Kazakhstan after the Uprising


Eyewitness Accounts from Almaty; Analysis from Russian Anarchists


Following up our coverage of last week’s uprising in Kazakhstan, we have translated an array of perspectives on the situation from various Russian anarchist sources and interviewed two anarchists from Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan and the place where the fighting became most intense.

This text also includes previously unpublished photographs taken by our contacts in Almaty.

January 6: A view of Almaty. The photographer: “A grim fog hangs from the fires; now everything looks like nuclear winter.”

The following sources should serve to debunk any facile misrepresentations of the uprising from the authorities in Kazakhstan, Russia, or the United States—or their misguided supporters.

To those who spread conspiracy theories about the United States attempting to stage-manage a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan, we must point out that the protests began in response to the government canceling its subsidy on gas, which is produced under a profitable state monopoly in Kazakhstan. Those who defend the governments of Kazakhstan and Russia are defending repressive forces that are imposing neoliberal austerity measures upon exploited workers in an extraction-based economy. The honorable place for all who genuinely oppose capitalism is at the side of ordinary workers and other rebels who stand up to the ruling class, not supporting the governments who claim to represent protesters while gunning them down and imprisoning them.

This is not to say that the clashes in Kazakhstan represent a unified anti-capitalist struggle, or for that matter a labor movement. The most credible accounts of the composition of the protests acknowledge that there have been a wide range of different participants utilizing different tactics to pursue different agendas. Of course, if we are sympathetic to workers who protest against the rising cost of living, we can also understand why the unemployed and marginalized might engage in looting.

A crisis like the uprising in Kazakhstan opens up all the fault lines within a society. Every preexisting conflict is pushed to a breaking point: ethnic and religious tensions, rivalries among the ruling elite, geopolitical contests for influence and power. We saw this to a lesser degree in France during the Yellow Vest movement and in the United States during the George Floyd Uprising and its aftermath, though those crises did not proceed as far as the uprising in Kazakhstan, where, owing to the entrenched authoritarian power structure, any struggle is immediately an all-or-nothing venture.

If it is true, as we have argued, that the protesters in Kazakhstan were opposing the same forces that rest of us face all around the world, then the violent suppression of those protests by the soldiers of six nations’ armies poses questions that we all must confront. It seems that such explosions are becoming practically inevitable as economic, political, and ecological catastrophes hit one after the other all around the world. How do we prepare in advance, in order to maximize the likelihood that these ruptures will turn out well despite all the forces that are arrayed against us? In moments of revolutionary potential, how can we propose transformative questions to the others who make up this society with us, focusing the lines of conflict along the most generative and liberating axes even as we compete with a variety of factions that aim to centralize their own ideologies and interests? How do we avoid both conspiracy theories and manipulation, both defeatism and defeat?

In the following overview, composed in collaboration with Russian anarchists, we present the analysis of the uprising in Kazakhstan that has come out of the ex-Soviet region, then share an interview we conducted with anarchists in Almaty as soon as internet access was reestablished following the crackdown.

January 5 in Almaty; a photograph taken by Zhanabergen Talgat.

The Prison of Nations

Starting on January 1, what began as a single protest against the rising cost of living escalated to a full-scale nationwide uprising, which for now has been brutally suppressed by a combination of domestic and foreign military force.

At first, the protesters sought the resignation of government, a reduction in the price of gas, and the removal of the ex-president—Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Grey Cardinal of Kazakhstan—from the head of the National Security Council. The slogan of the whole country for these days became “Shal ket!”—”Grandpa, go away!” As the protests gained momentum, people quickly came to the point of not wishing to agree to anything less than a complete change in the government, including the ouster of current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

The regime attempted to suppress the protests. Yet the protesters managed to seize weapons from the police and fight back, looting shops and burning down or occupying municipal buildings. President Tokaev declared a state of emergency and sent military against the protesters with orders to shoot on sight anyone who dared to resist. At the same time, Tokaev officially asked the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO, consisting of Russia and several neighboring countries) for support in regaining the control over the country.

According to Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry, nearly 8000 people were arrested during the demonstrations, and at least 164 people killed; since then, much higher figures have circulated. Some prominent bloggers and union leaders are reported to have disappeared. The internet was shut down for days. People were shot in the squares and on the street by snipers and other soldiers.

