Russia has just sent troops into Kazakhstan. President Vladimir Putin follows a rather predictable pattern of the Russian imperial tradition.
To grasp best the essence of the current turmoil, a whistle stop tour of Kazakh history follows.
As the Russian empire expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, it absorbed Kazakhstan. Its indigenous denizens, the nomadic Kazakhs, were Muslim and animist. They were divided into clans ruled by aristocratic lineages.
The Tsars largely left the natives alone. However, the nomads felt besieged because of Russian colonization and attendant influx of outsiders.
Thus, a serious conflict developed: modernity vs. tradition. A struggle for land and water ensued. In 1916, the Kazakhs revolted violently against Russian military draft to fight in the First World War.
The uprising was suppressed cruelly only to erupt again on the heels of the 1917 Revolution in Russia. In Kazakhstan it turned into a virtual race war.
The Russians (both Whites and Reds) fought the natives. With the Bolsheviks ascendant, their erstwhile White Russian enemies joined the winners to crush the original denizens.
After exterminating most clan leadership, the Soviet power coopted some of the defeated Kazakhs. From the mid-1920s, under Russian supervision, native Kazakhs turned Bolshevik implemented Lenin and Stalin’s policies at the grassroots.
This entailed first vigorous attempts at nation-building and modernization. “National in form, socialist in content” meant that Moscow wanted to make Kazakh Soviets.
To accelerate the process, Stalin turned to forced collectivization and artificial famine. As a result, about 70% of native Kazakhs died and their nomadic way of life was virtually destroyed along with the herds.
Russian farmers suffered likewise as “kulaks.” They lost their lands and some perished.
The survivors were herded as slaves into Kazakhstan’s collective farms and industrial projects, which constituted perhaps the most massive Gulag complex in the USSR. More people died during the Great Purge that followed, including many native Kazakh national-Bolsheviks.
The Second World War afforded more bloodletting. Some Kazakhs died of hunger in situ; others fell at the front fighting the Third Reich.
Suppressed for decades, the memories of Kazakh manifold tragedies emerged within the mid-1980s as the Soviet Union began to crumble. Kazakhs talked about history and demanded freedom.
Violent and nonviolent struggle ensued. Much of it had an anti-Russian edge, of course.
For example, a tendency surfaced increasingly to blame the non-Kazakhs for the calamity of the collectivization, thus absolving the native Communist cadres who were likewise drenched in blood of their kith and kin. This tendency waxed in strength during the 1990s and into the 21st century.
The Communists hijacked the Kazakh bid for independence. It was not just about “reformers” and “conservatives.” The ethnic factor, both at the top and below, definitely asserted itself, however, pitting the Kazakhs against the Russians.
The Kazakh Communist-nationalist elites sidelined the Russian comrades and duped the Kazakh nationalist masses. There a spontaneous process of resurrection and reemergence of the clan system occurred — in a modern setting.
A former Soviet Politburo member, Nursultan Nazarbayev, led the charge. He paved a way to Kazakhstan’s independence and remained the nation’s satrap for nearly 30 years (1990-2019).
Nazarbayev maintained himself in power by cruelly suppressing opposition and tyrannizing his own people. He also oversaw a massive modernization campaign that resulted in impressive economic development and widespread corruption.
First, the process of the transition to independence entailed, of course, a smooth landing on golden parachutes for Communist native Kazakh cadres. Second, it led to the entrenchment of the former Communists in power.
Now transformed into “patriots,” they have ruled virtually unchallenged since. The exception was a few outbreaks of anti-government grassroots violence like in 2011.
Resources-rich Kazakhstan poured energy and uranium money into the pockets of post-Communist kleptocrats. A few clans own most of the nation’s wealth. That has stoked popular anger.
The post-Communists have endeavored to channel the dissatisfaction against the “Russian” national minority. They are the descendants of earlier waves of migrations and deportations into Kazakhstan.
In 2019, Nazarbayev retired as president after appointing a hand-picked successor. Nonetheless, the old satrap kept a tight rein on the “new” regime, which was staffed with his loyalists.
The former president’s personality cult endured until now when his erstwhile puppets staged a palace coup with Moscow’s blessings.
Whether it is Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Georgia, or anywhere else in the “near abroad” of the post-Soviet zone, Russia behaves as a predatory imperialist power. That has not changed since the Tsars.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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