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Surviving Generations Recall 'Forgotten Genocides,' Famines

Tatyana Nevadovskaya and the starving man she tried to help
Tatyana Nevadovskaya was a teenager living in the Kazakh village of Chymdaulet when she began to document the ravages of the man-made famine sweeping through the Central Asian republic in the early 1930s.

"It was early in the spring of 1933," wrote the 19-year-old, who had moved to Kazakhstan with her Russian father, an exiled professor. "I was walking with someone; I had a camera with me. We saw a weak, exhausted Kazakh man sitting on the path. He was coming back from field work, but hardly moving, and very weak.

"He was groaning, asking for something to eat or drink. I gave my companion the camera and ran to get some water. He drank it eagerly. I ran back home again to bring him some bread and sugar. When I came back with the bread, he was already dead."

Fifty years later, Nevadovskaya went to the Kazakh Central Archives in Almaty and donated her account -- along with a photograph her companion had taken during the encounter -- as part of a personal "album" of poems, pictures, and notebooks documenting what she called the "terrible, hungry years of 1932-33."

The materials offer a rare eyewitness chronicle of a devastating chapter in the history of Soviet Kazakhstan, when an estimated 1.5 million Kazakhs perished as the results of a forced famine orchestrated by Soviet planners who forced the traditionally nomadic Kazakhs to settle and confiscated their livestock, depriving them of their only livelihood.

Nevadovskaya's journals include a parting wish. In her small, delicate script, the teenager wrote: "In memory of this nation's suffering during that period -- a suffering that was neither deserved nor justified -- I would erect a monument on this spot, just as they put obelisks at the tombs of unknown soldiers."

In 1992, Nevadovskaya's wish began to take shape. The government of a newly independent Kazakhstan, under pressure from local intellectuals and activists, created a site for a famine monument.

The unfinished memorial in Astana to victims of the famine

Sixteen years later, however, the site remains empty. There is only a stone, marking the place "where a future monument will be erected." May 31, the day once reserved as a commemorative date for famine victims, has since been more generically labeled a day of remembering "victims of political repressions."

"The current leadership should understand that leaving the famine issue open is dangerous," says Talas Omarbekov, a Kazakh historian who has done some of his country's best-known research on the famine. He blames the Kazakh leadership for continuing to bury the past, preferring to keep its relations with Moscow smooth -- and its own role in communist-era crimes under wraps.

"Even if they manage to keep it quiet, the next generation will raise the issue anyway. And then it will be taught. They will ask why the leadership of that time -- despite the facts and documents they had in their hands, despite all the research that was done, despite the discussion in society -- refused to deal with the issue," Omarbekov says. "A fear of Russia, to a certain degree, caused this famine. Being afraid of Russia today won't lead us to anything good."

A Better-Known Tragedy

The Kazakh experience is a distinct contrast to that of Ukraine, whose anniversary of its own 1932-33 famine, the Holodomor, received widespread attention when it was commemorated last month.

Theaters offered performances dedicated to the famine. Books and movies on the issue were released. The anniversary received heavy coverage in the Western press. Pope Benedict XVI offered a prayer for peace in the Ukrainian language during his weekly Vatican address.

And when Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko delivered a commemorative address in a newly opened Holodomor memorial park in the capital, Kyiv, he was accompanied by the presidents of Poland, Georgia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as dozens of foreign dignitaries.

Marta Kolomayets, the country director in Ukraine for the U.S. National Democratic Institute, has spent years working on international famine-remembrance issues. She says efforts began in earnest as far back as the early 1980s, spurred by Ukrainian diaspora groups in the West.

But it was years, she says, before many Ukrainians themselves became aware of the famine and the fact that it was orchestrated by Soviet planners -- an aspect that has prompted Yushchenko and others to refer to the Holodomor as a genocide.

President Yushchenko at services for the victims of the famine in Kyiv

"Even as late as 1998, 10 years ago, only 40 percent of Ukrainians believed that the famine happened, and that it was a genocide against the Ukrainian state," Kolomayets says.

"Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, there have been attempts to publicize the famine. The Ukrainian Security Service unveiled records of the famine, made it available to the general public. I think the Ukraine government under President Yushchenko has done a lot to publicize it, to make sure that people know about it so that history never repeats itself."

The number of Holodomor victims is estimated at anywhere between 3 million and 10 million. It is a staggering figure. And yet, the Ukrainian famine is only one of many orchestrated tragedies that systematically wiped out millions of people under the Soviet regime of Josef Stalin.

The famines of the early 1930s, tied to massive collectivization efforts, wiped out entire rural populations not only in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, but also the Volga and North Caucasus regions of Russia, as well as parts of Central Asia.

A total of 14 million people are believed to have died as a direct result of collectivization, where harvests and livestock were acquisitioned en masse, leading to deliberate food shortages and starvation.

Millions more died in the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s, and in the forced deportations that followed World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachais, Meskhetian Turks -- virtually any non-Slavic group -- died as a result of aggressive resettlements at the hands of an increasingly paranoid regime.

