Kazakhstan Muslims Riot Against Russians Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost revealed to Central Asians, Russians, and other Soviet citizens that Communist Party chiefs covertly protected oppressive feudal lords to maintain stability in the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

The riots in Kazakhstan in 1986 were early signs of the serious confrontations that occurred in the wake of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1985 reforms. The reforms were intended to root out corruption and to undo the illegal actions of previous leaders, especially Leonid Brezhnev. They revealed, however, that Russians were no longer welcome in some Soviet republics and that Islam and pan-Turkism were serious issues that the Soviet leadership had to address. Furthermore, frustrated non-Russian Soviet youth believed that Russians were given preferential treatment in employment, and the Soviet Union as a whole feared complete Russian domination of the nation’s affairs. Riots;Kazakhstan Racial and ethnic conflict;Kazakhstan Muslims;Kazakhstan [kw]Kazakhstan Muslims Riot Against Russians (Dec. 17-19, 1986) [kw]Muslims Riot Against Russians, Kazakhstan (Dec. 17-19, 1986) [kw]Riot Against Russians, Kazakhstan Muslims (Dec. 17-19, 1986) [kw]Russians, Kazakhstan Muslims Riot Against (Dec. 17-19, 1986) Riots;Kazakhstan Racial and ethnic conflict;Kazakhstan Muslims;Kazakhstan [g]Soviet Union;Dec. 17-19, 1986: Kazakhstan Muslims Riot Against Russians[06300] [g]Central Asia;Dec. 17-19, 1986: Kazakhstan Muslims Riot Against Russians[06300] [g]Kazakhstan;Dec. 17-19, 1986: Kazakhstan Muslims Riot Against Russians[06300] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Dec. 17-19, 1986: Kazakhstan Muslims Riot Against Russians[06300] [c]Human rights;Dec. 17-19, 1986: Kazakhstan Muslims Riot Against Russians[06300] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 17-19, 1986: Kazakhstan Muslims Riot Against Russians[06300] Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;glasnost Kunayev, Dinmukhamed Brezhnev, Leonid [p]Brezhnev, Leonid;Kazakhstan Kolbin, Gennady V. Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;virgin lands program Andropov, Yuri

Kazakhstan was the second-largest republic in the Soviet Union, with more than sixteen million inhabitants. Although it was originally a Muslim domain, Kazakhstan had been heavily settled by Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Koreans. Kazakh was the official language of the republic. Modern Kazakhstan was the home of the Soviet space program and a testing ground for nuclear weapons.

Historically, after the demise of the Golden Horde and the fall of Tamerlane’s empire in Turkistan, two Turko-Mongol domains appeared. One of them, the Uzbeks, claimed descent from the Golden Horde Khan Uzbek. They consolidated their position and settled as farmers in the Khiva and Bukhara regions. The Kazakhs, or “free people,” ranged over the northwest, persisting in their nomadic lifestyle as livestock breeders.

Before the Crimean War (1854-1856), the Caucasus Mountains and Iran to the west and the territories of Kazakhstan, Turkistan, and Afghanistan to the east served as buffers between Russia and the British Empire. Russian peasants, freed by the reforms of victorious Czar Alexander II, overran the fertile lands of Kazakhstan, confiscating nearly one hundred million acres of land. Native Kazakhs were pushed up into the hills or into the harsh desert regions of the south and southwest, where most of them died. This marked the beginning of the Kazakhs’ distrust and dislike of the Russians.

Although Kazakhstan joined the Russian Empire in 1893, it was not until 1916, during World War I, that the Russians approached the Kazakhs for military conscription. The army of Czar Nicholas II sustained high casualties on the German-Austrian front, and Central Asian forces were mobilized to work behind the lines. The Kazakhs rebelled against conscription for two reasons: The planned conscription coincided with the harvest, and Muslim tribesmen refused to risk their lives to benefit what they considered to be an infidel Russian tyrant. The ensuing four-month rebellion was the first sign of nationalist consciousness among the Muslims under czarist rule. Thousands of Kazakhs were killed in that conflict, and approximately one million sought refuge in Sinkiang, China. After the Russian Revolution, the Kazakhs suffered in poorly administered collective farms. Kazakh households declined from 1.2 million to 565,000. The entire native leadership of Kazakhstan was purged.

In the mid-1950’s, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev determined that Kazakhstan would be a national showcase for agrarian reform. Leonid Brezhnev was appointed first secretary of Kazakhstan in 1954 with a mandate to effect changes. Unlike the farmland of the Ukraine, where abundant use of fertilizer was necessary, the Kazakh “virgin lands” could be sown immediately after plowing. The ease of cultivation affected the Kazakh peasants; inexperienced urban youth were recruited to cultivate the land. Within two years, Brezhnev, assisted by Dinmukhamed Kunayev, a Kazakh tribal chief, turned the Kazakh grazing lands into productive wheat and cotton fields. Increased use of machinery alienated the Kazakhs, who were not technologically oriented, and the devotion of the land exclusively to cotton and wheat crops for the use of the greater Soviet Union destroyed Kazakhstan’s economy and made the Kazakhs dependent on imports.

