Famine in Soviet Kazakhstan


A review of The Hungry Steppe: Soviet Kazakhstan and the Kazakh Famine 1921-1934, by Sarah Isabel Cameron.

Is Kazakhstan a post-colonial state? How do we put its unique history and formation, and, by extension, the Soviet system that produced it, into conversation with the broader themes of development, urbanization, modernization, and nationality formation that both connect and divide colonial and metropolitan stories in the twentieth century? Sarah Cameron’s ambitious dissertation, The Hungry Steppe: Soviet Kazakhstan and the Kazakh Famine 1921-1934, opens the door to a deeper exploration of these issues. Her innovative look at the encounter between first the Russian and later the Soviet empires and the vast “Hungry Steppe” and its largely nomadic inhabitants treats many intriguing issues surrounding both the nature of development and nation-building in Central Asia as well as the ideological and political formation of the socialist project in its formative stage. Her work combines an in-depth exploration of the bureaucratic operation of the Soviet state in this alien and often impenetrable territory, employing admirable research in both Russian and Kazakh archives, with a useful and enlightening explication of the patterns of Central Asian nomadic practice. In the process, she offers a perspective on the development of the Stalinist state and the first Five Year Plan that promises to offer new insight into both its short and long term impacts.

One of the strengths of this dissertation is the connections it makes in extending the narrative to the pre-Soviet period, despite the 1921 date given in the title. The first chapter begins with the story of the gradual Russian penetration of the steppe from the sixteenth century and its impact upon local communities. This then leads into debates surrounding the advent of Soviet power in Kazakhstan: What would distinguish the policy of a socialist state from its ostensibly oppressive Tsarist predecessor? How does nomadism as an economic formation fit in with Marxist ideology? Finally, how could the demands of ethnic and economic justice be balanced with those of development and raison d’etat? Chapter two continues the story with the advent of the first Five Year Plan, which definitively put development ahead of amelioration of local grievances on the list of national priorities and drove the final ideological nail in the coffin of nomadism. The chapter discusses Kazakhstan’s own version of “dekulakization,” the “anti-bai” campaign, and its devastating impact upon Kazakh society. In one particularly compelling vignette, Cameron highlights the process of bureaucratic construction of a particular “bai” on page 119, laying bare the state’s calculations and objectives in the campaign. Chapter three continues with the advent of the campaign to sedentarize Kazakhstan’s nomads in order to make more productive use of the land and rustle up labor power for the great industrialization drive. Chapter four then details the horrific results of this campaign and the attendant bureaucratic response, or lack thereof. Chapter five describes the Kazakh responses to the famine, chiefly flight across the border into China and into neighboring republics and the confusion and fear that this engendered among state authorities. Cameron shows how the mass flight of famine refugees pitted one republic, and its titular nationality, against another, thereby putting a significant amount of tension on the ethno-national structure of the Soviet Union. The final chapter discusses the end of the famine and its aftermath, and the dissertation concludes with an epilogue about the post-Soviet debates on the nature of the famine.

The main historiographical thrust of the dissertation is its exploration of the nexus of ethnicity, development, and bureaucracy in the cauldron of Stalin’s “Great Break.” In particular, Cameron’s arguments about the Kazakh famine are explicitly placed within the context of the more developed and better-known literature on the Ukrainian famine, especially the claim of “genocide,” which depends upon a very particular understanding of the mechanics of Stalinist violence. While Cameron is reluctant to return a solid verdict on the genocide charge in the Kazakh case, her dissertation points in two directions that seem to weaken the case for genocide not only in Kazakhstan, but possibly in Ukraine as well. First, she argues that the crisis began earlier in Kazakhstan than Ukraine in part because of causes that preceded not only 1929 but even 1917, specifically the impact of immigration and changing economic patterns on nomadic lifestyles. Secondly, she focuses on the participation of Kazakhs in the bureaucratic apparatus which bore some responsibility for the famine, making it difficult to put a narrowly ethnic face on the tragedy. In this, her work follows in the footsteps of Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 and Francine Hirsch’s Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union in its exploration of the complexity of national categories within an empire committed on the one hand to clear definitions of nationality and on the other to undermining those nationalities through class conflict. As a work of Soviet history, this is already a valuable contribution, but something that Cameron discusses briefly in her introduction might ultimately prove to be the key to a wider historiographical impact. Her discussion of works by Amartya Sen and Mike Davis opens the door to a deeper engagement with the Kazakh famine as an example of economic and ecological disaster in a colonial context. The ambiguity of the post-Soviet Kazakh treatment of the famine, in stark contrast to the Ukrainian one, which she describes in her epilogue, tantalizes the reader with the possibility of answers to questions about Kazakhstan’s deeply complicated relationship with Russia, “modernity,” and the remains of its economic and cultural transformations.

Jeremy Friedman
Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy
International Security Studies
Yale University

Primary Sources

The President’s Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan (APRK) Almaty
Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan (TsGARK) Almaty
Russian State Archive of Sociopolitical History (RGASPI) Moscow
Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE) Moscow
State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) Moscow

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2010. 340 pp. Primary Advisor: Laura Engelstein.


Image: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev speaking at the dedication of a memorial to the victims of the Kazakh Famine of 1930-33 (photo by Sarah Cameron)

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