The Kazakh Famine of the 1930s

Dr. Sarah Cameron | 19 Jun 2021

The Kazakh famine of 1930-33 ranks as one of the great crimes of the Stalinist regime and one of the defining events in modern Kazakh history. The crisis, which was sparked by Josef Stalin’s program of forced collectivization, led to the death of roughly a third of all Kazakhs. Other regions of the Soviet Union also suffered grievously from famine during the Stalinist regime’s assault on the countryside, including Ukraine and parts of the Russian heartland. But the Kazakhs are believed to have the highest death ratio due to collectivization of any people in the Soviet Union.1 More than 1.5 million people perished in the Kazakh famine, out of a total population of around six million. Kazakhs became a minority in their own republic, and they would not constitute more than fifty percent of the population in Kazakhstan again until after the Soviet collapse. The famine profoundly shaped modern Kazakhstan. But for many Kazakhs, particularly those who lost loved ones during the disaster, it remains a deeply painful episode in their society’s past. As Kamal, a famine survivor, recalled, “it seems that it was easier to survive all the horrors than it is to remember them now.”2

The Kazakh famine is little known in the West, and, at first glance, the disaster canbe difficult for contemporary observers to comprehend. For one, it deals with a subject, hunger, that might seem remote to those of us fortunate enough to live in circumstances where food is available in abundance. We forget the major role that hunger played in shaping the fortunes of the preceding century: protests over bread shortages helped spark the Russian empire’s collapse;millions died of malnutrition and associated diseases during World War II; and control of the food supply became a crucial front during the Cold War. For both liberal and authoritarian states, food could be a weapon. For Stalin, it was this, as well as a crucial tool to transform the Soviet Union into a modernized state. By forcing rural dwellers into collective farms, he sought to bring the countryside firmly under Soviet control and boost the supply of meat and grain.

Starvation is often portrayed as a passive act, something far less violent than armed conflict. And, for this reason, too, it can be difficult to fathom the horrors that Kazakhs endured. But in the Kazakh case, like other famines, hunger and violence were intimately intertwined. Zh. Äbĭshŭlï, a survivor of the famine who later fought on the front lines for the Red Army during World War II, recalled: “Surviving a famine, is not less than surviving a war.”3 As collectivization began, armed brigades seized meat and grain from the countryside. Rebellions, many involving thousands of participants, erupted as hunger spread. Communal bonds began to fray, and incidents of crime and theft rose. Hungry Kazakhs seeking relief thronged the republic’s borders. And in an act that must be considered one of the famine’s most astonishing acts of cruelty, Soviet border guards shot and killed thousands of starving Kazakhs who sought to flee across the border to China. Some Kazakhs managed to escape. But most were unable to return for their relatives. Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, a famine survivor, remembers the “terrible tragedy when brothers, spouses, children or parents ended up on opposite side of the border.”4

Finally, there is yet another reason why outsiders may have difficulty understanding the scope of the Kazakh disaster, namely, that the majority of those who suffered were nomads. Prior to the crisis, most Kazakhs practiced pastoral nomadism. They carried out seasonal migrations along pre-defined routes to pasture their animal herds, including horses, sheep and camels. This practice had been the predominant way of life in the steppe for more than four millennia, and it served as an adaptation to the scarcity of good pastureland and water. But the famine sparked dramatic change: due to the death of their animal herds, most Kazakhs who survived the crisis were forced to sedentarize, or abandon nomadic life and settle. Overall, the Kazakh crisis constitutes one of the largest pastoral famines in modern history.

Writing about another mobile group, Native Americans, the historian Richard White remarked that early colonists and administrators in America didn’t wonder why the peoples that they conquered starved: “The answer, to them, seemed all too apparent. They starved because they had always starved; starvation was simply the natural result of their dependence on the hunt or on primitive and inefficient agriculture.”5 We see some of the same biasesat work in the Kazakh case. By the late 1920s, Soviet experts regularly depicted Kazakh nomads as lazy and their methods of animal herding as unproductive. Hunger, they argued, was something endemic to nomadic life. Once famine began, Moscow delayed sending aid, in part because officials were influenced by another stereotype, that nomads possessed immense numbers of animals.