When Brezhnev left Kazakhstan in 1956, Kunayev became Kazakhstan’s first secretary. In 1962, Khrushchev removed Kunayev from his post, but Kunayev was reappointed when Brezhnev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1966. Kunayev remained in his post even after Brezhnev’s death in 1982 and consolidated his fiefdom through a network of loyal Russian communists, tribal nobility, and cronies. These bureaucrats found themselves with secure jobs, and with no constitutional restraints or independent media to expose them, they rode roughshod over legitimate Kazakh needs and sentiments.

These relics of Brezhnev’s policies were questioned by Yuri Andropov and later by Mikhail Gorbachev. After the introduction of glasnost Glasnost (openness) and perestroika Perestroika (restructuring), Gorbachev overhauled the nomenklatura: the Soviet Politburo, Secretariat, and Central Committee. He promised freedom of choice at most levels of Soviet society. In Kazakhstan, glasnost caused a confrontation between Gorbachev and Kunayev. From the outset, Gorbachev recognized the degree of Kunayev’s entrenchment in Kazakhstan and the extent of the corruption there. He knew that Kazakh officials had inflated statistics and distorted records so that Kunayev would look good. He also knew that Kunayev could mobilize the same bureaucrats and their families under the banner of nationalism and create difficulty.

Gorbachev moved carefully, criticizing Kunayev for Kazakhstan’s stagnant economy in his political report in 1985 and removing Kazakh Communist Party officials. By February, 1986, Gorbachev had dismissed two-thirds of Kazakhstan’s party committee and approximately five hundred party officials. Finally, Gorbachev tabled Siberian water-diversion legislation that was vital to Kazakhstan’s economy, despite full Central Asian support for the legislation. Funds requested by Kunayev were earmarked for other purposes, leaving the Central Asians to face the consequences of their earlier misguided irrigation projects.

On December 16, the Communist Party of Kazakhstan ousted Kunayev, replacing him with Gennady V. Kolbin, an ethnic Russian. This transfer of power went against the Kremlin’s tradition of first secretary appointments, whereby the office had been given to a Kazakh. It was thus not so much the removal of the retiring Kunayev as the imposition of Kolbin that triggered latent sentiments rooted in cultural, religious, economic, and political deprivations visited on the Kazakhs by the Soviets.

To prevent further Russian infringement, the Kazakhs in Alma-Ata reacted on December 17 with what began as a peaceful demonstration. The demonstration turned into rioting when Soviet troops attempted to disperse the crowd. Outbursts of nationalist feeling eventually swept through the city. Demonstrators armed with wooden sticks and metal rods stopped public transportation, beat Russian passengers, and overturned buses. Demonstrators also burned a food store, smashed shopwindows and pillaged and looted the displays, and destroyed the flowerbeds in front of the Communist Party headquarters. Soviet troops, supported by armored vehicles, responded by attacking the crowd with truncheons and water cannons. As a result of the fighting, approximately 250 soldiers were hospitalized.

After that initial encounter, the demonstrators remained around the Central Committee building throughout the night. The troops deployed to monitor the crowds and keep the peace also remained in the area. The demonstrators renewed their assault on the government center the next morning, and the troops again fought back, this time with water cannons and rubber bullets. Scores of demonstrators were killed and hundreds were injured.

By December 20, everything was back to normal. A confident Kolbin took Mikhail Solomentsev, a Politburo member and chair of the Communist Party committee on party discipline, on a tour of Alma-Ata. The visit underscored high-level concern regarding the growing Muslim population and its potential to cause disaster. In official Soviet reports, the riots were portrayed as the work of disgruntled hooligans. They were, in fact, far more organized than they were depicted, and the crowds’ actions enjoyed the support of factory workers as well as some school and party agencies.

More shocking to the Kazakhs and the Russians than the demonstrations and the killings were Gorbachev’s bold moves against despotism, nepotism, and rampant corruption. Gorbachev allowed the news of the riots in the Muslim republic to be broadcast nationwide, serving notice to other republican protégés that their activities, too, were being observed and that the myth that all was well in the republics belonged to the past.


Before Sovietization, Central Asian society was nomadic. Tribal chiefs dictated the rules of conduct in social, political, and economic domains. Orders were carried out by the heads of the oymak (lineage), boy (clan), and soy (family). An individual’s power was determined through blood relationship to the khan (prince) rather than by ability. Sovietization attempted to replace that feudal hierarchy with a more equitable socialist system. Great strides in this regard were made in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when khujum (an assault on the traditional ways, especially seclusion of women), “dekulakization” (confiscation of riches by the state), and purges eliminated the bays (landlords) and the khans. The root of the problem, class distinctions among the Kazakhs, survived, however.

