The commemoration of prison camps has become a balancing act in Kazakhstan.
One March day in 2012, I stood freezing in front of the ALZIR memorial complex near Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. I was wearing a relatively light spring coat, while Astana was being ravaged by a real Siberian blizzard. This is how it must have been for the victims of the March deportation of 1949 who found themselves in northern Kazakhstan at about the same time of year and in similar clothing. ALZIR is considered unique in a negative way: Akmola Camp for the Wives of Traitors to the Motherland, founded as a place of detention for women whose husbands or fathers had been convicted on the basis of “political” sections of the penal law, is deemed to have been the only one of its kind. The memorial complex on the site of the camp consists of a small but elegant museum, a memorial and a so-called Stolypin car, a very basic railway carriage used for transporting people.
One of the first things the visitor sees upon entering is a quote by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, written in gold letters on a blue background (blue is a sacred colour for nearly all nomads): “The Gulag camp system was a crime against humanity!” I have studied the origin of this quote, which has been used quite often in different wording, and all the evidence points to the idea having been formed in Nazarbayev’s book V potoke istorii (“In the Flow of History”), published in 1999.
Naturally, the Gulag’s legacy in Kazakhstan cannot be ignored. The roots of the current state lie in this infamous prison camp system. Kazakhstan’s multinational society includes some 160 ethnic groups who speak more than 80 languages, since the masses deported to the Kazakh Steppe included entire nations—the people who ended up there include Chechens, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Volga Germans. Almost all the country’s important cities have grown around former camp locations. The camps laid the groundwork for Kazakhstan’s mineral extraction industry. This is why Kazakh historians are fond of the quote: “Kazakhstan was the prison of the Soviet Union”. The figures for the Gulag system in Kazakhstan are truly impressive.
GULAG, or the Main Camp Administration, started building camps in Kazakhstan in 1930 with the purpose of carrying out intensive industrialisation and exploiting Kazakhstan’s abundant natural resources. The final years of World War II saw the introduction of the so-called strict-regime camps, the purpose of which was to achieve maximum production at minimum cost, or to extract minerals in conditions in which the prisoners had no rights whatsoever.
This category of camp included Steplag (Stepnoy), Peschanlag and Luglag. All these were actually camp complexes, holding 15,000–25,000 prisoners.
1931 saw the establishment of a new camp complex, Karlag—Karaganda Corrective Labour Camp—which was unique in the Gulag system. Firstly, the purpose of Karlag was to feed the entire prison system in Kazakhstan; in other words, it dealt in agriculture. Karlag was reorganised into the state farm Gigant and the camp, which held about 65,000 inmates at its peak, became the largest sovkhoz in the Soviet Union. Secondly, many cultural figures and scientists were sent to Karlag, which consisted of 29 smaller camps. The camp held famous opera singers, theatre directors and artists, Estonians among them. Karlag’s administration soon discovered a way to make extra money: they established an art workshop, as well as forming musical and theatre groups, which sold artworks or performed outside the camp for money. The second-largest group of prisoners in Karlag consisted of agricultural specialists, irrigation engineers and other technical personnel needed in the sovkhoz.
Kazakhstan has done something that would be unthinkable in, for instance, Russia: the past has been declared a national tragedy and the whole country has been turned into a huge memorial. No other place in the world has so many memorials to the Gulag camps and its victims. In addition, there are entire history institutes that specialise in studying this sombre past. Remembrance ceremonies are constantly held at all the memorials, and former prisoners come together from all over the world to celebrate various anniversaries, when they are showered with flowers. These moving moments are broadcast on television; all this is made possible by the president’s supportive and understanding policy, which prevents people from forgetting the scale of the tragedy.
The question remains: what is the purpose of all this? It is impossible to give a clear answer. The commemoration of the Gulag system should be placed in a wider framework. Kazakhstan’s view of the Soviet period differs drastically from that of Estonia. When I was giving a lecture on the more-or-less official concept of the history of the Republic of Estonia at a history institute in Almaty and showed pictures from Mart Laar’s books on the Estonian Legion to illustrate it, the head of the institute, a professor, agreed: “Well, this is indeed a very unique treatment of history!” He proceeded to explain the official concept of the history of Kazakhstan with one sentence: “For us, the Soviet Union is rodina” (Russian for “homeland”). However, it must be noted that the Republic of Kazakhstan’s treatment of history is oriental in nature—vague and changeable.
The best example of this is the city centre in Almaty, where there lies a great park. This begins with a monumental complex of the eternal flame, a colossal marble artwork behind which is the Panfilov Park. According to a popular legend, the Panfilov Heroes were soldiers freshly mobilised from Almaty who all died defending Moscow (some Russian historians are somewhat sceptical about this legend, but let us leave it at that). Further beyond is the Kazakh Snipers’ Park. Even in Soviet times, this part of the park was still called Dzerzhinsky Park, at the centre of which stood a memorial to the great Chekist. The memorial was later replaced with a bronze monument depicting two women of the Red Army, symbolising the heroic deeds of a Red Army sniper unit formed specifically of Kazakh women. Next comes the city’s main orthodox cathedral, and behind a small grove lies Almaty’s main mosque. A ten-minute walk through the park leads to the institute that studies the history of the Gulag. The institute also has a working group which specialises in the study of the Turkestan Legion, the Central Asian equivalent of the Estonian Legion. When I asked these researchers about attitudes towards the Turkestan Legion, the answer was more than surprising: “They are regarded as freedom fighters”.
