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Gerold Belger: Proud to hear I am the last Kazakh, but I am a German and will never deny it

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By Valeriy Novikov

Gerold Belger was born in Russia. In 1941, when he was seven, his family was forcefully moved to Kazakhstan, like thousands of other Volga Germans, who had been living in Russia for two centuries prior to WWII. In Northern Kazakhstan, Belgers found a shelter in a Kazakh village. Grown up among Kazakhs he finished a Kazakh school, and the Kazakh language became his third native after German and Russian.
After graduating from a pedagogical institute, his career started with teaching in a Kazakh village school, and then he worked as a script editor and translator with a magazine of Kazakh prose. Later he started writing verses in three languages.

Kazakh lifestyle, folklore, traditions, behavior, habits and tastes he absorbed in childhood made him the first outlander to thoroughly understand the very essence of Kazakh people and think the same way. Thanks to his all-round education, natural nobleness and firm commitment to principles he won the respect that gives him the right to speak on behalf of Kazakhs, at that, to voice things that may be perceived otherwise if said by any other non-Kazakh. For a reason, people call him Gereke, Belgibai, “the last Kazakh”.


- Gerold Karlovich, recently our society was shaken by a sudden “national issue”. At a plenum of Kazakhstan’s Assembly of Peoples, the president laid down his view of the national integrity doctrine, which, according to the authorities, we need to promptly adopt. National Patriots totally opposed it and proposed their option. What is your evaluation to the doctrine and the position of national patriots? What’s your general attitude to the assembly?

 - At the moment I have no relation to the assembly, as I have been cast off it recently. I was a member when it was created, from the start I hotly stood for its main idea – to develop national culture in the country. With time, the assembly began to grow into something like a weapon, a stick in the hand of the power.

I completely disliked it. And they disliked me. In general, as a writer, I am very skeptical of authorities. That’s from childhood. I often had disputes with my father on this point. He, a communist, who despite the repression put on Soviet Germans and, particularly, my family, believed all the measures were right, but me, a communist too, insisted they were not.

So, the doctrine the power has produced is with an only purpose – to boast before so-called European democrats, showing them our wonderful Kazakh democracy. A great wish to show the West and OSCE we are advanced! And they introduced a new ethnicity – Kazakhstanis!

I have big doubts about European democracy, especially, the American one, because I know their fake tendencies and double standards. I knew national patriots would raise big noise over the doctrine. I wouldn’t say I am supporting their every idea. However, they correctly spotted the main threat.

The doctrine speaks of certain Kazakhstani ethnicity. But there is no such an ethnicity, Kazakhstanis do not exist. We are the people of Kazakhstan. I am a German, you are a Russian, my neighbor is a Kazakh. I will never deny my ethnicity, and I understand Kazakhs. Kazakhs want to be Kazakhs and this is their undisputable right.   

Questionless, over hundreds of years, Kazakhs have been suppressed as an ethnicity and had no chance of revealing their spiritual potential to full extent. Now they have such an opportunity at hand. The opportunity to pull themselves out of alien ideology and show what they can do.

I believe, give Kazakhs 30, 40 or 50 years of tranquil self-development and they will completely discover what they are able to do. When they find their true mindset they will be ready to enter the global environment, being sure they won’t dissolve inside it.

- You say “Give Kazakhs.” Who should give? Is it the English or Chinese ruling the country?

- Kazakhs are governing their country. The trouble is the strong stratification among Kazakhs and this is the largest tragedy. Some are “pure” – those who observe traditions and others “not pure” – ‘shala’, the ones who lost their roots. There is no unity between these stratums. 

- I suppose the power consists of “shala” ones?

- Yes, shala ones mostly. I feel that, because I categorize myself as a pure Kazakh and perceive the world as did the Kazakhs of the steppes seventy years ago. They were right people – sincere and open. Good and proud. Alas, to a great extent, today’s Kazakhs have lost those traits.  

