VESTNIK, THE JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND ASIAN STUDIES / NATIONALISM AS A POLITICAL FACTOR IN LATE-SOVIET KAZAKHSTAN
Helen Lilley graduated from the University of Cambridge in June 2013 with a degree in Russian and German. She has been working for the German Red Cross on a European Voluntary Year since September and will begin a Master’s degree next year, specialising in Central Asian Politics.
This paper was published as part of Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies.
by Helen Lilley
“Nationalism is a political principle which maintains that similarity of culture is the basic social bond.”
– E. Gellner
“Казахстан в современных границах исторически был территорией этнического расселения племен, составивших позднее казахскую нацию и контролировавших всю территорию современного Казахстана. Мы официально заявляли, что независимое государство в своем нынешнем виде – не чей-то подарок казахам, а наша историческая родина, исконно казахская земля.”
(‘Kazakhstan, in its contemporary borders, was historically the territory of ethnic tribes which later formed the Kazakh nation and controlled the whole territory of contemporary Kazakhstan. We have officially announced that the independent state in its present form is not someone’s gift to the Kazakhs, but our historical homeland, the indigenous Kazakh land.’)
– N. Nazarbayev
Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world in terms of area, but has a population of only 16 million. Since only 63% of the population are Kazakhs and the rest are members of 130 different official nationalities, it is a country in which nationalism is very important as a political factor. When Kazakhstan declared its independence on 16th December 1991, the Kazakhs were actually a minority in the country named after them (the proportion has since grown, due to Kazakh immigration from Mongolia and other neighbouring countries, and other nationalities’ emigration to countries including Russia and Germany), yet independence was celebrated as allowing freedom for the Kazakh people and as the throwing off of the Russian-Soviet yoke.
In 1991, Kazakhstan boasted of having 130 different ethnicities living within its borders and was led by its new President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been, since 1989, First Secretary of the Kazakh SSR and a member of the Soviet Politburo. Neither the multi-ethnic situation nor Nazarbayev’s loyalty to the Russian-dominated USSR would seem to be a factor conducive to the growth of nationalism in Kazakhstan. However, having discarded his communist ideology, Nazarbayev took on a new role as champion of the Kazakh people. Since independence, the political rhetoric of Kazakhstan has been that the Kazakh people are finally free for the first time since the halcyon era of nomadism, released from their long struggle for freedom in the face of Russian-Soviet oppression. However, there are many reasons why this historical interpretation is debatable. Kazakhstan was the very last republic to declare independence, later even than the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), and it is well known that Nursultan Nazarbayev was second only to Gorbachev in his enthusiasm for the continuation of the USSR.
Such apparent inconsistencies between political rhetoric and historical context make the present study very interesting. Fears of rising Kazakh nationalism today, expressed especially through linguistic assertiveness, mean that an investigation into the role of nationalism as a political factor in late-Soviet Kazakhstan is particularly relevant. This dissertation looks at the history of Kazakhstan for evidence of the growth of specifically Kazakh nationalism, addressing the question of whether there actually was a pre-existing nationalist movement before independence.
I. Nation, State, National Consciousness, and Nationalism
In his seminal work Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson defines the nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” By ‘imagined,’ Anderson does not mean that nations are mere figments of our imagination; rather, his use of the word ‘imagined’ may be more clearly understood as ‘constructed.’ A nation comes into being as the result of many historical events and processes, which gradually draw a people group together until they may define themselves collectively as a ‘nation.’ Anderson’s definition is helpful because it makes clear the somewhat subtle difference between a nation and a state. Whereas a nation can be seen as an ‘imagined political community,’ according to Anderson, a state is ‘an organised political community under one government.’
Statehood is not necessarily a part of the development of each and every nation, but it does frequently happen that the ‘imagined political community’ of the nation may transform into an ‘organised political community,’ or state. This means that, where the time period of the beginnings of a nation is open to discussion, the birth of a state can usually be far more accurately dated, especially in modern times when states may date their independence to a particular day.
The philosopher Ernest Gellner’s definition of nationalism that began this paper is based on the notion that a nation is composed of members who share the same culture. This notion is complementary to Anderson’s definition, as it is the historical events and processes described above that produce a shared culture and, therefore, a nation from a human group. By investigating ‘national consciousness’ in the sense of an understanding of one’s own identity as part of a shared culture, or nation, I investigate evidence of a rising level of self-awareness of a particular Kazakh nation as distinct from other people-groups.
Growing national consciousness may develop in two ways: either autonomously (promoted by the members of the nation themselves) or as a result of external policies (for example, in the case of early Soviet promotion of distinctive national music and dances of various nationalities in the USSR). National consciousness becomes nationalism when the shared culture, and self-identification as part of it, becomes a political principle. Gellner calls this ‘extreme’ nationalism, or the situation when ‘similarity of culture becomes both the necessary and the sufficient condition of legitimate membership: only members of the appropriate culture may join the unit in question, and all of them must do so.’ Louis Snyder describes it as ‘the exaggerated and unjustified tendency to emphasize national interests.' The distinction between autonomous nationalism and a growth in national consciousness facilitated by the policies of the state is crucial when assessing the significance of nationalism in late-Soviet Kazakhstan, as Soviet policies promoted national consciousness in many areas, leaving the role of nationalism somewhat debatable.
In terms of examining the beginnings of the nation, we use the three stages identified by Miroslav Hroch in his study of the growth of national consciousness and the phenomenon of nationalisation of ethnic groups in the last 150 years. According to Hroch, the first stage in the nationalisation of an ethnic group is the ‘period of scholarly interest’ (Phase A), when intellectuals start to concern themselves with the study of national culture and traditions, followed by a period of ‘patriotic agitation’ (Phase B), when a group of patriots campaign to spread national consciousness among the people, and finally by the ‘rise of a mass national movement’ (Phase C), when the national movement takes on a more popular political character. Hroch’s study focuses on 19th century Europe, yet these three stages are useful in helping to measure the extent of nationalist feeling even in the late 20th century Soviet Union, and to evaluate the different stages of the process.
