Posts tagged communist

Thoughts about China in the late 1980s

The following is a two part series, today and tomorrow. I had just come back from China and was enrolled in Dr. Robert Beck’s education class at the University of Minnesota on the Minneapolis campus.  I wrote this essay the winter of 1989. The Tiananmen Square incident was waiting to happen in the spring. I had two years of teaching in China and did not know what was going on under the surface for many of my university students as well as all throughout China.  See what you think might be similar or different from Kazakhstan and their teaching methodologies.

During my two years of teaching English in China, I learned a lot about my own teaching. Of course I had taken courses in college to learn “how” to teach as all good American teachers are taught to do.  However, when I went to China, it was not uncommon for American teachers to compare notes on “how” the Chinese teachers taught. So close yet to the years of the Cultural Revolution atrocities, these Chinese teachers had been programmed by the Communist party on “what” to teach. Many of the older teachers in my Foreign Language Department had taught Russian before. Now they had learned English as yet another foreign language and were expected to teach that. They were affectionately termed “Russian Retreads” by a fellow American teacher. I lived in Harbin, China which is close to Russia and had been pioneered and industrialized by the Russians less than 100 years ago. The White Russians who had fled from Russia after 1917 were very influential in Harbin.

My teaching experience in Harbin may be uncommon to most other parts of China in many ways, but the same Chinese method of teaching was used in all the classrooms. The following quote from one of my writing students last year will show that he noted a difference in methods of teaching. I do admit it is complimentary to me and that is why I copied it from his journal to mine. But I use his own words because the difference in teaching had not escaped him and I am sure he had not been taught that there was a difference in our methodologies.

“I feel happy and relaxed when we have foreign teacher’s class. I don’t know the reason; perhaps their method of teaching is success[ful]. I am used to the custom of Chinese; the total feeling is the serious, lack of humor. Maybe because of this, the young students lack an inventive ability. So I think we not only learn knowledge from foreign teachers but learn the bright and cheerful disposition.”

I will give a brief overview of the difference between the Chinese and American methodologies of teaching. First of all, instruction in the American classroom is student-centered. The teacher learns how to elicit thinking by asking the students questions and validating each response as a valuable contribution to the class. For the Chinese instructor, the me-centered responses and judgments made by the students are irrelevant. In China, education is teacher-centered and only the teacher has valid judgments. The teacher gives out pre-packaged information. According to John Dewey, supposedly the father of western education, he believed that teaching was a way of stimulating students to do their own thinking. The learners are encouraged to discover answers on their own after the teacher has facilitated in making the information available to them to process.

This was obvious to me after I would ask a series of questions about the material and have my Chinese students’ faces turned down, too afraid to respond. To try to get a discussion going was not easy, in fact, near impossible. They were so ready for me as the teacher to pour the information into their opened heads.

The second difference that I saw which goes along with my first point is that I would seek differing points of view only to get the prevailing party line. In China, the teacher has absolute authority, because in the States the teacher encourages a diversity of opinions. I would have my students give speeches on different subjects and soon I heard the same political statement over and over again. If I, as the American teacher, was not going to be the absolute authority, what came through in their speeches was pure, party doctrine. According to Clark Kerr and what he wrote in 1978, the Chinese government has taught them since they were in day care centers and kindergarten what to say and do.

The third view that I saw prevalent in the classroom which was different from what I was accustomed to was that any given body of knowledge is finite. The Chinese have had thousands of years’ experience holding to a very rigid and narrow scheme of scholasticism, according to Ho Yen Sun in a book printed in 1913.  The mark of the best educated man in China was the one who knew the classics inside and out. It was not theirs to question or analyze by practical application, but this finite body of knowledge was there to memorize. Memorize they did, the Chinese have memorized their culture.

My suspicion is that this memory of the classics dates back to 231-201 B.C. when Mencius and his philosophy had many schools of thought contending for power. It was when Emperor Shi Hwang Ti ordered that all the ancient books be burned, including those of Confucius, that the existing system of education was ended.  Supposedly this tyrannical ruler had also ordered 460 scholars be burned alive along with their books.

