ALMA ATA, U.S.S.R. -- Four years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev dumped the longtime leader of Kazakhstan and replaced him with a Russian who had never set foot in the republic. It apparently never occurred to Gorbachev -- any more than it had to his predecessors in the Kremlin -- that the people who actually lived here would mind, much less rebel.

Hours after the announcement, demonstrators took to the streets and squares of Alma Ata. Police and Interior Ministry troops, using dogs and clubs, arrested hundreds of the protesters.

A new phenomenon had arrived in Soviet history. For the first time, a Kremlin leader was forced into a slow process of discovery: The center would not hold, the empire accumulated by czars and general secretaries was in decline.

The "December events" in Alma Ata, said Hassan Kojakhamedov, chairman of the new National Democratic Party, "raised the question of empire, in the union and even abroad in Eastern Europe. People saw that if even a beaten-down people like the Kazakhs could rise up against the empire, then all was not lost." But as Olzhas Suliemenov, a Supreme Soviet deputy from Kazakhstan, pointed out, the riots were "also the first sign that violence, as well as protest, was in our future."

Since that first spark in this Central Asian city near the Chinese border, the three Baltic states and Armenia have all declared their independence, and nearly every other republic -- Russia included -- has passed declarations of sovereignty. Nationalist violence -- in Kishinev, Fergana, Osh, Dushanbe, Baku, Tbilisi, Yerevan -- has become a permanent threat.

It is hard to say which crisis presses Gorbachev hardest -- the collapsing economy or the collapsing union. But of the two, according to Gorbachev's ally, Alexander Yakovlev, the new generation of leaders had "just no idea" of the scale of the country's ethnic problems. In Kazakhstan, Gorbachev wanted to break up the clan-rule of Dinmukhamed Kunaev -- widely described as a corrupt leader who routinely brought Leonid Brezhnev expensive gifts -- but did not realize the implications of installing a "Moscow man."

"The 'December events' of 1986 in Alma Ata showed just how little Gorbachev and his fellow leaders understood the problem of colonization and nationalities in the Soviet Union," said Mukhtar Shakhanov, a member of the Supreme Soviet who recently published the findings of an investigation into the incidents.

"Had there been a proper understanding of the 'December events,' instead of the usual techniques of suppression and cover-up, we all might have been able to avoid some of the nationality problems afflicting us today."

Shakhanov's committee criticized the Kremlin for a kind of blatant colonialism when it installed as the republic's new leader a native Russian, Gennadi Kolbin, a party apparatchik who spoke not a word of the Kazakh language and never had been to the republic.

The scathing Shakhanov report accuses more than 40 Kremlin and Kazakhstan officials of aggravating the violence and criticizes Moscow for blaming the whole affair on "thugs, drunks and drug addicts." At least two of the protesters died in clashes with the authorities, although Shakhanov said "the number of dead could be many more."

Moscow had always treated Kazakhstan with colonial hauteur. Only three of the republic's total of 20 leaders since 1920 have been Kazakhs. Even the last of the Kazakhs, Kunaev, was an instrument of Moscow, serving Brezhnev as a loyal Politburo member for a quarter-century.

The Kremlin also had used the vast republic, a land mass bigger than all of Western Europe, as an immense dumping ground for all its unwanted industries and people. Moscow used the republic for dangerous nuclear tests in Semipalatinsk, for polluting industries that blackened the air and dried up the Aral Sea, for the exile of hundreds of thousands of deported people, for one of the biggest networks of prison camps and forced-labor sites in the empire.

"My father was killed at Stalingrad defending the homeland" in World War II, said Sovietkaza Akatayev, a leader of the Azat movement for Kazakh sovereignty, "but now it's time to ask, is this 'homeland' really ours? Are our interests the same as Moscow's? I don't think so."

In the years since the "December events," the nationalist movements outside Kazakhstan and Central Asia organized much more quickly. Kazakhstan was notable mainly for its multitude of ecological disasters, not its level of ethnic protest. By the standards of Gorbachev-era politics, Kazakhstan was a sea of quiet.

No more. A week of interviews here and in the mainly Russian-speaking city of Karaganda reveals a republic troubled by ethnic division and on the edge of rebellion against its decades of subservience to "the center."

Now the Kazakhs -- a minority in their republic -- are beginning to make demands that ring of the nationalist movements in places such as Estonia and Latvia. There is even talk of creating a new Turkestan, an economic federation of Kazakhstan and the other four republics of Moslems that stretch from the Caspian Sea to Mongolia.

At the same time, the Russian-speaking majority has grown anxious about its future. "There is already a Berlin Wall growing up in Kazakhstan," said Yuri Bunakov, a leader of the group Yedintsvo, which defends the rights of Russian speakers in the republic. "They want us all to speak Kazakh. You hear slogans like 'Turkestan for Turks!' Suddenly, in this republic, we are all divided."

After the great storm of the "December events" began to recede, the issue that most galvanized Kazakhstan was the horrendous state of its environment. The Stalinist system of centralized commands had long ago determined that it would, quite literally, make a mess of Kazakhstan.

"Kazakhstan was the junk heap where Russia threw its garbage," said Suliemenov, the Supreme Soviet deputy. "Moscow decided that it could, with complete impunity, send all of its filthiest industries to the east. What's more, 93 percent of the industries here belong to the center. So we suffer, but we don't even profit. We are left deserted with a poisoned land."

