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Alma-Ata, 1986: The First Test of Gorbachev’s Glasnost

December 16, 1986. It was a cold winter day in Alma-Ata, the capital of the Soviet Union’s Kazakh Socialist Republic. Every Sunday, Pravda, the...

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Alma-Ata demonstrations, 1986: The banner bears a quotation from Lenin, “We are for free voluntary rapprochement and merger.” (Central state archive of cinema, photographic materials and sound records of Kazakhstan)

December 16, 1986. It was a cold winter day in Alma-Ata, the capital of the Soviet Union’s Kazakh Socialist Republic. Every Sunday, Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, would publish a weekly forecast for the entire Soviet Union. The newspaper’s December 14 forecast for the week read, “The icy air of polar winter will significantly lower the air temperature on its way. On Asian territory, winter dominates with snowfall and blizzards… In the Central Asian republics, the weather will remain cold.” Located in the foothills of Tian Shan Mountains, the city had warm springs, moderately hot summers, rainy autumns, and mild but humid winters. So if it is 15 degrees Fahrenheit, it feels like 5 degrees.

In the evening, Asan Smagulov, a 22-year-old freshman at Alma-Ata Theater and Art Institute, was drinking tea in his dormitory room when he heard a rumpus. It came from the dormitory’s foyer, which was next to Smagulov’s room. He walked out to see what was happening. A group of students from the acting faculty were anxiously talking as if a tragedy had just happened. “Kunayev was ousted!” he heard.

Earlier that day, the Kazakh Communist Party’s Central Committee held a plenum in Alma-Ata. Georgy Razumovsky, a high-ranking Soviet official who came to Alma-Ata on a mission, attended this plenum, and announced the decision made by Politburo: The Kremlin had decided to retire Dinmukhamed Kunayev, a 74-year-old Kazakh leader who had ruled the republic as the first party secretary for a quarter century – and to replace him with Gennady Kolbin, a Russian who had never worked in Kazakhstan. The plenum lasted for 18 minutes and Razumovsky, once his mission had been accomplished, went to visit the standard Soviet sights of the city: the Schoolchildren’s Palace, an architectural public facility for after-school activities; the Lenin Palace of Culture, the largest concert hall in the republic and one of the main attractions of the city; and the VDNKH exhibition center – the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy. At 1 p.m. he flew back to Moscow.

Two hours later, the news was announced on the radio. It was a Tuesday. Students were at universities and adults were at work; most of them did not hear the news. The radio announcement, most likely, was serious and monotonous in tone and uninformative in content, a standard way of announcing the Communist Party’s political decisions in the Soviet media, and it created the conditions for the news and its meaning to spread by word-of-mouth. Rumors passed from person to person added and strengthened negative connotations to what had happened in the morning. “Why not a Kazakh?” “It is an insult to our nation!” “It is an attempt to Russify Kazakhs!” – such comments accompanied the news and infuriated young Kazakhs.

Unaware of the situation but curious, Smagulov joined the group of students who moved to the dormitory’s assembly hall for further in-depth discussions. Some activist students gave speeches. At some point, one of the students blurted out an idea to protest the decision. In the atmosphere charged with anger, the initiative found strong support. Let’s have a peaceful demonstration to express our disapproval, they all agreed.

“The best way to protest, we thought, was to go to the street with banners,” Smagulov would later recall. “A student asked, ‘Are there painters among us who could write on banners?’”

Prior to the Art Institute, Smagulov had studied at the Alma-Ata Vocational School of Painting and already had basic skills in painting and calligraphy. He and some other students stepped up to write slogans on banners.

“Since there were no computers and printers, we were supposed to write those quotes on banners by hand. I said that I can write slogans on banners,” Smagulov said.

The top academic students were responsible for finding quotes from Lenin that fit the protest: “No nation should have a privilege,” “We are for free, voluntary rapprochement and merger,” “Long live Lenin’s ideas,” “We demand respect for Leninist principles of national policy.”

Lenin was the father of the Soviet Union and his monuments were in almost every Soviet village. Streets, schools, factories and other public facilities had his portraits and quotes hanging on the wall. His ideas and principles were taught in higher education as a subject. Meetings and public holidays would start with Lenin’s words. Kazakh school children would recite verses about him, “Lenin is our grandpa, and we are all under his shadow.” So using Lenin quotations was the strategy the students came up with; it was like saying “Don’t listen to us, listen to Lenin!” No one would dare to go against Lenin, they thought. Additionally, referring to Lenin would mean that they were not against the party, or against Communism, only against the decision.

