Transcript: The Kazakh Famine

In anticipation to releasing my interview with Sarah Cameron on the 1930-33 famine in Kazakhstan, I decided to make a partial transcript of the interview to pique everyone’s interest.

I hope to provide these partial transcripts more often since complete transcripts of 50-minute interviews are costly to transcribe and time consuming to edit. But partial transcriptions of some of the key parts of the conversation are much more manageable. If you do want to see more, then support them by becoming a patron of the SRB Podcast.

This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.

Sarah Cameron is an Assistant Professor of Russia and Soviet Union history at the University of Maryland. She’s the author of The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan published by Cornell University Press.

Your new book, The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan, is one of the few studies on the famine in Kazakhstan. Why has the Kazakh famine been so marginalized in the history of Stalinism?

It’s something I’ve thought a lot about as I worked on the project. How could such a big event, in which a million and a half people died, just get lost from our understanding of Soviet history? I think it boils down to a couple of reasons. First is, we tend to think, at least in the US and the West, of Soviet history as European history. To a large extent, Soviet history and the history of Stalinism has yet to incorporate the Soviet Union’s Asian half. And I think the Kazakh famine is just one illustration of how we’ve neglected the eastern half of the Soviet Union. If we look at the history of the Soviet East, I think we can find examples of other events that are really missing that might challenge our understanding of what Soviet history and what Stalinism was.

I think another reason is that in the West, famine and collectivization has become closely associated with the Ukrainian famine, in which roughly 3.9 million Ukrainians died. This has happened, in large part, due to the efforts of the Ukrainian diaspora. There has been a very long-running and polemical debate surrounding the Ukrainian famine over the question of whether Stalin specifically used famine to target Ukrainians as an ethnic group. Because of the very polemical nature of this debate in the West, the famine that occurred in the Soviet Union during collectivization has come to be seen as an exclusively Ukrainian event.

Famine, of course, afflicted Kazakhstan and other parts of the Russian heartland, where many Russian peasants died. I also think what’s happened is that some Ukrainians have sought to marginalize the fact that famine occurred in other parts of the Soviet Union in part to bolster their claims that this was an event directed specifically against Ukrainians. Therefore, the broader story, in a sense, has been lost.

The third reason is a broader world historical one. And that is the way that the stories of nomadic peoples have been marginalized. The Kazakhs were pastoral nomads prior to the famine. It’s, of course, much more difficult to tell the stories of nomadic peoples. They leave fewer stories in the written record, and the stories that we do have about them are often filled with biases and assumptions. And often violence against nomadic peoples is kind of rationalized as a civilizing process. I mean, this is the way the Soviets themselves rationalized what happened. And I think that understanding has in some parts crept into the literature, that this was in some way a kind of natural event.

But in that sense, I think the Kazakh famine is part of a larger global story of our failure to really tell the stories of what happened to nomadic peoples, and the violence committed against them. And I think I would point, just as one example, to the US and our own difficulties of coming to terms with the scale of the crimes committed against Native Americans.

The history of the famine in Ukraine serves as a constant reference point for your story. And it’s not surprising, because as you said, the Ukrainian story has dominated how we think about famine during collectivization of agriculture. So how do you compare the Kazakh and the Ukrainian famines?

The first thing I would say is that the book is not a full-fledged comparison. It’s actually very difficult to compare the two because we have such an information imbalance. We know so much more about the Ukrainian famine than we do about the Kazakh famine, and with my book it became clear to me that there were certain questions I could answer, and certain questions I couldn’t. And it’s a topic that deserves much, much more study. But nevertheless, I think a few conclusions are possible.

First, one of the central claims of many who argue that the Ukrainian famine was targeted specifically against Ukrainians, is that the regime’s treatment of starving Ukrainians was uniquely brutal. But if we look at the Kazakh case, we really see that it’s not true that many tactics that scholars have pointed to were distinctive features of the Ukrainian famine. By this I mean the closure of borders so that the starving could not flee, the expulsion of famine refugees from cities, the blacklisting, a term for when there were lockdowns placed on districts, so people were essentially trapped in zones of death where you couldn’t get any food. These were all deployed against starving Kazakhs as well.

