Was it better in the old days?

Jonathan Steele

  • Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan by Jonathan Aitken
    Continuum, 269 pp, £20.00, July 2009, ISBN 978 1 4411 5381 4

At the height of the Brezhnev period, when the Soviet system seemed politically secure and economically stable, a new theory emerged to excite the hopes of Kremlinologists: that Islam would be the force that undermined the evil empire. The impetus came from two French academics, Alexandre Bennigsen and Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, archetypal representatives of a profession always given to a strong element of wishful thinking, alongside hatred and resentment, in part because it was dominated by émigrés and their children. Bennigsen’s Islam in the Soviet Union (1967) and Carrère d’Encausse’s L’Empire éclaté (1978) argued that the five Central Asian republics were the Soviet Union’s soft underbelly. Their large Muslim populations had retained a distinct political consciousness, they claimed, in spite of five decades of Sovietisation, and thanks to a high birthrate their numbers were increasing faster than those of the majority Slavs. Zbigniew Brzezinski and other US Sovietologists in the Carter administration eagerly took up the theory of a demographic time-bomb and funding was increased for Western radio broadcasts into Central Asia in the hope of exploiting Islam’s anti-Soviet potential.

The notion of a looming Muslim revolt could not have been more wrong. When the Soviet Union started to wobble in 1989, the Central Asian republics were conspicuous by their quiescence. Unlike the Baltic states or the three republics of the Caucasus, Central Asia spawned no ‘popular fronts’ demanding political freedom and national independence. The region’s Communist leaders declined to follow the example of the Party secretaries in the other Soviet republics who called for economic autonomy and later for full independence. Even after the failure of the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev which hastened the Soviet Union’s collapse, men like Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Party leader in Kazakhstan, became Gorbachev’s main allies as he tried to retain some sort of federal structure. In the end Soviet Central Asia’s leaders had independence thrust on them. It was only after the USSR had broken apart that they gradually started on the long road to nation-building. Kazakhstan was the last of the 15 republics to declare independence.

Jonathan Aitken is an unlikely candidate to write a book on this subject. Since emerging from prison after his conviction for perjury in 1999 he has written books about himself and other public figures who fell from grace: Richard Nixon, his former special counsel Charles Colson, and John Newton, the Anglican hymn-writer who once captained slave ships. Nazarbayev’s life story doesn’t have this trajectory. It is 19 years since he became his republic’s leader and his rise has not yet crested. You could say that by accepting the Kazakh president’s commission to write his story Aitken has gone back to his own prelapsarian days. As a youngish Tory minister in Thatcher’s government he enjoyed flattering and being flattered by the Saudi royal family and other Middle Eastern dictators, happily taking their hospitality and smoothing the way for British arms salesmen. This time Aitken comes clean. In his book’s acknowledgments he thanks the Kazakh foreign ministry for free hotel accommodation and Sir Richard Evans, the former chairman of BAE Systems, for several free plane rides around Kazakhstan. (Evans was hired by Nazarbayev to sort out the national airline and was later given control of Samruk, a state holding company with huge investments in non-extractive industries.)

This generosity and Aitken’s many hours of interviews with Nazarbayev and other Kazakh officials have produced, as might have been expected, a one-sided story. But even allowing for that, it is disappointing. It is a pity that Aitken didn’t dig into his own or someone else’s pocket to hire a Russian speaker to read and correct the draft as well as someone with knowledge of the Soviet system and Party officials’ titles. It might have helped him avoid the constant mangling of Russian names, and the repeated failure even to describe Soviet Kazakhstan properly (it used to be called the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, not the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan; nor was there ever an entity called the Russian Soviet Republic). More time and care might also have improved the prose, which often reads like a travel agent’s brochure. Aitken describes the country’s new capital as ‘a city of moods that changed with the seasons. Expectant and restless in spring. Hot and pulsating in summer … the cold starry nights gave Astana a winter wonderland feel of being the setting for a 21st-century fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.’ The flattery meanwhile ranges from the banal to the cringing.

Kazakhstan is by far the largest and most important of the Central Asian states, with a landmass greater than that of the other four combined. It has borders with both Russia and China, and huge reserves of oil and gas, as well as deposits of almost every valuable mineral, from gold to uranium. Nazarbayev, unsurprisingly, is courted by multinational corporations and Western leaders; Tony Blair fêted him in Downing Street in 2006 and Nicolas Sarkozy visited him with a group of French tycoons in September. Their advisers argue that Nazarbayev is more ‘modern and responsible’ than any other Central Asian leader, and it’s true that he isn’t on a par with such neighbours as Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, whose critics have died in vats of boiling water, or Turkmenistan’s eccentric first post-independence ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov, who ran a personality cult of North Korean proportions and erected golden statues of himself all over the country. Unlike Tajikistan, which wasted the immediate post-independence period with a five-year civil war, or Kyrgyzstan, where street demonstrations toppled one ruler only to install a successor who lost popularity in an even shorter time, Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev has avoided political instability. But Nazarbayev’s record still places him firmly in the mythic tradition of the Oriental potentate, ruling with an iron fist, enriching his family and friends, and blocking all institutions which could threaten his ambition to remain in power for life.

Aitken – who skates over all this – builds his book around three theses. The first is that during the Soviet period Nazarbayev was a reformer. Within a party system which rewarded loyalty and submission he often dared to speak out. The second is that he was always a fighter for Kazakh rather than Soviet or Russian interests, and that with independence he was finally able to release the country’s national pride and energy. The third is that he had no choice but to adopt a strongman style of leadership in seeking to develop a vast and empty country. The first thesis is true, the second doubtful and the third wrong. Aitken reports with delight that his former Downing Street boss shared his favourable reaction to Nazarbayev when she passed through Almaty in August 1991. Briefed on his privatisation programme, she beamed: ‘Mr President, you seem to be moving from Communism to Thatcherism.’ Aitken repeats the phrase more than once.

He also consistently downplays the positive legacy of Soviet rule. His central assumption is that Kazakhstan suffered more than it gained by being governed from Moscow. Under Stalin, life in Kazakhstan was certainly hard. More than a million peasants were driven off their land during collectivisation and thousands starved to death. Nomads were forced to settle in defined areas of the steppe. The republic became a dumping ground for half a million deportees from the Soviet Far East, the Volga region and particularly the North Caucasus: the entire Chechen and Ingush populations were sent into exile there. Many leading intellectuals were detained and murdered. But after Stalin’s death Kazakhstan enjoyed almost 40 years of slow but steady economic development. To understand the benefits of Central Asia’s Soviet experience, you have only to look south to Afghanistan, which was not under Moscow’s control (until 1979) and remained mired in poverty, misery and lawlessness. Indeed, it was precisely the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek peoples’ recognition of the benefits in investment, social mobility, health and education which the Russians had brought that made Sovietologists’ hopes of a Muslim revolt against atheist colonialism so absurd.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in