The twentieth anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence would seem an ideal time to reexamine the country’s legacy of Soviet rule, but in reality it is still at least ten or maybe even twenty years too soon.  Too many people still have their own memories of Soviet rule, and most everyone in the country is still directly tied to its negative and positive legacies, making it almost impossible for a citizen of the country to offer a detached judgment of what benefits Kazakhstan and its citizens may have derived from these seven plus decades. And even a foreign observer like myself, is subject to the same spectrum of positive and negative biases.

One’s attitude towards the Soviet legacy colors judgments about so many issues, especially if one defines the Soviet Union as little more than a continuation of Russian colonial rule.  This is an attitude which is not infrequently encountered and those that feel this way often are hostile to policies of the Russian Federation that are designed to create “special” relationships with Kazakhstan, or imply Russia’s right to have something of a de facto veto in Kazakhstan or in Central Asia more generally.  Similarly they are often hostile to the continued use of the Russian language in the media, in public places and in everyday life, believing that this somehow diminishes the role and status of the Kazakh language as the country’s official language.

Many of Kazakhstan’s citizens, it is hard to know what proportion, view the Soviet period with real nostalgia, seeing it as something quite distinct from Russian colonial rule.  This seems to be more common among non-Kazakhs (and not just ethnic Russians) than ethnic Kazakhs, but there are certainly Kazakhs who hold this view, most commonly those who lived on state or collective farms that failed to make the transition to commercial agriculture, people who were at pension age or near pension age when the Soviet Union collapsed, and found it hard to make the transition to the end of the social welfare state.  Doctors, teachers and former military also sometimes fit into this category, ruing the loss of the social mobility that they saw as a feature of Soviet rule, and the respect and relatively better remuneration that they used to receive as members of these professions.  This group also often includes former Communist Party members and activists, who think that Kazakhstan’s political ideology should include more of the old socialist ideals, and in the case of non-Kazakhs more of the old internationalist dogma.

At the heart of this split lies the core question about the Soviet Union, was it just a new vehicle of Russian imperialism albeit with a transformed ideology, or was it an ideologically driven multinational state in which the majority nationality largely controlled the political, economic and social agendas.

There is no simple answer to this question.  The post-World War II boundaries of the U.S.S.R. largely corresponded to those of the Russian Empire (with some conspicuous exceptions, such as Eastern Poland), but the political system of the U.S.S.R. was entirely different.  It was a vertically integrated political system which provided some political decentralization on ethno-territorial lines. Ethnic minorities living within the ethno-territorial units which bore their names had a degree of ethno-linguistic autonomy, more in the union republics than in the autonomous republics that they contained, and more in largely mono-ethnic republics than in multi-ethnic union republics.  The Kazakh S.S.R. was the most multi-ethnic of all, and ethnic Kazakhs were even a minority within the republic that bore their name. 

Yet Dinmukhammad Kunaev, an ethnic Kazakh, the long-time head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan was a voting member of the Politburo of the CPSU for 20 years, the defacto ruling body of the USSR.   He was the only Central Asian to ever serve as a voting member, and only a handful of Politburo members achieved such longevity in office in the post-Stalin system. While it will fall to a future generation of historians to offer a detached assessment of the plusses and minuses of the Kunaev years, whether Moscow extracted too much and gave back too little, the foundations for Kazakhstan’s economic diversification were laid during his years in power; Almaty received a modern new cosmopolitan face with its green open spaces preserved; and there was a major investment in expanding education and introducing new infrastructure. All this during a period whose later years were characterized as a time of stagnation (zastoi) by most historians of the Soviet Union, and it was during these very years that Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev rose to prominence within the leadership ranks of the Kazakh S.S.R. 

But even in this period of relative prosperity, there was no way for the Kazakhs to address the “blank pages” of their history, most especially the history of the Stalinist repression.  While all the peoples of the Soviet Union suffered during the nearly three decades of Stalin’s rule, the pain and grief of the Kazakhs was especially acute given the decimation of the rural population during the collectivization drive. 

The Kazakhs, like the Ukrainians continue to view Stalin’s agricultural policies as a form of genocide, implying that it was done to deliberately kill off the Kazakh (and the Ukrainian) populations to “free” their land to be farmed by Russians who would be organized in a new collectivized form of agriculture.

I have never found any evidence to support the idea that the collectivization policy in Kazakhstan (or elsewhere) was designed to eliminate a particular ethnic group.  But there can be no question that the policy was designed to end the traditional Kazakh economy and with it the Kazakh way of life.  And in the process of doing this Soviet officials killed off more than half of all Kazakh households, and more than eighty percent of the livestock that served as foundation for the Kazakh economy and its traditional culture.  

Collectivization was a policy of “the ends justify the means” and the goal of a collectivized agriculture to produce wheat as an export crop to fuel Soviet industrialization was paramount, regardless of the human cost.  So, even when it was clear that the introduction of collectivized agriculture would cost millions of lives Moscow continued to ruthlessly advance it.

So despite the fact that collectivization was not intended as genocide it had much the same effect.  Collectivization was followed by a second blood-bath, the political purges of the 1930s.  It is a rare family living in Kazakhstan today who does not have an ancestor who either died in collectivization or perished in the purges, and countless families perished in their entirety leaving none to recall them today. This explains the sense of collective grief, and the Kazakh nation had to wait several generations to recapture the demographic potential that they had in the late 1920s when the collectivization drive began.

