The Spirit of the Steppes and Winds of the Prairies: what is common between Kazakhstan and America

When it comes to the United States of America, one can often hear diametrically opposed opinions. Some people think it to be a country with immoderate imperial ambitions, double standards, philistine morality and a low level of education and culture. Some even depreciatingly call its residents ‘Americos,’ associating them with ignorance, naivety and aggressiveness. Meanwhile, millions of people on our planet dream of becoming U.S. nationals; studying at an American university is, for example, a most prestigious aspiration for young people in many countries in the world. Many of them have, meanwhile, been seduced by modern American technology and culture.

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A freedom loving character and religious tolerance

If we think more deeply, we can find that Kazakhstan and the U.S. have more similarities than differences – and this is in addition to the noteworthy hypothesis claiming that ancestors of modern Kazakhs were the first to settle America, having crossed the Bering Strait and passed through thousands of kilometres of prairie, the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians thousands of years ago.

For several centuries, since the arrival of pioneer settlers, the most important geopolitical and psychological factor in forming Americans as a single nation has been the fact that the vast expanse of American land was a kind of territory of Liberty and Democracy, a search for something new and unexplored. If life on the East coast did not suit them because of political, religious or economic reasons, Americans have always had the opportunity to move deeper into the continent in search of new lands and communities. This freedom of choice has been unrestricted, and this freedom has formed the free spirit and liberal philosophy of modern American democracy.

In this same way, the boundless expanse of the Kazakh Steppe has given rise to liberty, forming the independent and freedom-loving nature of the Kazakhs for centuries. The Kazakhs have a unique ethos, distinguished by endurance, physical and psychological traits. As a nation, the Kazakhs have been formed as a result of migration of the most freedom-loving part of the steppe nomads, who looked for freedom and liberty. The association with pilgrims and American pioneer settlers is clear. The lands of America were tamed by freedom-loving, ambitious, industrious people unable to stand tyranny but tolerant towards dissenting views and various religious predilections. There is no doubt that only people with exceptional qualities could explore and preserve the vast expanse of the Kazakh steppe or the American prairie within the framework of unified states at the opposite sides of the globe.

The freedom in expressing religious feelings is a feature common to our peoples. Religious tolerance was typical for America; from the first steps in forming its statehood, when the Puritans were exploring and settling new territories together with Catholics, Quakers, Huguenots and representatives of other Christian movements. In order to understand the significance of this consolidation and tolerance, it is important to recollect the antagonistic atmosphere that existed in much of Christendom in the age of Reformation.

In its history, and alongside the predominant religion of Islam, Kazakhstan experienced the heyday of Tengrianism, as well as the spread of Nestorian Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. This open-mindedness to new ideas and worldview is a distinctive feature of the Kazakhs; an outlook that is a key prerequisite for our present-day state policy of interfaith dialogue.

To elevate the steppe and not humiliate mountains

Both America and Kazakhstan are characterised by the beauty of nature, and the benevolence and openness of their people. I know a lot of foreigners who have come to Kazakhstan to work, but then took up residence here after falling in love with the Kazakh people, culture, and wildlife. It seems that protecting nature and ensuring the cleanliness of the environment should be placed as top priorities in Kazakhstan, and in this respect, we would do well to learn from the Americans.

Since the turn of the 20th century, when President Theodore Roosevelt was in office, national parks began to be established in America, where not only industrial but also private house building is banned. Today, the American national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, are vast masterpieces of pristine nature and all Americans are proud of them.

Today, the city of Pittsburgh – which used to be the steel-making capital of America and analogous to Kazakhstan’s Temirtau – is one of the cleanest cities in the world. After experiencing economic difficulties in the 1970s, caused by the export of steelmaking to other countries, current-day Pittsburgh is famous for its large medical centre, as well as an advanced biotechnology and IT industry. It is an amazingly beautiful and clean city, blending harmoniously into the landscape of local mountains and rivers.

Leading American entrepreneurs are very keen on developing sources of alternative energy. This is a new economic understanding, which is called not even post-industrial but post-modernist. In the U.S. cities, it is precisely this postmodernism that has recently appeared – in Austin in Texas, Ann Arbor in Michigan, and Portland in Oregon. Many of the inhabitants of these cities mostly use bicycles to get from one place to another and eat organic food. They are keen on painting and classical music. Why not turn Astana or Almaty into cities of this kind?

