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.1 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,2 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 held by the Mongol khans. They rebelled against Russian rule in 1916 and were about to set up a Western-style state when the Bolshevik Revolution upset their plans.

More than one hundred of the Soviet Union’s approximately 120 nationalities live near Alma Ata.3 In addition to Russians and Kazakhs, there are Volga Germans, Chechens, Ingush, Meskhetians, Poles, Kurds, Koreans, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Ukrainians, Chinese, Gagauz, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Kara-Kalpaks, Tadzhiks,…the list, according to the Mufti of Kazakhstan, includes twenty-three traditionally Muslim nationalities, representing ten million Muslims. This astonishing mixture (by comparison, there are about fifty nationalities in the much larger Russian republic) is the tragic legacy of Stalin’s savage regime, when Kazakhstan was used as a dumping ground for persecuted minorities and as a place where kulaks, bourgeois shopkeepers, and dissident intellectuals were banished. It became a major part of the gulag archipelago; millions worked, suffered, and died in its prisons and labor camps. It was the site of “The Installation,” the Soviet atomic testing grounds and laboratories described by Andrei Sakharov in his memoirs. Semi-palatinsk, in eastern Kazakhstan, remains the Soviet Union’s major atomic testing ground for underground tests.

Most of the Kazakhs we met think that outright and immediate secession is a fantasy, because the republic is so diverse ethnically and because its size and abundant natural resources make it of great importance to the central government. By all accounts, moreover, there has been relatively little ethnic strife in the republic. The Kazakh people have been exceptionally welcoming to the various ethnic groups that have been exiled there in the past and are now arriving again, refugees from ethnic conflicts in Uzbekistan, for example, and from environmental disasters such as the Chernobyl meltdown. All these people have lived together in remarkable harmony, a harmony that the December 1986 uprising damaged but did not destroy.

Nevertheless, we found this remote corner of the USSR in a state of turmoil. During the December 1986 riots that resulted from Moscow’s appointment of a new Party boss in Alma Ata, hundreds of people were imprisoned or wounded, and there remains much bitterness and controversy about what happened. There are complaints about Moscow’s “economic colonialism” and “cultural imperialism.” Coal miners in Karaganda went on strike in 1989, and created a powerful trade union organization that is now working for economic and welfare reforms; and such different national groups as the Kurds and the Germans are demanding recognition of their ethnic and cultural rights. New political parties are forming and reformist politicians are seeking economic autonomy for the republic. Some are seeking to strengthen the links to the other Central Asian republics. In Kazakhstan, I was always aware of the great distance between Moscow and Alma Ata, a distance that cannot be measured only in miles. Even though there is no large-scale movement to secede, the republic seems to be moving away from the Soviet Union.


Alma Ata—the name means “Father of Apples” in Kazakh—is claimed by its citizens to be the greenest city in the Soviet Union. The capital’s wide, straight avenues are lined with closely planted, leafy trees that all but obscure the low, undistinguished modern buildings. Our first sight as we stepped off the plane was of snow-capped mountains, part of the Tien Shan range that extends from China, rising straight up on the horizon. Our second was of our welcoming party of local Kurds—husbands, wives, sons, grandsons and their extended families—headed by the Academician Nadir Nadirov, a prize-winning chemist and a Kurd by origin, who had invited us to visit Kazakhstan at a meeting on Kurdish problems in Paris a year before. A half hour later we were at a banquet in our honor in the Academician’s pleasant six-room apartment.

Nadirov is the fifty-eight-year-old director of the Institute of Oil and Natural Salts Chemistry of the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences and the author or coauthor of more than 350 scientific publications. He has been a member of the Communist party since 1965, but above all he is a Kurd, passionately concerned with unifying the Kurds scattered throughout the Soviet Union. Glasnost has made it possible for him to try to lay claim to his heritage.

The Kurds are one of the eleven or twelve ill-fated Soviet minorities that are known as the “punished peoples.” Stalin charged some of these ethnic groups with mass treachery during World War II and acted toward the others as if they were disloyal. He had them all rounded up on short notice and shipped them to Central Asia. Some of these minorities, like the Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Karachay, and Balkars, were cleared of the charges against them after Stalin’s death and allowed to return to their homelands in 1957. But others, most notably the Crimean Tatars, the Germans, the Meskhetians, and the Kurds, remain in exile. The Gorbachev government has done little to help them return or to compensate them, but it has given them the freedom to speak up for their rights, and they are now doing so with great vigor.

