When Kazakhstan was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920, its people “remained illiterate and devoid of rights and had to bear the burden of Tsarist officials and their own feudal landowning aristocracy”. This according to a Kazakh Communist Party official during jubilee celebrations in 1945. The same official went further saying that “Soviet power lit up their [the Kazakh people] lives like a bright sun”.
The statements may sound propagandist, yet they were no ridiculous over-exaggeration. Soviet rule transformed Kazakh society in its early years, dragging the fiercely rural and still partially-nomadic people towards industrialisation and economic development. GDP rose 25% in its first twenty years and, after the devastation of WWII, surged again in the post-war era.
A vast country with a comparatively tiny population, the Soviets saw Kazakhstan as a potential “bread basket” for its larger cities. Collectivised agriculture on a massive scale was undertaken and was, on the whole, successful. Of course, this also necessitated population displacement, with rural communities from far-flung regions amalgamated into singular working groups in parts of the country foreign to many of them. Community and historic ties were severed. Additionally, cultural norms such as nomadic shepherding, were largely discontinued as they did not conform to the Soviet desire for efficiency.
A further byproduct of economic development was labour shortages, particularly during WWII when thousands of Kazakh workers were drafted into the Red Army. To make up for these shortfalls, workers were forcibly emigrated from Russia to Kazakhstan. After the war, the process continued until the Kazakhs were a minority in their own country.
This phenomenon has had important implications for present-day Kazakhstan, whose economic centres, Almaty and Astana, have grown rich from oil and mineral revenues. Without the Soviet investment in a sophisticated and efficient industrial base, Kazakhstan would probably not have the riches it has today. At the same time, the industrialisation process was carried out in such a way that native Russians secured the most prominent positions within the economic framework of Kazakhstan.
Herein lies the problem of the Soviet legacy in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs, as a general rule, enjoy an excellent standard of living for the region they live in. Yet they remain subordinated to Russian dominance, despite their nominally independent status.
Strongman president Nursultan Nazarbayev has sought to counter Russian dominance in his country by expanding ties with China and the West (he is friends with Tony Blair, for instance). However, given that ethnic Russians make up the majority of Kazakhstan’s population, breaking the country’s dependence on the Kremlin is virtually impossible.
The Soviets initiated a system, both economic and social, in which Russian life permeated a vast, historically disunited nation. As such, it is tempting to see Kazakhstan as an extension of Russia, something the Soviet system attempted to achieve in all its semi-autonomous republics.
Some Kazakh nationals may appreciate such a scenario whilst others, mainly urban dwellers, can perhaps at least be grateful to the Soviets for setting the country on the path of economic development. Yet whether the indigenous Kazakhs, many who remain banished to the rural extremes of the country, feel this way, is rather suspect.