Category Archives: Kazakhstan

The Unyielding First Secretary, translated by Balzhan Suzhikova (KIMEP)

Editor’s introduction:

This special blog post, translated and shared with us by Kazakhstani Fulbright Scholar and Associate Director at KIMEP University Balzhan Suzhikova, outlines the experience of her grandfather Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov as a Soviet party leader in the Republic of Kazakhstan.[i] The original version of this article in Russian  was published in Novaya Gazeta on 24.07.2019, and was written by Professors Abdijalel Bakir (Doctor of Political Science) and Sagymbay Kozybayev (President of the Academy of Journalism of Kazakhstan), who also detail their efforts to recover archival and newspaper records to support Suzhikov’s own writings and interviews in order to offer this historical biographical perspective.

Suzhikov’s story centers on two primary themes.  The first of these takes place in the context of the history of ongoing Soviet nuclear testing in the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan.  As First Secretary of that region’s party committee, Suzhikov bore witness to the physical damage, pathological radiation effects on health and ecology, and military displacements there; while many others stayed silent in the face of military and KGB authority, Suzhikov chose to report a warning.  The second major theme is the subsequent dismissal of Suzhikov from his post, which was speciously blamed on his failure to meet agricultural quotas, and the State’s public characterization of Suzhikov as a troublesome ‘nationalist.’  Such testimonies serve to rhetorically counteract assumptions (or accusations) of complicity.  But further, this biographical narrative also sheds light on how the very category of ‘nationalist’ is historically structured as oppositional or problematic within the communist party structure itself (a genealogical precursor of the anti-nuclear (ethnic, ecological) nationalisms of the early post-Soviet period) and thus informs well then broader critical studies of power, and governance in (post) Soviet Central Asia,[ii] as well as the historical and ethnographic contexts of the nuclear history and legacy in Kazakhstan.

Suggested readings:

Johnston, Barbara R., ed. 2007.   Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War.  School for Advanced Research Press.

Kassenova, Togzhan. 2017. “Banning nuclear testing: lessons from the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site” in The Nonproliferation Review 23(3-4): 329-344.

Stawkowski, Magdalena E. 2016. “I am a Radioactive Mutant”: Emerging Biological Subjectivities at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site” in American Ethnologist 43(1):144-157.

2017 “Life on an Atomic Collective: The Post-Soviet Retreat of the State in Rural Kazakhstan” in Études Rurales 200(2):196-219.

***

A cry from the heart about the dire consequences of nuclear explosions at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was first heard sixty years ago.  At that time, M. A. Suzhikov wrote a secret letter to N.S. Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, and to N.I. Belyaev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Most of our compatriots do not know about this document, even the leaders of the well-known as the “Nevada – Semey” movement do not mention it.

M.A. Suzhikov in 1938 – Chairman of the Volodarsky District Executive Committee of the Astrakhan Region (all photographs used with the permission of B. Suzhikova).

In 1947, the Soviet Government turned the ancient Kazakh land into a nuclear test field. And the first to raise the alarm was Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov, who in 1959 was elected First Secretary of the Semipalatinsk regional party committee. One morning, Suzhikov came to work and could not believe his eyes: in the building of the regional committee there was not a single window left – all of them were broken. Employees of the regional committee, in contrast to the newly appointed First Secretary, knew the reason and spoke secretly about it: this was the result of another nuclear weapons test.

Suzhikov later received strictly secret results (available to him as to the member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan) of a study by radiologist Saim Balmukhanov, on the effect of radiation on the human body. So he met with the scholar, who told him about such diseases as leukemia and cancerous tumors that were rapidly spreading among the population of the Abay, Makanchy and Urdzhar districts.

M.A. Suzhikov with participants and delegates from the Volodarsky district of the Stalingrad region to the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, Moscow 1939.

Decades later, S. Balmukhanov, a member of Academy of Sciences, said in his article entitled “My View of the Nuclear Test Site” that when this meeting took place at the Semipalatinsk regional party office, a representative from the nuclear test site had given Suzhikov outdated information, indicating that the main cause of symptoms and syndromes identified in patients was vitamin deficiency.  The most complex types of brucellosis and tuberculosis in the local population were also explained in this way, thereby ruling out the effects of nuclear testing.

However, Suzhikov did not accept this conclusion. He traveled personally to all areas of the region and thoroughly studied this problem, which revealed a very troublesome picture.  Subsequently, a scientific expedition was organized by Balmukhanov to study the effect of nuclear tests on the local population was able to find out that the radioactivity of air and food in the settlements of Sarzhal, Kaynar, and Karauyl was significantly higher than base levels elsewhere in the country (compared to the Shubartau district and the village of Aktogay in Karaganda region). Then it became known about the excess contamination of all meat and dairy products from the Semipalatinsk region. Suzhikov supported this expedition and created a special commission at the Academy of Sciences, but unfortunately, under pressure from above, the expedition was soon dissolved.

“The more I learn about the situation, the more my internal anxiety increases. Not only were hundreds of people in the region exposed to excessive radiation, but the products of one of the country’s largest Semipalatinsk meat processing plants, including children’s hematogen, are sold throughout the country in infected state,” – these words of Mukhamedgali Suzhikov are recalled in the article “A Bomb for the Third World War,” published in “Kazakhstanskaya Pravda” on July 20, 1991.

At a session of the Supreme Council of the USSR in May 1959, M. Suzhikov specifically met with R. Malinovsky, who served as both the USSR Minister of Defense, and the Marshal of the Soviet Union. Suzhikov told the Minister that residents of the Abyraly and May districts were forced to leave their homes, being ousted by military personnel.  At the same time, those displaced did not receive any assistance from the military forces, and had to face severe problems on their own, being left without a place to live. Malinovsky was also informed about the results of Balmukhanov’s expedition. The military dictatorship was so strong that even though Suzhikov was the First Secretary of the party’s regional committee (of the territory where the nuclear training ground was located), was forced to ask for permission of the Minister of Defense to visit that training ground and to familiarize himself with the activities there.

After some time, the military commander directly involved in testing the nuclear bomb at the test site, arrived to Semipalatinsk, and Suzhikov accompanied him to the city of Kurchatov – the center of the nuclear test site. Suzhikov, together with a representative of the military-industrial complex, visited the storage site of the weapon referred to only as “The Product,” and he spoke to scientists and to officers there. Unfortunately, his questions were answered under the strict control of the military commander. But even with the highest level of secrecy, something became clear to the head of the region.

Upon his return from the training ground, Suzhikov gathered the members of the regional committee bureau, and informed them about the results of the expedition with Balmukhanov, as well as about the results of the meeting with Marshal Malinovsky, and explained what he saw at the training ground. It turned out that the members of the bureau of the regional party committee knew about the social situation of people evicted from their homes.  They also knew about a large number of cases of leukemia and other oncological diseases, and about an increase of the number of babies being born underdeveloped and with pathologies. However, several members of the party’s regional committee (including the second secretary of the regional committee and the chairman of the regional executive committee) said they would not intervene in these matters: “These are not our problems – the KGB and the military elite are in charge of this area. For us, the case is hidden under the heading “Top Secret,” let the big bosses decide for themselves.”[iii]

M.A.Suzhikov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (bottom row 3rd from left), pictured with Zhumabay Shayakhmetov, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Kazakhstan  (1st row in the center); collective photo of delegates to the congress in 1951.

As a result, the unyielding Suzhikov sent a secret letter, titled “On the dire consequences of testing nuclear and thermonuclear weapons at the Semipalatinsk test site” to N.S. Khrushchev – the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU and to N.I. Belyaev – the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Only after this letter did the Council of Ministers of the USSR adopt a secret resolution aimed at providing financial and medical assistance to the population of the Semipalatinsk region, even if for quite an insignificant sum. This was the first state act on social rehabilitation and assistance to citizens of the region in ten years from the moment of starting the nuclear tests at the test site.

We searched for this secret letter for a long time, yet we could not find it in the republican archives. We sent a request to the directors of the Russian State Socio-Political Archive and of the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History. But we only received answers about absence of such a letter.

