Soviet Rule & Famine in Kazakhstan


A review of Die Nomaden und der Hunger: Sesshaftmachung und Herrschaftsdurchsetzung in Kasachstan, 1920-1945 (The Nomads and the Famine: Sedentarization and Assertion of Soviet Rule in Kazakhstan, 1920-1945), by Robert Kindler.

The famine of the early 1930s has become a highly politicized issue in a number of post-Soviet states: claims of genocidal violence directed against specific ethnic and national groups stand against interpretations that emphasize the large geographical scope and the generalized nature of the famine. Although Ukraine is usually in the center of this debate, it is widely acknowledged that Kazakhstan was the region with the highest demographic losses in relation to the overall population. The famine in Kazakhstan is in the center of Robert Kindler’s dissertation, which thus adds to a small body of existing literature, namely studies by Niccolò Pianciola, Isabelle Ohayon and a recent dissertation by Sarah Isabel Cameron.

Kindler’s ambition is to place the history of the famine within a wider narrative about Soviet power in Kazakhstan. The first chapter of the dissertation therefore deals with different aspects of Soviet rule in Kazakhstan in the 1920s, addressing a larger historiographical discussion on Bolshevik “nationality policies” in the non-Russian areas of the Soviet Union. While Kindler does acknowledge the initial impact of a Bolshevik anti-colonial agenda, he ultimately sees the centralizing impetus of the state and an economic logic as more pervasive. One example is the conflict between Kazakh nomads and Russian settlers, a crucial legacy of Tsarist rule: while after 1918, Bolshevik sympathies were initially with the former, leading to violent expulsions of Russian peasant settlers, there was a gradual retreat from this position from the mid-1920s on, motivated, among others, by the idea that Russian settlers were more productive than Kazakh nomads. Kindler also describes the complicated relationship between Soviet party and Kazakh clan networks, which often overlapped, thus to some extent indigenizing Soviet power structures. However, the Bolsheviks were ultimately dissatisfied with this ambivalent situation and the limits of their power on the countryside in the mid-1920s, which they also experienced in other regions of the Soviet Union. Kindler sees this discontent as the main political motive for the Union-wide collectivization and “dekulakization” campaigns of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

These campaigns and their impact in Kazakhstan are at the center of the second chapter of the dissertation, entitled “attacks”. The campaigns in Kazakhstan differed in one decisive regard from those in Russia and other regions of the Soviet Union: in Russia itself, Soviet “dekulakization” and collectivization campaigns destroyed the livelihood of sedentary peasants, but their social identities were not fundamentally altered – even starving peasants remained peasants. In Kazakhstan, however, the collection of huge amounts of grain forced the nomads to sell their cattle and deprived them of their mobility, thus touching the essence of their nomadic existence and giving the social conflicts an ethnic dimension. A first part of the chapter shows how patterns of repression evolved in the course of the year 1928. Then, Kindler moves on to describe the broader impact of the campaigns in the subsequent years, which resulted in a catastrophic reduction of livestock that would become the major reason for the famine. The final part of the chapter discusses various schemes for the sedentarization of nomads which largely failed, as not even the Soviet bureaucracy had a clear concept of what sedentarization would exactly entail and how it was to be achieved. In many cases, the new settlers were simply left without proper housing and infrastructure.

The third chapter moves from the description of state policies to their violent consequences on a local level. Kindler highlights that “dekulakization” and collectivization were not simply part of a dualistic conflict between Soviet state power and local Kazakh resistance. Rather, Kazakhstan in the early 1930s was in a situation of “fragmented civil war,” in which the front lines were often blurred and local political agendas played a decisive role (p. 175). Kindler makes use of some of the sociological research on violence, for example by Heinrich Popitz and Jan-Philipp Reemtsma, to better understand this situation; he has also published aspects of his argument in an article appeared on Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas in 2011. More than any overarching political purpose invoked to legitimize violent actions, Kindler argues, it was often the independent dynamic of violence itself that can explain the behavior of the agents, nomads as well as Soviet officials. According to Kindler, the use of violence by actors on both sides of the conflict in the countryside can partly be explained by local dynamics in which political police plenipotentiaries, as well as Kazakh communities, tried to anticipate possible violence coming from the other side with a preemptive and often extreme use of violence. For this reason, for example, representatives of the Soviet state often acted indiscriminately against nomads, refugees, bandits and resistance fighters, whom they were hardly able to distinguish and whose mere presence increasingly appeared as a threat. Apart from violent conflict, which in some regions seriously threatened Soviet power, many nomads tried to escape to other areas of the Soviet Union and also over the border into China, a topic that is dealt with in two sections of the chapter. In Western Siberia Kazakh refugees continued to preoccupy local administrations for years to come.

