ALMATY -- A film depicting the horrors of the Stalin-induced famine in Kazakhstan in the 1930s is vying this year for an Oscar.
"The Crying Steppe", from MG Productions of Almaty, is Kazakhstan's nominee for Best International Feature Film in Hollywood's annual contest, the Academy Awards. The Oscar Committee of Kazakhstan put forward the film in early December.
"The Crying Steppe" depicts the tragedy of the then-Kazakh SSR in the 1930s, when the Soviets violently collectivised agriculture. The policy included seizure of affluent Kazakhs' livestock, sparked a famine and killed a sizable portion of the population.
The film took several years to make. Key scenes were shot in 2018 in the Dzungarian Alatau, a mountain range on the Kazakh-Chinese border. In this location, snow can be knee high and winter continues after the calendar marks the start of spring.
It was here where Kazakhs fleeing Soviet rule had to cross into China.
The heroine, Nuriya, played by Sayazhan Kulymbetova, is left alone with her son and daughter after the Red Army arrests her husband.
She and her children set out in search of a safe haven. On their journey, wolves attack them and Nuriya is forced to make the hardest choice of her life: she leaves her daughter to the wolves and saves her son, in keeping with the Kazakh duty of perpetuating the clan. Mother and son survive.
Faced with starvation, Kazakhs like Nuriya were compelled to flee. The communists took away their livestock -- camels, sheep and horses -- their main source of sustenance.
Many bais -- wealthy Kazakhs who formed the backbone of society -- attempted to flee with their herds.
Soviet dictator 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.
Communists in Moscow did not take into account the specific features of the Kazakh nomadic communities, which were made up of clans, said Kazakh National University historian Anuar Galiev.
Relatives must help each other out, according to Kazakh tradition.
"The bai were essentially the employers and providers for their communities: relatives grazed their livestock and helped on the farm and in return were paid in food. When the Russian communists confiscated the property of the Kazakh bai, they thought the bai were just like the 'exploiters' in Russia. Ultimately not only the bai but also the entire population suffered," Galiev said.
Millions of Kazakhs perished
Estimates of the death toll from the Kazakh famine vary widely, as the Russian regime, following its Soviet predecessor's lead, prefers not to illuminate the atrocity and has withheld statistics that would answer many questions.
One estimate, provided in the 1930s by Kazakh leader Alikhan Bukeikhan, put the toll at more than 4 million Kazakhs, Informburo.kz reported in 2014. Bukeikhan himself was executed in 1937 in Moscow during Stalin's Great Terror.
The Kazakh authorities' estimates are much lower but still depict the horror of what happened.
"One and a half million Kazakhs died of starvation as a consequence of the criminal Stalinist collectivisation. Another 1.3 million Kazakhs were forced to flee beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, escaping from repression and privation," then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev said in April 2015.
"Not a single country in the world and not a single people experienced such a fracture in its demographic situation or faced the threat of extinction like the Kazakh people," added Nazarbayev, who was addressing the consultative Assembly of People of Kazakhstan at the time.
Among the Soviet republics, Kazakhstan lost the greatest share of its population (22.4%) in the famine, followed by Ukraine (13.3%), Russia (3.2%) and Belarus (1.3%), according to Natalia Levchuk, a Ukrainian researcher, the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reported in 2017.
Even today Kazakh historians and demographers cannot reach consensus on the number of casualties in the famine or the size of the Kazakh population before the tragedy.
Researching a catastrophe
The filmmakers set out to depict the events from the perspective of the victims' real fates and stories.
A group of researchers from the production company did extensive work, studying literature, going through archival materials and conducting interviews to convey the true nature of the tragedy without embellishment, said Marina Kunarova, the film's director.
In particular, the film includes horrifying scenes showing how those driven mad by hunger went to extremes such as cannibalism.
"It is a story about a human tragedy that not everyone can survive," Kunarova said. "The film is also about how in any situation, even unbearable ones, humans need to remain human."
Because the film touches on universal human values, patriotism and the Kazakh nation's resilient spirit, the story transcends boundaries and will appeal to both Kazakh and Western audiences, said Kunarova.
'We should not forget'
For Yernar Malikov, the film's producer, funding the film turned out to be a struggle in itself.
After earlier failed efforts at funding the film with outside sources, Malikov himself paid most of the film's costs, with crowd-funding providing some help.
Now, the Kazakh government is coming around and Malikov has received assurances that it will pay for any expenses in having the film compete at international festivals, he said.
"The Soviet authorities considered this sensitive topic a taboo for many years; that is why the younger generation of Kazakhs do not know about this part of history, but we should not forget the lessons of the past," Malikov said.
For years the Kremlin has sought to whitewash the tragedies of the 1930s for fear of historical responsibility.
In 2019, for example, in reaction to an earlier Kazakh documentary on the famine, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the famine was created from "natural causes", such as a drought and crop failure.
"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," said the Foreign Ministry.
Almaty journalist Zhanbolat Mamay, who created the documentary, called the Kremlin line on the famine "an outright lie".
"Archival materials stored in Kazakhstan confirm the occurrence of the genocide in Kazakhstan," said Mamay. "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.
And just last month, Russian politicians and journalists said if Kazakhstan doesn't acknowledge that parts of the country were "gifts from Russia" then maybe the Kremlin should take them back.