The military suppression of the uprising, including the intervention of the CSTO, played a key role in the outcome. As of January 10, media reports and testimonies of people in Kazakhstan show that the fighting has stopped in Almaty and mass gatherings have ceased in other cities.

Here is the analysis that Anarchist Fighter, an anarchist platform looking on from Russia, published on their Telegram channel:

1) CSTO intervention. All more or less sane sources among the Kazakhs perceive this as an intervention and an attempt of “Big Brother” on their sovereignty. Every hour of presence of these forces in the country multiplies the aversion and anger;

2) Authoritarian rule has not disappeared. President Tokayev has concentrated more power in his hands, invited foreign military, ordered his troops to “shoot without warning”… But Kazakhstanis are not used to government brutality. It does not stop them, and the dissatisfaction with the government is not going away.

3) The economic crisis will not cease without fundamental reforms towards social justice. Enforcement is essentially just a postponement of price increases. No measures to overcome poverty and reduce inequality in society are offered by the authorities. Consequently, the discontent they have created will not abate either.

In the 21st century, the prevailing social order is only maintained by ever-escalating exertions of brute force.

“Wahhabis, Terrorists, Protesters”—Misinformation about the Uprising

According to the avtonom.org podcast, “Trends of order and chaos,”

The Kazakh authorities are trying very hard to save face and construct their version of reality. The punitive operation is called “counter-terrorist,” as if a “terrorist” is any person who opposes the authorities by violent means. Rebellious people, respectively, are “militants and bandits, they must be killed,” and the reason for the uprising is allegedly “free media and foreign figures,” which is literally what Tokayev said. We are witnessing the development of militant propaganda virtually live on air. The lie that black is white and war is peace, not to the point of sentimentality, and whoever doesn’t believe it—to the wall. After all, no one will feel sorry for the “terrorists,” this is a mantra that post-Soviet dictators have learned well.

From the beginning of the fighting, both Kazakh and foreign media made claims regarding the identities of the protesters. The definitions ranged from “protesters,” “aggressive youth,” and “marauders” all the way to “nationalist squads,” “20,000 bandits attacking Almaty,” and “Islamic terrorists.” It is true that a variety of groups and factions participated in the uprising. But that is not itself a problem—an entire society was represented in the uprising, with all its differences and contradictions. It is safe to assume that different people participated in different actions against the regime, including fighting and looting.

From Anarchist Fighter:

The journalist Maksim Kurnikov said some very interesting things on Ekho Moskvy’s morning broadcast. He remarked that the scheme “to take weapons from gun stores and then attack security forces” is not new in Kazakhstan.

Exactly the same thing happened in the city of Aktobe in June 2016: several dozen young men, divided into groups, took weapons from two gun stores, seized vehicles, and attacked a part of the National Guard, where they were defeated. The authorities of Kazakhstan have been much muddled about the case: It is still not very clear what the basis is for their claims of an “Islamist connection.”

Kurnikov also spoke of paramilitary guards at illegal oil refineries in western Kazakhstan, made up of local villagers, disparagingly called “mambets” (collective farmers) by Kazakhstani townsfolk. These groups have also at times engaged in armed confrontations with police officers.

What does all this tell us? Of course, President Tokayev’s words about “terrorist groups carefully trained abroad” are pure propaganda and most likely a gross lie. That armed cells capable of seizing security institutions and arsenals suddenly materialized from a motley crowd also sounds unlikely. That said, we have no evidence of Islamist or nationalist involvement in the Almaty events. However, as we can see, organized groups capable of active armed resistance exist in Kazakhstani society in principle. It is likely that those people who engaged in direct confrontation with the security forces were partly representatives of such groups and partly spontaneous self-organized protesters. There is an analogy with the 2014 Maidan [i.e., the protests in Kiev], where the defense was organized both spontaneously by the crowd and with the participation of radical organized groups that joined in.”

Claims about Islamic fundamentalists participating in the events may well be true to some extent. But it is also certain that the authorities will make use of any information about them to discredit all the other groups, identities, and participants involved in the uprising. Economic desperation and social and political persecution often drive people to fundamentalism as well as other forms of radicalism.

According to Anarchist Fighter:

“The question about the real balance of forces among non-state actors of the events is still urgent:

Opposition journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov, on Ekho Moskvy radio station, expressed confidence that the armed attack on the authorities in Almaty was the work of Nazarbayev’s people. The arguments for this confidence are not clear.

