Writing a Multiethnic History of the Kazakh Famine
Updated: Aug 13, 2022
This blog post discusses some upsetting themes.
Mehmet Volkan Kasikci
In the early 1930s, millions of people starved to death across the Soviet Union. Collectivization and food requisitions destroyed traditional societies in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and parts of Russia. In Kazakhstan, the great majority of famine victims were Kazakhs, but others starved too. A collective monograph by Kazakh historians puts the death toll for Kazakhs at 1.5 to 2 million and for others at 200 to 250 thousand.[i] Just like many issues in the history of the famine, non-Kazakhs’ experiences are waiting for serious historical investigation.[ii]
One way of writing a multiethnic history of the famine is focusing on interethnic relations. Various historians have shown that prejudices towards Kazakhs were common, starving Kazakhs were discriminated against, and they frequently faced naked violence. Indeed, the experiences of Kazakhs who took refuge in other regions sometimes attract more attention than experiences of Kazakhs within Kazakhstan due to the relative abundance of sources, particularly in Western Siberia. Anti-Kazakh sentiments were perhaps nowhere else as strong as they were in Siberia. Thanks to Malysheva and Poznanskii’s extensive study on Kazakh refugees in Western Siberia, we have a good sense of how starving Kazakhs were treated by the locals.[iii] Nonetheless, Western Siberia presents a contradictory example. While citizens’ everyday chauvinism against Kazakhs was possibly strongest in this region (if we are not completely illusioned by the comparative abundance of sources), the Siberian authorities’ efforts to help starving Kazakhs were also possibly more genuine than other regional authorities’ efforts. It is not rare that Kazakh historians praise Robert Eikhe, the provincial head of the Communist Party, for his efforts to help Kazakhs.[iv]
Another relatively well-documented case is Kazakh refugees in the Kyrgyz republic. There is a tendency among Kyrgyz historians to emphasize how the Kyrgyz people generously helped Kazakhs in this time of calamity.[v] This reflects Kyrgyz authorities’ self-image of a benevolent caregiver during the famine. Nevertheless, we have enough documents to question such an image. Kyrgyz officials were frequently complaining about both Kazakh authorities and starving Kazakhs; their attitude was not one of an unrequited generosity to a brotherly people. It does not mean that Kyrgyz authorities were harsher to starving Kazakhs than other neighbors of Kazakhstan, but a rosy picture does not reflect the historical reality. Talas Omarbekov’s judgement of Karakalpaks’ treatment of refugee Kazakhs is far harsher than that of Uzbeks’ or Kyrgyz’; but he does not see a significant difference between the latter two.[vi] It is hard to determine who were more generous and who were harsher towards Kazakhs, and looking for generosity, brotherhood or goodness in the history of the famine is not a fruitful way to understand historical actors’ motivations.
Kazakhs during the Famine Source: https://gorky.media/reviews/velikij-dzhut-kak-million-golodnyh-smertej-ostalsya-v-teni-istorii/
Official documents, most of which have been published by Kazakh historians, help us understand the treatment of starving Kazakhs, but they are far from providing a complete picture. Other than sporadic examples, they tell little about interethnic relations within Kazakhstan itself. Hitherto ignored survivor accounts provide more evidence on interethnic relations than the official documents and allow us to understand how ordinary Kazakhs themselves made sense of their experiences. Survivors’ representation of interethnic relations is much more complicated than contemporary public intellectuals’ who push for a discourse of Russian genocide against Kazakhs. True, there are a considerable number of survivors who perceive the famine as a genocide, but for them, perpetrators are usually First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party Filipp Goloshchekin, Joseph Stalin, or the Bolsheviks, not a national community.
Baghdad Zhandosay’s case deserves to be mentioned here. Zhandosay is a radically anti-Bolshevik famine survivor and he defines not only the famine, but also the very essence of the Bolshevik ethos as genocidal. Yet, instead of bringing a national explanation, he promotes Kazakh-Russian friendship. Having lost his family during the famine, Zhandosay was adopted by a Russian family in Almaty and he remembers them with utmost gratitude.[vii] His case is not unique. Many Kazakhs survived thanks to people of other nationalities including Russians, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Uyghurs, and so on. Some of them were directly saved by others as in the case of Zhandosay. Some of them were supported by the local populations in Kyrgyzstan, Chinese Turkestan or somewhere else. Insurgents who escaped Kazakhstan after the failed collectivization rebellions were hidden and protected by Uzbek and Tajik villagers. In some cases, survival indirectly depended on other groups. A number of survivors say that their communities learned how to grow potatoes or cultivate grain from others (usually from Russians or Uzbeks) and it turned into a highly valuable asset in the catastrophic years (Kazakhs who exclusively depended on animal products perished in greater portions).
