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The Soviet Legacy

It is helpful to distinguish between the Soviet experience in Kazakhstan and the Soviet legacy. The experience entailed suffering on an appalling scale, most of it unnecessary even in terms of Marxist-Leninism's own idealistic purposes, and the consequence of crass implementation, wilful indifference to the effect on people, and institutional cruelty. Millions gratuitously died, every death a personal tragedy, millions more were subjected to fundamental upheaval - uprooted, dispersed or imprisoned. In the years following the later 1923s an entire culture was virtually obliterated, by the forcible destruction of a pattern of life of immemorial antiquity, by the dismantling of structures of kinship, by official scorn and denial of its worth, and by the falsification of history. The Islamic religion which in critical ways reinforced and deepened that culture, and bore its own truths, was suppressed to the point of near extinction; a parallel elimination was meted upon the Christian - substantially Russian Orthodox - element of the population. For at least two generations, traditional culture and religion alike were cast as causes of shame: as 'backwardness' and 'superstition'. Where that which purported to be the cultural inheritance was at length permitted to reappear, it could only be a pastiche of its former reality - decorative, dumbed-down, folkloric, voyeuristic - essentially nullifying the validity of whatever it might purport to symbolize: a nomadism, and all of its crafts and arts, and a spiritual reading of existence.

Such was seven decades of Soviet existence in Kazakhstan. Yet it has to be said that in the same period - say, between 1920-90 - across the face of the earth, and virtually irrespective of the political regime, the nomadic way of life came close to extinction, peasant craft and genuine folk art - decorative, implemental, bardic, musical - had declined, and religious observance had widely retreated. Whatever Kazakhstan was, prior to the onset of Leninism, was in any case destined for radical change as to the shape and practice of society, and in personal and collective aspirations. For Kazakhstan to have remained more or less as it was would have left it a backwater. At the start of the period, industrial activity was negligible - a few mines, a scattering of cultivated crops, some fishing in the Caspian, the Aral, and Balkash. In terms of measurable output, by the date of its Independence (1991), Kazakhstan's product had increased 900 times. Its Industries may have been monolithic and outworn, but they were there. So were their Russian markets. However, 'sedentarised' and urbanised, and however wastefully and restrictively, everу employable man and many women had a job. They also had had a solid education within Marxist limitations. At the start of the period, some seven percent of the Kazakh population could read and write - read, that is mostly in Kazakh, and write mostly in Arabic. By the end of it, 95 per cent of Kazakhs were literate, albeit most of them in the Russian language and the Cyrillic script. Women occupied a range of roles unmatched in the non-Soviet Islamicised world, not excluding Turkey or Bangladesh.

There was a factor of change constituting the legacy of Kazakhstan's sovietization more fundamental still - a factor bearing on the very existence of the Republic itself. Under the Tsars, that great swathe of colonisation of central Asian 'Turkestan' was being subjected to a progressive Russification not only in the institutions of its governance but in human settlement. Under Sovietization, colonisation by Russian settlement indeed continued. But the Leninist theory of recognisable nationalities - of collective man's inherited territorial and ethnic allegiance - bore upon the Soviet imperial structures. Kazakhstan was from the start a Soviet in its own right, and nominally and still perceptibly a Kazakh one. Albeit very soon the Kazakhs becoming a minority in their territory, that territory's 'raison d'etre', under Communism, was as a Kazakh place, attaining for the first time its distinction from the catch-all term Kyrgyz. Marxist-Leninism presumed, of course, the eventual withering away of national distinctions in a synthetic global brotherhood (run from Moscow). The trick that history was to pull, of course, that December of 1991, was a sudden withering away of the imperial centre. What was left was a precisely definable Kazakhstan over which, true to the Leninist premise, ethnic Kazakhs were in charge. And they were Kazakhs of capability, moderation, foresight and patriotism.

The experiential cost of Kazakhstan's emergence into viable independent statehood had been terrible - proportionately, it might be argued, as terrible as Israel's. But it had the legacy of Marxist-Leninist tyranny to which to attribute the fact of that viable independent statehood.