The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan examines one of the most heinous crimes of the Stalinist regime, the Kazakh famine of 1 930–33.
More than 1.5 million people perished in this famine, a quarter of Kazakhstan’s population, and the crisis transformed a territory the size of continental Europe. Yet the story of this famine has remained mostly hidden from view. Drawing upon state and Communist party documents, as well as oral history and memoir accounts in Russian and in Kazakh, Sarah Cameron reveals this brutal story and its devastating consequences for Kazakh society.
Sarah Cameron is assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she offers courses on Soviet history and the history of modern Central Asia. She received her PhD from Yale University, where her dissertation won the John Addison Porter Prize for the best dissertation in the Arts and Sciences and the Turner Prize for the most outstanding dissertation in European History. At present, she is at work on a new book-length project examining the transformation of the Aral Sea basin over the Soviet era.
Presentation on February 28, 2019
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“Surviving a famine is no less than surviving a war”
Today, as you know, I’ll be speaking about my book on the Kazakh famine of the 1930s, and I’d like to begin by sharing a memory by a survivor of the famine. Wherever possible, I placed accounts by Kazakhs at the heart of my book, and it is their story above all that I seek to honor and to tell.
In the early 1990s, Zh. Abishuly spoke about his memories of the Kazakh famine. “I was still a child, but I could not forget this,” Abishuly recalled. “My bones are shaking at these memories coming to my mind.” During the famine, activists with the Soviet regime had stripped Abishuly’s family of their livestock and grain. His father’s relatives had fled Soviet Kazakhstan entirely, escaping across the border to China. For those who remained, Abishuly concluded, hunger was “a silent enemy.”
He remembered the arba, or horse-drawn cart, that collected the bodies of the dead, dumping them in mass burial grounds on the outskirts of settlements. During World War II, Abishuly would go on to fight on the front lines for the Red Army. Nonetheless, he concluded, “Surviving a famine is no less than surviving a war.”
As Abishuly’s recollections reveal, the period of 1930-33 was a time of almost unimaginable suffering in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, a vast territory in the heart of Central Asia, wedged between China and Russia. A massive famine claimed the lives of at least one-and-a-half million people. Roughly a third of all Kazakhs perished. It also transformed a territory, Soviet Kazakhstan, analogous in size to continental Europe.
As hunger set in, over a million starving refugees from Kazakhstan flooded into neighboring territories. They also flooded into China, creating a crisis of regional proportions. Some never returned to Kazakhstan, and today, significant diaspora populations of Kazakhs, many of them descendants of those who fled during the course of the famine, remain in the countries that surround Kazakhstan.
Prior to the famine, most Kazakhs practiced pastoral nomadism. By this, I mean that they carried out seasonal migrations along predetermined routes to pasture their animal herds, including sheep, horses, and camels. The famine, however, forced Kazakhs to sedentarize and abandon the economic practice of nomadism. This shift led to very painful and far-reaching shifts in Kazakh culture and identity.
Given its staggering human toll, the Kazakh famine is certainly one of the most heinous crimes of the Stalinist regime. Yet the story of this famine has remained largely hidden from view, both in Kazakhstan and in the West. If we look at really major narratives of the Stalin era, they mention this famine only in passing, and until recently, even the disaster’s major factors and crucial events were not well known.
My book seeks to recover this largely unknown story, and it integrates a wide variety of sources in Russian and also in Kazakh. The book begins with the famine’s roots in the last decades of the Russian empire, the 1890s, when the Kazakh steppe, of course, was under Russian imperial rule. It follows the republic through the tumultuous early years of Soviet rule, including Stalin’s attempt to consolidate his hold over the republic, and it concludes with the republic’s slow road to economic recovery in the post-famine years of the mid-1930s.
I argue that the Kazakh famine of 1930-33 was the result of Moscow’s radical attempt to transform the nomadic peoples of the steppe, who were known as Kazakhs, and a particular territory, Soviet Kazakhstan, into a modern Soviet nation. I find that, using the most violent means, the Kazakh famine created Soviet Kazakhstan, a stable territory with clearly delineated boundaries that was an integral part of the Soviet economic system.
