Kazakhstan is still haunted by Soviet-era political repression and famine

The statue in rememberance of victims of the famine in 1931-33 erected in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Screenshot from the Jurnal Exclusive YouTube channel.

On May 31, Kazakhstan revisited the darkest period of its history as it commemorated victims of Stalinist repressions and famine that took place in the 1930s in the country. In 1997, the government marked May 31 as the Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression, raising awareness about the millions of victims oppressed by Soviet authorities in Kazakhstan. Speaking on the importance of this day, Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stated that “the crimes of totalitarianism have left a deep mark on the consciousness” of the Kazakhstani people and it is important “to continue studying these dark pages of history, restoring justice to all the innocent victims.”

In 2020, Tokayev established the State Commission for the Complete Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression. It consists of 11 working groups, and each one has been studying archives to find victims of repression belonging to specific groups such as religious clerics and local intelligentsia. The decision to establish this commission came 27 years after the government adopted the Law on the rehabilitation of mass political repressions in 1993, which was one of the very first laws adopted after Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991.

Kazakhstan was one of the countries hit hardest by political repression and collectivization and dekulakization, which consisted of dispossesing wealthy peasants of their land and other property, policies of the Soviet authorities. Millions of people from various parts of the Soviet Union were forcefully deported to Kazakhstan, and the country became an integral part of the Gulag system as the host of several major prison labor camps such as Steplag, Karlag, and ALZHIR. The most tragic period in Kazakhstan’s history was the 1930s, when the mass famine and political repression of local intelligentsia and property owners led to millions of deaths, large-scale outward migration, and radical transformation of social, political, and economic structures.

Famine and death in the steppe

By the beginning of the 18th century, the Kazakh khanate was separated into three zhuz (hordes): great, middle, and little. Kazakhstan first came under Russian control in 1730, when the Little Horde became Russia’s protectorate. By 1742, the remaining Middle and Great Hordes also became protectorates, and by 1848 the khanates of all three hordes were abolished, surrendering whatever autonomy remained in the hands of local rulers. In 1920, the Soviet government established the Kirghiz Autonomous Oblast on the territory of Kazakhstan, which was renamed Kazakh ASSR in 1925. Kazakhstan became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union in 1936.

As with other constituent regions of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan fell victim to political repression, collectivization, and dekulakization policies throughout the late 1920s and 1930s. The Soviet authorities sought to radically change Kazakhstan by suppressing local intelligentsia, dispossessing its people of their property, and forcing its nomadic population to be sedentary and focus on agricultural and industrial production.

Between 1921–1954, almost 100,000 people were tried on political charges, and around 25,000 of those were sentenced to death. The peak period of these repressions was in 1928 when the Alash Orda party members, representing Kazakhstan’s political and cultural elite, were liquidated as “bourgeois nationalists.” Those who managed to avoid death sentences in 1928 were tried again in 1937, facing either death or lengthy prison sentences in labor camps. In the process of repressions, the Soviet government stripped the country of its indigenous political leaders and aspirations of any meaningful regional autonomy.

Here is a YouTube video on the leaders of the Alash Orda party.

The worst came in 1931–1933, when Kazakhstan was hit by the most devastating famine in its history. By 1930, Soviet Union’s collectivization and dekulakization policies, which were launched in the late 1920s, resulted in a shortage of food supplies throughout its territory. Kazakhstan became the primary region where the Kremlin extracted meat for its army and major cities and formed strategic food reserves.

In the period of five years, between 1928 and 1933, the number of animals in the country decreased by 90 percent, from 40.5 million to 4.5 million. In practice, Kazakhstan’s citizens, which led nomadic and semi-nomadic lives at that time and relied on animals as their primary food source, were left without means of existence. The famine claimed somewhere between one and a half to three million lives, with 90 percent of victims being ethnic Kazakhs. The number of those who left Kazakhstan due to famine varies between one and two million people.

Here is a YouTube video on the famine in Kazakhstan in 1931–1933.

A similar scale famine in Ukraine, Holodomor, has been recognized as genocide in Ukraine. Although the famine in Kazakhstan has not been recognized as genocide, as it does not fit the criteria, scholars agree that its outcomes were no less devastating.

A country-sized prison

Kazakhstan was notorious for being one of the primary destination countries for deportees and political prisoners in the Soviet Union. The Soviet authorities viewed the local use of land and resources by nomads as irrational and sought to turn Kazakhstan into an agricultural and industrial region with the help of prisoners and deportees skilled in agriculture and engineering.

The country was home to 11 prison labor camps within the Gulag system, spread across different regions. Between 1930 and the late 1950s, more than 5 million people were sent off to these camps. The majority of them were victims of political repression and fell under the category of “enemies of the people.” The largest camp was Karlag, located in central Kazakhstan. Between 1931 and 1959, nearly 1 million people went through this camp, which — with an area of 2 million hectares — was the size of Israel.

Here is a YouTube video on the history of Karlag.

Steplag was another infamous camp and carried a special status as the prison for those who were convicted of treason, spying, and other political crimes. It was opened in 1948 after the end of World War II. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, served part of his sentence in Steplag. Its prisoners built thermal power plants, residential buildings, dams of the Kengir reservoir, worked in coal mines, and developed manganese deposits.

ALZHIR was a one-of-a-kind Gulag camp in northern Kazakhstan. It was opened in 1938 as the prison for family members of the so-called “traitors of the homeland,” namely, wives, sisters, and mothers of political prisoners. About 8,000 prisoners went through the camp, which was one of the four largest female prisons in the Soviet Union.

In addition to Gulag camps, Kazakhstan witnessed another large-scale crime carried out by Soviet authorities: mass deportations. Between 1937 and 1944, more than 1.2 million people were forcefully deported to Kazakhstan. Most of them were ethnic groups from various parts of the Soviet Union, who were deemed unreliable and nationalistic and seen as a threat.

The ethnic deportations started in the mid-1930s with ethnic groups living in border regions, such as Koreans in the east, Finns, Germans, and Polish in the west, and Kurds, Iranians, and Jews in the south. The next wave came during and in the aftermath of World War II and included mass deportations of Chechen and Ingush people, Crimean Tatars, and Ukrainians, among others. At least 500 thousand Ukrainians were deported to Kazakhstan.

Here is a YouTube video on the deportation of Chechen and Ingush people to Kazakhstan.

Political repression and famine left a deep mark on the people of Kazakhstan. One of the current-day outcomes of repression is the fact that the country is home to 124 nationalities. The tragic events from the decades-long dark period of history require thorough research for rehabilitating victims. Kazakhstan is still grappling with past tragedies and processing its national trauma.

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