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2019-03-11 | Human Rights

Kremlin evades historical facts of devastating 1930s famine in Kazakhstan


The Ana (Mother) sculpture, a monument to the victims of the 1931–1933 famine in Kazakhstan, was erected in Almaty in 2017. [Kanat Altynbayev]

The Ana (Mother) sculpture, a monument to the victims of the 1931–1933 famine in Kazakhstan, was erected in Almaty in 2017. [Kanat Altynbayev]

By Kanat Altynbayev

ALMATY -- Fear of historical responsibility is the reason for a recent attempt by the Russian Foreign Ministry to whitewash a tragedy of the 1930s in Central Asia, say observers.

On February 22, the ministry posted an official statement "on insinuations surrounding the tragedy caused by famine in the Soviet Union in 1932–1933".

"Supporters of nationalist views" in Central Asia are imposing on their compatriots the claim that the Soviet government organised a genocide of their ancestors, claimed the ministry.


A woman with a child is shown in the early 1930s in Kazakhstan. [Kazakh Central State Archive of Film, Photo and Audio Documents]

A woman with a child is shown in the early 1930s in Kazakhstan. [Kazakh Central State Archive of Film, Photo and Audio Documents]


Kazakhs are shown trekking to China sometime in the 1930s to escape the famine from forced collectivisation. [Screenshot from the film "Zulmat: Genocide in Kazakhstan"]

Kazakhs are shown trekking to China sometime in the 1930s to escape the famine from forced collectivisation. [Screenshot from the film "Zulmat: Genocide in Kazakhstan"]

One reason for Moscow's nervous reaction is a documentary by Almaty journalist Zhanbolat Mamai, "Zulmat: Genocide in Kazakhstan" about the tragic events in Kazakhstan during that period. Zulmat is a Kazakh word for tragedy or catastrophe.

The documentary was screened January 30 in Almaty and drew an audience of more than 2,000 viewers. On YouTube, it has had more than 418,000 views so far and garnered more than 7,400 comments.

The film tells how the forced collectivisation of agriculture raged in Kazakhstan in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Starvation struck as Soviet troops seized grain from starving peasants, forced them and nomads onto collective farms, and killed or internally exiled the "kulaks", the more prosperous peasants, whom the regime declared a class enemy.

In "Zulmat", Mamai reveals the facts and the scale of the Kazakh tragedy -- neither of which have ever appeared in a single Soviet textbook.

"More than 3 million people died of starvation," he said in the film. "No war waged by the Kazakhs against foreign invaders took so many lives. This was a genocide in Kazakhstan that was orchestrated by the Bolshevik leaders."

Other sources offer different estimates of the death toll from the famine in Kazakhstan, with numbers ranging from 1.5 to 4 million victims.

More than a third of all Kazakhs died in the famine, turning the survivors into a minority in their own Soviet republic, according to the US historian Sarah Cameron. Thousands of Kazakhs found Soviet conditions so impossible that they fled to impoverished China.

Horror of the 1930s in Kazakhstan

The weight of the suffering landed much harder on the Kazakhs than on the ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan -- by the Kremlin's design, according to scholars.

When food aid came from abroad, Soviet authorities sent it only to ethnic Russian communities in Kazakhstan and steered it away from the Kazakhs, Kaidar Aldajumanov, a senior researcher at the Institute of History and Ethnology in Almaty, said in the film.

Mamai, in his documentary, also cited the Soviet use of air power against Kazakhs who rose up against the regime at that time. The pilots who bombed their own compatriots were declared Heroes of the Soviet Union, the country's highest decoration.

Joseph Stalin's regime collectivised agriculture to destroy private property, Anuar Galiyev, a history professor at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, told Caravanserai.

In addition, "the Soviet authorities were trying to build a Communist world revolution, and to do this they exported grain and livestock ... to finance the construction of defence factories," Galiyev said.

Other goals of seizing grain and livestock by force included feeding the cities and the Red Army, even though rural dwellers (including the reviled kulaks) had nothing left for themselves; shattering the pastoral nomadism that many Kazakhs still practiced; and equipping the collective farms that turned peasants and former nomads into apathetic labourers with no profit motive.

The famine of the 1930s drove up the death rate in Soviet regions that grew grain and raised livestock, such as Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the Volga region of Russia, Nadejda Atayeva of Le Mans, France, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, told Caravanserai.

"This tragedy occurred because of the inhuman economic policy of the Soviet-era Communists," she said.

"The majority of the information held by the NKVD [the forerunner of the KGB] about these events remains classified," Atayeva added.

Archival materials prove deliberate genocide

The Foreign Ministry, in its February 22 statement, sought to hide the devastating truth.

The famine had natural causes, such as a drought and crop failure, and was compounded by "emergency measures that made things worse", in the Kremlin's delicate phrasing. The Soviet government had enacted emergency relief by 1933, said the Foreign Ministry.

"We are convinced that manipulation of historical facts by using the 'nationalist card' will not succeed in deceiving the peoples of Central Asia, who have a brotherly bond with Russians," added the Foreign Ministry.

Even after the passage of more than 80 years, Russia is trying to conceal the Stalin regime's purposeful creation of the famine, Mamai told Caravanserai.

"Russia is threatening to use archival documents to prove the opposite," he added, calling the Kremlin line on the famine "an outright lie".

"Archival materials stored in Kazakhstan confirm the occurrence of the genocide in Kazakhstan," said Mamai. "However, the Kremlin classified important archival materials."

Those Kremlin-held documents, if exposed, would force Moscow to "admit the greatest crime of the Soviet government", he said.