When Emperor Kao-Ti came into power during the Han dynasty, he realized the importance of education. As a reversal to the earlier order, he called for a search of the lost writings. Old scholars were prevailed upon to remember, old walls were razed to find old books concealed in them, according to Ho Yen Sun. Perhaps this can explain the source of how the textbook became so revered by the Chinese. It continues to be the central focus in the classroom setting.

In my teaching experience, I was assigned a textbook to teach from in my writing class. There were chapters that I chose and printed up in a syllabus. Knowing that skipping around in the textbook was going against the sensibilities of my Chinese students, I kept reminding them that we did not have time to cover all the points in the book, we were just going to hit the high points. I did not hear any objections directed to me about this but I did feel guilty because I knew of the importance of the WHOLE textbook.

The passion to learn the entire book according to the Chinese system results in some problems where the students amass a great deal of book knowledge but then they are not able to analyze and tackle problems. Practical application is what I kept driving home to my writing students; no amount of memorizing was going to help them to be better writers. I wanted them to keep writing in their journals so I could find out where they were. Learning everything by rote also inhibits the students from being creative. That is a necessary attribute when applying researching skills in the new areas of science and technology, according to Gu Mingyuan.”

(to be continued)

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“The Big Red Schoolhouse” (Part IV)

The last of a four part series that I have enjoyed showing my reading audience simply because all the writing was already done for me by Irving R. Levine who died at age 86 last year.  He was well known as an NBC news reporter but much earlier in his career he had been in Russia back in the 1950s.  He was suspected of being a spy yet he did his job well as a journalist, not an agent. I appreciate his words documented in the book “Main Street USSR” because it applies to my setting in Astana, Kazakhstan.  See what you think of this last installment, I welcome comments by those of you who are teaching or have taught in Central Asia before in whatever capacity.

“Specialized training at an institute is one of the few roads to success in Russia. There are few other steps by which a young man or woman can climb the economic and prestige ladder. Unlike capitalistic countries, a young man with natural acumen does not have an opportunity to start a business on a shoestring and build it by effort and talent to a large chain of stores. A boy just out of secondary school cannot count on being taken into his father’s successful enterprise because father in Russia owns no enterprise. Membership in the Communist Party, itself the main portal to success in Russia, is open largely to those who have some special talent or skill to offer the state. Thus the number of applicants each year for the Soviet version of college far exceeds the space available, and competition is keen.

There are other reasons, too, for the crash of applicants. Family financial standing plays no role in the decision to continue education. It is not a question of being able to afford it. Tuition now is free. Also, the fact that good marks and scholarship are encouraged from childhood contributes to stimulating interest in higher education among youngsters. The smart boy or girl is seldom the butt of teasing as a teacher’s pet. There is no aversion to “eggheads’* at any age in Russia. Unlike American schools, where the star athlete is likely to be campus hero, students in Soviet institutes have less diversion of this sort. There are teams, but no program of intensely competitive contests among schools with cheerleaders and pre-game bonfires. School, whether grade school, high school, or college, is intended for study, and the emphasis is on high marks in the classroom rather than on a high score on the football field. Even so, occasionally there is newspaper criticism of over-emphasis of sports in some schools.

There is, nonetheless, a perennial problem of rearing Soviet youngsters in the mold of discipline and devotion to Communist aspirations sought by Kremlin authorities. There are frequent cases of student  misconduct, teen-age indolence, and outright hooliganism. Out-of-school influences are usually blamed by the authorities. For example, it is in the home that youngsters are taught religion; this influence is so great that in some villages, despite classroom instruction in atheism, the entire student body stays away from school on minor religious holidays. The decision was made to keep youngsters in school more, under proper Communist influence, and away from the home, the church, and the street. Boarding schools were introduced in 1956, and the plan, as sufficient school space becomes available, is eventually to make boarding schools universal where youngsters will sleep, returning home only on Sundays.

The beginning was modest; 285 boarding schools were opened in 1956, and the number is growing slowly. At first, in order to evoke as little parental resentment as possible, pupils were taken from orphanages, from broken homes, and from poor parents with large families.