Among these quotes and slogans was a phrase that would become a symbol of the protests: “To every nation its own leader.” Unlike other slogans, this one did not come from Lenin, it was made up by the students themselves. Smagulov said that it was he who wrote the slogan’s Kazakh version. The Russian version, Smagulov went on, was written by Meiram Kasymbayev, who was also a student.

The banners were made of sheets of clothes tied to wooden sticks at each end. The students came up with the idea of using white dormitory bed sheets as material.  When the white bed sheets ran out, the students used old Soviet banners with Lenin’s words that had been used during the celebration of public holidays. “Our girls washed them and they became plain red cloth and we wrote on them with white color,” Smagulov would recount. “By the morning, we had made about 30 banners with slogans.”

Meantime, the police and the local KGB office received reports on discontent among the Kazakhs over the plenum decision.

University chancellors and party members informed that the KGB that students in dormitories were talking about going to the city’s central square, the local KGB chairman Viktor Miroshnikov would acknowledge later.

Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan’s largest city, with a population of one million, was a popular place to be a student. It was home to almost all of the republic’s prominent national universities and institutes, the only ones of their kind in Kazakhstan: the only women’s institute, where only females could study; the only pedagogical institute; the only agrarian institute and so on. Built within the previous fifty years, all of these institutions had chains of dormitories to accommodate thousands of students from rural areas, mostly ethnic Kazakhs. Since most of the city’s residents were Russians – according to the 1979 census, 66 percent were Russians and 16.5 percent were Kazakhs – fewer Russian students lived in dormitories, leaving more room for Kazakhs. Thus, these student houses concentrated young Kazakhs with a strong national identity and a feeling that their nation was being oppressed. Most of these universities and their dormitories were adjacent to each other and were located a 20-30-minute walk from the downtown, a busy administrative area with several key governmental buildings. Brezhnev Square was in downtown as well.

The Alma-Ata Theater and Art Institute’s dormitory was not the only place where young Kazakhs were debating the Politburo’s decision.

Bakhyt Bainiazov, a 21-year-old freshman at Alma-Ata Veterinary Institute, had spent a whole day in an interfaculty boxing competition and came to his dormitory room exhausted. He lived in an international student house where students from one country were supposed to live with students from another – diversity in action. So Bainiazov lived with two students from Madagascar and Ethiopia.

“Since I was living with foreign students, no one dared to come to my room to call for action,” Bainiazov would remember. While activists in other dorms were openly agitating for the demonstration, they could not do so in Bainiazov’s dorm. For the foreigners, it was not their issue; and they were more likely to report on the students’ intentions. “In the evening, when I came from the competition, a sophomore told me that the following day we would not have classes and that we would go to Brezhnev Square.”

The sophomore was 23-year-old Ydyrys Ayapov, also a boxer. They lived in the same dormitory: Bainiazov on the third floor and Ayapov on the second floor.

“It was about 2 p.m. We were in class. First, we heard that Kunayev was fired and no one had been appointed in his place,” Ayapov would remember. “A student said, ‘Moscow will decide who will be the next, why bother?’ Another student said, ‘Why should Moscow care what we think?’ They will send someone and that’s it, they are used to to make such decisions themselves.” The derisive comments laid the groundwork for the students’ fury. Sometime later, Ayapov learned that Gorbachev had sent an unknown Russian who was his “fellow countryman.”

“Fucking tractor driver would come from Stavropol.” These were the words Ayapov heard from senior students. But it was misinformation. Gorbachev and Kolbin were not from the same region. The former was from Stavropol Krai which is on the western edge of Russia, near Ukraine, while the latter was from Sverdlov oblast, another Russian region thousands of miles to the east.

Angry with what he had heard, Ayapov arrived at their dormitory where he met Bainiazov, the freshman who had just come from the interfaculty competition, and told him that a group of students were going to protest in the morning.

Young Kazakhs at Kirov State University were also restless. At 9 p.m., Ermukhanbet Kuandykov, a student at the History Department, came to his department’s dormitory for a sleepover. Married, he rented a two-bedroom apartment in a village close to Alma-Ata, where he lived with his wife and sister. That day his classes were in the afternoon and he heard the news when he walked out of the final class. It was at 5 p.m.

“No one was surprised or shocked to hear the news. It was an ordinary one. My reaction was, ‘Okay, then,’” recounted Kuandykov. Right after the class he hurried home. His wife, who had given birth to their first child ten days ago, had just been discharged from hospital and he could not wait to see his child. His mother-in-law also came in to care for her daughter and newly born grandchild. But for an ambiguous reason, Kuandykov could not stay at home that night.

