Yesterday afternoon I went to see the Kunayev museum. I don’t think many people know it exists, but it’s fairly easy to find. Walk down Tulebayev street until you hit the junction with Bogenbai Batyr and the museum is on your left. There’s a bust of Kunayev in the small park on the right.
The museum has two floors, the first floor has some pictures of Dinmukhamed Kunayev when he was young, his gun collection, his medals, some vases. Underneath the staircase there’s a mini-replica of a Vostok rocket, and a sculpture of the hammer and sickle with a Vostok module suspended next to it. The top of the sickle forms the trails of a rocket, it was amazing and I wish I had my camera on me to photograph it.
Upstairs there are the three stars awarded to him as a Hero of Socialist Labour, and a mini-exhibition on friendship between Mongolia and Kazakhstan. In the main room there’s a display with all the first secretaries of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR. I learned that in the history of the republic there were only three ethnic Kazakhs serving as first secretary, including Kunayev and Nazarbayev. This helps frame the ethnic tension which accompanied Nazarbayev’s rise to power. There was also a box from the Ba’ath Party, I recognised the logo as specifically from the Syrian branch.
The museum seemed fairly empty, there was only one other visitor, two curators and the security guard. When I made to leave one of the curators waved for me to follow him, he led me out onto the street and into another building, this was Kunayev’s private residence in Almaty.
I was a bit taken aback by the size, it’s much smaller than I expected it to be. There were four or five normal-sized rooms, and if it weren’t for the fancy decor it could have been any other standard apartment in Almaty. Remember that this was a national leader. People keep repeating the hipocrisy of the ‘Soviet elite’, the ‘corrupt bureaucrats’ who supposedly lived in luxury, in grand mansions away from the workers.
It turns out that Kunayev lived in a medium-sized apartment in an ordinary building on an ordinary street. While he was First Secretary of the Communist Party, he listed his occupation on his party card as just ‘mining engineer’.
Imagine if the leader of Soviet Kazakhstan was just a normal employee who happened to rise up the ranks because he was just politically comitted and good at his job. He’s well respected, and maybe that comes from nothing more than a genuine dedication to public service. He lived a simple life and he was a good communist.
You can tell how important he was from the artifacts dotted around the apartment. He had a wardrobe given to him by Ceaușescu, a mantlepiece sculpture from Kim Il-sung, a wooden alligator from Nasser, and so on. His study had a telephone which was connected directly to the Kremlin (the connection has since been cut), and a row of bookshelves.
On the shelves, along with the usual political texts, he also had a collection of books on mineral engineering printed in Britain in the 1950s.
There are a few alternative conspiracy theories on the corruption scandal which led to Kunayev’s downfall. The first theory is that he deliberately asked Gorbachev to dismiss him because he couldn’t contain the reformists in the party and wanted a reliable individual such as Kolbin to replace him. Essentially Kunayev sacrificed his position in order to stabilise the situation, but he failed and actually made it worse, inadvertently preparing the ground for Nazarbayev coming to power.
The second theory is that Gorbachev dismissed him because he knew Kunayev was an ally of Brezhnev and would be an obstacle to the implementation of perestroika and glasnost in the Kazakh SSR. The great cotton scandal in Uzbekistan gave the Central Asian republics a wild reputation and set a precedent for intervention in their affairs.
It’s clear that Kunayev was popular, but did he foster a cult of personality? I don’t thinks so. Sure there are one or two paintings of him, a bust in a park, but that’s nothing compared to the massive propaganda efforts left behind by mythical personalities. His museum is a small historical institution of special interest, it’s not at all a tourist attraction.
Lastly, he wrote this pamphlet, which I intend to read at some point.