The preference given to former workers and soldiers is in itself intended to encourage a serious attitude in student bodies. Infringements of student discipline during the early days of de-Stalinization gave fresh impetus to the program of encouraging would-be students to go to work first. So did the leading roles played by students in the October events in Hungary and Poland in 1956. It was felt by the Kremlin leadership that a person who had served three years in an army unit or two years plowing dry Siberian soil would better appreciate the opportunity offered by education to improve his station in life and would more willingly bend to ideological discipline.

Cases of breach of discipline were many, but in terms of student exuberance in other countries, the transgressions of Soviet students might seem mild indeed. Yet, seen in the Soviet context, they might well give rise to alarm in the leadership. There were instances of previously docile lecture groups in dialectic materialism, for example, being disrupted by brash students plying the instructor with questions intended to undermine Communist theses. There was a report of a Komsomol group at a Moscow institute refusing to elect a chairman presented on a single-name slate by the group’s governing committee.

There was the case of an unpopular Komsomol chairman being suspended out of a fourteenth-story window of the Moscow University skyscraper by a rope around his waist. Elsewhere this might pass as normal spring-fever conduct; in Moscow it is scandalous. There were persistent reports of expulsions.

Branches of student discipline were recorded in the pages of Dawn of the East newspaper in Tbilisi. An article on March 24, 1956, shortly after street disorders in which students played a prominent role, re- ported:

“At many meetings and conferences they often tell of students showing a lack of discipline, often cutting classes. The figures from September 1 until December 31 show that 94,083 man hours have been skipped without any excuses, among them in Marxism-Leninism (2682 man hours), in dialectic materialism (2231 man hours), and in political economics (1665 man hours).

“Sometimes lectures are skipped by whole groups, who instead go for a collective review of a new movie, leaving the teacher to lecture to a virtually empty auditorium. Especially “organized’ in this way are groups in the West European language and literature faculties. Unfortunately their record is closely followed by students in the faculty of physics. In the history faculty, A. Mkheidze and M. Dzimestarhishveli were so rarely seen at lectures that their fellow students could not have recognized them. Almost half of the students cut seminars in dialectical materialism. It sometimes happens that only one or two students from an entire group are present, and once the whole fifth group of the fourth year of the philological faculty cut their seminars.”

The paper told of expulsion of students for violating public order. “Can it be tolerated,” asked Dawn of the East, “that in 1955, for instance, there were 176 cases registered of students breaking rules of socialist order, and the 41 students were detained by the militia for a total of two and a half months?

“Some old prejudices of the area are recreated and some young people, such as a student in the geographic-geological faculty, N. Moudiry, revived the old custom of a runaway marriage. He sneaked away with a girl student from the biological faculty.”

Other cases of misconduct cited were less in the virile mountaineer tradition of this Caucasus region but equally reprehensible to the authorities, such as the student who beat up a taxi driver after a drunken spree and then struck a policeman who arrested him.

There are quips about students who misbehave or do poorly in classes. A Russian friend shook her head disapprovingly as she told about a neighbor’s none-too-bright child who was getting bad marks. “Well,” she shrugged, “maybe he’ll be able to get a job in the weather bureau if nowhere else.”

This rather light-hearted attitude is not shared by Soviet officialdom. Every opportunity is taken in publications, speeches, and edicts to impress upon young people the need for a serious attitude in studies and also in free-time pursuits. This may partly explain why Soviet youngsters spend so many free hours poring over chessboards instead of chatting on the telephone. The Soviet attitude of earnestness, seen in recreation as well as in study, has its roots in the Soviet classroom.”

