Staunton, December 17 – Until December 17, 1986 when Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to install an ethnic Russian in place of an ethnic Kazakh as head of the Kazakh SSR sparked deadly clashes, many in both the Soviet Union and the West viewed “the nationality question” as marginal, an ethnographic curiosity but not a serious political issue.
But the events in Alma-Ata 24 years ago today set in motion events which within five years led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a reality that highlights the dangers of treating ethnic issues as secondary or assuming that believing that the use of members of the dominant ethnic community will save the situation.
If the Alma-Ata events played that role, even now, more than two decades later, they remain little understood, the subject more often of ideological image-making than serious historical and political analysis. Fortunately, on this anniversary, a Kazakh scholar has provided a careful analysis of what went wrong with what he calls “Operation ‘Successor’” in Kazakhstan.
In a two-part article in Kazakhstan’s “Vremya” newspaper, Daniyar Ashimbayev, the chief editor of the Kazakhstan Biographic Encyclopedia, provides a detailed discussion of what happened and why, one likely to be controversial but that is especially instructive now (www.time.kz/index.php?newsid=19278 and www.time.kz/index.php?newsid=19279).
As Ashimbayev points out, the events of December 16-17 in the then capital of the Kazakhstan SSR are considered by many to have been “the first mass democratic manifestations in the USSR.” Such a definition serves many interests, he continues, but it does not tell the entire story.
According to the most simplified and widespread representations of those events what took place was something this: Soviet power “colonized” and “oppressed” Kazakhstan, carried out “almost a genocide and an ecological catastrophe,” and nearly wiped out the Kazakh language. And as a result, the Kazakh people responded to the challenge with demonstrations.
What is striking, Ashimbayev says, is that “a significant portion of memoirs” which feature this schema “were written by former party organizers and instructors of the history of the CPSU,” people who in “a unique way combined pride in their own work and career [with] dissatisfaction against the system under which they rose and acted.”
At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, the situation in Kazakhstan was defined by many at that time as one of “political stability, inter-ethnic accord, economic development, social well-being, and migration from rural areas to the cities.” But behind that façade “the socially active part of the population” was dissatisfied.
To express its anger, it engaged in what constituted “blogging” at that time: Its members wrote numerous complains and denunciations to various institutions in the republic and in Moscow. And their complaints show that there were real problems, many of which were summed up in the expression that you can change your biography but not your geography.
That is, Ashimbayev continues, what made a career possible was where you were born – in many cases, a marker for national and sub-national memberships – rather than whatever skills you might acquire.
The standard version of the events of December 1986 draws on that idea. According to this scheme, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the longtime Kazakh head of the Kazakhstan Communist Party, was sacked and replaced by an ethnic Russian outsider, Gennady Kolbin, who not only had been an obkom secretary in the RSFSR but also a Moscow watcher in Tbilisi.
As aresult, this story continues, ordinary Kazakhs were outraged by this violation of the norms by Moscow, went into the streets, and the clashes ensued. But “it is possible to describe the picture” in Kazakhstan at that time “in a somewhat different key,” Ashimbayev continues, one that shows far more was going on.
Unlike most of the union republics at that time, Kazakhstan, thanks to Kunayev’s friendship with Leonid Brezhnev, had almost no outsiders in key positions by the end of the 1970s. But then Kunayev suffered a heart attack, and members of the elite began discussing among themselves who could succeed him.
After Kunayev recovered, he came back and purged those who had spoken about coming after him, bringing a new and much younger cohort to power, including the current Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, but the party leader also indicated that he wanted to work only until his 70th birthday, that is, until January 1982.
But in the event, largely because Kazakhstan was quiet and because Moscow was the site of so many funerals of senior leaders who were passing from the scene, Kunayev did not retire and was still there when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, a leader who visited Kazakhstan in the summer of 1985 but who had too many problems in Moscow to focus on those of Alma-Ata.
But in late 1985 and especially in 1986, the tone of Moscow media coverage of Kazakhstan changed, making it clear to all that Gorbachev wanted new blood in Alma-Ata. To save the situation, Kunayev sacrificed one after another of his colleagues, including the ethnic Kazakhst who headed the republic interior ministry and KGB. The new heads were Russians.
At a republic party congress that year, “it became clear that practically all the leadership of the republic was opposed to the first secretary, but at the same time, the majority of speakers criticized not only Kunayev but also one another,” a pattern that suggested to some that if Moscow wanted change, it could not rely on any local person.
At the end of November 1986, Alimbayev continues, the Soviet Politburo discussed installing a new leader in Kazakhstan, given that in January 1987 Kunayev would be 75. Ten days later, Kunayev flew to Moscow to meet with Gorbachev. The Kazakh leader proposed firing the republic prime minister, but Gorbachev countered by calling for Kunayev’s ouster.
Even more, according to witnesses, Gorbachev indicated that Moscow would send in a successor “from one of the Russian regions,” the only possibility the Soviet leader said because of the depth and extent of problems in Kazakhstan. Then , on December 13, party leaders in Kazakhstan were summoned to a republic central committee plenum on the 16th to consider “organizational” questions, a euphemism for cadres changes.
At that meeting, CPSU Central Committee secretary Razumovsky thanked Kunayev, announced his removal, and nominated Kolbin. In the best Soviet practice, “the plenum voted unanimously for both proposals.” But things did not end there: the next day, the demonstrations and riots began, first among students and then among workers.
The situation threatened to get out of hand, and force was used to suppress “the disorders.”
The notion that Kunayev himself organized these things is improbable -- he had already lost almost all his levers of power – and the idea that they were spontaneous seems equally hard to credit, Alimbayev says, given how tightly the situation was controlled by the security agencies. And that means one must consider other possibilities.
What appears most likely, the Kazakh historian says, is that the demonstrations and protests were organized by lower-standing Kazakh officials as a meaning of “the preventive weakening of the position of the Moscow appointee and the creation of pre-conditions for his rapid replacement,” something that did in fact happen.
(Indeed, although Alimbayev does not mention it, Gorbachev’s suggestion that there was no one among the Kazakhs to replace Kunayev was undercut by Moscow’s decision to install an ethnic Kazakh as second secretary after imposing the ethnic Russian Kolbin in the top republic post.)
What happened on December 17th, Alimbayev says, and even more how these events were described were useful for people of all political stripes. The national patriots got their “heroes.” The siloviki got experience in dispersing a crowd. The leaders of the republic got “a beautiful illustration about the struggle for independence, and so on.
But however that may be – and Alimbayev’s detailed discussion is certain to be challenged by those who have invested in the alternative story of the December 1986 events – those events did lead many in Moscow and the West to view the nationality question as far from settled and as anything but marginal.