An appreciation of a nation’s history by its citizens is critical to its strength and success. It builds and maintains the shared sense of identity and common purpose, which helps a country and its people respond to both challenges and opportunities.
It is a history which in Kazakhstan’s case was, of course, deliberately ignored for many decades. Indeed, given how little attention was given to this unique story, what is remarkable was how such a strong sense of national pride survived.
In recent years, these failures have been put right. There has been a concerted effort since we became a modern independent country on telling the story of the Kazakh people and the roots of the nation. Whether through an improved curriculum in schools, a new effort to protect national monuments, or powerful TV dramas, there is now a much better understanding, for example, of the remarkable achievements of the Kazakh Khanates and their impact on the wider region.
But a nation is not, of course, just shaped by its past glories nor by events centuries-old. Kazakhstan’s history – particularly over the last 100 years – has also contained a great deal of pain and tragedy. These terrible times during the Soviet era also had a profound impact on our country, which must not be forgotten. This is why the annual Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression on May 31 is so important.
The numbers of those who suffered were immense. The gulag network extended over a large area of our huge country. It has been estimated that over one million people passed through the Karlag labour camp, outside Karaganda, in the thirty years it was open. It is now the site of a sombre and moving memorial and museum of this brutal period in our country’s history.
Those who lost their freedom were overwhelmingly innocent of any crime. They included many hundreds of thousands of political prisoners who were the victims of nothing more than paranoia. In many cases, their families suffered the same fate. Entire ethnic groups, including well over half a million of Polish, German and Korean origin, also found themselves rounded up, up-rooted from their homes and sent to Kazakhstan. Prisoners were forced to work in terrible conditions in factories, mines and farms.
But it was by no means only those from outside Kazakhstan who suffered. Millions of Kazakhs also fell victim. Many of the country’s brightest and best were arrested. These numbers were dwarfed by those who died through hunger as a result of what President Nursultan Nazarbayev called last year the “cruel experiment” of collectivisation of the country’s agriculture.
Historians believe that the great famine between 1931 and 1933 alone may have led to the death of around one and half million people in Kazakhstan – approximately one in four of the entire local population. Hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee the country or face starvation. It was a brutal policy, which was, in some ways, as much about eliminating Kazakh identity as the economic development and industrialisation of the country.
It was, as we can see in modern Kazakhstan, an ambition which failed. In fact, while the suffering was immense, the legacy has helped make our country stronger. There is, for example, a resilience about the Kazakh people, which outside commentators have noted along with a genuine national pride. There is, too, a strong commitment to the rule of law, enshrined in the constitution, to prevent the terrible abuses, which cost millions their freedom and lives.
Many of the descendants of those deported here, who themselves were welcomed by the local people, have also played a significant role in our country’s progress. They have been helped by a determination that everyone, no matter what their background, has the opportunity to contribute. The diversity of our population has proved a strength not a weakness.
Kazakhstan’s eyes remain firmly focused on the future. But a full understanding of history, of how a nation and its culture have developed, provides the essential platform for future success. It is why the Day of Remembrance, no matter how painful the memories it marks, remains so important to our country.