Two leaders – two ways

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Кунаев 1

On 1-st December Kazakhstan will celebrate the Day of the First President. Nursultan Nazarbaev is the first and the last President of Kazakhstan after gaining independence in 1989.

In June 2010 President Nursultan Nazarbayev was declared  Kazakhstan’s Leader of the Nation, which signaled the start of his gradual departure from the political scene in the oil-producing Central Asian nation.

The Constitutional law grants Nazarbayev the right to shape policy after retirement and immunity from prosecution. Also an attempt on the life of the leader of the nation is equated with terrorism. The new law gives Nazarbayev control over government policy after leaving the presidency as well as immunity from criminal prosecution for any actions taken while in office. It also protects all assets of the president and his family.

But today on the Day of the Leader of the Nation I would like to talk about another leader from another era in the history of Kazakhstan – Dimash Kunaev, the last General Secretary of Communist Party of Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (further – Kazakh SSR). My story is based on a collection of memoirs about Dimash Kunaev in the book At the Outset of a Megalopolis.

He ruled the country almost 20 years, from 1964 till 1986. His leadership differed greatly from the present day leader of Kazakhstan. Kunaev was the leader of one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, where all the power was maintained from Moscow. Other republics, with exception of the Russian Federation, were considered to be of minor importance. Leaders of fourteen Soviet Socialist republics (among them were Ukrain, Belorusia, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Litva, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan) worked in very  difficult circumstances, balancing the interests of their nations and the interests of the Central Bureau of Communist Party of Soviet Union based in Moscow.

He was an engineer by profession and after graduation from Moscow Institute of nonferrous metals and gold, he began his career in the position of a digger. Knowledge of this sphere helped him in the future to develop mining industry of Kazakhstan into one of the leading industries in the region.  During the reign of Kunaev the economic productivity of Kazakhstan increased 8 fold.

Dimash Kunaev made a significant contributions to the development of industry, agriculture, and intensive construction. He opened 3 new regions, and 43 cities emerged during this period. He developed Alma-Ata (now – Almaty), which served as the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, into one of the most beautiful and flourishing cities in the whole of the Soviet Union.  During his period Alma-Ata was enriched with unique buildings, parks, theaters, squires.   Alma-Ata was an object of dream and desire, a lot of songs and poems were created there. It is believed that one of the reasons for moving Kazakhstan’s capital to Astana was that the people associated Alma-Ata (Almaty) with the name of Dimash Kunaev.

During his rule, the economic potential of Kazakhstan doubled, and the industry produced more than in all the years since the formation of Kazakhstan. For the early implementation of the plan he had been awarded the Order of Lenin for the success of Balkhash and Dzhezkazgan mining and metallurgical plants, Order of the Red Banner for success of  Sokolov-Sarbaisky mining and processing plant, chemical plant Aktobe, Karaganda synthetic rubber plant, Irtyshugol, Karaganda meat-packing plant.

In 1965 450 thousand people received new apartments, and Kazakhstan became a major base for the production of industrial crops: sugar beet, cotton, tobacco. Also, ministries of nonferrous metallurgy, construction and installation works, geology, energy and others were organized at that period.

During his reign Soviet Union republics built in Kazakhstan Cosmodrome (launching spot) “Baikonur”. The first man Uri Gagarin and first women Valentina Tereshkova were launched into the cosmos from Baikonur. Implementation of the space program, launch of vehicles from  “Baikonur” brought benefits in research and development of cosmos science in areas related to national economy.

During his time of leadership, the development of virgin lands (called Tselina) began in Kazakhstan. This process was accompanied by the mass migration of other nationalities from all of the Soviet Union republics. Tselina had epochal influence on the economic development of Kazakhstan, changing not only the structure of the economy, but also the overall socio-demographic situation of the country.

In the first year of development of virgin lands in 1954 the Republic produced wheat in 2.5 times more than in the previous year.

Despite his high position Dimash Kunaev was an extremely modest person.  His whole life he lived in a two bedroom apartment in the center of Alma-Ata and usually walked to his office without any security. In his relationships with people he was sincere and honest,  but in arguments he was rather straight-away person and preferred to express his opinions directly. As I mentioned, the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, did not like him for his honest opinions and critiques. The last Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev also did not like him for the same traits of character. He made friendship only with Leonid Brezhnev with whom he worked several years in Kazakhstan.

Being extremely dependent on Moscow and working in the strict frameworks of Communist system and ideology, Dimash Kunaev without any doubts put the interests of his nation over any political conjuncture of his own.  Nikita Khrushev several times made proposals that might harm the interest of Kazakhstan, especially its borders. For instance, he proposed to unite all Central Asian republics into one region. Then he supposed to adjoin Shymkent oblast, that situated in Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan under the reason that it might help to raise productivity of cotton. Also he proposed to adjoin the peninsula Mangyshlak to Turkmenistan. During all these episodes Kunaev had to make severe arguments with Nikita Khrushchev, risking to lost his hight position. Kunaev always managed to insist on his point of view, saving a huge amount of Kazakhstani territories.

Conflict between Nikita Khrushchev and Dimash Kunaev was based on different ways of  leadership styles. Khrushchev did not like people who objected to him. On the contrary, Kunaev believed that with strict adherence to discipline, every Communist had the right to express his opinions and ideas.

During the whole of his life he served the interests of his country and contributed greatly both to the development of Kazakhstan as a nation and it’s economy .

He never released any laws to protect his life from prosecution. He did not like people who praised him. He was not an ideal man, he made several mistakes, some of them were serious.

Streets in Almaty and Leninigorsk Institute were named in his honor, and there were several monuments to him in different cities. But monuments and streets may disappear.  Most important that he is still alive in peoples memories and  hearts. That is something that might not be killed. Till now a lot of young parents, who were born after his death, give his name – Dimash – to their sons.  Dreaming that one day their children will be a great Kazakh person like Dimah Kunaev.


Reviewed by: Elizabeth Blackburn