The Kurds were brought mainly to Kazakhstan from Azerbaijan in 1937 and from Georgia in 1944. It appears that Stalin wanted to remove them from the southern frontier and from any possible contacts with fraternal Turkish-speaking peoples across the border. Nadir Nadirov was five years old in 1937 when policemen from the NKVD entered his family’s house in Azerbaijan, gave them less than twenty-four hours to pack their things, and left, taking with them his twenty-two-year-old brother, the head of the family, whom they never saw again. Nadir, his mother, and her seven other children were then packed into freight cars and sent off on a six-week nightmare journey to Central Asia: “There was no water, no toilet. We didn’t know where we were being sent.” Dumped in a village in the Kazakh steppe, they were told to build the houses in which they were to live. Nadir lived there for twenty years, forbidden to leave the village until after Stalin’s death when the policy was revoked and he received permission to study in Moscow. That he was then able to rise to the prestigious position of Academician is remarkable: I was often reminded by his colleagues that Nadir is the only Kurdish Academician in the Soviet Union.

Nadir took us to Darya Vostoka, a mainly Kurdish village on the outskirts of Alma Ata. There I met Zia Aliev, a dignified man of seventy-four with a graying moustache and a full set of gleaming gold teeth. Pinned to his dark suit were fifteen or more huge, beribboned medals attesting to his heroism at Stalingrad and Berlin. He told me that eleven of his brothers had died at the front. “We live on very good terms with the Kazakhs,” he explained. “We live rather well. But we cannot understand why, when we were fighting the war, they took away our families from where we lived in Georgia. We still don’t know why we were deported. Half the people died on the road.” When Zia returned from the war to Georgia in 1946, he found that his house had been destroyed and his family had been deported two years before. His wife and children, he learned, had been loaded “like cattle” onto freight cars and sent to Central Asia, and no official would tell him just where. Trying to find them, Zia first went to Uzbekistan and then to Alma Ata. He discovered that all of his family except one small daughter had died from hunger and cold somewhere on the journey to Kazakhstan.


These deportations, part of a pattern that was repeated with other “punished peoples,” were carried out under Stalin’s Laws of Special Settlement. To be caught trying to evade them meant a twenty-five-year prison sentence. The relocated families were confined to their villages and forbidden to visit even friends or relatives nearby. On July 17, 1957, the Laws of Special Settlement were repealed, but the many victims of dislocation who were denied the right to return home had to remain where they were. When they tried to fight for their rights during the post-Stalin years, many were severely punished.

A recent report in the Soviet press indicates that a new internal emigration of Kurds has begun as Kurds—primarily from Armenia and Uzbekistan—seek asylum in the Russian republic. The reason given for their flight is “a wild outburst of local nationalism.” Although the Soviet census lists only 153,000 Kurds, Nadir and his friends believe that there may be as many as 500,000 of them in the USSR, and that hundreds of thousands of Kurds have assimilated out of fear of discrimination. They dream of resurrecting Lachin, a Kurdish autonomous region that Lenin established between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia for only six years, between 1923 and 1929. At the very least, they hope for the revival of their language and culture, of Kurdish schools and newspapers. They have had some success. A decree on nationalities of April 28, 1990, stipulates that national groups have the right to establish cultural centers, and a Kurdish center has now been officially set up in Moscow. A national congress of Soviet Kurds—described by Izvestia as a “sanctioned rally”—was held at the end of July in Moscow with Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria among the more than one thousand participants. The delegates sent a message to Gorbachev asking him to restore their pre-1929 autonomy and to provide them with their own region in the south of the Russian republic.

The ethnic Germans, descendants of Germans who settled in Russia several hundred years before the Bolshevik Revolution, were given their own autonomous republic on the Volga where they farmed and prospered. But in 1941, accused of disloyalty, they were deported to Siberia and to Central Asia. There they were held under harsh conditions, especially in Karaganda, on the Kazakh steppe, where many of the exiled Germans are said to have died of starvation. All German schools, theaters, and place names were abolished after 1941, and even after Stalin’s death the Germans were forced to sign papers saying that they would not return to their former homes or seek reparations. In 1964, probably because of pressure from West Germany, the Germans were politically rehabilitated but still denied the right of return. Of the two million Germans in the Soviet Union, about one million remain in Kazakhstan, where most work on relatively prosperous collective farms. A congress of Soviet Germans is being planned for later this year. The Germans are now permitted to leave the USSR, and I was told that some 200,000 have emigrated during the past three years.