Statistics vary, but some historians estimate that as many as 50 million people were killed or repressed as a result of Soviet deportations and collectivization by the mid-1950s. The scope of the violence is so vast that taking an historically accurate measure of the victims, the perpetrators, and the motivations might never be possible.

Proving Intent

Lynne Viola, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, has conducted extensive research on Stalinist-era crimes. Speaking from Moscow, where she was attending a conference on the history of Stalinism, Viola said the 1932-33 famines were aimed not at a particular nationality, but at a particular class -- the kulaks, or peasants.

"This was very much an urban revolution led by a party that had very little knowledge of the countryside, and in fact disdained the peasantry," Viola says. "So my sense is that Stalin and company really had little concern if people were dying in the countryside. There was simply an inhumane attitude toward the peasantry. And the result of that, first of all, were these excessive forced requisitionings of grain. Everything was taken."

Much of the records related to collectivization were first made public after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when state and local archives were opened to journalists and historians desperate to uncover the facts behind communist-era crimes.

Viola herself says she has seen records that offer "absolutely explicit" details about the 1930s famine, and clear evidence that Moscow was aware of the toll collectivization was taking in the countryside.

Two critical sets of archives, however remain closed -- those of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet-era security organs, and the Kremlin. Without those, any historical rendering of collectivization, deportation, or other Soviet campaigns will remain incomplete. In many instances, Viola says, researchers have ample access to details about the execution of certain plans, but very little about the motivation behind them.

A freezing mother and child during the Kazakh famine of the early 1930s

This gap may prove critical as countries like Ukraine and Kazakhstan look to see their famines legitimized as "genocides" to the world community. Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has already recognized the Holodomor as genocide, and is actively lobbying for international confirmation.

Kazakhstan has taken no such steps, but activists there routinely refer to the famine as "our genocide." Researchers like Omarbekov believe existing evidence supports the claim the famine deliberately targeted the Kazakh nomads. (The 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide defines it, in part, as an act "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.")

Scholars remain divided on the many communist-era genocide claims that have arisen since the Soviet collapse, with some -- like Viola -- even arguing that the numbers are so vast they eclipse mere definitionalism.

"The whole topic of famine has become quite political," she says. "On the Russian side the response has been, 'Well, what about us? Didn't we suffer too?' Yes, sure, Russians suffered, but if you want to look at sheer numbers, certain groups did suffer more than other groups. And there was a lot more happening to these nationalities than famine. This may sound terrible, but it may be even bigger than genocide, in that what you have is a kind of colonial relationship between Moscow and many of the republics."

Resisting Blame

Indeed, efforts to remember the victims of collectivization and deportations are hardly a national issue only. Moscow, as the erstwhile capital of the Soviet Union and the nexus of Stalinist planning, is an obvious target for millions of people seeking retribution on behalf of their forebears.

Russia, whose relations with Ukraine have already been aggravated by its Westward-leaning goals, has staunchly rejected Kyiv's genocide narrative, saying the famine was indiscriminate in its scope. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev refused an invitation to attend last month's Holodomor commemorations; Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this week called the Ukrainian famine a "made-up" issue that seeks to politicize what is in fact the countries' "common past."

Officials in Kazakhstan may have Ukraine in mind as they continue to play down their own famine history. Kazakhstan has a significant Russian population, and its president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, is keen to keep his country's relations with Moscow on an even footing.

Nazarbaev, who was the republic's Communist Party boss before ascending to the presidency, may also be eager to play down his own role in the country's communist-era legacy. If details about the famine are revealed, more might follow about other, more recent incidents -- like the suppression of the 1986 Kazakh student protests in Almaty, the first nationalist-driven demonstration in a still-subdued Soviet Union.

Gregory Stanton, the president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and head of the Genocide Watch pressure group, says Kazakhstan's failure to come to terms with the famine is a result of a political system that remains mired in the past.

"Some of the nations are still very much in what could only be called postcommunist or neocommunist types of regimes, in which you have one-man dictatorships with corrupt elections that look a lot like Soviet elections," Stanton says.

"As long as you have those kinds of regimes, you're not going to have much acknowledgment of the past. Ukraine, on the other hand is a pretty healthy democracy," he adds. "And I think that's been one of the reasons it's been able to stand up to some of the pressures that Russia has placed on it."

Stanton played a role in launching the Cambodian genocide court, which this month is set to begin its first trials of top officials from the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime that killed as many as 2 million people in its own collectivization bid in 1975-79.

He acknowledges that for many Soviet-era crimes, too much time has passed for tribunals like those created for Cambodia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. But he says other processes, like truth commissions -- which collect expert opinion and eyewitness reports -- could potentially allow post-Soviet populations to come to terms with the terrible chapters of their past. Such closure, he says, is "vital."

"It's important for people's memory to complete the process of the acknowledgment of history, and of coming to grips with their own grief," he says. "Genocide affects so many people -- literally millions of people -- that unless the historical truth comes out, people will always ask why. They will always ask, what kind of compete disorder in the moral system of the universe let this occur?"

Yedige Magauin, the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this report