When one of the authors of this article, Abdijalel Bakir, was in Moscow in 2009, the head of the department of the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History told him: “Perhaps these documents are kept under the “Secret” mark in the Presidential Archive. This is not in our hands”. Thus, so far there is no hope of finding this letter. But its existence was mentioned by Balmukhanov – his words were referred to in the “A Bomb for the Third World War”, as well as in the “Ana Tili (The Native Tongue)” newspaper in an interview with Suzhikov entitled “Why I wrote a letter to Khrushchev” dated August 23, 2001.

Unfortunately, back then the top heads both in Moscow and in Alma-Ata perceived this letter sent to Khrushchev and Balyaev extremely negatively, which subsequently affected M.A. Suzhikov’s career. These affects could already be seen by 1959: when Semipalatinsk region reached top levels in producing and selling meat and other agricultural products, Suzhikov’s merits were marked only with a medal, although other regional officials were awarded orders of various degrees. (Usually, for such achievements, the First secretary of the regional party organization received at least an Order of the Red Banner of Labor.)

Of course, Suzhikov knew that this very letter to Khrushchev about the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site could decide his fate, but he could not remain silent, could not help doing something about what he had seen, and knowing the situation of the local population.  However as a result of this action, both Moscow and Alma-Ata were waiting for an opportunity to remove the stubborn First Secretary of the regional party committee from his position.

M.A. Suzhikov discusses with architects their diarama plans to build a publishing center in then Alma-Ata, 1968.  

M.A. Suzhikov, the Chairman of the State Committee of the KazSSR for print media, hosts foreign guests in 1968. 

Such an opportunity appeared due to unrest in Temirtau, where the construction of a Kazakhstani “Magnetic Mountain” began.[iv] Thousands of people were brought there from all over the country – convicts and the parolees. They were put in arduous conditions, not only having not enough food, but even craving for drinking water. Unrest and riots began in the city, for one whole week Temirtau was in the hands of the rebels who robbed all the shops, restaurants, and food stores.

The tragedy of Temirtau was discussed in 1960 behind the closed doors at a special plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan “On the State of the Construction of Karaganda Metallurgical Plant”. M. Suzhikov, speaking at the plenum, sharply criticized the bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan for not having political foresight in resolving the fundamental issues of construction, and for considering the secondary problems before the priority ones.

The next day, urgent information “regarding nationalism” of the First Secretary of Semipalatinsk regional committee reached Moscow. A week later, instructors of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, arriving expeditiously, called the “nationalist” to account, and visited all of his previous work places in Aktobe and Kyzyl-Orda regions. Their audit lasted for three months, and as a result, not even a single fact that could have served as grounds for public accusation or for the removal of Suzhikov was revealed. In all the places the inspectors visited, people spoke warmly about Suzhikov and about the results of his work. For instance, while working during the post-war years in Aktobe, Suzhikov, seeing how the whole region was starving, immediately wrote a letter to Moscow asking for food aid, and managed to get it, thus saving many people. And in Kyzyl-Orda region, Suzhikov resolved cadre issues, thus stimulating the development of regional economy and culture.

Instructors from Moscow and the leaders in Alma-Ata discussed the issue endlessly, but could not find any violations in Suzhikov’s work. They had no choice but to accuse him of non-fulfillment of socialist obligations in agriculture.

Indeed, both the summer of 1959 and the winter of 1960 were unfavorable in this sense. Hot weather in summer prevented the districts to ensure the compete preparation of hay for the winter. As a result, a large loss of cattle occurred. It would have been even larger in scale if Suzhikov had not taken action in time. He constantly met with herders, brought in the needed professionals, helped the population, making every possible use of all the internal capabilities of the region. But despite all his efforts, the increase in livestock at the time of the audit was lower than was planned.  All these facts were taken into account during the audits; however, there were still no sufficient reasons for dismissing Suzhikov from his post.

M.A. Suzhikov, Chairman of the State Committee of the KazSSR for print media in 1970.

Then, the “Pravda” newspaper – the main press organ of the Central Committee of the CPSU, published an article titled “Words Do Not Match Actions,”[v] which was a kind of sentence in Suzhikov’s life and track record. Much of what was published about him was untrue. But there could be no turning back. During those years, if the article was published in “Pravda” no one could refute it. This was a reality of communist party discipline.

Subsequently, at the meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan held on August 27, 1960, after considering the letter “On unsatisfactory work of the party committee of Semipalatinsk region in increasing agricultural production, as well as in fulfilling the socialist obligations undertaken by collective and state farms of the region for 1960” and after reviewing letters from the staff of the apparatus the Central Committee of the CPSU on this issue, Suzhikov was dismissed from the post of First Secretary of the regional committee of Semipalatinsk region for ‘significant violations and deficiencies in agricultural management.’

It should be noted that unsatisfactory assessment of Suzhikov’s work of fulfilling socialist obligations was far-fetched. Literally three months later, the republican and regional newspapers reported the early fulfillment of socialist obligations by the Semipalatinsk region, the grounds for this being in fact set by the leadership of Suzhikov.

In fact, Mukhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov was sacked from the position of the regional head not for his “sins” of not fulfilling the socialist obligations, but because he was courageous enough to be the first to openly oppose the high-handedness and unaccountability of leaders of the central bodies of Soviet Union as when creating the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and conducting nuclear tests on it, or as when conducting the construction of the Karaganda Metallurgical Plant. The opinion of local population, its social well-being, and lifestyle were not taken into account in state level decision making.  Suzhikov was worried least of all about his own personal well-being; rather, he put the interests of people of Saryarka and Abai’s native land above all, therefore the cliché of a “nationalist” was attached to him.

The truth, though late, ultimately triumphed. When Suzhikov passed away in 1999 at the age of 89, the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan noted his merits: “During the Great Patriotic War, Suzhikov organized the construction of defensive structures and formed fighter battalions from militias in the Stalingrad Region. After the war, M.A. Suzhikov worked as the secretary of the regional party committee in the regions of Astrakhan and Kostanai, as the first secretary of the regional party committee in Aktobe, Kyzylorda, and Semipalatinsk, and was elected secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. For many years, he also led the State Press Committee of the Republic. Working in such positions of responsibility, he was able to clearly express his active citizenship, and the mastery of a skilled organizer. He made a huge contribution to the development of culture and economy of Kazakhstan” (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, 14 August 1999).

After 60 years, at the initiative of the local leadership, the secondary school in Kyzylorda region was named after Muhamedgali Alenovich Suzhikov.”

In 2017 a school was named in Suzhikov’s honor and a new monument erected.

The granddaughters of Suzhikov Balzhan and Sherin, as well as his neice Almira, at the opening of his monument at the school in Kyzylorda in 2017.

[i] Биография Сужикова М.А. (Ашимбаев Д. Р. Кто есть кто в Казахстане. Биографическая энциклопедия. Алматы, 2008)

Член ВКП(б) с 1932 г. В 1929 г. окончил педагогические курсы при Народном комиссариате просвещения РСФСР, в 1948 г. — Высшую школу партийных организаторов при ЦК ВКП(б), Высшую партийную школу при ЦК ВКП(б).

  • 1929—1938 гг. — заведующий школой колхозной молодёжи, директор Володарского рабочего факультета Астраханского рыбного техникума,
  • 1938—1943 гг. — председатель исполнительного комитета Володарского районного Совета (Астраханский округ),
  • 1943 г. — секретарь Астраханского окружного комитета ВКП(б),
  • 1944—1945 гг. — заместитель секретаря Астраханского областного комитета ВКП(б) по животноводству,
  • 1948—1949 гг. — секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана по кадрам,
  • 1949—1950 гг. — секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана,
  • 1950—1951 гг. — первый секретарь Актюбинского областного комитета КП(б) Казахстана,
  • 1951—1954 гг. — секретарь ЦК КП(б) — КП Казахстана,
  • 1954—1958 гг. — первый секретарь Кзыл-Ординского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1958—1960 гг. — первый секретарь Семипалатинского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1960—1963 гг. — заместитель председателя Комиссии государственного-советского контроля СМ Казахской ССР,
  • 1963—1965 гг. — председатель казахского республиканского комитета Профсоюза работников культуры,
  • 1965—1967 гг. — секретарь Кустанайского областного комитета КП Казахстана,
  • 1967—1971 гг. — председатель Государственного комитета СМ Казахской ССР по печати.

