Nowadays Kazakhstan can be seen as a prosperous and positive place, shown most clearly by its bizarre and brazen new capital, Astana. However, its past has many sad episodes, and I recently went on a school trip to visit one of them.
The territory that is classed as Kazakhstan has long been subject to periods of foreign rule and repression. From the 3rd century BC, when the Eastern Huns united the various tribes under one larger umbrella, all the way up to annexation into the Soviet Union in the 1920s, the history of this area is one of domination from grand Empires. It has happened on a fairly regular basis, too; in the 6th century they were under control of the Turkic Empire, and Kazakhstan became a dominion of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire a fair few hundred years later. The modern Republic of Kazakhstan became a new political entity, though one that reported to Moscow, in 1925 when an autonomous republic (the ASSR) was founded.
It was during this time when political repression from Stalin began to come to the fore. In 1936 the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (KSSR) was formally established, but the area was already suffering heavily from agricultural policies passed down from the north. Kazakhstan endured repeated famines, and over a million Kazakhs and 80 percent of the republic's livestock died as collectivisation strangled the life out of the steppe.
It is well-known that many prisoners, political or otherwise, were exiled essentially to their death by being sent to Kazakhstan. Germans from the west, Koreans from the east, and various dissidents from the north were packed on shabby Soviet trains to internment camps. Famous examples range from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, exiled to Semey in the 19th century, to Leon Trotsky, sent to Almaty in the late 1920s. But an unimaginable number of middle class and peasants, men and women, even children and elderly, were forced to undergo resettlement to Kazakhstan, often due to a misdemeanor.
Our school trip took us approximately 35km outside of the glitz and glamour of Astana to the harsh, flat lands of the steppe. The fierce wind and driving rain helped to replicate the conditions and suffering that many would have experienced as they shuffled out from their suffocating carriages to their new residence: Malinovka.
The camp that was set up here on December 3rd, 1937 was actually unique in the entire USSR. The reason is that it was a camp entirely for women. Women who had not committed any crime. Women who were told that they were going to a nice dinner, so were wearing their best dresses, oblivious to the awfulness of the life they were about to experience.
These women, who could be grandmothers, mothers, wives, daughters or siblings, were designated as CSHIR – members of families of traitors to the Motherland. In a rather horrifying nutshell, they were linked to men who were alleged to have committed a crime, though many had not. The direct consequence of the family ties of thousands of women was to be sent to Malinovka.
The camp is not here anymore, thankfully, but a museum close to the site is dedicated to the hardship that approximately 7,200 women went through as they clung to life during the harsh Kazakh winters of the late 1930s. This is the number officially stated by the museum – it may have been thousands more.
There were two sentences: 6 or 8 years. It is obvious to state how difficult and harrowing their time at this camp must have been. It was not just the fact that they were prisoners of the state; women would leave this camp fully aware that they would not see their husbands or fathers, who were more than likely sent off to Siberia, ever again. Families were torn apart on a whim. The women who survived this camp, which was known as ALZHIR, must have possessed steely resolve and incredible determination.
It was interesting to learn how the true locals reacted to the establishment of ALZHIR. A popular story is that outsiders spent much of their time pelting the women inside the camp with stones. This is what the guards believed was happening. In reality, the locals were throwing kurt, a Kazakh salty snack, into the camp for the women to eat. It is striking to note that the locals may have realised that the people confined to the camp were indeed innocent.
From the striking Arch of Sorrow that you walk through to get to the museum, along the documents and clothes that probably house hundreds of fascinating stories, through to an emotional film that interviewed many women whose lives were affected by ALZHIR, you begin to grasp how much this camp affected its inhabitants. It is a very interesting place to visit, and remind you of how much Kazakhstan has progressed from its darker and repressive past under the rule of various Empires.
Only one woman, a 96 year old named Anna Endanova, is still alive having been through the ordeal of Malinovka. Many who left the camp when it closed were forced to resettle elsewhere in Kazakhstan, and have contributed to the modern Kazakh culture that can be seen today. The museum, however, is a tangible reminder of how the Soviet Union damaged this country, and its subsequent rise from the dystopian policies inflicted on it makes its current prosperity that much sweeter for many locals.
Love you all,