When the communist authorities in Moscow ordered a bureaucratic reshuffle in far-off Kazakhstan in 1986, they did not expect their mundane rejig to rock the foundations of the Soviet state or become a harbinger of the USSR’s demise.
But the Kremlin’s high-handed decision-making aroused the ire of Kazakhs, 4,000km away, igniting demonstrations in Kazakhstan in December 1986 that, with hindsight, neatly encapsulate the resentments that were building up throughout the Soviet Union and, in 1991, helped to fell a superpower. The spark that lit the conflagration on the streets of Kazakhstan in 1986 was the replacement of the leadership of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the 15 nominally autonomous republics that made up the USSR.
Presided over by the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as part of an attempt to oust entrenched local leaders, it looked like a straightforward regional reshuffle, with one Soviet apparatchik stepping into the shoes of another. Dinmukhamed Kunayev, a Kazakh bureaucrat who had been the republic’s communist leader for over two decades, would be replaced by Gennadiy Kolbin, formerly a regional party boss in Soviet Russia.
The Kazakhs took umbrage: to them this episode was more than just another example of communist red tape. The crux was not so much the replacement of their leader, but more Moscow’s imperious imposition of a Russian outsider to rule Kazakhstan. It confirmed long-held suspicions that their Soviet rulers viewed Kazakhs as second-class citizens who were judged – it now turned out – unfit to rule themselves.
It was, Dos Kushim (then a young lecturer and now a prominent Kazakh community leader) later recalled, the straw that broke the camel’s back. ‘For years this discontent had been accumulating inside us, that we’d become second-rate. The affront had been building up in our souls.’
In December, long-simmering resentment over perceptions of discrimination against Kazakhs in favour of Russians in Soviet-ruled Kazakhstan boiled over into some of the largest, most violent demonstrations to ever hit the USSR. They were brutally quelled by security forces using lethal force, despite Gorbachev’s stated ambition to pursue a political thaw.
The ‘Zheltoksan’ uprising (after the Kazakh word for December) left a traumatic scar on the Kazakh national psyche and an ambiguous legacy. Today, Kazakhstan celebrates Zheltoksan as a harbinger of its independence, acquired when the Soviet Union collapsed five years later. Simultaneously, it delicately airbrushes certain aspects of the uprising’s history, declining to delve too deep due to political sensitivities over the role of one man: Nursultan Nazarbayev, former Soviet apparatchik as well as founding father and current president of modern Kazakhstan.
Slavs and Soviets
At the time of the Zheltoksan protests (pronounced with a soft ‘j’, like the French name ‘Jacques’) in the mid-1980s, there had been a Slavic presence in Kazakhstan for four centuries. Cossacks pushing south from Siberia had founded a military settlement in 1584 at a spot that is today the city of Uralsk (to Russians) or Oral (to Kazakhs). By the mid-1980s, parts of Kazakhstan had been under Russian colonial rule for 250 years, as some western Kazakh tribes had sworn an oath of allegiance to Moscow in 1731. It took Russia another century to attain colonial control over the lands of the Kazakh nomads, whose tribes had once been loosely united into the Kazakh Khanate. By the mid-19th century, they had been subsumed under Kremlin rule.
Colonial power brought a flood of settlers, encouraged by perks offered by the Russian Imperial government in St Petersburg: 2.4 million people arrived from Russia between 1907 and 1912 alone, according to calculations by Kazakh historians. By the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, 45 million hectares of the best agricultural and pastoral land had been granted to Slavic settlers. This dispossession of the Kazakh nomads created simmering resentments that exploded into violent reprisals in 1916, when Central Asian Muslims attacked settler villages during a rebellion against a tsarist conscription order during the First World War.
Russian colonisation caused a shift in the demographics of this sparsely populated land previously inhabited by nomadic herders. But it was Soviet rule, established after the Russian Revolution, that wrought the most dramatic transformation, particularly the era in which the Soviet Union was led by Joseph Stalin (from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953). The years of famine, war and Terror in the 1930s and 1940s were traumatic and tumultuous all over the Soviet Union. None felt it more than the Kazakhs, whose nomadic way of life was wiped out within the space of a decade, as they became a minority on lands they had roamed for centuries. A combination of factors decimated the indigenous population and diluted it with incomers who tipped the demographic balance.