Writing the history of this period remains a challenging task. While many of the archives for these years are now available to scholars, the policies of collectivization and purge were ordered by Moscow but carried on by representatives of all nationalities, Kazakh and non-Kazakhs alike, whose descendants, citizens of Kazakhstan, who are found in all walks of life in the country.

Really, virtually every question relating to history is potentially contentious. One exception is the history of World War II, The Great Fatherland War, during which nearly a half million people from the Kazakh S.S.R. fought, and in which thousands lost their lives. The recognition of their sacrifice is one of the common threads binding the versions of history taught in Kazakhstan during Soviet times, and how it has been taught for the past two decades. The war years also led to the first serious wave of industrialization in the republic and contributed to the multi-national character of it as well. 

Nikita Khrushchev’s policies remain contentious. The Virgin Lands policy brought hundreds of thousands of new settlers into the republic, displaced Kazakh farmers and shifted the ethnic balance once again.  But after the first bumpy years, dry land wheat cultivation was firmly established in the republic and now is an important sector in Kazakhstan’s economy and one which enhances economic diversification. 

Khrushchev’s efforts to reinvigorate communist ideology also were controversial. While the thaw introduced at the 20th Congress of the CPSU led to the release and rehabilitation of many victims of Stalinist repression, many national heroes were not exonerated.  Khrushchev’s main address to the 22nd Party Congress was much more controversial, when he declared that the Soviet Union must move to a stage of true internationalism through the “sblizhenie” and “sliianie” of nations, the effective merging of the country’s ethnic communities.  Kazakhs, as most other nationalities, viewed this as a call for “Russification;” ethnic Russians objected to it as well, believing that it also meant the end of a distinctly Russian ethnic community and culture.

In general, the goals of Soviet nationality policy, as such ideological pronouncements were termed, and how they were implemented, are the thorniest issues relating to Soviet rule.  Take language policy for instance.  During the Soviet period Kazakhs and all other Soviet citizens were granted access to education, and for whatever the distortions in the teaching of history or culture, there was the possibility to attain a world class education in math and the sciences and in many branches of the humanities as well.  Kazakhs from all economic and social strata took advantage of these opportunities and achieved international recognition for their accomplishments. Literacy was universal, something that is not true even today in the former English colonies like India and Pakistan. 

Not all Kazakhs were literate in Kazakh, and very few of the other nationalities living in Kazakhstan could speak, read or write Kazakh. This is a source of particular anger for Kazakhs, as the situation in Kazakhstan differed markedly from that just across the border in Uzbekistan, where the Uzbek language had carved out some public space for itself as a written as well as a spoken language.  But whatever the imbalances in language policy in the Kazakh republic, the Kazakh language also came into its own as a written language during this period.  While many of the early Kazakh nationalists who pressed for the development of the Kazakh language perished during the purges, others were able to continue and greatly expand their work and expand the body of works written in Kazakh, and broaden its technological reach. 

The Gorbachev years, which for many in the former Soviet Union were a time of great hope, were a time of sadness, frustration and dissolution for many Kazakhs, when it seemed that the policies of glasnost’ and perestroika were not being applied even-handedly.  Many Kazakhs felt victimized by the way that the anti-corruption campaign was carried out within the Communist Party. The violent way in which demonstrators protesting Dinmukhamed Kunaev’s removal and replacement by Gennady Kolbin, a Russian from outside of Kazakhstan, has been indelibly printed on the historic memory of Kazakhstan through the choice of December 16 as independence day. 

Not only was Kazakhstan’s popular Prime Minister Nursultan Nazarbayev by-passed by Kolbin’s appointment, but he was left helpless to stop the purge of long-time party officials that Kolbin conducted. This purge occurred at the very time when Mikhail Gorbachev, seemingly sparked in part by his wife Raisa, was permitting something of a Russian cultural renaissance, increasing the sense of national grievance of many ethnic Kazakhs (and other Soviet nationalities as well).

These years though, were a very important time in Kazakhstan.  The first Kazakh informal and then non-governmental organizations gave voice to a whole host of widely-held political and social grievances.  Nevada-Semipalatinsk publicized the egregious price Kazakhstan and its residents had paid for being home to nuclear and chemical weapons facilities, and a number of other environmental groups spoke out about the death of the Aral sea and the environmental despoliation that had resulted from decades of agricultural practices designed to extract the maximum from the land with little regard for the health of those engaged in the process. 

Gorbachev obviously changed his earlier assessment of Nursultan Nazarbayev, appointing him as head of Kazakhstan’s Communist Party on June 22, 1989, just days after bloody rioting in Uzen. In the last years of Soviet rule, Nazarbayev rose in stature throughout the Soviet Union, as he sought to preserve the Union in a way that served the ethno-national as well as economic and political interests of the Union republics, and most pointedly of Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev’s policies during the period June 1989 through December 1991 demonstrate that he too was well aware of the complexity of the Soviet legacy, and that Soviet rule was collapsing. But he was also aware, as he has continued to point out over the past twenty years of his presidency that the interconnections of history, culture and geography are independent of whether Russia and Kazakhstan are bound together in a common political arrangement such as that of the Soviet Union.