We survived Stalin and we can certainly overcome Borat’s slurs

By Erlan Idrissov, the Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom (THE TIMES, 04/11/06):

LET ME admit it: we Kazakhs owe Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat’s creator, a debt. Not only is he capable of making many of us — myself included — laugh out loud, but his spoof documentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, has resulted in the kind of media attention of which previously I could only dream.

In a sense he has placed Kazakhstan on the map — no mean achievement, since, even though it is the size of Western Europe, most people in the English-speaking world have difficulty in spelling its name and have only a vague idea of where it is. Thanks to Borat, I have received more press inquiries, more requests for interviews and more speaking invitations in the past few weeks than during the previous four years.

Borat is not noted for his modesty, but he does make one modest claim. He declares himself “the seventh most famous man in Kazakhstan”. This understates his celebrity. The reality is that the only thing many millions of people in the West know about Kazakhstan — or think they know — comes from Borat. Indeed, the success of this comic invention is almost entirely dependent on Western ignorance.

Borat’s growing fame now exceeds that of his creator, rather in the way that Dame Edna Everage’s international celebrity outstripped that of Barry Humphries. There is, however, a crucial difference between Edna and Borat. Edna is not your typical Melbourne housewife, but she could have been created only by someone who possessed a deep understanding of Australian society. Borat could have been created only by someone who knows nothing about Kazakhstan and has never been there. I doubt whether Borat could survive if his creator knew the reality of modern Kazakhstan, and perhaps this is why Mr Baron Cohen shows no enthusiasm to visit. Like all tourists, he would be impressed by the warmth and hospitality of the locals, as well as by the pace of economic advance. He might also like to meet his namesake, Yeshaya Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan, and to accompany him to the new synagogue in Astana, the gleaming new capital.

He won’t, of course, encounter anything that fits into the imaginary land that he calls “Kazakhstan”. But then, as Mr Baron Cohen has acknowledged, his Borat character was based on a chance encounter with a Russian, not a Kazakh; the outdoors scenes in his film were shot in Romania; Borat’s trademark greeting “Jagshemash” is not Kazakh; and Borat does not look remotely like a Kazakh.

The British press has suggested recently that the Kazakh Government has overreacted to the film. It is true that many Kazakhs are offended by Borat. But it is simply not true that the Government has sought to sue Mr Baron Cohen, or spent millions on a PR counter-offensive. The advertisements highlighting my country’s achievements which recently appeared in US newspapers were placed to coincide with the visit of the Kazakhstan President to Washington; they were not intended as a reply to Borat. Might it just be that the claims to the contrary by the film-makers’ publicity agents derive from their desire to maximise takings at the box office?

I am nevertheless grateful to The Times for inviting me to the film. Having seen it, I do not doubt that Mr Baron Cohen possesses a remarkable comic talent. Some scenes really made me laugh. It is also incredible how Americans could have been duped by Borat on such a massive scale.

Yet other scenes leave an unpleasant aftertaste, especially those that provide an outlet for Borat’s anti-Semitism and extreme chauvinism. There is no reason why a comedian should be expected to worry about giving offence, but I hope that increasing numbers of Borat’s viewers will come to understand the reasons why some of my fellow countrymen and women feel as they do.

The first has to do with my country’s recent past. Many Kazakhs suffered in the gulag and were used as unwitting guinea-pigs for a number of ugly “social experiments”. Nearly two million Kazakhs died as a result of Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture (Borat, incidentally, declares himself to be a great admirer of Stalin).

We do not want to be treated as a nation of victims — we have far too much going for us for that. But we had hoped that a certain sensitivity and respect might be due to those who have experienced suffering on such a scale. Were we wrong?

Secondly, since taking charge of our own political destiny only 15 years ago and embarking on a programme of reform, we have created new economic and political institutions largely based on Western models and programmes. We also send a high proportion of our best and brightest students to British and US universities. It is disappointing to discover that societies that you look to with respect and admiration seem almost wholly indifferent to your endeavours, and react uncritically to those who grossly misrepresent the character of your country.

Thirdly, my country, which is predominantly Muslim, consists of more than 100 ethnic and religious groups. Racial and ethnic tolerance is a practical necessity and the key to stability of the infant Kazakh state. Consequently we do not laugh easily at jokes based on racial slurs or prejudice.

Having survived Stalin we will certainly survive Borat. But please understand why our laughter is selective. I suspect that when you know more about the real Kazakhstan. yours will be too.