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Eshwar Venkataswamy: The Alash Orda in Soviet Kazakhstan

          In February of 1917, hundreds of thousands of protestors and strikers took to the streets of Petrograd, Russia in a bourgeois-democratic revolution, demanding the replacement of the Tsar. Immediately following the revolution, the Tsar abdicated and a provisional government was formed. Despite the government’s introduction of liberal reforms, it did not pull Russia out of World War I, the insatiable demands of which had led to the February Revolution. In October, the Bolsheviks led by Vladmir Lenin overthrew the provisional government and seized control of the country, resulting in intense opposition and precipitating the Russian Civil War. Soon, the issue of establishing a new Kazakh statehood became exceedingly relevant. The Kazakh nationalist movement, Alash Orda, which sought the creation of a modern and autonomous Kazakh nation, took decisive steps to prevent the transfer of power to the Bolsheviks, most notably allying themselves with the White Army in the Russian Civil War. However, Kolchak, elected Supreme Ruler of Russia by generals fighting against the Bolsheviks, declared himself dictator of White Russia, suppressing the liberal, democratic White allies of Kazakh and compelling Alash Orda to align themselves with the Bolsheviks. In the established literature, members of Alash Orda are understood to have become weak and neglected political figures after their acceptance of Soviet sovereignty. This paper, on the contrary, contends that the Alash Orda continued to actively influence Soviet Kazakhstan during the 1920s with their elaborate motive to modernize Kazakhstan through education.

          The Alash Party Program published in the Kazak periodical in November of 1917, before Alash Orda collaborated with the Bolsheviks, reflected Alash Orda’s commitment to modernizing Kazakhstan. Their two objectives were to “liberate the Kazakh people from colonial dependency and … surmount the nation’s social and economic backwardness.” The Alash Orda thus believed that the only solution for the advancement of the Mazakhs lay in founding a modern society. Most significantly, they desired the founding of a democratic, federal parliamentary Russian Republic that provided autonomy to the Kazakhs. This modernization mission however was not contentious to the Bolshevik program. The constitution of the USSR, finalized in July of 1923 and ratified in January of 1924, documented Lenin’s commitment to the Union as “a federation of peoples equal in rights” that granted each Republic “the right to freely withdraw from the Union.” The Bolsheviks thus, in accordance with Alash Orda, were for a federation in which different nationalities possessed territorial autonomy. This similarity in ideology most likely encouraged the Alash Orda to collaborate with the Bolsheviks to modernize the Khazak nation. 

          Efforts for mass education and the campaign against illiteracy in Kazakhstan were strengthened under Bolshevik power. The ninth article of the Alash Orda party program described that everyone should benefit equally from education. The Alash also indicated that education should be free and in the native Kazakh language during the first years. The Bolsheviks likewise were very strong supporters of free education for the masses, ultimately strengthening the campaign against illiteracy in Kazakhstan under the USSR. Stalin presented at the Fourth Conference of the Central Committee in June of 1923; here, attendees discussed what needed to be done to “raise the cultural level of the local population.” Some of the necessities included enlarging “a network of educational institutions of all grades to be conducted in the local languages” and creating “a network of societies for the dissemination of literacy in the local language.” According to one estimate, in 1920, ninety percent of the nomadic Kazakh population was illiterate. To achieve the lofty goal of literacy, the Bolsheviks required educated, local collaborators. Bolshevik authorities thus established Kazakh party cadres through which members of the Alash Orda assumed the responsibility to educate the Kazakh masses. 

          As such, in November of 1919, all members of the Alash Orda were promised political amnesty. Some — most notably Baitursynov and Zeki Velidi — received offers from Stalin to join the Bolshevik party:

"Although both of you are nationalists, we know you as people who will be able to accept the idea of worldwide revolution … In your lands today begins the life of the party. We want to see you inside this work. Those who chose to be out of the organization, life leaves behind. You are not communists, but I want to see you as members of the party and to work with us."

Baitursynov and Zeki Velidi accepted this invitation along with other members of the Alash Orda. They used this political channel to contribute to the modernization project held so close to the heart of the Alash. In the 1920s, shortly after joining the Bolsheviks, some members of the Alash Orda were arrested, being described as “bourgeois nationalists.” Despite most members of the Alash being considered dangerous and subsequently being removed from their positions in the Kazakh political sphere, others managed to stay, most often working as people’s commissars in the Bolshevik government. 

