Inside Rulas.kz: mapping Kazakh youth’s tribal identity

If you think that Kazakh youth is far too modern and stylish for tribal identity talks, think again. Let’s go back and look beyond the D&G shirts, fast cars and fancy bags that constitute the desired and/or obtained bricolage of a mainstream modern and young Kazakh. Differences in class, occupation, and place of residence may not stand as the main identification points if you wish to talk about pride and “coolness” from the roots’ point of view. It is the Tribe that does relate to all these things above all for many young Kazakhs. Tribal identity packed in the symbolic acoutrement of contemporaneity – cell phone and IPad cases, car plates, and even business stationary – wins its own market in Kazakhstan. The launch of the official social network based on tribes – Rulas.kz – was more or less a logical continuation addressing the urges for Kazakh youth to identify with their tribal heritage.

The advent of the digital age brought new updates in traditional Kazakh culture and specifically to the lives of those young Kazakhs who search for their own identity or “roots” and tribesmates. Rulas.kz – a social network that helps in the search for tribemates (rulas in Kazakh means tribemate) seems to offer a lot more than just a simple identification with one tribe or another. Beyond listing just those who belong to the same tribe, e.g., Alban, Naiman, etc., Rulas.kz offers a vast network to explore other young Kazakhs who belong to other tribes within one’s Horde or in other Hordes. In many ways this offers an interesting opportunity for communicating with other rulastar (tribemates) where tribal identity is already defined and thus offers a specific approach to those who communicate.

Young Kazakhs from different cities, educational or social strata find themselves somehow “relatives” and close when find out that they come from the same tribe. Rulas.kz users can send each other virtual presents, like typical “chopan” (traditional coat), a “tubeteika” (national hat) or a virtual “sheep” – a very valuable present indeed. However, it is no secret that negative stereotypes about various tribes also interfere in person-to-person communication. I was myself a witness to broken relationships because girl’s or guy’s family disapproved of the tribe to which the other partner belonged. There also a number of videos going viral online where in a form of jokes newlyweds are breaking their relationships because they belong to the same tribe. Rulas.kz in that sense was a tool to help to escape from these uncomfortable moments of disappointment by allowing people to communicate directly. Established rules of not allowing marriage of tribes mates who have common ancestors up till 7 generations (Zheti ata) also play a major role in breaking romantic relations while trying to build a successful relationship with a member of the “trending” tribe is widely accepted.

“Shezhyre has effectively defined the concept of Kazakh ethnic identity within a specific set of realities. Based on the myth of a single ancestor, this concept entails a set of beliefs and cultural practices, such as a division into smaller, genealogically defined units and an astonishing exogamy requirement” (Esenova 2002:13).

Although the concept of tribal identification (not precisely a basis for clan stratification) on a social and communicative level is not universal for the whole majority of younger generation of Kazakhs, it is visible as a growing trend.  Kazakh.ru – an international Kazakh webpage’s forum – has more than twenty-four pages dedicated to Shezhyre, connecting people who are searching for fellow tribemates all over the world.  The growing demand for the visualisation of one’s tribal identity is also proved by the commercial success of such items as designer cellphone cases and car accessories, where personal and national identity can be displayed . So the fact that a social network that aims to connect people based on their tribal identity was launched in Kazakhstan so comparatively late compared to the mass popularity of other Russian and Western social networks among Kazakh youngsters is interesting.

However, questions remain about divisions beyond just tribal identification among youngsters in Kazakhstan. While the search for the authentic “roots” and answers to the question “Who we are” remain important for many young people in Kazakhstan, their approach to identification varies. With the advent of sites like rulas.kz in 2013 the popularity of very open and cosmopolitan kult.kz peeked as well. Whilst some dating sites offer users the opportunity to seek new friends based on tribal identity, others discuss trends in music, entertainment, and sex, positioning themselves as a resource “for new people,” pointing toward a vision of a contemporary identity or market for young people.