“I had some mixed feelings. I couldn’t understand myself… It felt like something bad was coming. I decided to join my friends at the dorm,” reminisced Kuandykov.

Kuandykov had a formal right to use a room there. He was a deputy secretary of the History Department’s Komsomol Committee. Komsomol, or the All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth, was the Communist Party’s division for people aged 14-28. The Komsomol was not the earliest stage of political life in the Soviet Union. At the age of 7, a child was eligible to join Little Octobrists, and at the age of 9, the little Octobrists would become young Pioneers, before turning into Komsomols. Only students with excellent academic performance and discipline who were passionate about communism could join these powerful youth organizations. Membership granted privileges that others could not enjoy.

At the dorm, Kuandykov learned that students had gathered in the hall on the fourth floor to discuss the appointment of the new first party secretary of Kazakhstan. As the deputy secretary of the department’s Komsomol, he wanted to know what students thought about the issue.

“Most of the students disapproved of the appointment. I myself thought that a Russian can be elected to be first party secretary, but it must be a person from the Republic, the one who knows problems and concerns of Kazakhstan,” Kuandykov would write sometime later.

The students debated three proposals for responding to the Politburo’s decision: to skip classes in protest; to go to a demonstration on Brezhnev Square; and to write a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union asking to explain the plenum’s decision in a newspaper article. Kuandykov would afterward say that he was the author of the third option, which seemed to him more moderate and innocuous.

When the students were about to vote, Kuandykov’s superior, Murat Imankulov, the secretary of the History Department’s Komsomol committee, came in and told them that only party members could vote on such matters and demanded that students disperse. Although students left the hall, the discussion continued in rooms. Despite being the deputy secretary of the department’s Komsomol committee, Kuandykov took the students’ side and joined the conversations in dorm rooms.

“Though I knew how important it was to be a member of Komsomol or the party, I never clung to that position in the Komsomol committee. Credibility among students, among friends, was more important,” said Kuandykov. “They granted the Komsomol position because I was one of the most experienced students.”

Born in 1963, Kuandykov was older than many students. Prior to coming to Kirov State University, he had done military service in Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia. In addition, in the summer of 1986, a couple of months after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, 30 students at Kirov State University were selected to build a village for the people evacuated from the disaster area. Kuandykov was among those students. They spent the summer in Belotserkovskiy Rayon in Kiev Oblast, Ukraine. When he returned, the youth daily Leninskaya Smena published a page-long article about him portraying him as a “hero.” The military service, the mission in Ukraine and the article made him a good candidate for the position in the department’s Komsomol committee.

“The students expressed their concerns and grievances and wanted to know my opinion. Since I was an experienced student and the deputy Komsomol secretary, they always treated me with respect and I could not let them down that day,” said Kuandykov. “And no one expected that we would be beaten up or sentenced to prison terms, nor did we believe that people might die. We knew that the party wouldn’t revoke its decision. We just wanted to express our disagreement; we believed in Gorbachev’s glasnost.”

Kuandykov and his fellow students went to the Law School’s dormitory where they met other disappointed students. Together, they decided to make leaflets that read:

“Students and workers of Alma-Ata! We ask you to attend a peaceful demonstration against the Plenum’s decision that will take place on December 17… on Brezhnev Square.”

Each student was supposed to distribute those leaflets in a designated area; Kuandykov’s area was the campuses of the sports institute and medical institute on Kosmonavtov Street. Having agreed, Kuandykov and his fellow students returned to their dormitory and went to sleep.

****

Early in the morning on December 17, Smagulov and his fellow students, who had been preparing banners all night, walked out to the street and headed to Brezhnev Square. The dormitory was on the corner of Vinogradov Street and Kosmonavtov Street. Since Alma-Ata was on a hill, going anywhere usually meant going uphill or down. Smagulov’s dormitory was in the lower city while the square was in the upper city. So the students holding their banners walked uphill on Kosmonavtov Street, turned left on Satpayev Street, crossed three small streets and reached Brezhnev Square.

The square was a broadened segment of Satpayev Street between Mir Street, on the west, and Furmanov Street on the east. To the south, uphill, was the Central Committee’s headquarters. To the north, downhill, were twin 16-story buildings with two long 7-story administrative buildings on either side of them, along the edge of the square. Built in 1980, the square was designed for parades on public holidays. On the south of the square was a rostrum, where party officials would give speeches and wave to the crowds. Since it had been built a few years earlier, it was also called Novaya ploshchad, “New Square.”

