In a music video for Galymzhan Moldanazar’s “Kogershin” (“Pigeon”), kids engaged in a war with cardboard weapons seek refuge from a downpour, rushing to a large white yurt, or kiiz ui in Kazakh. Rain ends their battle, and inside the kiiz ui, beneath a radiant shanyrak (the crossed-hatched crown of the yurt), they seek forgiveness, grant it, and ultimately embrace. The pacifist message didn’t go unnoticed, and the music video won its filmmaker, Malik Zenger, the “Best Director Music Video” award at Cannes this summer.
It is not a coincidence that the kiiz ui took the central stage in “Kogershin,” as it symbolizes home, family, and peace in Kazakh culture. Likewise, it was not a coincidence that yurts served as both a symbol and an instrument of what might be termed “citizen diplomacy” when they were sent to regions in need as Kazakh humanitarian aid earlier this year.
Following the start of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, Kazakh society extended their support to various cities, including Bucha, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, by sending yurts as part of humanitarian assistance. A similar gesture occurred when a devastating earthquake struck Turkey: Kazakhs sent approximately a hundred yurts to support victims in the affected province of Kahramanmaraş.
This show of solidarity is deeply rooted in a local tradition of asar, a practice of voluntary collective assistance to those in need. Ordinary Kazakh citizens, civic activists, business representatives, and the Kazakh diaspora in both countries came together to initiate and fundraise money for the acquisition, transport, and installation of yurts and the purchase of other humanitarian aid. Thus, through these yurts of peace, asar gained a transnational dimension, transcending borders to reach individuals abroad.
In Ukraine, these yurts, known as “yurts of invincibility” or yurti nezlamnosti, embody peace, safety and solidarity. Installing the first “yurt of invincibility” in Bucha was an important sign of solidarity with the Ukrainians, showing sympathy to those who suffered. Inside these yurts, Ukrainians found not only a space of peace but also were introduced to Kazakh culture through traditional food, clothing, and music.
By sending yurts to Turkey, Kazakhs demonstrated their solidarity and support for a “brotherly” (tuyskan, agaiyn) nation during a tragedy. In the former case, “yurts of invincibility” represented an expression of emotional support for Ukrainians, while in the latter case, yurts served a more practical purpose by offering shelter to thousands of people who had lost their homes.
While for Kazakhs kiiz ui became a symbol of humanitarian aid, for Ukrainians and Turks they became a symbol of peace and support. Similarly, Kyrgyzstan’s provision of yurts to Turkey illustrated the symbolic importance of these tents for nomadic cultures, presenting them as a tool for a dialogue between cultures.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such shows of mass support — specifically for Ukrainians — by Kazakhs set off alarms in Russia. The Kremlin’s response to the “yurts of invincibility” was swift. Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), asked for an explanation regarding the yurts from her Kazakh counterparts. In response, Aibek Smadiyarov, the official representative of the Kazakh MFA, “explained” as follows: “It was a private initiative of Kazakh citizens, without embassy support, therefore we can neither comment nor prohibit it.” Even though the yurts initiative might not typically warrant attention from such high-level officials, Kazakhstan’s unique geopolitical position obliges it to consider the Kremlin’s concerns even over the actions of private citizens.
Kazakhstan shares the world’s longest continuous — and essentially unprotected — land border (7,644 kilometers) with Russia, maintains strong trade ties with Moscow, transports the majority of its oil through Russian pipelines (over 80 percent), possesses a significant ethnic Russian population (15 percent), and maintains membership in several groupings with Russia, including the Eurasian economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Accordingly, Kazakhstan strives to preserve neutrality by consistently abstaining from various U.N. resolutions, aiming to harmonize its complex geopolitical landscape.
Kazakhstan is essentially walking a tightrope without either a safety pole or a net. In such a sensitive setting, Kazakh civic activism plays a pivotal role. These yurts of peace serve as a means to mirror public sentiments and also enhance the nation’s favorable image abroad at a time when the state’s actions are constrained.
Importantly, Kazakh citizen diplomacy is benefiting both foreigners and Kazakhs. This civic activism fosters horizontal connections and cultivates solidarity not only beyond national borders but also within Kazakh society inside the country. It showcases how people can unite in response to both human-made and natural disasters. Furthermore, the yurts of peace may have — to some extent — boosted Kazakhstan’s image as a supporter of Ukraine, and this promises long-term advantages for the country in the post-war future. This is because one may expect that Ukraine would emerge as an influential actor in world politics following the conflict. As such, Kazakh citizen diplomacy can be viewed as a tool for cultivating humanism and demonstrating solidarity, as well as an important foreign policy instrument.