Writing about Kazakhstan’s history is a highly complex one, no wonder I was having trouble writing my paper for an upcoming TESOL conference in Denver, Colorado. After I had a long talk with a fellow American expat who has lived in Almaty for 16 years, I was able to create a handout with three graphic tables showing Kazakhstan’s different eras. Once done, I made swift progress with my paper titled “Kazakhstan’s Orality vs. Infoliteracy: What’s a Teacher to Do?”
Yesterday afternoon I had talked to a Kazakh man who teaches Kazakhstan’s history at our university and I showed him my one page handout. He said that only because I’m an American could I get away with stating what they all know to be true. I think I fulfill a purpose at our university in finding out from the oral histories of people in Kazakhstan, not just for Kazakhs but for Koreans, Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, Uyghurs, etc. For the most part, the Kazakhs are known as a very peaceable people but with very clear memories still of what happened in their own families and country. I, as the American, can be neutral when finding out as a curious outsider, what actually happened during the 70 year era of the Soviet Union. Any information about the inner workings of this totalitarian state formerly known as the U.S.S.R. had been purposely blocked. Still is, not much is written in our American history textbooks and they are mostly all positive and glowing about the former socialist state.
Last night I stayed longer at the office than I had intended but it was meant to be since I got negative feedback from a Russian colleague friend of mine about my one page handout. I simply showed her the three figures and she immediately took exception with Kazakhstan being known as the Soviet Union‘s “dumping ground.” She loudly disagreed with me on that term. I said that I have to give my American audience in Denver some kind of quick, historical background before I can really talk about “infoliteracy.” She said that I was very biased. She also stated that it means that if her mother came down from Russia that I’m saying that her mother was “garbage!!!”
NO, what I meant was that there were many nationalities (Korean, German, Ukrainian, etc.) who were dumped off of railroad cars in the middle of nowhere in Kazakhstan. Often the oral testimonies I’ve heard is that the Kazakh people helped these exiled people find food and shelter. My friend kept shaking her head and arguing with me. She said that we as Americans used to be called a “melting pot” but now better known as a “salad bowl.” Yes, those are much nicer terms than “dumping ground.” I’m wondering what term she would use instead to help explain the throwing together of about 120 different nationalities in Kazakhstan??? Apparently, Stalin wrote a book in Russian titled “The Nationalities Question” or something like that. Supposedly Stalin had his own agenda about mixing things up.
However, I am trying to put myself in my Russian friend’s shoes with how she feels. And she DOES FEEL strongly about this issue. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in the Karaganda penal system as a political prisoner and perhaps he was the first to coin the phrase that Kazakhstan was the USSR’s “dumping ground” in his famous book “One Day in the Life of…” Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist, through and through. But for my friend, Kazakhstan is where she was born as a kind of Russian “immigrant” and her Russian parents had jobs here in Almaty with the communist party.
If one does a quick google search, there are other authors who write using the word “dumping ground” and Kazakhstan together. True, there were many other different “dumping grounds” that Stalin used such as Siberia, it was not just Kazakhstan. Yet the network of gulags encompassed about one third the land mass of Kazakhstan, so that’s a LOT of prisoners from other former republics of the USSR to keep behind barbed wire.
In the very well built up memorial at ALZHIR about 20 kilometers outside of Kazakhstan’s capital in Astana, you can watch a video at the end of your tour of the three tiered building. In this video, President Nazarbayev states his purpose in putting money into this memorial in order to remember these sad facts of Kazakhstan’s Soviet history. In so many words he says, “It is not Kazakhstan’s fault that it was used as a ‘dumping ground’ for the USSR.” He further stated that too often Kazakhstan is blamed for housing all the political prisoners, however, the Kazakhs had no say in what was happening on their own soil. The directives came from Moscow and the politically elite.
From a historical point of view, many Russians and Ukrainians came voluntarily to Kazakhstan to open virgin farming land (there is some good land) during the Czarist period. Particularly at end of 19th and early 20th century during the Stolypin land reforms, which might be vaguely analogous to the US Homestead Act. It gave peasants and small farmers the right to own land. Unfortunately, I don’t think my friend’s parents came down for the farming that failed on Kazakhstan’s soil. No, apparently my friend’s mother taught history as a school teacher during the Soviet era. My guess is that she promoted whatever was in the Soviet approved textbooks that were published in Moscow. That would certainly have the Russian bias to it and thus NOT the Kazakhs take on history. No wonder my friend takes extreme exception to my using the term “dumping ground” when referring to Kazakhstan.
Earlier yesterday I had been talking to an Australian friend of mine who has had similar encounters with Russians who were born in Kazakhstan and who have this strange “derangement disorder” of not confessing to the sordid side of their communist past. The Kazakh man who currently teaches his own Kazakh history is right, he could never say what I had put in my handout. I’m beginning to wonder how Kazakhstan’s history will ever get sorted out with the pressures from the Soviet past still looming large. I’m sorry that my friend thinks I’m biased but sadly she does not see herself having her own biases. Anyway, we have to agree that we disagree on issues relating to USSR history and Kazakhstan.
What I found with a quick google search:
Stalin’s Dumping Ground, By Jeri Laber
As representatives of Helsinki Watch, a colleague and I traveled southeast in the Soviet Union, almost to the Chinese border, to visit the vast and little-known Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where serious abuses of human rights have occurred, not just in recent years but also in the past. Kazakhstan‘s steppelands were among Stalin’s favored sites for labor camps and exile communities, and we had been told, accurately as it turned out, that the region would reveal the scars of the Stalin years more vividly perhaps than any other Soviet republic.