It is noteworthy that Akhmedyarov noticed in his native Uralsk on the square next to the protesters a group of several dozen organized people calling for an assault on the Akimat. A small group of “identically dressed instigators” was also reported from Kostanai.

What is it? Some shadowy organized rebel force, criminal groups or really provocateurs from state services? Or maybe a “non-violent” narrative, seeking to immediately label supporters of direct action as such? There are no answers.

One thing is clear: dividing protesters into “peaceful” and “terrorists” is a distortion of reality. Even before the events in Almaty, there were clips from the same Uralsk, where the demonstrators were bravely liberating the detainees from the police.

Let’s allow ourselves a truism: yes, a radical “violent” protest does not guarantee success at all, nor is it immune to provocations. But a purely “non-violent” protest in our authoritarian reality is simply doomed in advance. “You have been heard, we’ll sort it out, and we’ll put the most violent of you in jail”—that’s always the answer from the powers that be in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan…

The various rumors about internal conflicts within the power structure in Kazakhstan and the speculations about geopolitical schemes at play in the uprising could all be true. But to elevate these rumors and speculations to the central position in the narrative about what is happening in Kazakhstan is a political choice: it is a decision to deny the agency of the countless ordinary people who participated in the uprising for their own reasons. Like all conspiracy theories, this assumes that the only people who have any agency in the situation are shadowy global power players; it also serves to distract people from the obvious things that everyone knows are happening, such as the political elite of Kazakhstan profiting at the experience of everyone else.

Rumors and speculation serve to influence the events and the ways that others understand and engage with them. True or not, each of these interventions serves to focus attention on certain figures, to spread a certain set of assumptions about how the world works. If these conspiracy theories cast doubt on the participants in the uprising enough to distract people from supporting the protesters who are standing up for themselves against economic exploitation and political domination, then they will have succeeded in their purpose to keep everyone everywhere dependent on political elites.

A throne after the looting of the president’s residence in Almaty.

Tokayev himself has not hesitated to propound the most outlandish stories, claiming that the international terrorists who allegedly led the revolt cannot be identified because their bodies have been stolen from the morgues. According to Anarchist Fighter,

It turns out that the terrorists can’t be shown to the public even if they are dead. Their comrades-in-arms kidnapped the dead right from morgues!

And the main thing is that Kazakhstani authorities with no shame openly state that radical demonstrators dressed up as the police and the soldiers (!!!) Now any atrocity of the punishers can be attributed to the revolutionaries themselves. Maybe the protesters were shot by those “in disguise”? And if it now turns out that the children and journalists were shot by men in uniform and with shoulder straps - then you already know: of course it was the disguised “rioters” and not the brutal executioners of the Tokayev special forces.

Beyond the question of who participated in the uprising, it is important to ask who benefits from its suppression. As one commentary put it,

Putin is not a nationalist, but a guarantor. He guarantees the security of the post-Soviet elite and the safety of their property. He used to guarantee it only in the Russian Federation, but now it seems that he guarantees it in Kazakhstan as well. After all, there is Russian capital there too.

Look at Kazakhstan’s Forbes list. The real beneficiaries of the peacekeeping operation are listed there. The list, by the way, is interestingly international. The first two lines are occupied by the Kazakhstani Koreans of Kim. The first one is the major shareholder of KAZ Minerals, a “british copper company”, as Wikipedia describes it. In 2021, his fortune increased by $600 million. The second Kim, together with Baring Vostok, owns one of the main Kazakh banks, Kaspi Bank, which is also traded in London and has shown impressive growth, despite the pandemic. In third place I was surprised to find a citizen of Georgia Lomatdze, who is also a co-owner of Kaspi Bank and its manager.

Then comes a certain Bulat Utemuratov, who in the Nazarbayev’s government of the 90’s specialized in foreign trade. He owns ForteBank, whose net income for 2020 “amounted to 53.2 billion tenge” ($121 million), as well as the major stakes in the major mobile operators, 65% of the gold mining company RG Gold and a bunch of other assets, including a Burger King franchise and “Ritz-Carlton hotels in Nur-Sultan, Vienna and Moscow”…

The fifth and sixth places are shared by Nazarbayev’s daughter and son-in-law. His son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, owns “the controlling stake in Singapore’s Steppe Capital Pte Ltd”, which owns the “Dutch” KazStroyService Infrastructure BV and Asset Minerals Holdings (Caspi Neft JSC, 50% of Kazazot JSC).