Награждён орденом Трудового Красного Знамени, двумя орденами «Знак Почёта».

[ii] Recent collections of critical studies of governance in (post) Soviet Central Asia include:

Isaacs, Rico and Abel Polese. 2015.  “Between ‘imagined’ and ‘real’ nation-building: identity and nationhood in post-Soviet Central Asia” in Nationalities Papers 43(3): 371-382.

Kassymbekova, Botakoz. 2017.  “Understanding Stalinism in, from, and of Central Asia: beyond failure, peripherality, and otherness” in Central Asian Survey 36(1): 1-18.

[iii] Л. Вайдман, политический обозреватель «Казахстанской правды»  «Казахстанская правда» 20 июля 1991 г. Статья « Бомба для третьей мировой»

[iv] Kotkin, Stephen.  1997.  Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. University of California Press.

For a recent overview of the place of Central Asia in Science and Technology Studies, please see:

Van der Straeten, Jonas.  Borderlands of Industrial Modernity Explorations into the History of Technology in Central Asia, 1850–2000

[v] Editor’s note:  the editor and translator were unable to locate the precise date of this article’s publication.

More of The Same: Kazakhstan’s leadership change between ageing leadership and popular discontent, by Luca Anceschi (University of Glasgow)

If there is only one lesson to be learned from Kyrgyzstan’s recent presidential dispute—a chain of tumultuous events that led to the arrest and detention of erstwhile leader A.S. Atambayev[1]—is that post-transition relationships between Central Asia’s incumbents and its former presidents continue to represent one the most intriguing political mechanisms at play in the region. These relationships, it ought to be noted, seem to occur at very rare junctures: Central Asia’s leaders tend to remain in power for decades, reducing the transfer of power to élite-driven mechanisms that do normally set in motion only in the aftermath of a presidential death. The playbook for post-mortem tranzit vlasti was perfected through successfully orchestrated presidential successions in Turkmenistan (2006-2007) and Uzbekistan (2016); at the time of writing, there is no conclusive evidence to maintain that post-Rahmon Tajikistan will deviate significantly from this norm.

The option to observe newly elected (or appointed) leaders interacting with their predecessors is therefore only available in the Kyrgyz context, which continues to hold regular elections despite its continuously sliding democratic record and, since 19 March 2019, in Kazakhstan, where long-term leader N.A. Nazarbaev relinquished the presidency to facilitate the accession to power of K.K. Tokayev, an established regime insider, former foreign minister and, since 2011, the chairman of the Kazakhstani Senate.

Relatively free and fair elections do generally legitimise Kyrgyzstan’s elected presidents, who enjoy as a consequence a modicum of popular support throughout the single mandate allowed by the Kyrgyz Constitution.[2] A set of different dynamics came to the fore in post-Nazarbaev Kazakhstan, where presidential succession was sealed through an élite-dominated process that sought its popular legitimation via a regime-controlled election. Here, the Kazakhstani population attempted to throw a spanner in the works of such a carefully orchestrated tranzit vlasti mechanism: both prior and after the vote that formalised Tokayev’s accession to the presidency, protests and demonstrations erupted in the country’s principal urban centres, as anti-regime sentiments came to the define the local political debates in the spring of 2019. It is precisely to the contribution played by Kazakhstan’s politically active population to the establishment of a working incumbent/predecessor relationship in post-Nazarbaev Kazakhstan that this blog entry devotes its ultimate attention.

Kazakhstan’s much anticipated transition

A look at the overarching strategy put into place by the Kazakhstani regime between 2014 and 2019, but most emphatically in the period that followed the death of Islam Karimov (August 2016), indicates that Nazarbaev’s resignation did not represent an impromptu decision. There is sufficient evidence to maintain that, in the timeframe in question, the Kazakhstani regime had designed and implemented a comprehensive process to orchestrate a transition out of the Nazarbaev presidency. A series of government reshuffles and the frequent introduction of legislative adjustments represented the two key drivers sustaining Nazarbaev’s attempt to instigate a thorough mechanism of leadership rejuvenation without incurring in the risks inevitably associated with regime change dynamics.

Placing the spotlight on the recent career trajectory of K.Q. Massimov—the second most powerful regime member of the late Nazarbaev era—identifies with some precision the élite component of Kazakhstan’s leadership change mechanism. Appointed to the country’s prime ministership in the spring of 2014, Massimov was eventually moved to the chairmanship of the Kazakhstani KNB (September 2016). Rather than an apparent demotion, this move came to embody politically the gap existing between the inner location of Kazakhstan’s authoritarian power and its institutional representation. Massimov’s appointment shifted an unviable candidate for succession—his ethnic profile is regarded as generally incongruous with the wider process of Kazakh-ification of Kazakhstan’s political life that has been undergoing in the post-Soviet years—to a position of not visible, yet certainly not marginal, influence. Massimov emerged as one of the king-makers in the identification of a suitable post-Nazarbaev leadership, while his appointment at the helm of the KNB replicated the structural organisation of pre-transitional Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where indisputably central roles in leadership selection were assigned to prominent representatives of the power ministries, namely A.K. Rezhepov in Turkmenistan and R.R. Inoyatov in Uzbekistan.

At the time of his accession to the prime ministership, B.A. Sagintaev, who replaced Massimov as Kazakhstan’s PM, had apparently been groomed for a top political appointment for at least five years. The 2016 reshuffle seemed to have in this established a solid transitional diarchy to regulate an eventual presidential transition, while the elevation of Darigha Nazarbaeva to a Senate seat guaranteed Kazakhstan’s first family a further stronghold in the institutional configuration of the late Nazarbaev era.

The second constituent element of the authoritarian environment wherein to launch a presidential transition was represented by the establishment of an adequate legislative framework to safeguard, in case of a voluntary resignation from the presidency, the power position of Nazarbaev and of his immediate family, guaranteeing at the same time their business interests and immunity from crimes committed while in office. Carefully crafted and continuously amended between 2000 and 2010, the Law ‘On the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan—the Leader of the Nation’ was basically meant to avoid the repetition, in post-Nazarbaev Kazakhstan, of the dynamics that led to the political marginalisation and expropriation of the wealth held by Uzbekistan’s first family, with particular reference to the arrest and protracted detention of Gulnara Karimova, the elder daughter of the late I.A. Karimov.

The premeditated nature of Nazarbaev’s resignation became evident in early 2019. On 4 February, the president himself addressed the Constitutional Council requesting detailed information about the powers he would retain in case of voluntary resignation. Nazarbaev’s eventual backpedalling did not silence those observers who regarded a change of guard in Ak Orda as an option not to be discarded a priori. A few weeks later (21 February), Nazarbaev demanded the resignation of the entire Kazakhstani government, appointing A.U. Mamin as the country’s interim prime minister. The exceptionality of this latter development did not reside in Nazarbaev’s very public reprimands of the government’s agenda—a common trait in Central Asian authoritarianism—nor did it relate to the president’s attempts to scapegoat Sagintaev for Kazakhstan’s poor economic performance. Indeed, Kazakhstan’s authoritarian practice has regularly presented the president’s direct intervention as a panacea for even the most severe economic crisis. Rather, the governmental reshuffle of late February 2019 is significant insofar as it realigned Kazakhstan’s transitional team to the patronage network of its principal king-maker. As a long-term associate of K.Q. Massimov, Askar Mamin was expected to rule in unison with the KNB chairman, completing a triumvirate of which the Nazarbaev family has to be seen as the third vertex.