I do not claim that most non-Kazakhs approached starving Kazakhs with compassion. Quite the contrary, many survivors remember how starving Kazakhs’ lives did not matter for anyone. The most common image emerging from testimonies is a starving Kazakh beaten heartlessly by sellers in the bazaars of both Kazakhstan and the neighboring regions: a starving Kazakh comes to a bazaar where sellers are Russians, Tatars or Uzbeks; he steals some food and then a crowd gathers together and beat the Kazakh to death. Another common image represents the apathy of the residents of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan: when Kazakhs arrive the towns or cities in these republics, they immediately realize dozens of dead Kazakh bodies on the streets while local people just keep having their meals in chayhonas.
There are survivors who directly blame the Russians for the genocide of Kazakhs, but this is a small minority, possibly less than a dozen among a few hundreds of survivors. In fact, Russians were only one group of others for starving Kazakhs. Many Kazakh survivors’ experiences were shaped by relations with the Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Karakalpaks or Chinese rather than with the Russians. This was a significant difference between Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Consequently, ethnic tensions were not limited to hostilities between Kazakhs and Russians. A significant portion of survivors who define their outrage in ethno-national terms blame Uzbeks or even the Chinese as much as they blame Russians. Süleymen Bekenov’s memoirs are shaped by ethnic hostility and unapologetic chauvinism more than anyone else’s. However, for him, the primary target are the Uzbeks, not the Russians. Bekenov took refuge in Uzbekistan during the famine, and in his account, Uzbeks ruthlessly try to destroy starving Kazakhs.[viii]
Yet, there are others who are grateful to Uzbeks for their survival. One example is Ībrakhīm Shämshätuly. But his memoirs also include depictions of starving Kazakhs beaten by Russians, Tatars, and Uzbeks in bazaars. Hence, there was no universal national attitude towards starving Kazakhs. Shämshätuly again remembers how a Russian woman had mercy on him and helped him survive, and he was shocked by the heartlessness of Kazakh officials towards their own kin, while trying to find a spot in an orphanage.[ix] Russians beat the Kazakhs in bazaars, so did the Kazakhs although only a small minority of sellers were Kazakhs. Uzbeks or the Kyrgyz were indifferent towards the dozens of dead bodies around them, so were the Kazakhs who were urban residents by 1930. It seems that attitudes towards starving Kazakhs were rarely shaped by nationality; or at least, it was only one factor among many.
Mehmet Volkan Kasikci is a postdoctoral researcher at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He is a historian of Central Asia, specialising on the Kazakh Famine. He tweets on @mvolkankasikci
[i] B. G. Ayaghan, et. al., 1932-1933 Zhyldardaghy Asharshylyq Aqīqaty - Pravda o Golode, 1932-1933 Godov (Almaty: TOO Litera-M, 2012), 102. [ii] Ukrainian historians have started to study non-Ukrainians’ experiences. For example, see, Victoria Khiterer, “The Holodomor and Jews in Kyiv and Ukraine: An Introduction and Observations on a Neglected Topic,” Nationalities Papers 48, 3 (2020). [iii] See, Chapter 4: “Problema Mezhnatsional’nykh Otnoshenii,” in M. P. Malysheva and V. S. Poznanskii, Kazakhi-Bezhentsy ot Goloda v Zapadnoi Sibiri (1931-1934 g.g.) (Almaty: Ghylym, 1999), 306-378. Sarah Cameron suggests that local Kazakhs’ treatment of refugee Kazakhs was similarly heartless. Sarah Cameron, “The Hungry Steppe: Soviet Kazakhstan and the Kazakh Famine, 1921-1934,” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2010), 273. [iv] For example, see, G. B. Sūgralīmova, Qazaqstandaghy panasyz balalar mäselesi: Tarīkhy, täzhirībesi, taghylymy (1920-1940 zhzh.)(Ekibastuz, 2013), 91; 93; 96-97. [v] For example, see, S. B. Sarsenbaev, “Pomoshch' Kyrgyzstana kazakham v period goloda 1932-1933 gg,” Vestnik KRSU, No. 3 (2015). This is a common reaction among ordinary Kyrgyz beyond academic studies. [vi] Mämbet Qoygeldīev and Talas Omarbekov, Tarīkh Taghylymy Ne Deydi? (Almaty: Ana Tili, 1993), 138. [vii] Baghdad Zhandosay, Shoshqanyñ Qumy (Almaty: Zhas Alash, 1999). [viii] Süleymen Bekenov, Qazaq Tutqyny (Almaty: Qazaq entsiklopediyasy, 2007). [ix] Ībrakhīm Shämshätuly, “Zhappay Uyymdastyrūdyn Qurbany,” Zhuldyz, no. 10 (1992).