The same kind of contradictory multiplicity can also be observed in the institute’s publications. For example, I read monographs on the extremely brutal deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan. However, the same author has also published detailed research papers on the battles of the Turkestan Legion and articles on how Chechen men were fighting heroically on the front while their families were on their way to Kazakhstan in livestock carriages.
Nazarbayev has basically surrounded the commemoration of the Gulag with a strange system of ritualised interpretations, which is unified and eclectic at the same time and the main motto of which appears to be “something for everyone”. In broad terms, each ethnic group has its own place in the memory of the Gulag in Kazakhstan, but they are all on the side of the victims, while the blame is placed on the faceless NKVD or “Stalinist system”. The depiction of the memory of the Gulag seems to correspond to Kazakhstan’s fragile and constantly changing ethnic status quo, while trying not to insult any of its ethnic groups. Since 1991, Kazakhstan has seen several ethnic clashes but, according to the locals, the most intense conflicts were not disagreements between Russians and Kazakhs, but fights between Chechens and other peoples of the Caucasus. This is why the commemoration of prison camps should be skilfully balanced, so as not to insult any of the people involved.
Nazarbayev is attempting to create a multicultural nation-state, and this can be seen in the way the past is discussed. After a short period in the early 1990s, when Nazarbayev tried to mould Kazakhstan into a Kazakh nation with Islam as its unifying ideology, there was a change in direction towards creating a multiconfessional and multi-ethnic “people of Kazakhstan” (Russian: narod Kazahstana). Visiting history museums in different cities reveals that the larger ones include entire halls dedicated to the ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan. These halls display collective suffering and solidarity during imprisonment, as well as the contributions made by different nations to the development of both Soviet Kazakhstan and the later Republic of Kazakhstan. Unlike in Russia, there is as much pomp about the halls dedicated to the prison camps as in the displays themed on the Great Patriotic War. The collective suffering and mutual support among different ethnic groups is also demonstrated in the history-themed video clips that were recently produced and published online.
One of these videos, made to symbolise solidarity and friendship between nations, takes the viewer back to the 1940s. A lorry full of deported Volga Germans arrives in a Kazakh village. The Kazakhs give them a warm welcome; the next segment shows children playing together. The scene after that shows the village at night, with NKVD collaborators coldly filling the lorries with adult Volga Germans and driving them off to provide reinforcements on the front. The most heartbreaking part of the clip is towards the end, when a Kazakh woman embraces children who are left behind and shouts to their parents over the noise of the engine that she will take care of the children from now on. The clip ends by showing one of the Volga Germans, now of retirement age, arriving at some sort of festive event (perhaps a celebration of 9 May), where he is received with great acclaim by the Kazakhs and is given a privileged seat. The video is said to be based on real events. The symbolism of the clip is also expressed in the way the Kazakhs and Volga Germans speak Russian at first, but in the final frames the cries of those left behind are in Kazak, which is supposed to show that the Volga Germans learnt Kazak and adapted to Kazakh society.
There is no reason to believe that there is anything coincidental in this clip. Eastern people place great emphasis on detail and viewers are quick to notice small things (like the aforementioned passages in Russian and Kazak). At the same time, the video clip is directly linked to the Gulag’s past, because some of those who arrived in Kazakhstan through this system and stayed there afterwards were so-called “specially resettled persons” (Russian: spetspereselentsy), who were relatively free in their actions and who were often sent to live in pre-existing Kazakh villages.
Such a theatrical display of solidarity and collective suffering has another agenda. As strange as it may be, the weakest link in the whole treatment of the collective commemoration of the Gulag and shared suffering is in fact Kazakhs themselves. Similar to natives of Siberia, Kazakhs “stayed outside the system” when it came to the prison camps founded on their homeland. The Gulag system was established on Kazakh lands without permission, and Kazakhs were forbidden from living around the prison camps.
Even though a small number of Kazakh urban intellectuals (who later ended up in the camps) existed at the beginning of the Soviet period, most Kazakhs in the 1930s were nomadic cattle-herders, who later tried to survive a great famine after the Soviet authorities confiscated their cattle in order to force them to settle down. The memoirs of former prisoners published in Estonian reveal that Kazakhs were treated as dirty and uncultured savages, not only by the figures of authority, but also by other prisoners.
However, Kazakhs have assumed the role of helpers and supporters in the legend of suffering under the Gulag system. The story of how Kazakh children started throwing stones at prisoners passing their village has almost become part of the official record of history. One of the prisoners finally discovers (in various ways) that the “stones” are in fact dried curd cheese, a traditional Kazakh dish called qurt. Having heard different versions of this legend, I asked the local historians about it and they explained that the large-scale occurrence of the event is highly unlikely, as the camps were surrounded by a 25-kilometre restricted zone from which unauthorised persons were excluded. Despite everything, Kazakhs remain the glue that binds together the stories of different ethnic groups’ hardship in the commemoration/remembrance of the suffering under the Gulag, having protected, helped, cured and fed them all.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.