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3 February 2021

On the steppe

Torn between China and Russia, and haunted by the ghosts of its communist past, Kazakhstan has taken an authoritarian turn.

By Sigrid Rausing

Just before Christmas 2020, the Russian Duma passed a number of amendments tightening its notorious “Foreign Agent” law, which targets civil society groups receiving charitable funding from abroad. The label “foreign agent” can now be applied to individuals as well as to groups. People have to report any foreign funding, and disclose their foreign agent status in reports and other publications. Any organisation on the foreign agent list has to submit its planned activities to the justice ministry. Failure to register as a foreign agent is now potentially punishable by prison, not just a fine. “Foreign influence” on education has also been banned, and restrictions on mass assembly have been extended to single person protests.

These new laws represent the most significant restrictions on Russian civil society since the Foreign Agent law of 2012, and the Undesirable Organisations law of 2015. Vladimir Putin’s corrupt and repressive regime is creaking, but there have been protests elsewhere in the region, too – most notably, of course, in Belarus. The reaction has been two-fold: arrests and state violence on the one hand; legal changes on the other, legitimising repressive measures through law. A legal framework for authoritarianism is quietly solidifying across many countries in the former Soviet zone, not least in the Stans, the vast and sparsely populated countries strategically situated between China to the east, Russia to the north and west, and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the south.

Kazakhstan in the north is the dominant country in the region, with a population of some 18.7 million people. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev gained power in March 2019 after Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 30-year authoritarian rule. Kazakhstan’s oil and mineral reserves have led to a great deal of interest in the country, and contributed to a huge wage gap between old sectors, such as state universities, and new ones. Putin has offended Kazakh nationalists in the past, but Kazakhstan, alongside Belarus, was one of three founding members of the Russian-dominated free trade zone, the Eurasian Economic Union, in 2014. Kazakhstan also supports the US war on terror, and USAid runs a multi-million dollar programme promoting the rule of law.

The question of the Chinese repression of the Uighurs is the most delicate foreign relations issue for Kazakhstan – the Uighurs are related to the Kazakhs, and there is a Kazakh community in China, too. But the Kazakh authorities do not want to offend their powerful neighbour. Serikzhan Bilash, the vociferous Uighur activist in exile in Kazakhstan, left for Istanbul last September following a campaign of intimidation, culminating in house arrest.

I was in Kazakhstan in the autumn of 2019 to meet civil rights groups in the country. I was travelling with the human rights expert Jonathan Cooper, who was also teaching a British Embassy-sponsored course on human rights in the military, together with Christine Chinkin from the London School of Economics – the kind of initiative which, incidentally, Dominic Raab has just ­imperilled by cutting the modest embassy aid budget. The students were senior military officers, including generals, from the countries of the region, and they were learning about the international body of law regulating military conduct.

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The course was held in Nur-Sultan, the new and shining capital of Kazakhstan that used to be known as Astana, built by President Nazarbayev. I had no meetings on my first day, and walked along the river. Old men sat fishing by the concrete riverbank; still figures staring into the water. I saw no dogs, and few children. The air was so dry my skin felt like paper as I walked.


The city is built on the steppe, and after a day or two we drove out on to the endless unfenced flatness. Horses bred for meat grazed on the verge of the road and, every once in a while, we passed some decrepit settlement, a former collective farm. Ragged steppe eagles perched on wooden electricity poles by the road; there were no trees, or only a few planted around the villages. Our destination was a lake in a conservation region; a body of water on land so flat that the boundary between land and water was a liminal space; a wet zone of rough grass, mud and broken twigs, maybe brought by the wind, maybe spread by tractor to bind the soil. There were swans and cormorants on the lake, and the wind, according to the conservationist who was with us, was warmer than it should have been. Grey sky met land in a vast disk, horizon to horizon.