First came a devastating famine, in the early 1930s, that swept across Kazakhstan and swathes of Ukraine and southern Russia as a direct result of the collectivisation of agriculture instigated by Stalin. Peasants were driven into collective farms, which were subject to mass requisitioning of food stocks, leaving them with nothing to eat. In Ukraine and Russia, the breadbasket of the USSR, grain was requisitioned; in Kazakhstan, meat. The herdsmen, who had once roamed in small kin groups that formed an auyl (village), were herded into collective farms and their cattle and meat were seized to feed the urban industrial workforce. Many Kazakhs died of hunger.
It is not known how many people died of famine and disease in those years in Kazakhstan or elsewhere in the USSR, not least because Stalin scrapped the results of the 1937 census and had those in charge of it shot to cover up the ‘collateral damage’ of collectivisation. Archivists in Kazakhstan are painstakingly sifting through documents to draw up a tally, but that will take decades. Conservative estimates put the number of deaths at one million, but research by the Kazakh demographer Makash Tatimov suggests that 2.1 million people died of hunger and disease (equivalent to more than a third of Kazakhstan’s pre-famine population of 6.2 million). Most were Kazakhs, since the rural population was hardest hit by famine. Another million Kazakhs are thought to have fled to other parts of the Soviet Union and beyond, as far as Turkey, Iran and China. Perhaps 400,000 later returned.
The 1930s famine in Ukraine – known there as the Holodomor – is better known internationally than the Kazakh famine. It is also more politicised. Ukraine (which is no friend of Russia’s) has no qualms about designating it a ‘genocide’. In her book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017), historian Anne Applebaum endorsed that characterisation on the grounds that the famine meets the original definition of attempting to eradicate the ‘essential foundations of the life’ of a people, albeit not the UN definition of ‘intent to destroy’. Kazakhstan, which remains a Russian ally, takes a more circumspect line: it remembers the famine – in Kazakh the Asharshylyk – as a collective tragedy, but avoids apportioning blame for fear of antagonising Moscow, which takes no responsibility for communist-era atrocities. Yet there is no escaping the fact that collectivisation was deliberately aimed at wiping out the Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life in order to integrate them into the Soviet mainstream.
The shift in Kazakhstan’s demographics was intensified by the deportations of entire peoples – whose loyalty Moscow doubted – to far-flung parts of Central Asia and Siberia. Moscow had experimented with forced relocations in the 1920s, deporting kulaks, supposedly a ‘richer’ class of peasant, to Kazakhstan and Siberia as punishment for allegedly hoarding grain and sabotaging collectivisation. But in the 1930s and 1940s – before, during and after the Second World War – the deportations accelerated. An estimated 1.4 million people suspected as ‘fifth columnists’ supporting the Nazis were moved around the Soviet Union as punishment. Many ended up in Kazakhstan: Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Karachays, Koreans, Kurds, Germans, Greeks, Poles, Turks, Ukrainians and others. The share of Kazakhs in the population shrank. An agricultural programme to plant grain in Kazakhstan, adopted in the mid 1950s by Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev and called the Virgin Lands campaign, drew another 1.7 million, mainly Slavic, settlers.
By 1939 (when a new census was held), after a decade of traumatic upheavals, Kazakhs were a minority in Kazakhstan. They formed 38 per cent of the population, down from 60 per cent a decade earlier; Russians and other Slavs made up over 50 per cent. By the time of the Zheltoksan protests nearly half a century later, Kazakhstan was the only Soviet republic where the people after whom it was named were in a minority. Many Kazakhs were resentful at that time and this demographic legacy lives on. Kazakhstan remains a melting pot, although the ethnic balance has now tipped back to the Kazakhs, who form two thirds of the population. To the chagrin of some Kazakh-speakers, Russian remains the lingua franca in a country where some citizens (a third, at the last census) cannot speak Kazakh at all.
The Soviet government used to recite a mantra to build social cohesiveness among its dozens of disparate ethnic groups: ‘druzhba narodov’, ‘friendship of the peoples’, meaning that all lived together in perfect harmony. Woe betide anyone who undermined it. It was, however, an open secret that Russians were first among equals in the USSR – and in Kazakhstan. With Kazakhs a minority, the sense of injustice became pronounced. In the 1980s, when Zheltoksan erupted, resentments had long been festering over everything from discriminatory employment and housing policies to the fact that Kazakhs were kept out of towns through bureaucratic means (by refusing them a propiska, or registration). Only 22 per cent of the population of Alma-Ata, the capital of the Kazakh SSR, were ethnic Kazakhs. As elsewhere in the USSR, Kazakhs were strongly discouraged from speaking their language. One Zheltoksanshy, as the Zheltoksan protesters are called, recalls being berated on the streets of Alma-Ata for speaking a ‘monkey language’ with her friends, while Kazakh poet Mukhtar Shakhanov remembers being told to speak in a ‘comprehensible’ tongue. He was among those who feared that the Kazakh language might face extinction.
By the mid-1980s, the sense of alienation among Kazakhs had turned Soviet Kazakhstan into a pressure cooker. In December 1986 it exploded into Zheltoksan.
‘When Kolbin was put in, the whole Kazakh people rose up’, explained Talgat Ryskulbekov, a Zheltoksanshy, recalling the protest when Kazakhstan was marking the 25th anniversary in 2011. Talgat’s brother lost his life – not during the bloody quashing of the demonstrations, but in the vicious political aftermath.
Talgat and Kayrat Ryskulbekov were among the thousands of people – mostly young Kazakhs – who were drawn on 16 December 1986 to the main square in Alma-Ata (today Almaty and no longer Kazakhstan’s capital). The rumour mill was abuzz with the news that Kunayev, the Kazakh who had been the first secretary of Kazakhstan’s Communist Party since 1964 (and held the same post from 1960-2), had been fired and Gennadiy Kolbin, who was not from Soviet Kazakhstan but from Russia, was coming to replace him. People became irate, explained Gulbakhram Zhunis, another Zheltoksanshy, ‘because Kunayev was being removed and some Kolbin appointed, who not only didn’t know the city of Almaty or Kazakhstan – he didn’t even know what kind of nation this was, our traditions and culture’.
The decision to replace Kunayev was part of a broader reform agenda adopted by Gorbachev, who had come to power as General-Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1985, touting two new policies that made headlines around the world amid excited chatter about the advent of some sort of ‘Soviet Spring’. Gorbachev was determined to rid the country of the torpidity of the age that had preceded his rule, the ‘Era of Stagnation’, when a succession of decrepit leaders had turned the Soviet Union into a gerontocracy. With fanfare, he launched his policies of perestroika (restructuring, of the economy) and glasnost (openness, to discussion and new ideas) which unwittingly opened the door to an outpouring of decades of pent-up resentments across the USSR. These began, most visibly, in Kazakhstan in 1986.
‘Perestroika is under way, where is democracy?’ asked one of the placards waved by the Zheltoksanshy on Alma-Ata’s main square, at that time named after Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, who had been first secretary of Soviet Kazakhstan before his long tenure as General Secretary, which ushered in the Era of Stagnation. The young Kazakhs believed they could take advantage of Gorbachev’s thaw to make their voices heard, but the regime was not ready to listen. The unusual sight of demonstrators on the streets of the Soviet Union induced panic among the leadership, as the thousands-strong protest not only continued into a second day but began spreading to other Kazakh towns.
Moscow’s response was the traditional one. Codenamed Operation Metel (Snowstorm), it involved dispatching nearly 8,000 police and paramilitary forces into Kazakhstan armed with truncheons and sappers’ shovels to disperse the protests, assisted by local factory workers who had been frogmarched into ‘civil militias’ as ‘volunteers’. The protesters were chased down with dogs, beaten up, thrown into police cells and in some cases sprayed with water cannons, then dumped soaking wet outside the city in freezing temperatures. Many offer first-hand testimony of security forces’ abuses, such as Gulbakhram Zhunis, who suffered four broken bones in beatings on Brezhnev Square and in police holding cells. She survived the experience, unlike two young women who fell to their deaths from interrogation facilities: suicide, in the official version of events.
For Kayrat Ryskulbekov, Zheltoksan also proved fatal. The 20-year-old student was arrested and charged with murdering Sergey Savitskiy, a Russian civil militia ‘volunteer’ who had been beaten to death with steel rods during the clashes. Ryskulbekov initially confessed but later retracted his confession, saying he had been pressured by KGB interrogators. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But he did not die from an executioner’s bullet. An appeal court struck his death penalty down, replacing it with a 20-year prison term. Just four years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Had he gone to jail, Ryskulbekov would have been released and ‘rehabilitated’, his criminal record wiped clean. He did not, however, survive that long: he died during his transfer from Kazakhstan to a Russian prison camp. The young man was found hanged from a vest in a Kazakh prison cell. His death was officially classified as suicide, but his brother has always suspected foul play to cover up the truth about Zheltoksan.
