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Author Interview: The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan, by Sarah Cameron (University of Maryland)

In this second installation of our series featuring those books shortlisted by CESS for this year’s prize, we welcome Nurlan Kabdylkhak (University of North Carolina) who interviews Sarah Cameron (University of Maryland)The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan “examines one of the most heinous crimes of the Stalinist regime, the Kazakh famine of 1930–33. More than 1.5 million people perished in this famine, a quarter of Kazakhstan’s population, and the crisis transformed a territory the size of continental Europe. Yet the story of this famine has remained mostly hidden from view. Drawing upon state and Communist party documents, as well as oral history and memoir accounts in Russian and in Kazakh, Sarah Cameron reveals this brutal story and its devastating consequences for Kazakh society” (Cornell University Press website).

First of all, congratulations on writing an impressive book on such an important topic. Your work and other recent publications have enriched our understanding of this horrendous event that wiped out at least 1.5 million lives in Kazakhstan.  Do you remember how you first learned about the famine in Kazakhstan? What drew your interest to this particular topic and why did you decide to dedicate your dissertation work to this event?

As a PhD student in Russian and Soviet history at Yale, I took several courses on Middle East history. I was intrigued by the themes that I encountered in these courses, and I began to think about how they might be combined with my existing interest in the Soviet field. I then turned towards Central Asia. At that time, a lot of the scholarly work on Soviet Central Asia had focused on Uzbekistan, and many authors used the case of Uzbekistan to generalize about Central Asia’s experience under Soviet rule. By focusing on Kazakhstan, I sought to illuminate some of the differences in how Central Asians experienced Soviet rule. It also helped that Kazakhstan had (and still has) excellent archives. Both the former Communist Party and state archives are open to researchers.

Having decided to focus on Kazakhstan, I spent the summer in Almaty studying Kazakh. While I was there, I began to flip through high school history textbooks, where I noticed discussion of the famine. I was floored that I had never heard of this event. It was a powerful story on a human level, but one that also had immense importance for our understanding of Soviet history.

How does your work on the Kazakh famine contribute to our understanding of broader theories and themes in the historical scholarship? What historiographical conversations do you see yourself to be a part of?

I see the marginalization of the Kazakh story—most overviews of Soviet history only refer to it in passing, if at all—as just one example of how we are still struggling to incorporate the Soviet east into our understandings of Soviet history. Soviet history is often thought of as “European history.” But the Soviet Union was not just a European power. It was an Asian one, too. In the book, I show how further research on the Soviet east might overturn some of our basic assumptions about Stalinism. Most of our models for Stalinism were constructed using examples draw from the Soviet Union’s west. But if we turn to the Kazakh case, we get a different view of many issues, including Soviet modernization, Soviet nation-building and Stalinist violence.

I also see the book as part of a broader literature that seeks to recover the stories of mobile peoples. Part of the reason we have heard relatively little about the Kazakh famine, I would argue, is a tendency to see the violence committed against mobile groups as part of a “natural,” or “civilizing,” process. In the United States, we only need look at our own struggles to come to terms with the scale of the violence committed against Native Americans for such examples.

Young camels on a tether. Zhangil’dy-Mola.  Adai.  Photo by S.I. Rudenko in Kazaki: Antropologicheskie ocherki.  Sbornik II, 91. (Used with permission by Sarah Cameron.)

It’s an exciting time to be publishing the book, as I think that Central Asian history is beginning to become a field in its own right. The book furthers our understanding of the relationship between the nomadic and sedentary worlds, a long running theme in Central Asian history. I also see the book as engaging with the fields of environmental history and genocide studies.

What was the most challenging aspect of researching/writing about the Kazakh famine?

The most challenging aspect of this project by far was identifying primary sources that were not produced by the Communist Party or the state. I found an abundance of state and Communist Party documents pertaining to the famine in archives in Kazakhstan and Russia. But to illuminate the human side of the story in greater depth, I wanted to incorporate sources such as memoirs or oral history accounts by Kazakhs. These types of materials, I felt, would also help me counter some of the biases that can cloud sedentary peoples’ observations about the nomadic world. But these accounts proved to be exceptionally difficult to find. For various reasons, there are fewer types of these sources available for the Kazakh case than there are for other crimes of the Stalinist regime.

Ultimately, the handful of memoirs and oral history accounts that I did find were crucial to my research. Through them, I was able to convey how the famine transformed Kazakh society.