Cosmopolitism and cultural diversity

As well as being the birthplace of jazz and rock’n’roll, America is known for having the world’s largest number of high-class symphony orchestras, including those in Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland that have been conducted by the brilliant Georg Solti and Seiji Ozawa. The Carnegie Hall, Metropolitan Opera and Kennedy Centre are, of course, world-famous music venues.

I am pleased to see the growing interest in classical music in Kazakhstan. A number of beautiful concert halls including the Astana Opera have been erected, and famous symphony orchestras, opera singers and ballet companies visit the country. Recently, a remarkable cohort of talented performers, many of whom have been trained in La Scala and the Vienna State Opera, have appeared in Kazakhstan. Recent productions of Aida by Verdi, Red Giselle by Eifman and Notre Dame de Paris in Astana could impress any foreign connoisseur of classical opera and ballet. Attending a performance in Astana, I listened to a piece from Wagner’s Tannhauser: I was pleasantly surprised how highly the large Astana audience appreciated this very complicated performance.

In combination with the steppe lyrics of Tattimbet and the imperative harmony of Kurmangazy, world classical music creates unique and beautiful art. I am sure that Kazakhstan has great potential for developing unique art; the country could become a world centre of culture and post-modernist society.

In the U.S., people learn more about Kazakhstan through the promotion of our history and culture, through our Olympic achievements and the peace-loving policy of the state. This is facilitated by a fairly wide access to information – you can, for example, find originals of photographs (daguerreotypes) of the Kokand Khanate from the 19th century, as well as books by Mukhtar Auezov in Kazakh language in the U.S. Library of Congress. I would also like people to learn about the country’s scientific and technological achievements.

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Innovations with no borders

In most indicators, the U.S. leads the world in the field of innovation. Despite having only five percent of the world’s population, more than 70 percent of the Nobel Prizes awarded have gone to American recipients. The country still maintains a leading position in the field of information technology, life sciences, nanotechnology and virtually all key areas of the innovation economy. All of this has allowed American scientists to create unique biotechnology and pharmaceutical products, medical devices, DNA sequencing, as well as the Internet, lasers, global positioning satellites and hundreds of other widely-used technologies.

America owes many of its technological and other achievements to immigrants and their descendants. Today, you can see a person of Chinese origin at the head of the Department of Energy and a representative of other ethnicities managing a large bank or a transnational IT company and representing the United States at the United Nations.

People originating from Kazakhstan have made a notable impact in the U.S. Along with the well-known film director Timur Bekmambetov, scientists Shukhrat Mitalipov and Dos Sarbasov, doctor Samir Tulebayev and violinist Arman Murzagaliyev have found success. Everything is changing drastically; in Silicon Valley, for example, names of Kazakhstan computer scientists are appearing more and more often. There are new opportunities and niches that are quickly filled with representatives from different ethnic groups, for whom the American Dream comes true.

Control, competition, choreography, and trust

The concept of the American Dream was first coined in The Epic of America, a book by James Truslow Adams published in 1931. In it, the author gives the following definition of the American Dream: ‘Citizens of any rank and class need to strive for a life that is better, richer and happier. America gives everyone the opportunity to achieve this dream in accordance with the abilities and efforts made.’

Modern Americans can be characterised by three words: control, competition and choreography.

Control. This is not about controlling someone else’s behaviour or bending them to another’s will or decisions. Americans consider control as the desire to control their own situation – namely, to control their own health, education of their children, safety, financial position and their family well-being, so that in their life the ‘situation is under control’, and that they have managed this independently, regardless of the state, a relative, ‘well-wisher’, or ‘backing’. Americans believe that happiness and prosperity can be achieved through focused daily effort, and not just expecting that all this will just fall into their hands from the sky. And this applies not only to long-term life strategy. To take an everyday example, whereas we would simply say that it is raining, Americans would expect a detailed forecast: how much rain will fall, and in which U.S. cities. There are many websites and television channels dedicated exclusively to the weather, since everyday decisions and safety precautions, when driving the car for example, exclusively depend on their reports.

