The Kazakh Famine of the 1930s: another “Harvest of Sorrow”

Continuing the theme of this sad day, I will share a story I just learned about.

In this video from the Library of Congress, Sarah Cameron summarizes her forthcoming book: “The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan“.

There are some similarities with the Holodomor (subject of Robert Conquest’s famous book, “The Harvest of Sorrow”) in that a forced collectivization campaign led to a massive man-made famine in a region that under normal circumstances was a major food exporter.  While you could say the Ukraine was the breadbasket of the USSR, Kazakhstan was its stockyard.

Unlike the Ukrainian peasants that fells victim to the dekulakization campaign, however, the Kazakhs were nomads, whose lifestyle was adapted to raising livestock in a vast territory of marginal land. Unlike in the case of the Ukraine SSR, a desire to stamp out Kazakh national identity and aspirations does not appear to have played a role as such. Furthermore, nomads did not fit any class category in “scientific” Marxism — but eventually the know-it-all social engineers in Moscow decided that the “backward” nation needed to be modernized, the nomads forcibly settled, and animal husbandry brought more in line with “modern” practices.

The result was disastrous — the number of cattle fell by 90%, and deaths from starvation were actually a higher percentage of ethnic Kazakhs than had been reached even in the Ukraine (where absolute numbers were of course larger). Combined with the flight of about another million Kazakhs to neighboring Soviet republics or to China, this actually made ethnic Kazakhs a minority in Kazakhstan until 1999.

Eventually, the Soviets were forced to backtrack. Their satrap in Kazakhstan, erstwhile co-executioner of the Tsar and his family Filipp Goloshchekin, was made a scapegoat and dismissed, but his protégé (and alleged former lover) Nikolai Yezhov — head of the NKVD during the Great Purges, which are known in Russian as the “Yezhovshchina” to this day — ensured he stayed unharmed. Only after Yezhov’s downfall and execution did Goloshchekin’s turn come: he was eventually executed by firing squad at Kuibyshev (Soviet-era name of Samara) as part of a group of “especially dangerous prisoners”.

During the Q&A, Dr. Cameron was, of course, asked why this episode is barely known in the West, while there is at least some awareness (not enough) of the Holodomor. She attributes this to the large Ukrainian diaspora in the West vs. the barely existent Kazakh one, as well as to the fact that Kazakh nomadic culture prizes oral history over the written word and stone memorials. (Dr. Cameron recounts that, when she asked where a monument to the victims had been built, she was told “in Almaty” [the former capital] and spent days touring the city, only to find a sign indicating a such a monument would be built there in the future.) The language barrier presumably plays a role too: Russian speakers can generally read Ukrainian (the two languages are closer than Dutch and German), but the Turkic Kazakh language is another matter.

(Kazakhstan itself, meanwhile, has been transformed radically, with the discovery and exploitation of vast natural resources (including but not limited to both oil and uranium). Since the 2000s, the country has seen very rapid economic growth, slowed down recently by a dip in world oil prices.)

As great and appalling as I knew the body count of communism to be, the story of the Kazakh man-made famine was new to me. There is scholarly discussion about whether it constitutes a genocide (which implies intent to decimate or eliminate an ethnic group) or a democide (a mass killing of genocidal proportions with motivated other than ethnicity). But for the victims and their kin, it would be cold comfort that they died as the results of a colossal deadly foul-up rather than deliberate intent. Whether they died from premeditated murder or from “Depraved indifference to human life”, if you like.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!



Mao’s great leap to famine

Via Insty, a withering indictment by historian Frank Dikötter of the Chinese “Great Leap Forward” (into the abyss) at that [sarc]Christofascist Dominionist Teabagging Right-Wing Rethuglican rag[/sarc], the New York Times:

The worst catastrophe in China’s history, and one of the worst anywhere, was the Great Famine of 1958 to 1962, and to this day the ruling Communist Party has not fully acknowledged the degree to which it was a direct result of the forcible herding of villagers into communes under the “Great Leap Forward” that Mao Zedong launched in 1958.To this day, the party attempts to cover up the disaster, usually by blaming the weather. Yet detailed records of the horror exist in the party’s own national and local archives.

Access to these files would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago, but a quiet revolution has been taking place over the past few years as vast troves of documents have gradually been declassified. While the most sensitive information still remains locked up, researchers are being allowed for the first time to rummage through the dark night of the Maoist era.

From 2005 to 2009, I examined hundreds of documents all over China, traveling from subtropical Guangdong to arid Gansu Province near the deserts of Inner Mongolia.

The party records were usually housed on the local party committee premises, closely guarded by soldiers. Inside were acres of dusty, yellowing paper held together in folders that could contain anything from a single scrap of paper scribbled by a party secretary decades ago to neatly typewritten minutes of secret leadership meetings.

Historians have known for some time that the Great Leap Forward resulted in one of the world’s worst famines. Demographers have used official census figures to estimate that some 20 to 30 million people died.

But inside the archives is an abundance of evidence, from the minutes of emergency committees to secret police reports and public security investigations, that show these estimates to be woefully inadequate.

In the summer of 1962, for instance, the head of the Public Security Bureau in Sichuan sent a long handwritten list of casualties to the local boss, Li Jingquan, informing him that 10.6 million people had died in his province from 1958 to 1961. In many other cases, local party committees investigated the scale of death in the immediate aftermath of the famine, leaving detailed computations of the scale of the horror.

In all, the records I studied suggest that the Great Leap Forward was responsible for at least 45 million deaths.

Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction. People accused of not working hard enough were hung and beaten; sometimes they were bound and thrown into ponds. Punishments for the least violations included mutilation and forcing people to eat excrement.

[graphic detail of unspeakably barbaric execution methods omitted]
Starvation was the punishment of first resort. As report after report shows, food was distributed by the spoonful according to merit and used to force people to obey the party. One inspector in Sichuan wrote that “commune members too sick to work are deprived of food. It hastens their death.”

As the catastrophe unfolded, people were forced to resort to previously unthinkable acts to survive. As the moral fabric of society unraveled, they abused one another, stole from one another and poisoned one another. Sometimes they resorted to cannibalism.

But this begs the same question as with that other “harvest of sorrow”, Stalin’s collectivization campaign in the Ukraine:  was this tragedy a bug or a feature of the program? Frank Dikötter argues the latter:

[…] The term “famine” tends to support the widespread view that the deaths were largely the result of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs. But the archives show that coercion, terror and violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.Mao was sent many reports about what was happening in the countryside, some of them scribbled in longhand. He knew about the horror, but pushed for even greater extractions of food.

At a secret meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959, he ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the available grain — much more than ever before. The minutes of the meeting reveal a chairman insensitive to human loss: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”

Read the whole thing. ddd

To this day, there is little public information inside China about this dark past. Historians who are allowed to work in the party archives tend to publish their findings across the border in Hong Kong.

There is no museum, no monument, no remembrance day to honor the tens of millions of victims. Survivors, most of them in the countryside, are rarely given a voice, all too often taking their memories with them to their graves.

Insty adds:

Communists are as bad as Nazis, and their defenders and apologists are as bad as Nazis’ defenders, but far more common. When you meet them, show them no respect. They’re evil, stupid, and dishonest. They should [suffer]  the consequences of their behavior.

Amen. I somehow doubt that the victims care whether they were victims of a genocidal regime or “merely” another democidal one.