Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Kazakhs Increasingly View Stalin’s Terror Famine There Much as Ukrainians View Holodomor in Their Country, Polovinko Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 31 – Today, Kazakhs mark the Day of Memory of Victims of Political Repression, a day that over the last several years has been combined with the Day of Memory of the Victims of the Famine that Stalin visited on their republic at the same time as he inflicted the Holodomor on Ukraine.

            This both reflects and is reinforcing the tendency of Kazakhs to view the Asharshylyk as they refer to the famine that arose from forced sedentarization and collectivization in much the same way that Ukrainians view the Holodomor in their country and to ask many of the same questions about who is responsible.

            Given the centrality of the Holodomor in Ukrainian thinking about Moscow’s responsibility for that horror, Vyacheslav Polovinko, a Novaya gazeta journalist, says, it is now time to reflect on whether the Asharshylyk will have the same impact on Kazakhstan and on its relationship with the Russian Federation (

            The relationship of Kazakhs to the Asharshylyk and to Moscow’s responsibility for it is complicated by two things now that more information about those events of almost a century ago is coming out. On the one hand, Moscow officials and historians don’t want a repetition in Kazakhstan of what has occurred in Ukraine; and on the other, Kazakh officials fear pushing the issue too far.

            But over time, Polovinko says, it is quite likely that the Kazakh population will have its way and that Kazakh officials will begin to speak on its behalf when it comes to Moscow’s role, however much the Russian government opposes that happening and however much they may want to avoid angering the Kremlin.

            A step in that direction has come this year with the appearance of a three-volume scholarly study of the asharshylyk, a documentary work that its authors formally presented to the Kazakh president (

            One of the things that makes the terror famine in Kazakhstan different from that in Ukraine is that it involved not just collectivization but sedentarization of nomadic groups and repression of still active Basmachi groups who organized large-scale protests that Moscow put down with tanks.

            The Kazakh one also involved the flight of some 200,000 Kazakhs to China and more to the cities of Kazakhstan where officials and factory directors left them to die in the streets or to neighboring republics which were anything but interested in assuming the new burdens that such people represented.

            But the Kazakh terror famine shared much in common with the Ukrainian one. There were widespread cases of cannibalism, and there was massive death. While the number of Kazakhs who died as a result of the famine – a million or so – was smaller than that in Ukraine, as a percentage of the republic’s population, the share of deaths in Kazakhstan was much higher.

            “In 1937,” Polovinko says, “a census of the population in the USSR was conducted which showed that the number of Kazakhs had contracted in comparison with 1926 by almost a third, although in this number are included those who were able to flee” the republic to China or elsewhere.

            The Soviet authorities refused to discuss what happened honestly or to admit that Moscow bore any responsibility for the tragedy. The first honest assessments at a government level occurred in the Kazakhstan Supreme Soviet in 1991-1992. From that time onward, Kazakhs have spoken of an ethnocide but generally avoided the more explosive term, genocide.

            Beginning about 20 years ago, Kazakhs began erecting statues to the victims of the terror famine in their country and an increasing number began demanding that officials use the term genocide and demand that Moscow take responsibility for it given that the Kremlin is always insisting the Russia is the legal successor of the USSR.

            According to Polovinko, the Kazakh government is not yet prepared to do so given Moscow’s opposition. But with new books about the events, pressure on the Kazakh authorities to raise the issue is likely to grow, something that will involve not only historical assessment but the possibility of close relations between the two former Soviet republics.

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