Both Anderson’s and Gellner’s analyses of nationalism emphasise the role of historical justification in nationalist discourse. This dissertation investigates the history of Kazakhstan with reference to several key areas, such as Kazakhstan’s pre-Soviet and Soviet past, Soviet nationalities policy and sources of Kazakh discontent in the late-Soviet period in order to see if nationalism, or any form of struggle for national self-determination, was a relevant factor.
This study is based on a number of sources, mostly in Russian and English. The nature of the language situation in Kazakhstan in the 1980s and the overwhelming dominance of Russian, especially as the language of academia, mean that most contemporary sources were written in Russian. Articles from the Kazakh press are cited in English-language reports, such as the ‘Radio Liberty Research Bulletin’ and ‘Report on the USSR.’
When looking at the more recent nationalist political rhetoric of President Nazarbayev, I use his own writings as well as propagandistic literature that he has sponsored, for example the works of Jonathan Aitken. In order to survey the various political factors of late-Soviet Kazakhstan, I use contemporary journalistic articles and reports, such as those produced by Radio Liberty, as well as the numerous journal articles and books that have been written about various aspects of the political situation at and around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
III. Historical Background
President Nazarbayev’s simplistic and controversial justification for the existence of Kazakhstan as an independent state is reproduced above as an epigraph. It is easy to pick holes in the factual accuracy of such a sweeping statement: what exactly, one might well ask, is meant by ‘исконно казахская земля’ (‘indigenous Kazakh land’) and could a network of prehistoric nomadic tribes really be described as the ‘казахская нация’ (‘Kazakh nation’)? However, this brief summary of the basis of modern Kazakh political rhetoric clearly shows the role of historical justification in matters of state-building.
From the first century A.D. onwards, the Central Asian steppe was conquered and inhabited by waves of mostly nomadic peoples of Iranian, Turkic, and Mongol origins. There are few written or other sources on the origins of the Kazakh people, but it is generally believed that there was a specifically Kazakh area by the mid-15th century, when two princes of the Mongol White Horde moved with their supporters to the area between the Chu and Talas rivers. By the mid-16th century, a Khanate had been established and divided into three hordes, with the term ‘Kazakh’ in use to refer to all three together.
Threatened with subjugation to the encroaching Kalmyks towards the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, and following two refusals of assistance from Peter I in 1716 and 1718, in 1730, the Kazakhs were finally granted a request for assistance by the Peter’s successor, Empress Anna Ioannovna. Khan Abu’l Khayr swore loyalty to the Empress in 1731, bringing an end to the independent Kazakh state. This peaceful annexation of the northern steppe to Russia was followed by the military conquest of the more southerly Kazakh lands in the early 19th century, the abolition of the title of Khan in 1824 and growing Russian administrative control throughout the 19th century.
With the growth of central administrative control came a growing Russification of the steppe, as Russian farmers moved to the region. Some minor and unsuccessful attempts at resistance to this strengthening of Tsarist rule occurred, mainly due to the worsening economic situation caused by the increasing steppe population, a particularly severe winter in 1826-27 following which many Kazakh animals were seized by Russians, and tax obligations to both the Kazakh and the Russian authorities. The most significant act of resistance was the revolt in 1837-46 by Kenisary Qasimov, a popular leader from the Middle Horde who had, at the height of his power, more than 20,000 men under his command . However, probably the most significant feature of the era in terms of the growth of national consciousness was the Tsarist attempt to create a secular elite through a new educational system.
In May 1876, the Tsarist Ministry of Education under Alexander II put forward a formal policy for the development of a new secular system of education for the natives of the Kazakh steppe, with the aim of creating a local cadre of administrators and civil servants who could govern the steppe-lands on behalf of the Tsarist government. According to Altynsaryn, a Russian-educated Kazakh pedagogue, this new education system was designed to counteract the influence of Islam as spread by Tatar missionaries. To emphasise the secularity of the new system, a new Kazakh script (based on Cyrillic) was invented to replace the Arabic script. The Arabic script had been used by most literate Kazakhs, who were traditionally educated by Imams (religious leaders). The new alphabet never gained widespread popularity and fell into disuse during the 1890s. The only celebrated Kazakh writer to use Cyrillic was Abai Kunanbaev (1845-1904), the philosophical poet promoted as the ‘Father of Kazakh literature’ in the USSR, but most educated Kazakhs, whether religious or non-religious, tended to prefer to use the Arabic script for both literary and local administrative purposes.
The pre-revolutionary era was characterised by a division within the Kazakh elite, between secularists and religious modernists on the one hand, who were seeking to modernise Kazakh society in terms of education and administration, and conservatives on the other hand, who sought to preserve their traditional society and culture in the face of Russian influence. However, despite the deep-rooted differences between the two groups, both worked towards the preservation of the Kazakh identity and language and were opposed to Russification.
From 1905, the secularist and religious modernist Kazakh elite began to agitate along national lines, having realised both that in the wake of the workers’ revolution in St Petersburg it was a good time to put across their demands, and also that they could put aside differences from the traditional religious elite and work together. The clergy organised popular protests and petitions on religious grounds with demands such as an end to governmental interference in Islamic practice, the same legal position for Islam as granted to the Russian Orthodox Church, an end to the activities of Orthodox missionaries among the Muslims and the return of land seized from the Kazakhs.
Following the creation of the State Duma in St. Petersburg in 1905, the Kazakhs sent representatives and later lobbyists after being barred from membership in the third and fourth sessions; in St. Petersburg, they learned the practice of politics and lobbying the Tsar, they learned about the complaints of other nationalities, and they became more unified in their representation of Kazakh society.
The secular elite formed the Alash party (named after a mythical founder of the Kazakh nation) in December 1905 and later established two Kazakh-language newspapers, Ai-Kap (1911-1915) and Kazakh (1913-1918), published in Troitsk and Orenburg, important Russian frontier towns, respectively. Both newspapers campaigned for ‘strengthening native language education.' Their editorial positions were quite similar, although Kazakh had a more explicitly political aim, and in fact became the official newspaper of Alash after the February Revolution. According to Bhavna Dave, national consciousness among the Kazakhs only crystallised when members of Alash began to refer to the Kazakhs as a народ (‘people’) or нация (‘nation’) in the early 20th century.