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Grandmothers in “The Whisperers” (Part III)

The following quotes show how far I’ve gotten in this book by Orlando Figes titled “The Whisperers.”  I need to carve out some time to finish it but there is no time right now, too much to do in our new city of Astana.  I’m finding out what a wonderful place this new place is compared to Almaty, Kazakshtan.  I already know that the Kazakhs are amazing people, their grandparents are/were even more incredible because of what they went through under the Soviet system.

p. 44 Grandmothers were also the main practitioners and guardians of religious faith.

p. 50 The peasantry’s attachment to individual family labor on the private household farm made it the last major bastion of individualism in Soviet Russia and in the view of the Bolsheviks, the main social obstacle to their Communist utopia.

p. 53 “God is in the sky and father in the house.” Meaning of a saying about a patriarchal family, the father is the head of the house.

p. 56 Polar explorers were portrayed as heroes in Soviet books and films, and during the 1920s, the Soviet government invested a large share of its scientific budget in geological surveys of potential mining operations in the Arctic zone.

p. 59 check out Dmitry Furmanov’s Chapaev ( 1925) a Soviet classic ready by every schoolchild.

p. 68 Moscow’s Jewish population grew from 15,000 in 1914 to a quarter of a million 25,000 (the cities second largest ethnic group) in 1937.  The Jews flourished in the Soviet Union.  They made up a large proportion of the elite in the Party, the bureaucracy the military command and the police.  Judging from the memoirs of the period, there was relatively little anti-Semitism or discrimination…

“We did not want to think of ourselves as Jews nor did we want to be Russians though we lived in Russia and were steeped in its culture.  We thought of ourselves as Soviet Citizens.”

p. 81 “Collectivization was the great turning point in Soviet history.  It destroyed a way of life that had developed over many centuries – a life based on the family farm, the ancient peasant commune, the independent village and its church and the rural market, all of which were seen by the Bolsheviks as obstacles to socialist industrialization.  Millions of people were uprooted from their homes and dispersed across the Soviet Union: runaways from collective farms, victims of the famine the resulted from the over-requisitioning of kolkhoz grain; orphaned children, ‘kulaks’ and their family.  This nomadic population became the main labor force of Stalin’s industrial revolution, filling the cities and industrial building sites

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“The Whisperers” (Part II)

Here’s a continuation of yesterday’s blog about Orlando Figes’ book titled “The Whisperers.”  I love some of his quotes because whatever he uncovered from his research about Russian families is even more true about Kazakh families.

p. 1 “In these circles, where every Bolshevik was expected to subordinate his personal interests to the common cause, it was considered ‘philistine’ to think about one’s personal life at a time when the Party was engaged in the decisive struggle for the liberation of humanity.”

p. 3-4 “In their utopian vision the revolutionary activist was the prototype of a new kind of human being – a ‘collective personality’ living only for the common good – who would populate the future Communist society.”

p. 4 “According to the Bolsheviks, the idea of ‘private life’ as separate from the realm of politics was nonsensical, for politics affected everything; there was nothing in a person’s so-call ‘private life’ that was not political. The personal sphere should thus be subject to public supervision and control.”

p. 8 “As the Bolsheviks saw it, the family was the biggest obstacle to the socialization of children.  ‘By loving a child, the family turns him into a egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe.’ Wrote the Soviet educational thinker Zlata Lilina.

p. 14-15 The Bolshevik idealists of the 1920s made a cult of this Spartan way of life.  They inherited a strong element of asceticism from the revolutionary underground, the source of their values and their principles in the early years of the Soviet regime.  The rejection of material possessions was central to the culture and ideology of the Russian socialist intelligentsia…in the Bolshevik aesthetic it was philistine to lavish attention on the decoration of one’s home.”

p. 20 “…to inculcate in them the public values of a Communist society. ‘The young person should be taught to think in terms of “we” and all private interests should be left behind.” Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Education, 1918

Political indoctrination was geared towards producing activists.  The propaganda image of the ideal child was a precocious political orator mouthing agitprop.

p. 22 “A pioneer of Soviet pedagogical theories and a close associate of Krupskaia in her educational work…her theories were derived largely from the ideas of Pyotr Lesgaft.

p. 24 schoolfriend’s comradeship – “we had no need for calculated strategies or conspiracies, we lived according to an unwritten code: the only thing that mattered was loyalty to our comrades.

p. 25 oath learned by heart “I, a Young Pioneer of the Soviet Union, before my comrades do solemnly swear to be true to the precepts of Lenin, to stand firmly for the cause of our Communist Party and for the cause of Communism.”

p. 27 “According to the psychologist and educational theorist A.B. Zalkind, the Party’s leading spokesman on the social conditioning of the personality, the aim of the Pioneer movement was to train ‘revolutionary-Communist fighters fully freed from the class poisons of bourgeois ideology.”

