Cultural learnings of Kazakhstan
If you can't beat Borat, then borrow his brand
WHY should anyone care about the Kazaks? Or should that be Kazakhs? It is hard to get excited about a country that can’t decide even how to spell its own name. So please greet Borat, the latest fictional creation of a British comic impersonator, Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat is the lecherous, clownish envoy of a culture steeped in racism, sexism, poverty and brutality. The film of his visit to America is extremely funny. So hearty applause all round. And tell those Kazzies not to be so prickly.
That, broadly, is the Western reaction to Kazak protests about Borat. The film may be a ludicrous and offensive caricature. But so what? Nobody’s heard of you anyway. So stop complaining.
But it is not quite so simple. Kazakhstan is the size of western Europe. The country matters hugely for the energy security of the continent. It is doing rather well economically, rather less well politically (though nowhere near as badly as dictatorial Uzbekistan and lunatic Turkmenistan). Given Kazakhstan's importance, Western ignorance of it is striking. Ten years ago your correspondent was talking to an academic, now a high-ranking official in the Bush administration, who was under the confident but mistaken impression that Kazakhstan was not a Muslim country, because, as its name indicated, it was “where the Cossacks lived”. Not much has changed.
It is a fair bet that Mr Baron Cohen would not have chosen as Borat’s homeland a country that featured more prominently in the Western worldview—such as Turkey, for example. Most people would know that Turks did not hunt Gypsies or drink fermented horse urine, some of the pastimes which Mr Baron Cohen attributes to Kazakhstan. Countries such as Turkey are, moreover, good at defending themselves vehemently when criticised.
A very rough guide to Kazakhstan
Foreign satire used to be so much better. The superb “USSR: From an Original Idea by Karl Marx”, by Marc Polonsky and Russell Taylor, was a cult classic of the cold war; so was Malcolm Bradbury’s spoof guidebook, “Why Come to Slaka?”. It seems a bit odd that the best creative minds of the West are still flogging the tired old gag that the ex-captive nations are amusingly obscure and backward. The slick, self-satisfied Anglo-American creative elite is so devastatingly witty at other people’s expense, but ultra-prickly when it comes to its own dignity.
It would be nice to have some comedy dealing with real themes from the post-communist world: Could not a latter-day Charlie Chaplin satirise the pomposity and vulgarity of Putin’s Kremlin? There is plenty for thriller-writers to chew on, too: the combination of cynicism, sleaze and geopolitical arm-wrestling across the ex-communist world cries out for a return there by Le Carré.
Kazakhstan is an easy target for lazy wit. There is no powerful Kazak diaspora to threaten a boycott. Official Kazak efforts to defend the country have been ludicrously counterproductive: the dodgy deletion of borat.kz; an expensive special advertising supplement in the New York Times; part-plaintive, part-pompous letters from ambassadors; empty threats of legal action (to which Mr Baron Cohen has responded by issuing a statement from Borat praising the Kazak decision to “sue the Jew Cohen”).
The only constructive response is to say that all publicity is good publicity. Millions of filmgoers around the world will now have a rough idea that Kazakhstan exists, and they will probably reckon that it cannot really be as benighted as Borat makes out. The Kazak government—remembering that the real victim of Mr Baron Cohen’s parody is not their country, but America—should have the nerve to make Borat the centrepiece of the next national branding campaign, under the slogan “Kazakhstan: less funny than the film—but a lot more fun.”