ASIA/KAZAKHSTAN - A Light Shining from Astana: How Kazakhstan Turned Tragedy into Positivity

Friday, 1 December 2023

by Victor Gaetan

The Republic of Kazakhstan, five times bigger than France, established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1992. It turned the catastrophe of 1.5 million victims of nuclear experiments into an active campaign against nuclear weapons in international forums, side by side with the Holy See

Astana (Agenzia Fides) - Even in places where the Catholic population is very small, such as Kazakhstan, the Holy See’s positive influence is palpable.

“Good relations with the Vatican are important to us because the Vatican is a force for good and Kazakhstan wants to be a force for good, globally,” Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko told me, in Astana, the country’s capital. “We promote similar ideals, and are engaged in similar efforts to build peace, understanding, and dialogue.”

Vassilenko and I met last month at the twentieth anniversary of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which convenes every three years, bringing hundreds of religious leaders to the Republic of Kazakhstan, a country that celebrates its 34th birthday on December 16. Pope Francis attended the congress in September 2022.

“The message Pope Francis brought was extremely constructive,” Vassilenko observed, adding that his government also endorses the statement on human fraternity “that the pope and Muslim leaders adopted jointly” in 2019.

The purpose of Kazakhstan’s ecumenical spiritual forum is threefold: 1) Enhance the ability of religious leaders to strengthen global peace, stability, and security; 2) Contribute to mutual understanding between Eastern and Western civilizations; and 3) Prevent the destructive power of religious competition. As Astana’s Archbishop Tomasz Peta explained: “It can be a sign that points to God as the source of peace.” This year, organizers met to plan ahead: reviewing a document anticipating that religious leaders will need to collaborate more intensely over the next decade.

How did such a new nation wind up hosting this ambitious global event? As Pope John Paul II highlighted, for one thing, it’s a function of a long history: “This spirit of openness and cooperation is part of your tradition, for Kazakhstan has always been a land where different traditions and cultures come together and coexist.” (The Kazakh government credits Pope John Paul II with having the original idea for Astana to host a regular event for religious leaders. The pope was the first pontiff to ever visit the country, in September 2001, less than two weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City, when the reality of East-West conflict was poignant.)

As well, Kazakhstan has, very constructively, assimilated tragic history and a challenging climate to redefine itself as a tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society. The Congress is a manifestation of this identity—particularly valuable considering the strategic location of Kazakhstan, straddling Europe and Asia, bordering China, Russia, and the rest of Central Asia.

Deputy Minister Vassilenko confirmed that Kazakhstan is an “ethnically diverse society” based on a unique history of displacement: “We have Roman Catholic churches even in very far-flung places such as Lake Ozernoye in the north where ethnic Poles were exiled in the Soviet times and they survived thanks to Kazakh hospitality.”

Built on Pain: Mass Ethnic Deportation
Hundreds of thousands of people, suspected by Soviet authorities of not supporting the Stalinist program, were deported from their homes to the cruel Kazak steppe in the late 1920s through early 1950s.

In 1936, over 35,000 Polish people living on the Ukrainian border and 20,000 Finnish peasants were locked into train convoys and sent to Kazak work camps. In 1937-38, over 175,000 Koreans from the Soviet Far East were shipped to Kazakhstan. Since local officials were given no warning, many of these poor uprooted souls died of starvation, disease, and homelessness.

After Soviet troops occupied Poland in September 1939, they rounded up some 60,000 Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarussians for the cruel Kazakh steppe—where temperatures in the north can drop to -40C in winter—a journey by train that took up to one month.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Stalinists turned on Germans who had settled around the Volga River, invited by Catherine the Great. Of the 850,000 Volga Germans deported further east, over 400,000 were resettled in Kazakhstan. In 1944, it was the Chechens’ turn to suffer this harsh practice of mass relocation based on ethnicity: 478,000 Chechen-Ingush people were forcibly relocated to the largest Central Asian Republic.