I find that it also created a new Kazakh national identity that largely supplanted Kazakhs’ previous identification with a system of pastoral nomadism. In the famine’s aftermath, Kazakhs began to think of themselves as a national group, as opposed to a social group or one oriented around the system of pastoral nomadism. The creation of this specifically Soviet Kazakh national identity was, in fact, a goal of Stalin’s efforts to transform the steppe. By equipping non-Russian groups such as Kazakhs, Ukrainians, and others with territories, languages, bureaucracies, and cultures, Moscow sought to make them into modern Soviet nationalities and integrate them into the collectivist whole.
“Neither Kazakhstan nor Kazakhs themselves became integrated into the Soviet system in precisely the ways that Moscow had originally hoped”
But in many other respects, if we look at the story of the famine, Moscow fails to achieve its goals. Ultimately, neither Kazakhstan nor Kazakhs themselves became integrated into the Soviet system in precisely the ways that Moscow had originally hoped. In fact, the scars from the famine would haunt the republic throughout the remainder of the Soviet era and shape its transformation into an independent nation in 1991.
My talk today is going to proceed along a couple of different lines. First, I want to tell you a little bit about how I came to this story of the Kazakh famine, what it was like to research this project, and why I believe we do not hear very much about the Kazakh famine in the West. Then, I want to turn to the question of how and why it is that the Soviet regime came to implement such destructive policies. I will talk a bit about what collectivization looked like in Kazakhstan, and how the famine began. Finally, I will conclude with a discussion of the consequences of the famine for Kazakh society, and I will offer some thoughts on how the story of the famine might alter our understanding of violence, modernization, and nation-building under Stalin.
How did I come to this story?
First, how did I come to this story? I stumbled upon the story of the Kazakh famine in part by accident. I had begun studying to obtain a PhD in Soviet History. When I was there, I got really interested in the story of the Soviet East, which I believed was much less explored than the history of the Soviet Union’s West. I decided to make Kazakhstan the focus of my research efforts, and I went to Kazakhstan to begin learning Kazakh.
When I was there, I started flipping through elementary school textbooks to learn more about Kazakh history. I noticed that these textbooks talked about a devastating famine that hit Kazakhstan during the 1930s, and I was startled, because I myself had never heard of it. I realized that this was a huge story, one which was incredibly important on a human level—some third of all Kazakhs died—but one that also had major implications for how we understand the nature of Kazakhs, of Stalin’s rule, and Kazakhstan today, and I began work on the topic.
It was challenging, of course, to work in the Kazakh and Russian archives, but also in many ways very exciting, because I had a topic that I could discuss with ordinary Kazakhs, and they understood immediately why this was an important topic to explain to audiences in the West. Over the years, I have had time to think a bit about why the story of the Kazakh famine has been marginalized in the West, and I think I have come to a couple of answers.
First, in the West, I think the marginalization of the Kazakh story illustrates to a certain extent how we are still really struggling to incorporate the Soviet East into our understandings of Soviet history. Soviet history in the West is often categorized as European history, but the Soviet Union, of course, was not just a European power. It was an Asian one too.
If we overstress the Soviet Union’s European nature or we neglect its Eastern half, we ultimately, I would argue, end up with a very distorted view of what the Soviet Union was about. For instance, collectivization, the event that triggered the famine in Kazakhstan, has often been framed as a struggle to extract grain for the peasantry, but if we turn to its Eastern half, we also see that it was also about a struggle to transition mobile peoples like the Kazakhs from a system of long-distance animal herding to a network of meat-packing combines and slaughterhouses that would produce meat for the market.
The major trigger for the famine in Kazakhstan is, of course, collectivization. This was part of Stalin’s radical plan to transform the Soviet Union, to help it industrialize, boost production, and catch up with the capitalist West. At the same time, of course, that the famine hit Kazakhstan, it also afflicted other parts of the Soviet Union, most notably Ukraine, and also some grain-growing regions of Russia.
