The centenary of the Russian Revolution is rightly a major event in the global calendar this year. Tsar Nicholas II’s overthrow and the eventual emergence of the Soviet Union was a seismic event not just for Russia itself, but the entire world. The reverberations from this momentous episode continue to be felt around the globe a century later.
Kazakhstan is one of many countries in which the events set in St Petersburg (Petrograd at the time) a hundred years ago have had a huge impact. They have left a lasting impression on many aspects of our national life, the challenges we face and also our opportunities. An analysis of this legacy – both the positive and negative – will be part of the examination of what the Russian Revolution has meant for the world.
But one internationally lesser-known strand of this history is how the toppling of the old order provided the space for a re-awakening of Kazakh identity.
Following completion of Kazakhstan’s incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1865, the first class of Kazakh intellectuals who received professional training in modern universities (in Russia) emerged by the early 20th century.
Embroiled in the political upheaval boiling in the empire as early as 1905-1907, when Kazakhs elected their deputies to the first and second convocations of the State Duma, those intellectuals advocated their people’s right to live freely on their land and decide their own fate.
When the Tsarism was overthrown in February 1917, Kazakh leaders began organizing as delegated representatives by participating in the First All-Kazakh Congress, which convened July 16-21 in Orenburg. Among the outcomes was a decision in favour of institutionalizing efforts to defend Kazakh interest through a political party. The new party was named Alash, a legendary ancestor of the Kazakh people and thus their second name. As the situation became complicated with Bolsheviks coming to power later that year, the Second All-Kazakh Congress ruled to set up Alash Orda, a national autonomous government.
For almost two years Kazakhstan had its own government, which claimed control of an area broadly similar to our modern country – something which we were not formally to regain for 70 years.
The new polity was short-lived and was soon subsumed into Soviet Russia. But the decision to declare a national government and the support it received among the wider public revealed how Tsarist attempts to sweep away Kazakh culture and identity had failed. Even after decades of often harsh treatment, the Kazakh spirit was not broken.
We need to be careful, of course, of comparisons between this first fledgling Kazakh state and modern Kazakhstan. The environment in which the Alash Orda government operated was very different, as was its freedom of action. Civil war was raging through the old Russian Empire during this period, with Kazakh territory under the influence of anti-Bolshevik forces who put limits on what could be done.
Yet many of the decisions that needed to be taken and the solutions reached when the First All-Kazakh Congress met a hundred years ago this month have surprising resonance today. The congress and Alash Party which emerged from it had to decide the direction of the country they hoped to establish.
The land of Kazakhstan was already home to people of many different backgrounds and nationalities. An emphasis was put on equal treatment to encourage harmony and building a secular state with religious freedom and tolerance. The Alash programme made clear that “religion should be separated from the state” and went on to add that every religion “should be free and equal.” They are principles that remain central to our country today.
So, too, is the importance given to education and to preserving and promoting the Kazakh language. The new state insisted that all schools – whether they were religious-based or set up originally by the Russian administration – would teach Kazakh. It was seen as key to preserving a strong national identity.
Historians of the period also suggest that what enabled the Alash leaders – who were members of a small intelligentsia – to win support from the broader public was their ability to look beyond the past. So, while the nomadic roots and culture of the Kazakh people were seen as important for the country’s strong sense of community, turning back the clock was not regarded as an option for a modern country.
Instead, the Alash leadership actively sought to learn from other countries to see how their experiences could be adapted. The aim was to try to mould a distinctive Kazakh model to prepare their country for the future.
In the end they never got the chance to put this vision into practice, as history swept them aside. But the success of Kazakhstan both domestically and internationally over the last 25 years shows how powerful their ideas were. It was why the government was right earlier this year to suggest that the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Alash movement was about more than our history.