Wednesday, October 10, 2018

1919 Soviet Debate Behind 1930s Famine and Current Russian Discussions of Amalgamation

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 10 – At the end of 1919, when the Bolsheviks concluded they would win the Russian Civil War, a debate broke out between two Soviet institutions, Gosplan and the Peoples Commissariat of Nationality Affairs that helps to explain the pattern of the Stalin-organized famine in 1932-33 and discussions today about regional amalgamation.

            According to Artem Kosmarsky of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, who draws on the research of Italian scholar Niccolo Pianciola, experts at Gosplan, the state planning agency, and Narkomnats, began a discussion about how the Soviet state should divide up Central Asia (

                Pianciola reported his findings in “Stalinist Spatial Hierarchies: Placing the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Soviet Economic Regionalization,” Central Asian Survey, 36:1 (2017): 73-92. According to Kosmarsky, the existence of the two republics and the different ways they were treated in the 1920s and 1930s reflected the 1919 debates in Moscow.

Gosplan experts argued that the region should be divided according to the dictates of economics, with more developed regions put in one state division and less developed ones in another. But Narkomnats argued that “such a division would in fact revive in the new state colonial relations between an industrial center and raw-material-supplying borderlands. Gosplan replied that socialism would quickly liquidate any inequality.

Gosplan wanted to divide Central Asia into three economic-administrative districts: the Western Kyrgyz (that is, Kazakh) charged with producing livestock, the Eastern-Kazakhstan which was to produce both livestock and grain, and the Central Asian which was to produce cotton. The first two would be in what is now Kazakhstan; the third encompass the rest.

But Narkomnats was opposed to ignoring ethnic borders and, winning this round of the debate, carried out the national delimitation of Central Asia in 1924.  But its victory was short-lived: Gosplan used first the creation of economic districts and then the imperatives of the great mobilization to treat the republics in the way it wanted to treat the territories of the republics.

The consequence of that was that Kazakhstan, which was treated as a place for colonization and a meat supplier to the Russian cities, lost a third of its population in the great famine of 1931-1933 while Kyrgyzstan which shared its characteristics but was linked to the Fergana Valley and was supposed to produce cotton lost a far smaller share of its population.

Because they were put in these different rgions, Kazakhstan was forced to give up almost all of its livestock while Kyrgyzstan was stripped of only 13.6 percent.For the residents of the two, this was the difference in many cases between life and death, Kosmarsky says drawing on the work of Pianciola.

As Kosmarsky puts it, “the essence of empire is to sacrifice some for others.” The Soviet empire was “an empire not of territories but of social groups,” which were ranked in the following way: GULAG prisoners at the bottom, special settlers and collective farmers a little higher up, and urban workers at the top.

This arrangement defined the fate of all and the different fates of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstaan. But because of social and economic change, it was not eternal.  Nonetheless, the 1919 debate and the consequences of coming down on one side or the other of the economic or ethnic divide remains relevant as Putin’s Russia discusses amalgamation and regionalization.

The results of the outcome of that debate will create new classes or winners and losers, albeit one very much hopes no losses as dramatic as those the losers suffered under Stalin, who at one point headed Narkomnats but who later implemented Gosplan’s proposals. 

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