National History Online? by Alun Thomas

A friend studying International Communications recently had me read an article published in 1990, which discussed the process of globalization. The piece is measured and dismisses some modish concerns about Americanization. But, twenty-three years on, some of its predictions look extravagant. They certainly put the triumphalism we get from Google and Facebook into some kind of perspective.

The article relies on a well-worn abstract distinction between ‘nation’ and ‘state’, which I’ll apply to Kazakhstan to give these terms some weight. The Kazakh state is constituted by the country’s bricks and mortar institutions: its police force, the Mazhilis and Senate and so on. The Kazakh nation is the idea of Kazakhstan: its flag, national anthem or its people’s sense of shared history and culture.

Apparently in 1990 it looked like nations and states would become increasingly distant from one another. As sources of information and opinion pluralised, particularly online, states like Kazakhstan’s would cede control over Kazakh nationhood to international news organisations and bloggers. As mobility improved, Kazakhs would go abroad and take their identity out of the jurisdiction of the state. They would continue to define Kazakhstan from elsewhere, participating in an international discussion about their nation (as, perhaps, has Sacha Baron Cohen).

I’ll be doing archival research in Kazakhstan in May, and through a combination of indolence and confusion I applied for my visa later than I planned. This forced me to imagine the consequences of not getting my passport back in time. My project would go nowhere. The information I need is locked away in documents only to be found in Almaty. It’s so obvious it’s barely worth saying; you need more than just good broadband to study Kazakh history. In fact, you have to submit yourself to the demands of the Kazakh state. The state will grant me my visa, it will decide whether I’m allowed in on arrival, it will decide whether I’m allowed out on departure. While in Almaty I’ll live by the state’s laws, buy goods from state-regulated retailers using state-controlled currency, and flick through papers in buildings maintained by the state.

Here then is the complacency with which commentators sometimes talk about an information age. National identity is informed by national history, and a nation’s history is still governed by a nation’s state. It’s not just Kazakhstan. The obvious retort is that Kazakhstan is not a fully globalized country, but no country’s history is really globalized. Few enough archives have begun advertising their holdings online, let alone uploading actual content. Of course, this has implications for history whether it’s conceived in national terms or not.

For the record, the Kazakh state is unobtrusive. But as long as obtrusiveness or otherwise is at the state’s discretion, I think talk of the separation of nation and state is premature. It certainly was in 1990.

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