Subbotniki = voluntary work which was really Saturday labor campaigns, not just days but weeks were set aside when the population would be called upon to work without pay.

p. 29 “Members of the Komsomol were supposed to put their loyalty to the Revolution above their loyalty to the family…it provided volunteers for Party work as well as spies and informers ready to denounce corruption and abuse….members were charged with exposing ‘class enemies’ among parents and teachers and as if in training for the job, took part in mock trials of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in schools and colleges.

p. 30 ‘abolish individualism’ in moral terms too, they were absolutists, struggling to break free of the old conventions…Those who showed off or complained were called rotten intellectuals. “Rotten intellectuals’ was one of the most insulting labels.  Only “self-seeker” was worse.”

p. 32 However, the children of Party members had a well-developed sense of entitlement.

p. 33 “Whatever the case, Communist morality left no room for the Western notion of the conscience as a private dialogue with the inner self.  The Russian word for “conscience” in this sense (sovest) almost disappeared from official use after 1917.  It was replaced by the word soznatel’nost’ which carries the idea of consciousness or the capacity to reach a higher moral judgement and understanding of the world.  In Bolshevik discourse soznatel’nost’ signified the attainment of a higher moral-revolutionary logic, that is, Marxist-Leninist ideology.

p. 37 “Everything in the Party member’s private life was social and political; everything he did had a direct impact on the Party’s interests…Yet in reality this mutual surveillance did just the opposite: it encouraged people to present themselves as conforming to Soviet ideals whilst concealing their true selves in a secret private sphere.  Such dissimulation would become widespread in the Soviet system, which demanded the display of loyalty and punished the expression of dissent.  During the terror of the 1930s, when secrecy and deception became necessary survival strategies for almost everyone in the Soviet Union, a whole new type of personality and society arose. But this double-life was already a reality for large sections of the population in the 1920s

p. 41 “For the older generation the situation posed a moral dilemma; on the one hand, they wanted to pass down family traditions and beliefs to their children; on the other, they had to bring them up as Soviet citizens.”

In the words of the poet Vladimir Kornilov “it seemed that in our years there were no mothers, There were only grandmothers.

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Quotes from Preface to “The Whisperers”

I haven’t finished reading yet The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes but I have really enjoyed reading the first third of this very detailed book describing the brokenness in many Russian families.  However, this is about Russia and the author is a Russophile to the exclusion of other countries and cultures who suffered as much, if not more, than the Russians did during Stalin’s reign of terror. [My own comments are in brackets, I can’t help myself!!!]

Preface 31 “A silent and conformist population is one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign. [wow, how’s that for leaving a legacy of brokenness?]

Pre 32 “Historians have been slow to enter the inner world of Stalin’s Russia.  Until recently, their research was concerned mostly with the public sphere, with politics and ideology and with the collective experience of the “soviet masses.”  The individual – in so far as he appeared at all – featured mainly as a letter-writer to the authorities (i.e. as a public actor rather than as a private person or family member).  The private sphere of ordinary people was largely hidden from view. [the same might be written about the culture of Kazakhstan where writing was not as important as telling stories orally, they DO have stories, just not in the written form!!!]

Pre 33 “But while these memoirs speak a truth for many people who survived the Terror, particularly for the intelligentsia strongly committed to ideals of freedom and individualism, they do not speak for the millions of ordinary people, including many victims of the Stalinist regime, who did not share this inner freedom or feeling of dissent, but on the contrary, silently accepted and internalized the system’s basic values, conformed to its public rules and perhaps collaborated in the perpetration of its crimes.” [I suppose there are Kazakhs who did conform and even perpetrated some of the Soviet crimes among their own people…I have heard stories]

Pre 34 “According to some, it was practically impossible for the individual to think or feel outside the terms defined by the public discourse of Soviet politics, and any other thoughts or emotions were likely to be felt as a ‘crisis of the self’ demanding to be purged from the personality.”

