Empire Lost, Russian People Stream Out of Central Asia
ARCHPRIEST Yevgeny of the Russian Orthodox Church here can see the difference plainly in the suddenly sparse crowd at annual Easter services. More than a million ethnic Russians - and a half million ethnic Germans - have left Kazakstan in less than four years. The apartments they have vacated have created the equivalent of a building boom in parts of Kazakstan. The faces peopling the capital of Almaty, still a rich ethnic mix, have become more Asian and less Slavic. The population of the immense Central Asian steppe shows the tide marks of the Russian empire. When the decade began, there were more Russians than Kazaks in Kazakstan, thanks to a century of Russian homesteading; Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's banishments of alleged dissidents from Russia proper; the moving of arms factories out of Hitler's reach; and Khrushchev's grand cultivation schemes for the ''virgin lands'' of Kazakstan. But since Kazakstan in 1991 became independent of Russia for the first time in more than two centuries, it has become an increasingly Kazak country. Russians here are growing more anxious over their children's future. One Russian interviewed said that even a year ago he never would have thought of leaving Kazakstan. But now the engineer would move to Russia immediately if he had the money. His children never will receive a high-quality education the way he did, he says, because ''Kazaks are in a privileged position for everything.'' Who the Kazaks are Kazaks are the nomadic people who emerged in the 15th century after the Mongol rule of Central Asia. They are largely of Mongol stock, but speak a language similar to Turkish. The Kazaks were independent and unified under a series of khans, or tribal kings, until swearing loyalty to the Russian empress in 1731. The Kazaks have been under some form of Russian control from then until 1991, when the imploding Soviet Union cut them loose. Kazaks still look over their shoulders warily at Russia. The oil-rich Kazaks must export their oil through Russia for refining and import it back for use. Almost anything the Kazaks want to buy or sell travels through Russia. And Russian nationalists from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Vladimir Zhirinovsky want to annex all or part of Kazakstan back into Russia. Tensions between ethnic Russians and Kazaks here have been mild and getting milder as the balance of power shifts between them. The reason is simple: The Russians are leaving. Those who have left are those with the best prospects, so those left behind tend to be older and poorer. ''I expect Russians to continue leaving,'' says Nurbulat Masanov, a history and ethnography professor at Kazakstan State University, ''because Russians living here are second-class citizens.'' Meanwhile, Kazak nationalists are more concerned with how the Kazak language, culture, and economic position has suffered under imperial Russia. To make way for Russian homesteaders, says Hasen Kurjakhmed, chairman of the Kazak nationalist political group AZAT, the Kazaks were pushed into the deserts and least-desirable lands. Russians little understood how pastoral nomads used land, moving with the seasons across large expanses. Nomads had no concept of land ownership. The Kazak Constitution still does not allow for the private ownership of agricultural land, and AZAT activists want Kazak villagers restored to the lands they occupied in the last century before land was privatized. At least, Mr. Kurjakhmed says, the Kazaks should not be stuck with the ecological disaster areas many currently occupy. A major battle of symbols has been fought over language. Many urban Kazaks no longer speak Kazak. But before independence, Kazak became the state language, with Russian given secondary status as the language of international and intergroup communication. Russians fought successfully for the country to be called the Republic of Kazakstan, rather than the Kazak Republic, with its more direct and exclusive-sounding reference to the Kazak ethnic group. Russian names, such as the capital Alma Ata, have been changed to more Kazak forms, hence Almaty. Hi, do you speak Russian? Senior government officials, ethnic Kazaks, now answer their telephones with greetings in Kazak, then shift immediately into Russian. Russians say their prospects in any government field - still the vast majority of jobs - are limited without speaking Kazak. Kazaks still feel their language is dying out, that it is not the language of business even among Kazaks. Deputy Prime Minister Imangaly Tasmagambetov says that Russians have left mainly because of the economic problems of reform. Falling standards of living have clearly made life harder for everyone here, but Russians have the added discomfort of feeling their status is lower. ''The souls of Russian people are very heavy,'' says Archpriest Yevgeny. As the secretary to the Archbishop for Kazakstan, he sees about 200 requests each month for the Russian Orthodox ceremony that follows a suicide, up from one or two a month in previous years. Many of the suicides are people with serious health problems who cannot afford treatment, he says. To help reassure Russian parents about their children's prospects, the church has established a fund that flies the admissions committees of Russian institutions of higher education to Kazakstan on the condition that Russians here compete for admission on an equal footing with Russians in Russia. The program has placed about 200 students from here in more than 25 different schools in Russia. The church asks something of the students as well - that they return to Kazakstan.