Dinara Kulibayeva, Nazarbayev’s daughter, together with her husband, owns Halyk Bank of Kazakhstan—the bank’s “market capitalization reached £3.1 billion ($4.3 billion).” In seventh place is a Russian financial speculator and founder of the “American investment company” Freedom Holding Corp. Timur Turlov. “According to the company’s financial statements, its assets tripled in 2020 to $1.47 billion ($453.5 million in 2019), equity almost doubled to $225.5 million ($131.3 million respectively), net income jumped 10-fold to $42.3 million ($4 million respectively).”

And so on.

And on the other side of the barricades are all those who either work for all this beau monde for 300 bucks a month (this is approximately how the median salary in Kazakhstan is estimated), extracting minerals for “British” and “Singaporean” corporations or serving fellow citizens in the service sector, which also belongs to all the same from the list; or those who have not found work at all in large and medium-sized business, whose earnings could only be guessed (it is believed to be even lower). Workers, concentrated around enterprises, demand social guarantees (lower utility prices, free medical care, higher wages, etc.). Those who aren’t even workers are simply trying to get their own from retail chains and banks through broken windows and looted shops.

Considering that workers are sure to be dumped as soon as the heat subsides, the actions of the latter cannot be called irrational or unjust.

Downtown Almaty on January 5; a photograph by Zhanabergen Talgat.

A Spring that Has Been Delayed for Thirty Years

Again, according to the avtonom.org podcast, “Trends of order and chaos,”

“The Kazakh authorities and President Tokayev did not trust their own policing and governmental structures in the first place. The police and the army had already begun to move to the side of the rebels, and it was obvious that any of a variety of outcomes was possible. Under these circumstances, Tokayev decided on the last extreme—to call in the punitive forces from neighboring countries. This was political suicide: in fact, he admitted that he was at war with his own people and even with his own state apparatus.”

The sitution in Kazakhstan escalated very quickly—not only the protests, but also the brutality with which they were suppressed. The fighting in the streets is a consequence of the ways that the patience of people in Kazakhstan has been tried for decades now. Kazakh society has seen fighting and shooting in the streets before—in 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s government suppressed an uprising in Almaty, carrying out a massacre,1 and in 2011, when police shot striking workers in Zhanaozen, killing dozens.

When the first news of domestic military intervention came out, this did not seem to cause a major setback for the uprising. The fighting did not cease then—on the contrary, it intensified. We saw videos of disarmed soldiers in the crowd of people, welcomed for changing sides.

Then the internet was shut down. The official reason for the internet blackout was “preventing terrorists from various countries who are fighting in Almaty from coordinating with their headquarters.” That caused a crucial lack of information from the places where uprising was taking place, making it easier to represent—or misrepresent—the events. In a time when everything is filmed, photographed, uploaded, and shared, cutting off a social uprising from means of communication serves to erase it from reality, opening a space in which falsehoods can thrive.

Riot police filming the fighting in Kazakhstan from their vantage point. Information warfare always takes place on an uneven battlefield.

Yet one of the most important events took place in plain sight: the intervention of the CSTO. This raised many contradictions at once. Formally designated as “peacekeeping assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO),” it includes a contingent up to 200 hundred soldiers from Armenia and Tajikistan, 500 from Belarus from dictator Lukashenko (who recently suppressed an uprising of his own), an unspecified number of Kyrgyz soldiers, and 3000 soldiers from Russia. It is significant that the Russian paratroopers who have been moved into Kazakhstan are commanded by Anatoliy Serdyukov, who is experienced in the Chechen wars, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Syria. We can see Russia’s imperial activities on full display here.

In Kazakhstan, the regime is striving to remain in power by any means necessary, resorting to inviting neighboring dictatorships to invade. For people in Kazakhstan, this should mean the final loss of any legitimacy Tokayev might have had in their eyes. Everyone in the region can see that the CSTO represents the unity of its governments against their peoples.

According to avtonom.org:

A president who calls the people of his own country “terrorist gangs” represents a nadir even by the standards of post-Soviet authoritarian “republics.”