The authoritarian milieu described above was undoubtedly established with a view to facilitate an intra-regime mechanism of presidential succession, that is excluding political outsiders or regime dissenters from the highest institution in the Republic of Kazakhstan. It is nevertheless difficult to identify the single factor that accelerated Nazarbaev’s decision to resign from the presidency. Nazarbaev’s self-perception of his age, his preoccupation with a rapidly eroding legacy, or even the ultimate retribution of previously sealed élite pacts may be some of the key factors behind the decision announced publicly on 19 March 2019. Speculations aside, the president’s announcement clearly noted that the succession process initiated by his resignation ought to follow the constitutional dictates, which stipulate the assignment to the interim presidency to the Chairman of the Senate, a post occupied at the time by K.K. Tokayev. The latter’s selection, yet again, did not represent an accidental development: on the one hand, Tokayev’s loyalty to the regime preservation agenda was (and continues to be) unquestionable; on the other, executing a presidential transition following the constitutional dictates set Kazakhstan aside from the regional praxis, where power transfers had hitherto led to the arrest (Turkmenistan) or voluntary resignation (Uzbekistan) of the legitimate presidential successors. For a regime that has traditionally put a premium of differentiating between the governance practices of post-Soviet Kazakhstan and those followed by its immediate neighbours, the execution of a constitutionally impeccable transition at the end of a long, and ultimately post-colonial, presidency did indeed constitute a significant achievement.

The final adjustment to Kazakhstan’s post-Nazarbaev institutional settings was represented by the selection of Darigha Nazarbaeva as Tokayev’s replacement on the Senate Chair. While this author has always approached with vocal scepticism any discussion on the prospects for dynastic succession in Central Asia, it is nevertheless true that this appointment places Nazarbaev’s daughter into the top succession position should Tokayev die or become incapacitated while in office. To my mind, Nazarbaeva’s rise to a top institutional post is the institutional facet of the legislative guarantees enshrined in the First President law, inasmuch as it protects the mid-term power position of the first family, while ensuring that, at least until Kazakhstan’s first president remains alive, the dynamics we saw at play in post-Karimov Uzbekistan are not to be replicated in Kazakhstan.

This orchestrated process was meant to be concluded smoothly, as the regime expected a rapid electoral validation through a tightly controlled vote scheduled for 9 June. Beyond the immediate shock for the departure of a long-serving, and generally respected, leader, some segments of the wider Kazakhstani population reacted with visible dissatisfaction to the post-Nazarbaev transition. As a consequence, Kazakhstani-watchers spent the early Tokayev era by looking at changing patterns of regime-population relations, rather than speculating on the development of a working collaboration between Nazarbaev and his hand-picked successor.

Mis-managed expectations: The population’s reaction to Kazakhstan’s transition

The Nazarbaev regime was not the only actor to anticipate Kazakhstan’s inevitable presidential succession. The people, or at least some segments of the Kazakhstani population, have been preparing for years to, or at least discussing the context leading to, leadership turnover in Ak Orda. For much of the 2010s, Kazakhstan lived through a Twilight Zone,[3] wherein flawed assessments of the country’s authoritarian stability and of the population’s political behaviour created an unstable political environment predicated upon Nazarbaev’s ageing leadership. The ambition to have an elected second president, rather than a merely appointed one, seemed to have been shared by a significant number of ordinary Kazakhs, and it underpinned the popular reaction to the orchestrated transition completed between March and June 2019.

The post-Nazarbaev era began with the brutal repression of popular demonstrations held across Kazakhstan to protests the perceived democratic deficit of the popular vote that sanctioned Tokayev’s election. The optics of video reports originating from Kazakhstan across June 2019 were quite dispiriting, establishing a direct parallel with the Zhanaozen events of 2011, in the sense that, yet again, we witnessed the public suppression of ordinary citizens manifesting their views while the country was meant to celebrate collectively an important landmark of its independent life.[4]

Images here from the Oyan, KZ facebook page, and of the reporting on the ‘You can’t run from the truth’ action in Vlast.kz 22 April 2019.

The establishment of dissenting movements including Oyan, Qazaqstan [Wake up, Kazakhstan] and the popularisation of slogans challenging the nature of the presidential transition itself—Ot pravdy ne ubezhish’ [You can’t run from the truth]; U menya est’ vybor [I have a choice]—confirmed the views expressed by Dossym Satpayev[5] so far as the leadership’s misperception of the population’s passivity as an indicator of its fundamental loyalty to rules and norms imposed by the regime. It is not clear whether the public moment that pro-democracy activists have come to experience in 2019 can evolve into the institutionalisation of established opposition forces. However, the diffusion of anti-regime sentiments as the first president leaves Kazakhstan’s political limelight reveals a disconnect between ordinary Kazakhs and the post-Nazarbaev élites, a disconnect that, incidentally, has not emerged as visibly in the Uzbek context, where the population seems to be largely onboard with the political agenda introduced by Sh.M. Mirziyoyev.

Tokayev choose to relate to policies and practices established by his predecessor through a posture of unwavering continuity, misinterpreting the significant demands for change that the wider populations expressed more or less openly throughout the 2010s. Much of the regime’s future stability may be therefore predicated upon its willingness and ability to address this fundamental governance problem.

Notes

[1] Global coverage of these events includes: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/07/world/asia/former-president-kyrgyzstan-arrest.html; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49273236; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-atambayev/kyrgyz-ex-president-arrested-accused-of-coup-plan-state-media-idUSKCN1V30EJ ; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/kyrgyz-officer-killed-president-atambayev-evades-arrest-190808043214601.html

[2] For an overview of contemporary politics and society in Kyrgyzstan, see for example Kyrgyzstan: Beyond ‘Democracy Island’ and ‘Failing State’: Social and Political Changes in a Post Soviet Society, edited by Marlene Laruelle and Johan Engvall (2015).

[3] D. Satpayev (ed.), Sumerechnaya Zona ili lovuuski perekhodnogo perioda (Almaty: Alyans Analiticheskikh Organizatsii, 2013).

[4] Protests and arrests were highlighted in international media coverage of the election, for example https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48574540; https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/kazakhstans-presidential-election-protests-arrests-and-a-presidency-for-tokayev/; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/06/hundreds-arrested-kazakhstan-election-protests-190613201849137.html ; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/09/world/asia/kazakhstan-election-president.html

[5] ‘Are Risks Increasing for Kazakhstan? An interview with Dossym Satpayev’, Voices of Central Asia, 18 April 2019. See also his recent commentary on these topics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keaom9QJUp8&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR12Z_6WFp-TyfeUr0Ul0vg44CV24XjM1cw1HLTQqdaMwEmrAVPCfOCR_dc

The History of Soviet Anthropology in Kazakhstan, by Rinat Shayakhmetov

EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION:

In this special post Rinat Shayakhmetov, grandson of the first Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan Zhumabay Shayakhmetov and himself a researcher of Soviet Kazakhstan, presents a narrative history of his uncle Noel Shayakhmetov, one of Kazakhstan’s first scientists working in the field of physical anthropology. Based on his own oral history interviews, archival resources from letters to photos, and museum materials, R. Shayakhmetov presents a personalized account of foundational figures in the field of skull reconstruction in the 20th century, and provides a rare and valuable resource and reflection on the development of this field in Soviet Central Asia (i). In its consideration of the projects, priorities, and lineages of learning in the academy, this piece also speaks to the broader use of physical anthropology in the ideological construction of nationality, cultural memorialization, and the framework of scientific history itself in the FSU (ii; cf Anderson and Arzyutov 2016; Ssorin-Chaikov 2019).

Notes:

(i) A Russian version of this article was published at Tengrinews: https://mix.tn.kz/mixnews/kazahskiy-uchenyiy-vosstanavlival-cherepu-litsa-nashih-375792/   The full text of the English version presented here was prepared by Rinat Shayakhmetov and published with his permission. All images are also used with his permission.

(ii) We encourage our readers to consider such biographic histories alongside other recently publicized archival materials of the academy such as the expedition notes of Muhiddin Faizulloev in Tajikistan, compiled and translated at Heidelberg University (https://faizulloev.freizo.org/).

