By: Darkhan Umirbekov
On December 17-18, 1986, thousands of students went to Brezhnev Square in Alma-Ata, the then-capital of the Soviet Union’s Kazakh Socialist Republic. They were protesting the Politburo’s appointment of Gennady Kolbin, a Russian who had never worked in Kazakhstan, as the first party secretary and de facto leader of the republic. The protests were quelled brutally: thousands were arrested, expelled from their schools and fired from their jobs. A campaign of persecution spread throughout the republic.
At that time, when the Soviet police interrogated students, most of the students denied that they had participated in the protests, trying to avoid repercussions. Five years later, Kazakhstan became an independent country and the perception of the event changed and the participants who were pariahs became heroes. Today, many Kazakhs try to make their names exploiting the legacy of the December events of 1986. But there are people who have never boasted of their attending the protests. Their stories are almost untold, at least publicly. They are modest and avoid dramatizing their roles in the events. One of them is 55-year-old Asan Smagulov. The interview was in Kazakh and lasted for 45 minutes. Here are some excerpts from the interview translated into English.
What is your December 1986 story?
In the fall of 1986, I started my first year at Almaty National Art Institute – the only Kazakh institution that prepared professionals in the arts. On December 16, I was in my room at the dormitory where I was living. In the evening, I heard a rumpus in the corridor and walked out to see what was happening. A group of students was noisily heading towards the assembly hall in our dormitory. A student invited me to join the group. I was a freshman and therefore did not know most of the students, but curious, I joined them. In the hall, a student announced that the Politburo had ousted Kunayev and brought in a Russian to lead the country. We were all upset and some activist students called to protest this appointment. The best way to protest, we thought, was to go into the streets with banners.
A couple of straight-A students who were good at philosophy were tasked with collecting quotes from Lenin and Marx. Since there were no computers or printers, we were supposed to write the quotes on banners by hand. I said I could write slogans on banners. Earlier I had graduated from the Almaty Vocational School of Painting. So, I already had some skills in painting. There were some other students also from that vocational school.
Where did you get dye and banners?
Those who were studying painting always kept a good amount of paint. Bedsheets were used as material for the banners. There were also white Soviet banners with Lenin’s words, the ones the institute used during public holidays. Those banners were written on in red. Our girls washed them and they became plain red cloth and we wrote on them with white color. By the morning, we had made about 30 banners with slogans.
What were the slogans? Do you remember them?
I do not remember all of them, most of them were innocuous. But there was a slogan that we created ourselves that did not belong to either Lenin or Marx. It read, “Every nation should have its own leader.” I wrote the Kazakh version, and Meiram Kasymbayev, a fellow student, wrote the Russian version of the slogan.
What did you do when we finished writing the slogans?
We were making the banners until dawn and at about 9:00 a.m. on December 17, we went to the streets. Our dormitory was on the corner of Vinogradov Street and Kosmonavtov Street. We walked up along Kosmonavtov Street heading to Brezhnev Square. Many people were curious and some of them joined us. I think, our slogans attracted them. So, when we left our dormitory, there were about 50-80 students, but by the time we reached the square we were thousands.
Are you saying that you were the first to start the demonstration?
I am not sure, but I believe that slogans on banners played a role in gathering people together, and it is highly unlikely that other institutions or organizations could have generated as many banners as we did. The banners I saw on the first day belonged to us. Today, there are many “heroes” who claim to be the first to start the protests. I say, “Look, it was the time when everything was scarce, you had to have a very strong reason to keep that amount of dye and materials. Where could you find them in such a short time?”
But, while I am saying this, we need to acknowledge that being the first was not a goal at that time. We did not think that we would face a brutal confrontation. We naively thought that we would go to the square and express our demands.
When we got to the square, some party officials tried to persuade us to disperse, saying that the Politburo’s decision was not to be challenged. But students did not comply, and after a couple of hours, possibly at noon, we went down along Furmanov Street, reached Gogol street, turned to the left and headed to Kosmonavtov Street, where our dormitory was. There were a number of dormitories along the route that belonged to Kaspi University, Kazakh Women’s Institute, Kirov State University and The Institute of Foreign Languages. Many students joined our demonstration.
By 3 p.m., we – thousands of protesters – arrived at Brezhnev Square again. But this time we encountered lines of cadets. Somehow, we broke the line and made our way to the square.
What surprised you most on that day?
When we were approaching the square, I met a man our age who introduced himself as a student of Kirov State University. He encouraged us saying that we were doing the right thing. Later on, when we faced the police, he threw away one of policeman’s сaps and a fight between the police and the students erupted. The police officers dragged us into the center of a circle of cadets and beat us. The man who claimed to be a student and who had provoked the fight showed the police his work ID and the police released him immediately. Considering the reaction of the police, I thought he must have been a KGB agent.
Then the police crammed us onto prisoner transportation buses and took us to an open field outside the city where they beat us again and left us to freeze. Beaten, injured and covered with blood we helped each other and arrived at the dormitory on the morning of December 18. I do not know why, but we went to the square again. We did not have fear this time.