Sarah Cameron: Famine and Unimaginable Sorrow in Soviet Kazakhstan

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Sarah Cameron: Famine and Unimaginable Sorrow in Soviet Kazakhstan

A discussion of Soviet policy, a devastating famine, and the making of Kazakhstan.

Sarah Cameron: Famine and Unimaginable Sorrow in Soviet Kazakhstan
Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Cameron

The 1930-33 period “was a time of almost unimaginable sorrow in Soviet Kazakhstan,” Sarah Cameron, an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland, writes in the introduction to The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan. In those years an estimated 1.5 million people, most of them Kazakhs, and comprising nearly a quarter of the republic’s population, died.

In an interview with The Diplomat, Cameron discusses the tensions between the pastoral nomadism of Kazakhs and Stalin’s Marxist-Leninist understanding of the world, the intertwining of economic and national factors, and the complex matter of remembrance and awareness of horrific crimes, whether they fit a specific definition or not.

The people of what is now Kazakhstan long practiced pastoral nomadism. As your write in your book, this was an adaptation to the steppe’s unique features but was viewed by Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union as simple backwardness or a lack of civilization. They saw the steppe as “untouched.” Can you describe how Kazakhs of that period adapted to the steppe’s conditions and did, indeed, change the land to their benefit?

Kazakhs’ practice of pastoral nomadism was an adaptation to the steppe’s ecological features, particularly the scarcity of good pastureland and water. Kazakhs carried out seasonal migrations along predefined routes to pasture their animal herds, including sheep, camels and horses. Settled societies have often framed nomadism as unchanging and backward. But my book stresses that the practice was actually a highly sophisticated and flexible system. Environmental changes, such as shifts in temperature and precipitation, could cause Kazakhs to migrate seasonally, rather than year-round, while political changes, such as the intrusion of new peoples, could prompt Kazakhs to increase or decrease their reliance on activities such as agriculture or hunting to supplement their herding.

Because many Kazakhs did not have permanent dwellings, Russian imperial and Soviet officials tended to see the steppe as a “natural” landscape, one largely untouched by human influence. But contrary to their impressions, Kazakhs, like other pastoral nomads, regularly sought to change the steppe to suit their needs. In those parts of the steppe where there was little groundwater, they built wells to tap groundwater reserves. To encourage the growth of fresh grasses that their livestock could eat, Kazakhs burned areas of the steppe.

How did the influx of Russian settlers change the Kazakhs’ relationship with the land?

In the late 19th century, more than 1.5 million peasants from European Russia settled the Kazakh steppe. This dramatically altered the region and the lives of nomadic Kazakhs. By the eve of the 1917 revolution, the northern section of the Kazakh steppe had become one of the Russian empire’s key grain producing regions, and many Kazakhs had been displaced from their traditional pasturelands there. Some Kazakhs began to reduce the distance of their seasonal migrations or rent out their pasturelands to earn extra funds. Kazakhs and peasant settlers developed close economic linkages, including a grain and livestock trade, and Kazakhs began to change their diet, shifting away from one based on meat and milk products to one in which grain played a larger role. It is also likely that they began to consume less food overall, increasing their vulnerability to famine. But crucially the predictions of many Russian imperial officials that nomadism would give way to settled life did not come to pass. On the eve of Soviet rule, nomadism remained the predominant way of life for most Kazakhs.

The continued practice of pastoral nomadism, you write, for the Soviet Union was both an economic question and a national question. In what way did the Soviet Union bring the two questions to an answer and how did the Soviet nationalities policies impact the conditions in Kazakhstan that led to the famine?

Throughout the 1920s, Soviet officials debated how pastoral nomads might fit into a Marxist-Leninist understanding of the world. Kazakhs, as the Soviet Union’s single largest nomadic group, were at the heart of this discussion. Some Soviet experts maintained that pastoral nomadism was the most efficient use of the republic’s arid landscape, and they warned that any attempt to settle the Kazakh nomads would result in catastrophe. Other Kazakhs fought against the perception that nomadic life was culturally backwards and at odds with Moscow’s “nationalities policy,” or goal of molding non-Russian groups into modern, Soviet nations. Due to the lack of class differentiation or private property in the nomadic encampment, these Kazakhs argued, Kazakhs were an advanced society that already practiced their own distinctive form of communism.

