Reforms, ruptures, and revolutions in Kazakhstan

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 334


Please note that there is a break from 12 pm - 1.30 pm.


This panel explores the political and social history of the Kazakh encounter with the Russian Empire and the Russian Revolution. In the nineteenth century and during the Soviet period, Kazakhstan became the target of various schemes for economic and social improvement. The discourse on centre-periphery relationships in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union often favours a Russo-centric view. This panel provides insight from the perspective of pre- and post-revolutionary Kazakhstan.

Before and after the 1917 revolution, administrative and social changes in the Kazakh steppe led to structural changes in Kazakh nomadic organization. Traditional political and social patterns in Kazakh nomadic society and the Khans’ power were destroyed or deeply altered, but new bureaucratic estates were created, including Kazakh nobles who joined the Russian Table of Ranks and served the Russian Empire, and decades later, Kazakh Soviet officials who carried out revolutionary cultural policies and indigenization drives.

The Kazakh steppe faced 1917 with a strongly divided social consciousness. Our papers discuss how the Kazakh nobility and imperial officials reacted to the events of February and October, and how this fits into the history of the many other people of the Russian Empire who were confronted with revolution. In the 1920s, Soviet ethnic policy created many new structures and led to the recruitment of a new group of Kazakh Soviet officials, a kind of Kazakh Soviet ethnocracy made up of people who had shown solidarity (at least formally) with the Bolshevik program. A gradual replacement of members of the lower classes took place and indigenization policies were favored but simultaneously the Bolsheviks kept sending leaders from the centre, as well, which led to conflict and competition between the center, the so-called “Europeans,” and different groups among the Kazakh elites.

The revolution was preceded and followed by tragedies. Despite this, our presentations focus not directly on the ruptures but on the aftermath – one of them the Virgin Lands Campaign that started in Kazakhstan in 1954. Innocuously named, this project involved ploughing up nearly 40 million hectares of steppes.

We draw attention to both the transnational and inter-ethnic aspects of the campaign. It was not purely “Russian.” Our research shows that tens of thousands of Kazakh and Russian migrants from China were involved in the campaign. The steppes had become one of the central areas of the Gulag, and they encountered former prisoners, German, Polish and Chechen exiles sent there by Stalin. Our research also shows that many of the Kazakh herders who had been starved and chased away during the famine came back during the Virgin Lands campaign and settled in kolkhozes and sovkhozes. A nearly forgotten aspect of the campaign is the role played by foreign models of dry farming in the development of steppe agriculture in the 1950s-1970s. After 1955, Kazakhstani agronomists flew to Canada to learn from their Dust Bowl experience and invent their own dry farming model.

The Virgin Lands campaign represented a reform that followed deep ruptures (famine, war, Gulag) and it brought massive resources to the north of the republic. The panel illustrates how the project became more Kazakh, even if that was not advertised, and how it helped generate a successful Kazakh version of internationalism.


Gulmira Sultangalieva (Al-Farabi Kazakh National University Almaty)

Aliya Tonkobayeva (Jacobs University Bremen)


Lisa Hellmann (Free University Berlin)


Gulmira Sultangalieva (Al-Farabi Kazakh National University Almaty)

Tenlik Dalayeva (Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University Almaty)

Dina Amanzholova (Russian Academy of Sciences)

Alima Bissenova (Nazarbayev University Astana)

Aliya Tonkobayeva (Jacobs University Bremen)

Marc Elie (Centre d'études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre européen Paris)



Gulmira Sultangalieva: The Kazakh nobility of the Russian Empire before and during 1917

The Russian authorities on the territory of the Kazakh Steppe in the first half of the nineteenth century conducted reforms that began a process of destruction of traditional social and political structures of the Kazakh nomadic society. The Khan's power was eliminated and new caste groups were created, in particular Kazakh officials and Kazakh nobility. 