In fact, this is an invasion of another country by force on the side of the authorities who have lost the trust of the people. It would mean the endless reproduction of the “Russia is a prison of nations” scenario and would be on a par with the suppression of the Hungarian revolutions in 1848 and 1956, with tanks in the streets of Prague in 1968, and with the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

The burned-out shell of a military vehicle in Almaty, photographed on January 7. No government is invincible, not even the most powerful empire.

From Zhanaozen to Almaty: Remembering the Dead

From Anarchist Fighter:

“The current uprising in Kazakhstan began with the protests in Zhanaozen. The same city where, in December 2011, the authorities shot striking oil workers. The tragedy in Zhanaozen has left a mark on the protest culture in Kazakhstan. The people have cherished the memory of the dead. The duty of the living was to continue the work of the fallen.

And in January 2022, Zhanaozen rose again. The first city in the country, an example for all the others. The formal reason for the protests was the increase in gas prices and rising food prices. But, as noted by Mikhail Bakunin, mere dissatisfaction with the material situation is not enough for the revolution, a mobilizing idea is needed. In Kazakhstan, one such idea was the loyalty to the fighters who died in 2011. The workers who died then under the bullets will never see the world they dreamed of, but death for the sake of a dream became a testament to the living to continue their cause. And so for the rebels of Kazakhstan there is no way back now.

Kazakhstan’s rebellious culture has much to learn from. We, too, must keep the memory of the martyrs of the liberation movement in Russia and Belarus. About Michael Zhlobitsky, Andrey Zeltzer, Roman Bondarenko and other heroes. They died to make us braver and stronger, and we are indebted to them. We must tell how they lived and what they gave their lives for. As events in Kazakhstan show, fallen martyrs are capable of raising people to revolt.”

The wreckage of revolt: Almaty after the uprising.

Interview: Eyewitness Testimony from Anarchists in Almaty

To get more perspective on the events in Kazakhstan, we reached out to two anarcha-feminists who witnessed some of the scenes from the uprising firsthand. They were not at the front of the clashes, but they are known activists who have participated in feminist organizing in the city for years,2 so they have the closest thing to a “neutral” standpoint on the events that we could find.

Anarchist feminists in Almaty on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021.

Introduce yourselves and the situation you are speaking from.

We are two anarchists from Kazakhstan, both she/her. We have participated in many left-anarcho-fem-eco, animal liberation, vegan activities in Almaty over the last eleven years, but we are not so active at the moment.

I can’t name any anarchist movements in Kazakhstan in the 21st century. There were some underground activities in the 1990s, but for the present, nothing like that exists. I used to take part in a left-Marxist group: meetings, a reading group, some public lectures. I don’t know what the ex-members who stayed here are doing now. I hear nothing about any “left-wing” groups here.

I was one of the organizers of one of the first feminist movements here—Kazfem. We organized many public activities and performances, published a feminist magazine named Yudol’, and organized demonstrations for March 8 [International Women’s Day].

There is a youth liberal movement here called Oyan Kazakhstan (“Wake up, Kazakhstan”) that is active now. They organize public meetings, performances, marches, and are often harassed by police. It started after the banner action that Beibarys Tolymbekov and Asya Tulesova carried out at the city marathon in 2019.3 They were jailed for 15 days and it started a big wave of attention, especially in social media, which hadn’t happened before. There is a conspiracy theory that all these activists are pro-government, because nobody is in jail now, but I don’t think it is true. I know many of them personally. They also support feminist and LGBTQ activities. On the opposing side—mostly haters on the internet and some government media outlets—people claim that all of this is the work of “the West” (Europe and the United States).

Kazakhstan is an authoritarian country. We had the same president [Nursultan Nazarbayev] for 28 years, and the new one [Kassym-Jomart Tokayev] is just a puppet. But when the first president quit, people started to think about change. The cult of personality around Nursultan Nazarbayev didn’t disappear after he quit. The capital, Astana, was renamed “Nursultan,” which caused many protests. Over the past few years, the economic situation has been worsening, especially after the pandemic, very high inflation, corruption, etc. Also, there has been a lot of selling and renting our lands to China and other countries.

The situation has always been like this—but ten years ago, or even five years ago, more people were loyal to the president and afraid of “destabilization.” At that time, there was a hope that we [Kazakhstan] were “developing,” that things would be better soon.

