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Kazakhstan is Nice?

How Borat altered western perceptions of Kazakhstan

Borat is one of the most quotable comedies of the 21st century, and one I’ve deliberately avoided watching. Borat is a 2006 mockumentary starring Sacha Baron Cohen in the role of, well, Borat, a fictional Kazakh journalist travelling to the US to deliver its “culture” to the Kazakh screens. The movie’s premise is in theory a solid one — create a mockumentary which pokes fun at and exposes the West (particularly the US) and its perceptions of foreignness, whether that be Baron Cohen’s character or minorities more broadly. But there is just one problem in its premise — Kazakhstan. 

Has Borat forever altered Western and even global perceptions of Kazakhstan and if so, to what end? 

By 2024, most of us have developed media literacy skills beyond accepting Borat as an accurate depiction of Kazakhstan and its culture and people. In fact, it has become a popular piece of trivia that the filming location of Borat’s “home village” was in Romania, or that the foreign language spoken by Borat and his producer Azamat involved no Kazakh but was rather a mixture of Hebrew and Armenian. With this in mind, it becomes even more obvious that Borat’s claims about Kazakhstan are obviously parodic. However, while the absurdity of Borat’s depiction of Kazakhstan is evident to those with media literacy, not all viewers discern its satire.

When speaking to Rolling Stone about the role, Baron Cohen explained that he chose Kazakhstan “because it was a country that no one had heard anything about,” allowing the movie to exploit stereotypes associated with its ex-Soviet status, or as he puts it “this ex-Soviet backwater” — charming. He clarified that the satire targets not Kazakhstan, but those who might believe such a portrayal. Unfortunately, the movie’s exaggerated comedy sometimes fails to register as satire, leading some viewers to accept its absurd depictions as cultural truths precisely because of these pre-existing stereotypes of ex-Soviet countries, thus inadvertently reinforcing them. 

As a person with Kazakh heritage, I've witnessed firsthand the impact of Borat, often cited as a source of frustration among Kazakh students in the West. In his BBC article, Yerlan Askarbekov accurately captured this sentiment, noting that “most angry Kazakhs [...] were our students in the UK and US.” One Kazakh student at Boston University shared her mixed feelings, appreciating the satire but noting its real-life implications. She recalled that in small talk, she sometimes avoids saying where she’s from “because [she] already know[s] that’s the first thing they’ll bring up.” 

Another Kazakh student in the US, Aidana, told me that on her first day at boarding school, she was met with “genuine laughter” when she told someone that she’s from Kazakhstan. “She thought I was joking,” says Aidana, and although throughout Aidana’s years in the US the frequency of Borat being brought up to her has decreased, to her “it became an indicator of an individual’s level of ignorance.” Indeed, it’s hard to say that you are from Kazakhstan without hearing some iteration of Borat’s accent and catchphrases in reply. If the joke was on Americans, its punchline has inevitably become the experience of Kazakhs abroad. 

However, this article cannot be written without acknowledging that much of the reception that Borat received from Kazakhstan has in fact been positive. Despite initial controversies, Borat has paradoxically boosted Kazakhstan’s global profile. By 2012, the Kazakh Foreign Minister credited the film for a considerable increase in tourism, illustrating how Kazakhstan has capitalised on the movie’s exposure. The tourism board’s adoption of Borat's “very nice” catchphrase for its 2021 campaign further reflects this embrace. Moreover, a Kazakh tabloid Karavan declared Borat to be the best film of the year in 2006, noting that in its satire it was “certainly not anti-Kazakh” but rather “amazingly funny.”

The funniest moments in Borat are unsurprisingly not those directed at the supposed ‘backwardness’ of Kazakhstan, but rather when the camera pans out to expose Borat’s American companions. Borat’s comedy works best when it punches up. But while gaining some profound insight into post-9/11 America, you’re left learning hardly anything about Kazakhstan. So for now, Kazakhstan is still largely known as Borat-Land, but as Aidana has noted, any “person with [genuine] interest in my country and culture can overstep any issues caused by ignorance by [doing] some easy research.” 

Illustration by Holly Ward

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