Ethnicity & Deportation in Soviet Kazakhstan


A review of Nations in Exile: “The Punished Peoples” in Soviet Kazakhstan, 1941-1961, by Michael H. Westren.

In 1941, as the Soviets waged war with Nazi Germany, the Soviet leadership began to deport more than half a dozen different ethnic groups to Siberia and Central Asia. By 1945, nearly two million people had been deported. Through internal deportation, these ethnic groups, including Russian Germans, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ingush, Meskhetian Turks, Kalmyks and Karachays, lost their land, their homes, and their livelihoods. Previously, many of these groups had their own autonomous republics; these, too, now began to disappear from maps. Stuffed by Soviet secret police agents into airless wagons, some deportees did not survive their long journey across the Soviet Union. Others, upon arrival in their place of exile, found that their new settlements lacked food, water, or basic shelter.

In his dissertation, Michael Westren explores this fascinating and poorly understood story, an important chapter in the history of Soviet nationalities policy and population politics. His inquiry focuses on the fate of the million or so deportees sent to the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan – a vast republic wedged between China, Russia and the heart of Central Asia – and on the regime’s largely failed attempts to integrate these deportees into Soviet life in their new surroundings.

Westren refers to the deported peoples as the “punished peoples,” a phrase borrowed from Aleksandr Nekrich’s 1978 work on the deportations (the research for which preceded the opening of the Soviet archives), The Punished Peoples: The Deportation and Fate of Soviet Minorities at the End of the Second World War (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979). Westren finds that these groups were singled out for punishment because “the Soviet leadership saw them as insufficiently Sovietized” (p. vi). In contrast to other Soviet nationalities, those slated for exile had kept their traditional cultural, religious, and economic structures, remaining weakly integrated into the Soviet state, Westren argues (p. vi). Through a series of reeducation programs for deportees, Westren contends, the regime sought to reshape allegiances, making Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, and other “punished peoples” into loyal, “Soviet-style nations” (p. vi).

Westren rebuts those who would see the deportations as examples of ethnic cleansing or genocide, and he argues that the Soviet state “remained committed to cultural, not racial-biological conceptions of nationality,” even as war with Nazi Germany broke out (p. vi). Here, Westren’s research responds to the work of Norman Naimark, Amir Weiner, Francine Hirsch, and others on the intersection of wartime practices and Soviet nationalities policy. In his exploration of the Soviet state’s efforts at “reeducating” certain groups, particularly in the context of World War Two-era Kazakhstan, Westren’s work builds upon Steven Barnes’ recent book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

Westren’s dissertation proceeds chronologically, examining how these ethnic groups were violently uprooted from their communities by the Soviet secret police (Chapter 1) and describing the disastrous living conditions and bureaucratic inefficiencies that greeted deportees upon their arrival in the Kazakh steppe (Chapter 2). Many new arrivals perished or fled during the first few years of deportation. Between 1945 and 1950, the death rate of exiles still exceeded the birth rate (p. 149).

Once settled in Kazakhstan, deported groups did not live freely, but rather resided in special settlements where they remained under the watchful eye of Soviet secret police commandants (p. 281). In Chapter 3, Westren explores an array of programs in these new settlements that aimed to “reeducate” deported groups, including work programs, propaganda campaigns and education within Soviet schools. The party struggled to enfold some ethnic groups, such as Chechens and Ingush, into these campaigns, while other groups, such as Russian Germans, responded more readily to the party’s entreaties.

In the following chapter, Westren turns his lens on Kazakhstan’s multi-ethnic society. He probes how the arrival of deported groups began to reformulate ethnic hierarchies in Kazakhstan, a land itself dramatically reshaped by the population politics of the Russian Empire and the Soviet regime. He presents particularly rich, detailed evidence on the fate of North Caucasian deportees: in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, outbursts of ethnic violence involving hundreds of participants erupted at Ingush and Chechen work sites and collective farms in northern Kazakhstan (pp. 250-260). In so-called “Chechen towns” (Chechenogorodki) in the Kazakh steppe, Chechen communities rebuffed the intrusions of the state, or, alternately, brought local officials under their sway (pp. 311-312).

In a final chapter, Westren examines efforts to reform the special settler system and the eventual dissolution of this system in the years following the death of Stalin. Westren’s observations speak to scholars trying to understand the nature of Nikita Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” Untangling the special settlement regime was no less fraught a process than setting it up: returnees struggled to evict those who had occupied their lands during their more than decade-long absence. Work to restore deportees’ national republics proceeded slowly, and some groups, such as ethnic Germans, never regained the right to return (p. 36). The legacies of the special settlement system would impact Kazakhstan up through the Soviet collapse.

Westren’s findings are based upon impressive research in state, Party and regional archives in Kazakhstan and Russia. Many of these sources have not been used by scholars before, and the new details that Westren’s research brings to light, particularly regarding inter-ethnic relations in the late Stalin era, are startling. His work makes clear that World War II affected the societies of Central Asia in lasting ways, much more so than prior research suggests. Once published, his findings should have a significant impact on a number of fields of current scholarly interest, including Soviet nationalities policy as well as comparative studies of forced migration and internment.

Sarah Cameron
Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Maryland, College Park

Primary Sources

The State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)
The Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI)
The Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI)
The President’s Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan (APRK)
The Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan (TsGARK)

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 456 pp. Primary Advisor: Sheila Fitzpatrick.

Image: Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii/State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) f.r-9479, op.1, d.161, l.25 – NKVD Kazakh SSR Commissar of State Security Bogdanov to Deputy NKVD Commissar of State Security 2nd Rank Chernyshov, “Special information on the political moods and behavior of North Caucasian Special Settlers”, 22 April 1944.

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