Crime & Justice

'The Hungry Steppe': Kazakh translation of 1930s famine study becomes bestseller

By Kanat Altynbayev

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Political scientist and publisher Dosym Satpayev in Almaty presents the Kazakh translation of "The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan" on May 31. [Facebook/Dosym Satpayev]

ALMATY -- An English-language book on the Kazakh famine in the 1930s -- now translated into Kazakh -- is gaining popularity in the country's bookstores.

"The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan," published by American historian Sarah Cameron in 2018, examines the famine and its long-lasting effects on the country.

More than 1.5 million Kazakh inhabitants died during the famine, which resulted from forced Stalinist collectivisation, according to the book.

Dosym Satpayev, an Almaty political scientist and director of a Kazakh think-tank, the Risk Assessment Group, presented his translation May 31. It coincided with the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions. Satpayev last year signed a contract with the US publisher to translate Cameron's work into Kazakh.

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The sculpture 'Ana' (Mother) is a monument to the victims of the famine of 1931-1933 in Kazakhstan. It was installed in Almaty in 2017. [Kanat Altynbayev]

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The Almaty film studio MG Productions shoots a film in February 2018 about the 1930s Kazakh famine. In the scene, a Kazakh woman and her son abandon their village, fleeing the Soviets. [Kanat Altynbayev]

"The importance of this research lies in the fact that it was prepared by someone who looked at this topic as objectively as possible, as a scholar, in order to... recognise the Kazakh famine as one of the great tragedies of the 20th century," Satpayev wrote on Facebook.

"Our youth must know about the Stalinist repressions and forced labour camps in Kazakhstan," said Satpayev, whose team filmed "The Fleeing Nomads of the Dead Steppe", a documentary on the famine.

Cameron's book has became the top seller in Kazakh bookstores, said Satpayev June 9.

Forced collectivisation

In the early 1930s, Soviet authorities under the banner of agricultural collectivisation seized property from the residents of the Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan.

Many Kazakhs lost their livestock -- camels, sheep and horses -- their main source of sustenance, and starved to death.

Many bais -- wealthy Kazakhs who formed the backbone of society -- attempted to flee with their herds.

Joseph Stalin, who led the communist regime in those years, deemed the bais enemies of the people and ordered them to be shot without trial or investigation, wiping out the social group.

Russian communists did not account for the special features of Kazakh nomadic communities, which emphasised family ties. According to Kazakh tradition, those ties meant mutual assistance, said Anuar Galiyev, a history professor at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty.

"The bais were essentially the employers and breadwinners of their communities. Relatives grazed their livestock and helped with the household, for which they were paid with food," said Galiyev.

"In confiscating property from Kazakh bais, Russian communists thought they [the bais] were the same 'exploiters' as in Russia. In the end, not only the bais but also the entire population suffered," he said.

Estimates of the death toll resulting from the famine have varied, with some going higher than 4 million.

Official figures tend to be lower.

"The result of criminal Stalinist collectivisation was the death of 1.5 million Kazakhs from starvation. Another 1.3 million Kazakhs were forced to wander beyond the borders of the former USSR, fleeing repression and deprivation," said then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev in a speech in April 2015.

"Not a single country in the world, not a single people experienced such a demographic rupture or faced the threat of complete extinction like the Kazakh people," he said.

Thousands of Kazakhs found Soviet conditions so impossible that they fled to impoverished China.

Avoiding blame

For its part, Russia has refused to acknowledge the Stalin regime's purposeful creation of the famine.

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 "Zulmat: Genocide in Kazakhstan", a documentary by Almaty journalist Zhanbolat Mamai released in January 2019.

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

After the release of the film, the Russian Foreign Ministry in February 2019 released 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, the ministry claimed.

The famine had natural causes, such as a drought and crop failure, and was compounded by "emergency measures that made things worse", added the Kremlin in delicate phrasing.

The Soviet government had enacted emergency relief by 1933, the Foreign Ministry said.

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

The Kremlin line on the famine is "an outright lie", he said.

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These hardcore Soviets are just like fascists, red murderers, and maniacs.

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Another anti-Soviet lampoon. Calm down, SoLZHEntisyns [Letters are partly uppercase to make the surname look like the Russian word for "lie"]

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They will never wash these horrific crimes off themselves. The USSR is evil.

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[They] annihilated four million Kazakhs. And you want to say that Russia will be kind to us in the future...

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Hunger used to be a comprehensive problem in those times; it wasn't Stalin's fault whatsoever. It's advisable for USCENTCOM sponsoring this resource to write more reasonable things.

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It's not Stalin's fault, you're right. It's wrong to blame him only. Russians are to blame. Stalin was merely a party leader.

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Why are you inciting ethnic strife? The Russians suffered no less, and it would be good to file criminal charges against you for that.

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The Communists were the most criminal authorities; they managed to annihilate their people. This means that they are even worse than Hitler.

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What a substantial comment! What's important is that it is filled with facts

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Oh, such a scoffing comment. And the main thing is that it's freakishly inappropriate discussing a topic that covers millions of victims.

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