Clans to Classes: How the Soviets Built Kazakhstan

The Marxist Project
10 min readJan 22, 2022


In recent weeks, Kazakhstan has made it to the front pages of many peoples’ news feeds. Despite being a country of considerable significance in Central Asia, few people around the world know much about Kazakhstan, its history, or its current issues. This video will forego a complete historical account, but it will delve into Kazakhstan’s contemporary history. Specifically, we will look into how early Soviet policies shaped the Kazakh republic and identity.

To do so, we will need to consider what Soviet attitudes towards nationalism looked like. Lenin and Stalin were both proponents of developing non-Russian national movements, cultivating the self-determination of minority nationalities, and ultimately moving beyond national boundaries after substantial modernization. Not included in this vision was any endorsement of Russian nationalism, which Lenin vehemently condemned as a nationalism of the oppressor — completely at odds with the nationalism of the oppressed:

“In my writings on the national question I have already said that an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general is of no use at all. A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation.

In respect of the second kind of nationalism we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence […]

That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or “great” nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question, he is still essentially petty bourgeois in his point of view and is, therefore, sure to descend to the bourgeois point of view.”

In a general sense, promotion of national identity was not out of genuine desire to establish independent peoples. The long term goal for Lenin and other Bolsheviks was the washing away of all borders and national differences. Nationality was seen by Marxists, particularly in the early Soviet Union, as a powerful “bourgeois trick.” The goal of socialism was internationalism, the unification of all working class peoples. From a perspective of national self-determination, it does not matter how noble the intentions of the internationalist ideal — the end goal was completely antithetical to the development of a national identity. To this extent, how committed could the USSR have ever been to true national freedom? The immediate answer to this question is “not very,” but the history is more complicated than that.

The historian Terry Martin categorizes the early Soviet state in the following manner:

“The Soviet Union was the first country in world history to establish affirmative action programs for national minorities, and no country has yet approached the vast scale of Soviet affirmative action […] the vast majority of Soviet citizens were eligible for some sort of preferential treatment. Affirmative action permeated the early Soviet Union and was one of its defining features” (78).

“The Soviet state financed the mass production of books, journals, newspapers, movies, operas, museums, folk music ensembles, and other cultural output in the non-Russian languages. Nothing comparable to it had been attempted before, and, with the possible exception of India, no multiethnic state has subsequently matched the scope of Soviet affirmative action” (67).

“Soviet policy systematically promoted the distinctive national identity and national self-consciousness of its non-Russian populations. […] The long-term goal was that distinctive national identities would co-exist peacefully with an emerging all-union socialist culture that would supersede the pre-existing national culture. National identity would be depoliticized through an ostentatious show of respect for the national identities of the non-Russians” (74–75).

These passages may appear rosy and perhaps embellished, but the reality unknown to most is that the Soviet Union truly did spearhead progressive policies. Affirmative action was, of course, challenged in later years when the suppression of Russian national identity was reversed. Russian culture, language, and thought once again became central. Furthermore, the Soviet model of the working class was a thinly veiled repackaging of the Russian proletariat (for example, proletarianization for Muslim citizens meant abandoning certain customs like abstaining from pork and alcohol). The non-Russian republics, particularly those with a starkly different cultural past from Russia were not given a full opportunity to develop and define their own proletariat.

Despite genuine (and often successful) attempts to integrate indigenous populations into Party leadership, the overarching modernization paradigm was strictly Eurocentric. Consequently, tribal relations and old social norms were dissolved to make way for a proletariat as defined by the dominant Soviet reading of Marx. Just as new classes were erected, entirely new nations were built on the basis of sweeping anthropological work (Hirsch 2000). This is why Douglas Northrop (2001) employs the term, “inventing Uzbekistan.” No such political entity or territory had existed prior to Soviet policies. Uzbekistan, and many other Central Asian republics, were invented by the Soviets after Turksetan was broken up into smaller territories. Though the Soviets attempted to create borders based on ethnic settlement and linguistic differences, they frequently created distinctions where there were none before. Where there was fluidity and variation, the Soviets created clearer boundaries, geographically and culturally. The Soviets made nations instead of breaking them, a fact that repeatedly stood at odds with the aspirations for socialist unity. Nevertheless, the accusation that the nations created by the Soviets were artificial does not consider the accepted understanding that all nations are constructed and fluid (Edgar 2004). The Soviets actually went to great lengths in order to create comprehensive national identities, politically and culturally.