A violent uprising occurred in 1916 against conscripting Central Asian men into the army during WWI, and with news of the February Revolution in 1917, Kazakh intellectuals worked to use the Alash party to represent their interests in the Provisional Government. After the October Revolution, the Alash Orda (Alash Horde) autonomous government was established by Alash, which sided with the Whites while attempting to rule the steppes.
By 1919, however, most Kazakh nationalists had defected to the Bolsheviks, believing that the best chance of overturning Tsarist rule lay with them, allowing the Kazakhs to gain independence and modernise their society. In the first years of Soviet power, the aims and objectives of the Bolsheviks and Alash seemed to coincide in certain areas, such as promoting widespread education and literacy among the Kazakhs. From 1920 onwards, the Bolsheviks and these former members of Alash participated in various commissions to standardise Kazakh writing and produce textbooks for use in schools.
However, this period came to an end with the purges of the late 1920s and 30s, during which almost every member of the former Alash Orda government perished. The purges coincided with the forced settlement and collectivisation of the nomadic Kazakhs, resulting in the death of at least one third of them in a tragedy that has been described by Dave as ‘the defining moment in the nationalist narrative.' After the purges, manifestations of nationalist feeling were much more subdued in Kazakhstan, and arguably remained so for the entire Soviet era until the late 1980s, which will be investigated further below.
IV. Kazakhstan and Soviet Nationalities Policy
The Soviet nationalities policy went through various evolutions during the Soviet era, but was fundamentally based on the Marxist view of the growth of nations as an ‘essentially bourgeois phenomena…inseparable from the rise of modern capitalism.' Although Marx and Engels did not envisage a world without nations or diversity of language, they believed that differences between nations were becoming gradually less and less important and would become insignificant with the death of capitalism. With the aim of encouraging this process, the right of national self-determination was included in the Programme of the Second International at the London Congress of 1896. Lenin’s ideology of the promotion of national self-determination began to take shape, however, at the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party.
During the process of forming the Soviet Union during the 1920s, the republics’ boundaries were carefully drawn up, dividing the many nations and ethnicities according to the vision of free development of nationalities set out in the Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia, a document signed by Lenin and Stalin and adopted by the Bolshevik government on 15th November 1917. While Moscow officials asserted that ‘the more genuine the “national demarcation,” the more successful the drive to internationalism,' scholars such as William Fierman have argued that republican boundaries were in fact established as a preventative measure against the possible development of national movements, and that members of the same ethnic group were purposefully divided into different republics in order to undermine the threat of pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism. An example of this is in the Shymkent area of Southern Kazakhstan, which borders Uzbekistan and had both a large Uzbek population and many more cultural and economic ties with urban Tashkent than with the Kazakhs of the northern steppe-lands.
However, even with such non-genuine national demarcations, the Soviet republics were still basically divided according to nationality, and it may be argued that the decision to create administrative divisions along ethnic lines following Stalin’s idea of the nation as being fixed to a territory, which for many nationalities, including those of Central Asia, was unprecedented, eventually resulted in the success of national identity over an integrated Soviet identity.
In the 1920s, the Soviet government stated that it followed a policy of коренизация (‘indigenisation’). This gave preferential treatment to the majority nationality of any SSR, ASSR, область (region) or район (district). The policy was designed to accelerate the development of national culture and so ‘exhaust’ it, in order to create ‘the base for the organisation of international socialist culture.' However, through the promotion of national languages and cadres, for example by the provision of Kazakh-language schools, books and newspapers, the policy succeeded in nationalising the different ethnic groups to create stronger national identities, and in further politicising these groups, strengthening the national intelligentsias and political elites. In this way the policy backfired, in that it totally undermined the oft-repeated long-term goal of слияние (‘assimilation’), or merging of nationalities, and instead contributed to a sense of national consciousness that would remain more or less under the surface until the government significantly weakened in the Gorbachev era, at which point national consciousness resurfaced and began to express itself.
V. Development of National Consciousness in the Gorbachev Era
For most of the Soviet era, there was very little expression of national consciousness in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan and the Central Asian republics were politically and socially conservative, in contrast to Ukraine and the Baltic States, where there was a higher level of political and national activism, manifested in popular movements such as the Helsinki-86 movement and the People’s Movement of Ukraine for Reconstruction. This made it all the more surprising, therefore, when thousands came out to demonstrate in the Kazakh capital of Alma-Ata, which saw riots of December 1986, and all the less comprehensible that such an event could be justified by the Soviet press as merely an ‘expression of Kazakh nationalism’ when such nationalism had not been manifested during at least the previous half-century. This chapter will look at the reasons behind the Alma-Ata riots and other areas of discontent, as well as public activism among the Kazakhs, and will evaluate the role of nationalism as a political factor in these fields.
The importance of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost’ (openness) as factors in the growth of national sentiments in the second half of the 1980s is much disputed, with some scholars arguing that Gorbachev’s reforms actually stimulated nationalism, while others maintain that they simply created the political space necessary for the expression of national sentiments which had long been present under the surface.
The reforms that took place under Perestroika were intended to restructure and revitalise socialism, not to undermine it, and certainly not to fracture the USSR. Accordingly, the 1990 laws, which were ostensibly created to officialise the procedures for a republic’s secession, were not actually designed to easily facilitate it, and certainly Gorbachev did not mean to foster any hopes for national independence among the republics. However, once some democratic reform had been permitted, it was as if the floodgates had opened, and a great torrent of reform came pouring out, which could not be stopped until it led to the collapse of the entire USSR.
Alexander Motyl argues for wide-reaching consequences of glasnost’, including ‘ideological erosion, regime delegitimation, religious revival, politicisation of elites and masses, enhancement of national consciousness and environmental concern.' Although only the enhancement of national consciousness signifies a direct link to nationalism, it may be argued that all of the other consequences contributed to the creation of political space for the expression of national sentiments. Examples of these consequences relating to Kazakhstan are given below in more detail, but it is worth mentioning here that, in addition, more artistic autonomy was permitted, leading not necessarily to nationalist, but to autonomous national artistic movements, such as the New Wave in Kazakh cinema, which started in 1989.
