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  • Зәуре Батаева

Kazakh famine (Asharshylyq): Interview with Sarah Cameron

Kazakhstan, a post-traumatic society. Historian Sarah Cameron on what is known and what is unknown about the Kazakh famine, on the occasion of the publication of her book, titled The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan.

I belong to the generation of Soviet Kazakhs who grew up in the last two decades of the USSR. By then, the Red Terror seemed like a nightmare that had never occurred, even to those who had witnessed it themselves. Still, I grew up hearing words such as Asharshylyq, Zhoqshylyq, and even the most disturbing among them – kisi zhegen – from close relatives, especially from my step-grandmother, who would refer to them almost every day. Strangely enough, these appalling words, referring to horrendous events, did not arouse any emotions in me. The meaning of these words simply did not penetrate my brainwashed mind.

There were many reasons for my shameful indifference: I could not relate these events to the very country I was living in, to what I was reading in history books or seeing in films. Only when I was 25 years old, did I begin to realize that the infamous Asharshylyq was also part of my own family’s tragic history. My paternal grandparents both perished in 1934 during a massacre at the river Alqabeq, the natural border with China, while attempting to escape the famine. This massacre claimed the lives of almost 1000 Kazakhs. The official Soviet version of the event was that the Kazakhs had died as a result of a border conflict with Chinese Dungans. The relatives of those who died knew better, but they could only speak about it in whispers, as Nayman Qyrgan.

The American historian Sarah Cameron, a professor at the University of Maryland (USA), has researched the Kazakh famine. Her doctoral dissertation on the subject, completed at Yale University, received two awards. The resulting book, The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan, was published in November 2018.

I met Sarah Cameron in person in 2006, when I was teaching Kazakh language and culture at Indiana University (USA), and Sarah was my student for one summer semester. Back then, twelve years ago, Sarah had already started doing research on the Kazakh famine. When I found out about the book, I read it immediately and asked Sarah Cameron if I could interview her. I ended up asking her the questions that many Kazakhs have been asking themselves.

Zaure Batayeva: You start the book with the Kazakh proverb “Until the spirits of the dead are honoured, the living will not prosper”. Is this proverb the ethical-philosophical motivation behind the book? How do you reply to Kazakhstani people who say that a foreigner cannot contribute to a project of such national importance?

Sarah Cameron: On the most basic level, yes, the proverb is the ethical and philosophical motivation behind the book. So many of the stories of those who suffered during the famine have been silenced, lost or forgotten. We know that a horrifying number of people died during the Kazakh famine, but it can be difficult to comprehend what that meant in human terms. To bring out the human element of the story, I tried as much as I could to incorporate Kazakhs’ own voices. If my book has in some small way honoured those who died, then the most important goal of my book will have been achieved.

I understand that some Kazakhs might have reservations that an outsider is writing about such a sensitive part of their history. But I hope that once they read the book, it will allay their fears. Writing about such an important subject is not something that I took lightly. I spent ten years researching and writing this book. I learned Russian and Kazakh, and I worked extensively in archives and libraries in Kazakhstan and Russia. I also consulted closely with Kazakhstani scholars of the famine, and my work benefitted greatly from engagement with their research.

If we look at American history, for instance, its study has long been pursued by people of many different nationalities. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America remains one of the foundational texts of the American history field. But De Toqueville was not an American. He was a Frenchman. Of course, I do not claim to be De Toqueville. But I hope my status as an outsider might serve as an advantage in some cases, enabling me to see patterns or themes that those who were raised in Kazakh culture might not necessarily see.

Zaure Batayeva: The subject of your book is the famine that took place in Kazakhstan in the period 1929-1933. This period, known among Kazakhs by the name of Asharshylyq, is the least researched subject in our history. One of the great taboos of the Soviet regime, Soviet historians were not allowed to do research on this subject. Kazakh families whispered about it at home and some Kazakh novelists smuggled scenes of the famine into their fiction.

When you started your research, more than 70 years had passed. Most of the witnesses that could corroborate the secret knowledge that Kazakh families whisper about had passed away. How difficult was it for you to find evidence relating to the Kazakh famine? Which kinds of evidence turned out to be the most important in your research?

Sarah Cameron: I found an abundance of state and Communist party documents pertaining to the famine in archives in Kazakhstan and Russia. To illuminate the human side of the story in greater depth, I also wanted to incorporate sources such as memoirs or oral history accounts, that were not produced by the Communist Party or the Soviet state. But these sources proved to be exceptionally difficult to find. For various reasons, there are fewer types of these sources available for the Kazakh case than there are for other crimes of the Stalinist regime.