A long-running and very polemical debate has focused on the question of whether the Ukrainian famine, or the famine that hit Ukraine, was used by Stalin to punish Ukrainians as an ethnic group. And in the West, due in part to the efforts of an active Ukrainian diaspora, the story of Soviet collectivization famines has focused largely on Ukrainians. A second reason for the marginalization of the Kazakh story might be this very long-running debate over the Ukrainian famine.
With this heated debate, it has really come to seem at times in the West as if famine only occurred in Ukraine, but of course this is not an accurate depiction of the story. For one, many Russian peasants suffered, and many areas of the Russian heartland saw disproportionately high levels of famine mortality. And if we look at the death toll, it was actually Kazakhstan that had the highest death rate of any group during collectivization.
Third and finally, I think the fact that Kazakhs were nomads is a really important part of why this story has been neglected. Most nomadic societies are oral rather than literary societies. They leave fewer traces in the written record. It’s more challenging to uncover their stories, and the sources that we do have are often filled with lots of assumptions, particularly the stereotype that nomads are backwards.
This is, in part, why I worked so hard in my book to incorporate sources that were not produced by the party or the state, such as memoirs and oral histories, and I tried as much as I could to tell the story through the voices of Kazakhs themselves. And if we look historically, I think we find that we have often actually been quick to dismiss violence committed by mobile peoples. We rationalize it as part of a process necessary to civilize so-called backward groups.
In the US, for instance, we need only look to our ongoing struggle to recognize the scale of the crimes committed against Native Americans for such examples. And when you look at how the Kazakh famine is discussed in the scholarly literature, it is often referred to as “a miscalculation by Stalin,” “a tragedy,” or “a misunderstanding of culture.” But such depictions, I would argue, downplay the disaster’s violent nature and seem to stress or somehow imply that the Kazakh famine originated from natural causes.
But as I show in my book, there was nothing inevitable about this famine. Pastoral nomadism was not a backwards way of life. Rather, it was a highly sophisticated and adaptive system. Nor can the famine be attributed to a simple miscalculation by Stalin, as such depictions would seem to suggest. In fact, as I will show, Moscow received very clear warnings about the dangers of settling the Kazakh nomads, and Moscow’s sweeping attempts to transform the steppe through collectivization and industrialization clearly anticipated the cultural destruction of Kazakh society.
How and why did the Soviet regime come to implement collectivization?
Turning to the second part of my talk, what was Kazakhstan, as a place and a society, like on the eve of Soviet rule? How did these local conditions lead to famine? The Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan was created from disparate parts in 1924, and it was an immense territory. It was approximately the size of continental Europe or, to use another measurement, four times the size of the state of Texas. It had a sharp continental climate, with very hot summers and very cold winters. It was very arid and prone to drought.
Kazakhs’ practice of pastoral nomadism was, in many respects, an adaptation to the Kazakh steppe’s environmental conditions, particularly the scarcity of good pastureland and the aridity of the steppe, the scarcity of water. And it had been the predominant way of life in the steppe zone for over four millennia.
Pastoral nomadism is not just an economic strategy, a way of making use of the steppe’s scarce resources. It is also a really crucial source of identity. Historically, if you look at the steppe, the practice of pastoral nomadism had actually determined who was considered Kazakh and who was not.
In the late 19th century, when the steppe was under Russian imperial rule, there were crucial shifts in this system and Kazakhs’ practice of pastoral nomadism. Over a million peasants from European Russia settled the Kazakh steppe. Their arrival made the Kazakh steppe into a multiethnic society. It also provoked important changes to Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life, including shifts in their diet and migration routes. I explore these changes in greater detail in my book. I show how the legacies of Russian imperial rule became an important contributing factor to the famine that occurred under Soviet rule.
However, while Russian imperial rule altered the nature of nomadic life, it did not erase it. Rather, Kazakhs adapted their practice of pastoral nomadism to the challenges of peasant settlement, and on the eve of Soviet rule, it was nomadism, not a sense of being part of a national group, that remained the defining feature of Kazakh identity. The term “Kazakh” was a kind of mixed social and ethnic category, one which denoted an ethnicity but also a way of life, pastoral nomadism.
