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Kazakhstan Opens Secret KGB Archives Amid Moves Toward Decolonization In Central Asia

KGB materials on members of the Basmachi rebellion, an Uzbek revolt in the early Soviet era. The rebellion's leaders were exonerated by the Uzbek Supreme Court in January 2022, and moves are also under way to rehabilitate many more victims of Stalinist repression in other Central Asian countries, such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. (file photo)
KGB materials on members of the Basmachi rebellion, an Uzbek revolt in the early Soviet era. The rebellion's leaders were exonerated by the Uzbek Supreme Court in January 2022, and moves are also under way to rehabilitate many more victims of Stalinist repression in other Central Asian countries, such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. (file photo)

November is an official month of remembrance in Kazakhstan for the victims of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s decades of deadly repression against perceived opposition and what were called “enemies” of the U.S.S.R.

From 1926 to 1956, millions of people across the former Soviet Union were detained, imprisoned, exiled, executed, or otherwise perished at the hands of the communist government.

But Central Asian states have lately been rehabilitating thousands of victims of Stalin’s repression by opening up their KGB archives and exonerating executed politicians, activists, rebels, and others who suffered or were killed.

These initiatives face criticism from Russia, with some officials accusing certain countries of dishonoring the Soviet era.

KGB Cards

On September 18, the Kazakh Prosecutor-General’s Office announced that some 2.4 million archived KGB cards with the names of victims of Stalin’s repression would be made public. Kazakh officials said that more than 300,000 people who were convicted of trumped-up crimes in the Soviet era had already been rehabilitated and hundreds of thousands more could also be exonerated.

Recently revealed data from the KGB archives in Kazakhstan shows that several million people in Central Asia died between the mid-1920s and 1956 due to imprisonment, disease, starvation, and execution.

British-American author Robert Conquest wrote in his seminal book, The Great Terror, that the number of Soviet citizens who died under repression during the Stalin era exceeded 12 million.

In addition to activists, the Soviet hierarchy in Central Asia often targeted intellectuals and members of the political establishment for imprisonment or execution.

In 1937-1938 alone, more than 25,000 elites living in Kazakhstan, about 10,000 in Kyrgyzstan, more than 13,000 in Uzbekistan, and some 15,700 in Tajikistan were executed for being deemed nationalists and Pan-Turkists (a political movement among Turkic-speaking intellectuals living in Russia/the U.S.S.R. during the late 19th and early 20th century).

Additionally, hundreds of thousands of their family members were exiled to labor camps, tortured, and/or died of disease or starvation in decrepit labor camps across the former Soviet Union.

Mambet Koigeldiev, a Kazakh researcher and historian, said the recently disclosed Kazakh KGB data gives people access to unbiased historical information that was previously unavailable.

“I have been working with these [KGB] materials for 35 years and know how they were created. Everything in these materials is real evidence. The KGB developed a mythology about ‘people telling on each other’ [by giving information to Soviet officials, leading to people suffering repression], but that isn’t true. Neither Kazakhs nor Kyrgyz ever did such a thing. Why did the Soviet KGB create such a rumor? Because they wanted to justify their activity by blaming [ethnic groups], but there is no evidence to support it,” Koigeldiev told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service.

Money Woes Keep Kyrgyz Archives Closed

In February 2022, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court decided to rehabilitate poet Kazybek Kazalchy (aka Kazybek Mambetimin-uulu), who suffered repression in 1930 and died in exile in Uzbekistan shortly thereafter. The court hearing was held based on newly revealed historical facts about Kazybek from the archives that disproved Soviet accusations of him spying for China.

Prominent folksinger Toktobek Asanaliev was among the group that collected archival documents about Kazybek and conducted historical research on the allegations against him.

“We discovered an interesting picture of Kazybek with another prominent Kyrgyz folksinger named Boogachy. The photo was taken in Orenburg, a city in southwest Russia that shares a border with Kazakhstan, and the place where they were forcibly exiled. We presented this photo as evidence to the court to help demonstrate that Kazybek was [not a spy but rather] a victim of Stalin’s repression,” Asanaliev told RFE/RL.

Asanaliev said Kazybek could have also been targeted by communist officials because his parents were wealthy.

