The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin is a vivid, personal story of courage and hope in the face of persecution and terror. It breathes new life into a neglected chapter of European history, and should prove useful for Cold War research and socio-cultural anthropology studies. Famine, conscription into the Red Army, the defense of Stalingrad . . . author Mukhamet Shayakhmetov is a remarkable survivor, bolstered by a strong faith. He is now in his eighties. His straightforward and detailed account of the destruction of a centuries-old nomadic way of life on the vast steppes of Kazakhstan, as a direct consequence of the collectivization policies of the Stalinist era, makes for restless nights.
Lenin's proclamation that “Every minute of every hour, millions of individual, peasant farms are engendering exploiter elements and must be destroyed” inspired ruthless policies to liquidate individual farms, herding, and peasants, “kulaks,” as a class. 48% of the livestock in Kazakhstan was destroyed in the winter of 1931. Those nomadic stockbreeders who did not flee to China invariably ended up working as unpaid labor in collective farms or factories.
Shayakhmetov writes: “Simple villagers could not grasp why their neighbors, who were simple workers like themselves, were being classified enemies of the state, and having everything they owned confiscated; nor why the people in question should have to be persecuted and shut away from society. But our administrative aul council did not stop at imprisoning householders it considered to be kulaks: once it had dealt with them, it went on to prosecute their wives, on the same pretext as always-that they had failed to pay the extortionate taxes demanded from them.”
The author was nine years old when his father was blacklisted as a kulak and deported to work in a coal mine, where he died. His twenty-three year old sister was sent to work in a gold mine, where she died. The boy, his mother, and his other siblings had to move from aul to aul (a nomadic clan living in a temporary dwelling of yurts), in search of food and shelter. The traditional hospitality and goodwill of relatives and friends soured as famine took hold.
The boy was sent off on increasingly long journeys across frozen rivers, and a depopulated silent steppe, to find food. He contracted malaria, and years of malnutrition stunted his growth, so that at thirteen he was the size of a ten year old. “The ring of famine was growing ever tighter around us. Everywhere you looked, you could see starving people with swollen faces wandering about or, worst still, living skeletons, all skin and bone, in tattered clothing. There were corpses lying in the streets, the steppe, and the roads, and the sight of them even touched the hearts of the people on the verge of starvation themselves who could feel virtually nothing any more except pangs of hunger.” By the end of the great famine of 1932-34, 1.2 million people had died of starvation-a tragedy unsurpassed except by the Nazi and Maoist terrors.
Stalin's magnates knew what was happening-the death of millions was deemed a necessary sacrifice in the creation of a new world; justified by the “glorious future of the Soviet Union” (Petrovsky). Scholars remain divided as to whether the Russo-centric Soviet regime engineered famine as a form of genocide to undermine local resistance to communist rule, or whether the famine, which followed a drought and bad harvest, was an unintended consequence of collectivization.
We have always been, and will continue to be, susceptible to pressures from ruthless leaders urging us to fight for their causes. Shayakhmetov's subliminal message is clear: putting ideology before life itself has diabolical and destructive consequences.
Georgia de Chamberet is the founder and director of Bookblast!, a literary agency in London.