In December 1986 there were two days of demonstrations in Alma Ata, the first popular protests to turn violent in the Soviet Union since Gorbachev consolidated his power. Since then, ethnic disturbances have been occurring elsewhere with increasing violence and frequency. Nagorno-Karabakh, Sumgait, Tbilisi, Yerevan, Baku, Fergana, Dushanbe, Frunze, Osh—such previously obscure places have suddenly been the scene of bitter ethnic confrontations and protests against Communist rule. There have also been subsequent, less extensive outbursts of violence in Kazakhstan, most recently in Alma Ata in March 1990.

Each of these conflicts has had its own distinguishing features, but one can also see a familiar pattern in which longstanding resentment of Soviet treatment of ethnic groups, as well as hostility between them, came into the open in response to the easing of Soviet repression and police control and to worsening economic conditions that have produced general unrest and frustration. In most cases one can also discern roughly the same sequence of events: after violent clashes, the government resorts to a show of force that either comes too late or is excessive, or both. The Soviet authorities sometimes dismiss the demonstrators as “thugs” or “hooligans,” and try to suppress detailed information about what actually happened by closing the region to visitors and the press. In virtually every case, moreover, a question remains—whether what happened was a conflict between warring ethnic groups or a protest against Communism, or both. And, conversely, the question arises whether the central government, in using force, acted to restore peace, or whether it used the opportunity to punish opponents of the regime and to prop up officials loyal to the Party and to the bureaucracy in Moscow.

The trouble began when the longtime Party boss of Kazakhstan, Dinmukhamed A. Kunaev, a seventy-four-year-old Kazakh who had used his position in the Party to help members of his own large family clan, was replaced by Gennadi V. Kolbin, a Russian official appointed by Gorbachev who had served in Sverdlovsk and Tbilisi but had reportedly never set foot in Kazakhstan. According to official reports, at least three thousand people took to the streets in protest. Two days of rioting followed, with unofficial estimates of the number of protesters reaching 30,000. The police used tanks, dogs, tear gas, water cannons, sticks, and metal rods to disperse the demonstrators. According to official statistics, three people died, but independent investigators we talked to believe that there were many more casualties. Government newspapers reported that close to 2,000 young people were punished for their part in the riots, that 99 people were put in prison, 631 were placed under surveillance—and 286 were treated for injuries and sent home. An unofficial group called Zholtoksan (“December”), which includes many who served prison terms following the riots, has been meticulously documenting official abuses, and it claims that there were at least 276 additional wounded and an unknown number of people who remain unaccounted for. All but two of those imprisoned have now been released.

When we interviewed people who had taken part in the demonstrations or had observed them, we were presented with a tangle of different stories. Some people told us that the protests were spontaneous outbursts by Kazakh students; others said that the students were organized by members of Kunaev’s still-powerful political machine, which includes members of his extended family. Both claims could be true of different student groups. Some said that the demonstrators were “hooligans,” drunkards, and drug addicts, while others claimed that government agents intentionally provoked the crowd and then called in the troops. Several observers who seemed knowledgeable said that the Soviet authorities made use of armed Russian volunteers because they knew that the Kazakh citizens would resent workers acting as police. By doing this, they said, the government hoped to transform a political protest into an ethnic dispute, thus suggesting that primitive nationalist sentiments were at fault and not the Soviet political system. Some Kazakhs were suspicious of the visit to Alma Ata at the time of the riots by Mikhail S. Solomentsev, a member of the Politburo of the Moscow Party Central Committee. They charge that Mr. Solomentsev encouraged the recruitment of Russian workers in order to stir up nationalist tensions between Kazakhs and Russians. Indeed, the Central Committee in 1987 characterized the riots as a “manifestation of Kazakh nationalism.”

Most of the Kazakhs whom we interviewed were disturbed by the Party’s characterization of the riots as “nationalist.” They assured us that people were protesting the appointment of Kolbin not because he was a Russian but because he was an outsider suddenly imposed on them by Moscow without any regard for the sentiments of local citizens. They claimed that if the new Party leader had been a local Russian, they would not have objected.

Nursultan Nazarbaev, a Kazakh who had formerly been prime minister of the republic, replaced Kolbin as Party leader in 1989. Soon after, the Kazakhstan Supreme Soviet created an official commission to investigate the December events; the commission found that the riots did not take place for “nationalist” reasons after all. As a result the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party in May 1990 reportedly changed its view, and no longer holds that the riots were nationalist in origin. This change was seen as a victory of the republic in its struggle to assert itself against Moscow.