The distance between Smagulov’s dorm and the square was 1.7 miles. He said that there were about 80 students in the dormitory and most of them joined the protest. Out of those 80 students, the majority were Kazakhs.

“Many bystanders who were walking on the street on their own were curious and some of them joined us. I think, our slogans attracted them,” said Smagulov. “So when we left our dormitory, there were about 50-80 students, but by the time we had reached the square we were thousands.” The group of protesters definitely grew, but Smagulov might have exaggerated the number. By 8:30 in the morning, the local KGB office had received the first report on protesters and it read: “A group of young people, 200-300 in number, are in Brezhnev Square holding banners.”

An hour later, having informed Gennady Kolbin, the newly appointed governor of Kazakhstan, and the KGB office in Moscow about the protesters in the square, Viktor Miroshnikov, the chairman of Kazakhstan’s KGB, went to the students.

Meantime, Bainiazov, the veterinary freshman, was on his way to school. “I put on my veterinary robe and walked out of my room. I was surprised to see the institute’s teachers who were saying, ‘Wake up, go outside.’ They would never come and wake up the students,” said Bainiazov. “When I went outside there were a bunch of students and all of them were heading in the opposite direction from the institute, to Brezhnev Square.” Though he had prepared for school, Bainiazov eventually decided to join the other students. His dorm was closer to the square than that of Smagulov; just a third of a mile to walk. Both the square and Bainiazov’s dorm were on Satpayev Street.

At around 9 a.m., Erlan Dekelbayev, a 24-year-old technician who worked at a radio store in the lower city was on a bus to his workplace. Living in Gorny Gigant, the city’s uppermost district, his usual route to the store would be via Brezhnev Square. He was usually at work by 10 a.m. So, around 9:30 a.m. Dekelbayev was going down Furmanov Street passing the square on the corner of Furmanov Street and Satpayev Street. He saw 200-300 protestors with banners. They were not close enough to see who they were.

Before leaving that morning, Dekelbayev had taken the latest issue of Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, the official newspaper of the Kazakh Communist Party, from his mailbox. The front page included a brief news item that read:

“On December 16, the Fifth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan was convened to consider organizational work. The plenum released D.A. Kunayev from his duties as the first party secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist party of the republic due to his retirement.

“As the first party secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Gennady Kolbin, a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who had worked as the first secretary of Ulyanovsk regional committee of the party, was elected.

“The secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU Georgy Razumovsky, the head of the Department of Organization Work of the Central Committee of the CPSU Nikolay Mischenko attended the plenum.”

The same text appeared in all the national newspapers, which simply published verbatim the item they had received from TASS, the Soviet news agency, the day before.

The announcement on the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda’s front page was followed by Kolbin’s photo and biography.

“My mother and I were upset by the news,” Dekelbayev would recall.

Dekelbayev worked at Radiotechnika, a store that sold television, radio and other electronics. It was a large store with more than 100 staff consisting of different nationalities  -Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Koreans, Greeks, Uighurs and others.

Kazakhstan was a multiethnic country with about 130 nationalities. But the Kazakhs did not choose to be a melting pot of different cultures. It was something they were forced to accept.

Kazakhs, pastoral Turkic nomads who were scattered in the vast steppes of Central Asia, appeared as a distinct nation in the fifteenth century. Ruled by Genghis khans’ descendants, the nation consisted of three hordes called zhuz: Senior Zhuz in the south, Middle Zhuz in the north and east, and Junior Zhuz in the west. Every zhuz consisted of multiple tribes. The hordes would unite when they faced a common enemy. Otherwise, they lived separate lives, each of them having their own khan, or ruler. In the 1730s, the Junior Zhuz’s khan, Abul Khair voluntarily joined the Russian Empire, which colonized the entire country within the following century. During the last decades of Russian imperial rule, millions of Russian and Ukrainian peasants came to Kazakh territory. They took the most suitable lands for agriculture and displaced the local nomads into arid steppes.

