The Forgotten Soviet Famine

We remember what Stalin did to Ukraine but not Kazakhstan.


A group of turbaned women and children, with sheep and a tent in the background.
A group of turbaned women and children, with sheep and a tent in the background. PHOTO: ROYAL SOCIETY FOR ASIAN AFFAIRS/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

The U.S. Senate passed a resolution in October commemorating the 85th anniversary of the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33. This year also marks the 85th anniversary of the Kazakh famine, a little-known Stalinist crime of horrifying proportions that the world has largely overlooked.

By some measures the Kazakh famine was an even greater atrocity than the Ukrainian one. Kazakhs also were forcibly collectivized, and the starving subjected to brutal repression, including the closure of borders so that they could not flee. More than 1.5 million people perished. About one-third of all Kazakhs died, almost certainly the highest death ratio due to collectivization of any people in the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath, Kazakhs became a minority in their own republic, outnumbered by Russian settlers. They would not constitute more than half of Kazakhstan’s population again until after the Soviet collapse in 1991. In the postfamine years, the republic became a vast canvas for Moscow to pursue radical population politics. A forced labor camp was built on former pasturelands, and Kazakhstan became one of the primary sites of exile for various deported groups.

In the 1980s the Ukrainian famine was the subject of a congressional investigation. In 2015 a memorial to its victims was dedicated in Washington. But the Kazakh catastrophe has received almost no attention in the West. Why?

For one, the Kazakh diaspora in the U.S. is small. Unlike Ukrainians, Kazakhs have not made famine central to their national memory, partly due to the current Kazakh government’s close relationship with Russia. Some Ukrainians, in turn, have sought to claim famine as a uniquely Ukrainian event. Thus history forgets the horrors endured by other groups, including the Kazakhs and many Russian peasants, during the same period.

Another factor: While Ukrainians were primarily peasants, most Kazakhs were nomads. We have often erased the violence committed against mobile peoples from history, rationalizing it as part of “civilizing” backward groups. Kazakhs who survived were forced to settle, prompting a painful and far-reaching reorientation of their culture and identity. Also, in the U.S., Russian and Soviet history is usually categorized as “European” history. But that marginalizes the Soviet Union’s Asian half.

Senate resolutions like the one on Ukraine achieve few tangible results. But they reveal what the U.S. deems worthy of commemoration, and what it neglects. The Kazakh famine, which took an unfathomable number of lives and profoundly transformed the republic’s people, deserves remembrance in the halls of Congress—and history books.

Ms. Cameron, an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland-College Park, is author of “The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan” (forthcoming from Cornell).

Appeared in the November 2, 2018, print edition.

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