Kazakhs had long known that although they lived under the rules of a planned socialist economy, their real ruler was Kunayev, who reigned like a medieval tyrant rather than an equitable first secretary. Because of their national and tribal sentiments, they ignored Kunayev’s misuse of Kazakhstan’s resources. After all, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Kunayev’s network of irrigation systems had provided food for most of the nation. Could a Russian inspire similar pride?

As glasnost progressed, it became apparent to the Kremlin that Kazakhstan’s production statistics could not be substantiated and that coercion, extortion, and nepotism had been the norm in the republic. To meet strict quotas, and to avoid embarrassment, party officials had misused their offices, and those expelled from the party had assisted in corruption to regain admission. The most distressing aspect, however, was Kunayev’s mismanagement of the Aral Sea, which virtually disappeared as a result of unsustainably heavy water use. The death of the sea affected the health and well-being of all those who drew on it for a living. Calamities such as the Aral’s slow death were the result of rapid industrialization at the expense of employing advanced technology and mechanization in agriculture.

Only a sound plan backed by a strong economy could have averted disaster. As Kunayev did not have access to either, in the 1980’s he took refuge in issuing inflated statistics and in promising relief through such grandiose schemes as the Siberian river diversion project. His magic, however, had lost its power. Kazakhs who saw no relief from standing in long lines wished him to be replaced by another native son. The Kremlin viewed the situation differently and opted for a nonnative who could suppress Kazakh nationalism. Kolbin had successfully alleviated similar problems in the Ulyanovsk region, and there was reason to believe that he could create fair employment in the Kazakh urban centers, decrease the length of lines for daily necessities, and respond sympathetically to the needs of the farmers. The appointment underscored Gorbachev’s resolve.

Frustrated and faced with uncertainty, some youths took advantage of glasnost and joined the nationalist movement. Others joined Sufi orders or thought of reviving pan-Turkism. Whatever the direction, however, the revolt against the system signaled to the world that the Central Asians had been suppressed far too long and that they would seek national, religious, and cultural freedom at any cost. Other republics appeared to resonate with the events in Kazakhstan, suggesting the turmoil to come within the union of republics. Indeed, this is precisely what happened, as the entire Soviet edifice collapsed in 1991 and subsequent years, leaving independent governments in place, including in Kazakhstan, where the rebellion of 1986 proved to be a harbinger of things to come. Riots;Kazakhstan Racial and ethnic conflict;Kazakhstan Muslims;Kazakhstan

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush. Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Well-organized, comprehensive study of Islam in the Soviet Union provides vital data on all the Muslim republics, including Kazakhstan. Includes maps, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Discusses the major role Sufism has played in shaping Islamic reaction to Soviet rule. Presents the history of Soviet Sufism, identifies orders, and traces Sufi movements between Daghistan and Central Asia. Includes maps, bibliographic notes, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dellenbrant, Jan Ake. The Soviet Regional Dilemma: Planning, People, and Natural Resources. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1986. Focuses on the latter part of the Brezhnev era and examines central economic planning and the ramifications of Russian objectives for the republics. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eklof, Ben. Soviet Briefing: Gorbachev and the Reform Period. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989. Presents a thorough study of glasnost and zakonnost (legality). Puts Gorbachev’s reforms into perspective, noting that reformists such as Gorbachev grew up during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hosking, Geoffrey. The Awakening of the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. Chapter 5, “The Flawed Melting Pot,” traces the roots of the kinship mentality revealed by Gorbachev’s reforms in the Muslim republics, especially Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keep, John. Last of the Empires: A History of the Soviet Union, 1945-1991. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. History of the Soviet Union from the last years of Joseph Stalin’s leadership to the nation’s disintegration focuses on social and cultural as well as political and economic developments. Includes discussion of the Kazakhstan riots. Features tables, maps, bibliography, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lieven, Dominic. Gorbachev and the Nationalities. London: Center for Security and Conflict Studies, 1988. Examines the conflict between Russian nationalism and Central Asian ethnic and religious mores. Argues that the future of Central Asia and the prosperity of its people depend on Russian decisions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murarka, Dev. Gorbachev: The Limits of Power. London: Hutchinson, 1988. Presents an analysis of Gorbachev’s political career, his rise to power, and his ability to meet challenges. Discusses the 1986 Kazakhstan riots in the context of Gorbachev’s reforms. Includes selected bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olcott, Martha. “Central Asia: The Reformers Challenge a Traditional Society.” In The Nationalities Factor in Soviet Politics and Society, edited by L. Hajda and M. Beissinger. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. Presents a comprehensive examination of social, political, and cultural problems in the republics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rywkin, Michael. Moscow’s Muslim Challenge: Soviet Central Asia. Rev. ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1990. Discusses the nature and application of Moscow-based policies for the Central Asian republics. Includes maps, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volkogonov, Dmitri. Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. Edited and translated by Harold Shukman. New York: Free Press, 1998. Work by a prominent historian and former Soviet general with access to formerly secret files provides a sweeping history of Soviet leaders, including Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev. Features illustrations and index.

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Categories: History