Even at the time of the events in Zhanaozen in 2011, when the protesting workers were shot, there was very little support from Almaty. Many people thought that what happened there was right.

Before, if there was any protest, it was organized and supported by the older generation, by workers and people from the regions, the auls (villages), usually led by the shady opposite leader Mukhtar Oblyazov. But over the last three years, young people from the urban middle class have become political activists. It was mostly people from Almaty, but there was support in other cities too.

By the way, I think that the ecological problems in Almaty—where we experience extremely high levels of pollution and it becomes worse every year—are the big reason for youth protest here. Alongside the development of social media, of course.

Downtown Almaty, January 5.

Tell us what you experienced in Almaty last week.

Soon after the New Year, news began to arrive about a workers’ uprising in Zhanaozen. The protest was peaceful, but the demands were quite radical—ranging from lower gas prices to the resignation of the government. Protests also began in other cities. It became known that there would be solidarity actions in Almaty on January 4, but I did not have precise information.

On the way home that day, I learned of protests in different parts of the city and the arrests of activists from [the aforementioned youth liberal movement] Oyan Kazakhstan. I live a little outside the city, in the mountains, and already at home it became clear that something serious was happening. In the evening, all internet connections went offline. I didn’t know where to go and whether I could come back.

Regarding what happened in the city during that time, my comrade Daniyar Moldabekov, a political journalist, wrote:

When the demonstrators approached the square, police began throwing stun grenades and tear gas. Me and thousands of others choked, our eyes and faces stung, we felt sick, we coughed ceaselessly. It’s a miracle I didn’t pass out. They must have fired off more than a hundred stun grenades between 11 pm and 4 am, which was when my colleagues had to get me home. I could still hear the bangs from my apartment.

About an hour after the crowd reached Republic Square, they headed down to Abai Street. There they faced down an armored personnel carrier coming in their direction. A truck drove past carrying citizens waving Kazakh flags. Some of them were holding shields they appeared to have snatched off riot police.»

People heard explosions all night. I refused to believe it. In the morning, the news was reported by phone. I called everyone for half a day, heard about victims, the activists were released. It was only possible to get online at the house of some friends. The Akimat building (the town hall) was being occupied. Everyone was trying to persuade us to stay home. Speculating that the protests might have a nationalist character, some people started to be afraid (I am ethnically Russian in Kazakhstan).

There was no information available about who was in the square or in the city at that time. My friend and I decided to go to see for ourselves.

Downtown Almaty on January 5.

The city was half empty. Cars with Kazakhstani flags on them drove through the streets, shouting something joyful. Everything was closed. On the doors, there were signs reading “we are with the people.” An atmosphere of excitement. As we got closer to the square, there were more groups of young men. I saw a police shoulder strap lying on the road. There were people with sticks meeting. It became a little scary, but no one was aggressive. At the monument to the events of 1986 (the uprising against the Soviet regime), we met protesters with police shields. There was not a single policeman or soldier to be seen.

Downtown Almaty on January 5. The sign on the door says “We are with people.”

Then we saw the Akimat burning. We couldn’t believe our eyes. People were tending bonfires. Everyone was calm. They smashed the doors to the building opposite the Akimat. There were TV channels and other government services. Men came up to us again: “Why did you come?” (They meant—why did you come, since you are ethnically Russian?).

“This is my city and country as well as yours,” I answered. They greeted us cheerfully. We did not feel any aggression from them.

We offered the protesters hot tea. The man told us that he was at the protests from the very beginning—that it all began peacefully, until the authorities began to detonate flash-bang grenades and use violence.

“Now,” he said, “They are shooting combatants.” The guards remained only near the Akimat building itself.

He and other men there had seen people shot in the head. They called taxi services and put injured people in the cars to get them to the hospital. He told us that they planned to occupy the airport, so that the Russian military would not be able to land there.

Many of the bourgeois high-level government and business people had already left the country on private flights. There were rumors that N. Nazarbaev had left the country, too.

None of the people we saw on the square looked like “marauders” [sic].

They wanted the government to resign. They were not carrying out orders; no one was pulling their strings. This was a nationwide labor uprising. No one was scared to die, but we didn’t see any anger. They showed us injuries from rubber bullets and warned us that soon there would be serious shooting, that it would be better for us to leave.