In the context of evaluating the possible growth of nationalism, the significance of the perestroika and glasnost’ reforms lies in the fact that they created an unprecedented political space for national consciousness to develop autonomously. Through the implementation of new democratic and transparent procedures, it became possible for citizens to engage in activities and with concerns, such as those listed by Motyl above, that contributed to a rise in distinctive national self-awareness. According to Hroch’s model of nationalism, the glasnost’ era may be equated to Phase B, the period of ‘patriotic agitation,’ as it was only under the conditions of perestroika that patriots could spread national consciousness.
Language was always a highly sensitive area of policy-making in the USSR, including in Kazakhstan. The long history of attempted control over the people by means of regulating language in Kazakhstan, which started in the late 19th century under Tsarist rule, continued throughout the Soviet era, and is still evident today, as the government aims to Romanize the Kazakh alphabet in the near future and reduce the role of the Russian language in the Republic. This section investigates language policy in Kazakhstan and how it contributed to a rising national consciousness, or even nationalism, in the face of Soviet Russification.
Isabelle Kreindler characterises Soviet language policy such that the ‘position of non-Russian languages has always been in a see-saw relationship with Russian,’ with Russian at the lower end in the early years of the USSR, then balanced with the national languages under Stalin, and finally pushed to the top after Stalin’s death, at the expense of the national languages. Alternatively, Martha Brill Olcott periodicises language policy to show that in the years 1918-1929, Kazakhs and Russians argued over reform, then from 1930 to 1953, decisions were made in Moscow and imposed on the Kazakhs, who had no autonomous control, and from 1954 onwards the increasing intensity of Russification led to national minorities calling for greater control and autonomy in language matters. In the second part of the 1980s, national minorities’ calls for greater control over use of their own language and for native-language education were fuelled by the introduction of glasnost’, which will be discussed further below.
As previously stated, in the first years of Soviet power, before the purges, Bolsheviks and former Alash members worked together in various commissions for the promotion of Kazakh-language education. Following the purges of the late 1920s and 30s, however, language policy came to be formulated by Moscow, without the participation of local elites. Soviet use of language policy for the subjugation of the nationalities started in 1927, when the alphabet used for Central Asian languages was changed from Arabic to Latin for purposes of ‘modernisation’. By terminating the immediate ability of Kazakhs to read their own language, Moscow cut off the Central Asians from both their own history and literature, and also from written linguistic ties with neighbouring countries to the south. Later, in 1940, use of the Latin alphabet was discontinued in favour of a modified Cyrillic alphabet. This further change helped discourage potential ties between the Central Asian peoples and Turkey and Europe, as from then on it would be more difficult to communicate. In this way, Moscow asserted Russian cultural dominance in the region and struck a significant blow to potential nationalist movements, not least by twice rendering a large proportion of those who had previously been literate suddenly officially illiterate, until they had learned the new alphabet.
Until the 1980s, Moscow continued policies of linguistic Russification, to the widespread resentment of the native population. Brezhnev’s campaign to promote Russian as the ‘second native language’ of the Soviet people was especially unpopular, but despite this, non-Russians found it necessary to speak Russian for reasons of education and professional development, and in fact the number of Kazakhs considering Russian as their mother tongue increased drastically during the Soviet era (according to the census: 1926 – 44,000; 1970 – 87,000; 1979 – 131,000). The emphasis on Russian was justified by the authorities for several reasons: the transition from the revolutionary to the consolidation stage, during which there should, from economic necessity, be no place for the expression of national interests and autonomy; the fact that it was the language of Lenin and therefore necessary for a right understanding of Communism; its role in a person’s воспитание (‘upbringing/education’); and lastly as the means for relaying scientific, technical, and cultural information.
The school curriculum always proved a thorny issue, and an important one in terms of preservation of the Kazakh language and culture. A long-lasting Russian-language campaign was carried out in schools, starting in the late 1950s, continuing until perestroika allowed for the resurgence of national languages, and resulting in an increasing number of Kazakh children attending Russian schools. By 1959, when an Education Law was passed giving parents the right to choose the language instruction for their children, 25% of Kazakh children already went to a Russian school; by 1966-7, this figure was 37%. Decrees in 1978 and 1983 ‘On Measures for Further Improving the Study and Teaching of the Russian Language in the Union Republics’ and ‘On Further Measures for Improving the Study of the Russian Language,’ respectively, and a 1984 school reform aimed at Russian-language fluency of all secondary school graduates show the emphasis put by the state on Russian as the first and most important language of the Union, even for non-Russian nationalities. In schools, Russian domination was not only reflected in language teaching, but in literature, culture, and history, all of which were studied with a strong pro-Russian bias.
The consistent decline in the number of Kazakh-language schools and increase in Russian-language ones further illustrates why, by the 1980s, Kazakh intellectuals were worried about protecting their language and culture. In the universities too, a sense of Kazakh assertiveness could be felt during the 1980s, with the gradual Kazakhification of both the student and staff bodies, due to a combination of central policies promoting the education of non-Russian nationalities and increased control of native elites over the universities who favoured Kazakhs in the admissions policies. With the new possibilities for debate and discussion afforded by glasnost’, the sensitive issue of language began to be openly discussed, and especially the protection of national languages and cultures against the pervasive influence of Russification. Thanks to the intensifying debate, elites were forced to listen to the prevailing demands and respond accordingly, hence announcements such as First Secretary of the Kazakh SSR Gennadii Kolbin’s 1987 promise to create more Kazakh-language nurseries and schools.
Among intellectuals, there was a growing concern over the possible disappearance of the Kazakh language and culture, and so a movement was started in the late 1980s to make Kazakh the republic’s official language. Going further in their demands was the Mother Tongue Society, or Anatili Qogami, which campaigned for a return to the use of the Arabic alphabet for the Kazakh language. This campaign was echoed in the children’s journal Пионер (‘Pioneer’), published by official Communist party organs, which launched a special section to teach the Arabic script to Kazakh children, as well as reported demands that advanced study of history should include a study of the Arabic script. These demands to promote the Arabic script clearly asserted a Kazakh cultural and literary identity at the expense of Russian and demonstrated an increased sense of national consciousness. This was not a nationalist political movement, however, but rather a reaction against a perceived threat of linguistic extinction due to Soviet policies.