In the initial years of Soviet rule, the period 1921-1928, also known as the NEP period, or the New Economic Policy, Moscow took a contradictory approach to ruling the republic. Some programs worked to undermine pastoralism. Other programs actually served to support it. Party experts and bureaucrats really struggled in this period to understand what approach they should take. The Kazakh steppe, to a large extent, was a landscape, and Kazakhs were a population that did not have clear parallels in the Marxist/Leninist categories that they brought with them from Russia or Europe.
Karl Marx, for instance, originally predicted that socialist revolution would occur among workers. Lenin, in turn, radically modified a lot of Marx’s ideas, and he predicted that socialist revolution might occur among peasants. But neither of these two men really gave a lot of thought to how and if a socialist-style revolution might occur among a totally different social group, pastoral nomads. Party experts in this period begin to ponder a series of questions. Did nomads actually have classes in the same ways that settled societies did? And if so, how did these classes function? Economically, could pastoral nomads speed through the Marxist/Leninist timeline of history and be transformed into productive factory workers?
Indeed, for some, the seeming absurdity of bringing a socialist-style revolution to this republic dotted with nomads led one prominent Kazakh cadre, Sultanbek Khojanov, to circulate a joke: “You can’t get to socialism by camel.” At the heart of Khojanov’s joke was a question that party experts sought to resolve in this period. Could you get to socialism by camel?—i.e., was nomadism backwards or was it in fact a modern way of life, something compatible with socialist-style modernity?
Given Moscow’s nation-making plans or efforts to transform this group of people into a modern Soviet nation and equip it with its own territory, language, and native cadres, should this defining element of Kazakh culture be retained or should it be eliminated? Entangled with all of these questions was the issue of the republic’s environment. Could a specifically socialist state overcome the limitations that Kazakhstan’s environment seemed to place on human activity? Or, rather, was nomadism the only use of the landscape in this very arid region?
Initially, most party experts associated with the commissariat of agriculture argued that nomadism was the most productive use of the landscape. Some even specifically warned against the dangers of settling the Kazakh nomads. In a kind of eerie prediction of what was going to happen in the famine, one expert, Sergei Shvetsov, went so far as to say, “The destruction of the nomadic way of life in Kazakhstan would represent not only the death of steppe livestock-raising and the Kazakh economy, but the transformation of the dry steppe into an unpopulated desert.”
In 1928, there was a severe shortage of grain across the Soviet Union, and this triggered a shift in policy. Stalin declared the onset of the first five-year plan—that is the modernization scheme that I mentioned at the beginning of my talk. Aspects of Kazakhs’ practice of pastoral nomadism, mainly its distance from markets, tendency for frequent fluctuations in animal numbers, and so on, began to bring this way of life into clear tension with the proposals for more rapid industrialization that began to circulate during the period.
Those who had supported keeping nomadism in some fashion were denounced. A separate group of experts now began to belittle the assertion that the Kazakh steppe’s arid, drought-prone environment might place certain limits on human activity. Settling the Kazakhs and shunting them and their animal herds into collective farms, these experts argued, would “free up large tracts of land,” and these lands could be turned over to grain cultivation, thereby boosting the republic’s production of grain.
They also believed that animal husbandry would be transformed, that nomads’ system of long-distance animal herding would be replaced by large state farms that focused on livestock breeding. Through this transformation, party experts predicted that Kazakhstan would become a meat-packing center to rival Chicago. As I mentioned, the creation of a specifically Soviet Kazakh nationality was a goal of Stalin’s efforts to transform the steppe. At this point, the language of Soviet nation-making served to further legitimize and reinforce the importance of a shift to settled life.
Experts declared nomadism to be incompatible with the development of so-called contemporary culture, such as schools and telegraph connections. Thus, the language of Soviet nation-making served to reinforce the party’s war on a social category: nomad. And throughout the famine, the category of Kazakh and the category of nomad serve overlapping and mutually reinforcing goals for the party’s assault on nomadic life.