The sound of explosions and shooting became closer and more frequent. We left. One man gave us a lift in his car. All those days, people showed solidarity to each other.

My friends and I decided to stay together in my home. We all felt excited. This was before any news appeared about destruction, looting, and civilian casualties. At midnight, between January 5 and 6, all internet connections were shut down. For four days, we were in isolation; we could only make and receive calls, and those didn’t work well.

That night, the whole city was abandoned by all services, including the fire department and medical services. Fires were extinguished by volunteers. Also, some protesters and volunteers tried to stop “robbers.”4

On January 7, some shops and ATMs far from the city center were still working. In that part of the city, mostly everything was clear, except the burned government buildings around the square. Some services were working there. The previous day, it had been possible to get inside the buildings; no one guarded them. This time, we took some photos and then there was a gunshot in the air nearby and we left this area.

On the evening of January 9, it became possible to get an internet connection with proxy services. A mobile connection was still unavailable. On the morning of January 10, the connection worked everywhere, but only until 1 pm and then from 5:30 to 7:30 pm.

Downtown Almaty on January 5.

There has been a lot of talk from outside Kazakhstan about who is “behind” the protests. Do these accusations have any credibility? We have also seen some news reports claiming that clashes between rival factions inside the power structure are also contributing to the situation. How much do you think that Islamic fundamentalism is involved in these events?

President Tokaev still rules, in spite of rumors about his retirement. Now government TV channels and media are spreading so much disinformation and propaganda. It’s very early to draw conclusions, but some things are clear.

Everything started as a popular uprising. Yes, they burned Akimat, but no one led them. They just wanted the old regime gone. They were not “criminals” [sic].

After it started, some other forces showed up. We don’t know who they were. But it’s true that they were organized. But by whom? Now there are many rumors. Some official media says they are from [neighboring] Kyrgystan, where there have been several revolutions since independence [like Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan became independent when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991]. Those outlets are also spreading reports about the Taliban or jihadists. People I know personally said they saw people on the streets who “looked like them” [sic].

Here in Kazakhstan, I haven’t seen any talk about the CIA [the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States government]. I think that is Russian propaganda.

The former adviser of the president has been making claims about a conspiracy inside governmental structures, claiming that for several years there were “training camps” in mountains and the National Safety Committee was hiding this information. He claimed: “I have exclusive information that, for example, 40 minutes before the attack on the airport, an order was given to completely remove the cordon and guards.”

Almaty, January 7.

What can you say about the internal dynamics of the uprising?

Everyone outside of Kazakhstan is trying to analyze what’s going on and it’s very difficult to do that without context, and those inside the country can’t do it because of the lack of complete information. I think that even we—the residents of this country—won’t understand what happened for a long time yet. In addition to the fact that there is no stable internet connection now, and that before that, there was not even a cell phone connection, all the news channels are severely censored, and it is only going to get worse.

I will not describe the theories that are circulating now, but they all concern different power struggles between the Nazarbayev clan and others seeking power—for example, there is one theory that Tokayev, with the assistance of the Russian military, is securing his position in power.

The scary thing about all this is that tens of thousands of people were involved in the game and their well-intentioned attempts to change the social and political conditions in this country for the better, for everyone’s sake, are now being used by a few people to divide the resources of this country among themselves in a new way. Yes, it all started with the economic demands of workers in western Kazakhstan, who were protesting the sharp hike in gas prices. Then the demands became political: the resignation of the government and president, the election of akims (mayors), and a parliamentary republic. Some of the demands were met, but not at once, and when they were ignored, a wave of protest and solidarity spread to all the cities of Kazakhstan, so that from outside it looked like a big revolutionary outburst, which in our country has not occurred throughout thirty years of authoritarian regime.

We can’t say anything for sure now, except one thing—this protest had no public leader, and the street riots and occupations of administrative buildings had no voiced demands. But there were murders and a huge number of victims among the population, who suffered first in battles with the police, then with each other in the streets, from which the police fled, and then the shooting of civilians in the streets by the armed forces of Kazakhstan and the CSTO (although we are promised that they only protect state facilities now).