Gorbachev made an abrupt policy reversal in early 1989, announcing in January that ‘not even the smallest people’s language should be lost’, closely followed in February by an allusion to the establishment of new national districts and councils as abolished under Stalin. Before this, the often-repeated end goal of Soviet nationality policy was the mixing of nations to create a new Soviet people. In the shorter term, this was superseded by what Edward Allworth has summarised as three intermediary aims: ideologically and administratively classifying groups for ease of management, prohibiting the growth or expression of ethnic feeling (national consciousness), and prescribing acceptable forms of development for Soviet nationalities. In the pursuit of these aims, and eventual слияние (‘assimilation’), the USSR tried to diminish national identities and self-expression through the Russification of non-Russian republics, and also to a certain extent by encouraging (or forcing) members of one nationality to move to another republic, including young Central Asians to work in the RSFSR.
Kazakhstan became heavily Russified with successive influxes of exiled Special Settlers, prisoners, farmers who came to the steppes during Krushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign in the 1950s, and technical workers who worked in mining and the extraction of other national resources, who were officially invited and welcomed to move to the Kazakh SSR in order to fill gaps in the labour market. In addition, Kazakhstan also played host to many different nationalities, either exiled as ‘Former Nations’ during the 1930s (e.g. Volga Germans) or encouraged to come to Kazakhstan later as economic migrants to work in oil and gas (e.g. Lezgins).
However, despite their official welcome, the influx of Russians and other nationalities to the region increased ethnic tensions, especially in areas with unemployment, and non-Kazakhs were sometimes treated with hostility on the street. By 1989, Russians accounted for 38% of the population, outnumbering even the Kazakhs, the titular nation of the republic. This made the Kazakhs a minority in their own homeland and fostered ill-will among the Kazakh population. Such a situation, with two culturally and ethnically distinct communities living alongside each other, is likely to contribute to the growth of national consciousness within each group, and in certain cases in Kazakhstan, such as in the western city of Novyi Uzen’, we can see how demographic policy in conjunction with economic difficulties resulted in inter-ethnic tensions (see below). It is at that point when national consciousness develops into a political principle, possibly manifesting itself in violence, that one may certainly describe it as nationalism, and so it may be surmised that the USSR’s policy of Russification was an important contributing factor to the development of Kazakh nationalism.
VIII. Indigenisation of National Elites
As part of the ongoing legacy of the indigenisation policy, which had initially been promoted in the 1920s before the increased Russification of the 1930s, over time the members of the titular nation of each republic gradually came to compose the political elite in their home republics. Although ultimately these titular elites, especially in Central Asia, pragmatically took over the baton of the campaign for national rights in order to maintain authority even after the break-up of the Soviet Union, their original assumption of power was part of a carefully thought-out central strategy to control political life in the republics. The reasoning was that, by allowing members of the titular nations to become their own republics’ political elites, all other potential national political actors could be banned and silenced.
As enumerated by political scientist Philip G. Roeder, the three strands to this policy of controlling the national elite in each republic were: first, to create ‘an indigenous cadre assigned a monopoly over the mobilisational resources of the community;’ second, to create the necessary incentives to dissuade this elite from pursuing unsanctioned programmes; and third, to assign to this cadre ‘the responsibility for creating an ethnically distinct stratification system within official institutions and for impeding the emergence of alternative ethnic entrepreneurs outside these institutions.'
In order to keep closer control over the titular-nationality elites, Moscow followed a policy of putting a Russian behind every titular-nationality leader: where there was (for example) a Kazakh first secretary, there would be a Russian second secretary, and where there was a Kazakh minister there would be a Russian vice-minister. In this way, those in the republics were able to think that they were being ruled, at least to a certain extent, by members of their own nationality, while Moscow was able to keep a tight hold on power. This gradual handing-over of power to the titular nations in the republics meant that the indigenous population came to expect the republican elite to be composed of members of their own nationality, and certainly that the first secretary of a republic should be ‘one of them.’
Moscow’s decision in December 1986 to appoint Gennadii Kolbin (a Russian) as successor to Dinmukhamedov Kunaev (a Kazakh) as first secretary of the Kazakh SSR Communist Party may have been foolhardy, and was certainly regrettable, given the rioting that occurred as a backlash to this decision. The scale of the December 1986 Alma-Ata riots is difficult to judge, as estimates vary wildly and there was a two-month prohibition on foreign journalists going to Alma-Ata to investigate immediately after the events.
According to Helsinki Watch, hundreds of protesters were detained, of whom 99 were charged and sentenced for crimes such as ‘inter-ethnic hostility’ and ‘mass disorders.' The report of the 1989 investigative commission led by prominent Kazakh writer Mukhtar Shakhanov details three deaths: two Slavs and one Kazakh. Of these three, one died in the conflict, one later in a hospital, and one in a murder related to the events. The overall numbers involved are more difficult to judge, and Helsinki Watch estimates between 10,000 and 30,000 protesters took part. Jonathan Aitken, on the other hand, estimates that there were around 15,000 protesters but over 8000 arrests, and given the highly complimentary nature of his biography of Nazarbayev and its use of twenty-three hours of personal interviews with the subject, we may infer that these figures are either those believed by Nazarbayev, or those which Nazarbayev would like the world to believe. What is clear, however, is that these events represent a major demonstration against the authorities, the likes of which had never previously been seen in the USSR.
