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A Tragedy Kazakhstan Must Never Forget

Kazakhs fleeing the famine of the early 1930s
Kazakhs fleeing the famine of the early 1930s
One has to be old enough to be told these stories. My father heard them earlier than he should have. In 1952, age 12, my father was given a compulsory summer job as a post boy. Twice a week, he was sent on horseback to a distant, larger village to bring back letters and documents.

He used to take shortcuts through the mountains during these journeys, and he noticed that some isolated spots were littered with human skulls and bones. He started asking his father about the origin of these skulls. That's how he first heard about the horrific man-made famine that struck his country two decades before, killing millions of Kazakhs.

The famine of 1932-33, which wiped out a huge chunk of the Kazakh population, is one of the darkest chapters of the country's history. It was triggered by the Soviet government's decision to confiscate all of Kazakhstan's livestock. At the time, more than three-quarters of Kazakhs led a nomadic lifestyle and depended solely on their livestock -- without cattle, these nomads had no chance of survival.

Cattle confiscation began in 1929. By 1932, Kazakhs had been stripped of their primary means of survival, and famine started.

There was a mass exodus. Those residing in border regions fled to the neighboring republics of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and to countries such as China and Mongolia. But those living in the heart of the country were doomed to stay; central Kazakhstan suffered the highest death toll.

According to historian Talas Omarbekov of Kazakhstan's State University, who was granted access to Soviet archives about the famine in the 1980s, the famine took as many as 2.3 million lives in Kazakhstan.

During a conference devoted to the Ukrainian famine last month, Russians historians estimated that Kazakhstan had lost 1.5 million people during the famine.

Kazakh intellectuals argue that Kazakhs suffered proportionally much larger losses than other ethnic groups in Kazakhstan and that neighboring Central Asian republics suffered no such devastating famines. According to them, this is why merely citing the failures of the Soviet policy of collectivization doesn't seem a sufficient explanation for the famine. Many regard the famine as genocide -- a view the Kazakh authorities don't appear to share.

Personal Memories

No Kazakh family was spared by the tragedy -- every family has its own story to tell, one that is passed on from generation to generation.

The unfinished memorial in Astana to victims of the famine
That summer of 1952, my father learned how his own father, who in 1932 had just gained certification as a teacher, was assigned to a village but couldn't find any children there to teach because all of them had died.

He learned how our relatives survived thanks to half a sack of wheat that my grandfather had received as payment; how they saw people near railway stations eating human corpses; how they came back to their native village once the famine was over to find only 13 families of the initial 70 families alive; how my great-grandfather began collecting human bones scattered along the river banks and laying them to rest.

These stories made such a lasting impression on my father that he set his heart on his future profession once and for all. "During sleepless nights, I dreamed of becoming a writer so I could write about this horror and it wouldn't be forgotten by the next generations," my father told me when it was time for me to listen.

Soviet newspapers covered up the famine, back then and later. And unlike Ukraine, no Western journalists were allowed into Kazakhstan during this period. But some people nevertheless documented the horror on their own.

Tatyana Nevadovskaya was 19 years old in 1933. She lived at the time in the village of Chymdaulet, near Almaty, together with her father, an exiled Russian professor.

She was shocked by what she saw and couldn't understand why the local population was treated that way. The famine didn't affect her -- she had enough to eat, but she couldn't stand the desperate situation of Kazakhs.

Nevadovskaya jotted down notes, took pictures, and wrote a long poem about the famine -- documents that she kept secret for almost half a century. It was only after retiring in 1980 that she donated her "album" to the Kazakh Central Archive in Almaty.

"It was a terrible winter for us, but most of all for the local population," she wrote. "I hope the current generation of Kazakhs will not forget about the people, the children, the elderly who died of hunger; about the villages that were deserted and died out; about the sick and those who died in the steppe...."

When Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, an initiative was launched to erect a monument to the famine victims. By 1992, under pressure from Kazakh intellectuals, the government provided a site; 16 years later, however, the monument is still nowhere to be seen.

But memories of the famine live on, memories that are much stronger than stone. One just has to be old enough to be told these stories. I heard them when I turned 17. My children are too young now, but they, too, will hear about the famine when they grow up. The question now is: When will the Kazakh government be mature enough to embrace this legacy?

Yedige Magauin is the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL