Caravanserai
Human Rights

New Kazakh film seeks to tell truth of Soviet terror

By Kanat Altynbayev

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Shooting of 'Songy ukim' ('Final Judgment'), a film about Akhmet Baitursynov, can be seen in Almaty on November 16. [State Centre for Support of National Cinema]

ALMATY -- A new movie, "Songy ukim" ("Final Judgment"), will teach Kazakh youth the true history of Kazakhstan's Soviet past and will introduce heroes who were killed by the regime for defending Kazakh values, members of the film's production company say.

Shooting of the film -- dedicated to the upcoming 150th anniversary of the birth of Kazakh writer and public figure Akhmet Baitursynov next year -- began in Almaty in November.

The film tells the story of Baitursynov, who was convicted by the Soviet regime as an "enemy of the people" in 1937 during the height of Joseph Stalin's Great Terror.

The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, executed him that year.

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This photo taken November 27 in Almaty shows a former NKVD prison that held Akhmet Baitursynov and many other Kazakh heroes killed by the Soviet regime in the 1930s. In this building, NKVD officers interrogated and tortured detainees suspected of fighting Communist ideas. [Kanat Altynbayev/Caravanserai]

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The Baitursynov memorial museum in Almaty, seen in this photo taken November 27, occupies the house where Baitursynov lived for several years before the NKVD shot him in December 1937. [Kanat Altynbayev/Caravanserai]

Two seasoned filmmakers, directors Yerlan Nurmukhambetov and Yergen Tokmurzin, are heading the production with the co-operation of the Kazakh State Centre for Support of National Cinema and financing from the Kazakh Ministry of Culture and Sports.

Nurmukhambetov's film "Walnut Tree" won the New Currents Award at South Korea's Busan International Film Festival in 2015.

The film, which is about the hardships of rural life in Kazakhstan, also won numerous prizes at other foreign film festivals.

His latest film, "The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time", was released this year in theatres in France.

Meanwhile, Tokmurzin has directed and produced numerous documentaries.

About Baitursynov

The new film covers all of Baitursynov's life and will be shot mainly in Almaty and in East Kazakhstan province, with production set to wrap up in 2022.

The filmmakers are using a former jail in Almaty as a stand-in for the NKVD facility where Baitursynov was held after his arrest.

Baitursynov, who was born in 1872, was an educator, academic, reformer and visionary of Kazakh linguistics and literary studies.

He reformed the Kazakh alphabet, relying on Arabic script. To this day, ethnic Kazakhs in China, Afghanistan and Iran use his alphabet.

Baitursynov was also involved in politics: he helped pioneer the idea of Kazakh statehood and was one of the leaders of the Alash liberation movement, which aimed to unite the Kazakh people in the fight against Communism.

Because of these activities, in 1937 the NKVD shot him for being a "counterrevolutionary" and "enemy of the people".

Kazakh authorities rehabilitated Baitursynov posthumously in 1988, and renamed streets, schools and several universities in Kazakh cities after him.

In 1993, the Baitursynov memorial museum opened in Almaty in the house where he lived his final years, and the Kazakh government built a monument to honor him.

The government plans to stage events next year around the country under the auspices of UNESCO to mark Baitursynov's sesquicentennial.

In addition, it intends to translate selected works by Baitursynov into Russian, English and Turkish and to publish a 12-volume collection of his academic work next year.

Soviet terror

By covering Baitursynov's life, the film depicts the fate of just one of many Kazakhs executed by Stalin's regime in the 1930s either because they disagreed with his autocratic policies or because they simply came under suspicion.

Anuar Galiev, a historian who teaches at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, told Caravanserai that his own family suffered during the Great Terror.

His grandfather Moldagali Sagdagaliyev, the prosecutor of Kostanay province, was shot in 1938 in Zhanalyk, Almaty province, as a "Japanese spy".

Galiev's grandmother avoided death but spent 19 years in prison as a relative of a supposed traitor.

"The Soviet regime wiped out the Kazakh intelligentsia because many of them were able to think critically, and naturally, they would have interfered with the construction of the Stalinist model of socialism," Galiev said.

Stalin's purges affected not only the intelligentsia but also the peasantry, he added.

"In trying to stamp out all potential opposition, Stalin's regime punished or exiled prosperous peasants, who were known as 'kulaks', and farmers who rebelled against forced collectivisation," Galiev said.

In the summer of 2013, workers in Zhanalyk who were preparing to lay a pipeline found what coroners later identified as the remains of 168 of Stalin's victims. The NKVD had buried them in a single pile after a mass execution.

A monument now stands on the site.

The gravesites of thousands of Stalin's victims -- many of whom are Kazakh national heroes -- are still unknown, said Zhumabek Ashuuly of Almaty, chairman of Kazakhstan's Association of Victims of Political Repression.

"We need to place much more importance on discoveries like these and actively look for other remains," Ashuuly said.

In 1937–1938 alone, Soviet authorities unjustly convicted more than 100,000 defendants in Kazakhstan and shot about 25,000 of them, according to the Kazakh government.

Educating younger generations

The coming film will educate younger generations about history, said Azamat Satybaldy, who is playing the lead role.

"Akhmet Baitursynov was a national hero who fought for the freedom of the Kazakh people," Satybaldy told Caravanserai. "We need to tell our story more often and talk about the great people and important events of those times."

Kazakhstan needs to make more films about figures like Baitursynov so future generations know about them and remember them forever, Satybaldy said.

"Final Judgment" is part of Kazakhstan's efforts to reconstruct and bring to light the tragic history that the Soviet regime covered up.

In 1997, the country set aside May 31 to commemorate the victims of Stalin's terror every year.

In November 2020, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered the creation of the State Commission for the Full Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, which is responsible for "restoring historical fairness toward all categories of victims of political repression of the Soviet period".

In January, local streaming services released "The Crying Steppe", a film produced by the Almaty-based MG Productions. It spotlights the horrors of the famine in Kazakhstan that resulted from Stalin's forced collectivisation in the 1930s.

The film depicts the tragedy of Kazakhstan in the 1930s when Soviet authorities confiscated and collectivised property -- mainly the livestock of affluent Kazakhs -- sparking a mass famine and killing a sizable portion of the population.

During those years, 1.5 million Kazakhs perished from hunger, according to the Kazakh government.

However, Kazakh leader Alikhan Bukeikhan, who was executed in 1937 in Moscow, put the number at more than 4 million victims.

In Soviet times, mention of the famine in Kazakhstan was taboo, but today the government in Nur-Sultan has changed its attitude toward painful historical events and is financing films with a message, "The Crying Steppe" producer Yernar Malikov told Caravanserai.

"The new generation of Kazakhs doesn't know what its ancestors had to endure, and isn't familiar with our national heroes, but we must not forget the lessons of the past," Malikov said.

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6 Comment(s)

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Yeah, those Reds committed more crimes than Hitler

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It's necessary to tell the truth about the current crimes committed by Bais and masters

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During the Holodomor in Ukraine, those living near the border went to Russia to get food. It proves that Russians didn't starve.

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Mothers ate their children in the Volga region. The whole steppe was littered with corpses. What do you say, Nationalists? The Holodomor was everywhere

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It is necessary to uncover the whole truth about the crimes committed by the Soviet regime. Because Russian propaganda has been going wild lately trying to prove it was the ideal country.

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It's not propaganda hysteria; it's us ordinary people. Yes, the perfect country: people are friendly, free education, healthcare, housing — no one needed to solicit donations for their kid's surgery.

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