A CPSU Central Committee resolution of July 1987 stated that the December 1986 Alma-Ata riots were a ‘manifestation of Kazakh nationalism.’ However, evidence shows that the motivations of the demonstrators were somewhat different from those reported by the media. In her article ‘Distorting the Image of Ethnic Unrest,’ Suzanne Crow documents the many means routinely employed by the Soviet media to discredit manifestations of discontent, and the Alma-Ata riots are no exception. Soviet media commonly ascribed demonstrators’ motivations to alcohol, drugs, crime, mafia coercion and the failures of the local branches of the Party and Government. Helsinki Watch reports confirm that such explanations were used in official Soviet reporting on the Alma-Ata riots, which claimed that the demonstrators were ‘young Kazakh nationalists, whose extremist views were heightened by drugs and vodka.' The research and interviews conducted by Helsinki Watch, however, suggest that these explanations are quite untrue. It is notable that the official assessment of the riots as a ‘manifestation of Kazakh nationalism’ was strongly denied by many Kazakhs, to the extent that the repeal of the CPSU resolution became a major part of the popular movement during the 1989 re-investigation; 25,000 people signed a petition and four people went on hunger strike in a campaign to get the authorities to make the repeal. In affirmation of the non-nationalist programme of the rioters, the interviewees found by Helsinki Watch all assert that the demonstrations did not occur because the rioters demanded an ethnic Kazakh leader: it was ‘not because [Gennadii Kolbin] is Russian, but because he is from another republic’ (according to an anonymous saleswoman), and ‘if the appointee had been a local Russian, it might have been different’ (Bakidzhan Mukuzhev, Deputy Director of Karaganda Radio).
Other interviewees confirm this, and the reported presence of some Russians among the crowd would seem to further support the premise that it was the specific appointment of Gennadii Kolbin as first secretary that aroused opposition. Some eyewitnesses even report acts of provocation by the authorities against the rioters, including such acts as planting narcotics in the pockets of protesters and then arresting them for possession of drugs, and broadcasting radio reports of unconfirmed attacks by Kazakhs on nurseries and schools to increase hostility. Mukhtar Shakhanov’s report claims that the supposed role of alcohol and drugs among the protesters has been demonstrated to be false. What is perhaps more damning for the Communist Party is Nazarbayev’s 1989 interview with Pravda, in which he admitted that part of the responsibility for the riots was borne by the Party due to its insensitive ‘approach to personnel problems.'
Some have argued that the Alma-Ata riots were the first of a succession of nationalist uprisings across the USSR, culminating in the fall of the Soviet Union, but this seems impossible as they neither started a lasting nationalist movement nor launched any attempt to secede or contest the legitimacy of the Soviet state. Furthermore, the criteria characterising the protesters were not limited to ‘similarity of culture,’ as nationalist movements are according to Gellner’s definition (above). Such an opinion could only have been formed by someone who had read only contemporary commentaries on the events in the official Soviet press. The widespread protests against labelling the riots as ‘nationalist,’ the subsequent repeal of the assessment issued on 21st May 1989 by the Central Committee, and Nazarbayev’s comments all discredit the theory the Alma-Ata riots were due to Kazakh nationalism, and suggest that the policy decision from Moscow to appoint Kolbin was the real cause of the all the trouble, which itself may have been exacerbated by attempts by the authorities to stir up national antagonism.
IX. Economic Grievances
From 1972, the central authorities began to reduce their commitment to creating economic equalisation between Central Asia and the rest of the USSR, and investment in the region decreased dramatically as the whole country faced a worsening economic situation. Central Asia especially suffered in the economic crisis of the late 1980s in comparison to the rest of the USSR, with widespread shortages due to its low level of economic diversification and consequent dependence on other republics for manufactured and consumer goods.
The exploitation of Kazakh and Central Asian raw materials, which were sent to other republics for processing or manufacture, robbing the region of much potential industry, employment and profit, became a major theme of anti-Moscow rhetoric. Nursultan Nazarbayev was known to be a vocal proponent of the devolution of economic decision-making to the republics even before he became first secretary, and was described by Bess Brown as an ‘outspoken critic of Moscow’s exploitative economic relationship with the Central Asian republics’ in June 1989. According to Nurtai Abikayev, one of his aides at the time, he would often complain that other republics were allowed to process their materials, saying ‘if this is Moscow’s idea of a planned economy, the plans are wrong.' Such assertiveness, however, shows more a reaction to central administration than any particular nationalistic feeling. It is important to emphasise that Nazarbayev disagreed with the policy emanating from Moscow, and not with local Russians or non-Kazakhs in general.
Rising expectations across two decades of improved education for Kazakhs coupled with economic difficulties that made it harder for the state to provide social welfare services, rewards for native elites, or just the higher standard of living which the newly educated population had come to expect, led to rising discontent among the native population. This can be seen in terms of relative deprivation theory, i.e. someone’s relative poverty in comparison to the surrounding society or their expectations. This discontent did not manifest itself in a large-scale nationalist movement, but in various localised acts of unrest over specific issues, for example the June 1989 violence in Novyi Uzen’, where oil and gas workers from the Caucasus had been brought into the region despite widespread unemployment among the local Kazakhs, and the Karaganda miners’ strikes in July 1989, which were part of Soviet Union-wide strikes protesting poor working conditions and the lack of basic necessities, such as soap.
Elise Giuliano emphasises the role of a shared sense of economic injustice in her theory of the rise of nationalism, but it is notable that Central Asia as a whole, although it had the lowest living standards in the USSR, was the region least in favour of independence. This may have been because of the politically-conservative and traditional nature of society, or because economic injustices were shared by Kazakhs and Russians. The main demands of the Kazakhs in Novyi Uzen during the June 1989 ethnic violence against the local Lezgin population (from southern Dagestan in the Caucasus) were that people from the Caucasus be removed from the city and jobs provided for all unemployed Kazakhs. The grievance was economic, rather than the ‘exaggerated and unjustified tendency to emphasize national interests’ (see Snyder’s definition of nationalism above), and the cause of the problem was Moscow’s decision to bring in workers from outside to an area which already suffered from high unemployment, not the mere presence of another nationality in the region. Therefore, although it can be seen that economic grievances led to both popular unrest and a sense of antagonism from the local elite towards Moscow’s policy, these were not in fact manifestations of nationalism, but the vocalisation of a sense of economic injustice.