By 1928, the party’s war on nomadic life had begun, and it escalated with the launch of forced collectivization in the winter of 1929-30. It was led by Filipp Goloshchyokin, who was Kazakhstan’s leader and party secretary for the bulk of the famine. Goloshchyokin joined the Bolsheviks early, prior to 1917, and before being sent to Kazakhstan, he had gained fame for his revolutionary zeal and toughness, as well as for his supposed role in the murder of the tsar’s family.
But beyond Goloshchyokin, the local-level implementation of collectivization hinged heavily on Moscow’s partnership with local cadres, many of whom were Kazakhs. Indeed, the promotion of native cadres formed a crucial element of Moscow’s attempt to transform Kazakhs into a national group. Strategically, purposely designed to shatter old allegiances and stoke the violent conflict in Kazakh communities, Moscow actually empowered Kazakhs themselves to make some of the most crucial choices in the collectivization campaign: Who should be considered an exploiter and how much grain should be confiscated from them?
And as I’ve found in my research, the efforts of these local cadres were crucial. They often shaped the violence, its intensity, and its character, including which groups won and which lost out. By the winter of 1930, famine had begun. In Kazakhstan, as in other parts of Soviet Union, Moscow anticipated that collectivization would result in massive loss of life, and this human toll was seen as a necessary byproduct of the imperative to transform the region. But Moscow did not anticipate the scale of this famine, and a number of unintended consequences soon emerged.
Animal numbers began to plummet rapidly as the party struggled to push Kazakhs’ animal herds into pens and come up with a form of animal husbandry to take the place of pastoral nomadism. Animals contracted various diseases. Many of them began to perish. By 1931, the predictions of many experts about the challenges of instituting settled agriculture in this region had come to pass. There was a severe drought that worsened the effects of collectivization. It deepened Kazakhs’ descent into hunger, and by July 1932, a report by Kazakhstan’s commissariat of agriculture found that Kazakhstan had “fully lost its significance as the Soviet Union’s main livestock base.”
As the situation inside Kazakhstan became increasingly desperate, many nomads entered into desperate flight. With their herd numbers in ruins, those who remained behind faced almost certain death. The republic itself began to empty out. Ultimately, more than 20% of the republic’s population, roughly a million people, fled the republic in this period, creating an immense regional crisis.
The transitional stage—that is what officials called this flight—demanded extra vigilance, officials warned. And the party actually intensified its assault on nomadic life during this period. It declared fantastical plans to settle the Kazakhs even more quickly than before. Moscow closed the republic’s borders. They shot thousands of starving Kazakhs on the Sino-Kazakh border, and in a strategy explicitly modeled upon a technique used against starving Ukrainians, several regions of Kazakhstan were blacklisted. What that meant was that starving Kazakhs were essentially trapped in zones where no food could be found.
Along the republic’s railway lines, travelers encountered scenes of horror. They reported seeing, “living skeletons with tiny child skeletons in their hands, begging for food.” Many turned to substitute foods to survive. Famine survivors remember eating wild grasses or combing through fields to collect the rotting remains of the harvest. Others turned to cannibalism. Duysen Asanbaev, a famine survivor, remembers, “Suffering was not leaving our heads. Our eyes were full of tears.” As famine enveloped the steppe, diseases such as typhus, smallpox, cholera, and tuberculosis began to spread, and the steppe’s relative underdevelopment served to magnify the disastrous effects of collectivization.
In 1934, the famine finally came to an end. This resolution was reached in part through a certain amount of good luck, including excellent weather and a good harvest in ’34, as well as attention by Moscow to some of the problems revealed by the famine’s course, such as the spread of disease.
The consequences of the famine for Kazakh society
What were the consequences of this famine for Kazakh society, and how might this neglected episode revise our understanding of Stalin’s rule?
The society that emerged from this famine was transformed. More than a million and a half people, and roughly a third of all Kazakhs, perished in this famine. Those who survived described a feeling of trauma. Ibragim Khisamutdinov, who lived through the famine as a young boy, saw starving Kazakhs dying in the streets on his way to school. More than 50 years later, he noted, “To this day, I can hear the desperate cries of the dying and their calls for help.” In important ways, the famine precipitated and enabled a very far-reaching demographic transformation of the republic during the Soviet era.
