The Lost Decade

Behind my house sits an abandoned building. Freeze and burn have both left their toll on the structure, which, during sovietskaya vremya, supplied part of Presnovka area with a semblance of winter heating. Ten pillars and five connecting beams are all that remain, thrust from the ground like a whale’s ribcage. Metallic cords snake like loosed veins, and a few bricks hang on like scabs. Four-foot weeds now blanket where the floor once lay.

The building isn’t terribly old – thirty, forty years, maybe late Brezhnev or one of Andropov’s or Chernenko’s sole dictates – and, stuck in the throes of Siberian steppe, was soundly built. The mortar would have insulated the minus-40 wind; the inner machinery would have had to suffice among the worst wear. Granted, late-Soviet infrastructure took knocks for both planning and maintenance – Chernobyl and the Aral drainage are but the most notable – but still, there’s a certain … solidity, a stoutness, that mirrors a people and the necessity of our extremes. A hardiness, or perhaps hardness, evidenced in both citizen and construct.

And yet, with broken plaster still flaking onto the nearby saplings, the building is but a skeleton of what once was. It’s imploded. It belongs in Bosnia or Iraq, some far-flung war-zone that sees bunker-busters and IEDs – not this oil-rich land, this country of swelling GDP and geopolitical surge. It’s as out-of-place as us fresh-faced Americans. It is, like many of the other aspects of this country, an enigma, and its causes and impacts point only, abjectly, to a decade that nearly tore this nation apart.

*             *             *

Twenty years ago, with Communism hastening toward its near-complete demise, Kazakhstan stood out of the way. A spectator to the western-front rumblings, this country neither provoked nor reined. It simply … watched. Yes, there was 1986’s Alma Ata Uprising – riots that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) claimed “were the children of the Kazakh elite [either] drunk and high on dope ….”* – but, and especially in comparison with the other restive republics, the Kazakh SSR paid due fealty to the Moscow chair. With Nursultan Nazarbayev as Gorbachev’s right-hand man – some reports claimed he was being groomed for promotion to prime minister – and with a high rate of Russian irredentism in northern Kazakhstan, it was the smartest tack to take.

*Most of these quotes and facts are going to come from Martha Brill Olcott’s Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise, written in 2002. Also, those riots in Almaty – which occurred five years to the day before Kazakhstan declared independence – are worth their own post at a later time.

As such, when the Union did crumble, Kazakhstan still stood in Moscow’s good graces. While some – famed author Alexander Solzhenitsyn among them – claimed that parts of Kazakhstan rightfully belonged within the Russian Federation, Nazarbayev and Yeltsin enjoyed a détente of whatever ethnic roiling reached their ears.

Helping matters, Nazarbayev was the strongest proponent of an economic union among the former Soviet republics, a shared identity without the trappings of politics. Decentralization, while maintaining the ties that once bound. While Nazarbayev never attained his sought-after Euro-Asian Union, he did help form the Confederation of Independent States, an economic fraternity that still contains the majority of the former SSRs. Such alliance with a wounded Russia allowed Kazakhstan to promptly form a client-state relationship* without becoming but a puppet of the Yeltsin-Putin-Medvedev corps.

*Twenty years later, Russia remains Kazakhstan’s largest patron – the goods still flow, and the pipelines still run – but to suppose a debilitating dependence on Kazakhstan’s part is to misread its independence. Indeed, Chinese inroads, independent relations with Iran, and military exercise with America all point to a country working for the sole benefit of itself. This nation is of its own, betrothed to none other, and maintains and cultivates a severe sovereignty that some other former republics (Tajikistan and Belarus among them) do without.**

**The likeliest way for Russia to have maintained undue sway over Kazakhstan was through economic belligerence. However, not only was Kazakhstan able to pay off its IMF debts eight years ahead of schedule, but it also managed a few other, touchier methods for getting rid of its debt burden. Certain oblasts owed Russia large sums, but, in a convenient reshuffling during the mid-‘90s, such oblasts were incorporated into larger ones. When Russia came calling, the Kazakhstanis simply threw up their hands and said, “Debt? What debt? What oblasts are you talking about?”

But this union, this confederation, could not stay the vacuum left by the Soviet fragmentation. Baltic states excluded, a collapse of the whole meant a collapse of all. While avoiding bloodshed on the scale of Romania or Yugoslavia, there were still deaths in Tbilisi, in Riga, in Yerevan. And while there was the obvious ecstasy and catharsis of Yeltsin standing atop that tank, or of glasnost unveiling any of the hundreds of truths swept under the Soviet rug, the coming questions drowned out any answers 1991 may have provided.

