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