Moscow actually built a forced labor camp system on Kazakhs’ former pasture lands. During World War II, the republic became one of the major dumping grounds for exiled peoples, and more than a million deportees arrived. Kazakhs became a minority in their own republic; they would not constitute more than 50% of the population of Kazakhstan again until after the Soviet collapse.
In the aftermath of the disaster, nomadism as an economic practice was eliminated. Kazakhs were forced to become a sedentary society. Nationality, not pastoral nomadism, became the most important marker of Kazakh identity. Those Kazakhs who survived became integrated into the party-state. They joined collective farms, entered educational institutions, or joined communist youth organizations. Paradoxically, even as the Kazakh famine devastated Kazakh society, it also created opportunities for Kazakhs to pursue education and upward mobility.
Given these results, I believe that the famine itself should cause us to look differently at the nature of Soviet modernization, nation-building, and violence under Stalin. And here I would like to offer some concluding thoughts.
First, on the subject of violence under Stalin, Moscow’s sweeping program of state-led transformation clearly anticipated the cultural disruption of Kazakh society, and as I discuss in my book in greater detail, there is evidence to indicate that the Kazakh famine fits an expanded definition of genocide.
But there is no evidence to indicate that Stalin planned the famine on purpose or that he sought to destroy all Kazakhs. Many of the disastrous major consequences, from the refugee crisis to the massive outbreaks of disease that accompanied the famine, were counterproductive to the regime’s own interests, and they were unexpected consequences of the collectivization campaign. Nonetheless, I believe that the famine should upend some of our assumptions about Stalinist rule.
It is often assumed, for instance, that the Gulag represented the extreme of suffering in Soviet society, but starving Kazakhs were actually expelled from their land at the height of the famine to make room for the construction of a forced labor camp in Central Kazakhstan, and they died from hunger and disease outside this camp. The literature has stressed the central place of the Soviet Union’s west in the genealogy of Stalinist violence. This is a view popularized by Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and others. My book, however, shows that the spectrum of violence under Stalin is far broader than previously believed, and that the Soviet East also generated very important practices of social control.
The case of the Kazakh famine is also relevant to the long-running debate over the Ukrainian famine that I mentioned earlier. Simply put, many existing explanations for the Ukrainian famine do not hold water once you put the Kazakh famine in the picture. The idea that the Ukrainian famine was uniquely brutal is central to many claims of those who believe that Stalin specifically targeted Ukrainians, but if you bring the Kazakh case into the picture, this is simply not true.
Indeed, it might be argued that, in many respects, the Kazakh famine was more destructive than the Ukrainian famine, as the Kazakh famine brought about a cultural transformation—the loss of Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life—that was even more far-reaching than that endured by the Ukrainians. The inclusion of the Kazakh case, I would argue, forces us to rethink some of the linkages made between state-sponsored violence against particular ethnic groups and assumptions and attitudes in the Soviet state.
On the question of Soviet modernization, though it had notable successes in important respects, the project of Soviet modernization fell desperately short of its goals in Kazakhstan. Collectivization was an economic catastrophe across the Soviet Union, but nowhere were its effects more disastrous than in Soviet Kazakhstan. Prior to the famine, Kazakhstan had been the Soviet Union’s most important livestock base due to Kazakhs’ livestock herds, but the republic actually lost 90% of its animal herds over the course of collectivization.
Famine survivors, for instance, remember that there was an eerie silence in the steppe, “that there was no mooing, bleating, or neighing.” Only in the 1960s did the republic’s sheep and cattle numbers finally reach their pre-famine levels, and the republic’s camel population never recovered. Despite the assertions of many Soviet experts that Soviet power would conquer nature, Moscow, throughout the course of the famine, really struggled to remake the arid, drought-prone Kazakh steppe as it wished. Water supply problems plagued them throughout the famine, and in the post-famine years, we can see that agriculture continued to be a very difficult enterprise in this region.