References:

David G. Anderson and Dmitry V. Arzyutov. 2016. “The Construction of Soviet Ethnography and ‘The Peoples of Siberia’ in History and Anthropology 27 (2): 183-2019. https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2016.1140159

Ssorin-Chaikov, Nikolai. 2019. “Reassembling history and anthropology in Russian anthropology: part 1” in Social Anthropology 27 (1). DOI: 10.1111/1469-8676.12628

 

R. SHAYAKHMETHOV: KAZAKH ANTHROPOLOGY: FIRST STEPS

In the late 1960’s, an idea was floating in Kazakhstan to commission a gallery of portrait sculptures of prominent figures in Kazakh history, made according to the face-from-the-skull [sic] reconstruction method, pioneered by Professor Mikhail Gerasimov[i] and widely discussed at that time not only in the academic community but also by the public at large.

Saim Balmukhanov, Director of the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute under the Ministry of Health of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakh SSR) and a true Renaissance man, was the driving force behind the whole idea. He suggested that the project should start with the reconstruction of the image of Makhambet Utemisov (Otemisuly),[ii] a revered poet-turned-rebel (1804-1846), whose burial site had been discovered in the late 1950s by academician Kazhim Zhumaliev and poet Tair Zharokov, following years of painstaking search for its actual location.

The young Saim Balmukhanov.

In 1965, Saim Balmukhanov met with Noel Shayakhmetov, a forensic expert, anthropologist and one of Professor Gerasimov’s apprentices, and offered him a job at the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, with a possibility to pursue his passion for anthropology.

The young Noel Shayakhmetov (used with permission).

The offer was so tempting that Noel Shayakhmetov took it immediately. Later, he would call the period that followed the happiest and most productive years of his life. Hooked on anthropology since his years in the medical school, he now had a job one could only dream of.

As Noel Shayahmetov recalls in his book “Through the Darkness of Ages” (A Portrait from the Skull),” published in 1969 in Alma-Ata, “in the fall of 1950, I bought an unusual book from a book stand at one of the railway stations on my way home from Moscow. It was about great men of the past. Page after page, it revived the sounds of sword blades clashing, deposed rulers moaning before breathing last gasp, sails flapping in the wind, ship’s cannons blasting, thousands of horses galloping, with ancient towns and villages perishing under their hooves.” Back then, he was a second-year student of the department of general medicine of the Alma-Ata Medical Institute.

N. Shayakhmetov at the Kazakh State Medical Institute, Alma-Ata, 1954 (used with permission).

The book, titled “Fundamentals of the face-from-the skull reconstruction method” and published in 1949, was written by Mikhail Gerasimov, a renowned anthropologist, archaeologist, sculptor, doctor of historical sciences, winner of the USSR State Prize, founder and head of the world’s only laboratory of plastic anthropological facial reconstruction at the Institute of Ethnography of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences.

It took Noel Shayakhmetov several years, however, to pluck up his courage and come to see Professor Gerasimov in his lab in order to confide in him his dream of becoming an anthropologist, influenced by Professor’s book that Noel would always carry with him. That meeting took place in 1957. By that time, he had already gained some experience as a forensic expert. That year, he came to Moscow to spend some time with his father, who was recovering from a major surgery. Zhumabay Shayahmetov, who had headed Kazakhstan in 1946-1954 as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and had chaired one of the chambers of the Soviet parliament (Council of Nationalities of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR), lived in Moscow, after his retirement, with his wife Maryam and younger son Targyn.

Mikhail Gerasimov received Noel well and asked him what he was doing. “I’m a forensic expert,” was the answer. “Very well,” said Gerasimov, “criminologists and forensic experts were the first to recognize my method when I conducted check tests at the Lefortovo morgue in Moscow in 1940-1941.”

Soviet facial reconstruction expert Mikhail Gerasimov (used with permission).

That was how Noel Shayahmetov became a student of Mikhail Gerasimov, followed by years of apprenticeship and collaboration with the well-known researcher, which lasted until Professor’s death in 1970. “Every year, for nearly 14 years, I would come to Moscow to see Gerasimov. He was an incredibly open, patient and amiable man, a true intellectual,” recalled Noel. In memory of his mentor, Noel kept in his library Professor’s book titled “Forensic Facial Reconstruction,” published in1955, with an inscription “To Noel Shayakhmetov with wishes of further success in the field of facial reconstruction. Mikhail Gerasimov, 29 December 1958.”

Following in footsteps of his teacher and under his direct supervision, Noel Shayahmetov completed his first assignments for the criminal investigation department, restoring skulls of missing people. He passed his “final exam” as Gerasimov’s student in 1961 with an anthropological reconstruction of an ancient Uysun (Wusun), currently on display at the Presidential Cultural Centre in Astana. After that, he performed facial reconstruction of Bolatbek Omarov, one of the first members of the young pioneer movement who had died at the hands of opponents of the Soviet regime, and of some other personalities.

“Gerasimov wanted us to realize that ‘facial reconstruction’ was not an artistic but a documental facial visualization of a person, the closest possible approximation to his/her appearance. Defending his method, he had to overcome skepticism of peers and the public. Criminologists, however, were the ones who immediately accepted and used ‘Gerasimov method’, and it passed the test of everyday practice,” recalled Noel Shayakhmetov.

‘Ancient Uysun’ – physical reconstruction by N. Shayakhmetov 1961 (used with permission).

During that period, he pursued his interests in anthropology while working as a forensic expert first in Alma-Ata (now Almaty), then in Aktyubinsk (now Aktobe) as head of the regional bureau of forensic medical examination, and then again in Alma-Ata, seeking a balance between his passion and his main job, which allowed him to at least support his wife and two children.

By joining Balmukhanov’s Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, Noel managed to strike that balance, and so he enthusiastically plunged himself into exciting work, travelling across Kazakhstan as a member of numerous expeditions composed of researchers, historians and anthropologists.

“On Professor Balmukhanov’s recommendation, it was decided to start the work with the reconstruction of the sculptural portrait of a talented Kazakh poet (Kaz: akhyn) Makhambet Utemisov,” writes Noel Shayakhmetov in his book.

Since to conduct the search for and then excavate the poet’s burial site one needed permission from the authorities, Noel decided to ask for a meeting with Dinmukhamed Kunayev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of Communist Party of Kazakhstan, whom he knew since 1942, when he was a still boy. That year, at the age of 30, Kunayev was transferred from Leninogorsk, where he was director of the flagship Ridder mine, to the capital Alma-Ata, where he was elevated to the post of Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (Council of Ministers), on the recommendation of Zhumabay Shayakhmetov, at that time Second Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, responsible, among other things, for human resources development in the country.

Dinmukhamed Kunayev received Noel Shayakhmetov warmly and supported the project. He gave instructions to prepare relevant letters to the Ministry of Culture and to the Guryev (now Atyrau) Regional Party Committee.

In July 1966, Saim Balmukhanov phoned Khairzhan Abisatov, head of the surgical department of the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, who was then at the head of the expedition to the Guryev region, investigating the causes of the incidence of esophageal cancer among residents of the area, and told him that Noel Shayahmetov was coming to excavate Makhambet’s burial site, with all required official authorizations.

With the excavation plan drawn up and the project’s goals and objectives set, Noel Shayakhmetov presented them at a closed meeting of the Bureau of Inder District Party Committee.

The first expedition was a success, and the remains of the poet were taken first to Guryev, then to Alma-Ata, and from there to Moscow. “I continued my work on the sculptural portrait in the laboratory of plastic reconstruction of the Institute of Ethnography of the USSR Academy of Sciences Moscow, under the guidance of Doctor of Historical Sciences Mikhail Gerasimov. Supervising my work on the portrait sculpture, Mikhail Mikhailovich was very demanding and constantly reminded me of the great responsibility that the researcher assumes when offering a portrait reproduced from the skull of a historical figure,” recalled Noel Shayahmetov in his book.

Facial reconstruction of Kazakh poet Makhambet Ustemisov, by N. Shayakhmetov 1967 (used with permission).

