Zheltoqsan means December in the Kazakh language. In December 1986, the leader of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), Dinmuhammaet Kunaev, was removed from office as part of Mikhail Gorbachev's anticorruption campaign. Kunaev's replacement was Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian who had no previous connection to Kazakhstan. The move proved so unpopular that it drew a huge crowd into the streets of Almaty to protest.
Nazarbaev's role has never been fully explained and the commission formed after independence to look into the causes and consequences of Zheltoqsan was dissolved before it could release any findings.
Quanysh Rakhmetov was a college student in Almaty in December 1986. He recalled what happened in an interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.
"We were young students living in the dormitory, but on December 16, 1986, when we were leaving the dormitory friends told us a huge number of students were going to the central square," he said. "Two friends and I decided to go immediately. The square was blocked by the police but we managed to get through them and join the demonstration."
Kalelkhan Adilkhan Uliy was visiting some friends who were studying at the university in Almaty when the protest started. He remembered the first day of protests this way.
"We used bed sheets to make banners," he said. "We had four large ones with slogans. The slogans on them were 'The Kazakh Nation Deserves A Kazakh Leader,' 'Return Our Leader To Us,' and 'Kazakhstan Belongs To Kazakhs.' We left the technical school and while we were moving toward the central square more and more Kazakhs joined us, like rivers flowing into the sea."
Numbers Alarm Authorities
Authorities in Kazakhstan and Moscow were alarmed at the size and intensity of the protest. Tens of thousands of people assembled to voice their discontent at the appointment of Kolbin. The protests continued until December 19.
Accounts vary about how the violence started. Authorities at the time said protesters started the violence, whereas protesters say authorities sent people to provoke fighting among the crowds so that there would be an excuse for the security forces to use a heavy hand in restoring order.
The Soviet army was sent in to join local security forces. Shovels, sticks, and stones were the weapons. Soldiers and police started throwing people into vehicles, sometimes driving them outside the city and leaving them in the snow -- without their shoes -- to make their way back to Almaty as best as they could. Adilkhan Uliy recounts what happened to him.
"We were brought to the detention center on Tashkent Street here [in Almaty] and forced to sit on the snow for two-and-a-half hours. We were beaten severely. The worst thing that happened to us was when we were put in a jail cell. My hands and nose were broken and the beatings were constant."
The arrests continued after the city was cleared of protesters. Rakhmetov, the university student who at the time was a leader in the communist youth organization Komsomol, recalled his fate.
"I had asked two friends to make a banner that said 'Long Live Lenin's Policies on Nationalities, Kazakhstan Should Stick To Its Constitution!'" he said. "For this motto we were arrested on December 22. On January 8, the Supreme Court sentenced me. It was very unusual. The trial lasted only two days and even though it was announced as an open trial there was nobody in the court except us. We were sentenced to seven years in prison."
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kazakh government pardoned nearly everyone who participated in the Zheltoqsan protest, calling them victims of Soviet repression.
Kazakh State University professor Sayin Burbasov has researched the protest. He offers this summary of Zheltoqsan.
"According to statistics from the Central Committee of Kazakhstan's Communist Party about 11,000 people participated in the protest, from which 660 people were jailed and one was killed," he said. "They also were officially branded as ultranationalists, drug addicts, and alcoholics. Later data says that at least 30,000 or 40,000 young people participated in the protest. I can say that at least 25,000 people were there and some 5,000 arrested and jailed. Unfortunately, there is no exact information about the number of those who lost their lives."
Zheltoqsan affected many people's lives. Taalaybek Ylaytegin is from Kyrgyzstan. In 1986 he was a Soviet soldier, one of many sent to Almaty to put down the protest. Ylaytegin was decorated for his role in suppressing the disorder but he is better remembered now for being the first soldier to send back his award as a personal protest against the way authorities quelled the Zheltoqsan demonstration.
"At that time they awarded me a commendation of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR," he said. "I, as a Soviet soldier, helped in guarding the government building in Almaty. The protest I raised was not easy in those times. In 1989, Kazakh writers came to Kyrgyzstan and they told us how many young people were sitting in prisons and dying there. I sent back my commendation and wrote to the authorities demanding an investigation into those events and an accounting of the fate of each person who was sentenced. They (the Kazakh writers) later told me that my returning the commendation played a role in the extension of the commission formed to look into Zheltoqsan and that many people were freed from custody."
Bisenbai Kuspekov was visiting friends at the university when the protest started. He joined the demonstration and was punished for doing so.
"Nobody forced me [to go to the demonstration], I went voluntarily and participated," he said. "I spent a month and a half in an Almaty jail. Then I was single, young. I was released [from jail] but sacked from my job."
Protester Adilkhan Uliy, whose nose and hands were broken, says his participation in Zheltoqsan ruined his life.
Some protesters were taken outside of Almaty and left in the snow -- without their shoes (file photo)
"I tried to get admitted to the university but the [application] papers were returned," he said. "They only hire me to do menial labor. One gets the feeling of being under surveillance. There are no prospects for the future. I always wanted to be a journalist or writer. All my dreams were buried with Zheltoqsan. My son asks me 'father, you have chosen to suffer. What for?'"
Current Leadership's Role
As professor Burbasov said, Zheltoqsan has never been fully investigated. Many feel this is due to the involvement in the events of officials who are still in office.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, for example, was the chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh SSR in December 1986, one of the republic's top posts. His role has never been fully explained and the commission formed after independence to look into the causes and consequences of Zheltoqsan was dissolved before it could release any findings. Nazarbaev publicly recognizes Zheltoqsan as an important event in Kazakhstan's history but he has not shown much enthusiasm for attempts to glorify or publicize material about the protest.
The role of others -- such as Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, an opposition leader and former speaker of Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament -- is known by then-student Rakhmetov.
"As for Zharmakhan, I heard a lot lately that his name was being connected with me," he said. "I can confirm that he was a state prosecutor at my trial. But I want to say once and for all that there were between 99 and 222 people who went on trial and the majority of them were exonerated as far as I know. Mr. Kenebaev, who is no longer alive now and who was a member of the Supreme Court at that time, apologized to us later and Zharmakhan Tuyakbai did the same, showing us his genuine humanity. Think, who is he and who am I? And he still asked for forgiveness. I respect him."
There are events being held in Kazakhstan to mark the anniversary but they, like previous commemorations, are not receiving much publicity in Kazakhstan. Nazarbaev attended a ceremony in September unveiling a monument to the victims of Zheltoqsan, but there is no mention of his participation in any of the events planned to mark the anniversary this year, and he leaves for a visit to China on December 19.
(Merhat Sharipzhan, Zhuldyz Toleu, Mariam Beysenqyzy, and Aizhan Koshkenova of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Venera Djumataeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)