Over the decades the Soviets have abused the Aral Sea, draining off the water to irrigate the cotton crop and reducing much of the sea to a sand bed. Besides the inherent calamity of a sea disappearing through human ignorance, the side effects in the region are also devastating. The ground water in the region is poisoned, dramatically increasing rates of infant mortality and the frequency of serious illnesses.

Near the huge lead plants in the Chimkent area of southern Kazakhstan, Suliemenov said, "the air has been destroyed altogether." In Dzhambul, chemical plants have filled the air above the city with yellow phosphorus. In Karaganda, the local population talks obsessively about the chance of high winds -- the better to give some relief from the acrid smells of the local mines and metallurgical factories. In Ust-Kamengorsk recently, an explosion at a chemical plant sent a cloud of poisonous beryllium gas floating through the city.

Besides the many factories that foul the air and the sea, there have been hundreds of nuclear tests in Kazakhstan, first above ground and then below. When the late human rights activist Andrei Sakharov was a young physicist in the early 1950s, developing the first Soviet hydrogen bomb, he worked at an outpost in the republic known only as "The Installation."

In his memoirs, Sakharov recalled the first tests with a dawning horror, remembering how he surveyed the scorched landscape and dead birds and heard reports of people in the area dying of radiation poisoning. Later, Sakharov would estimate that over the decades countless thousands of people would suffer illnesses as a result of the nuclear testing here. The experience helped make him a dissident.

Last year, Suliemenov organized the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement to put an end to the nuclear testing here. He appears to have won assurances from Moscow that the tests will end; he even won support by working within the republic's Communist Party. Kolbin was replaced as party first secretary last year by a Kazakh, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

"I have not left the party simply because that is the only way to get anything done here," he said. "This is not Moscow or Leningrad where the non-Communists are taking over. We still have a very traditional Soviet power structure."

Leaders of the republic's main ecological and informal political movements argue that the only way Kazakhstan can hope to begin a reversal of the Moscow-imposed ecological catastrophe is for the republic itself to control the industries on its soil. Even Nazarbayev, a decidedly unrebellious leader, has said that if Kazakhstan were able to control the oil, gas, gold and other resources on its territory, it could begin what amounts to a massive clean-up operation throughout the republic.

To that end, the normally conservative Kazakh legislature in late October became the latest of the country's assemblies to pass a declaration of sovereignty.

"For us, this is the key revolutionary idea," said Kojakhamedov, the chairman of the National Democratic Party. "From here on out, we want to control our destinies."

Were Kazakhstan as ethnically homogeneous as, say, Lithuania, where nearly 80 percent of the population is Lithuanian, this revolutionary idea might be a relatively simple matter. But in Kazakhstan, less than half the population of 16 million are Kazakhs. The picture is complicated by a tragic history, an artificially imposed melting pot of nationalities.

In the 1930s, dictator Joseph Stalin sent hundreds of thousands of prisoners of all nationalities to Kazakhstan. After their terms ran out, many Russian-speaking prisoners were not allowed to return to their home cities and stayed here. Secret police also herded up countless "kulaks," or well-to-do peasants, and sent them into exile in Kazakhstan.

During World War II, Stalin accused a number of ethnic groups, including the Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars and Chichen Ingush, of "traitorous" sentiment and activity. In a matter of days, Stalin's secret police leveled native villages and settlements and loaded the people onto railroad cars. Packed shoulder to shoulder, without food and water, tens of thousands of people died on the 13-day rail journey to Kazakhstan.

"In the colonial context, we are what Australia once was for Britain," Suliemenov said. "Only in Kazakhstan, the situation was even more brutal."

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in Kazakhstan, wrote in "The Gulag Archipelago" that in cities like Karaganda a former prisoner "could not walk down the street without running into old acquaintances" from the camps.

Indeed, nothing has shown the sharp division between the Russian-speaking population in the northern regions and the Kazakhs in the south than the publication this fall of Solzhenitsyn's essay, "How to Revitalize Russia." In the course of arguing for the creation of a Great Russian state made up of Russia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine, Solzhenitsyn argued that much of Kazakhstan's northern territories were actually a part of traditional Russia.

Solzhenitsyn's suggestion that the northern border was in dispute sparked three days of demonstrations in Alma Ata.

In Russian-speaking cities such as Karaganda, however, there was hardly any reaction to the essay. "The main thing is not whether this place is in Russia or Kazakhstan," said Pyotr Schlegel, the young leader of the regional coal miners' union. "The main thing is the attack on politics-as-usual in Moscow, and on that, Solzhenitsyn has always been on the side of right."

While activists in the north like Schlegel concentrate on organizing strike committees and environmental action groups, the Kazakh regions of southern Kazakhstan have become the stage for a range of new nationalist groups.

Now groups such as Azat, or Freedom, are campaigning for a renaissance of the Kazakh language and for a sovereign republic that would give priority to the restoration of Kazakh culture. Azat has an especially strong following among urban intellectuals in Alma Ata and in villages, where Russians and Kazakhs mix less frequently.

There are also more radical groups such as Alash, which favors the establishment of an independent Islamic republic here. Alash has only a small following, mainly because Islamic culture and religion are not nearly as strong here as in the rest of Central Asia.

The Kazakhs have lost millions of people through purges, imprisonment, starvation. Their culture has been so defiled by the Bolsheviks that many Kazakhs do not even know how to speak any other language than Russian. What form the nationalist movements here will take in the coming months is still unclear. But there are activists here who fear that the "December events" may yet turn out to be a harbinger of a deeper, more dangerous conflict to come.

NEXT: Ethnic strife in Uzbekistan sparks exodus.