Ultimately, the handful of memoirs and oral history accounts that I did find were crucial to my research. Through them, I was able to convey how the famine transformed Kazakh society. The rich holdings of the Presidential Archives were also extremely helpful to my research, and I think their collections pertaining to the famine have yet to be fully explored by researchers.

Zaure Batayeva: In Kazakhstan, many different numbers circulate about the death toll of the Kazakh famine. The American historian Stephen Kotkin, in his new authoritative biography of Stalin (published in 2017), writes that the death toll in the Kazakh autonomous republic was the highest ratio in the Soviet Union: 35 to 40% of all ethnic Kazakhs (at that time, 4.12 million) died. Which numbers did you find in your research? How certain can we be that these numbers are accurate?

Sarah Cameron: I agree that Kazakhs had the highest death toll of any group during collectivization. But we need more demographic research to understand exactly how many people died and what regions of Kazakhstan were the most affected.

In my book, I mention that “at least 1.5 million people” perished during the Kazakh famine. To arrive at this figure, I used a recent study by a team of demographers affiliated with Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute and a study by the economic historians Stephen Wheatcroft and R. W. Davies. But in their studies, these scholars also acknowledge that our understanding of the Kazakh famine’s death toll is incomplete. In the case of the Ukrainian famine, for instance, the team of demographers affiliated with Harvard has mapped famine mortality down the raion level, and this work has provided important insights into how famine afflicted Ukraine. But no similar project has been attempted for the Kazakh case. To be clear, it would be more difficult to carry out this work for the Kazakh case due to problems with the population data for Kazakhstan from that period. But much more work on the Kazakh famine’s death toll can and should be done by researchers.

Zaure Batayeva: Before analysing how the tragedy of the Kazakh famine happened, you explain in your book how the system of pastoral nomadism functioned for thousands of years. You quote Sergei Shvetsov, the head of the Soviets’ economic-statistical expedition to Kazakhstan in 1926, who argued that “nomadism was just as advanced as settled agriculture”. However, Stalin had a very low opinion of nomadism, calling it “backward”, and launched a campaign of de-nomadization, taking away the nomads’ cattle and collectivizing their farms. How important a factor was the Soviets’ assault on the system of pastoral nomadism in creating the conditions for the Kazakh famine?

Sarah Cameron: Moscow’s assault on Kazakhs’ pastoral nomadic way of life was the key cause of the Kazakh famine. Through collectivization, as well as onerous grain and meat requisitions, Moscow sought to destroy Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life. But as your question hints, this was not just an economic assault, but a cultural one, too. By the late 1920s, Soviet experts declared all aspects of Kazakhs’ nomadic life to be “backward,” and they portrayed settled life as more in keeping with “contemporary culture.”

There are of course several other factors that are important to understanding the Kazakh famine. In my book, for instance, I show how a period of intense peasant settlement of the Kazakh steppe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries created important pre-conditions for the Kazakh famine. But the Soviet regime’s assault on pastoral nomadism was the most important factor.

Zaure Batayeva: Ahmed Baitursynov, in his article “The Kirgiz [Kazakhs] and Revolution” (1919), argued that due to the lack of class differentiation Kazakhs already practiced their own distinctive form of communism within the aul. What Baitursynov meant was that nomads had forged strong social bonds within clans in order to survive in a harsh climate that frequently caused draught and zhut. We know that nomads developed many traditions that were essential to surviving in a harsh environment, including the tradition of Amangerlik, which offered social protection to widowed women and their children.

In your book you pay close attention to the Soviet campaign against the Kazakh bai. It is astonishing how the Soviet regime deliberately did not define this word, so that they could target large numbers of people. Why did the Soviets focus on eliminating the bai? How much destruction did this anti-bai campaign bring? Was it also a factor leading to the famine?

Sarah Cameron: The campaign against the Kazakh bai bears important similarities to the campaign against the kulak, or peasant class exploiter. In both cases, the definition of who was a “bai” or who was a “kulak” was very fluid. This fluidity enabled Moscow to maximize the destruction of these campaigns.

The bai confiscation campaign that began in 1928 was Moscow’s first real step in its broader assault on pastoral nomadism. Moscow saw “wealthy” bais as key to the maintenance of Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life. By removing these members of Kazakh society and expropriating their animal herds, Moscow sought to spark the destruction of pastoral nomadism. But in practice, Moscow had no way to care for the animals confiscated, and many of them perished during the campaign. Hearing rumours of the coming campaign, many Kazakhs left their ancestral pasturelands and entered into desperate flight. Though famine itself did not begin until the winter of 1930-31, the bai confiscation campaign impoverished Kazakh society, increasing the likelihood of a massive famine.