Today the power is in hands of Kazakhs with a Russian background. They went to Russian kindergartens, Russian schools and earned higher education in Moscow, Petersburg…. Certainly, they have perfect academic background and it is good. Now there are ones with Oxford and Harvard diplomas too. But they significantly have been torn off their roots. Likely forever.

- But the thought leader of NatPats Mukhtar Shakhanov is not a home-grown figure too?

- Shakhanov is the opposite extremity. I do not share many of his ideas, but, as a whole, I appreciate his option of the doctrine. I do not support, for example, his proposal to teach world literature instead of Russian literature. We need world literature, but not at the expense of Russian.

Natpats tend to deny everything Russian. Russian literature. Russian language. As if everything Russian coming to Kazakhs is bad. By profession, I am a teacher of the Russian language and literature. As a translator I work to bring literatures and cultures closer. I can say nothing bad will happen to either the Kazakh language or culture from that side.

Look at the issue of changeover from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet. To be honest, I was an advocate of transition to Latin script. As an ethnic German, this would be closer to me to some extent. Another big plus is approaching to other Turkic nations – Turks, Azeris – single script, single letters… Once upon a time, very powerful Kazakhs approached to me: “Leave it! Do you want us to kick ourselves back? You are doing harm to us, better you stop talking of it.”

I changed my mind – let Kazakhs decide which script to use. Although, this may throw us back by 15-20 years. Whatever the decision it is good to me. As minimum, we will have to train a generation of instructors, a generation of teachers, and a generation of students…

When it comes to the main irritating factors for Natpats – the terms “Kazakhstan” and “Kazakhstani people” it is quite clear to me. Certainly, there is not “Kazakhstani” ethnicity. There are Kazakhs, Russians, Germans, Uighurs, Koreans and so on. There is a term “the Republic of Kazakhstan.” I don’t understand the difference between the Republic of Kazakhstan and Kazakh Republic. Both have the root word – Kazakh. Let’s call the country Kazakh Republic. Along with Kazakhstan. I like the name. It is brief, sounding, proud and quite well fits the Turkic system of word formation.

- Why has the sudden need for a doctrine appeared? Have inter-ethnic relations worsened? Are there any tensions that need urgent solution? What is the reason? Natpats say it is another plea before the West to nominate our president for the Nobel Peace Prize and distract people from economic problems emerged after joining Customs Union.

- Quite possibly that’s true. Have no idea why we need that. I live in Kazakhstan since 1941 and my life here was good. We are fated to live together in future as well. Without any assemblies and doctrines, which are only to distract people. And for showing off before the West.

The greater part of population doesn’t know a thing about any assemblies nor doctrines. One must work hard - pull water to villages, lay power cables, pave the roads, develop production, make sure every person has a job and enhance social protection, which is far effective than any doctrines and assemblies.

- In Zhas Kazakh Uni [the voice of young Kazakh] I once read: two decades on since Kazakhstan gained independence. However, Kazakhs are now living worse than before. The main reason stated is abjection of national identity in Kazakhs. Do you think this is the reason?

- In my understanding identity depends on whether you are a slave in your mind or a free man. A truly free man will never humiliate or enslave the other.

In my view, national self-awareness of Kazakhs is not belittled, if we also have in mind the pride for the country and commitment to its destiny. I am a patriot of my country, a patriot of everything Kazakh and I am proud of many traits our people have. I know a story when a guest from Kazakhstan was invited for a cup of coffee in Germany. Almost in two sips he emptied the cup and waited for another. To no purpose. As it turned they wouldn’t give more. They invited for a cup, not two. Fair enough!

Our people can hardly imagine doing that to a guest. They will give you their last bread and invite sincerely.

