Terek Project Illuminates Power of Family Stories Across Kazakhstan

ASTANA – Driven by a shared vision of preserving the rich tapestry of family stories woven across Kazakhstan, Terek Story, run by Yingkar Bahetnur and Gulnaz Tulenova, embarked on an ambitious endeavor to create a digital library of family histories. The project, nicknamed terekstory on Instagram, invites everyone to send their family stories and share them on social networks with the hashtag #terekstory for a contest until July 23. 

The Terek Story project aims to capture the essence of Kazakhstan’s heritage by collecting and digitizing personal narratives from every corner of the country. Their goal was to create a treasure trove of memories that would allow current and future generations to connect with their roots and understand the deep bonds that tied families together.

Yingkar Bahetnur and Gulnaz Tulenova. Photo credit: personal archive of Bahetnur and Tulenova

“We started this project based on an offer from a friend from our partner organization called Aul Inspire, which is a social project initiated at Harvard University. Their alumni came back to Kazakhstan to teach children in rural areas. They found that one of the key things that would make rural children more adapted to their social-emotional learning is writing their family stories,” Bahetnur, a project lead at Terek Story, told The Astana Times.

While the partner organization did not have the capacity to launch the project, Bahetnur and Tulenova decided to set out on an extraordinary journey themselves. 

“I have my own personal reflection on my family story, especially after the pandemic, when you spent a lot more time with your family, you have a lot more reflections, and you start understanding your families more. There was plenty of time. You could listen to those stories that you have never heard before,” said Bahetnur, a Nazarbayev University graduate with a major in civil engineering. 

Terek Story, which kicked off as a pilot project in May, is a joint initiative between Aul.Inspired and the Center for Political Solutions conceptualizing their missions into one project. 

“Another partnering organization is called Center for Policy Solutions. Last year, they did some research on Kazakh identity, [created] a lot of podcasts related to this project, which was quite popular. We also wanted to talk about stories that shaped our identity. We had discussions on that. In fact, there are some intersections. Your family stories, your identities are not unrelated. They’re always together,” said Bahetnur. 

Intricacies of the process

Bahetnur has been preparing the project since January, including searching for colleagues and doing a literature review to avoid duplicating ideas. 

“Forming the team was relatively easy because whenever we approached someone, they were always excited about this idea,” she said. 

The team has published ten stories so far, said Gulnaz Tulenova, a project assistant who is responsible for collecting and writing the stories. Two stories are in the process of being published. “We aim for 15 to 20 stories to be published during this period,” said Tulenova, who has a history degree from Nazarbayev University. 

Bahetnur elaborated that family stories also require fact-checking. 

“When you write family stories, you can be emotional, you probably don’t really care about fact-checking. But it’s good to have it in your family writing process. It takes time and energy,” she said. 

Translators on the team help stories reach wider audiences, making them available in English and Russian. 

“One of our team members was very passionate about having English translation because she wants the stories of Kazakhstan to be accessed by Westerners so that they can learn about our history,” said Bahetnur. 

In May, the team conducted a workshop inviting six experts from the field of history, anthropology, sociology and ethnography to teach interested individuals how to write family stories.

“We had around 50 participants. Among them, 20 are very actively engaged,” she added. “We gave them a chance to listen to some experts to know how to write their stories.”

Concept of family

Family is a very sacred concept in Kazakh history. Capturing the stories is vital, said Tulenova, explaining that in the Kazakh tradition, family stories are usually passed down from generation to generation orally. 

“Kazakh people love to tell stories, but it’s just oral history. No one is writing them down. No one is collecting or publishing. We see in Western countries that oral history is very developed. They have methods. Our experts were sharing already tested methodologies and techniques – how to write stories, how to ask parents or grandparents, and what kind of questions one can ask. It might seem easy, but actually, this is very challenging,” Tulenova explained.

Bahetnur mentioned the Kazakh tradition of shezhire, the practice of tracing and documenting one’s family lineage or genealogy. But according to her, it doesn’t fully represent the family’s history. 

“It’s a very concise form. We see now that with the new technologies and more resources, we could enrich it,” said Bahetnur. 

Ethics and diversity 

Complying with ethical norms is essential to the project, as sharing family stories is a very intimate process. Participants can refuse to take part in the project at any stage if they feel uncomfortable, whether during the interview or after writing the story. 

