In the fall of 1937, Alimgirey Yershin gathered his late wife’s personal belongings from their home in the capital of Kazakhstan, Alma-ata (now Almaty). In fear and with a heavy heart, he destroyed all but two items: an antique porcelain dish and a small wooden table with a drawer designed for medical instruments. His wife, Dr. Akkagaz Doszhanova, a medical pioneer and women’s advocate, had succumbed five years earlier, at age 39—some who were close to her said to tuberculosis, while others said to malaria or some other disease contracted during one of her rural home visits.
A few months before this, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin had effected Operational Order No. 00447, initiating what became known as the Great Purge. The order authorized “repression operations” against landowning peasants, “criminals and counter-revolutionary elements.” Two weeks later a supplemental order added families of “traitors to the motherland.” The orders did not gloss their intent: to “eradicate once and for all” writers, thinkers and scholars along with any spouse—like Yershin.
“The entire thinking part of society—public and political active figures—was subject to repression,” says Dinara Assanova, founder of the Women of Kazakhstan virtual museum and a doctoral candidate in women’s studies at the National Pedagogical University in Almaty.
Throughout Kazakhstan, one of the USSR’s five Soviet Central Asian republics, men and women were arrested by the thousands, often at night, sent to work camps, imprisoned, and many were executed. Because Doszhanova advocated for medical progress and women’s rights—especially for the right to education—Yershin worried that her activities could risk drawing the government’s eye to him and their 11-year-old son, Shakhbaz.
Assanova surmises Doszhanova knew all along that her public service carried political risks. “Were people afraid? Undoubtedly. Did Doszhanova continue her career? Yes, undoubtedly. … [But] she considered it her duty to serve society,” Assanova says.
Doszhanova succeeded in her brief lifetime in becoming the first Kazakh woman in the whole of Central Asia to graduate from a Soviet university with a degree in medicine. She dedicated her efforts both to her profession and to her work as a social activist. Although this put her at the forefront of early Soviet modernization efforts, Doszhanova, under the guardianship of her elder brother Sagyndyk Doszhanov, a noted educator, and through her circle of friends, became personally aquainted with members of the Alash Party, a constitutional democratic party and liberation movement that advocated equal treatment of Kazakhs. It was Doszhanova’s connection to Alash, which had been abruptly dismantled in 1920 by the Soviet government, that worried Yershin almost 20 years later in 1937. He knew former Alash members were being arrested. In the end he was spared, but the fear never lifted, and for the rest of his days, he spoke rarely of his wife.
Born in 1893, Doszhanova grew up in a Kazakh aul (village, nomadic encampment), near Borte, a large settlement outside the city of Aktobe in northwestern Kazakhstan, not far from the border with what was then tsarist Russia. As the daughter of cattle breeders from the Kete Kazakh tribe, she was expected to marry by age 16, and there would be no opportunity for formal education. These expectations, however, would begin to change when in 1902 or 1903 (the date is uncertain) her mother passed away and, a few years later, her father died, too. Her brother was at the time 27, and he assumed guardianship of his sister, according to physician and author Zhibek Qangtarbaeva, who in 1974 wrote the only known biographical account of Doszhanova. Simply titled Aqqag’az Doszhanova, it was written under a commission from the Kazakh SSR government.
Doszhanov, whom Qangtarbaeva calls “an educated, progressive man of his time,” was a certified teacher whose affiliations in higher-education circles aligned him with 19th-century Kazakh pedagogue and educator Ibray Altynsarin, whose progressive efforts influenced Doszhanov’s career and helped him open schools in auls and towns throughout western Kazakhstan. Following their mother’s death, Qangtarbaeva wrote, Doszhanov recognized his sister’s intellect and encouraged her to enroll in the local Tatar school. Doszhanov supported his then teenage sister’s move to Orenburg in western Kazakhstan, where he himself had attended secondary school, to enroll at the city’s Women’s Gymnasium. In 1913 Doszhanova graduated with honors, and the local newspaper, the Orenburg Vestnik, esteemed her accomplishment enough to publish an article about it.
Just a year earlier, in 1912, Doszhanov petitioned the regional Russian governor-general for a scholarship to allow Doszhanova to attend medical courses for women in Moscow. She arrived at Moscow University just before World War I broke out. Nearly a year later, she received an order from the Sisters of Mercy, run by the grand duchy of Russia, to immediately serve as a nurse on the front lines near Poland, where she and her fellow students spent the next two years.
“[Akkagaz] Doszhanova was a strong motivator and a role model for the women of Soviet Central Asia in her lifetime.”
The Moscow she returned to in 1917 was in the throes of the political turmoil that culminated later that year in the October Revolution. It was during this time that Doszhanova gained recognition as an activist in the communities of Muslims, particularly Tatars, who hold cultural and linguistic ties to Kazakhs and whose ways and concerns Doszhanova knew from her primary school days. Qangtarbaeva notes that during a February 1917 meeting in the Tatar Slobodka (district), Doszhanova, speaking to both members of the Society of Tatar Students and the Moscow Muslim Student Society, gave an impassioned speech, in Russian. Later that year, Ahmet Zaki Validi, head of the Tatar liberation movement, described Doszhanova as “one of the great women among the Eastern Turks,” an identifier that would stick with her.