While visiting the Museum of Local History of the Atyrau Region, I came across a document titled “Verbatim report of the meeting on the work of N. Shayakhmetov (portrait sculpture of Makhambet Utemisov), held at the Institute of History and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the Kazakh SSR, Alma-Ata. 3 July 1967. Chaired by: Academician A. Kh. Margulan.” Below is an extract from the report:

“Chairperson: Let me begin our meeting. We have one item on the agenda: a documental portrait of Kazakh poet Makhambet Utemisov, reconstructed according to the method of M.M. Gerasimov. We have in Kazakhstan a young and talented student of Professor Mikhail Gerasimov. His name is Noel Shayahmetov. He has studied under Professor Mikhail Gerasimov for the past few years. In addition to the reconstruction of the historical portrait of Makhambet, Noel Shayahmetov has thoroughly studied the history of the uprising, led by Isatai and Makhambet. He talked to elders familiar with historical traditions of Kazakhs of the western part of the country, recorded and researched all the events related to the fate of Makhambet Utemisov and tales about his life and heroic deeds. Sifting through this wealth of knowledge, Noel Shayahmetov has come up with an interesting synthesis, which is of tremendous importance for the cultural life of Kazakhstan.”

Summarizing the results of the expedition, Noel Shayahmetov wrote his book “Through the Darkness of Ages and dedicated it to his father Zhumabay Shayakhmetov. Later, he himself would even serve as a prototype of sculptor/anthropologist Khamit, the protagonist of a short story “The Skull,” written by a well-known Kazakh writer Tolen Abdikov.

In 1967, the appointment of Ilyas Omarov as Minister of Culture of Kazakhstan gave a new impetus to the efforts to create a gallery of sculpture portraits of Kazakhstan’s great men.

During that period, burial sites of some prominent historical figures were identified and excavated: Kurmangazy Sagyrbaev in 1967, Kozy-Korpesh and Bayan-Sulu in 1968 (the grave, however, contained nothing but an artfully embroidered saddle), Koblandy Batyr in 1969.

According Saim Balmukhanov, the burial place of great warrior Koblandy-Batyr was known to Malik Gabdullin, a legendary Second World War hero and later a researcher, who wrtote a Ph.D thesis after the war on the Koblandy Batyr epic. His burial site was found in 1969 in the Kobda District near Zhirenkop.

The chairman of the executive committee of the Aktobe region was very helpful, providing the researchers with housing, food and a biplane for aerial mapping. The warrior’s burial site was seriously damaged in different periods in the country’s history, including during the development of so called “virgin lands”. When the grave was opened, it contained the remains of several men and horses. A complex but exciting work was under way to put together different pieces of a puzzle.

Unfortunately, the passing away, on 19 July 1970, of Minister Ilyas Omarov, who supported the researchers, followed by the death of Mikhail Gerasimov two days later, became a game changer. Balmukhanov and Shayakhmetov started to run into problems and, as a result, the project was effectively suspended.

Under the circumstances, the portrait sculpture of the great Kazakh composer Kurmangazy was not completed in the manner that had been planned, and an anthropological reconstruction of Koblandy-Batyr was not even started. In 1971, Noel Shayakhmetov left for Moscow, where, until his retirement in 2009, he worked in the Blokhin Oncology Center of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.

Later, Noel Shayakhmetov was blamed for keeping, for too long, in his possession the remains of Kurmangazy, Koplandy and Makhambet Utemisov, although, in April 1968, Noel was going to deliver Makhambet’s remains to Guriev, after the completion of the reconstruction and the casting of the bust, as evidenced by his letter to Saden Bissenov, who at that time headed the Museum of Local History of the Atyrau Region. That letter, kept in the museum’s archives, reads as follows:

“Alma-Ata, 14 April 1968

Dear Saden,

Today, they have signed my travel authorization. I will fly to you on 23 April and bring Makhambet with me. I kindly ask you to just stay there and wait for me. I will bring all the documents needed for your bookkeeping office. I count on your assistance and cooperation. After my meeting with you, I’m going to take a flight first to Orenburg and then to Kazan, hoping that I might find in the archives of those cities some documents on Kurmangazy. I have decided to make a half-length sculpture of Kurmangazy, playing a dombra. For that, in addition to the face, the hands would have to be reconstructed as well. To identify the right posture for the future sculpture, I asked the movie studio to assign a camera man to shoot performances by dombra player Kenen Azerbaev. He lives not far from Alma-Ata, in the Kurday area. Hale and hearty, despite being in his eighties, he is still playing his dombra. His physical appearance is close to that of Kurmangazy. I hope that the elder will not object and will agree to sit as a model. Also, to complete his image, I’m thinking of making plaster casts of his hands. To this end, I want to make casts of the hands of all leading dombra players, in particular of Eskaraev, and, of course, of Akhmet Zhubanov. For this project, I need a dombra typical of Western Kazakhstan. Would it be possible to borrow one through you, for a few months? I guarantee its return. It is important that Kurmangazy’s dombra and clothing were reflective of the time. It would be better yet if one could find a dombra that is ninety years old. Attention to all these details is important to create a truthful image. According to my estimates, this work will take some six months. It is possible, however, that changes will have to be made due to various circumstances and as time goes by. We’ll have to see. The editors of the book about Makhambet have returned the manuscript with their comments concerning mainly the history of establishment of the zhuzs (Kazakh hordes), the Bökey Khanate and the uprising itself. That’s the way things are. Dear Saden, once again, I ask you to pick me and Makhambet up at the airport and not to go anywhere. Best regards to all your staff.

Respectfully,

Noel”

In fact, “various circumstances” and “time” did necessitate changes to these plans. The remains of the poet were not brought to Guryev. The Ministry of Culture informed Noel that the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan was planning to build a pantheon on top of the Kok-Tobe mountain in Alma-Ata. Until 1974, the remains of Makhambet Utemisov, Kurmangazy and Koblandy-Batyr were, indeed, stored in Noel Shayakhmetov’s apartment in Alma-Ata and, before that, in our family’s home in the same city, because the pantheon project was put on hold and no one knew what to do next.

The Museum of Local History of the Atyrau Region displays an “Affidavit of excavation and creation of a sculptural portrait of Makhambet Utemisov”, signed by its Director Saden Bissenov and two other museum staffers on 14 October 1975. In particular, it says that “in December 1974, the remains of the poet were taken from Alma-Ata by the Director of the Guryev Regional Museum Saden Bissenov. On 14 October 1975, the remains of Makhambet Utemisov were delivered to the Inder district, through M. Eleuov, head of the Inder district department of culture, for a reburial”. That document contains an attachment titled “Act of Delivery and Acceptance”, signed in Guriev on 28 July 1976. It reads as follows:

“We, the undersigned, comrade S. Bisenov, Director of the Regional Museum of Local History, comrade S. Izmailov, Museum’s Chief Curator and Major G. Arystanov, Chief of the Operations Division of the Headquarters of the Regional Department of the Interior Ministry, have drawn up the following act:

As instructed by the Regional Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, the Regional Museum, represented by comrade S. Bisenov and comrade S. Izmailov, hands over and the Regional Interior Department, represented by comrade G. Arystanov, accepts for temporary storage in the Regional Interior Department:

  1. Bone remains, including the skull, of Makhambet Utemisov (all bones).
  2. Bone remains, including the skull, of Kurmangazy Sagyrbaev (without bones of inferior limbs and left ribs).

Bone remains are handed over packed in two separate metal boxes.

Handed over by: S. Bisenov and S. Izmailov

Accepted by: G. Arystanov”.

The reburial of Makhambet Utemisov took place only on 15 May 1983. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the poet, a mazar (tomb) was built on the burial site, which later underwent reconstruction.

The remains of Koblandy Batyr had to stay in Noel’s possession for much longer because no institution wanted to take ownership of them and the project was put on hold, indefinitely, by the Ministry of Culture. Then events started to unfold dramatically: first, the perestroika, then the dismissal of Kunaev, followed by the accusation of the entire nation of nationalism (no one dared at that time even to mention national heroes and the project itself), the collapse of the Soviet Union, the raucous 1990s and the challenges of the transition period.

Years later, some researchers and journalists, trying to stir up heated polemics about the issue in an attempt to turn the public opinion against Noel Shayakhmetov, found him guilty of every sin that had a name, ignoring the fact that his project had not been a government program, that the official ideology had not encouraged digging too deep into the history of constituent Soviet republics and that the party leader Kunayev and Minister Omarov had known about all expeditions, as well as about all relevant circumstances. Pure enthusiasm and desire to find scientific evidence in support of certain facts of Kazakh history were the main drivers of the entire project.

