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Kazakhstan’s Bloody December

Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika triggered an outpouring of resentment across the USSR. In 1986, young Kazakhs made their voices heard, but the Soviet regime was not ready to listen.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

When the communist authorities in Moscow ordered a bureaucratic reshuffle in far-off Kazakhstan in 1986, they did not expect their mundane rejig to rock the foundations of the Soviet state or become a harbinger of the USSR’s demise.

But the Kremlin’s high-handed decision-making aroused the ire of Kazakhs, 4,000km away, igniting demonstrations in Kazakhstan in December 1986 that, with hindsight, neatly encapsulate the resentments that were building up throughout the Soviet Union and, in 1991, helped to fell a superpower. The spark that lit the conflagration on the streets of Kazakhstan in 1986 was the replacement of the leadership of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the 15 nominally autonomous republics that made up the USSR.

Presided over by the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as part of an attempt to oust entrenched local leaders, it looked like a straightforward regional reshuffle, with one Soviet apparatchik stepping into the shoes of another. Dinmukhamed Kunayev, a Kazakh bureaucrat who had been the republic’s communist leader for over two decades, would be replaced by Gennadiy Kolbin, formerly a regional party boss in Soviet Russia.

The Kazakhs took umbrage: to them this episode was more than just another example of communist red tape. The crux was not so much the replacement of their leader, but more Moscow’s imperious imposition of a Russian outsider to rule Kazakhstan. It confirmed long-held suspicions that their Soviet rulers viewed Kazakhs as second-class citizens who were judged – it now turned out – unfit to rule themselves.

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