Almaty 1986 Protests: Finding the Unpublished Testimony

By: Darkhan Umirbekov

On the morning of December 17, 1986, around 3,000 students in Alma-Ata, then the capital of Kazakhstan, went to the Brezhnev Square to protest the Politburo’s appointing Gennady Kolbin – a Russian outsider who had had no experience working in Kazakhstan – as the first party secretary of Kazakhstan, the de facto ruler of the republic. Inspired by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost ( “openness”) policy,  these students demanded the Communist Party revoke Kolbin’s appointment and select a new leader who was either an ethnic Kazakh or at least from Kazakhstan. By the evening of December 18, 1986, the Soviet police, backed by the troops sent from other Soviet republics, had brutally quelled the demonstrators. Three people were killed, 2,401 participants were detained, and 182 people were expelled from their universities and colleges. The students were labeled “hooligans,” “drunkards,” and “drug abusers.” The Party denounced the protest and declared it a forbidden expression of Kazakh nationalism, a violation of Soviet principles. A wide campaign of persecution was carried out in Alma-Ata.

After 32 years, the incident is still one of the most underreported pieces of Soviet history. My planned historical work about the protests in Almaty (as the city is now called) will shed light on how glasnost started and proceeded. It will also broaden our understanding of the collapse of the USSR and give a new perspective on Gorbachev’s personality.

Following the quelling of the portest, the Soviets forbade visits by foreign journalists to the city. American newspapers reported the official version of the event provided by the Soviet Union’s state news agency TASS. It took four years for any outsiders to be allowed in. Human Rights Watch then sent two representatives, Jeri Laber and Catherine Cosman, to collect first-hand accounts of the demonstrations, which were published as a report in 1990, “Conflict in the Soviet Union: The Untold Story of the Clashes in Kazakhstan.” The report is available online. My goal was to find original notes or documents that were not included in the report.


The HRW archive is at Columbia University. I learned that it contains a box of materials from Jeri Laber, but that it would take five business days for the box to be delivered to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library on the sixth floor of Butler Library.

Meanwhile, I tried to reach Cosman, 73, who now lives in Washington D.C. She did not pick up the phone or answer my voice messages. After five days of phone calls, I emailed her. Cosman responded the same day. She told me that she still had original notes but needed someone to take down heavy boxes from shelves. She was leaving Washington for South Africa in a week and was busy preparing. She asked me to come at the end of March.

Just then, an interviewee I’d been pursuing for three months for another story called and said I could visit her in – in the Washington area. I immediately reached Cosman again and asked if she had a couple of hours to meet with me. She did.

She had high shelves throughout her apartment and they were full of heavy boxes containing notebooks dedicated to trips and events. I pulled out four boxes that she thought might contain materials about Kazakhstan. The first three held many notebooks labeled “Kazakh” or “Kazakhstan,” but all were about labor unions and the violation of coal miners’ rights in the country. Then came the bingo moment. The fourth box had one scratchpad with notes about the Alma-Ata demonstrations – her personal perception of the events, some details, and quotes that did not go in to the official report. For example, she jotted down that the temperature on the days of the protests was minus 20 degrees Celsius. Since there are no archival records for the weather in Alma-Ata for that time, and participants did not remember exactly how cold it was, this was my first source of such information. The temperature is of utmost importance: It shows how cruel it was using water cannons on protesters.

Cosman also wrote about the reasons for young Kazakhs anger. One was not mentioned in the official report. “The students, for example, were protesting corruption, and furthermore [asking] why they should study at all, because they had access only to jobs which did not require education [and] they would be most likely craftspeople,” she wrote.  

She quoted a person who claimed to remember what Galim Bazhimovich Yelemisov, the Prosecutor General of Kazakhstan at that time, told those protesting, “He said, ‘I was given power. If you do not disperse, I will summon the troops. He said this three times.’ He also said, ‘There will be no negotiations, you should immediately disperse, otherwise we will use whatever means needed including weapons.’”

I was about to leave when Cosman added one more point. “There is a general rule that revolution is most likely not to occur when people feel totally repressed, but rather when they have some expectation as people – and Kazakhs and others had at the time of perestroika,” she said. “But their expectations were … not met at all or not met to the degree that people had hoped. And because they have these dashed hopes… they revolt.”

Back in New York, I visited the Rare Books & Manuscript library to search through the boxes that I had ordered. I was ecstatic when I found Cosman’s 68-page draft report to HRW labelled, “The enclosed information for background only.” Submitted in June 1990, it was polished, trimmed, and supplemented with other materials before it was published in October 1990 as HRW’s official report.

Members of a Kurdish family named Nadirovs told Cosman that “[t]he rioters were hooligans, not nationalists, protesting that Kolbin, the new Kazakhstan Party leader, was from outside the republic – not because he is Russian.” This addresses one of the ongoing debates about the demonstrations: whether or not they were an expression of Kazakh nationalism. It has added meaning because the Kurds are neither Slavs nor Kazakhs, making them more neutral in the nationalism debate. The comment didn’t appear in the published report.

Also ommitted from the final report was Cosman’s description of the role of one tribe among the Kazakhs in sparking the protests.

In her draft report notes Cosman explains that “there are three main Kazakh tribes: the Older, Middle and Younger Dzhuz. D. Kunayev, the Kazakh leader whose replacement provoked the protests, belonged to the Older Dzhuz, which lived in southern Kazakhstan… They were afraid they would lose jobs under a Russian party chief. There were hostile relations among the three groups, plus bad relations between the Kazakhs and other ethnic groups.”

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