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Politics, Economics and Time Bury Memories of the Kazakh Gulag

Greenberg, Ilan. "Politics, Economics and Time Bury Memories of the Kazakh Gulag." New York Times, 31 December 2006.


A monument in Almaty, Kazakhstan, commemorates an anti-Soviet protest in 1986, but the government, partly because of its pro-Russian foreign policy, discourages remembrances of selected historical events.
KARAGANDA, Kazakhstan Maria Sadina hunched over fading pictures of her parents, ethnic Germans who were deported in 1941 from the Volga region in Russia to one of Karagandas many gulag camps.

A monument in Almaty, Kazakhstan, commemorates an anti-Soviet protest in 1986, but the government, partly because of its pro-Russian foreign policy, discourages remembrances of selected historical events. The New York Times

Karaganda was once the site of Soviet prison and labor camps.

Ms. Sadina's father was imprisoned for praising the quality of a German-made tractor, and for a decade he worked as a slave laborer in the nearby coal mines. Her mother was sent to the Karaganda gulag simply for her German heritage.

They had married and reared their daughter, Ms. Sadina, in a two-room brick house so low to the ground that visitors must bend over to avoid hitting the ceiling. Ms. Sadina, now a grandmother, continues to live in the same house, the walls now appearing to crumble, tending the same garden her parents once harvested to survive.

She pointed to the neighbors homes through her kitchen window. These people are all children of the gulag, she said. Nobody talks about it anymore. Nobody even wants to look at their pictures anymore.

Karaganda was once the site of Soviet prison and labor camps
The gulags once spread over the Kazakhstan steppe like a thick wreath. Eleven sprawling camps with names like Alzhir, a Russian acronym for the Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland, housed hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families. The camps, built shortly after the creation of the Soviet Union, were partly emptied to provide soldiers and workers during World War II and were eventually closed, although not dismantled, after Stalin died in 1953.

In Kazakhstan today, a large percentage of people have parents or grandparents whose life trajectories were savagely rewired by deportation and imprisonment in the camps. But memories of the gulags are dying, fading like Ms. Sadinas photos.

For younger generations the gulag is uninteresting, said Arest Savchak, a 61-year-old teacher whose parents and grandparents were exiled to Karaganda as political prisoners for the crime of supporting Ukrainian nationalism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when we entered market economy, the values and the views of people have changed. Unless the gulag can be linked to the present time, it is meaningless.

For many Karaganda youngsters, the oppression the gulags stand for does not register. This was just a village for miners, said Sasha Talabaev, 12, who was riding a bicycle through the heart of what was one of the gulags. Some of the reasons for a quick and collective forgetting are obvious. The memories, after all, are painful. And since the fall of the Soviet Union
and Kazakhstans independence in 1991, there are more pleasant things to focus on.

Growing affluence is one of them. The economy is growing at about 10 percent a year, and with the aid of oil, the country has developed a sophisticated middle class and has nurtured to maturation a regional banking center. Its once dour towns have metastasized into modern cities.

But there are political aspects to a sidestepping of Kazakhstans recent history, too, often born out of the governments determination to stay friendly with Russia.

To sustain support for a pro-Russia foreign policy, the Kazakhstan state has gone to great lengths to construct an ideology for its nation-state that glosses over its colonial and neo-colonial history with Russia, Sean R. Roberts, a researcher in Central Asia affairs at Georgetown University, wrote on Dec. 19 in his Web log about the region.

Although those efforts have not added up to a blanket ban on public remembrances of the gulags, the government has instead chosen to ignore the issue. And it has used its control of the education system to keep texts from dwelling on the topic.

In a more pointed example of control, the government forbade large-scale remembrances of a violent uprising in Almaty, the capital, that took place in December 1986. As many as 40,000 ethnic Kazakhs poured into Almatys central square then to protest Mikhail S. Gorbachevs firing of the chief of the Kazakh Soviet state. Soviet security forces are estimated to have killed at least 200 protesters on the square.

The rebellion was a watershed for Kazakh identity. It resonated too strongly for the government to ignore this year, so in October, President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev quietly dedicated a statue to commemorate the event. But the gesture received little coverage in the Kazakh press, which is closely monitored and controlled by the government.

Opposition leaders and several thousand nationalists hoped to use the statue as a gathering point for an antigovernment rally on the anniversary, but the government moved swiftly to crush preparations for it.

With Kazakh nationalism having become mostly the purview of the anti-Russia opposition here, the government has had to use other avenues to promote a coherent national identity. That is no small challenge in this country of 17 million people who span 80 different ethnicities and nearly as many religions a direct legacy of the Soviet Unions use of Kazakhstan as a holding pen for prisoners, dissidents and people who did not fit in the Russian mainstream.

Popular culture has been one tool of choice, especially through the government-financed movie studio KazakhFilm, which has a near monopoly on the countrys film industry. This year the studio released its biggest hit yet, a historical piece called Nomad that delved into distant history, telling the little-known story of an ancient battle to give an uplifting view of Kazakh identity. The film, a $34.5 million production, broke box-office records in Kazakhstan, grossing more than $1 million here and also doing well in Russia.

Despite the huge expense of such historical movies, KazakhFilm plans more. But the companys chief executive, Talgat Temenov, says that none will be set in the 20th century.

The Kazakh people have a tragic history, but with a movie like Nomad, people can feel a sense of pride, he said. Film is an art and should not be a political tool, but at the same time we need to respect what history can do to peoples psychology.

Steven A. Barnes, an assistant professor of history at George Mason University who has studied the gulags in Karaganda, insists that historys relevance to society is exactly why remembering Kazakhstans painful gulag past is so important.

In the post-Soviet space, the trip from remembering to forgetting has been remarkably swift, he said. Perhaps such public forgetting would seem less problematic if not for the fact that it enables strong, authoritarian rule that clamps down on basic human rights like freedom of speech and the right of assembly.

Reprinted with permission of the New York Times.

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