This article began as an assigned essay for the Central Asian History course at the University of Michigan. It ended, for me, as an enlightening look into the tragic history of Soviet rule and the societal mechanisms that lead to the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million. I became enthralled by the horrors of the Kazakh famine and wanted to understand the social, political, and ideological motives that underpinned the event.
I also grew, for the first time when writing a paper, a sense of responsibility to write well on behalf of the Kazakhs. Very few English speaking researchers have delved into the topic and the global community remains largely ignorant of the event. It is for this reason that I’m excited to publish the essay on Feeding Curiosity. Given that knowledge is power, perhaps the knowledge of the Kazakh past can protect the global future from these tragedies happening again.
Ideology As A Weapon:
A Meditation on the Kazakh Famine
In the early 20th century, Marxist ideals, though philosophically convincing enough to produce the Soviet Revolution, cracked under the pressure of the real world with consequences that rippled across the East. The first crack came under the guise of central planning, specifically sedentarization and collectivization, and the consequences of its enactment. Marxist Ideology presupposes that social classes are in a zero-sum game for the world's resources - a war between the proletariat and bourgeoisie to gain control over all economic means. Central planning was enacted to create equality between the classes, where a perfectly fair economic arrangement could be realized through the force of the state. The second of these cracks came in the form of human nature and its willingness to wield power as a weapon to detrimental effects. Building on the first premise, the Bourgeois (who had the means of production) had to be identified and that identification, within the Soviet system, lead to terrible consequences. (Who decided who is bourgeois? And what should the consequence be?) These two seismic tremors converged to form a quake within the Soviet Union. Famine broke out in multiple republics - Russia and Ukraine in 1921 and 1922, and Kazakhstan between 1930-33. I will focus on the unique case of the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, where a nomadic culture existed before Soviet intervention. The cracks in Marxist ideology magnified into a seismic level famine, within Kazakhstan, that lead to the starvation and deaths of 1.5 million people.
Tracing back the steps, and identifying the catalyst of the famine, can be difficult - no historical event occurs in a vacuum. So I will begin with Stalin’s Great Turning Point in 1929. The GTP was a new economic plan that accelerated collectivization and industrialization and whose “main tool in both attempts was central planning” (Graziosi and Sysyn 6). This central planning came in the form of agricultural collectivization where farms and livestock became owned, produced, and distributed by the state. Within Kazakhstan, there is a caveat; according to historian Sarah Cameron, “As nomads, Kazakhs carried out seasonal migrations… [as] an adaption to the peculiarities of the Kazakh steppe” (“The Kazakh Famine” 118). This meant that they were not settled and agricultural by nature. First the nomads had to be forced into a sedentary life, a process known as sedentarization, before they could be forced onto collective farms. Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, a Kazakh nomad who survived the famine, recalled this process, and his father’s reaction, as such:
“[His father was] a man who had spent his entire life as a stock-breeder, and who regarded it as his sole livelihood, had been deprived of everything he had earned, stored up, reared and acquired through honest work all his life, and was now left with nothing except mouths to feed. He was totally bereft” (53).
This illustrates how sedentarization and collectivization was perceived by the nomadic populace of Kazakhstan during that time. Chief among the geographic peculiarities of the steppe was “the scarcity of good pastureland and water” (“The Kazakh Famine 118) - a prime reason for the initial development of the nomadic lifestyle. This scarcity did not lend itself to massive, state-orchestrated settlement and farming. Therefore, after the Kazakhs had been settled and collectivized, the farms that were built could not produce to the capacity needed as a consequence of the quality of the land. This oversight was a failure inherent in the system. As noted by Andrea Graziosi and Frank Sysyn, “By eliminating all manner of checks and balances, planning from above made systemic failure both possible and probable… [this was] a subjective system ruled over by politics and policies, will and wishes” (6).
As power was funnelled to a single point (the state), it mixed and commingled with ideology and human nature. The Marxist ideology, in the form of legal policy, and backed by the power of the government, was wielded against the Kulaks or Bai, in Kazakhstan. Bai translates as “wealthy” and is a term, along with Kulak, to designate the “wealthy class exploiters” (“The Hungry Steppe” viii). This is analogous to the Bourgeoisie. First, it should be noted that the Bai had, arguably, become wealthy by producing more goods and, in order to produce more, they had to have a more intricate knowledge of the production system and the skill set required to produce. Consequently, when the Communist Party targeted the Kulaks, they inevitably targeted those most capable of producing the food they coveted. Secondly, the Party sought to liquidate the Kulaks and, therefore, the consequences of being labeled a Kulak were horrific. Mukhamet Shayakhmetov’s father, who was previously mentioned, was labelled a Kulak. Shayakhmetov recalls, “His [father’s] sentence was ‘to be isolated from society as a public enemy’ (that is, sent to prison) for two years, have his household goods confiscated, and then, once released from jail, to be deported with his family to an area far away from his native land” (55). His father died in prison. The consequences associated with wielding ideology as a weapon were grave for the individuals involved. Thirdly, it should be noted that abuse of power was facilitated by the policies set into place; “the blacklists kept changing, since those who compiled them were easily influenced by personal relationships and grudges” (Shayakhmetov 51). Legal precedent was used for revenge and intimidation, and it was incentivized. Legal institutions across Kazakhstan, at multiple levels, were appraised according to the number of Bais they exposed and convicted. This resulted in a tripling of Bais being convicted. To summarize, Kulaks, those best suited to produce the food demanded by the Party, were targeted, sometimes arbitrarily, and severely punished, resulting in a shortage of adequate labor to produce the food demanded of them. By punishing the Kulaks for exploiting more modest classes, the Party effectively crippled itself - facilitating the starvation of millions.
