Mobilization and Ethnicity in Kazakhstan during World War II


A review of “A Fortress of the Soviet Home Front”: Mobilization and Ethnicity in Kazakhstan during World War II, by Roberto Carmack.

Roberto Carmack has made a major contribution to our understanding of Soviet society during the Second World War. His dissertation, completed at the University of Wisconsin, expands our knowledge of the wartime functioning of the Soviet state, economy, and society outside of the ethnically Russian heartland that dominates the historical literature. Drawing on a wealth of sources, including archival records from the party and state (mostly Russian) and mass media (Russian and Kazakh), he gives a clear and convincing picture of the fundamental dynamics of Kazakhstan at war, looking at both the Kazakhs and their Russian-speaking neighbors.

If there is a single, overarching theme that Carmack presents, it is of grandiose state projects undermined by reality. The Soviet regime as well as the local party-state authorities of Kazakhstan had goals they wished to achieve, whether the mobilization of manpower into the Soviet Army, the ideological integration of Kazakhs into the Soviet state, the economic exploitation of German and Chechen exiles, or development of raw material and industrial resources for the war effort. These fell afoul of inertia and lack of administrative capacity, or something as mundane as inadequate knowledge of the Kazakh language among republic-level officials. At the same time, however, two paradoxical subtexts run through Carmack’s narrative, one explicit and one more hidden, which suggest another story. As Carmack rightly notes, the Soviet regime did manage to mobilize one million ethnic Kazakhs out of a population of 2.3 million for service in the Red Army, and did manage to extract labor and resources from Kazakhstan for the war effort. The regime fell short of the goals it set for itself, but did manage, after all, to win the war.

There is a second, more subtle, counter-narrative. As no expert on Kazakh or Central Asian history, what struck me most was something Carmack does not stress: how little role key events of pre-World War II Central Asian history had on the story Carmack tells. Carmack’s introductory materials do discuss the pre-war history of Kazakhstan, but those events seem to have little bearing on wartime experience. Kazakhstan does not fit neatly into patterns historians have drawn from Russian history, but Kazakhstan at war seems to show little impact from, say, the 1916 rebellion against tsarist conscription, the Soviet institutionalization of ethnic categories in Central Asia, Stalinist anti-religious policies, and the devastating loss of life from sedentarization and collectivization of Kazakh nomads. In what may be a back-handed testimony to the effectiveness of the Soviet project, Carmack can tell a clear and coherent story of wartime Kazakhstan with almost no reference to those earlier events, which seem to have fallen into a Stalinist memory hole. The Soviet regime had, to a very large degree, successfully remade Kazakhstan in its own image.

The bulk of Carmack’s dissertation is a discussion of particular aspects of life in the republic during the war, beginning with conscription. Kazakhstan did serve as a reservoir of manpower, as around one million Kazakhs were conscripted into the Red Army during the war. Some served heroically, including among the famed 28 Panfilovtsy (though that heroism has been considerably dimmed by recent research). Under conditions of mass conscription during the war, Kazakh service showed a striking pattern. Until December 1941, Kazakh draftees were steered to labor battalions and kept out of combat. It remains unclear whether this policy was predominantly driven by lack of trust in Kazakh loyalty or belief that lack of strong Russian language skills among many Kazakhs made their service in combat units problematic. Soviet military officers did tend to view Kazakhs as particularly likely to break and run under stress. This policy of exclusion was abruptly reversed in December 1941, presumably due to a desperate need for manpower, and Kazakhstan’s Kazakhs and Slavs alike served in combat. Symbolic national units were created, though these were never homogenous groups of ethnic minorities. By October 1943, however, Kazakhs were once again relegated to rear area construction and labor duties, and national units were gradually regularized over the last two years of the war to become essentially identical to standard Soviet units.

In economic terms, the political leadership of Kazakhstan wished to see the republic transformed from a mere source of raw materials into a more balanced economy with a mature industrial sector. These desires only occasionally coincided with Moscow’s priorities. While the evacuation of over 200 industrial enterprises to Kazakhstan jump-started the region’s industrial development, Moscow pulled 200,000 laborers from Kazakhstan for work elsewhere, and as early as 1943, skilled labor began to flow back out of Kazakhstan in order to repopulate and rebuilt the devastated western regions of the Soviet Union. Maximizing wartime production and reconstructing Soviet power in previously-occupied territories trumped any development project from the republic’s leadership.

