Who are the real Kazakhs? Even by the end of Joanna Lillis’s wide-ranging survey of Central Asia’s wealthiest dictatorship, it’s hard to tell. The livestock-breeding culture of the Kazakh Khanate, a successor to the Mongol Golden Horde, was driven into the ground after its annexation by Russia in the mid-19th century as a result of successive waves of immigration and the Soviet policy of bringing its sprawling herds under state control.
Among the first to arrive, following the abolition of serfdom in 1861, were 400,000 Russian peasants. They were followed by nearly two and a half million farmers from Ukraine and central Russia and then a tragic procession of Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Germans, Turks and Poles, forcibly relocated for suspected disloyalty to Stalin. An 85-year-old Tatar, originally from Crimea, recalled, ‘My mother ran up to me and said: “You may be taken to dark places.” … So she gave me two light bulbs.’ But in fact there was plenty of electricity in Kazakhstan, particularly in the north, as it was needed to drive the factories built there during Stalin’s industrial revolution and to light the Slavic enclaves that grew up around them.
By then, there weren’t many Kazakhs left. Over a million had fled collectivisation to China, Iran and Uzbekistan in the 1920s and two million more died in the famine that followed, roughly half the pre-famine population. At the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, non-Kazakhs outnumbered Kazakhs by three to two across the country. In first-wave settlement cities such as Ridder, 85 per cent of the population was Russian. This placed northern Kazakhstan second only to eastern Ukraine as a place of interest for post-Soviet Russia, particularly after 2001, when the full extent of the country’s oil and gas resources became clear. Soviet planners had known of the existence of this treasure for decades, but had resolved to save it for later.
One figure more than any other has linked the extended period of Russian colonisation with the bright lights of Central Asia’s first sheikhdom: Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan without interruption since it gained independence in 1991 until his surprise resignation last month. Although he portrayed himself as the ‘son, grandson and great-grandson of herders’, he owed his power to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he had been a high-ranking official. At no point did he appoint an official successor.
‘Kazakhstan is known for repressing opposition leaders,’ Lillis makes clear early on, ‘but not for shooting them in the back of the head in cold blood.’ On the evidence, that would appear to be true: Nazarbayev’s coldest rage was reserved for those in his household who betrayed his trust or stole what he considered rightfully his – similar to Putin’s attitude to renegade oligarchs. She focuses on two cases in particular: that of his former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, who died in suspicious circumstances in a Viennese prison in 2015 while awaiting trial for murder, and that of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a multibillion-dollar money launderer, whose alleged partners include a former mayor of Almaty, Viktor Khrapunov, and the convicted mobster Felix Sater, both of whom have links to Donald Trump’s real estate business and are being investigated by Robert Mueller.
Nazarbayev was undoubtedly popular. He transformed Kazakhstan into a middle-income country of high-rise follies and grandiose slogans. The money has yet to find its way to the countryside, but most Kazakhs live in towns, even as they dream of the grasslands. He preserved the national borders, despite the emigration of half its Russian-speakers, due, in part, to the prioritisation of the Kazakh language. He even, following the example of Atatürk, removed Kazakh from the Cyrillic family by ordering it to be written in Latin script (after 2025, Kazakhstan will read ‘Qazaqstan’). Yet the true identity of the Kazakhs rarely emerges in Dark Shadows, hidden as it is behind adopted patronymics, a fear of repeating the past and an Islam that dare not speak its name.
The single issue that did unite popular resistance to Nazarbayev’s regime was land rights. A plan to lease property to Chinese firms in 2016 sparked a year of protest and an uncharacteristic about-turn by his government. More systematic opposition tended to come from the Slavic minority and especially its independent press. One of the earliest victims of Nazarbayev’s language reforms was the newspaper Adam, a descendant of the legendary Respublika, which the government finally shut down in 2015 for failing to report in Kazakh as well as Russian. A neat solution to criticism this may have been, but it strongly suggests that the government was seeking to exploit Kazakhs’ resentment of their Russian-speaking co-citizens to the detriment of their shared best interests.
Lillis refreshes our knowledge of important events in Kazakhstan’s history, such as the evaporation of the Aral Sea and the establishment of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test facility, the operations of which condemned the surrounding population to radiation poisoning. She provides a vivid, interview-led report of Kazakhstan’s stunted human rights record. But she treads softly when it comes to ‘Kazakhgate’, an oil scandal in the 1990s with hints of CIA involvement, and adds little to our understanding of Kazakhstan’s tangled relations with China, into whose powerful orbit the country has swung as the Nazarbayev era concludes.
China is building the world’s largest dry port in Khorgos, in the eastern steppes, to funnel rail exports to Europe, a move that will make it Kazakhstan’s biggest overseas investor as well as largest oil buyer. Directly across the border from Khorgos lies Xinjiang, where up to one million Uighur Muslims have been incarcerated in what the UN calls a ‘prison state’ (Beijing has defended its policy towards them as a counterterrorism operation).
Nazabayev’s inner circle of ministers, along with the country’s oligarchs, are now manoeuvring to ensure that under his successor the good times will continue to roll, without stricter accounting. But many ordinary citizens, even as they honour the great herdsman’s work, will be worried about the future of the state he invented. Now may be the time when the Kazakhs finally stand up to be counted.