NUR-SULTAN -- Following a number of recent territorial claims by pro-Kremlin politicians and journalists, historians in Central Asia are calling for the re-examination of historical facts to ensure future generations know exactly what happened.
Biased or compromised scholars mercilessly rewrote the history of Central Asian states to accommodate the Soviet regime, which spanned 1917-1991, said historian Azat Shalbayev of Nur-Sultan.
To this day, Russia does not acknowledge obvious facts, for example, about the deliberately induced genocidal famine in the 1930s in what is now Kazakhstan, he said.
"There's a motto, 'Those who forget their past have no future'. We need to talk openly about the problems of the past so we can avoid many mistakes now and in the future," he said.
'Transformation of the historical memory'
The Institute of History of the State (IHS), a department of the Kazakh Ministry of Education and Science, and the League of Professional Historians and Social Scientists, an NGO based in Nur-Sultan, recently held an online international academic workshop titled "The History of the Formation and Establishment of the Kazakh State".
Scholars from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and other countries attended the event.
"The conference addressed the challenging issues surrounding the establishment of a state on Kazakhstan's territory," the IHS wrote on its website on January 25. "It devoted particular attention to ethnogenesis and the formation of the Kazakh people, and the history of Soviet and modern Kazakhstan."
At the conference, speakers raised numerous topics, among them national liberation movements in Kazakhstan, the Russian Empire's policy in Asia and Soviet totalitarianism, with references to colonisation methods, collectivisation and the deportation of entire peoples.
The past few years have seen a "transformation of the historical memory" of events that authorities previously suppressed for political motives, said Abil Yerkin, director of the IHS.
He cited several examples: the Kazakh famine of the 1930s, anti-Soviet protests by Kazakhs in the late 1980s and the consequences of the repeated nuclear testing done in 1949-1989 at Semipalatinsk (now Semey).
"I study Kazakhstan's Soviet period, and I understand that we need to re-examine many historical events that previously were interpreted inaccurately," said Zainidin Kurmanov, a historian from Kyrgyzstan.
Another historian, Burkitbai Ayagan of Almaty, pointed to the topographical work conducted by the Russian government under Tsar Nicholas I on Central Asian territory, after which "the Russian Empire embarked on its active expansion".
"For us, the October Revolution [of 1917] was a foreign guest," said Mambet Koigeldiyev of Almaty, a professor at the National Pedagogical University, recalling the difficult Soviet period.
The complete conference proceedings will be collected and published in book form. The organisers plan to hold their next conference in late March.
'Independence Above All'
Conference attendees agreed with the assertions and ideas that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev asserted in a January 6 article titled "Independence Above All".
In that article, Tokayev discussed the Kazakh people's dream of independence, which became a reality when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
"Our ancestors experienced a dreadful famine and repression. Under totalitarianism, we nearly lost our traditions, language and religion," he wrote. "Independence enabled us to revive and strengthen our values. But if we want to continue to exist as a nation and state, the generations of today and tomorrow must be prepared for new challenges."
The Kazakh people "gained freedom thanks to our ancestors who fought heroically", he said.
"It has already been a century since the catastrophic events caused by the famine of 1921-1922 when millions perished or were forced to flee to survive," Tokayev wrote, referring to the disaster that preceded the 1930s Stalin-imposed famine by a decade. "If not for this dire tragedy, the Kazakh population would be many times larger than it is now."
Tokayev also referenced the protests of 1986, when the "sons and daughters of the Kazakh people, uncowed by the wrath of the Soviet government, took to the streets to defend the nation's honour".
The demonstrators, an undisclosed number of whom were killed, were protesting the replacement of Kazakhstan's Communist Party leader by an outsider from the then-Russian SFSR.
"Our sacred land, which we inherited from our ancestors, is our main wealth. No one gave it to us as a 'gift'," Tokayev wrote, explicitly rejecting recent statements by Russian politicians questioning Kazakhstan's claim to its own territory.
"Kazakhstan has internationally recognised borders set by bilateral agreements", and "no one can dispute this", he emphasised.
Tokayev proposed writing a concise history of Kazakhstan for a foreign audience and translating it into the world's most spoken languages.
"This is the only way to tell the world the truthful, centuries-old history of the Kazakh people," he wrote.
"President Tokayev is right to raise the issue that the younger generation needs to know the history of the Kazakh people and our statehood," said Shalbayev the historian. "They need to remember the good but to know the bad. To do that, the tragic pages of our history need to be reflected not only in textbooks, but also in films, novels and documentaries."