Throughout Kazakhstan’s long history, native intellectuals have played a controversial role in the process of colonization. Early thinkers of the 19th century, such as Abay Kunanbayev, Ybyray Atynsarin, and Shokan Valikhanov, who lived during the times, when Kazakhstan and Central Asia were colonized by the Russian Empire, were educated in Russia, felt empowered by the knowledge and skills they learned in the imperial center and believed that the Russian language may serve as a channel, which would open the door for Kazakhstan to the “more civilized” Western world. Passionately believing in the transforming potential of the new knowledge, they inadvertently acted as agents of colonization. They were the ones who translated Russian classics to the Kazakh language and who wholeheartedly appealed to their countrymen to familiarize with the Russian language and culture. In doing so, they installed in the cultural DNA of Kazakhs’ appreciation of international worldviews and experiences as a source of ideas for domestic modernization. But they also borrowed their innocent hand in gradual Russian colonialization of Kazakhstan.
After the fall of the Russian Empire, native intellectuals continued to be viewed as important allies of the Soviet State, which intended to maintain the Russian control over the minds and the resources of the steppe people. Building on the dissatisfaction with the colonial regime of the tsar, which was growing among the local poor and the intelligencia, the Soviets had initially supported and relied on the influence of native thinkers, such as Baitursynov, Bukeyhanov, Karatayev, and then, having achieved their goal of overthrowing the tsarist regime, exterminated their former intellectual allies to protect the newly established oppressive regime of the Soviets from any resistance, which the intellectuals could have potentially led. Subsequently, a younger generation of local intellectuals was cultivated and used by the Soviet government to exert influence on the local people via their literary, artistic and scientific work, but also to lead the local Soviet government in the way envisioned by the central authorities. These intellectuals had not other choice, but to serve the interests of the oppressor given than thousands of their uncollaborative and disagreeable peers were regularly subject to political repressions and ostracism.
In this paper, we use decoloniality perspective, in particular, the ideas of Mignolo (2011), Quijano (2000), Said (2001), to show how contemporary intellectuals in Kazakhstan find themselves both in the position of agents and objects of neocolonial oppression. In particular, we look at a specific group of intellectuals – scholars, who received their Ph.Ds abroad and who have returned to Kazakhstan to work in higher education. Using data from 25 interviews with returnees, we show how, on the one hand, due to their experience and knowledge received in foreign countries, notably, the West, these individuals are used as “missionaries” in converting the educational system to the new set of neoliberal ideals. On the other hand, we demonstrate, how, when working side-by-side with international academics, these individuals are devalued, exploited, and find themselves as first victims of colonization.