X. Re-Interpretation of History
In the late 1980s, informal groups took advantage of the political openness afforded by glasnost’ to call for a re-interpretation of both USSR-wide and Kazakh history, and a re-examination of the ‘blank spots’ left by official Soviet historiography. Stalinism was re-examined and found to have orchestrated not only political repression, but also national repression and genocide, and information about the terrible death toll of processes such as the sedentarisation of the Kazakh nomads and the exile of Special Settlers became available to the public for the first time. Historians could now discuss previously taboo topics, such as the Alash Orda, openly, and new revelations and revised understandings of historical events were published in the papers on a fairly regular basis. School textbooks were rewritten to reflect the new trends of historical understanding and the rehabilitation of historical figures. The new textbook of February 1986 also provided revised (higher) figures for the numbers of deaths resulting from Stalin’s repressions.
Head of the Kazakh Writers’ Union Olzhas Suleimenov emerged as a leading voice in the movement for the re-interpretation of history, founded as the Truth in History Education Society in 1988. Following articles on the subject already published in the Kazakh press in 1988 and 1989, his June 1989 speech at the First Congress of People’s Deputies emotionally catalogued the wrongs done to the Kazakh people first by the Russians and then by the Soviets, and called for compensation for the four million lives lost. His calls did not go unheeded, and between Autumn 1988 and Spring 1989, more than 650 Kazakh intellectuals were rehabilitated, including three leaders of Alash, each important literary figures in their own right: Maghjan Jumabaev, Ahmet Baytursynov and Jusupbek Aymautov, who had their convictions nullified due to lack of evidence. These particular rehabilitations have great significance, not only because the commission sent to evaluate their works recommended that certain works should be republished (although ‘only after further study and with appropriate commentary’ due to certain ‘mistakes and fallacies’ in the works), but also because the rehabilitation of the leaders of the Nationalist Alash party and the autonomous Alash Orda government sent a clear political signal against the anti-national rhetoric of the previous half-century.
During the summer of 1989, the topic of Kazakh history was much discussed in the newspapers. By February 1990, more than 30,000 people had been rehabilitated in Kazakhstan alone on the grounds that they had been wrongly convicted during the Stalinist repressions. Although the movement to reinterpret history worked for reasons of justice rather than according to a specifically nationalist agenda, the discovery of more and more needless Kazakh suffering at the hands of the Soviets as well as of the truth behind some of the secrets and falsehoods purveyed by the State was bound to increase the sense of injustice felt by Kazakhs and to contribute to the rise of national consciousness. This movement may be viewed as a part of ‘Phase B’ from Hroch’s periodicisation of nationalism, as it is an example of how the actions of patriots contributed to a rising national consciousness.
Islam was, throughout the Soviet era, a very important marker of Central Asians’ identity, arguably more so than a national identity. Serge Zenkovsky maintains that at the time of the Bolshevik revolution, Central Asians identified themselves more strongly as Muslim, as a part of ‘umma’ (the worldwide Islamic community), than as Turkic peoples or members of a particular nationality, hence the decision by the First All-Russian Muslim Congress in May 1917 to name its Council ‘Muslim’ rather than ‘Turko-Tatar.' Religious identity remained important in this region and in fact, the level of religious observance stayed consistently higher among the Muslim peoples of the Soviet Union, even in the face of repression and persecution, than among European Christians.
Soviet repression did strongly impact Central Asian Muslims though, with more than 80% of the 12,000 mosques in the USSR closed between 1917 and 1930, their destruction or transformation into museums, cultural objects, warehouses and “workers’ centres” and the destruction of manuscripts marking only the start of the repression against Islam that would last until the late 1980s, when an Islamic revival began to make its presence known in the Central Asian countries. Decades of repression under Stalin, followed by Krushchev’s anti-religious offensive in the late 1950s which attacked Islamic beliefs and customs, only added to feelings of resentment against the colonialist policies of the Soviet centre among Central Asians, who, as Sergei Poliakov has shown, were themselves mainly very traditionalist and conservative in their daily life and customs.
By the late 1980s, under the more permissive regime of glasnost’, an Islamic revival began to flourish in Central Asia, with pamphlets and translations of the Koran being printed, increasing numbers of unofficial mosques and mullahs in operation, and the establishment of various Islamic groups, including political parties and women’s activist groups. The re-establishment of religious activity meant that Moscow’s attacks on religion, especially Islam, were met with increasing resistance and a sense of injustice. This was especially keenly felt during the preparations for celebrating the 1988 millennium of Christianity in Russia. Soviet Muslims made public protests demanding the equivalent religious freedoms that were beginning to be given to Christians, and a year later they were granted some concessions and allowed to celebrate the 675th anniversary of the birth of Naqshbandi, one of the most famous Sufi teachers of Central Asian Islam. A series of other concessions was also made, including the reinstatement of Islamic festivals such as Kurban Bayram and passing a new law on religion which allowed teaching the fundamentals of Islam and the Arabic language in mosques, as well as reducing the number of people necessary to register a religious community by half, to ten.
In the context of increased religious tolerance brought about by glasnost’, the late 1980s also saw the beginning of high-level cooperation between Communist officials and Muslim leaders of a kind that was unprecedented in the Soviet Union. Both sides seem to have made efforts at reconciliation with a series of mutually supportive statements and joint meetings. Radio Liberty reports that at a meeting between the Chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet and the Chairman of the Presidium of the Religious Board of Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan in March 1990, not only did the Chairman of the Presidium declare that Muslims supported perestroika, he also announced a joint effort between the government and the Muslim Board to secure the release of Soviet soldiers captured in Afghanistan. However, the election of Ratbek-haji Nysanbai-uly, an Islamic modernist, as Mufti of the newly formed Religious Board of Muslims of Kazakhstan in June 1990 demonstrated that although the Religious Board would cooperate with the Party leadership, it was not subservient. The formation of a new Religious Board for Kazakhstan represented a break with the system of religious administration set up by Stalin, and the new Mufti did not hesitate to criticise past religious policy, especially the repression of unregistered Mullahs. Such changes in the relationship between Islam and the Soviet state ultimately represent the state’s failure to propagate the doctrine of atheism, which had been considered a central tenant of party and state ideology, among its Muslim peoples.
