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Yes, You Khan. No, You Can't: Proposal To Rename Kazakh Town Splits Residents

A statue of Kenesary Khan in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana. Kenesary, who led a grueling resistance to Russian rule, has been feted as a "national figure" for Kazakhs.

DERZHAVINSK, Kazakhstan -- The hands of a clock located near the central square of Derzhavinsk are stuck at 15 minutes to four, adding to the sense that time has frozen in this town in northern Kazakhstan.

Derzhavinsk's streets have retained their Soviet-era names, and the town has witnessed little progress since its days as a closed military settlement that hosted the USSR's 38th Strategic Rocket Forces Division.

Today, its population of some 6,000 people is only around one-fifth of its Soviet-era total, and many complain about the town's beaten roads and ailing infrastructure.

"Look what kind of work we have," local resident Yelena Khabarova told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "We're either selling things or driving taxis. We're not living. We're just surviving."

But in recent weeks, residents have had something else to talk about after the local authorities proposed renaming the town after a Kazakh khan, or leader, who led the armed resistance against Russian imperial forces in the 19th century.

The proposal has divided neighbors in the ethnically mixed town and forced the authorities to put the brakes on the idea.

Derzhavinsk takes its name from the Russian word "derzhava," which means "power," often in the form of a country or an empire. It was founded in 1956 and gained city status a decade later.

On June 19, Derzhavinsk residents gathered at a local hall and voted 192-125 in favor of renaming the town Kenesary, in honor of the Kazakh leader who led the largest uprising against Russian rule in Kazakh territory before he was killed in 1847.

The move came as Astana looks to distance itself from Russia in the wake of the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and after Russian public figures and politicians have publicly questioned Kazakhstan's sovereignty over its northern provinces, which border Russia and boast sizeable ethnic Russian minorities.

Like other democratic exercises in Kazakhstan, the legitimacy of the ballot in Derzhavinsk was soon called into question.

Sergei Yerin, a former town mayor and influential businessman, blamed the local authorities for stirring tensions. Ethnic Russians and other Slavic residents opposed to the name change have begun a campaign against the proposal.

"There was a small announcement in the local newspaper that the question of renaming the town would be raised. The bulk of those who came to the gathering thought there would be a discussion about whether it was necessary to rename it and what options there were," Yerin told the Kazakh Service.

"It is necessary to listen to the people. They are, for the most part, conservative in a good way: They don't like sudden moves and extravagant antics."

'We Forget Our Own Names'

But there is strong support for the proposal among many ethnic Kazakhs.

Tolegen Ibraev, who moved to Derzhavinsk when he was 10, said locals had forgotten their traditions. He claimed that opponents of the name change "need neither a history nor a homeland."

"We not only forget the names of areas and villages, we forget our own names," the 77-year-old told the Kazakh Service, adding that some ethnic Kazakh residents had adopted Russian names.

Today, Derzhavinsk's population of some 6,000 people is only around one-fifth of its Soviet-era total, and many complain about the town's beaten roads and ailing infrastructure.
Today, Derzhavinsk's population of some 6,000 people is only around one-fifth of its Soviet-era total, and many complain about the town's beaten roads and ailing infrastructure.

Ibraev, one of the chief supporters of the proposal, said there was popular demand to rename Derzhavinsk after Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991. But he said that "old policies," in reference to the country's close ties with Russia, had made it impossible.

Local authorities say half of the town's population is ethnic Kazakh and the rest is made up of "other nationalities," including ethnic Russians.

Yekaterina Chibikova, a cook at a local cafe, blamed the renaming initiative on rising nationalism.

"I don't know why so much is about nationality these days. I don't know where it all came from. It didn't used to be this way. There are people who write openly that there shouldn't be anything left of your Russian. Why is this?" she told the Kazakh Service.

But Amangeldy Suleimeinov, a proponent of the name change, said giving the town a new name was an important way of correcting historical injustices.

"Under Soviet rule, no one asked us what to name the town. Now, after we have become a separate state, in my opinion, the names of cities should be Kazakh," he told the Kazakh Service.

With feelings running high, Derzhavinsk officials insisted nothing was final regarding the town's name.

Dosbol Seitbek, the town's deputy mayor, said the vote was a "trial balloon" and that the renaming process had just begun.

"We wanted to listen to the opinion of the people and see what the reaction would be. We didn't think it would be like this. Let's see. There is a leadership above us. We will talk with them and decide what to do," he said in an interview with the Kazakh Service.

In the meantime, a petition against the proposed name change has received nearly 400 signatures, according to Derzhavinsk activist Galina Rozhkovskaya, who has spearheaded the campaign.

Khan Of Controversy

While Derzhavinsk is a name that carries unwanted colonial associations for many ethnic Kazakhs, Kenesary is hardly a neutral political figure.

Known as the last khan of the Kazakhs, Kenesary was the grandson of Ablai Khan, who is regarded by Kazakh historians as the last leader to rule over the Kazakh khanate before it was annexed by the Russian empire in the 18th century.

The resistance led by Kenesary Khan against Russian rule was grueling, according to Astana-based historian Zhambyl Artykbaev, who has lent his expertise to the initiative to rename Derzhavinsk.

A war memorial in Derzhavinsk
A war memorial in Derzhavinsk

Artykbaev hailed Kenesary, who has been feted with statues across Kazakhstan, as a "national figure" for Kazakhs.

Rozhkovskaya, the activist, stressed that she and others are not against Kenesary, who she said defended "our Kazakhstan" from "some kind of forces" in "bygone times."

But Kenesary's armed resistance did not occur "in this area, or [even] close to Derzhavinsk," said Rozhkovskaya.

Artykbaev, the historian, disagreed and said that Kenesary is relevant to Derzhavinsk's history because the khan targeted and burned many Russian fortifications in northern Kazakhstan. Artykbaev said that when Kenesary's forces were beaten back, they retreated to areas that are part of modern-day Zharkain district, of which Derzhavinsk serves as the administrative center.

Residents of Derzhavinsk speak with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.
Residents of Derzhavinsk speak with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

"If Kenesary had not solidified [his forces in Zharkain], the Russians would not have built a fortification there," Artykbaev said. "[The Russians] want history to begin with this fortification in 1848. But our history goes back to ancient times. I'm telling you, even that [Russian] fortification was built on the remains of a medieval city."

Kenesary was killed in what is now modern-day Kyrgyzstan. Historical accounts suggest his head was cut off and sent to the Russian authorities in the Siberian city of Omsk as a trophy.

In 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Kazakhstan's former president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, that he would assist in the retrieval and return to Kazakhstan of Kenesary's remains.

Aya Reno and Timur Aitmukhanbet of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service also contributed to this report.
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    Asemgul Mukhitqyzy

    Asemgul Mukhitqyzy is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. 

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.