After the 1917 revolution, when the Bolsheviks overthrew Nicholas II of Russia and established the Soviet Union, Kazakhs were granted the status of the autonomous republic. At this time, Kazakhs still practiced nomadism. A decade later Stalin forced them to settle and confiscated their livestock. Unable to grow grain, the Kazakhs suffered a horrible famine in which 1.5 million people died, and another million migrated to neighboring countries such as China and Uzbekistan. About 90% of the livestock in the republic perished. Historians say that because of the famine Kazakhs lost a third of its population. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Stalin forcibly moved to Kazakhstan a number of different nationalities that he considered unreliable in the event of war. Among them were Volga Germans, Koreans, Poles, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Chechens, Lithuanians, Azerbaijanis and others. Their number totaled 1.2 million. At the same time, the republic was chosen as the location for four gulag labor camps for political prisoners: Karlag, Steplag, Peshchanlag, and ALZHIR – Akmola Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland. Hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian peasants arrived during the Khrushchev’s Virgin Land Program. Kazakhs became an ethnic minority in their own land, outnumbered by Russians.

Dekelbayev himself was Kazakh.

“When I arrived at work, the people who used to be friendly suddenly became hostile to me,” said Dekelbayev speaking of Russians at his workplace. “‘You Kazakhs cannot rule the country… Now you guys will get it. We will show you… Today is a mourning day for you,’ they said in an aggressive tone.”

Dekelbayev was about to fight with the coworkers who had insulted him, but others intervened and split them up. Having had an emotional argument, Dekelbayev lost the desire to work that day. A childhood friend, Sergali Adnanov, made an unexpected visit and Dekelbayev took an hour off to chat with him.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Internal Affairs Grigory Knyazev learned about the protest at 9:18 a.m. and immediately sent officers of the militia – the formal name of the Soviet police – to the square. At 9:30, he ordered them to cordon it off and set up a situation room to deal with the demonstration. The officials also tasked TV stations and other state-owned organizations that had cameras with shooting photos and videos of protesters. The idea was to use the film to track down the students later when the events ended. Most of the protesters were unaware of the government’s intention.

The party committee of the city invited the leadership of universities to persuade the students to disperse.

Ydyrys Ayapov, the sophomore at the veterinary institute, saw the chancellor, provosts, and deans of his institute walking to the square. He himself was among the first to get to Brezhnev Square, but he had left his room in haste and forgotten his winter hat, so he had to return after an hour protesting. When he came back, his roommates were away, the room was closed and he did not have the key. Students who live in the Soviet dormitories were not allowed to have their own key to their room. There was only one key and it was not supposed to leave the dormitory. When going to school, students had to hand it in to a vakhtersha, caretaker, usually a woman, who would sit on a small box just inside the entrance. She would be responsible for not letting in strangers, and would make the students show their pass every time they entered the building. It was also her job to pick up the phone, the only one in the entire dormitory, and to call the guard if there was a fight or any disturbance, and to keep the lobby clean. Visitors could only come at certain hours, usually afternoon, and had to sign in before going to a student’s room. At 11 p.m. the entrance to a dormitory would be closed and no one could get in or get out, at least not without consequences. If you were late you had to write an explanatory letter. A certain number of these letters would be a formal reason to expel students from their dormitory. Rooms in the Soviet dormitories were for 2-4 people and a student who was last to leave had to write down his name, room number and the time of leaving on a vakhtersha’s logbook before giving her the key. The same process would occur when getting in.

For an unknown reason, Ayapov did not want to ask the vakhtersha for the key. Instead, he used a knife to unscrew the core of his room’s lock. Having taken his hat, he rushed to the square to continue protesting. On the way to the square, he saw his institute’s Komsomol committee secretary, whose first name was Amanzhol.

“Amanzhol said, “You, you are Ayapov, right?” I said, “Yes, Amanzhol! Jot my name down, it’s Ayapov, you know me. Amanzhol, you are good at writing people’s names, write it down.”

In Ayapov’s words, Amanzhol, as many Komsomol leaders, was a person students disliked and were afraid of. He would trace the students who violated the institute’s code of conduct and initiate punishment of those students during the Komsomol meeting. Amanzhol’s asking Ayapov’s name was his attempt to warn Ayapov off from going to the square. It meant that if Ayapov did not turn back, there would be ramifications.

“I gave Amanzhol some swear words, not knowing that he was coming along with the institute’s chancellor and deans. When I saw them, I really felt embarrassed,” said Ayapov. “But what struck me was that they didn’t react to my behavior. Their heads were down and they seemed depressed.”

By 10 a.m., the number of protesters had grown from 300 to 1,000. A half an hour later, a full tactical alert was declared, flights and trains in and out of the city were canceled, intercity roads to and from Alma-Ata were blocked, and the phone connection was cut. The city was isolated.