Competition. Americans like competing; if anyone enters your market, this is considered a sign that you are moving in the right direction. For an American, competition is the strongest incentive and a real opportunity to create a product that is better and more perfect than that of their competitor. To lose in a competitive struggle is seen as opportunity to upgrade and, taking additional risks as necessary, win the next battle. The desire to compete has created the large number of colleges, airlines and television channels in America. State protectionism and free economic zones do not work in the USA, since they are contrary to the moral principles of free competition and the life philosophy of Americans. At the same time, liberal legislation on bankruptcy contributes to helping entrepreneurs arise from the ashes in case of failure. But there are fundamental differences between competition and competitiveness: coming into a large inheritance does not automatically and instantly confer competitiveness, and a failure to become competitive can also quickly lead to loss of any such resources. Striving to be competitive is, therefore, an individual characteristic, a philosophy, an internal stimulus necessary for development and prosperity, and not just access to resources.

Choreography. Americans like to furnish any event with a lot of fanfare and razzamatazz. This does not solely extend to presidential inaugurations, Oscar ceremonies or football Super Bowls. Even a small event in a kindergarten and primary school, or a basketball match at the level of an ordinary college, are arranged to be accompanied by a great, elegantly choreographed fanfare (think, for instance, of cheerleaders at a school football match). The ceremony of awarding diplomas to graduates is a most important event, attended by parents, close relatives, and friends. Successful businessmen, such as the president of Boeing, or Apple CEO are invited to such ceremonies. Success is encouraged, and everyone should be able to demonstrate it to the fullest.

A scientific discovery, a blockbuster movie or a recognised musical work are created thanks to the talent, will, diligence and desire of individuals. This requires knowledge, experience and will-power, as well as opportunities for their implementation. However, the willpower and talent of individuals, in themselves, are not sufficient to build a post-industrial, innovative economy. Without plurality of opinions and freedom of expression of ideas, a society and economy are destined for dominating vertical links, fragmentation, an inability to develop and adapt technologies or stimulate information and technological exchange. This is what people of Kazakhstan can learn from American democracy.

Moral family values for the nation, and generation

For Americans, there is also a lot to learn from the Kazakh traditions. In Kazakh society, the mother – Ana, Apa, with whom spiritual and cultural inwardness and high morality are associated – has always been the vehicle of family moral values. It has been at all times, regardless of Tengrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Communist ideology, whose influence the spiritually rich, nomadic civilisation of the Kazakhs has selectively perceived and experienced at different periods of their history. Abai’s Words of Edification is considered to be the quintessence of spirituality by the Kazakhs. A whole layer of wisdom has been passed on through many generations orally and often in an allegorical form.

Moral values ​​have, then, been ‘sucked in with mother’s milk’, fixed from early childhood and permanently observed until a person’s dying day. These values have allowed the Kazakhs to survive in the boundless expanses of the steppe, preserving their ethnic identity and to be strong-willed, peaceful and hospitable in nature. In good sooth, when enlightening a man you educate a person, but when enlightening a woman you form a family, a nation, a generation. Morality, cultivated by the mother, cannot be understood as idealistic or utopian; it is based on unconditional trust and should be guaranteed and observed until the end of life and passed on to subsequent generations. This is a most stable model: it surpasses any propaganda, doctrine, secular or religious upbringing.

In his book The Epic of America, James T. Adams also quoted the words of a French diplomat about the peculiarities of Americans, ‘Everyone looks you straight in the eyes, without the thought of inequality.’ Recently, I have had the opportunity to speak to Kazakh students and representatives of creative youth as part of TEDx technology conferences in Astana and Almaty. It was interesting to communicate with talented people who had a twinkle in their eyes and healthy ambitions. They express their thoughts on equal terms – freely and openly – and strive for cherished goals passionately. They are the movers and shakers on whom the future of our society depends.

The author is a native of Kazakhstan and a citizen of the United States, and has 30 years of experience in the fields of biomedical science, clinical research, and healthcare management. Currently, he is the president of the Academy of Preventive Medicine, which works to improve the quality of personal and community health of the people of Kazakhstan.

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