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The Kazakh Famine of the 1930s

As a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress, historian Sarah Cameron researched a book project on famine in Kazakhstan, 1930-33. She sat down with Jason Steinhauer to discuss this understudied chapter in Soviet history.

Hi, Sarah. Tell us briefly about the Kazakh famine of 1930-33.

The Kazakh famine was the defining event in the formation of Soviet Kazakhstan, what is today the Republic of Kazakhstan. The famine led to the death of 1.5 million people, approximately a quarter of the population. More than a third of all Kazakhs perished.

Prior to the famine, most Kazakhs practiced pastoral nomadism, carrying out seasonal migrations along pre-defined routes. But due to the death of their animal herds—some ninety percent of the animal population perished during the famine—most Kazakhs were forced to take up settled life in the disaster’s aftermath, a dramatic reorientation of Kazakh identity.

I use the term “formation” quite consciously, as throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Soviets tried to form Kazakhs, a group of nomads, into a modern, Soviet “nation”: giving them their own national territory, promoting Kazakhs into the republic’s bureaucracy and “modernizing” Kazakh society by eliminating backward practices. Ultimately, the famine made nationality into the most important marker of Kazakh identity, a goal of the Soviet regime’s “nation-building” project. Soviet Kazakhstan became a republic with stable, defined borders and an integral part of the Soviet economic system.

What had Kazakhstan been prior to the 1920s and who lived there?

Prior to 1917, the territories that would come to constitute Soviet Kazakhstan were under Russian imperial rule.   They had a significant population of Kazakhs, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking group, which had dominated the steppe since the 15th century. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more than 1.5 million migrants from European Russia, primarily Russians and Ukrainians, settled the region, dramatically transforming the environment of the steppe and the lives of the nomadic peoples who lived there.

I argue that the legacies of Russian imperial rule intensified the effects of Soviet policies. Changes in the diet and migration patterns of Kazakh nomads and ecological changes in the steppe itself made Kazakhs more susceptible to hunger. In other words, the Kazakh famine was not purely a Soviet creation. In the Kazakh steppe, the Soviets contended with a range of ecological, political and social changes put in motion by the state that preceded it, the Russian empire.

You’ve written that the famine was a consequence of an effort by Josef Stalin, then secretary general of the Communist Party Soviet Union, to “collectivize” the Soviet countryside. What was “collectivization”?

Collectivization was a form of social, political, cultural and economic transformation. Through it, Moscow hoped both to “modernize” agriculture (making Soviet agriculture more productive and efficient) and to break apart existing social structures. If you were a peasant, what this generally meant was that you were stripped of your land and your livestock and shunted into a collective farm, where a set portion of the production of that farm was given over to the state.

In the Kazakh case what is different about collectivization is that rather than being an assault on peasants it was an assault on nomads: “depeasantization” vs “denomadization,” if you will. Through collectivization and whole host of other changes that accompanied Stalin’s first Five Year Plan, Moscow sought to eliminate pre-existing markers of Kazakh identity, such as nomadism, and form Kazakhs into a Soviet nation.

Can you describe the features of the Kazakh famine and what was distinct to Kazakhstan as opposed to nearby republics such as Ukraine?

In the Soviet Union, the death toll from collectivization was somewhere between 5.5 to 6.5 million people. These deaths were unevenly distributed: Ukraine, the Volga Basin, the Don and Kuban areas of the North Caucasus, and Kazakhstan suffered acutely. But while other ethnic groups suffered, famine affected Kazakhs with striking intensity. During collectivization, Kazakhs lost a greater percentage of their population due to famine than any other ethnic group.

Roughly 3.5 million people died in Ukraine during the Ukrainian famine of 1931-33, and there are a number of striking similarities between the two disasters. In both cases, the regime deployed very brutal tactics, such as the closure of borders so that the starving could not flee. And in each case, famine disproportionately affected one particular ethnic group. There are many differences, too: The Kazakh famine began in the summer of 1930, a full year before famine began in Ukraine. Population flight was much bigger in the Kazakh case, as Kazakh nomads used their knowledge of seasonal migration routes to evade repression. And the environment of the Kazakh steppe was quite different from that of Ukraine: It was arid and drought-prone, with poor soils in parts.

What did Stalin and his officials know about what occurred and what were their reactions.

Stalin knew about the Kazakh famine more or less as soon as it began, but did very little until 1933 to alleviate the human suffering. Indeed, many of Moscow’s interventions intensified the death toll.

During the famine, livestock numbers throughout the republic plummeted, and it is striking that the party was so slow to react to this. Previously, Kazakhstan had been the Soviet Union’s most important livestock base, but during the famine some ninety percent of the republic’s herds perished. I am still working towards an answer on this, but I think some of it has to do with Stalin’s fixation with grain procurements (he was less concerned about livestock levels). Many officials in Moscow also seemed to imagine that Kazakh nomads had limitless numbers of animals, despite reports to the contrary.

What were some of the consequences of the famine for Kazakhstan, its people and the USSR?

The effects of the famine are immense: the horrifying death toll, the fact that Kazakhs became a minority in their own republic, and the fact that the disaster forced Kazakhs to abandon nomadism. During the disaster, over a million Kazakhs fled their own republic. Today, there are significant numbers of Kazakhs in neighboring countries such as Russia, China and Uzbekistan as a result, in part, of the famine’s course. In effect, the Kazakh famine changed the demographic map of the entire region.

It should be noted that Moscow could not transform Kazakh society entirely as it wished: various features of Kazakhs’ pastoral nomadic way of life survived the famine. In an effort to bring up the republic’s livestock numbers in the disaster’s aftermath, the regime actually revived pastoral nomadism in limited areas.

You’ve mentioned that, until recently, the famine has been understudied by historians—and that large gaps in scholarship remain. Why this and what is it that your work hopes to contribute?

There are many reasons why we have heard little about the Kazakh famine and why the topic has been understudied.

In the West the study of the Ukrainian famine has been supported by a very active Ukrainian diaspora community. They have endowed institutes across North America, and in the 1980s the Ukrainian famine was the subject of a US congressional investigation. There was no similar movement among the Kazakh diaspora–I’m not aware of a single Kazakh studies chair or Kazakh studies institute in the West. The Kazakh famine did not become incorporated into the US Cold War narrative about the Soviet Union.

It is also important to reiterate the fact that the vast majority of the people who died in this disaster were nomads, and they are a group that a) has often been seen as less worthy of study b) is trickier for scholars to study as they leave less written records. When the Kazakh famine is mentioned in scholarly works, it is often implied that the famine was part of a natural or inevitable process, as a mobile society became transformed into a settled one. The disaster is dismissed as a “mistake” or a “miscalculation” by Moscow. But as I stress in my work there was absolutely nothing “natural” about it.

I think my work has important implications for how we understand Soviet history. Soviet historians have tended to concentrate on the Soviet Union’s west, to the neglect of the Soviet Union’s east. It is only through examples such as the Kazakh famine that we can understand the full extent of the Soviet “modernization” project, both the extraordinary reach of their ambitions and the devastating consequences that such efforts had.

Through my work I also hope to challenge existing understandings of what Soviet “nation-building” actually was. In contrast to other works which frame it as a low-priority policy, I argue that it is fundamental to understanding both the Soviet system and the peculiarly destructive nature of the Kazakh famine. Soviet “nation-building” was a violent process, one which created new opportunities but also destroyed other pathways. In my book, I explore what it meant to be a Soviet nation, as well as how the project of constructing a Soviet nation changed over time.

Sarah Cameron is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. As a 2016 Kluge Fellow she researched a book project titled, “The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan.”

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