Amanzhol Malibayev, a lawyer and founder of Zholtoksan, spent two years in prison for his part in the December events: “It was a great personal tragedy for me to be in prison,” he told us. “After I was sentenced, my wife and eight-year-old son were put under surveillance and they decided not to live with me anymore.” Malibayev is an organizer of the National Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, a new party with about 120 members which seeks independence from the Soviet Union. When we asked how Kazakhstan could secede when the Kazakhs themselves represent less than half the population, he conceded that it might not be possible right now if a referendum were ordered by Moscow. His party plans to educate the various ethnic groups of Kazakhstan to withstand “the colonialism of Moscow.”

Karaganda, which is about five hundred miles northwest of Alma Ata, is one of the world’s truly dismal cities, set on the barren Kazakh steppe. A completely Soviet city, more Russian than Kazakh, it was created in 1931 after rich deposits of coal were discovered there. No trees interrupt the outlines of the flat endless expanse of the steppe; one sees only the silhouettes of mine shafts and the industrial chimneys belching out their waste. It is miserably hot in summer (in May, there were already fierce mosquitoes) and bitterly cold in winter. Snow, I was told, turns black before it touches the ground. “God could not have invented a crueler place,” a young worker remarked.

Stalin chose the harsh terrain around Karaganda as a place to banish troublemakers, to send political prisoners after their prison terms were served, and to relocate entire nations of “punished peoples.” The exiles, and their children after them, worked as if they were indentured servants in the mines and on the collective farms. Karaganda was also the hub of the second-largest prison camp network in the USSR, the headquarters of the Karaganda camp administration, called Karlag. “Each island of the archipelago created and supported a zone of stink around itself,” Solzhenitsyn, a former inmate of Karlag, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “The largest of such provincial capitals…was Karaganda. It was created by and filled with exiles and former prisoners to such a degree that a veteran zek could not walk the street without running into old acquaintances.”

In 1956, when the camps were disbanded, many people had nowhere to go. They remained in Karaganda, working in the mines, on farms, or in factories. To this day children of former convicts live side by side with children of former commandants, all equally trapped in a city of unremitting bleakness. “Everyone here is connected to the camps,” a miner told us, explaining that his grandparents were exiles: “I don’t even know why they were exiled. In those days, no one would talk about it.”

In July 1989 the miners in the Karaganda Basin went on strike, taking part in an unprecedented wave of strikes throughout most of the mining regions in the Soviet Union. (Kuzbass, Donbass, Vorkuta, Voroshilovgrad, Dnepropetrovsk, and Rostov-on-Don also went on strike in 1989.) “The strike involved everyone in the coal industry,” a member of the workers’ strike committee told us. “And the issues we raised were not just our own—they affected the lives of people in the whole region.” The Karaganda miners have created a powerful independent union demanding not just better living and working conditions, but also local political power for all citizens. They have presented the government with a list of forty-seven demands, and although fewer than half of them have thus far been fulfilled, they have been successful in obtaining, for example, a new maternity hospital and a better pension plan.

The miners complained that they are running into trouble from the Party aparatchiks. “They disdain the working class but they are mistaken,” a member of the strike committee told us. “Since the strikes, we’ve come to see how we can use the workers’ committee to help the people.” The miners are young, militant, organized, and optimistic. Seventy years after the revolution that was to free them from their chains, these Soviet workers are visibly uniting. They say that their goal is a market economy and their model the United States.

Igor Frolov, a mining engineer, has left the mines to work full-time with the strike committee. He took us on a tour of Karaganda, showing us public buildings with socialist realist art unchanged from the 1930s: mosaics of worker-heroes; a huge statue of a Russian and a Kazakh holding high above them an enormous piece of coal; and slogans that now seem mocking, like “Labor is a Source of Wealth!” and “Bring the Party Decisions to Life!” We drove through the streets of what Igor called “bedroom suburbs,” huge, boxlike buildings stretching as far as the eye could see, without a tree or a speck of green. His tiny family dacha, surrounded by others of the same size, was on a small plot, treeless, exposed in the hot sun. Each house had a small garden that was under intensive cultivation: the food grown there supplements a family’s diet or its income if the food is sold in the private market. From a distance, the dacha complex looks like a shantytown: the houses seem thrown together from pieces of wood, metal, or fiberboard, and the roofs slope at odd angles. Igor explained that building materials are not available, even for those who have money, and that dacha owners therefore often scrounge whatever they can find at work.