We had lunch at a guest house on a former collective farm, in a basic Soviet one-storey house. A puppy threw itself at us, inviting play. Like the swans and the cormorants it evoked familiarity in this otherwise alien landscape. Our host, too, was faintly familiar: a woman in her sixties, I suppose, with gold teeth, who served a national dish of horsemeat and lamb in a broth. The ranger at the reserve, Tatar by origin and presumably from a deported family, told us he misses the Soviet times. Our host agreed. What do they miss? The sense of solidarity, they said. People helped each other, and there was always something happening, too. Cultural programmes, exchanges, visits – all that is gone. They miss being part of a mission to build a better society. The ranger’s grandmother, he said, served tea to Lenin and Trotsky in Leningrad; now he is here, in this forgotten post-Soviet space.

[see also: How unrest from Kyrgyzstan to Belarus is challenging Russia’s Soviet legacy]

The conservationist translated. Her own grandparents had been deported, she told us later, one couple from Belarus, the other from Ukraine. One of her grandmothers had eventually received some small compensation. She was seven years old when she was brought to the steppe. Her family and fellow deportees dug holes in the ground for temporary shelter. Four children out of nine died of dysentery. I thought, as she spoke, of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, of Lara’s daughter who knew nothing of her parents, embodying, like our guide, the legacy of revolution and chaos. Many of the people with backgrounds like hers have already left for Russia or Germany. There is not much political space left in Kazakhstan for non-native Kazakhs, but she is staying, engaged in the mission to build a better world through conservation.

About an hour away from the collective farm, alone on the empty land, stood a miniature 16th-century mosque. It had been destroyed in Soviet times, and was then rebuilt; a shoddy post-Soviet construction, a small square room, white-washed and empty. Some barely noticeable faint mounds on the steppe outside were old graves, the conservationist said. The grey steppe merged with the sky many miles away. Three miles, the conservationist informed us: as far as the human eye can see.

On the way back to Nur-Sultan we stopped at the site of a 1930s labour camp for deported women and children, mainly wives of well-known men – scientists and others, who had already been caught up in the whirlwind. There was a museum, and a monument to the victims of persecution. On the side was a train wagon, originally intended for cattle. Mannequins in dark and dusty bourgeois clothes sat on rough benches inside. A group of Kazakh schoolchildren, perhaps related to the villagers near the camp who had sometimes – we learn inside the museum – handed the prisoners bread through the fence, pointed at the stiff figures inside. There are dioramas of the camp in the museum – a winter scene and a summer scene – and photographs of the inmates. There is a replica of the office of the commander, too, with a high stool where the women sat for interrogations. There is a prisoners’ room with a stove; lists of names and tragic mortality figures.

Before the era of this camp, there was famine in Kazakhstan. Between 1930 and 1933, one third of all grain was requisitioned by the Soviet authorities and one third of the population, mostly nomads, died of hunger or fled, with many dying on the road. In 1926 there were 3.6 million ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, according to the census. By 1939, the figure fell to 2.3 million.

Russian immigrants, imperial settlers and industrial workers, followed by waves of ­deported prisoners under Stalin, changed the ethnic composition of the country. In the 1930s most of the deportees were kulaks, traumatised small-holders, accused of resisting collectivisation or hiding grain.

During the war, certain ethnic groups became subject to collective deportations: Volga Germans, Poles, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Koreans, Finns and others. The occupation of the Baltic states brought ­Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. Few people were deported as individuals: even members of the party accused of plotting and sabotage were actual or imagined members of targeted groups, ranging from Social Revolutionaries to Trotskyites.

A golden rough-legged buzzard circled overhead on our way back to the city. It was dusk, and a cloud of rooks were returning home, turning and wheeling like a flock of 10,000 heavy black starlings. But returning where in this flat, dry land without footholds or shelter? They must have made a home for themselves somewhere, as did some of the released prisoners after Stalin’s death, the people who remained on the steppe either because they were banned from returning to their home countries, or because their homes and families were gone.


