Sitting in a modest, domed brick mausoleum, a bust of the partisan Nurmagambet Kokembayev smiles Buddah-like as he gazes out upon the snow-laden steppe of central Kazakhstan. It betrays nothing of the turbulent historical period he lived in, an epoch that is still a sensitive spot for the Central Asian nation’s leaders.
Some 50 kilometers away, in the mining town of Arkalyk, a larger monument to the same marksman, who is known more commonly as Keiki Batyr, stands next to a statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Keiki Batyr is cast cradling his beloved rifle, but it was the Bolsheviks who got the last shot.
Keiki Batyr was a homespun steppe rebel who styled himself as a defender of Kazakh land, an enemy to colonialists of both the red and white type. He is believed to have been killed in 1922 or 1923, most likely by the Bolsheviks after they wrested control of Central Asia.
Until recently, he was a relatively forgotten historical figure outside of his native region in central Kazakhstan. But last year, he shot back to national prominence after then-prime minister Karim Masimov negotiated the return of his skull from the Kunstkamera museum in St. Petersburg.
According to media reports, the skull was displayed in the Kunstkamera as exhibit “3383. A famous [Kazakh] bandit,” who “terrorized [Russian] settlers and the local population.” The display also noted matter-of-factly that he “participated in the siege of the town of Turgai in 1916.”
Shoptybai Baidildin, a historian from Arkalyk, who wrote a book on Keiki Batyr based partly on accounts from contemporaries, provides a more flattering portrait. “He was a man for the poor people. A Che Guevara of his time, I suppose,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “He could pick off enemies with his rifle, unsighted. He took on the White Army, and then the Bolsheviks. If this was the West, they would have long ago made a TV show about him.”
The monuments to Keiki Batyr are perhaps more an exception than a rule in Kazakhstan these days. In many instances, authorities tread gingerly when it comes to Kazakhstan’s history in the 20th century.
Among the most sensitive moments in the 20th century in Central Asia is 1916, when much of the region was plunged into turmoil by a World War I-era conscription order and colonial land policies that privileged Russian settlers. The tumultuous events are truly the stuff of period dramas.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where tens of thousands of Kyrgyz died clashing with and fleeing from imperial authorities, a film recounting that episode, Urkun (“Great Flight”), was released in September following a delay reportedly provoked by fears of an intemperate reaction from Moscow.
Following significant public pressure, the Urkun’s centenary was observed at the state level in a carefully worded statement from President Almazbek Atambayev.
In authoritarian and multi-ethnic Kazakhstan, the relationship with the Kremlin is not the only reason to proceed carefully when considering the history of the nation’s gradual and bloody assimilation into the Soviet Union. “This period doesn’t just divide Russians and Kazakhs — it splits Kazakh society in two,” said Berik Abdygaliuli, a former mayor of Arkalyk, who now works at the recently opened Military History Museum in Astana.
“Keiki and others opposed the [World War I] conscription drive. But much of our intelligentsia saw it as a chance for Kazakhs to see the world and advance themselves,” Abdygaliuli said.
Among those that supported the drive were Alikhan Bukeikhanov and Akhmet Baitursynov, who worked together at the influential newspaper “Kazakh,” and went on to assume leading roles in the Alash Orda movement that fought for Kazakh autonomy.
Bukeikhanov, who served as the de-facto prime minister of a Kazakh state from 1917-1920, cuts perhaps the most interesting national historical figure from the period. An admirer of European democracies and a strong advocate of Kazakhstan’s Westernization, he sided with the Whites in Russia’s civil war chiefly because he believed they offered the fastest path to an independent Kazakh state.
Although he survived the early years of communism, he was executed at the height of the Red Terror in 1937 along with Baitursynov and a number of other leading Kazakh intellectuals of the era.
Kazakhstan’s veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev – a communist regime loyalist right to the very end of the Soviet era — has paid lip service to the members of Alash Orda. But many in present-day Kazakhstan are dissatisfied with the government for underplaying the movement’s historical contributions to statehood.
Recently, the government has begun to place greater emphasis on Kazakh history, a move seemingly sparked by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whose comment in 2014 that Kazakhstan “never had a state” prior to the Soviet Union triggered public uproar.
Even in the context of this fresh historical turn, however, authorities have displayed a strong preference for khans lost to the mists of time over more recent figures whose lives are better documented.
Rinat Balgabayev, director of the White Media communications company in Astana, said the Alash Orda movement is “uncomfortable” for the government, precisely because Bukeikhanov and his allies hinted at a different, more democratic model for the country’s political development. “Alash Orda remains a powerful tool for building Kazakh self-awareness,” said Balgabayev.
“Authorities have decided, for their own reasons, not to use this tool. In the future, someone else will,” he told EurasiaNet.org
Keiki Batyr, given his humble origins, seems to be a different kind of ghost for the government.
Some observers see the return of his skull from Russia as a move to mollify the country’s burgeoning nationalist movement. It is hardly a coincidence, they say, that the return of his skull was secured months after the authorities were rocked by unprecedented nationwide protests over changes to the law that many feared might lead to foreigners acquiring swathes of Kazakh land.
This coming September, Keiki Batyr’s skull will be placed in a newly built mausoleum not far from the one that currently houses his bust. Archaeological work in three different parts of the region to locate his other body parts will begin in the spring. The question of whether that will help put his legend to rest, or simply rekindle public interest in the chaotic period, is an open one.
Chris Rickleton is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.