“Doszhanova was a strong motivator and a role model for the women of Soviet Central Asia in her lifetime,” Assanova says, noting how Doszhanova’s reputation continued to grow during this time also as an advocate for the rights of women.
In May 1917 she became the only female delegate to the All Russian Congress of Muslims, where she helped represent the Turgai Regional Congress of Kazakhs. Addressing the congress, she spoke in favor of expanded roles for women in society and petitioned for women’s rights to education. She continued to press these topics in numerous articles she penned for Kazakh magazines including Aiel tendigi (Women’s equality) and Zhas azamat (Young citizen).
“Our family couldn’t [fully] comprehend the contribution she made to the history of Kazakhstan until we began to actively search for information,” explains Indira Zankina, in her early 30s, and who, as Doszhanova’s youngest granddaughter, lovingly refers to her as apa (grandmother). It wasn’t until later in life that Zankina and other family members began to grasp the extent of Doszhanova’s impact also on medical and social reforms in Central Asia.
Doszhanova’s eldest granddaughter, Aizhan Yershina, now in her 60s, recalls that their father, Shakhbaz Yershin, often shared family stories of his mother, who died when he was 6 years old. Although he knew her as a doctor, he remembered her more as a kind and loving mother.
“But the details of her life and work were not discussed in our extended family circle,” Yershina adds. “I was 11 or 12 years old and found a mention of my grandmother’s name in a 1920s publication of Tar zhol, tayg’aq keshu [The narrow road, the slippery crossing], a book we had to read in history class,” she says, recalling the semiautobiographical account of the struggle for independence by Saken Seyfullin, a Kazakh writer executed during the Great Purge.
It was during the same period the book was first published, well after the revolution, in 1920, that Doszhanova enrolled at Tomsk Medical Institute, now Siberian State Medical University. The following year she sought out an apprenticeship in the village of Kazakhstan’s national poet Abai Qunanbaiulu, an experience that exposed her to the widespread problems of healthcare access for rural women and children. In August 1921 she moved to Tashkent, capital of Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (now Uzbekistan), where she graduated with honors from the Faculty of Medicine at Turkestan University. She was among the first handful of young women from Central Asia to receive the faculty’s medical degree, and the December 18, 1922, edition of Pravda, the Soviet state newspaper, lauded her achievement.
Among the many people who sent congratulations was prominent Kazakh writer Mukhtar Auezov, who hosted a gathering in her honor. The governing Council of People’s Commissars of the Turkestan Republic also created a scholarship to commemorate the achievement for future female medical students, and it issued a prestigious resolution awarding her a prize of 100,000 Soviet rubles—today roughly equal to US$31,000—to equip her medical office.
In addition to free nursing and midwife classes, in Tashkent Dozhanova treated thousands of children from famine-stricken areas.
Doszhanova continued to work in medicine and for social causes in Tashkent. She collaborated with Gulsum Asfendiyarova, Russia’s first Kazakh female doctor before the Revolution, to offer free nursing and midwife classes to women at the Children’s City Hospital. She also dedicated much time to treating thousands of relocated, orphaned children from famine-stricken areas in the Volga and Ural regions, as well as Central Asia, often waiting at stations to greet train cars, each filled with as many as 1,500 children. “Despite her busy schedule … Aqqag’az never forgot to serve others, to do good for others,” wrote Qangtarbaeva, citing Russian physician Isaac Ivanovich Buchatsky, who also worked with Doszhanova at the Tashkent orphanages. She follows this with a quote from K. Yershin, who grew up an orphan under Doszhanova’s care: “She took great care of us. … Malaria, some with tuberculosis, others with scabies. [Doszhanova] paid special attention to each of them … until they fully recovered.”
In the course of her work in Tashkent, she met Alimgirey Yershin who, though recently graduated with a teaching certificate, had been appointed in 1920 to lead the city’s department overseeing orphanages. Ten of these, Qangtarbaeva noted, were newly opened, and he was responsible as well for the city’s boarding schools. The two married in 1925.
Today Doszhanova’s descendants take pride in her legacy, but they have found discovering details about her life difficult. Kazakhstan’s 71-year-long “Russification,” from 1920 to 1991, led to the destruction of many documents and archival materials. Kazakhstan’s withdrawal from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, however, its subsequent declaration of independence in 1991 and the country’s 2004 Cultural Heritage Program have allowed much of the country’s rich history, including the life of Doszhanova, to come to light.
In the 1990s Doszhanova’s son and grandaughters, along with other family members, welcomed archivists from the Aktobe Regional Museum of Local History when they came to the family with additional research they had uncovered about Doszhanova. Years later, family members and local museum officials approached Aktobe Mayor Saparbek Berdibekov about naming a street in her honor. In 2016 they joined local officials and residents in naming a new building in the West Kazakhstan State Medical University after her and in unveiling a bronze bust standing in front of it, along with dedicating a street named in her honor.
A. T. Taizhanov, a professor at the Medical University who published one of the first comprehensive articles on Doszhanova in 2017, points to her achievements during a period of great inequity for both women and Kazakhs in general. Doszhanova, because of her achievements, serves as the perfect role model for young Kazakhs.
“Since independence, Kazakh society has always been interested in national history and in historic figures who have made a great contribution,” Taizhanov says. “We view our past through the prism of their deeds. The life and work of personalities such as Akkagaz Doszhanova can become a solid foundation in the formation of a new identity and pride for contemporary Kazakhs.”