The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 took place then against a backdrop of considerable discontent in Kazakhstan against Tsarist colonial rule. Kazakh nationalists of the Alash Orda movement, named after a legendary founder of the Kazakh people, sensed their opportunity, and declared their independence at the All Kyrgyz Congress' in December 1917 in Orenburg. An Alash Autonomous Government was established under Alikhan Bokeikhanov, basing itself in Semipalatinsk. This loosely allied with White forces under former polar explorer Alexander Kolchak during the Civil War that followed, and by summer 1918 the war had turned against the Bolsheviks, who retained power only in a few cities in the region, though these included Almaty. But through the campaigns of the Bolsheviks' Southern Army Group under Mikhail Frunze, the tide turned during 1919, and with the White forces on the point of defeat, the Alash negotiated terms with the Bolsheviks. Its leadership, including Bokeikhanov, was almost all to perish in the Stalinist repression of the 1930s.
The Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1920, its name changing to the Kazakh ASSR in 1925, when the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs were officially differentiated. At that point Orenburg, the original capital, was reincorporated into Russia, and the new capital was named as Kyzylorda, moving to Alma-Ata in 1929 with the arrival of the TurkSib Railway to that city. It became a full Soviet Republic, the Kazakh SSR, only in 1936.
The authorities set about building communism in Kazakhstan. To do the job, in 1925 they appointed as head of the regional Communist Party a notorious hardliner named Filipp Goloshchekin, who as the Military Commissar of the Urals Region had been involved in the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and members of his family in Ekaterinburg in 1918. The wealthier peasants, or kulaks, were repressed. The next disaster to be fall the Kazakhs was denomadisation, which happened between 1929 and 1933. The world's biggest group of seminomadic people was pushed one step up the Marxist evolutionary ladder to become settled farmers in new collectives. They slaughtered their herds rather than hand them over to state control and, unused to agriculture, died in their hundreds of thousands from famine and disease. Those who opposed collectivisation were sent to labour camps or killed. Kazakhstan's population fell by more than two million.
The Silent Steppe by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov provides a sobering personal account of the enormous hardships faced by Kazakhs during this period. The Kazakh intellectual elite, including many of the ethnic Kazakh figures who had supported the establishment of Bolshevism, largely fell victim to the Stalinist repression of the late 1930s, accused of Kazakh nationalist or pan-Turkic sympathies.
During the Cold War, far from both Moscow and the eyes of the West, some 460 nuclear tests were carried out at the Polygon, as the testing ground near Semey was known. Although looking empty on the map, the region around the Polygon certainly wasn’t uninhabited: villagers living close by were given virtually no protection or warning of the dangers.
The end for the Polygon came about as a result of the Nevada-Semey Movement, a popular protest launched in the wake of two particular tests in 1989. Within a few days more than a million signatures were collected on Kazakhstan’s streets calling for an end to the tests. President Nazarbaev finally closed the site in 1991, announcing compensation for the victims.
The tragic effects linger, however: genetic mutations, cancers, weakened immune systems and mental illness continue to destroy lives and occupy hospitals and clinics in and around Semey, and may do so for years to come. The UN Development Programme says that over 1.3 million people have been adversely affected by the tests.
In the 1930s and ’40s more and more people from other parts of the USSR – prisoners and others – were sent to work in labour camps and new industrial towns in Kazakhstan. Camp inmates included entire peoples deported en masse from western areas of the USSR around the time of WWII. A further wave of 800,000 migrants arrived in the 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev decided to plough up 250,000 sq km of north Kazakhstan steppe to grow wheat in the Virgin Lands scheme. Although the labour camps were wound down in the mid-1950s, many survivors stayed on. Yet more Russians, Ukrainians and other Soviet nationalities arrived to mine and process Kazakhstan’s coal, iron and oil.
The Soviet authorities also embarked on a programme of industrialisation. They promoted the development of mining and heavy industries based around Kazakhstan's considerable mineral wealth: coal in Karaganda, with an adjacent steel plant at Temirtau, copper in Zhezkazgan, and phosphorous in Taraz. Industries also came to Kazakhstan during World War II, moved away from the front line. In agriculture, the Virgin Lands Campaign of the 1950s turned huge expanses of steppeland into wheat fields, diverting major water sources for irrigation. And all of these developments in industry and agriculture were accompanied by further in- migration, especially of Slavonic groups, to help provide the necessary workforce. The population of Kazakhs in Kazakhstan dwindled to less than 30%. At independence, Kazakhstan was the only one of the new republics of central Asia in which the 'titular' ethnic group formed a minority of the population.
In 1960, the post of First Secretary of the Kazakhstan Communist Party went to an ethnic Kazakh, Dinmuhammed Kunaev, a protege of Leonid Brezhnev who had himself headed up the Kazakhstan Communist Party for a brief period in the mid-1950s at the height of the Virgin Lands Campaign. Kunaev lost the job in 1962, but was re-appointed in 1964, and kept it for the next 22 years. He was perceived locally as a strong protector of Kazakhstan's interests, but when Gorbachev took over as Soviet leader in 1985 he seems to have resolved to address concerns about corruption within the Communist Party in Kazakhstan. Kunaev was persuaded to retire, and on 16 December 1986 his successor was presented as Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Chuvash with no close connections to Kazakhstan. The response was a gathering of students outside the Central Committee building in Almaty on the morning of 17 December, a few hundred at first though numbers rose during the day. A mixed group of Interior Ministry forces and police were ordered to clear the protestors and events turned violent, with many injuries caused by the snow shovels wielded by the law enforcement forces. Clashes continued through the night and into the next day. Casualty figures remain controversial, but at the very least two students are known to have died.
Kolbin lasted as First Secretary for little more than two years, before the job went to Nursultan Nazarbaev, an ethnic Kazakh, in June 1989. Nazarbaev was initially a strong supporter of the continuation of the Soviet Union, fearing that its constituent republics were so economically interdependent that they would struggle to survive as separate entities but, as it became clear that the USSR was destined not to last, moved to ensure an ordered transition to independence, with himself as head of state. On 1 December 1991, he secured election as president, taking more than 98% of the votes cast. On 16 December, Kazakhstan became the last of the republics of the USSR to proclaim its independence.