Zaure Batayeva: As I said at the beginning of the interview, my paternal grandparents were shot at the Alqabek river, while trying to cross the border to China. When Kazakhs that were able to escape at the time returned with their families to their homeland in the 1990s, relatives of the victims devoted a memorial to the tragedies that took place in the region. However, some Russian historians continue to deny that Kazakhs were killed in large numbers at the Chinese border between 1930 and 1934. Which evidence exists that the Soviets closed the Chinese border and deliberately shot people trying to cross it? The Karatal affair? Mass graves?

Sarah Cameron: I would direct those historians who deny that Kazakhs were killed in large numbers on the border to the large range of archival documents on this issue that I cite in my book. There is correspondence between Goloshchekin and Stalin on this issue, as well as a numerous party documents that testify to the fact that thousands of Kazakhs were killed. It is very clear that this happened, and we cannot deny it.

At the same time, I do not think we understand the full scope of this issue yet. It is my guess that the level of violence was even higher than currently available archival documents indicate. Many documents pertaining to this issue are kept in the Secret Police archives or in the Soviet Foreign Ministry archives. The holdings of these archives are not fully accessible to researchers yet, and I was not able to gain access to the Secret Police archives during the writing of my book.

Zaure Batayeva: Stalin and the Central Committee were warned by many experts that if Kazakh nomads would have to settle down on collective farms and supply meat and grain to Moscow, the results would be catastrophic. At that time Kazakhstan did not produce any grain. When the catastrophic results of collectivization became clear, Stalin’s special envoy to Kazakhstan, Filipp Goloshchekin, reported about them repeatedly. The popular view in Kazakhstan, shared by some historians, is that Goloshchekin is the one who is responsible for the Kazakh famine. You analyze the role of Goloshchekin differently. What evidence do you have to support your analysis?

Sarah Cameron: I believe that Goloshchekin’s role in the famine has been overemphasized. We cannot blame this catastrophe on just one person. My perspective on this issue, by the way, is one that is also held by most Kazakhstani scholars of the Kazakh famine, but the idea that Goloshchekin was the sole architect of the famine continues to captivate the popular imagination. Unfortunately, some of this interest has been fuelled by anti-Semitism as Goloshchekin himself was Jewish.

Blaming one person is an easy solution to a challenging historical problem. It evades difficult but very important questions of individual agency and culpability. Many people, from Stalin in Moscow to the party activists in the aul, participated in the making of this disaster. Goloshchekin was a radical, and he believed deeply in the Communist cause. He knew little about Kazakh society, and he was not afraid to use violence to achieve the party’s goals. But at certain key moments, he also sought to push back against some of the Central Committee’s most devastating directives and mitigate their effects on Kazakh society.

Zaure Batayeva: Then there is the question of the mass deportations that occurred during the Kazakh famine. In the period 1930-1931, Stalin and the Central Committee received extensive briefings that many Kazakhs were suffering and dying. Yet thousands of additional people, including exiled peasants and gulag prisoners, were deported to Kazakhstan in the same period, which increased the pressure on the republic’s food supply even more. In your research, have you found out why Stalin decided to authorize mass deportations to Kazakhstan during this period?

Sarah Cameron: The deportations occurred for a variety of different reasons. Stalin and others on the Central Committee needed somewhere to send exiled peasants. They also wanted to develop Karaganda’s coal mines as part of the state’s industrialization drive. To do so, they sought to build a forced labor camp near Karaganda that would supply coal workers with grain.

Though Moscow had failed to settle any Kazakhs by this point, Stalin and others on the Central Committee acted as if nomadic settlement had already been carried out. They sent these new arrivals into the steppe to live on Kazakhs’ former pasturelands. And even as they received reports that Kazakhs were starving, Central Committee members dismissed them. They disregarded these reports in part because their view of nomadic life was informed by stereotypes, particularly the idea that Kazakhs, as nomads, had an abundance of animals.

Zaure Batayeva: I have always known that the Kazakh famine was a devastating tragedy. However, reading your book led me to understand the Kazakh famine differently, as the violent suppression of an ethnic group that was considered to live by to the wrong social and economic principles. 35 to 40% of all ethnic Kazakhs died during this time. Railroad stations and city streets were piling up corpses of Kazakhs. Millions of Kazakhs were desperately moving around and begging for food.

