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.
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 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.