The consequences of the Great Turning Point (or First Five-Year Plan), were immense. Between 1930 and 1933, 1.3 - 1.5 million deaths occured in Kazakhstan. It should be noted, in order to emphasize that it was Communist policies that aided in the starvation, that the famines were not isolated to Kazakhstan. According to Andrea Graziosi and Frank Sysyn, “in 1921 and 1922 in Russia and Ukraine ([there were] 1 million-1.5million deaths); in 1931, 1932, and 1933 in the USSR (6.5 million - 7.5 million deaths, of which 4 million were in Ukraine…); in 1958 to 1962 in China (30 million - 45 million deaths)” (5). Within North Korea, estimates vary but top out at 2 million deaths. All this is the result of Communist ideals, realized in the form of state policies. A secondary consequence was migration; “During the years 1931-33 - the height of the Kazakh famine - more than 1.1 million people… left the republic” (“The Kazakh Famine” 119). The famine and its consequences, marked a major shift in the nature of Kazakhstan; “Prior to the famine, Kazakhs held a slim demographic majority (57.1 percent) in their republic… Nearly forty percent of all Kazakhs… died during the famine. Decimated by the crisis, Kazakhs became a minority in their own Soviet republic” (“The Hungry Steppe” ii).
The response to this tragedy varied. Kazakhs, in 1929, conducted an uprising, which was met with a vicious crackdown by the Red Army. The difficulties were not ignored by the Soviets; Filipp Goloshchekin (whose name is sometimes used for the famine - “Goloshchekin’s genocide”) was in correspondence with Stalin during this time. Stalin knew the extent to which the Kazakhs were suffering and didn’t offer concessions, such as private ownership of animals, until September 1932. Stalin’s knowledge of the famine, and the consensus that “Moscow sought to use famine as a means of bringing Kazakhs under Soviet rule” (“The Kazakh Famine” 125), has lead to a debate about whether the famine in Kazakhstan should be considered a genocide. If it was not genocide, there is still another question: Did the famine in Kazakhstan provide Stalin with a model for repressing uprisings and bringing nations under control, as in the Holodomor? As more documents on the era are studied, which has proven difficult given the oral tradition within Kazakh culture, more light may be shed on the famine, its consequences, and those in authority at that time.
In conclusion, there was an unfolding of ideology into policy which, in turn, unfolded into a horrific famine. The Kazakh famine is the the culmination of two major failures: centralizing power and human nature when given that power. However, there are things left unaddressed. There is still research to be done on the broader effects of this famine on the Soviet Union and Central Asia as a whole. There is also the debate about whether the Kazakh famine should be considered genocide. In time, and with more research, the curtain can be pulled back on the nature of the Famine, and brought to the attention of the West, who has largely ignored the tragedy. Until then, it may be best to remember the Kazakh famine and learn from the mistakes of the policy makers in Kazakhstan and the Soviet Union as a whole. Learning the consequences and causes of the famine honors the memory of those that died and may prevent another horrific tragedy from occurring again.
Sarah Cameron, in “The Kazakh Famine of 1930-33”, refers to this as “The First Five-Year Plan”.
Sarah Cameron notes, “By 1930, party officials declared war against the kulak and worked to expropriate and "liquidate" the kulak, in favor of other classes in the village, the seredniak (a peasant of modest means) and bedniak (a poor peasant)” (“The Hungry Steppe 80).
Mukhamet Shayakhmetov says in The Silent Steppe, “according to official estimates, kulaks made up only 5 per cent of the entire country’s peasant population, as many as 15 per cent were exposed and convicted as class enemies” (49).
Sarah Cameron, in “The Kazakh Famine of 1930-33, says, “Within Kazakhstan, massive uprisings, some numbering several thousand participants, erupted in the fall of 1929… Red Army troops brutally put down these rebellions” (119).
See Sarah Cameron, “The Kazakh Famine of 1930-33”, pages 119 and 123.
This question is considered by Sarah Cameron in “The Kazakh Famine of 1930-33”, on page 126.
Cameron, Sarah. The Hungry Steppe: Soviet Kazakhstan and the Kazakh Famine, 1921
1934. Yale University, 2010.
Cameron, Sarah. “The Kazakh Famine of 1930-33: Current Research and New
Directions.”East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, pp. 117-132.
Graziosi, Andrea. Sysyn, Frank. “Communism and Hunger: the Ukrainian, Chinese,
Kazakh, and Soviet Famines in Comparative Perspective.” East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies. Vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, pp. 5-10.
Shayakhmetov, Mukhamet. The Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad Under
Stalin. The Rookery Press, 2007.