The forgotten father of Kazakh modernization

Although most don’t recognize his name today, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s predecessor was known to almost everyone in the Central Asian country 30 years ago.

On December 16, 1986, thousands of people gathered in the central square of Almaty, then the capital of Kazakhstan, to protest against the dismissal of the highly respected leader of the republic, Dinmukhamed Kunayev.

Moscow had just sent Russian politician Gennady Kolbin to head the republic, then part of the mighty USSR.

The protests were less about the new leader’s nationality and more about the fact that he would have nothing to do with Kazakhstan – he didn’t know the local language or traditions. He was born in Russia and led Russia’s Ulyanovsk region before his appointment to the Central Asian republic.

Many Kazakhs who took to the streets at that time believed that the appointment to such a high post of a person so foreign to the republic indicated how highly Kazakhstan – and the Kazakhs – were perceived by the Soviet masters sitting in the Kremlin .

Various estimates put the number of protesters at between 5,000 and 40,000. (Courtesy Almaty Central State Archives)

It was the first mass demonstration against the dictates of Soviet power.

Moscow interpreted the protests differently and accused the protesters of “nationalism”. He brutally suppressed the protests, which ended on December 19, with troops from across the Union sent to the republic. Despite the repression, the events in Kazakhstan became a kind of trigger for unrest in other republics of the Union.

But who was Kunayev, hardly known today even in his own country, and why can he be called the father of Kazakh modernization?

Local context

Kunayev was born in the small Kazakh village of Akshi in January 1912. His ancestors were engaged in cattle breeding, but Dinmukhamed’s father managed to move to Vernyi (now Almaty), where he worked for the one of the local merchants. Dinmukhamed received his primary education in Almaty, which later allowed him to pursue higher education in Moscow at prestigious institutions.

After the Bolshevik Revolution and the formation of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic as part of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party became the supreme leader of the republic. Its supreme body was the Central Committee (CC) and its first secretary was the de facto head of the republic. In Soviet times, membership in the Communist Party had become the only guarantee of career advancement or making significant changes to one’s republic.

On the advice of his uncle, Dinmukhamed joined the Komsomol, the youth section of the party, which enabled him to continue his studies in Moscow.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan was suffering from a famine caused by the Soviet Union’s forced collectivization policies. In 1925 the Party sent the Bolsheviks Filipp Goloshchyokin to the republic, which implemented this policy by confiscating livestock, even though the vast majority of Kazakhs led a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle. Deprived of their only source of sustenance, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people died in the famine of 1930-33, the overwhelming majority of whom were ethnic Kazakhs.

Thousands of protesters from the December 1986 protests were reportedly arrested.  The death toll was never known.

Thousands of protesters from the December 1986 protests were reportedly arrested. The death toll was never known. ( media portal)

Along with this policy, Moscow implemented another massive project that had massive repercussions for Kazakhs: the colonization or colonization of the republic by people of other ethnicities. The majority of settlers were Russians, who began arriving in Kazakhstan during the Imperial period. By the end of the 1940s, the number of Russians exceeded the number of Kazakhs.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviet policy of forcible expulsion of so-called “untrustworthy peoples” also brought Germans, Poles, Crimean Tatars, Chechens and others to Kazakhstan. During World War II, tens of thousands of families in the western USSR were evacuated in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian republics, which further increased the non-Kazakh population.

The father of Kazakh industrialization

It was during these difficult years that Kunayev returned to Kazakhstan after graduating from the mining department of the Moscow Institute of Nonferrous Metals and Gold.

Starting as a mining specialist at the Kounrad-Balkhash construction site in the south-east, he gradually rose through the ranks and in the early 1940s began working for the government, later becoming leader of the Communist Party of the Republic.

In fact, Kunayev can be called the father of Kazakh industrialization, since he oversaw the creation of metallurgical and non-ferrous oil industries, as well as the construction of power plants, railways and many other modern enterprises and facilities, as well as entire cities.

During the reign of Kunayev, Kazakhstan focused on the production of raw materials and agricultural products and began to develop into one of the most important republics of the USSR, on a par with Russia and the Ukraine. Its capital has become one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities in the Union.

In 1971, Kunayev became the first Kazakh elected to the Politburo of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, the USSR’s highest ruling body.

But Kunayev was not an obedient “part” of the Soviet system and, from time to time, got into disputes and even conflicts with the central leadership. For example, due to his disagreements with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Kunayev was forced to temporarily step down as head of the republic in 1962, before returning in 1964.

It was under Kunayev that Nursultan Nazarbayev, who would later become the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, was promoted to the highest office. Nazarbayev continued the journey started by Kunayev, having inherited the potential the latter used to transform Kazakhstan.

Despite his services to the republic, the Kremlin decided to remove Kunayev from his post. Formally, it was because Kunayev had reached retirement age, but the reason was probably Kunayev’s disagreement with Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision for the Union.

Gorbachev, who introduced the phrase “era of stagnation”, blamed the leaders of the Union and the Union republics after Khrushchev, and their policies, for the backwardness of the USSR, and proclaimed the need for far-reaching reforms.

Party and economic leaders associated with “stagnation” began to lose their positions. Kunayev, who was closely associated with former leader Leonid Brezhnev, was replaced by someone deemed more loyal to the new system.

Kunayev was closely associated with former leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Kunayev was closely associated with former leader Leonid Brezhnev. ()

Kunayev’s dismissal did not go smoothly; he did not support the numerous accusations against Brezhnev, whom he had known well and with whom he worked closely. Indeed, the former head of the republic was placed under house arrest and deprived of all his privileges. Gorbachev even opened an investigation into his activities as first secretary of the Central Committee, which ultimately came to nothing.

Shortly before Kunayev’s dismissal, Moscow also replaced the head of the KGB in the republic, whose main task was to ensure the transfer of power to the newly appointed Kremlin.

Any protest against the Union’s actions was labeled as “Kazakh nationalism” and that is why instead of trying to understand or find a compromise with the protesters, the central government decided to use force. The inability of Gorbachev and his team to get feedback from their citizens ultimately fueled the discredit of the perestroika reforms and of Gorbachev himself.

As for Kunayev, he survived the USSR and died in 1993 in his hometown of Almaty. He did not fight to stay in power and did not try to use the 1986 protests to his advantage. Those close to him said that Kunayev most appreciated what he had achieved in life and loved his job very much.

On his last business card, instead of his numerous titles, he modestly wrote: “Dinmukhamed Akhmedovich Kunayev. Mining engineer.

A version of this article originally appeared in TRT Russian.

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