Some people prefer to build up their careers not on their own accomplishments, through trials and errors, but on finding fault with those who dare to do something their way. Being a sensitive and tactful man, Noel chose not explain all the circumstances around the situation to people who knew little about the project.

It was only years later, when Kazakhstan was already an independent state, that, with assistance of Saim Balmukhanov, researchers Orazak and Ainagul Ismagulova, following extensive preparatory work, delivered the skull of Koblandy Batyr to Moscow to the Mikhail Gerasimov laboratory of plastic reconstruction, where in 2006 sculptors/anthropologists Tatiana Balueva (head of the laboratory) and Elizaveta Veselovskaya reconstructed the great warrior’s portrait. In 2007, an imposing mausoleum was built on his burial site.

It has to be mentioned here that, in 2002, when Noel Shayakhmetov again raised with the authorities the issue of an anthropological reconstruction of 10 Kazakh historical figures, starting with Koblandy, he got an official response from the Ministry of Culture (letter № 04/2020 dated 10 June 2002), explaining that the matter was too complicated and required a special resolution by the Government.

In a conversation with me, in 2005, Noel said, “Although I’m 74 years old, I’m full of energy and ideas. The legendary scholar Gerasimov had just a handful of followers. As for me, there is no one now with whom I could share my experience and skills that I have acquired. An objective face-from-the-skull reconstruction method is a combination of such disciplines as anatomy, anthropology, paleontology and archeology. The Gerasimov Method is a tool for understanding the processes behind the ethno genesis of the Kazakh nation. I wanted to establish a laboratory in Kazakhstan where I could carry out my work and mentor my students, future Kazakh anthropologists. I have a list of 10 legendary names. An anthropological reconstruction of our heroes would have provided historians with an information about their physical appearance, physiology, injuries and illnesses. This issue generates great interest in academic circles all around the world, yet here we sometimes prefer to mythologize our past .The life and death of Makhambet Utemisov is a case in point”.

As for the Kurmangazy project, the manuscript of a book on that expedition and the history of that reconstruction, together with photographs, X-rays, as well as anatomical and anthropological descriptions of the skeleton, was lost, unfortunately, when a journalist from Kazakhstan, whose name Noel could not recall, had borrowed it with a promise to translate and publish it in the Kazakh language. That manuscript was never returned.

In 2006, I had a chance to talk to Galina Lebedinskaya, a well-known anthropologist who had worked in the Gerasimov lab since its opening in 1950 and had become its head after the teacher’s death in 1970.[iii] According to her, “when Noel showed up in our lab, he was so young, so passionate and so terribly shy! Gerasimov liked him immediately and asked me to take care of him. I shared with Noel the results of my own work, especially those related to the mid-section of the face and the nose.”

Physical anthropologist Galina Lebedinskaya, student of Gerasimov, headed the Laboratory of Plastic Reconstruction of the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (now the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology of the Russian Academy of Sciences) after Gerasimov’s death (image used with permission).

I had a chance to pay Lebedinskaya a visit at her Sretenka Street apartment in Moscow thanks to Saim Balmukhanov. Earlier he had shown me volume I of the National Encyclopedia of Kazakhstan, published in 2004. One of its entries, titled “Anthropology”, contained a factual error: the photo of the bust of an ancient Uysun, reconstructed by Noel Shayakhmetov, was captioned as “Bust of a Saka. Reconstruction by anthropologist G. Lebedinskaya.”

Saim Balmukhanov suggested that during my next visit to Moscow I should try to find Lebedinskaya and clarify the matter. I did just that: I called Galina Vyacheslavovna on the phone and introduced myself as Noel’s nephew. She kindly invited me to come to see her. At that time, she was 82. Her big Moscow apartment was filled with books and busts. In the living room, there was a large Rembrandtesque painting, depicting her working on a skull. That slim and dynamic woman of small stature with a keen and intelligent expression was a living legend, well known among anthropologists not only in the former Soviet republics but also in Europe, Asia and the United States. When I showed her a copy of page 230 of volume I of the Encyclopedia, she immediately said that, even though she had indeed worked on Sakas, that particular bust had been made by Noel. Then she asked her granddaughter, also an anthropologist, to copy her reconstruction works on a CD for me.

That was how I met Galina Lebedinskaya. “Physical anthropology is a discipline for enthusiasts, for those who have a passion for it,” she told me. “It is not for everyone. Every morning I would wake up feeling happy that I have that job.”

Later, I came to see her again. During our meetings, Galina Vyacheslavovna shared with me many interesting stories from her practice. The most memorable was the one about the start of their reconstruction work on Ivan the Terrible. “When we approached the table displaying the skeleton of the Czar, the lights suddenly went out and a gust of wind threw open the window. Even though we were all atheists, we could all feel that there was some mysticism to that!”

Noel Shayahmetov spoke highly of Galina Lebedinskaya. According to him, she was Professor Gerasimov’s most trusted assistant and his best student. She perfected his method, first, of graphic and then of sculptural reconstruction. She loved to study X-rays of Egyptian mummies that she would get from the British Museum, and then used them to make graphic reconstructions. During Noel’s visits to Moscow, she would show those pictures to him, since he was a radiologist at the Oncology and Radiology Research Institute, and they would spend hours discussing details of various projects. Perhaps, that explains the large number of X-rays he had at home, especially of Kurmangazy and Makhambet. He was writing books about them, working in the archives of Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.

Author Rinat Shayakhmetov listening to the memoirs of academicians                         S. Balmukhanov and S. Zimanov (used with author’s permission). 

During our meetings, Noel Shayahmetov often recalled those happy years of quests and discoveries, hopes and disappointments. Before moving permanently to Moscow, he would come to see his elder brother Ravil (my father) and would tell us stories about the lives of Kazakh heroes. He would, for example, explain why Kurmangazy’s ribs had been so twisted and why Makhambet had limped and describe circumstances of his assassination.

In the newly independent Kazakhstan, the idea to create a gallery of great figures of its past has been revived. Ties with the Gerasimov laboratory of plastic reconstruction have been reestablished and Kazakh archaeologists and anthropologists are increasingly turning to it for advice and guidance.

The project to create sculptural portraits of outstanding historical figures of Kazakhstan, championed by Ilyas Omarov, Saim Balmukhanov, Khairzhan Abisatov, Noel Shayakhmetov and other enthusiasts, represents an initial step in the development of physical anthropology in Kazakhstan. Time will come when that experience will found invaluable and when the country will have an anthropology school of its own.

[i] On the work and legacy of Mikhail Gerasimov see Herbert Ullrich and Carl N. Stephan. 2016. “Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov’s Authentic Approach to Plastic Facial Reconstruction” in Anthropologie 54 (2): 97-107.

[ii] A biographic history of Makhambet Utemisoly may be read here: https://e-history.kz/en/publications/view/4359

[iii] Archival footage of physical anthropologist and facial reconstruction expert Galina Lebedinskaya has been published online here: https://www.net-film.ru/en/film-25685/

Author Interview: The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan, by Sarah Cameron (University of Maryland)

In this second installation of our series featuring those books shortlisted by CESS for this year’s prize, we welcome Nurlan Kabdylkhak (University of North Carolina) who interviews Sarah Cameron (University of Maryland)The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan “examines one of the most heinous crimes of the Stalinist regime, the Kazakh famine of 1930–33. More than 1.5 million people perished in this famine, a quarter of Kazakhstan’s population, and the crisis transformed a territory the size of continental Europe. Yet the story of this famine has remained mostly hidden from view. Drawing upon state and Communist party documents, as well as oral history and memoir accounts in Russian and in Kazakh, Sarah Cameron reveals this brutal story and its devastating consequences for Kazakh society” (Cornell University Press website).

First of all, congratulations on writing an impressive book on such an important topic. Your work and other recent publications have enriched our understanding of this horrendous event that wiped out at least 1.5 million lives in Kazakhstan.  Do you remember how you first learned about the famine in Kazakhstan? What drew your interest to this particular topic and why did you decide to dedicate your dissertation work to this event?

