Friday, May 31, 2019

Debate on Mass Deaths in Kazakhstan Passes to the West

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 31 – In 1997, the Kazakhstan government established May 31 as the Memorial Day for Victims of Political Repressions, an occasion for Kazakhs to reflect on the mass deaths of their co-ethnics as a result of Stalin’s collectivization and forced sedentarization policies at the end of the 1920s and 1930s.

            But after an upsurge of interest in these tragedies in Kazakhstan at the end of the Soviet period and in the first decade of independence, something remarkable has occurred: The Kazakhstan government has pulled back from promoting research and discussion on this question, and the subject has been largely taken over by Western scholars.
            In an article for the Fergana news agency, Artem Kosmarsky says that until three decades ago, Kazakhs were not able to focus on these politically sensitive issues and Western scholars did not do much because they knew far less about the events in Kazakhstan than those in Ukraine in 1932 or among Armenians in 1915 (

            In the 1990s, the Kazakhs took the lead in doing research, but by 2010, Kosmarsky  says, Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to tone things down lest a focus on this issue offend Moscow. Speaking at the opening of a monument to famine victims in 2012, the first Kazakhstan president warned against “’politicizing’” this subject.

            There are three additional reasons why Kazakh research on this subject has declined. First, the mass deaths in Kazakhstan had more causes than was the case elsewhere and assessing their number is complicated by the fact that hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fled abroad at that time.

            Second, access to sources has been more difficult not only because they are held mostly in Moscow but also because Kazakhstan went through two alphabet reforms, from Arabic to Latin to Cyrillic, limiting the number of scholars who can exploit them even if they have access. And third, Kazakh scholars have focused Kazakh society in focusing mostly on the future. 

As a result, the subject has become dominated by Western scholars, all of whose work has been closely attended to by Kazakhs and two of whose books have been translated into Russian. The Western research has answered many questions, but perhaps the most important message from it is that the scholars disagree among themselves.

Some for example view what happened in Kazakhstan as an obvious case of genocide; others reject that characterization.  But perhaps most striking is that even this new wave of research has not resolved the question of just how many Kazakhs perished as a result of Stalin’s various policies even though all agree the percentage was higher than among Ukrainians.

This lack of agreement has opened the way to suggestions by others, including representatives of Turkic groups in Russia like the blogger Kavkaz Omarov who argues that Stalin’s genocide of the peasantry in the early 1930s was directed not only at the Ukrainians but at all Turkic groups in the USSR (

“These repressions,” he writes on this Kazakh memorial day, “were carried out with one single goal – to destroy as many Muslims of the empire as possible. This was a genocide and ethnocide in the course of which the empire pitilessly destroyed the Tatars, Kazakhs, the peoples of Central Asia and Muslims of the Caucasus and of the non-Muslims only the Ukrainians.”

According to Omarov, “the result is that regions of Siberia, Omsk, Orenburg, Tyumen, and the northern regions of Kazakhstan were cleansed of Kazakhs, Tatars, and representatives of other Turkic peoples. Today, the indigenous peoples of these regions remain only as minority populations.”

“The Crimea was cleansed of Tatars, Georgia was partially cleansed of Turks. Massively destroyed were the population of the historically Azerbaijani regions of the South Caucasus in order to ‘free up’ space for Armenian re-settlers” from the Middle East.  And in the North Caucasus, were destroyed tens of thousands of Muslims” even before the deportation.

Omarov’s discussion may strike many as hyperbolic and profoundly wrong, but it is the product not of some sick imagination but rather of the failure of the Russian authorities to be honest about the crimes of the Stalin era, including but not limited to the terror famine in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and elsewhere.

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