The Soviet legacy

By Murat Laumulin and Chokan Laumulin

(From the book CHILDREN OF THE STEPPES)

 The Soviet experience is the most painful and, at the same time, most important recollection in modern Kazakh history. Essentially speaking, without this episode in history, there would not be today’s independent Kazakhstan. At the same time, recollections of the imperial Soviet policy continue to echo painfully in the hearts of many Kazakh families.

 The Kazakhs should be given the credit they deserve: as opposed to their more Islamised neighbours they responded with greater willing to the slogans of the Russian communists and supported the Bolshevik Revolution. The calculation was a simple one: use the Revolution to gain independence (or at least an expanded form of autonomy). Moreover the Kazakh intellectuals actively carried the revolutionary teachings to other countries – to the colonies of the European powers in Asia, which had become objects of Comintern’s mission to spread “world revolution”. The Kazakhs, of course, are proud of this part of their Soviet history.

 However, very soon, the Kazakhs, as all the peoples of the Soviet Union, fell beneath the millstone that was Stalin’s dictatorship. In the 1930s, the revolutionary intellectuals were wiped out, the achievements of the Revolution in terms of autonomy were scaled down and the traditional nomadic culture was subjected to total destruction. Recollections of this period continue to evoke a bitter taste throughout the Kazakh nation. The traditional nomadic way of life was almost completely wiped out and Kazakhstan took the path of industrialisation and the extensive development of agriculture, as a major resource base for the Soviet economy. As a result there was a great influx of populations from other parts of the USSR into the republic, predominantly of a Slavic origin.

In addition, Stalin conducted incredible experiments from time to time, involving the resettlement of populations, evidently trying to repeat fifth-century history. As a result of the Soviet dictator’s experiments, Kazakhstan found itself (against its will) housing not only Russians and Ukrainians, but also many other peoples from Eurasia: Germans, Koreans, Caucasians, Dungans, Uygurs etc. This is how the ethnic face of contemporary Kazakhstan was formed: a face that surprises, one that is a blend, beautiful and benevolent and where one can discern features both of Europe and of Asia. The Kazakhs shared all they had with their guests, remembering the misfortunes and even despite these misfortunes, which they had suffered not all that long ago in the course of the communist collectivisation.

The mixing of the races and peoples in Kazakhstan continued even after the death of the great dictator. In the 1950s and 1960s new settlers continued to arrive in their millions, to open up the valuable lands of the “Soviet Frontier”. The Kazakhs fought bravely and heroically on the fronts during the Second World War and hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned to the steppe after exhausting battles, decorated for the taking of Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna, Prague and Berlin. They returned with surprise to see how their ancient land was being rapidly modernised: mines and factories, plants and highways, railways and pipelines were springing up everywhere. The modern European world, the total self-destruction of which they had just witnessed in Europe, had suddenly returned to Kazakhstan.

But there was more. Moscow chose Kazakhstan to implement its strategic projects in the creation of missile and nuclear weapons, ventures into space and the testing of the very latest strategic weaponry. Kazakhstan came to house the nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk, the Baikonur space station, missile bases and strategic bomber commands. In the 1970s Kazakhstan thus became an important element in the strategic might of the Soviet Union in its confrontation with the West. The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, under whom the USSR reached the peak of its powers and became a superpower on a par with America, was much indebted to Kazakhstan, where he had worked in the 1950s. In the future, Brezhnev retained his affection for Kazakhstan, demanding that it supplied ever more meat and grain to Russia and provided more and more land for strategic objects.

A figure like Leonid Brezhnev is worthy of a special digression. Brezhnev’s work in Kazakhstan had several consequences. First, there were the political consequences: through party and political lines he supported his friend Dinmukhamed Kunaev , who also became a symbolic figure for Kazakhstan, an icon for an entire era, just as Brezhnev was for the entire Soviet Union. Secondly, there were economic consequences: Brezhnev always devoted particular attention to ensure Kazakhstan always received its share of subsidies and followed the path to transformation into an agrarian and industrial republic. Thirdly, Brezhnev was fond of the Kazakhstan capital and did much to turn Alma-Ata into one of the most beautiful cities in the country.

Now only the older generation recall that in the mid 1950s the future general secretary once lived in a small green house in the centre of the city. Those from Alma-Ata and Kazakhstan who encountered Brezhnev recall that he remained a jolly optimist and a responsive comrade, one who loved a good joke and a party. Evidently Brezhnev was reluctant to leave Kazakhstan. The wicked tongues asserted that he left behind not only decent comrades, but a host of delightful swarthy girlfriends as well.

His friendship with Dimash, as he liked to call Dinmukhamed Kunaev, stood the test of time and the test of political intrigues. As soon as he came to power, Brezhnev supported the return of Kunaev to the post of first secretary of the republic and the removal of the previous secretary, a protege of Krushchev, who had supported separatist projects related to the creation of an Uygur autonomy within Kazakhstan and the appropriation of Virgin Lands  into Russian territory. He later brought Kunaev into the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the supreme political authority in the USSR, which significantly enhanced Kazakhstan’s status within the Soviet hierarchy, placing it third after Ukraine, while, in a strategic military sense it could even have been the second most important republic of the Union. In his turn Kunaev repaid Brezhnev with loyalty and purely human warmth. After the death of the general secretary, the Kazakhstan leader tried to continue Brezhnev’s line in the Politburo and to support his people in the power struggle, which he paid for in 1986, when he was ousted.

Brezhnev travelled many times to Kazakhstan and to his beloved Alma-Ata. However, now his seat as leader of the republic was occupied by his friend Dinmukhamed Kunaev, combining the features of a leading academic and cunning political fox, a committed communist and secret nationalist. Understanding the need to bow to Moscow, which was still able to suppress the displeasure of the union republics with an iron fist, Kunaev elected a strategy of the gradual Kazakhisation of Kazakhstan. In fact, this concerned the creation of a national Kazakh elite, which could take the fate of the nation into its own hands at the right moment.

 When Gorbachev commenced his ill-fated Perestroika, an unsuccessful attempt to reform what was an already unviable Soviet economic and political system, the first thing he did was to try and reinforce Moscow’s power in Central Asia and other parts of the Soviet Union. In 1986, the Soviet  centre’s removal of Kunaev from office resulted in a student revolt, who demonstrated to the world that the days of the Soviet empire were numbered. And, indeed, there was something symbolic in the fact that five years after Soviet troops  had crushed the students’ uprising, in December 1991, an agreement was signed in Alma-Ata, placing a full stop to the history of the USSR, this incredible, geopolitical and socioeconomic phenomenon of the 20th Century.

 The Soviet Union was no more and, in 1992, Kazakhstan entered unknown territory, which the U.S. President Bill Clinton was later to call the Brave New World.  Not for the first time in its history, Kazakhstan was setting out on a road, both exciting and dangerous, to build a new country.

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