But questions of economic and national development came to a head in 1928. That year, the Soviet Union suffered a grain crisis, or a shortage of grain on state markets. Proposals for more rapid industrialization began to gain ground, and aspects of nomadism, including its distance from markets and tendency for frequent fluctuations in animal numbers, were in tension with these plans. At the same time, experts began a rereading of Kazakh history through a Marxist-Leninist lens. They proclaimed that the “backward” practice of nomadism was incompatible with Kazakhs’ development into a modern, Soviet nation. With the regime’s economic and national goals now aligned, the space to debate the preservation of nomadism closed. In the winter of 1929-30, Moscow launched forced collectivization across the Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan, this meant an effort to settle and collectivize the Kazakhs simultaneously, and a wide-ranging assault on Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life began.

The Ukrainian famine is much more widely known and discussed. In brief can you explain why the Kazakh famine has remained more obscure to the general global public?

In the West and particularly in North America, the story of the Ukrainian famine has become known due to the efforts of an active Ukrainian diaspora. There has been no comparable movement among the much smaller Kazakh diaspora. In turn, a long-running debate has raged over the question of whether Stalin used famine to punish Ukrainians as an ethnic group. At times, the polemical nature of this debate has made it seem as if famine only occurred in Ukraine, eclipsing the story of the Kazakhs and others who suffered.

But there are also deeper reasons. In the West, we tend to categorize Soviet history as “European history.” But that marginalizes the Soviet Union’s eastern half. In this sense, our neglect of the Kazakh story is just one illustration of the many ways we have yet to fully incorporate the Soviet east into our understandings of Soviet history.

Finally, the fact that Kazakhs were nomads is an important part of why this story has been sidelined. Most nomadic societies are oral, rather than literary societies, and they tend to leave fewer traces in the written record. It is more challenging to uncover their stories. And the sources that we do have about nomadic peoples are often filled with assumptions, particularly the stereotype that nomads are backwards. If we look historically, I think we can find that we have often been quick to dismiss violence committed against mobile peoples, rationalizing it as part of a process necessary to “civilize” them. In the United States, we need only look to our ongoing struggle to recognize the scale of the crimes committed against native Americans for such examples.

In contemporary Kazakhstan, how is the famine remembered, for example in public discourse, monuments, textbooks, and so on?

The current Kazakh government has been reluctant to raise the issue of the famine. In part, this is due to Kazakhstan’s large Russian population and close relationship with Russia. Memorials to the famine’s victims were built belatedly and only after some public pressure. In Astana, the country’s capital, a memorial was dedicated in 2012, and in Almaty, the country’s major city, a memorial was not dedicated until 2017. The famine is discussed in school history textbooks, but often in a cursory fashion. Stalin and his agent in Kazakhstan, Filipp Goloshchekin, are blamed for the famine, and crucial questions of individual agency and responsibility receive little attention. For other Kazakhs, the issue of the famine is entangled with an ambivalence about the Soviet past. Discussion of the famine seems to tarnish the Soviet legacy, which they believe bought enormous benefits to Kazakhstan as well.

But there are signs that a younger generation would like to know more about this crucial event in their nation’s history. I have been overwhelmed by the number of inquiries I have gotten from Kazakhstan since this book has been published. The famine is a regular topic of discussion on social media, and some citizens have taken matters into their own hands, building memorials near sites where famine victims are believed to be buried.

Was the Kazakh famine a “genocide”? Do people in Kazakhstan describe it as such?

Many Kazakhs do describe the famine as a genocide, but the question of whether the Kazakh famine should be termed a genocide depends upon the definition used. If we use the definition of genocide adopted by the United Nations, which is the legal definition of genocide, then the Kazakh famine would probably not be considered a genocide, as available evidence indicates that the regime’s intent was not to destroy Kazakhs as an ethnic group. The Kazakh famine, however, would fit broader definitions of genocide that focus on political, social, and cultural destruction. Through collectivization, Moscow sought to destroy nomadic life, a key feature of Kazakh culture and identity.

The question of genocide is a difficult one. Genocide has taken root as the ultimate “crime of crimes” in the popular imagination. Many believe that maximum moral condemnation cannot be achieved unless the label of genocide is applied. I challenge such understandings in my book. The fact that the Kazakh famine does not appear to fit the legal definition of genocide does not make this atrocity less worthy of our attention nor lessen the scale of Kazakhs’ suffering. Rather, it should make us rethink why we place so much emphasis on those cases that fit the legal definition of genocide and miss others, such as the Kazakh case, which also stemmed from a political process and were no less destructive to human life.