Both the regime in Moscow and the government of Kazakhstan wanted to integrate Kazakhs ideologically into the Soviet state. In keeping with much recent literature on Soviet nationality policy, including that by Terry Martin and Yuri Slezkine, Carmack sees this not as an effort to compel Kazakhs to assimilate to a dominant Russian linguistic and cultural milieu, but to use the development of a socialist Kazakh identity as a path towards belonging to an overarching and supernational Soviet identity. Reaching Kazakhs in their native language was a necessary step, as was reflecting Kazakh cultural concepts in Soviet propaganda. Isolated pieces of Kazakh history were hijacked into the service of an overall Soviet narrative. The early eighteenth-century Russian incorporation of the steppe, even though carried out by absolutist tsars, was an objectively progressive step in forestalling even more backward Mongol domination. The 1916 uprising against tsarist conscription was celebrated as popular resistance to colonialism and an exploitative feudal elite. During the war, Islam and traditional Islamic religious leaders were rehabilitated and used for propaganda decrying German atrocities against Muslims in Crimea and the Caucasus.

In practice, though, these efforts, just as those in the economic sphere, ran up against hard reality. In this case, the regime lacked enough party activists skilled enough in both Russian and Kazakh to carry out meaningful agitation. The cultural familiarity necessary to translate Russian-language Marxist concepts into meaningful and relevant Kazakh parallels was woefully low. Kazakh soldiers from rural settlements often know no Russian at all, and so were wholly dependent on a handful of Kazakh-speaking agitators and poorly distributed Kazakh-language literature. Political officers serving Kazakh-dominated units were forced into a two-track policy of simultaneously educating their soldiers in basic Russian and carrying out agitation.

Carmack’s dissertation also looks at those truly outside the bounds of Soviet society: the political exiles, Germans and North Caucasians, dumped in Kazakhstan to remove them from regions near the fighting front and punish them collectively for perceived disloyalty. Germans were the first to arrive, hastily pushed off trains in August and September 1941. Disproportionately women and children, these refugees were indiscriminately dumped on collective farms to serve as labor without sufficient supplies of food, and without accounting for useful skills that they might possess. German exiles with useful experience had to liberate themselves—moving to urban areas, tools in hand, to offer their services in hopes of better pay and living conditions. Large numbers of German men were funneled into a Labor Army, working alongside the existing network of NKVD camps. Peoples from the North Caucasus, notably Chechens, followed the Germans into exile in 1943 and 1944 but found the infrastructure to feed and shelter them no better. These refugees, with no political friends, found themselves universally unwanted, as local officials resented the drain on limited supplies of food and worked to ship the deportees on to become someone else’s burden.

As the war progressed, those exiled populations increasingly became the focus of state suspicion. At the outbreak of war, state repression was directed more-or-less evenhandedly across social and ethnic groups and particularly aimed at rumor-mongering and defeatism, which generally equated to seeking and relaying news about the war effort. Once first Germans and then North Caucasian exiles arrived, authorities in Kazakhstan created what Carmack calls a “hierarchy of loyalty,” with Russian and Kazakhs more or less presumed to be loyal, and exiles presumed to be disloyal and working towards their liberation either by Germany or, in the case of the North Caucasus, Turkey. The result was surveillance and infiltration on a massive scale, with approximately 1% of the exile population recruited as police informants.

On the whole, Carmack’s work adds depth and nuance to the history of the Soviet Union at war. While recognizing that there is much truth in the school of historiography in the Soviet Union and independent Kazakhstan, stressing heroic and selfless sacrifice for victory, he particularly notes the shortfalls, shortages, and internecine struggles that were conveniently eliminated from official histories. He skillfully integrates archival and media sources to give a comprehensive and compelling account of a hitherto neglected aspect of the Soviet Union at war.

David R. Stone
Strategy and Policy Department
US Naval War College
All opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Primary Sources
Archive of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Soviet newspapers (Russian and Kazakh language)

Dissertation Information
University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2015. 367pp. Primary advisor: Francine Hirsch.

Image: “Guardsmen Calculating Anti-Tank Fire.” Central State Archive of Films, Photos, and Sound Recordings of the Republic of Kazakhstan (TsGAKZRK). File number 2-10230.

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