 The basis and mechanism of inclusion of the Kazakh elite into the Table of Ranks and the Russian nobility was service of Kazakhs in the system of local and border control.  Kazakh sultans who obtained positions received ranks ranging from Major Colonel to Major General, and from Court Counselor to Titular Counselor), as well as ranks of the Russian Order (St. Anne's, St. Stanislaus, St. Vladimir, First to Third Degrees). This gave them the right to enter the Russian nobility. Sultans who served at the rank of Senior Sultan for a three-year period had the right to apply to enter into the hereditary ranks of the Russian nobility.

On the basis of new documents that I have discovered in the central state archives of Kazakhstan and Russia, I have undertaken an analysis of the mechanism of inclusion of the Kazakh elite representatives into the Russian nobility, their status in the Kazakh nomadic society, and how this affected the definition of dynasties. My paper identifies two stages in the process of formation of Kazakh officialdom. The first stage during the nineteenth century was driven by administrative policy of the Russian authorities, and the second phase after the beginning of the twentieth century reflects the concerns of the lineages of the Kazakh nobility of the Empire. My paper also discusses how the Kazakh nobility of the Russian Empire reacted to the two 1917 revolutions and the events of February and October of that year.

Tenlik Dalayeva: Kazakh volost’ sultans as officials of the Russian Empire: Issues of adaptation and erosion

In the Russian Empire one of the directions of the administrative policy in the nineteenth century was rooted in the need for convergence of administrative structure of the central part of the country and its distant areas. The tactics of the Russian administration in the Kazakh steppe as a whole were based on undermining the foundations of the zhuzes (hordes) and tribal consciousness of the Kazakh people. The Russian Empire used the traditional structures, such as the division into clans, tribes and zhuzes (hordes) to separate and oppose them to each other.

Russian policy made sure that sultans, beys and tribal elders took part in the imperial service, treating them as mediators between the Kazakh population and the Russian authorities. The influence of volost’ sultans depended on the support of the Kazakh tribal groups. Beys and elders, as representatives of the tribal aristocracy, were competitors to volost’ sultans in managing the Kazakhs.

In order to show the process of recruitment and adaptation of volost’ sultans to the Russian service my paper investigates 1) the mechanism of involving of volost’ sultans and tribal leaders in the service of the Russian Empire; 2) the formation of the Kazakh officials as a new social class in the Kazakh steppe; 3) the status and responsibilities  of  the  volost’ rulers, their social background, the degree of dependence of the Kazakh volost’ rulers on the Russian administration and the degree of autonomy in administering the Kazakh population at the local level.

The paper is based on materials of the Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It also addresses how this Kazakh situation fits into the history of many other people of the Russian Empire and what happened after the October Revolution of 1917. The Kazakh steppe faced 1917 with a strongly divided social consciousness and political institutions that still essentially remained traditional.

Dina Amanzholova: Between two empires: Issues of transitional power and control in the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialistic Republic, 1920-1936

Soviet ethnic policy created fundamentally new structures of power and administration. Political power in newly created Soviet national republics was supposed to be implemented not just by workers and peasants, but also by representatives of the titular ethnic group, who received a political identity. Among the workers of the Kazakh ASSR, formed in October 1920, Kazakhs constituted a very small proportion. It was difficult to differentiate in the nomadic social structure the poor peasants (the rural proletariat), and there was a shortage of literate people. About 100 Kazakhs had higher and incomplete higher education and about 700 graduated from secondary and secondary special educational institutions at the beginning of the XX century. 

The Soviet system consisted of party bodies, soviets headed by the executive committees, economic structures, and social organizations. These structures were created top-down from region to township and to the aul – the Kazakh village - and had to be filled with personnel. The Bolsheviks sought to provide a minimum of professionalism and at the same time secure the prevalence of representatives of the titular ethnic group.