The students were still demonstrating peacefully. Party and law enforcement officials were trying to persuade them to go home.

“Did you talk with your Komsomol leaders first?” a law enforcement official in Kazakh asked the protesters. “You should go to your Komsomol committee and discuss this issue there first.”

A student retorted, “You said, we people can only elect deputies and it is you who can elect the leader. But shouldn’t you consider people’s opinion? Why didn’t you consult with people?”

“The Party decides itself,” the official replied.

“The leader is not only for the party,” said the student, who wore a burgundy winter hat and a hooded coat.

“Our leader should be a Kazakh, we live in Kazakhstan,” shouted a young woman from behind the student.

This conversation appears in an 11-minute video clip with its own strange history. On the morning of the demonstration, Rubikzhan Yakhin, a TV director at a state-owned TV station, began shooting a film in the square. He was acting on the orders of Sagat Ashimbayev, an ethnic Kazakh who was the deputy chairman of the State Committee on Television and Radio. The video has long shots, medium shots, and close-ups. The students marching on the square to Furmanov Street chant, “To every nation its own leader!” A background voice can be heard; a person was telling Yakhin what and whom to film. Some demonstrators shouted, “Remove the camera,” and a couple of them approached the cameraman asking what the film was for. The background voice told them that the video would be shown on Vremya, the main evening newscast in the Soviet Union. A few young people covered their faces, but the rest ignored the camera. After he finished shooting, Yasin went to his TV station, which was located right next to the square, and learned that some officials from Moscow wanted to see the film. The officials were the people Moscow sent to Alma-Ata to handle the demonstrations.

“I had run into editing room No. 5 and cut half of the tape before these people arrived. I tucked the cut tape into my pocket and showed them the remaining part. I didn’t tell them anything, but my hands and legs were shivering… I wanted to live,” Yakhin would say later.

He took the original tape home and the next day confessed to Ashimbayev, the deputy chairman of television and radio committee, what he had done the day before.

“Ashimbayev got scared. He asked, ‘Did anyone see this?’ I said, ‘No.’ He then told me to hand the tape to him immediately,” recalled Yakhin.

Ashimbayev represented an educated Kazakh elite. He was one of the prominent Soviet public figures who was respected among Kazakhs for promoting their cause and apparently, he was not the one to initiate recording the demonstrations, at least the way it was accomplished.

He knew what ramification Yakhin would face if he reported on his action. He also knew the risks of hiding the TV director’s action; he and Yakhin could have been faced penalties from losing their jobs to prison terms. Nevertheless, five days later, he tasked Rabat Zhanibekov, a sports reporter who had just arrived from a business trip, to hide the cut tape where no one could find it. Zhanibekov drove to a village close to Alma-Ata where he wrapped the tape in a plastic bag and buried it. It would be recovered only in 1991.

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Alma-Ata demonstrations, 1986. The banner reads “Long live Lenin’s ideas!” (Central state archive of cinema, photographic materials and sound records of Kazakhstan)


The dialogue on the video continued between law enforcement and the students.

“It was his own will,” said the law enforcement official, speaking of Kunayev. “He has been asking the Politburo for a long time… You cite Lenin, but Lenin also said… We should not focus on the nationality of a person, we should focus on how loyal a person is to the party.”

“Couldn’t you find that loyal person among Kazakhs?” argued the students.

Dissatisfied with what they heard from the party and law enforcement officials, students demanded that Kunayev, the Kazakh leader who had been retired the day before, come and explain what happened in person. They started singing popular patriotic songs in Kazakh to cheer each other up. The song many participants remembered was “Menin Yelim” – “My Country” – which two decades later would become Kazakhstan’s anthem.

At 11 a.m. Oleg Miroshkhin, the second secretary of Kazakh Communist party’s Central Committee, called Kunayev and asked him to speak before the protesters on Brezhnev Square. “All right. But does Kolbin agree?” said Kunayev. Miroshkhin handed the phone to Kolbin who confirmed what Miroshkhin said. Kunayev complied and rushed to his former workplace.

At the same time, someone invited the students to march down the street to bring more people. The protest was spontaneous and the students came from different institutions; there were no leaders among them. But somehow, they organized and the proposal idea found support.

The first serious clash between the protesters and the police would start later at about 6 p.m. and would last for hours, with beaten up and detained. Several people would die. Soldiers equipped with helmets, shields, truncheons and sapper spades would attack the protesters; 20 fire engines would spout water from cannons; trained military dogs would be used to hunt down the students. The protests would not end that day. More would happen the following day.