Communism seems a brutal form of government to miss, and yet, what do they have now, the people on the steppe? They have mobile phones and the internet. They can access images and video from around the world, but what do they have in their own world? The English language newspaper in Kazakhstan – still named the Astana Times – was all good news when I read it over breakfast at our hotel: a trade agreement with Rwanda; irrigation projects; Asian cooperation; broadband expansion. Jewellery designers make women feel unique with “affordable luxury” products, read one headline.

Perhaps it needs to be said that the people of the steppe can’t afford to shop in the gleaming Nur-Sultan malls. They have the sky and the flat earth, horses and chickens and sheep. It’s true they don’t have to live with the pollution of Almaty – it hit the back of my throat like a pungent claw the morning we stepped off the train, and this was before the brown coal power stations had been turned on for the winter. Almaty, formerly known as Alma-Ata, is the old capital, a city of two million people. When the brown coal burns, the smog trapped by the mountains descends on the city like a toxic lid. We asked why the city still burned notoriously polluting brown coal. “I have heard,” one of the human rights lawyers at this civil society dinner said ironically, “it is only a rumour, mind you, but I have heard that corruption is an issue.”

Things look very different now. Unrest connected with perceived vote rigging is spreading through the region. Last autumn, there were serious protests in Kyrgyzstan, culminating in a state of emergency, resignations and the annulment of the election results. It’s too early to say what will happen in Russia, following the events around opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

News of the demonstrations and arrests in Belarus were not broadcast on Kazakh state television, but they were much discussed on social media in Kazakhstan: news of this kind can no longer be repressed. How many people will have watched the clip of Navalny ally Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of a ­doctors’ union, defiantly play Beethoven as police searched her flat? She has been detained for breaching Covid rules – a convenient new framework for repressive regimes.

In the past few weeks, several Kazakh civil society groups have been called in to the tax authorities and accused of errors in reporting grants from donors abroad dating from 2018 and 2019.

Why the tax authorities? In 2016 Kazakhstan attached the Law on Payments to the tax code, adding onerous reporting requirements for civil society organisations and individuals who are funded from charities abroad. All publications receiving foreign grants must be labelled as such. The Law on Payments future-proofed Kazakh authoritarianism, and wasn’t used until November last year, when 13 civil society organisations were investigated. Seven of them signed a public letter of protest.

On 15 January, the election-monitoring group Echo was fined and suspended for three months. The youth group Erkindik Kanaty, which is also engaged in election monitoring, was fined. On 25 January, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law was fined and suspended for three months. The group had submitted thousands of pages of documents, and the tax authorities found four discrepancies – minor errors – in the papers. The bureau now risks losing its office and some of its staff. The International Legal Initiative was fined, too, and suspended for three months. Two other groups, the Legal Media Center, and MediaNet, have been summoned to local tax offices.

We had travelled by night train from Nur-Sultan to Almaty, a 14-hour journey. I woke at dawn, and watched the strange beauty of the steppe for hours. Every now and then we passed a small village, loose horses grazing the thin grass. Mostly the land was empty. I thought of the two old people – the Tatar man and the Kazakh woman – we had met on the former collective farm; their ­nostalgia for the Soviet Union; the forgotten famine, camps and deportations.

Perhaps the longing for political meaning never really dies: the disenchanted world can be re-enchanted in a moment, for ­better or for worse. Re-enchantment is easier, perhaps, for the extreme right and left – the mythologies of nativism and revolution make for powerful narratives. Liberalism, on the other hand, is often associated with laissez-faire economics, a lack of social and environmental regulation and runaway wage polarity. Human rights can get mired in legalistic language and acronyms.

I admire Alexei Navalny for his courage, but for me, the scene of Anastasia Vasilyeva ­playing Beethoven to the police was an act of re-enchanted ­liberal defiance.

[see also: The persecution of Alexei Navalny reveals the weaknesses of Putin’s Russia]

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This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy