Friday, January 29, 2021

Shifting Capital, Redividing Republic, and Changing Alphabets Helped Soviets to Transform and Control of Kazakhstan, New Study Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 27 – The Sovietization of Kazakhstan involved moving the capital of the republic three times, reorganizing the administrative-territorial divisions within the republic more than that, and shifting the alphabet from Arabic to Latin to Cyrillic over a remarkably short period, Dina Amanzholova says.

            These three sets of changes, along with sedentarization and collectivization, destroyed many of the traditional aspects of Kazakh society but created a new Soviet Kazakh identity, the scholar at the Moscow Institute of Russian History, argues in a new book, The Soviet Project in Kazakhstan: Power and Ethnicity in the 1920s and 1930s (in Russian, Moscow, 2020).

            In a review of the book for the CAA Network, Damir Sattarov says that all three of these policies were intended and in fact produced a new stratum of Kazakh officials ready to work with Moscow but still much affected by their ties to traditional groups within their national society (

            In the first years of Soviet power, Kazakhs formed only a very small portion of the administrative elite, the Moscow historian says. Even in 1924, there were only 38 ethnic Kazakhs among the 190 most senior leaders of the autonomy. Moscow wanted to attract more because most of the most influential members of the nation were still standing aside or even hostile to the Soviet project.

            One way the Soviet government did so was by shifting the capital three times, something that had the effect of disordering existing arrangements and opening the way for appointing new people to office who owed their positions to the new order rather than to traditional elements in Kazakhstan.

            A second way that Moscow achieved a transformation of elites was to redivide and republic again and again, a process that required the appointment of new officials and worked to break the ties they might have had with traditional elites, as well as expanding the number of positions to which Kazakhs and others could be named.

            And a third tactic was to change the alphabet. As late as 1926, only 6.9 percent of Kazakhs were literate. One obstacle was the Arabic script. It did not always work well for that Turkic language. But the Soviets had no choice but to use it even though Kazakhs who did were far more inclined to see themselves as part of a Muslim or Turkic world than Moscow preferred.

            Beginning in 1927, Moscow promoted a transition to a Latin script, but that proved difficult and the process took longer and was far from complete even by 1940 when the Soviet government ordered that the language be written only in a Cyrillic, that is, Russian alphabet, the new book suggests.

            Amanzholova’s book is not just of historical interest. Her work highlights the way in which shifting capitals, changing administrative borders, and moving from one alphabet to another, all things the post-Soviet Kazakhstan authorities have done or tried to do, have an impact on identity and politics in that increasingly Central Asian country. 

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