Such views have continued to affect how we see the famine. The Kazakh case has been described as stemming from “neglect” or “a misunderstanding of cultures,” phrases that would seem to suggest that there was something inevitable about what happened.6 But there was nothing “natural” about the Kazakh disaster. Nomadism was not a backward way of life, but a highly flexible and adaptive system. It was also a crucial source of identity, one that had often determined who was “Kazakh” and who was not in the steppe region. To understand the full scope of Kazakhs’ loss, we also need to look at the famine’s far-reaching effects on Kazakh culture. Families were torn apart; nomadism ceased to be the defining feature of Kazakh identity. Many of those who survived did not even know where their loved ones were buried. As Kamal, a famine survivor, recalled, “How could we grieve and mourn those who were lost? We could not cast a handful of soil onto their graves because they did not have graves—no one knew where they laid their bodies to rest.”7

But there is also reason to hope. Research on the Kazakh famine has accelerated in recent years, and a wealth of new documents, memoirs and other sources have come to light. With time, we may reach a better understanding of some of the famine’s most intractable problems, such as precisely how many people died (current estimates range from 1.3 million to well over 2 million) or what role to accord to Stalin, republic-level officials and local bureaucrats in the making of the disaster. Famine memorials have begun to begun to spring up across Kazakhstan, and Kazakhs seek to honor and commemorate their loved ones’ legacies.

Dr. Sarah Cameron’s book, “The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan” (Cornell University Press, 2018), examines one of the most heinous crimes of the Stalinist regime, the Kazakh famine of 1930–33. As part of a radical social engineering scheme, Josef Stalin sought to settle the Kazakh nomads and force them into collective farms.

Bibliography of English-language Sources on the Kazakh Famine:

Cameron, Sarah. The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan. Ithaca, 2018.

Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York, 1986.

Kindler, Robert. Stalin’s Nomads: Power and Famine in Kazakhstan. Translated byCynthia Klohr. Pittsburgh, 2018.

Nurtazina, Nazira, ed. “Great Famine of 1931–1933 in Kazakhstan: A Contemporary’s Reminiscences,”Acta SlavicaIaponica32 (2012), 105–29.

Olcott, Martha Brill.”The Collectivization Drive in Kazakhstan,”Russian Review 40, no. 2 (1981), 122–42.

Payne, Matthew J. “Seeing Like a Soviet State: Settlement of Nomadic Kazakhs, 1928–1934,”In Writing the Stalin Era: Shelia Fitzpatrick and Soviet Historiography, ed. Golfo Alexopoulous, Julie Hessler, and KirilTomoff (New York, 2011), 59–86.

Pianciola,Niccolò. “Famine in the Steppe: The Collectivization of Agriculture and the Kazak Herdsmen, 1928–1934.” Cahiers du monde russe 45, no. 1-2 (2004): 137–92.

Shayakhmetov,Mukhamet. Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin. Translated byJan Butler. New York, 2007.

Wheatcroft, Stephen G., and R. W. Davies. The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933. New York, 2009.

  1. Parliamentary Assembly of Europe, “Commemorating the Victims of the Great Famine (Holodomor) in the Former USSR” 

  2. Kamal’s recollections can be found in Garifolla Yesim, The Agony of Socialism: Kazakh Memoirs of the Soviet Past (Pullman, WA, 2017), 22. 

  3. Zh. Äbĭshŭlï, “Ötkennĭngöksĭgĭ,” in Qïzïldarqïrghïnï, ed. B. Khabdina (Almaty, 1993), 57. 

  4. MukhametShayakmetov, The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin (London, 2006), 42-43 

  5. Richard White,The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln, NE, 1988), 315. 

  6. For a discussion of the ways that the Kazakh case has been depicted, see Sarah Cameron, Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan (Ithaca, 2018), 7. 

  7. Garifolla Yesim, The Agony of Socialism: Kazakh Memoirs of the Soviet Past (Pullman, WA, 2017), 14. 

Dr. Sarah Cameron

Dr. Sarah Cameron is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include genocide and crimes against humanity, environmental history and the societies and cultures of Central Asia.

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