The Forgotten Famine

by Joshua Foust on 1/3/2008 · 2 comments

In the very flawed, but nevertheless interesting book Into Tibet, Thomas Laird relates the account of two CIA agents, Douglas Mackiernan and Frank Bessac, hiding among the nomadic Kazakhs of Xinjiang just after the Maoist Revolution in China. While those two eventually flee into Tibet (hence the title of the book), they relate horrific tales of the nomads fleeing the misery of Soviet Turkestan under Stalinism, with violent purges and a grinding famine that wiped out far too many of their people.

Since reading that book a few years ago, I’ve tried to find more about the fate of nomadic people under forced collectivization, but have been contented with vague stories of nameless millions starving to death—from Ukraine, to Georgia, to yes, Kazakhstan, and further north as well. The forced settling and collectivization of nomads was a horrendous tragedy, but only one of many, and in comparison to other tragedies forced upon Russia and her vassals, (unfortunately) a comparatively small one. That’s not to say books and sources do not exist—Robert Conquest in particular has tried to catalogue the process—but the plight of the Kazakhs often gets glossed over, or reduced to a relative footnote.

Playing the doombra on a modern-day collective farm

From the few accounts I know of, Stalin’s collectivization killed nearly 2 million Kazakhs—about half the country’s population at the time. As Laird relates, along the border with China, Kazakh herders slaughtered nearly 100,000 of their animals to keep them from being seized by the Communists, which left them with little recourse. But personal stories are still hard to come by… which is why I was glad to see this story in RFE/RL:

At first sight, the small village of Samsy is an unremarkable place.

About 70 kilometers west of Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, the village is dissected by a highway. Farmers work in the fields growing mainly melons and wheat.

But what lies underground in Samsy is a nearly forgotten page in Kazakh history.

Dotting the fields there are scores of mounds, a little more than a meter high. Buried beneath these mounds are the unnamed dead from a horrific man-made famine in the early 1930s, which killed at least 1 million Kazakhs.

While other former Soviet states, notably Ukraine, have marked the great Soviet famine, which spanned the winters of 1931-33, the Kazakh government has sought to bury this bitter memory along with the forgotten victims.

How sad. RFE/RL tries to tie this back to Nazarbayev “learning from” Ukraine, which saw its relations with Russia go sour when it tried to proclaim the Harvest of Sorrows a deliberate genocide. That Ukraine’s characterization gels with most outsiders’ idea of the Great Famine doesn’t factor into that irascible Russian pride that demands kids gloves from its former victims (recall the violent anger over Estonia daring to move a statue from a street to a park).

But erasing or ignoring the memory of those millions who died under Stalin’s thumb seems just as bad as killing them in the first place. That bands of cannibals roamed the countryside while wild wolves consumed rotting bodies along the highway would be forgotten and tossed aside… well, it has dark overtones of the U.S. government’s own attempt to file away and forget the genocide it committed against the Native Indians in the 19th century. The famine was an unspeakable tragedy, wholly beyond any of our abilities to comprehend. Remember that it happened, however, is not—and seems the least we can do for the victims of Stalin’s brutality.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Admiral January 3, 2008 at 10:52 pm

I tend to agree. But I have to say that while I know relatively little of the history of Central Asian states, I do know something of Spain’s experiences. As you probably know, to this day, the people of Spain struggle with the consequences of the civil war. Should they unbury the dead and give them a proper burial, with tombstones as best that can be made? Do those who were complicit with Stalin, perhaps with guns pointed at their heads, deserve condemnation? It doesn’t seem easy to me. I hope that a charismatic leader can one day placate both sides in properly remembering those who died.

Batyr January 5, 2008 at 7:54 am

Here’s an article on the subject

you can find the pdf here:

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