And then, if we look at it, Moscow commits acts of extreme cruelty in Kazakhstan that really don’t have any equal in Ukraine. By this I mean the slaughter of thousands of Kazakhs on the Sino-Kazakh border, the expulsion of Kazakhs from their pasture lands to construct a forced labor camp. In many respects, the Kazakh famine was in fact more destructive because it brings about this immense and very painful, far-reaching cultural transformation, which is the loss of Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life. There’s no clear parallel to that in Ukraine. And it’s not often known, but Kazakhs had the highest loss of life, percentage-wise, of any group in the Soviet Union during this period.

If we take a step back, we see that once you put the Kazakh famine into the picture, that some existing explanations of the Ukrainian famine really don’t hold. It’s important that the Kazakh famine begins prior to the Ukrainian famine. They’re all part of this onslaught of the first Five-Year Plan, but the Kazakh famine begins roughly a year earlier. So those explanations for the Ukrainian famine that argue that the regime’s use of tactics such as border closures marked a new and distinctive phase in its treatment of national groups is not true. We see the regime using those same tactics in Kazakhstan prior to the Ukrainian case.

In fact, if we put the Kazakh famine and the Ukrainian famine into the picture together we see that there was a circulation of tactics. We can see policy, between East and West, influencing each other, and we can see that there were certain strategies that they used in Kazakhstan, that were explicitly modeled upon those used against starving Ukrainians.

One key difference, obviously, in these two famines, is that Ukrainians had a historically troubled relationship with the regime, and Kazakhs didn’t. I don’t think Moscow or Stalin had an understanding or idea of who the Kazakhs were. They often confused them with other people. But I really don’t see that borne out in any difference in policy in how these two groups were treated. We also see crackdowns on native cadres in the Kazakh case. We also see that agricultural failures are connected to questions of national culture in Kazakhstan and in Ukraine. More broadly, this should make us rethink some of the assumptions we’ve made about state-sponsored violence against particular ethnic groups and attitudes in the Soviet state.

One of the things you really focus on is that the famine is a consequence of Soviet nation-making and Soviet modernization. So how are these two large processes connected to the famine?

There are the two frameworks that I use to guide my study. I look at the Soviet process of modernization and at their process of nation-making. By that I mean their process of trying to make Kazakhs into a modern Soviet nationality. I look at the ways these projects were sometimes in tension with one another, and the ways that they sometimes they worked together.

There are a couple big takeaways for our understanding of Soviet nation-making and Soviet modernization. First, is that I really stress the centrality of nation-making to the Soviet project. I think that it’s really difficult to understand the Soviet project and the outcome of the famine without examining that. And I show, throughout the famine, how the regime’s attempts at nation-making could be both progressive but also very destructive. We tend to think of violence committed against different ethnic groups as kind of a shift away from nation-making, but in reality, a lot of what happens in the Kazakh case is an attempt to consolidate identities.

For instance, when Kazakhs flee across the border to China, thousands of them are slaughtered. This is, of course, motivated by security concerns—the idea that enemies are crossing borders. But the authorities also used a central tenet of Soviet nation-making, the idea that nationality is connected to territory, to underpin and justify this shift. The literature has presented Soviet nation-making, in a way, as a palliative measure, something that they could use to present core policies such as industrialization in a more attractive light. But I try to show if you look at it on the ground, the two are very closely intertwined. And this idea of nation-making as a palliative measure is not something that local officials thought about. They didn’t think about it that way. They thought of the two as intertwined.

The end result of the famine is the creation of a new Kazakh national identity. But ultimately, Soviet nation-making was partially successful. They couldn’t eliminate some preexisting sources of identity, like Kazakhs’ allegiances to clans. And the project of Soviet modernization was probably, in many senses, far less successful. They lost something like 90 percent of Kazakhs’ livestock herds over the course of the famine. It takes them decades to bring it up to their former levels, and even basic things, like Almaty, the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, is still lit by kerosene lamps. It doesn’t have electricity. This makes us think very differently about the nature of Soviet modernization in the interwar period, and some of the clear differences between East and West, in terms of what happens.

What were the concrete causes of the famine?