Igor wanted to show us a cemetery where political prisoners had been buried in unmarked graves during the 1930s, but when after a long search we finally found it there wasn’t much to see, just mounds of earth without markings, side by side with newer, marked graves. “It’s only because others were buried here that the cemetery remains at all,” Igor said angrily. “Otherwise, they would have let the cemetery go back to nature.” In his early twenties, Igor seems haunted by Karaganda’s legacy of horror, by the way people wrenched from many different homelands and traditions were cruelly brought here to work and die in bleak anonymity. He quoted Turgenev: “He who forgets his history is not a human being.”

In view of the turbulence in other parts of the USSR, the situation in Kazakhstan seems relatively peaceful. The disturbances of 1986 have not been repeated, and Moscow’s withdrawal of its claim that a “nationalist” uprising took place will help calm the resentments people still feel. Kazakhstan’s new president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, is a Party man and a Kazakh who began his career in Karaganda and seems to have considerable popularity. In the most recent elections for the Kazakh Republic parliament, in December 1989, only a few reformers were elected. Kazakhstan is one of the two remaining Soviet republics that had not, by early September of this year, declared its sovereignty in anticipation of the new “union treaty” that the Kremlin has promised for December.

Yet in a quiet way the movement toward greater autonomy has already gathered momentum, stimulated by resentment of Moscow’s economic exploitation of Kazakhstan’s rich natural resources: as President Nazarbaev pointed out during a recent visit to the United States, Kazakhstan is rich in almost every known mineral, has 140 million tons of untapped coal, and is the leading agricultural republic in the Soviet Union. Yet, Nazarbaev also revealed, the standard of living is 30 percent lower than in the rest of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan is forced to export not only its raw materials but half-finished materials that are completed in Russia and other republics, thus preventing Kazakhstan from realizing its manufacturing potential. The entire profit is taken by the center, which then allocates a certain percentage for Kazakhstan, a percentage that, by all accounts, amounts to about 7 percent of what the republic produces. “Our wheat is supposed to be the best,” we were told in Alma Ata, “but we have never tasted bread made with our own wheat.”

The “cultural imperialism” of Russia is also a source of resentment: the conversion into the Cyrillic alphabet of the Turkic languages of Central Asia, for example, serves to isolate Central Asians from related nationalities abroad. We also heard many complaints about contamination of the water and soil from the nuclear testing site in Semipalatinsk. The drinking water in Karaganda, we were told, contains lead and mercury, and the rivers carry radioactive waste.

Marash Nurtasin, the reform-minded deputy chairman of the Kazakh Republic Council of Ministers and a former coal miner, told us that he believes that Kazakhstan, because of its vast natural resources, will be central in the transition to a market economy both regionally and nationally. He wants to see the republic sign independent trade agreements with Western firms, and told us, perhaps rather optimistically: “The republic with the laws that best defend human rights will get the best trade agreements…. How each republic defends its own rights and the rights of its citizens will matter.”

The election in April of Party chief Nazarbaev to the new post of president of the republic, patterned after the presidency of Mr. Gorbachev, seemed an assertion of the Kazakhstan’s independence. Nazarbaev, a dynamic and forceful leader whose new post carries extensive powers, says he wants greater autonomy for Kazakhstan. He initiated a recent regional meeting of top leaders of the five central Asian republics which was held in Alma Ata in June and resulted in a far-reaching regional accord on economic, environmental, cultural, and political cooperation with a provision for a permanent staff to be located in Alma Ata. The leaders criticized Soviet mismanagement of the economy and environmental damage, in particular the destruction of the Aral Sea.

Nazarbaev, a self-professed Gorbachev man, does not talk of secession or independence for Kazakhstan. Instead, putting Gorbachev’s words about economic autonomy into action, he recently came to the United States seeking US investments for Kazakhstan and help in establishing a local market-based economy. A $5 billion joint venture with the Chevron oil company is reported to be in the works. He wants to prohibit nuclear testing and is concerned about contamination from the test site in eastern Kazakhstan; a strong US-Soviet citizen’s movement known as Nevada-Semipalatinsk has been allowed to flourish in Alma Ata. As is the case in many of the other Soviet republics, the Kazakh president looks forward to a confederation in which the Soviet central government is limited to specific functions, such as administering departments of defense, communications, transportation, and space. Like many of the officials we met in Kazakhstan, he gives a sense of optimism.

Asked about prospects for the future, Deputy Ermukhamed Ertysbaev told us: “There may be anarchy in this country. The soil is ripe for nationalism. But we have some reason for hope, because our various nationalities have lived through so much together.”

This Issue

October 11, 1990