Accessibility links

Breaking News

Kazakhstan: The Forgotten Famine

Kural Tokmurzin's mother lived through the famine (RFE/RL) December 28, 2007 (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.

As many as 14 million people in the Soviet Union died of starvation during Josef Stalin's forced collectivization drive. Ukraine was worst affected, but the famine spread to Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus, and parts of Russia.

Samsy is just one of hundreds of villages and towns in Kazakhstan where tales of the famine are still remembered.

In the village of Oyil in Kazakhstan's Aqtobe Province, Kural Tokmurzin, now in his 70s, remembers the stories his mother and other relatives told him about those times.

Tokmurzin told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that it started when Communist Party officials arrived in Oyil, in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, as the collectivization of agriculture began.

"They" were looking for "kulaks," he said, the term given to anyone who appeared to be better off financially than other people. In the case of Oyil, that meant those fortunate few who owned livestock -- perhaps a dozen sheep or a few horses.

"Many of the people whose sheep and horses were confiscated had to move to inner Russia, to Karakalpakistan, and on to Iran or to Uzbekistan," Tokmurzin said. "There were rumors that life was easier there, that it was easier to survive. Those who stayed suffered but survived the winter of 1929-1930. But the worst season came in 1930-31 when the famine started."

The collectivization process hit the traditionally nomadic Kazakhs hard. They were suddenly forced to settle in one spot and, as Tokmurzin said, those who had more than just a few farm animals were treated as kulaks.

Added to that were the requisitions from Moscow that demanded huge shares of the crops so that the Soviet government could obtain hard currency and purchase machinery for the numerous factories being built.

Thousands of Kazakhs fled the famine. Tokmurzin's Uncle Shitan went to the Russian city of Orenburg and then Stalingrad (now Volgograd) to look for work and food. But he returned when the Soviet government began distributing food aid to Kazakhstan in 1933.

'Gangs Of Cannibals'

By then Kazakhstan was in chaos. "People told him the roads were lined with corpses and that wild animals, particularly wolves, were eating the corpses," Tokmurzin said. "The people said these animals might attack my uncle. More shocking were the tales of gangs of cannibals roaming the countryside."

Preparing to complete his journey back to Oyil, he was again warned that there were starving people cannibalizing others in Kolda.

Shitan decided to leave but told his nephew years later that after he departed Kolda he sensed he was being followed. He went to a nearby river and saw that several men were pursuing him. Shitan jumped in the icy river and swam across to escape his pursuers.

The devastation was monumental, but was often only discovered later.

In 1967, authorities decided to build a House of Culture in Oyil. As excavation began, workers found the skulls and other bones of young children.

It emerged that Tokmurzin had an older brother and sister, born before the famine started. They, like thousands of other children, were given to the authorities who promised to give them the care their parents could not provide during those hard times. Neither survived.

Estimates of the total number of people who died due to the famine vary. But all sources agree that more than 1 million ethnic Kazakhs alone died during the famine, although many say the number of dead Kazakhs was twice as high.

In the 1980s, Professor Talas Omarbekov of Kazakhstan State University was allowed to view the Soviet archives about the country's famine.

"What I saw was the figure that 2.3 million people died. This is only the figure for ethnic Kazakhs. If you add the hundreds of thousands from other ethnic groups who died, we can say that during collectivization we lost half our population," Omarbekov said.

The figures Omarbekov cites do not include the tens of thousands who fled to other areas of the Soviet Union or beyond its borders to Iran, China, and Mongolia.

Even as late as 1959, ethnic Kazakhs accounted for less than 30 percent of the population in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. According to some figures, up to 90 percent of the animal herds of the nomadic Kazakhs had died.

Ties With Russia

Contemporary politics plays a large role in the government's failure to mark this tragedy.

Ukraine, which suffered from a Soviet-induced famine at the same time as Kazakhstan, has blamed Moscow for the tragedy, something that severely aggravated bilateral relations.

Such blame for the famine is an unsavory issue for Russia, which absolutely rejects any notion that the tragic event in Ukraine was a genocide. A Putin spokesman recently called such talk an "attempt to rewrite history."

The Kazakh government seems to have learned from Ukraine's experiences, realizing that bringing up this painful chapter in its people's past would sour relations with Russia -- its biggest trading partner and the main destination for Kazakh oil.

Remembering the famine also risks aggravating ethnic tensions in multicultural Kazakhstan, where roughly 30 percent of the population is ethnic Russian.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan and the Almaty bureau contributed to this report)

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

SUBSCRIBE For regular news and analysis on all five Central Asian countries by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Central Asia Report."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.