The last and most extensive of the four main chapters of the dissertation then turns to the famine itself, its dynamic and its social consequences. On the one hand, Kindler highlights what he calls the “erosion of the social” as a consequence of the famine, a nightmarish fight, in which many could only survive because they deprived others of food (p. 232). Parents leaving their children behind and occurrences of cannibalism were examples of this breakdown of even the most elementary social norms. On the other hand, connections to personal networks and Soviet institutions continued to have a crucial influence and in many cases determined who perished and who survived. The authorities controlling the food supply reacted to the famine by dividing the population into hunger refugees, who were often left on their own in far-away villages, and privileged groups attached to Soviet infrastructure. Kindler explicitly rejects interpretations of the famine as a planned genocide, but he does point out that the famine was not only experienced as a disaster by many Bolsheviks, but appeared also as a political opportunity: the famine and the increasing dependence on Soviet infrastructure facilitated the breakdown of a nomadic society, which had in the 1920s still in many regards been off-limits for the authorities. This insight also explains the main thesis of Kindler’s dissertation, namely that the “famine marked the true beginning of Kazakhstan’s Sovietization” (p. 17).

This argument is further elaborated in two concluding chapters, dealing with the end of the famine and its later memory in Kazakh society. Kindler demonstrates that it were largely economic, not humanitarian concerns that motivated a partial relaxation of the harshest collectivization measures in late 1932. Worries about the reduction of livestock in Kazakhstan also explain the surprising shift in Soviet attitudes towards nomadism: while in the early 1930s, sedentarization had been depicted as a central goal, in the late 1930s and during the war, nomadic livestock raising became an accepted and to some extent even appreciated economic activity, even though the Bolsheviks preferred to replace the term “nomadism” with other terms and continued to reject the forms of social community commonly associated with nomadism. A second chapter deals with the widespread silence regarding the famine in contemporary Kazakhstan. Kindler names a variety of reasons for this silence that is in a striking contrast to the vigorous discussion in Ukraine: Kazakhstan, for example, experienced massive immigration of Russians and other non-Kazakhs in the period after 1945 and still today has relatively good political relations with Russia, creating little political incentives to talk about the famine. On a deeper level, Kindler highlights that the systematic blurring of the categories of victim and perpetrator that accompanied the famine is a major obstacle for anyone trying to come to terms with the past. Many owed their own survival to the distribution networks of the very state which was the main responsible for the famine. “The true civilizational perversion of Stalinism,” Kindler concludes, “was precisely that it was not enough to make human life worthless, but that it forced each individual to become guilty in order to survive” (p. 345).

The main contribution of Kindler’s dissertation is to integrate the history of the famine in Kazakhstan with more general patterns of Soviet rule and Stalinist repression and violence. Many of the methodological and historiographical claims made in the dissertation are therefore relevant to historians of Stalinism and the Soviet Union in general. Students of Soviet nationality policies and the non-Russian regions of the Soviet Union, for example, will be interested in Kindler’s criticism of what he sees as a historiographical tendency to detach the history of Soviet Central Asia from the wider currents of Soviet history. This is especially noteworthy given the regionalization of studies of the Soviet Union in the last years, with Central Asian and Caucasian studies appearing as increasingly independent fields of research. Kindler’s treatment of the dynamics of violence will also be inspiring for historians of Soviet society, as it allows to appreciate local agency without marginalizing the role of the state and its agents. Finally, Kindler’s detailed insight into the workings of the Soviet bureaucracy and its reactions to the famine could contribute to a larger comparative history of state policies during famines in the twentieth century.

Moritz Deutschmann
Department of History and Civilization
European University Institute, Florence

Primary Sources

Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Respubliki Kazakhstan, Центральный Государственный Архив Республики Казахстан (CGARK)
Arkhiv Prezidenta Respubliki Kazakhstan, Архив Президента Республики Казахстан (APRK)
Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sotsial’no-Politicheskoi Istorii, Российский Государственный Архив Социально-Политической Истории (RGASPI)
Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii, Государственный Архив Российской Федерации (GARF)
Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Ekonomiki, Российский Государственный Архив Экономики (RGAE)

Dissertation Information

Humboldt University, Berlin. 2012. 387 pp. Dissertation originally written in German. Primary Advisor: Jörg Baberowski.

Image: Kazakh refugees in Pavlodar region, 1930. TsGAKFDZ, 5-3619.

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