Conference Report: ‘The Kazakh Famine and its legacies: a conversation with leading historians’
Updated: Sep 14
Prof. Zhulduzbek Abylkhozhin, Kazakh-British Technical University and Institute of History and Ethnography, Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Almaty.
Prof. Sarah Cameron, University of Maryland. Dr. Robert Kindler, Humboldt University, Berlin.
Prof. Arailym Mussagaliyeva, L. N. Gumilev Eurasian National University, Nur-Sultan.
Dr. Isabelle Ohayon, CERCEC/CNRS, Paris.
Prof. Niccolo Pianciola, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.
This Zoom webinar took place on Friday 19 June 2020 and was organised by the University of Exeter Central Asian Network (EXCAS) and the Oxford Society for the Caspian and Central Asia (TOSCCA). The discussion was chaired by Dr. Alexander Morrison and the languages of the forum were English and Russian. Six leading scholars spoke on their research on the 1930-33 Kazakh famine before opening up the discussion to questions from audience members. The event was attended by more than a hundred people all across the world from a wide range of backgrounds; audience members included academics, students, artists and journalists. Their different perspectives led to a stimulating discussion and highlighted the value of relating academic research to wider audiences. Though the online delivery of this seminar was unfortunately necessitated by the current situation regarding COVID-19, this format provided an exceptional opportunity for international exchange and several participants emphasised that they would greatly value more of these kinds of events in the future.
For participants from European and American universities, such as myself, the webinar provided a unique opportunity to connect with leading scholars in Kazakhstan and to hear about their research. Prof. Arailym Mussagaliyeva spoke about her work on political repression and its interactions with famine in northern and central Kazakhstan, including conditions in KARLAG, the vast labour camp in Karaganda Oblast in the 1930s. Prof. Zhulduzbek Abylkhozhin discussed the fundamental issue of whether the Kazakh famine qualifies as genocide, highlighted the horrific consequences of the Soviet regime’s pursuit of industrialisation and the creation of a new society, and acknowledged that the Communist Party leadership understood the severity of the famine. However, while the Soviet state was indeed responsible for the Kazakh famine, in his opinion, it did not amount to genocide as deliberate intent to eradicate Kazakhs as an ethnic group cannot be proven. This remains a topic of heated debate in Kazakh civil society, which was reflected in the webinar’s comments section.
As there has been a resurgence of interest in famine in public and political debates in Kazakhstan, several of the presenters noted the importance of conducting research into the famine in the present moment. Indeed, the great interest in the webinar from outside of academia highlights the importance of making research available to wider audiences. The role of academics in memory politics and public debate was also discussed. There is a sense that Kazakhs have not yet been able to fully grapple with this chapter of their past as Soviet authorities had not allowed genuine discussion or memorialisation of the famine.
Several audience members asked questions in relation to Soviet rule in Kazakhstan. Issues raised included the role of ideology and the interaction between the paradigms of decolonisation and neo-colonialism. The speakers’ answers highlighted overlaps and tensions between different sets of policies and hierarchies. For example, Prof. Niccolo Pianciola explained that decolonisation and nation-building competed with exploitative imperial policies in Kazakhstan, and we need to consider how interactions between them changed over time.
An important theme highlighted by several of the following speakers was increased dependency on the state before and after the Russian Revolution. Notably, the social and economic structures of the nomadic population had been weakened during the confiscation campaign in 1928 (when livestock was seized from rural elites) and collectivisation thereafter, which made them particularly vulnerable. During and after the famine, its victims found themselves at the mercy of the Soviet state, dependent on the government for survival. The Soviet authorities responded with limited relief measures and a programme of resettlement in line with economic and agricultural priorities, which were motivated by political concerns, rather than humanitarian sentiment. Prof. Pianciola argued that survivors’ dependency on the state in the aftermath of the famine was central to the subjugation and incorporation of Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union’s economic and political structure. Drs. Isabelle Ohayon and Robert Kindler further maintained that the disintegration of social structures was fundamental to the facilitation of Soviet state building in Kazakhstan. Dr. Kindler referred to the cumulative effect of these violent processes as ‘Sovietisation through famine.’
Participants wondered about the role of Kazakh elites and interactions inside the communist party in Kazakhstan. Dr. Kindler touched on this earlier during the seminar when discussing how his work conceptualises how the state was represented on the ground and how it interacted with people in need. In his work he considers how politics of inclusion and exclusion influenced survival during the famine. Another question concerned the presence of non-state actors, such as religious organisations, in famine relief. Prof. Pianciola suggested there was no independent relief because the existence of the famine in the 1930s was denied by the Soviet Union.
Each presenter highlighted areas for further research on the Kazakh famine. There was a general consensus that the creation of further demographic data on the geographic and chronological distribution of deaths is of key importance. This information would enable scholars to better understand causal factors and would open up the Kazakh famine as research topic for social scientists.
Prof. Sarah Cameron argued that it is equally important to engage further with personal experiences and private memories of hunger. New methods and the creative use of sources could allow scholars to consider individual stories against the larger backdrop of state sponsored hunger. Unfortunately, oral history of the famine in the traditional sense is no longer possible and the lack of original testimonies presents a methodological challenge. Dr. Ohayon noted the sense of taboo around the famine felt by many even in the private sphere during the Soviet period contributed to this. In her work, she relied on Kazakh archives and local fieldwork in order to reconstruct a social history of the famine and understand the specific conditions of sedentarisation and collectivisation in Kazakhstan. At the time, this approach presented a challenge to the predominant methodology in the field, which mostly relied on material from the archives in Moscow.
A central issue highlighted by several speakers was the need to understand the Kazakh tragedy in the context of the wider Soviet experience of famine. Comparative studies with other pastoral regions under Moscow’s influence could help us understand why Kazakh nomads suffered so greatly. To date, much of the research on the famine is organised along national lines. Future research has much to gain from challenging this separation. Prof. Cameron highlighted this as an opportunity for greater co-operation among scholars. In addition to exchanges at conferences and collaborations to produce edited volumes, she suggested it is important to facilitate greater interaction between scholarship in different languages. As she pointed out, to date the works of Kazakh historians have scarcely been translated into English.
This workshop covered a variety of complex topics related to the Kazakh famine and demonstrated the importance of placing these insights into the wider context of famine in the Soviet Union. This seminar taught us a lot about the Kazakh famine and the current debates surrounding it, and I believe we would benefit from connecting this history with the wider global historiography of famine. This webinar also highlighted that there is still important and exciting work to be done on the Kazakh famine. In particular, I think further research is necessary to understand how differential access to resources led to a multiplicity of experiences. This will challenge the perceived binary between the state and people in Soviet Central Asia.
Hanna Matt is a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester. She is interested in the history of humanitarianism, non-western forms of humanitarianism, histories of the Soviet Union and personal experiences of crisis, violence and displacement. Her PhD project considers the Kazakh Famine of 1930-1933 through a humanitarian lens in order to better understand how modernity and disasters were experienced in the context of Soviet Central Asia. More broadly, she examines how responses to ‘domestic’ crises contributed to the development of relief practises in the Soviet Union. For more see https://www.hcri.manchester.ac.uk/research/postgraduate-research/phd-students/hanna-matt/ and follow her on Twitter @histhannamatt.