It should not be surprising that many Kazakhs who look at the measures undertaken by the Soviet regime in the period 1929-1993 think that the Kazakh famine was in fact a mass killing, maybe even a genocide. According to the Genocide Convention, which the United Nations adopted in 1948 (with the assistance of Stalin’s envoys), a mass killing can only be called a genocide if it meets five specific criteria. In your estimation, does the Kazakh famine meet all the criteria or not?

Sarah Cameron: The question of genocide is a difficult one. Genocide has taken root as the ultimate “crime of crimes” in the popular imagination. Many believe that maximum moral condemnation cannot be achieved unless the label of genocide is applied. But I challenge such understandings in my book.

The definition of genocide adopted by the United Nations is highly problematic, and it does not fit many important cases, such as the Kazakh one. In the Kazakh case, we do not see an intent “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” which is an essential component of the UN definition. Available evidence does not indicate that the regime’s intent was to destroy Kazakhs as an ethnic group. The Kazakh famine, however, would fit broader definitions of genocide that focus on political, social, and cultural destruction. Through collectivization, Moscow sought to destroy nomadic life, a key feature of Kazakh culture and identity.

But the fact that the Kazakh famine does not appear to fit the legal definition of genocide does not make this atrocity less worthy of our attention nor lessen the scale of Kazakhs’ suffering. Rather, it should make us rethink why we place so much emphasis on those cases that fit the legal definition of genocide and miss others, such as the Kazakh case, which also stemmed from a political process and were no less destructive to human life.

Zaure Batayeva: The Holodomor in Ukraine, which occurred during the same period, has been recognized by 16 countries in the world as a genocide and by numerous other countries as a crime against humanity. Why is the Kazakh famine not recognized in the same way as the Ukrainian famine?

Sarah Cameron: I think there are many reasons why the Kazakh famine has not been recognized in the same way as the Ukrainian famine. First and most importantly, the current Kazakh government has been reluctant to raise the issue of the famine. This situation is in direct contrast to Ukraine. There, the issue of the famine has been discussed extensively, and it has come to figure prominently in the making of a national memory. There is a large Ukrainian diaspora in North America. They have funded institutes for Ukrainian Studies and raised the issue of the famine in the West. There has been no comparable movement among the much smaller Kazakh diaspora in the West.

But I would argue that there are also deeper reasons. In the West, historians of the Soviet period have yet to fully incorporate the Soviet east into understandings of Soviet history. Soviet history is often labelled as “European history,” a categorization that marginalizes the Soviet Union’s eastern half. And the fact that Kazakhs were nomads is crucial to the story, too. We have often been quick to erase the violence committed against mobile peoples from history, rationalizing as part of “civilizing” backward groups. The stories of mobile peoples have been erased. In the United States, we need only look to our ongoing struggle to recognize the crimes committed against Native Americans for an example of such silencing.

Zaure Batayeva: Human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International use a broader definition of genocide than the United Nations, proposing that it is not necessary to prove that a mass killing is intentional in order for it to be called a genocide. Could the United Nations ever be persuaded to change its definition?

Sarah Cameron: I’m not familiar with the exact definition used by Amnesty International. But I do know that different groups define it in different ways, and some do not use the United Nations definition. Thus, when discussing whether an act constitutes genocide, it is important to be clear about the definition that you are using. But for a broader interpretation of genocide to prevail as a matter of international law, nations would have to revise the UN Genocide Convention and other treaties.

Zaure Batayeva: The last question I want to ask you has to do with something else I realized while reading your book. The Kazakh famine also had a devastating impact on the dignity of ethnic Kazakhs. Our grandparents and great-grandparents lost their human face and became mere otkochevniki on their own land. The Russians looked down on them; the people in Turkmenistan, Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan did not welcome them. Do you think that what happened during the famine still has an impact on how Kazakhs look at themselves today?

Sarah Cameron: Yes, I think the famine continues to impact Kazakhstan up until this day. Researchers, for instance, have shown that famine can have important intergenerational effects. The children of famine survivors, or sometimes even the grandchildren, can have medical problems as a result of the malnutrition that their ancestors suffered. It is also common for famine survivors to describe a feeling of trauma. They may have witnessed terrible acts, such as cannibalism or rape. Or they may have been forced to make difficult choices, such as which child to feed or which child to abandon, in order to survive. After I published an op-ed on the topic of the famine in the Wall Street Journal last month, many Kazakhs wrote to me, and I was humbled to learn more about their families’ stories of loss and survival. I think in many respects we can conceive of Kazakhstan as a post-traumatic society. Kazakhs are still coming to terms with the horrors that they endured.


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