Suddenly, Kazakhstan, a faithful follower of the regime’s doctrine, was thrust out on its own. The nation was “awarded” its independence at a gathering of Soviet republic leaders, a meeting from which Nazarbayev was absent. There was no struggle. There was no say. And, if the next ten years were any indication, there was no time to prepare.

*             *             *

Aside from a political severing, the most immediate impact in independence came in the form of migration. As you may know, Kazakhstan served as something of a dumping ground for all of Stalin’s untouchables, those masses convicted as “wreckers,” “saboteurs,” and “capitalist swine.” Indeed, this nation’s cosmopolitanism resembles America’s – but in the sense of the Atlantic slave trade, with political chattel deposited for the purpose of working the land.

For decades, Kazakhstan had housed nearly a million Volga Germans. These descendants of the great people movements under both Catherine the Great and Stalin had maintained their language and their culture,* and, diverging from the large European groups in America, carried a torch for a land they had lost.

*One of the most surprising things about living in Kazakhstan has been encountering the amount of people who speak German (and who think we’re German, as well). The most common foreign languages taught in classrooms are English and German, and every House of Culture I’ve thus seen has provided a room for German heritage. Unfortunately, the legacy of beer and brats seems to have been lost, smothered by the Russian tradition of vodka and salted fish.

As such, when the Wall and the Union fell, the Federal Republic of Germany extended an invitation, as well as economic incentive, to their ethnic brethren living abroad. They would find land in Germany, and their citizenship would be restored. In the first 10 years of Kazakhstan’s independence, nearly 600,000 Germans – two-thirds of the German-Kazakh population, most of whom had been born in Kazakhstan – uprooted for their ancestors’ homeland. They left behind jobs, histories, and, in cases to which I can personally attest, young children.

The Germans weren’t the only to leave. Similar migration patterns took place among other ethnic groups – 300,000 Ukrainians, one-third of the population, moved back; many Belorussians, Poles, Tatars, and Koreans also left. However, the largest group to uproot was, unsurprisingly, the Russians. The reasons are simple: a cagey population, eyes only on ethnicity, seeing a people it once suppressed now turn to power as their homeland simultaneously shrinks in on itself. All told, some 1.1 million Russians,* about 25 percent of their population in Kazakhstan, departed for Russia between 1988-’98.**

*One of the reasons such a high number actually remained in Kazakhstan was this nation’s proximity to the motherland. There were only slightly more Kazakhs than Russians at the time of independence – Kazakhs only reached a majority in 1997 – and many Russians hoped that the Yeltsin government could somehow bring Kazakhstan back into the Federation’s fold. Of course, such hope was mitigated by the political and ruble crises of 1993, and geographic sovereignty was maintained. More on ethnic relations later.

**Among all these numbers, it’s worth remembering that at the time of independence Kazakhstan was only about 16 million in number. With the combined out-migration of Germans, Ukrainians, and Russians, the population dropped by about 12.5 percent. To speak in relative terms, that’d be 37.5 million Americans departing, most of them white-collar and well-monied. Kazakhstan’s population is only just now recovering to its pre-independence levels.

However, a population drain in and of itself is not necessarily a harbinger of all things doom and gloom. It is the quality of the population lost that marks the impact to society.* According to Olcott’s numbers, the combined departures of the Germans, Ukrainians, and Russians represented a “44.2 percent [drop] in the number of skilled workers from 1985 to 1993.” Management wilted. Factories shuttered. A nation without any history of capitalism now stood with a crippled hierarchy and a depleted skills base at a time it would need them more than ever.**

*God I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m preaching eugenics.

**Even in pre-Soviet times, it was always the Uighurs and the Uzbeks who carried a penchant for bartering and business – the Kazakhs were too busy with their flocks to pay much attention to start-ups and IPOs.

These emigrations, of course, came concurrent with haphazard privatization and the mad scramble for anything worth a kopek. The resulting depression was all but written on the wall:

