Staunton, March 12 – The Soviet-orchestrated sedentarization and collectivization campaign which led to mass starvation in Kazakhstan in the late 1920s and early 1930s has attracted enormous attention in recent years, attention that on occasion has rivaled the amount Ukrainians have given to the Holodomor in their country.
But an earlier Soviet-era famine for which Moscow bore a different kind of responsibility has not. Now, more Kazakhs are talking about that event because as a result, “millions of people” either died from hunger or fled abroad. “Had that not happened,” the country’s president says, “our nation would have been many times larger than it is” (qmonitor.kz/society/1085).
And consequently, Kasym-Jomart Tokayev has urged Kazakhs to study it in what he hopes will be a restrained and responsible manner. But any discussion of such a tragedy is unlikely to remain within those bounds given that descendants of those who suffered either death or exile are still very much alive.
The impact of the famine is enormous if one looks at census figures alone. Kazakhs suffered a decline in numbers between 1896 and 1926 of 2.8 percent even as the other nations of Central Asia saw growth rates over the same period of from 2.7 to 5.4 times. Had there been no famine, there would appear to have been eight million Kazakhs in 1926, not 4 million recorded.
But problems with both censuses and with Moscow’s approach in enumerating nations in Central Asia mean that the problems of counting losses from the famine in the early 1920s are far more numerous and significant, Zhenis Baykhozha says in her report about the 1921-1922 famine.
Neither census takers nor peoples were entirely clear about ethnic boundaries, and in Central Asia, there were undercounts in places where enumerators did not both to go or ensure that they had counted everyone. There is some indirect evidence that analysts now to approach the truth, but it remains limited.
If these corrections are applied – and Bakhozha carefully goes through the basis for them – Kazakhs in fact grew in number by 3.2 percent between 1897 and 1926, far less than other Central Asian nations did but enough so that the impact of the famine on their numbers is much smaller than the census figures suggest.
Even if these corrections are appropriate, she continues, that does not mean that the famine was a minor event. It certainly cost the Kazakh nation vast numbers of deaths and led to the departure of many to China and Afghanistan. But as Kazakhs and others think about the first famine, they need to remember how difficult it is to establish the numbers.