(Mikhail Futman and his wife Akerke on their wedding day. Courtesy photo.)
(Hal Foster appears in the Baltimore Post-Examiner under a partnership with Tengrinews of Kazakhstan. )
It was a momentous occasion for Mikhail Futman, so you could understand the young army officer being nervous.
After all, it wasn’t every day that you got to meet the president, Mikhail said at a Nazarbayev Center conference this month.
He captivated the crowd with an important chapter of his love story that unfolded during Kazakhstan Independence Day celebrations in Astana in mid-December of 2006.
Nursultan Nazarbayev’s staff had arranged for the president to meet 45 non-ethnic Kazakhs who were fluent in Kazakh, Mikhail said.
The event was part of a government effort to promote revitalization of the Kazakh language, which had become a distant second to Russian as the language most Kazakhstan residents used during Soviet times.
Mikhail, an ethnic German, didn’t master Kazakh by studying it in school or at a university, as many non-ethnic Kazakhs do these days. “I learned it by growing up around ethnic Kazakhs as a child” in the southern city of Taraz, the army captain told me in an interview after the conference.
The sturdy blond was one of five Kazakh speakers whom the army had selected to meet the president in 2006. He was a lieutenant at the time.
His military supervisor asked him to prepare short remarks if President Nazarbayev, who loves interacting with constituents, decided to chat with the soldiers.
Mikhail was stressed not only from wanting to make a good impression on the president, but also because of a personal situation eating at him.
“I had been dating a Kazakh girl for a year – secretly,” he said in his Nazarbayev Center address and in his interview with me. The two had kept the relationship from her family because they were concerned her conservative parents would refuse to agree to a marriage with a non-Kazakh.
Mikhail said he hoped President Nazarbayev wouldn’t address him and his military buddies – so Mikhail wouldn’t have to speak.
But the president is a garrulous man, and has always admired military people for putting their lives on the line for their country.
So it was no surprise when he asked the soldiers: “How are you doing?”
Mikhail told me in the interview that he had fully anticipated using his prepared remarks to respond to any overture from the president.
Instead – perhaps to his horror – he found himself telling the leader of his country what had been on the young man’s mind for months: his fear that his girlfriend Akerke’s parents would reject the couple’s marriage plans.
Mikhail grabbed the Nazarbayev Center crowd’s attention from the moment he began speaking because he addressed them in Kazakh, not Russian.
But what really enchanted his audience was his warm, funny story-telling.
The crowd smiled, laughed and, at times, wiped tears from their eyes as Mikhail conveyed his happy-ever-after story.
Mikhail, too, fought back tears at times, enhancing both the credibility of his story and his connection with his audience.
He was one of 10 inspiring speakers at the “Our Nation, Our Lives” conference. Center Director Kanat Saudabayev hit on the innovative approach of using interesting individuals’ stories to tell the story of Kazakhstan’s two decades of independence.
Mikhail told the crowd that after he had blurted out his love story to the president, the commander in chief’s eyes sparkled, and he began chuckling softly. “Don’t worry, son, I’ll take care of this,” the president assured him in a fatherly tone.
Journalists were at what otherwise might have been a routine event. Boy did they have a story now!
Television broadcast the piece around the country – and “everyone in Taraz knew it before Akerke’s parents did,” Mikhail said.
President Nazarbayev kept his word, asking the parents to bless the marriage.
What can you say when you get a request like that from the founder of independent Kazakhstan? Well … “Yes.”
The love story took wings after that.
Mikhail and Akerke were married two months later, in February of 2007.
President Nazarbayev couldn’t attend, but sent a gift: the keys to a new apartment in Taraz.
One of the things that the parents of Kazakhstan newlyweds worry about is how the couple will be able to afford an apartment.
The president took care of that before Akerke’s family could give it a second thought.
President Nazarbayev’s concern about the couple wasn’t a one-time deal, either, Mikhail said.
“A year later, he was visiting Taraz, and said he’d like to meet with us.”
The president asked Akerke: “Are you having any problems?” And she answered: “No.”
To underscore that, Mikhail said with a smile, Akerke’s parents have embraced him as one of their own.
Last year Mikhail and Akerke celebrated another milestone in their love story with the birth of their son, Daniel.
Mikhail, who graduated from the Kazakhstan Military Academy, told me that he loves his career. In fact, he’s planning on being an army “lifer.”
His current job is supervising army-recruit training.
Given his enthralling performance at the Nazarbayev Center, he might consider a second career as a politician after hanging up his uniform.
The way he resonated with the center audience would be the envy of most politicians.
Hal Foster is a longtime journalist and journalism professor who has worked in the United States, Japan, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. His news career has included writing and editing at the Los Angeles Times and nine years as a journalist in Japan. He is an associate professor of Communication at the new Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. Catch one of his other blogs at en.tengrinews.kz.