This, then, is the backdrop for the fate of Kazakh society in the early half of the Soviet era. Indeed, “in pre-Soviet Central Asia, the term ‘Kazakh’ only had a socio-cultural connotation — that is, being a nomad or pursuing a nomadic lifestyle. It was only in the process of institutionalization of national identities under the Soviet regime during the 1920s and 1930s that the term ‘Kazakh’ gradually acquired an ethnonational meaning” (Ubiria 2016, 141).

Korenizatsiia, or the policy of nativization, was the central paradigm of Soviet efforts in minority republics. Matt Payne, a history professor at Emory University, studies the construction of the Turksib railroad, which connected Tashkent to Novosibirsk, as the basis for understanding the implementation of Soviet nationality policies in Kazakhstan. According to Payne, the railroad eventually became “an icon of the regime’s commitment to end national oppression and ethnic ‘backwardness’ through economic development and political mobilization ” (224).

Before the Soviet transformation, Kazakh society was largely nomadic and clan-based, with a stagnant subsistence economy (225). Many native Kazakh communists who constituted the republic’s leadership believed that the construction of the Turksib would facilitate a rapid economic development and a transition towards socialism. After initial disputes, a hiring quota was put in place mandating at least 50% of the workforce to be sourced from the native population.

As Payne documents, construction of the Turksib was not without its social obstacles. Resistance to the railroad came from both the imported labor (primarily Russians) and the native populations. The latter was, in some cases, hesitant to accept the imposition of such a radically transformative and perhaps invasive project.

Some of the strongest resistance came from management, where many specialists and educated officials from the pre-revolutionary era held on to deep-seated prejudices. Discrimination, both in financial and in interpersonal situations, was rampant. Kazakh workers were frequently treated as second-class citizens, working for less pay than their European counterparts and enduring consistent harassment.

Resistance to Soviet “proletarianization” efforts was endemic in the early Kazakh projects. Many instances of racially-motivated violence indicated a strong repudiation of internationalist values. Payne writes, however, that “despite the resistance, the Soviet regime pushed through a policy of hiring preferences, educational mandates, and political intervention that can be termed affirmative action” (223). Soviet authorities had a low tolerance for racially-motivated violence and were generally heavy-handed in their responses to anti-Kazakh acts.

High unemployment in the 1920s made any job openings a sensitive and urgent matter for the desperate. The allocation of a certain number of employment seats to Kazakh natives was clearly seen by Russian workers as a net loss of their own well-being. This desperation only worsened existing racist sentiments carried over from Tsarist times. As a result, violence sometimes escalated into full-scale pogroms of Kazakh communities, which, despite strict retaliation from the authorities, persisted in any situation where Kazakh workers made up a substantial portion of the workforce.

In the case of the Sergiopol’ riot, the state arrested a number of the “pogrom’s ringleaders and, after a well-publicized show trial, handed down strict sentences. One leader was shot, two others had their death sentences commuted to fifteen years, and fourteen others received long sentences in solitary confinement” (233). By the end of the 1920s, the authorities had extended prosecution to management as well, ensuring that any ethnic conflict was the direct personal responsibility of managers.

As old management became replaced with new, Communist-aligned managers, the situation in the workplace evolved. Dedicated workers who adhered to the state’s vision took it upon themselves to educate and train fellow Kazakh workers, though this was often done in a Russifying manner and with considerable condescension (237).

