This is a photo of the first Soviet popular uprisings during the Perestroika period, which took place in Kazakhstan in 1986. Allegedly, the Soviet security forces used photography to document rioters and later identify them for the purpose of repressions. The image is taken from above, the demonstrators are unawere of the shooting. The photographer captured a scene of a united group of demonstrators, who seemed to have been optimistic about the promised new freedoms of perestroika to express their political will.
Zheltoqsan (meaning “December” in Kazakh language) was a series of protests of Kazakh youth that occurred in Alma-Ata and other Kazakhstan’s cities from December 16 to December 20, 1986. The trigger for the protests was the dismissal of Dinmukhamed Kunaev from his position of First Secretary of Kazakhstan’s Communist Party and his replacement by Gennadiy Kolbin, who had never visited or worked in Kazakhstan before his appointment. The reaction of Kazakh youth to Kolbin’s appointment was thus unenthusiastic. By the morning of 17 December, people started to gather spontaneously and moved towards Almaty’s Brezhnev Square (renamed Republic Square in 1990), the site of the Kazakhstan’s Communist Party headquarters. By noon, thousands of people—most of them students—were on the square. The first climax was reached when the police detained protesters who attempted to climb on to the podium. People were enraged and demanded the immediate release of the detained. When the demand was not met, they attacked the police, and then started to damage public buildings. A few hours later, the police, now supported by special forces, cleared the crowd from the square. Witnesses attested to their harsh measures: people were beaten and pinned to the ground. Detainees were delivered to police stations, but because of overcrowding, the police began to dump people on the city outskirts, leaving them to return by foot. Estimates of the number of protesters vary from a few thousand (the official count) to several tens of thousands (according to later accounts).
By nightfall, the crowd had become demoralised and dispersed. Two hundred and thirty-five people had been detained. At 2am, a special meeting of the CPK adopted a resolution to condemn the riot. In the resolution, protesters were characterised as ‘alcoholics’ and ‘junkies’. Dispatches were sent to Moscow decrying Almaty as a place of ‘unprecedented massacre and pogroms’. By the early morning, special forces from other parts of the Soviet Union reached Almaty. The government expected that people would be frightened off by this militarised response but, in the morning of 18 December, new groups started gathering on the streets and moved towards Brezhnev Square. This time, the strategy of the police and special forces was to prevent them from reaching the square, whatever the cost. The clashes became more violent. Two factors contributed: first, the total number of police, special forces and militia had reached at least 19,000 and most likely exceeded the number of protesters. Second, police were allowed to use small spades to attack and intimidate the crowd.
In the public imagination, Zheltoqsan is firmly associated with Almaty and its people. Yet documents and interviews demonstrate that while the protests originated in Almaty, they spread to many cities. In fact, since the first hours of the protests, communication with Almaty was interrupted. No official statement on the protests was made until 18 December. Rumours, however, spread quickly: when people, especially students, in other Kazakh cities learned about events in Almaty, they began to get to the streets in solidarity. Crowds gathered in Karaganda, Kokshetau, Shymkent, Zheskazgan, Taldy-Kurgan, Arkalyk, Pavlodar and Ust-Kamenogorsk. In total, in the period 19–25 December, about 2,000 people protested in various parts of Kazakhstan, 281 of whom were detained. Zheltoqsan was a tragedy for many. Officially, five people died. Sergei Savitskii and Erbol Sypataev were killed in Almaty. Sabira Mukhametzhanova died in March 1987 because of wounds received during the events. Sixteen-year-old Lyazzat Asanova was harassed by the KGB and committed suicide while being investigated. Finally, Kairat Ryskulbekov, who had been sentenced to death (commuted to 20 years in prison) was found hanging in the Semipalatinsk prison in March 1987. To date, the representation and official commemoration of the victims of Zheltoqsan is gendered as exclusively male and focused on Ryskulbekov, whereas the stories of its other victims are relatively unknown and rarely discussed.
Repression against participants was severe. Hundreds of university staff were fired and students expelled; it took them years to recover morally and physically, to return to study, if at all, or to find jobs. Many students were forced to abandon their studies. Ninety-nine people were sentenced to prison terms, and only half of them had been rehabilitated by 1990. Among those who had been abused by police and security forces in December 1986, only a handful sought justice: most victims were too scared to even seek treatment in hospital. The most common accusation was ‘nationalism’ and ‘chauvinism’: in the USSR of the late 1980s ‘nationalism’ was still perceived as a deviation from the official Soviet ‘internationalism’. The following justification by one protestor at the time was typical: ‘We are wrongly stigmatised as ‘nationalists’, which we are not. We do not necessarily require a Kazakh as head of Kazakhstan. This could be a Russian, as well. But we want someone who knows our country. Not someone who spent zero days in our land and was appointed to govern over the country without our minimal consent’.
Nariman Shelekpayev, European University at St. Petersburg