As representatives of Helsinki Watch, a colleague and I traveled southeast in the Soviet Union, almost to the Chinese border, to visit the vast and little-known Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where serious abuses of human rights have occurred, not just in recent years but also in the past. Kazakhstan’s steppelands were among Stalin’s favored sites for labor camps and exile communities, and we had been told, accurately as it turned out, that the region would reveal the scars of the Stalin years more vividly perhaps than any other Soviet republic. We also wanted to learn more about demonstrations that had turned violent in Kazakhstan in December 1986—the first such outbreak of violence in recent Soviet history, although not the last, as subsequent events in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere testify.
The riots in Kazakhstan were not adequately investigated when they occurred because for several months after they took place the region was put off limits to journalists and other visitors and then outside interest waned. When last year a member of the Kazakh Academy of Sciences—a prominent Kurd who knew of Helsinki Watch’s efforts on behalf of persecuted Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere—officially invited us to visit Alma Ata, the republic’s capital, we seized the opportunity; such official invitations are always useful in speeding along one’s application for a visa.
After years of being denied visas to the Soviet Union, representatives of Helsinki Watch can now freely travel there, even to some of its more remote regions. Certainly, as ethnic conflicts erupt throughout the USSR and demands for independence, autonomy, and secession become increasingly insistent, it is important for human rights observers to investigate events in the fifteen union republics and to try to understand how Moscow is seen from other parts of the Soviet Union.
Kazakhstan, the second largest republic in the Soviet Union, covers more than a million square miles. If one were to combine the territories of all of Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia and Albania, they would fill less than half of Kazakhstan. Its population, however, is relatively small, not quite seventeen million, slightly more than the population of Czechoslovakia. About a million people live in the city of Alma Ata, where we traveled first, and a half million in Karaganda, our second stop.
Until very recently Kazakhstan was the only republic of the Soviet Union in which Russians outnumbered the indigenous population, but new data from the 1989 census show Kazakhs as the largest ethnic group in the republic, although they still represent less than half the population—39.7 percent—with the Russians, at 37.8 percent, running a close second. This represents a 23.5 percent increase in the Kazakh population in the past ten years, as opposed to a 3.9 percent increase among Russians. The Kazakhs are Muslims who speak a Turkic language. They lived under Mongol rule between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Russians began to conquer the lands …