A Kazakh Soviet ethnocracy was recruited from representatives of different social groups who had shown solidarity with the formal provisions of the program of the ruling party. The Bolsheviks were forced to involve the representatives of former imperial governance structures, most numerous at the grassroots level. The gradual replacement of members of the lower classes – carriers of the class (social) justice - was carried out in the framework of indigenization policy and the cultural revolution. Simultaneously figures were sent from the center to the institutions of power in the KazASSR. My paper shows how the formation of the KazASSR bureaucracy was accompanied by contradictions between the center, the so-called "Europeans", and representatives of the national staff. My research also investigates competition and rivalry in the Kazakh leadership, a "grouping struggle" that spread from the country’s center to regional and local government authorities.

Alima Bissenova: ‘Songy Kosh’ (The Last Migration): Mass Sino-Soviet migration of Kazakhs from 1955 to 1962

After the conclusion of Sino-Soviet Friendship treaty in 1950, the republican-level authorities in Kazakhstan immediately sought to use the changed political situation to re-establish relations with their brethren across the border and to bring some of the Kazakh population that fled collectivization back to Kazakhstan. Up to a point, central authorities in Moscow also supported these plans. They saw in this an opportunity to increase Soviet influence and to spread Soviet propaganda in the adjacent regions in China. Several members of the Chinese-Soviet friendship society visited Kazakhstan in 1953. Through the Xinjiang chapter of the Kazakh-Soviet society thousands of Kazakh books had been sent to Xinjiang, Kazakh periodicals had been transliterated into Arabic script for the Kazakh-Chinese population, and the publishing of Uighur newspapers in Almaty and Tashkent had been funded. All of this information had an effect on the Kazakh Chinese population that communism had almost been built and that life had improved significantly in the Soviet Union – in stark contrast to the deteriorating conditions at the time in China. At first, only Kazakhs with documents proving that they were born in the Soviet Union were given Soviet passports and allowed to come back. Then, dozens of thousands of Kazakhs “without passports” (passportsyz) also crossed the border haphazardly in 1962 -- the movement memorized in Kabdesh Zhumadilov’s novel as “songy kosh” (last migration). Despite republican-level authorities' efforts to give Kazakh returnees from China the same or similar status to that of pereselentsy-tselinniki (settlers coming to virgin lands), most of them did not get the same accommodation and privileges, because they were traditional livestock herders, not a skill that was needed on the tselina. 

Aliya Tonkobayeva: Internationalizing the steppe: The Virgin Lands Campaign from the local perspective

Soviet leaders did not plan to redesign of the lifestyle of Kazakh semi-nomads when they launched the Virgin Lands Campaign. Rural development itself was rather a means of achieving the Campaign’s targets of producing wheat for the entire Soviet Union. However, when numerous Slavic settlers arrived in the Eurasian steppes to implement the Party’s vision, the material and social life of former nomads changed dramatically as well. Although many subsequent adjustments of the native population to these changes were rather involuntary and unavoidable, this paper demonstrates that the Virgin Lands Campaign offered the native Kazakhs a new, alternative lifestyle and proved its viability.

In transition to the Soviet modus of rural life, Kazakhs – at community, family and individual levels - had to undergo many critical transformations of livelihood patterns, political and social orders, and environment.

Marc Elie: The Soviet dust bowl and the Canadian erosion experience in the Virgin Lands of Kazakhstan, 1950s–1960s

In the 1950s and 1960s, the steppe regions of the USSR went through a period of destructive dust storms similar in causation and massive scale to the North American ‘Dust Bowl’ of the 1930s. In the mid-1960s, the ‘Virgin Lands’ programme that the post-Stalin leadership had launched in 1954 to solve the country’s food problems virtually reached a point of failure. To overcome this environmental disaster, agronomists turned to the erosion experience of Canadian farmers. They lobbied the Soviet government to impose soil conservation measures similar to those employed in Canada’s prairies and to produce farm equipment modelled on Canadian prototypes. Virgin Lands settlers succeeded in limiting deflation and resuming farming, but at the price of entering a race with the soil’s decreasing ability to support them that would soon spark new ecological difficulties.

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