Bahetnur said she was concerned about people’s openness to talk about families. Yet, the project revealed surprising insights. 

“Some people even started appreciating it because, in the beginning, they were afraid. So many people write comments about their family stories, sharing stories with their relatives. I was amazed as some of the relatives would start fact-checking on this part, so that’s also helping us correct our memory,” said Bahetnur. 

She also emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusivity in capturing family stories. 

“We pay particular attention to getting our story from different backgrounds. We hope we could cover as many different regions of Kazakhstan as possible. We don’t want to leave out some ethnic groups. It’s not only the stories of Kazakhs. We don’t want to just cover one historical period, not only the 1930s, or 40s,” said Bahetnur.

The gender aspect is also what the team monitors closely. Bahetnur observed that women are more open to participating in such projects. 

“I still couldn’t figure out why exactly. But I think it’s something to consider in the long term,” said Bahetnur. “It seems that it’s usually a woman who tells us stories. Women will even tell the stories of their husband’s family stories. They know it probably even better [than the husbands]. Even though you don’t want to point out these gender roles in the family, it’s still the case,” said Bahetnur. 

Bahetnur noted that history textbooks tend to reflect the perspectives of the state, often neglecting the diversity of experiences. 

In contrast, the aim of their project was to capture a multitude of voices. 

“Even in the same period, when the historical event happened, the families may experience it differently, be it a famine or the Second World War. Some people’s stories can be very different from what is depicted in those books, which were written a long time ago, and we don’t know how it was written,” said Bahetnur. 

Bridging generational gap 

Tulenova said she believes the project can help bridge the generational gap.

“Now, young people spend a lot of time on their mobile phones, whether at work or studying. They’re not paying attention to history. They’re paying attention to the [Instagram] reels, trends or TikTok. Our grandparents are paying much attention to why the youth are using the mobile phone and spending so much time on the internet,” she explained.

Capturing the family story of her mother, Tulenova also acknowledged it made her see her mom from a different perspective. 

“It’s very special to me. Of course, I knew this story, but after publishing the story of my mom and her grandparents, I started to see my mom from a different angle. Special feelings towards her arose,” said Tulenova. 

Tragic periods in Kazakh history

Out of 10 published stories, Tulenova said she could see the period of famine and collectivization left very deep traumas in people’s lives. 

The period of famine, known as Asharshylyq, which translates to hunger or starvation in Kazakh, refers to the severe famine that occurred in Kazakhstan between 1930 and 1933 during the Soviet era, a consequence of a combination of factors, including forced collectivization, agricultural policies, and economic mismanagement imposed by the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin. 

The government implemented rapid collectivization, which involved confiscating privately owned land and livestock and merging them into large collective farms, leaving little for the local population to sustain themselves. The impact was tragic, leading to the loss of millions of lives.

“Everyone still remembers this. Afterward, in the 1960-70s, people were in survival mode, they were only thinking about getting a degree, finding a job, and getting married. That’s it. One of the questions [in the project] is what was your dream when you were young? Almost six out of 10 answered they didn’t have any aim or any dream. They have the trauma of their parents who survived the famine and collectivization,” Tulenova explained. 

Search for identity

Bahetnur said from her observations among peers, it appears that those who are educated and bilingual are often more interested in discussing topics related to identity. Speaking with researchers, she thought of the idea that exposure to different cultures prompts individuals to reflect on their own identity. 

Some individuals may experience an identity crisis as they gain a better understanding of their culture and realize that they do not fully fit within it due to the strong influence of globalization.

“I think the family story is a route that you would always come back to. This probably would also positively influence our generations, as well as identity-shaping. Another thing is how these family stories can shape our generation. If we’re open to talking about this, what I noticed from my peers is that even though we all lived in the same period and were born at the same time, because of our family and history differences, we look at things from very different points of view,” said Bahetnur. 

In a rapidly changing world, where traditions often take a back seat to progress, the impact of this initiative can be profound and far-reaching, reminding people of the value of heritage and the collective memory that binds a nation together. 

Bahetnur and Tulenova suggest their idea can be a community volunteering project or it can be transformed into an academic project.

“Our long-term vision ist to create a digital library of Kazakhstan with family stories. I work in the big data field, so I know that every story is data. One of the things I really want to see is to rely more on these stories, so that we could conclude who we are as a country, as a nation,” said Bahetnur. 

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