As a PhD student in Russian and Soviet history at Yale, I took several courses on Middle East history. I was intrigued by the themes that I encountered in these courses, and I began to think about how they might be combined with my existing interest in the Soviet field. I then turned towards Central Asia. At that time, a lot of the scholarly work on Soviet Central Asia had focused on Uzbekistan, and many authors used the case of Uzbekistan to generalize about Central Asia’s experience under Soviet rule. By focusing on Kazakhstan, I sought to illuminate some of the differences in how Central Asians experienced Soviet rule. It also helped that Kazakhstan had (and still has) excellent archives. Both the former Communist Party and state archives are open to researchers.

Having decided to focus on Kazakhstan, I spent the summer in Almaty studying Kazakh. While I was there, I began to flip through high school history textbooks, where I noticed discussion of the famine. I was floored that I had never heard of this event. It was a powerful story on a human level, but one that also had immense importance for our understanding of Soviet history.

How does your work on the Kazakh famine contribute to our understanding of broader theories and themes in the historical scholarship? What historiographical conversations do you see yourself to be a part of?

I see the marginalization of the Kazakh story—most overviews of Soviet history only refer to it in passing, if at all—as just one example of how we are still struggling to incorporate the Soviet east into our understandings of Soviet history. Soviet history is often thought of as “European history.” But the Soviet Union was not just a European power. It was an Asian one, too. In the book, I show how further research on the Soviet east might overturn some of our basic assumptions about Stalinism. Most of our models for Stalinism were constructed using examples draw from the Soviet Union’s west. But if we turn to the Kazakh case, we get a different view of many issues, including Soviet modernization, Soviet nation-building and Stalinist violence.

I also see the book as part of a broader literature that seeks to recover the stories of mobile peoples. Part of the reason we have heard relatively little about the Kazakh famine, I would argue, is a tendency to see the violence committed against mobile groups as part of a “natural,” or “civilizing,” process. In the United States, we only need look at our own struggles to come to terms with the scale of the violence committed against Native Americans for such examples.

Young camels on a tether. Zhangil’dy-Mola.  Adai.  Photo by S.I. Rudenko in Kazaki: Antropologicheskie ocherki.  Sbornik II, 91. (Used with permission by Sarah Cameron.)

It’s an exciting time to be publishing the book, as I think that Central Asian history is beginning to become a field in its own right. The book furthers our understanding of the relationship between the nomadic and sedentary worlds, a long running theme in Central Asian history. I also see the book as engaging with the fields of environmental history and genocide studies.

What was the most challenging aspect of researching/writing about the Kazakh famine?

The most challenging aspect of this project by far was identifying primary sources that were not produced by the Communist Party or the state. I found an abundance of state and Communist Party documents pertaining to the famine in archives in Kazakhstan and Russia. But to illuminate the human side of the story in greater depth, I wanted to incorporate sources such as memoirs or oral history accounts by Kazakhs. These types of materials, I felt, would also help me counter some of the biases that can cloud sedentary peoples’ observations about the nomadic world. But these accounts proved to be exceptionally difficult to find. For various reasons, there are fewer types of these sources available for the Kazakh case than there are for other crimes of the Stalinist regime.

Ultimately, the handful of memoirs and oral history accounts that I did find were crucial to my research. Through them, I was able to convey how the famine transformed Kazakh society.

A major goal of your work is to determine the causes of the Kazakh famine. In the past, scholars emphasized ecological issues, particularly the phenomenon of zhut; meanwhile, today historians discuss Moscow’s various policy decisions. Is it possible to establish the single most important factor in causing this event? Or should we talk about the combination of all these factors?

I think the most important causal factor is clear. It was the grain and meat procurements that accompanied collectivization. Without the Stalinist regime’s interventions, there would not have been a famine. A drought in the summer of 1931 then intensified Kazakhs’ suffering. But I don’t know that policy decisions like collectivization can be neatly disentangled from environmental factors. Put another way, this drought was not an independent variable, something for which the regime should be absolved of responsibility. Rather, I show that Moscow had clear information about the environmental risks of nomadic settlement when it moved forward with collectivization. Focused on increasing the production of grain at all costs, Moscow accepted that Kazakhs might suffer as a result.

But while grain and meat procurements were the most important factor, other factors were important too. The first chapter of my book focuses on Russian imperial rule over the Kazakh steppe, which led to important changes in Kazakhs’ diet and migration routes. These changes then intensified the disastrous effects of collectivization. While I would not elevate the legacies of Russian imperial rule to the status of a “causal factor,” I do call them a “contributing factor.”

An aul, with a herdsman on the right.  Kumdoil’, the River Uil.  Adai.  Photo by S. I. Rudenko in Kazaki: Antropologicheskie ocherki.  Sbornik II, 91.  (Used with permission by Sarah Cameron.)

You mention in your book that one of famine’s consequences was the emergence of a new Kazakh identity. How did the famine transform the sense of Kazakhness? How do your findings enrich our understanding of Soviet modernization and nation-making?

In my book, I argue that the famine led to the emergence of a new Kazakh national identity. On the eve of the famine, “Kazakh” was a mixed social and ethnic category, one that denoted an ethnicity but also a way of life, pastoral nomadism. But in the famine’s aftermath, Kazakhs began to think of themselves as a national group.

The crisis embedded nationality as the primary marker of Kazakh identity, and this in fact was a goal of the regime’s “nation-building” project, or effort to craft certain non-Russian groups into modern, Soviet nations. But it did not eliminate alternate forms of Kazakh identity entirely. To give just one example of this pattern, Kazakhs’ allegiances to various clans, transformed by the famine and divorced from their origins in the system of pastoral nomadism, continue to exert an important influence on Kazakh identity in the postfamine years.

The case of the Kazakh famine has important implications for our understanding of Soviet modernization and nation-making. By turning to a region outside the Soviet Union’s west, my book places the issue of Soviet modernization in a different light. In Kazakhstan, the timing and tempo of Moscow’s modernization project was distinct, and Moscow struggled with various environmental factors, such as the steppe’s aridity, that it did not encounter in areas further west. The book also illustrates the extraordinary importance that Moscow placed on its nation-making project, even as it underscores its destructive power. As I show, the Kazakh famine took its peculiarly destructive shape not in spite of the Soviets’ nation-making efforts, but partly because of them.

What are the remaining unexplored aspects of the Kazakh famine? What sorts of research do you see being done in the future on this subject?

One of the big gaps in our understanding of the Kazakh famine is the death toll. It is clear that the number of dead in the Kazakh famine was horrific—the crisis claimed at least 1.5 million lives—but we do not have a good sense of how these deaths break down at the provincial or district level. In the case of the Ukrainian famine, for instance, demographers have done sophisticated work to calculate the number of dead at the provincial and district levels. Not only has their research helped us better understand how famine affected Ukraine regionally, but it has challenged some understandings of the Ukrainian famine’s major causal factors. But this kind of demographic work has not yet been done for Kazakhstan.

Another unexplored aspect is how the Kazakh famine has been remembered in Kazakhstan. I touch upon this issue briefly in the epilogue to my book, but it is a complicated topic, which deserves a full-fledged study in its own right.

As to future projects, much depends upon the climate for research in Kazakhstan. After three decades in power, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president, resigned unexpectedly this past March, and it is not totally clear how his handpicked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will approach the issue of the famine. But I have seen signs that a younger generation of Kazakhs would like to know more about this important chapter in Kazakh history, and I am hopeful that this interest will lead to many new studies in the years to come.

Author Interview: Film and Identity in Kazakhstan, by Rico Isaacs (Oxford Brookes University)

Many thanks to Moldiyar Yergebekov (Suleyman Demirel University),  for his questions and dialogue with Rico Isaacs about the book Film and Identity in Kazazkhstan: Soviet and Post-Soviet Culture in Central Asia, published in 2018 by I.B. Tauris.

Continue reading Author Interview: Film and Identity in Kazakhstan, by Rico Isaacs (Oxford Brookes University)