A major goal of your work is to determine the causes of the Kazakh famine. In the past, scholars emphasized ecological issues, particularly the phenomenon of zhut; meanwhile, today historians discuss Moscow’s various policy decisions. Is it possible to establish the single most important factor in causing this event? Or should we talk about the combination of all these factors?

I think the most important causal factor is clear. It was the grain and meat procurements that accompanied collectivization. Without the Stalinist regime’s interventions, there would not have been a famine. A drought in the summer of 1931 then intensified Kazakhs’ suffering. But I don’t know that policy decisions like collectivization can be neatly disentangled from environmental factors. Put another way, this drought was not an independent variable, something for which the regime should be absolved of responsibility. Rather, I show that Moscow had clear information about the environmental risks of nomadic settlement when it moved forward with collectivization. Focused on increasing the production of grain at all costs, Moscow accepted that Kazakhs might suffer as a result.

But while grain and meat procurements were the most important factor, other factors were important too. The first chapter of my book focuses on Russian imperial rule over the Kazakh steppe, which led to important changes in Kazakhs’ diet and migration routes. These changes then intensified the disastrous effects of collectivization. While I would not elevate the legacies of Russian imperial rule to the status of a “causal factor,” I do call them a “contributing factor.”

An aul, with a herdsman on the right.  Kumdoil’, the River Uil.  Adai.  Photo by S. I. Rudenko in Kazaki: Antropologicheskie ocherki.  Sbornik II, 91.  (Used with permission by Sarah Cameron.)

You mention in your book that one of famine’s consequences was the emergence of a new Kazakh identity. How did the famine transform the sense of Kazakhness? How do your findings enrich our understanding of Soviet modernization and nation-making?

In my book, I argue that the famine led to the emergence of a new Kazakh national identity. On the eve of the famine, “Kazakh” was a mixed social and ethnic category, one that denoted an ethnicity but also a way of life, pastoral nomadism. But in the famine’s aftermath, Kazakhs began to think of themselves as a national group.

The crisis embedded nationality as the primary marker of Kazakh identity, and this in fact was a goal of the regime’s “nation-building” project, or effort to craft certain non-Russian groups into modern, Soviet nations. But it did not eliminate alternate forms of Kazakh identity entirely. To give just one example of this pattern, Kazakhs’ allegiances to various clans, transformed by the famine and divorced from their origins in the system of pastoral nomadism, continue to exert an important influence on Kazakh identity in the postfamine years.

The case of the Kazakh famine has important implications for our understanding of Soviet modernization and nation-making. By turning to a region outside the Soviet Union’s west, my book places the issue of Soviet modernization in a different light. In Kazakhstan, the timing and tempo of Moscow’s modernization project was distinct, and Moscow struggled with various environmental factors, such as the steppe’s aridity, that it did not encounter in areas further west. The book also illustrates the extraordinary importance that Moscow placed on its nation-making project, even as it underscores its destructive power. As I show, the Kazakh famine took its peculiarly destructive shape not in spite of the Soviets’ nation-making efforts, but partly because of them.

What are the remaining unexplored aspects of the Kazakh famine? What sorts of research do you see being done in the future on this subject?

One of the big gaps in our understanding of the Kazakh famine is the death toll. It is clear that the number of dead in the Kazakh famine was horrific—the crisis claimed at least 1.5 million lives—but we do not have a good sense of how these deaths break down at the provincial or district level. In the case of the Ukrainian famine, for instance, demographers have done sophisticated work to calculate the number of dead at the provincial and district levels. Not only has their research helped us better understand how famine affected Ukraine regionally, but it has challenged some understandings of the Ukrainian famine’s major causal factors. But this kind of demographic work has not yet been done for Kazakhstan.

Another unexplored aspect is how the Kazakh famine has been remembered in Kazakhstan. I touch upon this issue briefly in the epilogue to my book, but it is a complicated topic, which deserves a full-fledged study in its own right.

As to future projects, much depends upon the climate for research in Kazakhstan. After three decades in power, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president, resigned unexpectedly this past March, and it is not totally clear how his handpicked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will approach the issue of the famine. But I have seen signs that a younger generation of Kazakhs would like to know more about this important chapter in Kazakh history, and I am hopeful that this interest will lead to many new studies in the years to come.