The mass media that were permitted to continue functioning began to tell us about radicals and Islamists, using the image of the enemy from outside. Before that, during the first days of the protests, there was a discourse calling to “engage in a peaceful dialogue with the protesters”—and a day later there was already an order to shoot to kill (in President Tokayev’s speech). After the entry of CSTO troops and two days of constant shooting in the streets, Tokayev equated protesters with terrorists, as well as activists and human rights defenders, and independent media in his words became a threat to stability. State discourse is constantly changing in the process of this search for an enemy: yesterday that enemy was supposedly bribed unemployed people from Kyrgyzstan, today it’s already radicals from Afghanistan. We all hope that tomorrow it won’t be the activists who have advocated for political reforms in Kazakhstan for the last three years and came out to rallies.

Downtown Almaty on January 5.

What can you tell us about the repression?

Kyrgyz musiсian Vicram Ruzakhunov was arrested and tortured by Kazakh authorities as a “terrorist” and was made to record a video and “confess.” Now he is free.

Local independent journalist Lukpan Akhmediyarov has been arrested. Another independent journalist, Makhambet Abjan, messaged that on January 5, police came to his apartment; now he is missing. My friends and many other people on social media report that their relatives and friends are missing too.

Officials have already confirmed the deaths of hundreds of victims, including two children. Activists from labor unions are missing—including Kuspan Kosshigulov, Takhir Erdanov, and Amin Eleusinov and his relatives.

In Almaty, journalists from Channel Dozhd’ (Телеканал Дождь), who tried to take footage in the municipal morgue, were shot at (they were not harmed).

On January 6, volunteers came to the square. Some activists displayed a banner reading “We are not terrorists.” Police shot at them, killing at least one.

Downtown Almaty on January 5; a photograph by Zhanabergen Talgat.

How do you think that Russian troops entering Kazakhstan will change the situation, in the long term?

The entry of Russian troops is very worrying. In the situation of a war with Ukraine, we could imagine all the worst scenarios. Everyone I know agrees that this is inappropriate, and that we can call it an occupation.

Personally, I’m afraid that Russian troops entering this country will cement the already strong influence of Russia on Kazakhstan politically, and Kazakhstan will become like the Russia that we know now, with tortured activists and trumped up cases. Our political opposition is already completely silenced, and the population of the country completely intimidated. Considering that this is the second shooting during protests (2011 and 2022), and in the history of Kazakhstan there was also a brutal suppression of an uprising under the USSR in 1986, and the information on the number of people killed back then is still classified… then there is no hope that in the near future we will know what really happened and how many people were killed and wounded. The count most likely goes to thousands people.

What do you think will happen next?

Now it’s very early to imagine the outcome, in a situation of information wars, propaganda, and isolation. I’m not a political expert.

For sure, repression will intensify now. The internet and all media will be censored. Now the government tries to put on a “good face,” like they are the saviors who saved us from terrorists. I am not sure this will work. But for the time being, I think it will be quiet. People are too scared and shocked.

Is there anything that people outside Kazakhstan can do to support you or others there?

To spread information, of course. Maybe soon, there will be more repression, and some activists will require help to leave country.

The most important support is informational. In 2019, after the presidential election, we were all arrested at the rallies and the only ones that wrote about it were foreign media and independent Kazakhstani media (which are very few and the sites are often blocked). Now it is very important that the bloody January in Kazakhstan was not just a beautiful revolutionary picture as many left-wing publications write, but also that it is not remembered as a terrorist act from outside, as all the official sources from different countries say.

Further Reading

January 6: A view of Almaty in the smoke, the day after.

  1. From December 17-19, 1986, there were protests in Almaty in response to Mikhail Gorbachev, then-General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, dismissing the longstanding First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and replacing him with an official from Russia. (Gorbachev later claimed he was trying to prevent Nursultan Nazarbayev from concentrating too much power in his hands; Nazarbayev went on to rule Kazakhstan for 28 years.) In 1986, as in 2022, the protests ended in a massacre at the hands of state forces. In 1986, as in 2022, rumors spread that the protesters were bribed with vodka or led astray via leaflets. 

  2. Kazfem, arguably the first feminist movement in Kazakhstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, publishes the feminist magazine Yudol’ and organizes demonstrations for March 8, International Women’s Day. 

  3. On April 21, Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov were jailed for 15 days, charged with violating Kazakhstan’s law regarding public assembly after hanging a banner along the marathon route in Almaty, reading “You can’t run from the truth”—a comment on the presidential elections. 

  4. This news article explores this issue, albeit from a partisan position.