But one should know what to boast of. We have an external debt of over 100 billion dollars. What can we be proud of? Of that you are living on credit which your grandchildren will have to pay for? In order to truly be proud of your country, you need to work hard, improve your life, exterminate theft, corruption and thirst for profiteering. We need to set social justice and create honest and unbribable courts. In order to unite the people…  

- Several years ago you suggested making the Kazakh language a unifying national idea…

- That’s what I thought then. Then I understood that would never happen. At large, what surprises me is that people are very proud of non-Kazakhs speaking fluent Kazakh. The latter are regularly shown on TV and praised for knowing the language. But, the fact that Russians, Germans and others speak good Kazakh will not change the country. Kazakhs, themselves, should perfectly know their mother tongue, not only colloquial, but bookish as well. Non-Kazakhs do not develop the language, that’s you, Kazakhs, who develop it. Once you all together speak Kazakh, we, non-Kazakhs will have nothing left, but speak it too. So it happened the pure Kazakh language is now almost extinct. I was lucky to know some old film actors who possessed the skill of speaking very beautiful and rich language full of proverbs and people’s wisdom.

- In old times, one would concern about public opinion. People would treasure it trying not to fall in the estimation of public and evaluate own deeds and words in line with public opinion…

- There is no public opinion long before now.  It is no longer valued. One may say something indecent and easily look into eyes. Once, among my old acquaintances, I was at a meeting of writers with the president. All of them used to criticize the existing order and authorities before, so it seemed to me should you give them a chance they would tell what they think in front of anyone. But then, at the table, the same people, giving no way to each other, sang the song of praise to the president. That was a true my-word-is-the-sweetest contest.

I remember Jambyl Jabayev, a Kazakh poet of Soviet times. He couldn’t find the right word about Stalin – to call him the Sun – the Sun does not shine at night, to call him the Moon – but you can’t see it during the day.

So did these men – showered the president with compliments. That’s how public opinion is made.

- You have been living in Kazakhstan for seventy years and know many various people. Do you think there is an eligible heir to the head of state, if a question comes up?  Is there a person able to pull the country together and choose the right course to lead the people?

- A friend of mine, Zeinulla Kabdolov, with whom we discussed the issue used to say – “there is no alternative to Nazarbayev!” I say – what kind of country is this then? With a 16 million population it has no alternative to Nazarbayev? Who we are then? A miserable nation. It is not right!

Everyone understands that any leader is a temporary figure. He will leave when time comes. If people are not able to give another leader, they are miserable.

I know Nazarbayev very well. He treats me incredibly nicely, despite my criticism. He is a patriot and he loves his country. By nature, he is exceptionally talented and charismatic person. Being a very good psychologist he is a good judge of character. Therefore I can’t understand why he has surrounded himself with the people dissonant with him. To understand that is beyond my abilities.

There are many people eligible to lead the state. Personally, I know most of those who can haul this carriage and have all the best traits. They are young, vigorous, well-educated, know several languages, including Kazakh. Not five or ten, there are many of them. I am sure, should we trust a high post to one of them, in a half a year we will say “How did we miss him before?” For this moment, the posts there, at the top, are occupied by exactly other people.

- When it comes to a successor, it is worth remembering Marx and his “Coup of 18 Brumaire.” Specifically, the lines reading that a nation, like a woman, is not forgiven a minute of mistake, when any first comer may do violence to her. It is not a secret that the president enjoys the support of Russian speaking population thanks to his inter-ethnic tolerance. Will the next leader be the same?

- No need to fear that. Wise Kazakhs say – when black donkey comes, you yell “where are you, my red head donkey!” No bashi bazouk will win support of Kazakh people. Too many things tie Kazakhstan to Russia. The bonds have formed over centuries and this is the only way to preserve the nation and statehood of Kazakhs. There is no other way than not to reproach each other and not to recall the bad. Kazakhstan will not survive without Russia, providing it keeps friendliness with other countries as well.

By the way, Nazarbayev, he deserves appreciation, very skillfully finds balance between the three “whales” that now hold the world. I can’t say he is doing without losses, but he successfully continues the diplomacy of great Kazakh Khans. This is what his successor should know as a priority.

Concerning the sounding statements of national patriots I can say everybody understands that they are seeking a foothold to come to power.

- Your name is Gerold, which means “herald,” “troubadour”. If you had a chance of saying something to everybody in face, what would be that?

- I would say “Always, whatever the situation is, remain a good man.”

March 28 2013, 15:33

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