The aftermath of the demonstrations left a bitter taste in Kazakhstan. The demonstrators, who felt they had been speaking up in the name of glasnost, were maligned all over the Soviet Union, not only as ‘hooligans’, ‘parasites’ and ‘anti-social’ elements – code for anyone who refused to toe the party line – but also reviled as ‘nationalists’, a dangerous label in a country that professed ‘friendship of the peoples’ as a core value. Of the 8,500 people hauled in and interrogated over the protests, 900 were convicted of crimes including murder, assault and hooliganism and 82 were jailed. Hundreds of other young people had their lives ‘ruined forever’, as the Kazakh poet Mukhtar Shakhanov complained to Gorbachev a few years later, because they received official reprimands (1,400 cases were recorded) that led to their expulsions from universities or dismissals from their jobs.
While the demonstrators were prosecuted and politically persecuted, the perpetrators of Operation Metel went scot-free. Everyone knew that there had been fatalities, but no one knew how many. The communist leadership engaged in a cover-up and a damage limitation exercise. In 1987, it invited Moscow-based western journalists to visit Kazakhstan, where they were finally given an official death toll: Zheltoksan had caused two fatalities and 200 injuries.
This figure was revealed to the journalists by Nursultan Nazarbayev, a rising political star, then the chairman of the council of ministers of the Kazakh SSR. He would go on to greater things. In 1989 Gorbachev appointed Nazarbayev to replace Kolbin as Kazakhstan’s leader; the state never backed down over Kolbin’s appointment, despite the deadly demonstrations it had caused. Nazarbayev was catapulted into the presidency of independent Kazakhstan when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a post he still holds, 27 years on.
As an insider of the regime that crushed Zheltoksan, Nazarbayev became ambiguous about his role at the time: in the aftermath, he stuck to the party line, criticising the protest as ‘hooliganism’. But after independence, the founding father of sovereign Kazakhstan backtracked, not only mythologising Zheltoksan as an anti-colonial uprising, but also claiming in a biography published in 1991 that he had not only supported the demonstrators but played an active role in the protests. Zheltoksanshy recall Kazakhstan’s apparatchiks coming out of the administration building on Brezhnev Square to urge them to disperse and Talgat Ryskulbekov remembers Nazarbayev as the only one who mingled with the crowd to try to persuade them to leave for their own good; that is hardly the same as being a banner-waving protester. Behind the scenes, Kazakh bureaucrats may have tried to restrain Moscow, but that did not stop Operation Metel.
In 1989, after three years of national vilification of the Kazakhs throughout the Soviet Union, one man had had enough. Mukhtar Shakhanov, a respected poet and a contemporary of Nazarbayev, is today an elder statesman of Kazakh community leaders. Times had changed in the Soviet Union: glasnost had taken firmer root, people had become more outspoken and the country was loudly discussing recent protests in Soviet Georgia (Zheltoksan would turn out to be a precursor of civil unrest that would become a feature of the dying days of the USSR). Shakhanov took to the podium of the Congress of People’s Deputies, a new Soviet parliament instituted by Gorbachev, in Moscow and delivered a withering diatribe against the vituperative denigration of the Kazakhs and the Soviet cover-up of Zheltoksan. ‘The words “Kazakh nationalism” are an accusation against the entire Kazakh nation!’ he bellowed, as a surprised Gorbachev looked on. ‘We therefore request that justice be done, that these harsh and undeserved accusations against the nation be lifted!’ Rashly accusing Gorbachev of retreating into the political repressions of the past, instead of living up to the lofty ideals of glasnost, Shakhanov demanded an open inquiry. Gorbachev acquiesced.
The probe struggled to make headway, with vested interests resisting it at every turn. But it turned up some interesting testimony. One KGB officer told the inquiry that the death toll from Zheltoksan had actually been 168 (155 civilians and 13 law-enforcement officers).
In contemporary Kazakhstan, Kazakhs celebrate Zheltoksan as a turning point in their country’s history, a David and Goliath moment of the powerless rising up against the powerful. Yet many are convinced that the truth about this seminal moment has not yet come out. Many doubt that it ever will.
Joanna Lillis is the author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan (I.B. Tauris, 2018).