A brief ecclesiastical history of Kazakhstan

When I first began writing for Whosoever Desires, one of our readers suggested I should say something about my two years in Kazakhstan and, in particular, about the state of the Kazakhstani Church.

I worked in Kazakhstan from 2002-2004, straight out of college, well before the thought of becoming a Jesuit had crossed my mind; my concerns and inclinations at the time were, I confess, decidedly more worldly than they are today.  I found that there are two basic drives motivating Peace Corps volunteers:  an idealism trying to make the world a better place and a thirst for adventure.  Like most, I possessed a bit of both.

First a few basics about Kazakhstan.  Kazakhstan was the last Soviet Republic to declare independence in 1991, and it’s a massive country, the ninth largest in the world.  Most of it is flat and fairly empty steppe, and its population is only about 16 million people.  It has tremendous natural resources however:  oil, gold, coal, and great reserves of other minerals.  I taught English in a remote town, Sarkand, population about 15,000, near the Chinese border with a lovely view of the Zhungarsky Alatau Mountains.  I was told I was the first American ever to live there, and I certainly became something of a local celebrity.  To give you some idea of what an event having a foreigner in Sarkand was at the time, I had strangers approach me on the street to wish me a happy birthday—on the correct day.

I enjoyed the hospitality of the people and, in particular, their love of holidays; Kazakhstanis are always looking for an excuse to celebrate (which always involves consuming large amounts of vodka, tea, and mayonnaise), and they found plenty of excuses:  New Year’s, Old New Year’s, Eastern New Year’s (Nauriz), Red Army Day, Women’s Day, Republic Day, Constitution Day, and, with my coming, a whole slew of American holidays as well.

The one class of holidays not greatly observed, however, was religious holidays.  Those, as you can imagine, never made it onto the Soviet calendar.  Kazakhstan’s is still a fairly secular culture, though today the government has embraced religious liberty, and I found most people positively disposed toward religion even if largely ignorant of it.  John Paul II left behind a warm impression on people when he visited in 2001.

Nominal religious affiliation largely falls along ethnic lines.  The Kazakhs themselves, a traditionally nomadic people who like to trace their ancestry back through Genghis Khan, are nominally Muslims, while the large number of Russians, who were once over half the population but today make up about a third, are nominally Orthodox.  Both groups tend to wear their religion fairly lightly, however, and, though some of my students observed Ramadan, I rarely found Islam an impediment to enjoying a few shots of vodka with a bit of pork sausage.  (Horse, however, is the national meat of choice.)

Even in addition to these two main groups, Kazakhstan is a remarkably ethnically diverse country.  This has to do largely with the Soviet legacy.  When the Soviets were drawing up the borders of the Central Asian republics in the early half of the twentieth century, they were careful not to draw them too neatly; in other words, they wanted there to be plenty of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Kazakhstan, plenty of Kazakhs in Turkmenistan, and so on, so that all of these minority groups would have an incentive to remain loyal to Moscow instead of their local governments.

Kazakhstan has the additional distinction of being the southern wing of the Gulag Archipelago, where troublesome individuals and potentially troublesome ethnic minorities, such as Poles, Ukrainians, and Germans were exiled where they couldn’t do much harm.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (whose legacy has been discussed on Whosoever Desires before here) based his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich on his experience in a labor camp south of Karaganda; Dostoyevsky spent five years of his exile in Semipalatinsk.  And Siberia always gets all the credit.

The supremely ironic legacy, however, of Stalin’s decision to exile Poles and Ukrainians in Kazakhstan is that he helped to spread the Catholic faith to a region it had not previously penetrated.  Though there wasn’t a Catholic church in Sarkand, where I lived, there are small but strong Catholic communities scattered throughout Kazakhstan.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Vatican sent priests from Europe and America to minister to these little congregations, and today they are slowly growing.

So thank you, Comrade Stalin, for your missionary efforts.  How wonderfully ironic that the architects of a system which promised, through human effort and ingenuity, to plan and bring to fruition utopia on earth instead sowed the seeds of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Their social engineering didn’t work out, but perhaps some other Architect’s plan did.

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10 Responses to A brief ecclesiastical history of Kazakhstan

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Anthony, THANK you for this. Absolutely amazing. As you rightfully point out, this experience is just something that very few other people on the planet will ever have. As much as the subject interests me (and has since the 2001 papal visit) I know with 99.9% certainty I will never get to Kazakhistan. You have truly made your name in history, whether you realize it or not : )

    Your observation about religion falling along ethnic lines is not surprising at all. However, I have heard that in regions of China where there are sizeable ethnic minorities (i.e. in Tibet or Xinjiang) large numbers of people who would nominally be Buddhist or Mohammedan respectively are converting to Catholicism (or other christian sects) as a way to escape the ethnic rivalries and tensions. I wonder if this could in fact be the escape Kazhaks will eventually find.

    Oh, and I’ll add one more “basic drive motivating Peace Corps volunteers”: finding a spouse.

    : P

  2. Beautifully written, Anthony!

    Did the noble time there impact your career move
    to the Jebs??? And, any salient conversations of
    note there, with the commoners so to speak, to
    show their soul-state approach to religious questions
    on life, aside to religious profession by association?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Virgilijus,

      It’s the end of the semester for me, so I apologize for not responding to your interesting questions sooner.

      There were of course many conversations, so it’s hard to pick just one. A theme that’s important to understanding Kazakhstani values, as I experienced them, is hospitality. Showing hospitality is important to just about everyone there and, as I alluded to in my post on Slow Food, involves a certain amount of ritual which hints at something deeper.

      Another conversation that stood out for me was with my Russian tutor, a strong, caring, and wise Kazakh woman with whom I had many interesting conversations (a secular version of spiritual direction!). We were discussing an upcoming trip to Russia I was planning and she said that the people in St. Petersburg were warmer than those in Moscow. And then she explained that it was because of the siege of St. Petersburg during World War II. The suffering had given the people (this doesn’t translate well) a “taste (or feeling) for life.” A lot of attitudes are wrapped up in that comment, about history, about humanity, about suffering…

      As for the Jesuits, I have to admit I did my best to keep the vocation question off my radar screen at the time! Looking back I know that even though I enjoyed my time in Kazakhstan, learned a lot, and did some good things, on some level I knew that something important was missing from my life…

      Tony

  3. Gregory Benedict says:

    Qualis,
    Why would you say one of the basic motivating drives for Peace Corp vounteers is finding a spouse? It seems to be a from out of no where sort of comment..
    Greg

    • Qualis Rex says:

      It was a joke. I have known several Peace Corps volunteers who came back married to either other volunteers or one of “the locals”. It’s not a main driver, but it is sometimes happy coincidence. Hence the joke.

      Deep breathe now…

      • Gregory Benedict says:

        Same thing happens in Alaska when people go to work in fish camps and salmon canneries, They end up meeting their future spouses.
        Many a marriage results. Maybe it has something to do with fish slime?
        Who knows…. 🙂

      • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

        I got a chuckle out of this. There is some truth to the observation…

  4. Stephanie says:

    Very interesting! I don’t think I’ve ever heard your stories of Kazakhstan. What a great experience!

  5. Olga says:

    Mister Anthony Thank you for everthing you did for us, if you remember me!
    Olga Kim from Sarcand

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Hello Olga! Of course I remember you! One of the best students I ever taught! I have many happy memories of teaching 3A at the College. I’m glad you still remember me. I hope you and your classmates are all doing well. Getting a note from you brings back so many good memories of Sarkand!

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