Sad Tale of a Willful Catastrophe
By James Logan
This story of a Kazakh nomad during the reign of Stalin is remarkable for its unedited recounting of the facts and experiences of Shayakhmetov’s early life as a boy and young soldier. There is no hyperbole or bitter polemic, although the systematic destruction of the traditional way of life of the Kazakh nomads would warrant it. Instead the author treats the Soviet collectivization of agriculture almost sympathetically.
Denied a complete education on the grounds that his father was a disgraced ‘kulak’ Shayakhmetov returned from the war with Germany, and became a teacher rising to the position of headmaster of the secondary school and head of the local education department. He retired in 1981 but still plays an active role in community affairs in Oskemen, formerly Ust-Kamenogorsk.
He is now in his mid-eighties.
In his introduction, Tom Stacy points out the suffering of the Kazakhs under the rule of Stalin and his policy of collectivization launched in 1929. “During that period the population of indigenous Kazakhs fell by approximately 1.2 million from death by starvation. Over the whole of the first decade and a half of effective Soviet Communist rule, from - say – around 1923, some 1.75 million Kazakhs out of a previous population of around 4 million were lost by starvation or execution or, in the case of about a tenth of that number, by flight to other countries in the region, notably China, Afghanistan and Iran. This is a story of willed catastrophe, on a scale of ideological horror unequalled even in the total record of Stalin’s tyranny, and only subsequently surpassed by Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot.”
Shayakhmetov’s tale is a family history, interwoven with Kazakh tradition, beginning with an account of the idyllic life of a nomad that he lived as a child. He rapidly takes us into an account of collectivization and the effect it had on the nomadic tribes vividly described in the trial of his uncle, who became a fugitive before surrendering to a prison sentence. This is a poignant tale, which evokes powerful emotions as Shayakhmetov’s describes how traditional hospitality and nomadic mores wilted in the face of the famine that swept the Steppe. The stoicism of the author, and his comrades, shines through the pages.
A worthwhile read that focuses on a little known aspect of the Soviet era and its effect on the nomadic people of Kazakhstan.
The Silent Steppe
Translated by Jan Butler