A memorial in Kyrgyzstan built on a mass grave of Stalin’s victims. (file photo)
A memorial in Kyrgyzstan built on a mass grave of Stalin’s victims. (file photo)

There is no reliable data from Kyrgyzstan regarding the total number of people who fell victim to Stalin’s terror. But some experts estimate there were more than 40,000 victims in what is now Kyrgyzstan between 1937 and 1939.

In October, the Kyrgyz parliament passed a bill on first reading guaranteeing the civil rights of people who were condemned, repressed, or exiled between 1918 and 1953 by the Soviets due to their religious or political beliefs.

But the bill had been delayed for several years due to a lack of funding needed to process and research the hundreds of thousands of documents in the Soviet-era archives kept by the National Security Committee of Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz historian Jumagul Baidildeev hopes to discover new facts about Kyrgyz victims even from the long-secret KGB archive cards in Kazakhstan that have now been made public.

“Kazakhstan has found information on the repression of victims from Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and [the Uzbek territory of] Karakalpakstan and has published two books that include the historical information. Unfortunately, we cannot access the Moscow [KGB] archives, where we could find [much more] information about Kyrgyz citizens who were executed during Stalin’s era,” Baidildeev said.

Claims Of 'Anti-Russianism'

In early January 2022, the Uzbek Supreme Court exonerated 120 anti-Soviet insurgents, including one of the leaders of the Basmachi rebellion, Ibragimbek Chakabaev (aka Ibragim Bek).

From 1919 to 1931, Chakabaev led an organized resistance of thousands of fighters across Central Asia battling the Soviet regime. The Basmachi fighters also launched raids into Afghanistan. Soviet officials labeled Chakabaev a terrorist and executed him in June 1931.

Despite the Basmachi movement being designated a terrorist organization, Uzbek courts began in 2021 to rehabilitate hundreds of members of the group and victims of Stalin’s Great Purge in 1936-38 who were either sentenced to death or died in prison camps. The total estimated number of victims in Uzbekistan is around 100,000.

“The criminal cases examined by the Supreme Court lacked any court verdict [during the Soviet era]. Most of the people were sentenced to death by firing squad or imprisonment in camps by People’s Commissariat Troikas,” the Supreme Court said in a statement.

The number of Stalin-era victims cleared of crimes by the Uzbek Supreme Court is currently around 500, with the total slowly increasing due to demands by relatives of the victims.

While the gradual rehabilitation of Soviet victims in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and the disclosure of secret documents in Kazakhstan is under way, the Kremlin continues to keep tight control over Russia’s complicated past.

A woman visits a museum in central Kazakhstan dedicated to the subject of Stalin-era prison camps. (file photo)
A woman visits a museum in central Kazakhstan dedicated to the subject of Stalin-era prison camps. (file photo)

In 2021, the Russian Supreme Court shut down Memorial International -- an organization dedicated to rehabilitating victims of Stalin’s political repression -- for failing to comply with Moscow’s controversial “foreign agents” law.

Within the last 10 years, dozens of monuments to Stalin have been erected across Russia and, in 2014, the historical cards of Soviet victims of Stalin’s repression were destroyed in Moscow’s Central Gulag Museum.

Even some Russian media outlets have been critical of the Uzbek court’s decision to rehabilitate Stalin-era victims, describing it as an “anti-Russian act” that dishonored Soviet times.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin

Mirjan Balybaev -- a Kyrgyz journalist who promotes the decolonization of the Soviet era in Central Asia and conducts research about its victims -- says that due to the strong influence of Russian media and economic and political pressure by the Kremlin, Central Asia is unable to disclose all the brutal facts of Stalin's terror, the knowledge of which would lead to a greater historical identity and independence for the region, he says.

“The opening of the archives would bring to light the unknown, previously unspoken, and hidden pages of the history of the countries in the region. It will dispel false myths that the people of Central Asia were backward, lacked culture, an alphabet, and education,” Balybaev told RFE/RL, adding that the deliberate Kremlin policy of dividing the people of Central Asia -- who have many language and cultural similarities -- would also be revealed.

“This would provide greater information about the historical reasons behind certain situations -- such as water and border issues -- that have created problems in relations between the modern Central Asian countries. Furthermore, it would help to resolve these issues,” Balybaev said.

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    Baktygul Chynybaeva

    Baktygul Chynybaeva is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom based in Prague. She previously worked for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek, and has reported on health care, climate change, education, gender equality, and energy security issues. 

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