The reassertion of religious identity under glasnost’ as an important element of the Kazakhs’ national identity allowed for an increase in national consciousness in some areas. Analyst Paul Goble notes that the creation of the Religious Board of Kazakhstan had the potential to become a model for other Central Asian states and to contribute to the joining of Islam and nationalism that Moscow so feared. However, it is important to separate these two identities, religious and national, and to note that the former did not automatically lead to the latter, nor did the latter presuppose the former. In my opinion, the main areas of significance of the Islamic revival under glasnost’ are that it displayed the fundamental failure of the core Soviet doctrine of Atheism to take root in Central Asia, and that it contributed to the growth of an underlying national consciousness, although not to the extent of becoming a force of nationalism.
XII. Environmental and Anti-Nuclear Activism
Concern for the environment provided a convenient channel for the expression of national sentiments, and this ‘politically safe’ topic became a popular one for opposition writers, especially given the preponderance of environmental problems in Kazakhstan. In his speech at the 1988 Plenum of the USSR Union of Writers, Mukhtar Shakhanov mentioned the activities of the Writers’ Union of Kazakhstan, which formed the Committee on Problems in the Aral and Balkhash to protest the damage done by industry and pollution to these two lakes. Environmental disasters such as the dumping of untreated waste by large industrial enterprises in the north of the country during the 1970s and 80s and the September 1990 explosion at a nuclear fuel factory in Ulba, which contaminated a large area with toxic gases, provoked some protests in response. However, it was the nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk in Eastern Kazakhstan that gave rise to the largest and most sustained protest in Kazakhstan, and in fact the most successful political organisation in the whole republic, outside the government.
The Nevada-Semipalatinsk organisation (named after the areas used by the USA and USSR respectively for the testing of their nuclear weapons and showing public solidarity with similar movements in the USA) successfully campaigned through organised rallies for an end to nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk, following evidence that the chronic health problems suffered by local inhabitants were directly proportional to their exposure to radiation from the site. The group came into existence in March 1989, with the stated aims of obtaining the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site, phasing out plants that produce nuclear materials for the military, and carrying out public inspections of radioactive waste disposal sites. Anti-nuclear campaigning did not only take the form of public demonstrations led by the Nevada-Semipalatinsk organisation, however, and a recurring demand of the previously mentioned striking miners in Karaganda in summer 1989 was, in addition to better working and living conditions, ‘the closure of the atomic test site at Semipalatinsk.'
The announcement of a moratorium on testing and the closure of the site by Nursultan Nazarbayev on 29th August 1991 following large-scale peace marches, demonstrations, and the threat of a mass sit-in on 25th August when a test had been due to take place, was celebrated as a national victory over the central Soviet military apparatus. The Nevada-Semipalatinsk organisation enjoyed enormous success and became the largest public group in the country. This was due in part both to the personal popularity of the founder of the movement, Olzhas Suleimenov, the First Secretary of the Writers’ Union of Kazakhstan, and the huge popularity of the anti-nuclear cause. However, the critical factor in the success of the movement was the support of the Communist Party leadership in Kazakhstan. The First Secretary of Semipalatinsk Obkom also held the position of head of the oblast Nevada-Semipalatinsk committee, and notably, in August 1991, Nazarbayev left a session of the USSR Supreme Soviet in order to attend an anti-nuclear demonstration in Alma-Ata.
The popularity of the anti-nuclear campaign and its adoption by even the Communist Party leadership led to it becoming ‘a symbol of Kazakhstan’s struggle for self-determination’, and it was included in Kazakhstan’s declaration of sovereignty. This demonstrates the way that environmental issues became inextricably linked to the national cause, although it is important to note that this was not an exclusively Kazakh issue, and that members of any nationality were welcome to join the Nevada-Semipalatinsk organisation. The key aspect of this campaign in terms of nationalism is that it was a movement that united all the citizens of Kazakhstan to campaign against central Soviet policy, but not on any basis of nationality or ethnicity.
This survey of the different aspects and features of nationalism in Kazakhstan during the years immediately preceding independence aimed to address the question of whether there really was a nationalist movement in Kazakhstan, or whether independence came to this overwhelmingly loyal republic purely because of its reaction against the policies and mismanagement of the central Moscow administration.
I argue that a developed form of nationalism was not present in Kazakhstan before its independence. To speak of Kazakh nationalism in this period is premature, as what we really see is the development of national consciousness and the outpouring of frustrations against particular USSR central policies, for example, the appointment of Gennadii Kolbin as first secretary of the Republic in 1986, or nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk.
There is, however, no articulated advocacy or support for independence or self-determination; in reference to Hroch’s three-phase process of national development, Kazakhstan in the late-Soviet era was certainly not at Phase C (rise of a mass national movement), but had, in fact, barely reached Phase B (patriotic education). Although Olzhas Suleimenov had published some works on a nationalist theme and, with the Writers’ Union, helped found the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement, and others were taking advantage of glasnost’ to discuss and write on previously banned topics, it would be an exaggeration to say that there existed a whole group of patriots campaigning to spread national consciousness.
Rather than an autonomous nationalism among the Kazakhs, what can be observed is a growth of their national consciousness in response to central Soviet policies concerning the Kazakhs. While every Kazakh grievance did not necessarily have national overtones, when set against the political backdrop of rule from Russian-dominated Moscow, and when considered together with other grievances, a sense of injustice developed, which fed into the developing national consciousness as part of a rhetoric of oppression.
The continuation of Communist party officials in office after independence, having changed their ideology to one of nationalism in order to play to growing public sentiment, and also the fact that the independence of Kazakhstan was declared extremely late, even after the Russian republic, further support the hypothesis that the nationalist agenda had not made a strong impact on the population of the Kazakh SSR prior to its independence, but that they were more concerned with righting the perceived injustices wrought on them by the Soviet state.
I therefore argue that nationalism had extremely limited importance as a political factor in late Soviet Kazakhstan. Its main relevance lies in the fact that Moscow, seeing nationalist developments in other republics, was worried about the potential emergence of nationalism in Kazakhstan. A much more important factor is the sudden arrival of independence. It is perhaps not surprising that an assertive nationalist rhetoric would come into being post-1991, but that is the subject of another study.
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