Russia fears historical responsibility and is trying to shift attention on to the individuals raising this sensitive topic, said Atayeva the human rights activist.

"The Russian government is becoming a hostage of its own policy of silence," she said, adding that the policy would only backfire and that "people's desire to learn the truth will only grow".

A democratic society requires the creation of all the conditions enabling a historical and legal evaluation of such events, she said.

"At that point, the nationalist subtext that Russia is using for propaganda purposes will fall away," she said.

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22 Comments

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-19

Russians, confess! Take the burden of this sin off your shoulders. Otherwise God will make you pay for everything.

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-18

While people had been dying of starvation in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, they [the authorities] were carrying out industrialisation. And paid the West with grain instead of feeding their own population. That's a disgraceful crime.

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-18

Obvious filthy propaganda by our "Western partners" is evident here with the naked eye...

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-18

Utter nonsense! Another piece of anti-Soviet bullshit! Learn history, then you will not be fooled by such crap...

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-17

"After famine in the 30s, which besides the USSR struck the Polish region of Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Romania" - it's a lie!!! An attempt to hide the essence of the problem. There was no 20s-30s famine in the Polish region of Ukraine, nor in Czechoslovakia, Romania. But in the Soviet part of Ukraine famine had been created intentionally. Millions of people died... That's why it is an official Memorial day in Ukraine supported by the UN!

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-17

(Andrey Eremkin) Reply to Eremkin. You are distorting the facts in order to help the Kremlin "whitewash" [the tragedy]. This is not about Ukrainians as an ethnicity but about denizens of Ukraine of all nationalities in the late 20s - early 30s (Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Germans, Bulgarians, Greeks...). In my granny's family only two out of eight children survived and later they had gone along with their exiled parents from Ukraine to Ural. This is the tragedy of those generations...

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-17

The US government apologised to Indians long ago and paid them compensations. Also, Indians living on their own lands are entitled to numerous benefits such as employment and education. And [Americans] don't deny the fact of committing genocide unlike Russia. Good for them

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-16

A film about the genocide of Indians in the USA is badly needed. I'm wondering what the reaction of Caravanserai's owners would be. After that genocide they, for example, didn't establish a Union of Iroquois, Apache, Mahican or Cherokee republics. They didn't teach schoolchildren in the Indian languages. They didn't even teach those languages. Ninety percent of Indians died off. And their numbers have never gotten back up. But Kazakhstan is now made up of 70% Kazakhs. The Soviets committed a rather strange genocide. After famine in the 30s, which, by the way, hit not just the USSR but also the Polish region of Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Romania, they gave Kazakhstan republican status!

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Comment bubble reply | 2019-03-16

My grandparents fled Karaganda suburbs to Aulie Ata (Taraz) in 1929. Only two families out of 100 made it to the destination, my mother told me. Many people died on the road, they went there on foot having money in their pockets for livestock they were stripped of. They died of malnutrition in that town after a month of hunger. I witnessed my mother cry telling this story.

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-14

There were cases proving the genocide of Kazakhs. They delivered food in the areas where many Russians lived. And left Kazakhs to die.

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-14

My parents told me about the famine in great detail. My mother mentioned the culprits: Stalin, Goloshchekin.

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-13

That was a genocide under the guise of collectivisation

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-13

A terrible genocide

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-13

As far as I understand after reading this article, the Kremlin only denies the nationalist explanation of these tragic events. And the article reads, "the famine of the 1930s drove up the death rate in Soviet regions that grew grain and raised livestock, such as Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the Volga region of Russia". If that was a genocide of certain ethnic groups, how would you explain the famine in the Volga region? This is Russian soil, neither Ukrainian nor Kazakh. A genocide is defined as the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic, religious or social group. The ethnic explanation doesn't work here. It is rather social - the so-called "kulaks", more prosperous peasants [killed or exiled]. But Ukrainians keep calling it the Ukrainian genocide (although there were ethnic Russian and German peasants among them), and now Kazakhs telling the same thing about their people. It would be correct to call it the genocide of peasants opposing collectivisation. And this makes it easy to understand why Ukraine, the Volga region and Kazakhstan also suffered... [Are you trying] to define the civil war as an ethnic genocide? This is not historical. Post factum assigning the roles of victims and persecutors? Propaganda and politisation... [that can easily] drown one in the Karpman drama triangle. (Andrey Eremkin)

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Comment bubble reply | 2019-03-13

There were two episodes of famine in the Volga region in 1921-22 and in the 1930s. And if information about the drought [in the region] in the 20s had been confirmed, there was no such info about the 30s. The famine in the 30s had been organised intentionally. [The authorities] always sent food aid to the cities and never dispatched food to the rural population just like in the Volga region, namely in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. They're not allowed to talk about that.

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Comment bubble reply | 2019-03-14

There was also another Holodomor [famine] in the Volga region, Moldova and Ukraine in 1946.

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-13

It is clear (1) this is not about genocide; (2) The son shall not bear the sins of the father; (3) Kazakhs enforced Bolshevist collectivisation themselves , among other things. Question: why are the authors sticking to their telltale ignorance?

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-13

The Soviet regime is a regime of cannibals

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-12

Russia itself and the USSR are the fruit of genocide. There are more Nazis in Russia than everywhere in Europe. Just give the go-ahead and Russians will go on a killing spree yet again!

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-12

Creation of the "genocide" myth is under way. Idiocy is going through the roof.

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-12

We must demand restitution from Russia for this genocide of the Kazakh people, like Israel demanded from Germany.

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Comment bubble | 2019-03-12

Would anyone expect anything different from the offspring of snitches and turnkeys.

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