“The Soviet mentalities reflected in this book in most cases occupied a region of the consciousness where older values and beliefs had been suspended or suppressed; they were adopted by people, not so much from a burning desire to ‘become Soviet’ as from a sense of shame and fear.” [using fear is a terrible motivation to change, can still be used in teaching practices today]

Pre 35 “…a way to make sense of their suffering, which without this higher purpose might reduce them to despair…

Such mentalities are less often reflected in Stalin-era diaries and letters – whose content was generally dictated by Soviet rules of writing and propriety what did not allow the acknowledgement of fear – than they are in oral history.  Historians of the Stalinist regime have turned increasing to the techniques of oral history. Like any other discipline that is hostage to the tricks of memory, oral history has its methodological difficulties, and in Russia, a nation taught to whisper, where the memory of Soviet history is overlaid with myths and ideologies, these problems are especially acute.” [sad but true]

Having lived in a society where millions were arrested for speaking inadvertently to informers, many older people are extremely wary of talking to researchers wielding microphones (devices associated with the KGB).  From fear or shame or stoicism, these survivors have suppressed their painful memories.  Many are unable to reflect about their lives, because they have grown so accustomed to avoiding awkward questions about anything, not least their own moral choices at defining moments of their personal advancement in the Soviet system.  Others are reluctant to admit to actions of which they are ashamed, often justifying their behaviour by citing motives and beliefs that they have imposed on their pasts.  Despite these challenges, and in many ways because of them, oral history has enormous benefits for the historian of private life, provided it is handled properly. [Yes, let’s hear it for oral history and qualitative research!!!]

Pre 36 “For three quarters of a century the Soviet system exerted its influence on the moral sphere of the family, no other totalitarian system had such a profound impact on the private lives of its subjects, not even Communist China. [wow, that’s pretty bad!!!]

Check out http://www.orlandofiges.com

Pre 37 “The population of the Gulag’s labour camps and ‘special settlements’ peaked not in 1938 but in 1953 and the impact of this long reign of terror continued to be felt by millions of people for many decades after Stalin’s death.” [that’s a LOT of people who were affected by Stalin and his regime of terror, even after his death!]

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Xeniya’s Grandfather had “too many friends”

My grandfather from mother’s side was named Vladimir Onishenko, he was born in 1935 in Semipalatinsk (East Kazakhstan) in family of officer Grigoriy and housewife Mariya. His father was Ukrainian, mother was Jewish.

I know interesting fact about my grandfather’s and his sisters’ life – they sewed mittens then sent them to Soviet soldiers while Second World War. His profession was vet, he graduated from Vet Institute. He was one of the first leavers of this Institute. Also he met with my grandmother in Institute. Her name was Liliya. After graduation he studied selection of cattle. He liked animals a lot, he saved the life of roebuck, an animal hurt by a poacher. He had The Rank of Candidate of Zoological Science, The Medal of Lenin. because he was a communist. Therefore he worked as a head of local administration is State of Semipalatinsk.

By the time he had two children – my mother and uncle. Due to his work they moved from village to village. My grandfather had the hobbies such as fishing, hunting and cars. He spent much time in a forests, lakes, rivers etc. He loved his 4 grandchildren – one boy and three girls. It’s a pity that he died. It was in 1995 and at that time I was only 5 years old.

My grandfather was much respected because he was very simple person. He could help everyone and did it. He had too many friends. They often went to parties, fishing, hiking and they loved played card games. He was kind, clever and smart. I remember how he told me very interesting fairytales. He loved my grandmother very much. She worked with him, helped and supported. They respected each other.

In conclusion, it’s clear to say that I love my grandparents from two sides. Each of them is an example of wisdom, kindness and honour. They will be always in my heart and memory.

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Taking Exception to Kazakhstan being a “Dumping Ground”

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.[1] 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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