This practice slowed with the death of Stalin in 1953. By then, gulag camps were spread across Kazakhstan, including one reserved for women whose husbands or fathers has been arrested as traitors. Another, KarLag, was one of the Soviet Union’s largest labor camps. It gave rise to Karaganda, the country’s fifth largest city.

Much of Kazakhstan’s economic wealth was originally built by these prisoner workers, whose descendants populated the country and contributed to its multi-ethnic character.

Catholic Perspective
The idea that persecution created a society celebrating diversity and dialogue today seems almost too good to be true. I sought out a talented Rome-based video producer, Aleksey Gotovskiy, age 33, born and raised in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, to hear his perspective on the evolution of his home country.

Gotovskiy confirmed, “The common past reinforced the idea of a multi-cultural society because in the gulags, people were not Catholics or Orthodox or Polish or Germans. They were people who had to survive, and it was done through cooperation and helping each other. So I think from this time of Communism when everyone suffered together, then helped each other, it was a natural step for the new Kazakstan to embrace this idea.”

He sees two other factors as crucial for understanding how the Soviet experience forged great unity from diversity: The physical tasks facing people and the harsh climate in which they were planted.

“These were not death camps as in Germany; They were not sent there to die. People were sent to create new cities and industry. My city was built by people sent to the camps—by Japanese, Koreans, Germans, and many other nations,” explained Gotovskiy.

He continued, “What was most challenging was the very harsh environment, the climate. For people to survive, they had to cooperate, which they did, with help from the Kazakhs.”

Gotovskiy was educated in the post-Communist period when values such as tolerance and respect for religious diversity were actively taught at school. He was an altar boy and remembers being excused from class when he had had a feast day celebration, for example. Literature class included Bible study. On the classroom wall where Russian history was taught, an icon hung.

Kazakhstan’s main religious traditions are Islam (the majority faith of native Kazakh people) and Orthodox Christianity (mainly Russian Orthodox). Catholics comprise, at most, one percent of the 19 million population. I asked Aleksey, how did relationships play out between Muslims and Christians?

His answer was fascinating: “Belief in God unites people in Kazakhstan. I grew up with this belief that there is only one God. We don’t really go into specifics, but Kazakh people don’t think I am a heretic—on the contrary. The Muslim attitude is more like, ‘If there is only one God, that’s our God too.’ So, my neighbors would say to me, ‘Would you pray for this or that at Church?’ and they were Muslims. They believe in one God. So, if he exists, he exists for all of us. Only one God. I talk to him, Muslims talk to him, our one God.”

Nuclear Disarmament
A regular theme explored by the Religious Leaders Congress is nuclear disarmament, described in one Congress document as “the importance of collective actions of societies and States to build a world without nuclear weapons.”

Again, Kazakhstan’s history helps explain its strong public stand against nuclear arms.

The Soviet military used Kazakhstan as its main test site for nuclear weapons. Between 1949-89, over 500 nuclear experiments were conducted above and below ground, mainly in the northeast town of Semipalatinsk, renamed Semey. Some 1.5 million of citizens were exposed to negative impacts of radiation exposure including high rates of birth defects and cancer. The country had the fourth largest stockpile of nuclear arms when it declared independence; four years later, it had none because the new government closed the site and worked with Western experts to dismantle the lethal weapons.
Pope France explained, “Kazakhstan has made very positive choices, such as saying ‘no’ to nuclear weapons and making good energy and environmental policies. This was courageous. At a time when this tragic war brings us to the point where some people are thinking of nuclear weapons — that madness — this country says ‘no’ to nuclear weapons from the very beginning.”
Kazakhstan continues to be an international leader for disarmament and worked hard to gain approval for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) alongside the Holy See. The TPNW went into effect in 2017—without the support of major nuclear powers including the United States, Russia, and Israel. A meeting of signatories is occurring this week at the United Nations. (Agenzia Fides, 1/12/2023)