In Search of Justice: State Commission’s Efforts to Rehabilitate Stalinist Repression Victims Can Heal Kazakh Society

ASTANA – The State Commission of the Full Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repressions examining the fate of Kazakhs who were executed during Stalinist repressions carries out an important task of healing the collective trauma that remains in the Kazakh society, said Sabyr Kassymov, head of the project office of the state commission and president of the Kakharmandar national public foundation.

Memorial to the victims of political repression and famine in Astana. Photo credit:

The state commission was launched in 2020 by the decree of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to rehabilitate the victims.

The result is a comprehensive scientific investigation of Joseph Stalin’s repressions of 1920s-1950s, in particular the Great Terror of 1937-1938, and the drought years that together took the lives of millions of Kazakhs.

The work of the commission moved the “frozen iceberg” of the history of the totalitarian regime, revealing the complexity of the Stalin era, something that was largely glossed over.

According to Kassymov, who shared his views in a May 31 interview with Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper, Kazakhs had to endure double repressions: as citizens and as defenders of the rights and interests of the Kazakh people.

Sabyr Kassymov. Photo credit:

“This obvious fact was not previously taken into account both in scientific research and in the development and adoption of normative legal acts,” he said.           

The state commission’s methodologies

Using new tools, the state commission developed new scientific research principles, methods, and criteria for evaluating various categories of victims and survivors.

A new conceptual apparatus is being developed to reevaluate the use of repressive Bolshevik-Stalinist terms such as “the enemy of the people,” “socially dangerous element,” “counter-revolutionary,” “bourgeois nationalist,” and others to transform the perception of misleading political language.

The meticulous work was conducted by ten research working groups with the involvement of more than 240 scientists and experts from all over the country, 150 of whom received access to classified documents.

As a result, more than 2,400,000 archival documents were declassified, and more than 311,000 victims of mass political repressions were rehabilitated within the framework of the current law.

The purpose of the study is not to impose collective guilt on any nation, said Kassymov.

“We do not politicize either the problem as a whole or the individual facts, however tragic and sensitive they may be. We do not blame other nations and other states. We are not looking for enemies,” he said.

“Our main goal is a complete rehabilitation of Kazakh innocent victims and those who suffered from political repressions,” he added.

The commission’s approaches and principles in the rehabilitation of certain categories of victims of repressions are based on international standards and values, as well as the norms of international law, according to Kassymov.

Important mission of the state commission

According to Kassymov, their work is an attempt to pay tribute to the victims of Soviet-era repression.

“This is an unprecedented tragedy in the history of our people. More than half of the Kazakh population died as a result of anti-human policies and reckless decisions of [the then Soviet-appointed ruler of Kazakhstan] Goloshchyokin, coordinated with Stalin and accompanied by punitive actions against all those who disagreed and opposed his policies. All this was exacerbated by the natural drought,” said Kassymov.

The time has come to bring into the open the difficult and unpleasant questions, he stated.

“For known reasons, these events were not comprehensively and deeply studied and evaluated. Nevertheless, the materials testify that the attitude, systematic and consistent actions of the authorities pursued a specific goal – the destruction of the Kazakh auyl (village) as a socio-economic community and the established form of livelihood of the people,” he said.

The declassified documents reveal that political campaigns to seize cattle, meat, grain and other agricultural products persisted even though entire villages and districts were starving to death.

Filipp Goloshchyokin, a Soviet party functionary, masterminded and implemented Stalinist mass repressions and initiated the so-called Small October revolution to change the course of the country.

For decades, Goloshchyokin was convinced that the unfortunate events were an unavoidable price to pay for the development of the country and its transition to socialism-communism bypassing capitalism based on the notorious Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

“State violence against the people, mass political repression with enormous sacrifices, primarily human, were of secondary importance to him. He always repeated that ‘the revolution is not made in white gloves.’ Therefore, the mass death of the people was inevitable and predetermined,” said Kassymov.

In a state where individual lives mattered less than the projected strength of an ideology, artificial criminal proceedings against the leaders, activists and intelligentsia of the Kazakh nation were organized.

More than 40 people of the Alash political movement were arrested, convicted and exiled outside of Kazakhstan. Among them were writer Zhusipbek Aimauytov, scholar Akhmet Baitursynuly, poet Magzhan Zhumabayev and many others.

The mass starvation of the people of Kazakhstan was a consequence of the ill-conceived actions of the authorities, according to Kassymov. The drought and bad weather in those years only exacerbated the people’s tragedy and the number of victims.

But for Kazakhs, those millions of victims are more than just cold statistics.

“This is a global historical drama. It is a bleeding wound in the soul of the Kazakh people, of every patriot of Kazakhstan, every democrat and progressive Kazakh, which will not heal until we identify the true causes and give a proper assessment of the tragedy,” said Kassymov.

That unhealed psychological trauma, which remains in the Kazakh society, would only heal through the state’s specific efforts to uncover the facts.

“Only through proper assessment, albeit a belated repentance to the millions of victims, can this phantom of moral burden and the unceasing heartache of the people be removed. We will not forgive ourselves if we fail to take this step,” said Kassymov.

Legal support

The rehabilitation movement does not solely depend on scholars’ initiatives. Local authorities and proper legislation should adapt as well, according to Kassymov.

“This is a test of wisdom and morality of the Kazakh political elite, including representatives of the people in power, as well as us,” he said.

A working group concluded that the adoption of three bills is required for the full legal rehabilitation of victims of political repression.

“If the current deputies [of Parliament] adopt the draft law developed by us, we will be freed from this historical and moral burden and finally fulfill our filial and civil duty to reveal the truth about the fact that half of the nation in those years was killed not only because of natural drought and jut (massive loss of livestock from famine),” said Kassymov.

The first bill concerns the victims of the repression of peasants.

The second bill deals with scientists and creative people who suffered for their scientific ideas, defenders of their religious beliefs, defenders of national freedom, independence and territorial integrity of Kazakhstan, as well as others.

“For the victims of this category, the mere reversal of a sentence, as in legal rehabilitation, is not enough. It requires unambiguous political rehabilitation not only of the victims themselves but also of their progressive ideas, democratic programs, social and political activity, the facts of selfless service, patriotism and exploits in the name of their Fatherland,” said Kassymov.

The third draft law that the working group is developing concerns more than one million forced refugees and their descendants residing outside of Kazakhstan.

“These three bills, if adopted by Parliament, will ensure the fulfillment of the tasks set by the Head of State to fully rehabilitate victims of political repressions,” believes Kassymov.

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