straight and fluffy, and she wears a plump sweater and cropped pants. She tells me that she grew up in Karaganda, and I ask if she remembers the Soviet Union. But she’s 23, younger than she looks, younger than how she carries herself, her forthright friendliness and confidence. Oh, you must have been two or three, I say. Yes, she says.

She lives with her parents now, and they’re starting to ask when she will get married. Yulya hopes to move out on her own soon. I ask about work, and she tells me that NIS (Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools) is apparently much broader than I’d imagined. I’d heard they have a college prep school here in Astana, but they’re opening half a dozen more schools across Kazakhstan next year — in Karaganda, Pavlodar, Uralsk, Aktobe, Atyrau, Almaty, and other areas. It’s an enormous enterprise, designed to feed the best and brightest students into Nazarbayev University, and that’s what these 100 teachers were brought in for teacher training for. After this year of study, they’ll all start working at these new schools.

I ask Yulya about Karaganda, and she says it’s half Kazakh, half Russian. Like every student here, she studied a bit of Kazakh in school, but didn’t use it after that, especially as she’s a Russian from a Russian-speaking family. She’s working on Kazakh now, though, as these new schools will be taught in three languages (English, Kazakh, Russian) — an ambitious undertaking!

What’s it like being a Russian now in Kazakhstan? I ask.

“Well, I am from Kazakhstan,” she says, “I was born here, and my parents were born here. But only ten years ago, it started to get a little … awkward. People started saying that Kazakhstan is for Kazakhs.”

“But this is my home. It’s my country…” she pauses, “…but I’m sure that it will pass.”

I’m not so sure, given recent pressure to remove Russian language as an official language, as well as the general sidelining of Russians within the country. The country has aggressively recruited Kazakhs from Mongolia (yeah, I’m obviously biased with that link!) to change their demographics, and promoted Kazakh nationalism above other ties.

Which is to say, I’m always looking at Russians like Yulya here, and wondering how their lives are. Yulya believes that her country will work for her, make room for her. I think it may get harden that she imagines for a while, but like her, I hope that it will pass.


  1. any chance of westerners teaching at one of those schools???

    Yulya’s position sounds a little like the “chicanos” around here—generations and generations of them speaking Spanish inside their own communities and now there is pressure to have to prove they are not “illegals” (when many of their families have roots here for decades or even centuries longer than the anglos asking the questions).

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