          One such example is that of Baitursynov who was one of the leading members of the Alash Orda. He joined the Bolsheviks, optimistic that this collaboration would result in a brighter future for the Kazakh people. He furthermore noted that joining the Bolshevik party was simply a method by which the Alash could achieve their goal of modernization: “by becoming communists, we, the nationalists, can use the legal channels for the best interests of the Kazakh people.” From September of 1920 to September of 1921, he served as the People’s Commissar of Education of the Kazakh SSR, where he raised awareness for the literary cause and expanded public education efforts. In June of 1922, he became the Vice Commissar of Education and Head of the Academic Center, and from 1922 to 1925, he served as the head of the Academic Research Center. He was, however, expelled from the party in 1924 but continued to work as an educator of the Kazakh language and literature until 1928 by which time he became a professor of pedagogy. 

          Under Bolshevik power, an extensive system of education comprised of pre-school, primary, and secondary schools was constructed in Kazakh. New schools were opened and medreses, schools of Islamic religious thought, were reopened. When some medreses were employed as a dissemination tool for anti-Bolshevik propaganda, however, they were closed again. Also during the early 1920s, the first higher education institutions were established in Kazakhstan: Bukeev, Semipalatinsk, Kazakh, Orenberg Institutes of Public Education, and Kazakh Institute of Education in Alma-Ata. In the next few years, the Kazakh SSR saw an expansion in the number of these pedagogical institutes, and specialized study expanded to medicine, agriculture, and other fields. 

          Because a significant proportion of Kazakhs were nomadic, the Kazakh SSR established Red Caravans. The manifesto for the group was published by Kazakh authorities and listed three central aims:

(1) The investigation, inspection and instruction of local Party Soviets and professional organs and the study of local working conditions.
(2) Political-educational work and economic ‘agro-propaganda.’
(3) Practical medical and veterinary aid to the population.

Each district in the nation was required to send its Red Caravan to provide lectures on communism and educate the Kazakhs in the auls, or nomadic communities. In other words, while explaining the Red Army’s policies and activities to the nomadic Kazakhs, the Red Caravan also established schools and libraries in the communities they travelled through. These Red Caravans furthermore gave orders to local bureaucrats in these auls for the alleviation of famine and the improvement of sanitary conditions. 

          To fight against female illiteracy and promote the emancipation of women, the Kazakh SSR also founded the Red Yurts. These were cohorts of medical and legal experts, veterinary specialists, tutors, and Bolshevik propagandists who offered the benefit of their expertise and distributed educational publications to the illiterate nomadic women. Red Yurts staff received instructions to “organize discussions about the meaning of liquidation of literacy” and taught Kazakh nomads to read and write, sometimes even distributing medicine and educating nomads on the improvement of agricultural techniques. The Red Yurts seldom provided services to an aul for more than five to ten days before moving on. One Red Yurt thus was able to reach three thousand individuals in the summer of 1927 alone. 

          These campaigns contributed to a gradual but robust reduction in illiteracy rates among the Kazakh people. In 1934, over thirteen thousand teachers enrolled in the literacy campaign, and in 1936, another twelve thousand joined the effort. During this time, the Kazak State University and the Academy of Sciences were both established. Resultantly, in 1940, ninety eight percent of children between the ages of eight and eleven attended state schools while 76.3 percent of all men and 66.3 percent of all women were literate. The percentage of schooling and literacy among Kazakhs continued to grow after World War II, almost reaching one hundred percent.

          It is important to note however that the Bolsheviks and Alash Orda had differing reasons for their ardent passion toward the education cause. The Bolsheviks believed that education could serve as a tool of indoctrination, transforming traditional Kazakh society into one open to the influence of the Bolshevik state. Educated Kazakhs would be more open to agitation through newspapers and pamphlets published by the Bolsheviks, and party cadres could establish direct contact with them without the use of intermediaries. The Alash Orda, however, desired stronger education efforts to eliminate the backwardness of Kazakh. While Stalin’s stress on learning local languages arose from a desire to indoctrinate the masses with party media, it also permitted the members of the Alash Orda to build the educational infrastructure in Kazakhstan. In other words, the Alash was in need of government support for their modernization project, and the Bolsheviks were in need of local Kazakh cadres to establish legitimacy and thoroughly execute their policies. While their motivations for educating the Kazakh people did not align, the Bolsheviks’ and the Alash Orda’s collaboration ultimately served a success, severely reducing illiteracy in Kazakh communities. 


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