The most important cause is collectivization, obviously, and collectivization was accompanied by forced meat and grain procurements. Kazakhs didn’t tend to grow grain. As nomads, the basis of their way of life was herding animals, but they were often forced to meet onerous grain procurements, to sell off their livestock, and so on. I see the legacies of Russian imperial rule as a contributing factor, the ways that they changed nomadic life due to peasant settlement. It’s not the cause; famine wouldn’t have happened without the Soviet regime’s interventions, but it does make Kazakhs more susceptible to famine.

Drought in the summer of 1931 intensifies things. And finally, I think I would say that the Kazakh steppe’s under-development plays a role. This was something the Soviets were warned about. Prior to the famine, they were warned and specifically told that if they didn’t do something to raise the level of modern medical services there, and if an epidemic hit the steppe, it could have the makings of a perfect storm. But they don’t do anything about it.

It’s sometimes said that the Kazakh famine was caused by sedentarization. And I don’t agree with that. I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization of what happens. Official sedentarization programs are really ineffective. They don’t work. The regime doesn’t put a lot of money into it. Sedentarization, in effect, becomes a result of collectivization. Kazakhs are so impoverished by collectivization that they eventually have to settle. Sedentarization itself is not a causal factor. You don’t starve necessarily because you’re sedentarized. You starve because people take away your food, or your grain, or there’s no harvest, these sorts of things. So that’s why I’m not sure that really makes sense as a causal factor in the famine.

Most of our understandings of Stalinism and Stalinist violence come from the central parts of the Soviet Union. And you’ve shown, in comparison to the Ukrainian famine, a lot of the similar methods that we see in Ukraine, you can also find in Kazakhstan. But at the same time, you’re also stressing that looking at the Soviet Union from Central Asia also gives you a different angle on things. So how does Stalinism look from the Kazakh experience?

One of the big ways I try to reframe our understanding of what Stalinism is, is I try to look at how Soviet power looks different on the ground. I think we really tend to put a lot of emphasis on the Soviet regime’s coercive strength, and this almighty regime, but if you look at it in places like Kazakhstan, which is really far from Moscow, for instance, it takes something like 30 or 40 days for a newspaper just to reach the Republic’s capital, that the nature of the Soviet state looks quite different. That really, this is a state that in some parts of the Kazakh steppe was really frail or was even entirely absent.

In one of my chapters, I look at the Mangyshlak Peninsula in western Kazakhstan and trace how this guy essentially ran it as his own fiefdom throughout much of the 1920s. It had very little to do with the Soviet regime. I think that’s one way that it changes our view. It changes our view, I think, of what Soviet power looked like.

I think it also makes us think differently about the spectrum of violence under Stalin. A lot of books place a lot of emphasis on the Soviet Union’s west in the genealogy of Stalinist violence. I’m thinking particularly here of, say, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. But if we look here, we see that the Soviet east also generates important practices of social control, and we can see that in some ways these tactics of population management were exchanged between east and west.

Can we consider the Kazakh famine an act of genocide?

The question of whether we consider it genocide really depends on what definition we’re using. There are many definitions of genocide, so when you call something a genocide, you have to be really clear on what definition you’re using. I would argue that the Kazakh famine does not fit the UN definition of genocide, which is the legal definition of genocide. The UN definition is focused very much on “an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,” and I do not think that what we see here is the regime’s intent to destroy Kazakhs as an ethnic group. I have not found evidence of specific ethnic targeting by Moscow.

More what we see is their attempts to destroy Kazakh culture. I don’t think the Kazakh famine fits the UN definition, but if we turn to broader definitions of genocide like that of Raphael Lemkin, who formulated the definition, and the UN eventually takes and hammers into another meaning, if we use Lemkin’s original definition of genocide, which focuses more on political, social, cultural destruction, then the Kazakh famine fits.

But I try to make a broader point about the question of genocide, because in our imagination, I think genocide has taken root as the ultimate crime of crimes. People believe that you cannot apply maximum moral condemnation unless you apply the label of genocide. What I’m trying to say is, this even deserves our maximum moral condemnation. What happened to the Kazakhs was unbelievably horrible. The fact that it doesn’t fit the legal definition of genocide doesn’t make it any less worthy of our attention. In fact, I think it should make us rethink why we place so much emphasis on these cases that fit a very specific definition of genocide, and why we miss other really important cases, like the Kazakh case, which clearly stem from a political process, and were also horribly destructive to human life.