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Kazakhstan’s 1930s Famine Gets Dramatic but Imperfect Portrayal

Image of Mehmet Volkan Kasikci

BY MEHMET VOLKAN KASIKCI

“Will the truth ever be revealed?” exclaims one of the characters in the recent Kazakh movie, The Crying Steppe, after seeing chunks of dead bodies in a desolated Kazakh auyl (nomadic encampment). The film, the first-ever cinematic depiction of the horrible Kazakh famine of 1930–1933, is director Marina Kunarova’s response to this question. From the beginning, the film poses a truth claim. If by “truth” is meant the fact of a catastrophic famine that ruined Kazakhstan, then the film tells the truth. If by “truth” is meant historical accuracy, then the film is disappointing.

Thousands of people were already starving in Kazakhstan in 1930, a year earlier than famine hit the western Soviet Union. Collectivization, sedentarization of the largely nomadic population, and livestock and grain requisitions destroyed the traditional Kazakh society. From 1930 to 1933, more than 1.5 million people perished in Kazakhstan, more than 90 percent of whom were Kazakhs. A million more left the republic in search of food. In other words, Kazakhs lost at least a third of their population.

Proportionally, Kazakhs were harder hit than Ukrainians. However, while the Ukrainian famine is highly politicized and now widely known as the Holodomor (“death by starvation”) or the Terror-Famine, the Kazakh case is different. Despite increasing scholarly interest in the topic, it is still largely unknown in the rest of the world and the tragedy is poorly commemorated within Kazakhstan itself. The Crying Steppe is a highly important step toward remedying the situation by recalling and bringing international attention to the tragedy, and is now Kazakhstan’s nominee for the Oscar Award for Best International Feature Film.

Unfortunately, political concerns weigh on historical depiction in the film. We read in a caption that between 1920 and 1939, more than 8.5 million Kazakhs starved to death as a result of the human-induced Soviet famines. Artists or journalists often exaggerate those kinds of numbers, but the film sets a new record. Such fantastic claims can only discredit the filmmakers’ attempt to introduce this tragedy to the wider world.

More disturbing is the absurd choice to start and finish the film with an American Relief Administration caravan. In the caption, we read that the Soviet Union killed 47 million of its people and that Western organizations, primarily the ARA, saved more than 10 million Soviet citizens from starvation. Yet the ARA is given no role in the film for the simple fact that the organization ceased operating in the Soviet Union in 1922–1923 and had no hand in relieving the Kazakh famine of 1930–1933. One Kazakh critic interpreted the scene’s message accurately: The Soviets were bad, they starved us, but Americans fed us. Thank you very much, and please give us the Oscar!

The film comes closer to addressing the human cost of the tragedy in a scene in which a mother abandons her young daughter to the wolves to save her son. The scene depicts a real-life event; it is based on Mekemtas Myrzakhmetov’s reminiscences. During the famine, many parents had to choose whom to save and whom to sacrifice when wolves attacked or there was nothing left to eat. What the film does not mention is that Kazakhs usually saved their sons at the expense of their daughters.

Both Kazakh testimonies and contemporary Kazakh media are surprisingly open about the cases of cannibalism that occurred at the height of the famine. Cannibalism occurred in most great famines of world history, but it is usually taboo to discuss publicly. The film does not shy away from the subject, but its portrayal is not very accurate. Cannibalism was never “normalized” in Kazakh society but was always seen as an abomination. And the physiology of a starving human is more frightening than the film depicts. Starving people are very weak and often unable to move around. Yet in the film, these starving people rebel and kill Soviet soldiers toward the end of the film. It is true that more than 300 rebellions were recorded in Kazakhstan during the famine. Nevertheless, the great majority took place at an early stage of collectivization, when people still had the strength to fight back.

Throughout the film, Bolsheviks hang and shoot people and burn Kazakh auyls. We know that the collectivization campaign was ruthless and that the Kazakhs who tried to escape were classified as class enemies and shot. We also know that while millions were starving, party members had plenty of food. Yet the order to “kill all the livestock so that the locals don’t get any of it” is unlikely since despite all the ruthlessness of the campaign, the primary goal was to collect livestock for the state, not to meaninglessly massacre farm animals.

Pyotr Yermakov, the main Bolshevik protagonist in the film, is a historical figure who, in 1918 in Yekaterinburg, participated in the execution of the Russian royal family, the Romanovs. According to eyewitness accounts, Yermakov was a cold-blooded killer. In the film, he is haunted by the vision of a young boy. Later, in the scene of the execution of the royal family, we understand that this is the czar’s son, Alexei, killed by Yermakov. The depiction of the execution scene is not accidental. It resonates with allegations made by some Kazakhs that Filipp Goloshchyokin, a Communist Party functionary responsible for the Sovietization of Kazakhstan and for the execution of the Romanovs, was sent to Kazakhstan for the purpose of carrying out the genocide of the Kazakh people.

Few viewers are likely to make the connection, but the names of the film’s characters are symbolic—another nod to historicism through filmic creativity. The main hero is named Turar, in honor of Turar Rysqulov, who during the famine served as deputy chairman of The People's Commissariat for Education in Moscow. He warned Stalin about the famine and his letters are highly important sources for the study of the famine. In the film, one of Turar’s sons is named Alikhan and Turar’s brother-in-law is named Magzhan. None of these names was among the most common Kazakh names; they were chosen to honor Rysqulov, Alikhan Bukeikhanov, the leader of the nationalist Alash Orda government that existed between 1917 and 1920, and Magzhan Zhumabaevthe Kazakh culture’s preeminent poet, all victims of Stalin’s Terror.

The Kazakh famine was one of the worst catastrophes in human history, though its commemoration remains patchy. The Crying Steppe is a sign that commemoration of the famine will likely take a different path in the coming years. It is our duty to remember, mourn, and honor the millions of famine victims. With its broad reach and dramatic as well as documentary possibilities, cinema is an important tool for this purpose. Kazakh cinema has produced some very successful films in the last two decades. This potential should be directed toward more accurate representations of this great tragedy.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Image of Mehmet Volkan Kasikci

Mehmet Volkan Kasikci

Former George F. Kennan Fellow;
Ph.D. in History, Arizona State University
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more