  • Industrial production, the heart of the Kazakhstani economy, shrank by 25 percent in 1994, leading Kazakhstan’s GDP, already meager from the beginning, to drop 31 percent relative to its pre-independence levels. Interestingly, the areas hit hardest were the northern and eastern – that is, Russian-dominated – oblasts. For example, in 1994, Pavlodar saw 11 percent of its industrial output shuttered, while 10 percent made no profit and 44 percent only survived by selling off their assets. All told, that’s a year in which 65 percent of one oblast’s businesses didn’t make a cent.
  • The south, Kazakhstan’s poorest region, saw over half of its population dip below the “established subsistence minimum.” All told, 55.5 percent of Kazakhstan’s southern half lived in some form of poverty during the 1990s.
  • In mid-1996, about 80 percent of the industrial work force in North Kazakhstan (my oblast!), Semipalatinsk and Kostanai were idle or not receiving salary.
  • In 1999 63.6 of urban residents in Western Kazakhstan (and 43.2 percent of those in rural populations) reported that they “couldn’t provide adequate food” for themselves or their families.
  • Officials allowed two hunger-strike-related deaths in 1998 in Zhanatas, outside of Taraz, when protesters, including pregnant women and women with young children, picketed for back-wages. These wages never arrived.
  • When the tenge was first introduced as Kazakhstani currency in 1993 – its inception is a story for another time – it promptly sported a 2,500 percent annual inflation rate for the first two years, drastically altering any economic progress or planning.
  • In a nod to America’s unholy wealth disparity, “the gap between the incomes of the richest 10 percent and the poorest 10 percent was fourfold in the pretransition years; by 1998, it was more than elevenfold.”
  • (This quote is fantastic, and not just for the fact that two of my good friends now live in this city): “Things got so bad in Saran [near Karaganda], where there had been a large industrial rubber plant, that people were offering to sell their apartments for 1,000 tenge ($6.80) and even to trade them for a bottle of vodka.”
  • Wealth often confers health, such that when the assets bottomed out, so did the peoples’ well-being. Life expectancy dropped five years from ’90-’95; infant mortality jumped from 26 to 36 out of 100,000 from ’89-’97; and by the end of the decade one Kazakh social service official estimated that about 40 percent of the country’s youth were “drug users” – not taking into account the penchant for that wonderful Russian staple, vodka.
  • All told, when Kazakhstan achieved independence, the Human Development Index ranked Kazakhstan as 61st, similar to that of Mexico and Poland – but after just five years it fell nearly two-dozen places, hovering around the Philippines before bouncing back to 75th by the end of the decade.

You get the picture. One of the few stories our former teacher, Nina Petrovna, shared with us about her personal history came in Pavlodar in the mid-1990s. Nina, an ethnic Russian – and one of the most wonderful women I’ve ever met, this country or otherwise – told us of the lines she and her son would wait in, all for a bit of flour, sugar, and spice. The lines would take hours, and the only reason she would bring her son, now in his early 20’s, was because he would be eligible for an equal amount of rations. This kid would stand by his mother’s side, slip in hand, just for a chance to eat for the day. While my friends and I played Power Rangers, while Kenneth Starr debated a dress, while Griffey was sliding across home, this boy and his mother waited.

*             *             *

It took about 10 years for Kazakhstan to find itself. Actually, if anything, it took about 10 years for the country to find a way to turn its oil profitable. The Tengiz oil field, Chevron’s largest international project, was discovered in the Caspian in 1993, and the nearby Kashagan field, found in 2000, proved to be the largest oil reserve discovered since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay some 40 years ago. * Still, mere presence didn’t confer prosperity – some 25.8 million barrels of Kazakhstani oil were extracted in 1990, but it took seven years of independence for that level to once more be attained.

*A Muslim-majority nation, whose main export is oil, that willingly gave up its nuclear warheads? Somewhere, a neo-con is crying.

As is obvious to anyone who has heard of this nation outside of Borat and this blog, Kazakhstan maintains a petro-economy, and the oil wells should last another few decades – and that’s barring any new finds. As such, when Slate runs a five-piece series entitled “Kazakhstan Rising,” you’ll understand that it’s not just hyperbole set for Borat’s fifth birthday.

But those last ten years, as opposed to the first ten, are neither here nor there. That story is far brighter; that story lends credence to those local billboards that read, “Kazakhstan: Twenty years of peace and unity.” I simply wanted to write about those first ten, the ones that sucked this nation dry, the decade that battered a country before it could even begin.

The ’90s are gone. But like a bad dream that still slips back, you know it’s there, that it happened, that it’s just beyond the pale. You see it. Hints, mostly. Shades of a past only just gone.

Sometimes you get a full picture, its bleakness boring into you with slack jaws and vodka-weathered faces. You see it in the 70-somethings, the red-blood communists whose religion fractured and fell when Yeltsin shoved off Gorbachev and declared his new day. You see it in the 30-somethings, the ones whose educational opportunities wilted with the ruble crises and privatization schemes. And you – or perhaps just I, and all those who knew the creature comforts of a ’90s child in America – see it in the 20-somethings, the ones who caught but the far end of it, who were strained enough to age quicker than those Americans now skittering through their land.

But most of all, you see it in the buildings. Because these buildings, smothered with vines and and melded into the background, are everywhere. Once stalwarts of a grand Soviet dream, now imploded and strewn like carcasses. Buildings as shells. Buildings as pieces. Ossified for future generations to see. Stuck just beyond someone’s backyard, always reminding of a decade gone, but not nearly forgotten.


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