We see echoes of this, for instance, in Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign and in the droughts, sandstorms, crop failures, and so on that plagued the steppe in the post-World War II period. Even today, the USDA—the U.S. Department of Agriculture—has designated the Kazakh steppe as a so-called risky zone for agriculture. Thus, as the example of the Kazakh steppe illustrates, environmental factors shaped the nature of Soviet development.
Overall, I would argue that the example of the Kazakh famine should cause us to look at the nature of Soviet modernization differently. Scholars have argued that the Soviet Union carried out a striking leap in state capacity and mobilization during the interwar period. But the Kazakh case reveals that the contours of this leap were uneven, and they look very different in Kazakhstan than they do in parts of the Soviet Union’s west.
“Nationality supplanted pastoral nomadism as the most important marker of Kazakh identity, and Kazakhs began to think of themselves as a national group”
With regards to nation-building, the case of the Kazakh famine reaffirms the centrality of nation-building or Moscow’s project of molding certain ethnic groups like the Kazakhs into modern Soviet nationalities by giving them their own territories, languages, and bureaucracies, even as it underscores the very destructive power of these efforts at nation-building. And as I show in greater detail in the book, the Kazakh famine took its peculiarly destructive shape not in spite of the Soviet Union’s nation-making efforts, but partly because of them.
Soviet ideas about nationality, such as the belief that nationality was connected to territory, served to justify and support the regime’s murderous actions, such as the slaughter of thousands of starving Kazakhs who sought to flee to China. The crisis embedded nationality as the primary marker of Kazakh identity. As a goal of Moscow’s nation-making efforts, nationality supplanted pastoral nomadism as the most important marker of Kazakh identity, and Kazakhs began to think of themselves as a national group.
But as I have stressed, this was an incomplete transformation, as it did not eliminate alternate forms of Kazakh identity entirely. One of the most lingering and, I think, pervasive stereotypes about Kazakhstan is that Kazakhs are totally Russified—that they lost their culture under Soviet rule. This is even captured in a popular joke: An Uzbek asks, “How can I become a Russian,” and he is told that he needs to become a Kazakh first.
This is really not true. I think if you look closely at what happens to the Kazakhs during the Soviet period and, more specifically, during the famine, that their culture is not totally destroyed. To give one example, Kazakhs’ allegiances to various clans were transformed by the famine and divorced from their original origins in the system of pastoral nomadism, but they continued to exert a really important influence on Kazakh life in the post-famine years. This influence, of course, changed as many Kazakhs moved away from kin members in the aftermath of the disaster. They lost the economic functions they had performed when Kazakhs were nomads, but they continued to impact Kazakh life.
A study of Kazakh collective farms in the 1950s, for instance, found that most collective farms are composed of a single tribal subdivision, and when they married, most adhered to a Kazakh tradition that prohibited marriage within a given tribal subdivision, and they took, therefore, a spouse from another collective farm. And in Kazakhstan today, nomadism has not disappeared. Rather, it has been refashioned as a usable past, an element that the Nazarbayev regime uses in the service of its nation-building project.
Various state-sponsored projects stress the innovative and sophisticated nature of the nomadic societies that ruled the steppe prior to the Russian conquest. And I will give you one example of this. In the 1960s, Soviet archeologists found the remains of a Scythian warrior in a burial mound. Scythians were, of course, the first known nomadic empire in the steppe. They ruled in the first millennium BC. And today in Kazakhstan, this warrior, who is known as The Golden Man for his gold-plated dress, has become an important state symbol, and you can see him not only in Kazakhstan itself, but also here in DC right outside the Kazakh embassy, if you walk past it on 16th Street. There is a replica of The Golden Man outside.
But in Kazakhstan today, there is little discussion of the famine itself. There is a kind of strange silence about it, a phenomenon that is due in part to Kazakhstan’s close relationship with Russia. Kazakhstan’s own investigation into the famine, which created a new Kazakh identity even as it devastated Kazakh society and transformed Kazakh culture, remains an unfinished project.
All photos from Central State Archive of Video and Photo Documents of the Republic of Kazakhstan (courtesy of Zhanbolat Mamay).