Kazakhstan’s ex-president releases a controversial memoir

Kazakhstan's ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev's new book displayed at a bookstore. Screenshot from a video on KTK Digital's YouTube channel. Fair use.

On December 1, Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s new memoir “Menin omirim. Bodandyktan – bostandykka” (My Life: From Dependency to Freedom) hit the shelves of bookstores in Kazakhstan. In contrast to dozens of his previous unpopular works, his latest book has been a major hit, with one bookstore in Almaty, the largest city in the country, selling out the first batch immediately. The book’s circulation is 7,500 copies, and it is available in Kazakh and Russian.

The new memoir is almost 700 pages long and consists of 22 chapters, covering Nazarbayev’s personal life and political career, and Kazakhstan’s modern history from the early 1990s to the current day. Nazarbayev’s rule started in 1989, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union, and extended for 29 years after it gained independence in 1991. In 2019, he stepped down from the presidency, handing the reigns to his handpicked successor and the current president Kassym-Jomat Tokayev.

Besides the detailed description of how Nazarbayev rose from an ordinary factory worker to a president and led the country through its nascent period, the book contains stories of his encounters with world leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Angela Merkel, Recep Tayip Erdogan, and Vladimir Putin. However, these details are not what created unprecedented buzz, controversy, and demand for Nazarbayev’s memoir. The candid details of his personal life unveiled in the book have taken center stage.

Nazarbayev confirmed long-standing rumors and admitted having an extramarital affair with Asel Isabayeva. He shared details of first seeing her during a trip to Taldykorgan in the south, finding her later, after reading the news about how she won a national beauty pageant, and then marrying “in accordance with Muslims traditions.” Polygamy is illegal in Kazakhstan, and Nazarbayev has never officially divorced his wife Sara Nazarbayeva. The couple seem to have de-facto separated though, with Sara reinstating her maiden name Konakai.

Nazarbayev revealed that getting together with Isabayeva helped him to get “rid of the mental loneliness that had lasted for years.” He shared that Isabayeva gave birth to two sons. Nazarbayev has three daughters with his wife Sara and is rumored to have sired two more daughters with another woman named Gulnara Rakisheva. Both Isabayeva and Rakisheva are tokal, a Kazakh term designating women who combine roles of mistress, wife and child bearer without official status.

Here is a YouTube video about Nazarbayev's wife and tokals as well his children from them.

To learn more about tokals, read: Lost in Translation in Central Asia: My Tokol's Car is a Toyota

Another controversial event addressed in the book is Qandy Qantar (Bloody January), the largest and deadliest protests in the country’s history that took place in January 2022 and resulted in the death of at least 238 people. A commonly agreed explanation for the protests is the power struggle between Nazarbayev and Tokayev, which the former lost. Nazarbayev has kept a low profile since then and has not provided any commentary on the protests, which Tokayev blamed on bandits and foreign terrorists.

According to Nazarbayev, a radical opposition was behind the violent protests, with former Kazakh businessman and political activist in exile Mukhtar Ablyazov allegedly setting up a camp in Kyiv to coordinate them.

Since losing in the power struggle in January 2022, Nazarbayev has watched his legacy take several hits. The capital was renamed Astana again, after briefly carrying the name Nur-Sultan. The constitutional law that gave Nazarbayev the title of “Elbasy” (Leader of the Nation) was annulled. The Day of the First President, celebrated on December 1, was canceled.

Under these circumstances, the memoir is Nazarbayev’s attempt to salvage his image and legacy by controlling the leakage of compromising details of his personal life and sharing his own version of Kazakhstan’s milestones.

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