Payne lays out some telling statistics of the effects the Turksib had on Kazakh participants:

“In 1930 alone, sixty-nine “illiteracy eradication bases” taught more than 2,700 enrolled Kazakhs the rudiments of reading and writing. Furthermore, to fulfill its huge demand for railroad workers, the Turksib adopted a crash training program that heavily recruited among Kazakhs. In summer 1930, among twenty distinct courses that enrolled 899 students, only 260 were Europeans. The 1931 training plan was even more ambitious — 2,470 trainees in all, with only 514 spots reserved for Europeans. This program soon became a massive in-house training effort to educate nearly seven thousand former construction workers to take permanent positions on the new railroad. In the years 1931–1934, the Turksib’s courses and apprenticeship programs churned out 8,200 skilled workers, 4,500 of them Kazakhs. The emphasis on training Kazakhs was not merely a political decision. The management found Kazakhs more likely to stay on at the Turksib than to relocate to another railroad, and, at least in some cases, they were more attentive students than the Europeans.”

Nevertheless, coercive methods were also employed to proletarianize the Kazakh population. Traditional nomadic agricultural practices were forcibly transformed into collective socialist agriculture, which greatly disrupted the Kazakh way of life. Resisting nomadic herders sometimes responded by slaughtering their livestock, which, coupled with an unrelenting response from the state, exacerbated the significant food shortage problems and culminated in a tragic famine. By the end of the 1930s, Kazakhstan and its native population definitively entered the industrial world. This, however, came at the expense of the nomadic lifestyle that was entirely integral to what it meant to be Kazakh. Though the Kazakh people undoubtedly crossed into modernity, they did so on largely European terms.

The implications of this history should be apparent. What modern Kazakhstan gained in the solidification of a national identity and the economic transformation of its society, it lost in the opportunity to forge a unique path. As is clear from the historical studies, Kazakhstan’s transformation was not entirely imposed from above by Moscow. Moreover, the social mobility and economic potential afforded by Soviet policies cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, for the Kazakh people, the notions of modernity and Russian influence are implicitly and explicitly connected.

Ironically, Kazakhstan’s quest for national sovereignty vis a vis its northern neighbour is almost entirely the legacy of Soviet policies. Without a vision of socialist internationalism, Kazakh national identity will reify, not dissolve. As in many other parts of the world, national identity will be just as vulnerable to “bourgeois trickery,” that is, to the convenient claim that the Kazakh ruling and working classes share common interests.

It is difficult to make a conclusive judgement about the recent protests that have rocked the country, but it is clear the root problem is class-driven. The protests began as a result of climbing energy prices and calls among the rioters have frequently condemned the country’s staggering inequalities.[1,2] While there is little doubt that a handful of competing powerful interests have attempted to leverage the situation in their favor, the sheer volume and violence of the unrest indicates deep-seated grievances among the populace itself.

The unfortunate post-Soviet reality is that the Kazakh people, much like their ex-Soviet brethren, are being forced to choose between local and foreign masters. For those celebrating the Putin-backed repression of the unrest as a necessary evil to stave off foreign influence, consider what the political establishments in Russia and Kazakhstan stand for: tentative law and order, in exchange for the continued plundering of economic resources. It goes without saying that this is what awaits any post-Soviet country in the event of a Color Revolution, sans the order. But we (especially the left) cannot allow ourselves to support a narrative that so clearly benefits the capitalist elite in the former Soviet Union: the idea that any spontaneous popular anger is immediately and always a Western machination precludes all revolutionary potential. Artificially created or not, the Kazakh proletariat must take matters into its own hands if it is to survive from within and without the country.


Douglas, N. (2001). Nationalizing Backwardness: Gender, Empire, and Uzbek Identity. In A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin (pp. 191–220). Oxford University Press Inc.

Edgar, A. L. (2006). Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan. Princeton University Press.

Martin, T. (2001). An Affirmative Action Empire: The Soviet Union as the Highest Form of Imperialism. In A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin (pp. 67–90). Oxford University Press.

Payne, M. (2001). The Forge of the Kazakh Proletariat: The Turksib, Nativization, and Industrialization during Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. In A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin (pp. 223–252). Oxford University Press Inc.

Payne, M. J. (2001). Stalin’s Railroad: Turksib and the Building of Socialism. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Suny, R. G., Martin, T., & Martin, T. D. (Eds.). (2001). A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin. Oxford University Press.

Ubiria, G. (2016). Soviet Nation-building in Central Asia: The Making of the Kazakh and Uzbek Nations. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.