Kazakh Nomads and the Soviet State, 1919-1934

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A review of Kazakh Nomads and the New Soviet State, 1919-1934, by Alun Thomas.

Nomads constituted a permanent challenge for the Soviet state. Due to their high mobility, they were largely able to undermine efforts to implement stable and reliable structures in remote areas such as the Central Asian steppe or the North Siberian tundra. A nomadic lifestyle seemed to be at odds with the Bolshevik’s modernizing agenda. How did the Soviet state deal with this particular problem in Kazakhstan, where the majority of the ethnic Kazakh population was strongly tied to nomadic culture? This question lies at the heart of Alun Thomas’ dissertation. Unlike most other authors who have worked on that topic, he is mainly interested in the early years of Soviet rule until the year 1928.  Thomas does not conceptualize the 1920s as a mere prequel to the “real story” of forced sedentarization, collectivization, and the horrors of the famine, but instead strives to make sense of these years as a distinct period of political, social, and cultural developments that has to be understood in its own right. Therefore, while not neglecting the dramatic events of the years after 1928, the dissertation first and foremost “aims to analyze the treatment of nomads by Party and state in these years without the context of collectivization.” (p. 10).

Alun Thomas argues that the relationship between state and nomads was complex and constantly developing. Starting with occasional encounters, over the decade relations between the two entities became more regular and consistent, and thus had an “appreciable effect on everyday life in the nomadic community” (p. 6). Inextricable from these developments were attempts to centralize the state’s efforts towards the nomads. This process took place mainly in Kazakhstan itself, since problems of nomadism were of almost no significance to the leading authorities in Moscow. The largely indifferent attitude of the center did not diminish the optimism of Kazakhstan’s cadres to solve the nomadic question. While Thomas’ interpretation is mainly based on documents from Soviet archives and therefore often lacks evidence from the Kazakhs’ perspective, the author acknowledges this problem openly. Due to a meticulous use of his source materials, he is at some points still able to include the voices of the local population in his narrative.

The dissertation is organized in an introduction, seven thematic chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction and chapter two are devoted to the compulsory tasks of every dissertation: they outline  the main questions and hypotheses in detail, as well as review the relevant secondary works. The chapters three to seven explore different fields of Soviet policy in the steppe, spanning from disputes over land use and border policies, to cultural and social aspects. What becomes clear from the evidence presented in these chapters is the extent to which Soviet authorities were lacking exact information on nomads and nomadism, and the dilemmas they were constantly confronted with: Bolshevik and Soviet officials had neither a clear vision for the future of the steppe, nor did they possess the necessary resources to impose their rule on a permanent and reliable basis. Chapter eight discusses the sedentarization campaign of the early 1930s.

Chapter 3 outlines the different perspectives on the nomads’ sedentarization. Although almost all participants in the debates of the 1920s agreed that nomadism had to be extinguished, it was all but clear, how this transition to a settled lifestyle could and should be achieved. Thomas discusses different positions and links them to prominent communists in the Kazakh party organization, thus making the chapter an interesting piece on the relation between individual preferences and ideologically motivated decision making.

The following four chapters deal with the actual implementation of Soviet politics in the steppe and towards the nomads in particular. Thomas discusses the distribution of land within Kazakhstan, traces the policies of border making, and deals with the problems connected to the taxation of nomads. Based on fascinating empirical evidence, these three chapters partly confirm findings by other authors, who have highlighted the difficulties that the weak Soviet state faced in the multiethnic context of the Kazakh steppe (Isabelle Ohayon, La sédentarisation des Kazakhs dans l’URSS de Staline. Collectivisation et changement social (1928-1945).  Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose-Institut Français d’Études sur l’Asie Centrale, 2006). The implementation of new norms of land use and internal and external borders were extremely complicated, especially in those cases where European peasant settlers and Kazakh nomads clashed over arable land and pastures. Thomas shows, with a great sense for detail, how local and regional administrations struggled to find solutions for these conflicts. He is able to identify processes that led to gradual changes in the attitudes of Bolshevik functionaries towards the nomads. Faced with the immense task of governing a population that was essentially unwilling to be governed, frustration among Soviet officials grew. Nevertheless, they never stopped trying to get in touch with the nomadic population. In his seventh chapter, entitled “Soviet Cultural Policies in the Aul,” Thomas makes the most interesting observation that the Soviet state was more likely to be successful, when its institutions became mobile themselves. Therefore, a “Red Caravan” and so-called “Red Yurts” travelled the steppe and promoted the new Soviet order among the nomads.

Chapter 8 deals with the politics of sedentarization, as implemented in Soviet Kazakhstan between 1928 and 1934. Although it is not the focus of the present work, Alun Thomas discusses the campaign because “it would be difficult to draw compelling conclusions about the preceding years without some reference to it” and because it offers “a point of contrast or comparison with prior events” (p. 201-202). He underlines the radical policy change from a “de facto process of managed decline for nomadism as a lifestyle” as the dominant policy during the 1920s to the “systematic settlement of nomads by violent force” between 1929 and 1934 (p. 219). Thomas discusses the scope and scale of the sedentarization campaign and dwells in great detail on “sedentarization’s auxiliaries” (collectivization, political repression, mass migration, famine).

The concluding chapter nine summarizes the dissertations’ main findings. It serves as an important reminder that, when seen from the 1920s, the human catastrophe of the early 1930s was neither predictable nor inevitable.  Debates on the future of nomadism in Kazakhstan were not entirely prescribed in their results and, as Thomas assures his readers, “neither settlement nor sedentarization were driven by Moscow” (p. 231). Taken as a whole, the dissertation is an important contribution to our understanding of early Soviet rule in Kazakhstan in particular and Central Asia in general. It helps us to gain a better sense of the political processes that shaped this region and its population.

Robert Kindler
Department of History
Humboldt University, Berlin

Primary Sources
Arkhiv Prezidenta Respubliki Kazakhstan (APRK) Presidential Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Respubliki Kazakhstan (TsGARK) Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (GARF) State Archive of the Russian Federation
Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sotsial’no-Politicheskoi Istorii (RGASPI) Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History

Dissertation Information
University of Sheffield. 2015. 252 pp. Primary Advisor: Craig Brandist.

Image: Photograph by author from an issue of Pravda published in April 1927.

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