- Hunger and PotatoesThe 1933 Famine in Uzbekistan and Changing Foodways
Why and when did Uzbeks start eating potatoes and tomatoes? It is commonly said in Uzbekistan that these foods were adopted fairly recently, and that they were brought by Russians.1 A food history study can tell us that a product can be known and available, but that does not mean that it will be widely consumed. Oral history interviews conducted with rural Uzbeks from the collectivization generation show links between Uzbekistan’s collectivization-related famine and decisions to taste potatoes for the first time, and then to begin growing them.
This article combines findings from oral history interviews with archival sources, making two arguments that emerged as repeated narratives in the stories that elderly Uzbek dehqons (sedentary farmers) told about their own experiences: that Uzbekistan’s rural communities experienced ocharchilik (famine, defined below) in 1933; and that shortages of food convinced some them to eat potatoes and plant potatoes. Oral history accounts tell about drought, and subsequent grain shortfall, across most of Uzbekistan in the spring of 1933; about deaths from starvation and typhus; and about obtaining food in the short term and reevaluating previously unacceptable foods. Remembering a time when ordinary routines of Uzbek rural life were disrupted, the interviewees gave voice to and drew links between collectivization-related famine and its consequences for themselves and people in their communities.
A brief description of the oral history research project is followed by a short overview of collectivization in Uzbekistan, with a focus on Uzbekistan’s [End Page 237] quandary: how to increase cotton production while feeding the producers, in an economy dependent on grain imports. The article then defines famine, examines some archival and statistical indicators of famine for Uzbekistan in 1933, and raises Amartya Sen’s question about entitlements: who eats and who starves during a famine?
The core of this article uses oral history evidence about famine from lived experience, describing drought, starvation, death, typhus, and the ways that rural Uzbeks struggled to find sustenance in famine conditions. The final section turns to potato resistance and potato adoption, pointing to common threads across many oral history accounts asserting that Uzbeks rejected the potato as a Russian thing, and only gradually accepted it as an ordinary element in Uzbek soups and stews. In the course of our interviews with elderly collective farmers, most remembered adopting the potato to grow and eat, either following the 1933 famine or in the 1940s, during wartime food scarcity. This article adds to a body of scholarship that illuminates foodways in Uzbekistan but asks the historian’s core question about change over time, pointing to collectivization’s dramatic impact on rural livelihoods as a catalyst for alterations in consumption.2
Oral Histories of Collectivization in Uzbekistan
Oral histories used in this article come from a 2001–4 collaborative research project, in which researchers carried out 120 oral history interviews with 130 respondents in rural communities in seven provinces of Uzbekistan.3 A team of three US and Uzbek researchers (Marianne Kamp, Russell Zanca, Elyor Karimov) worked with a Tashkent-based research group that conducted interviews.4 Respondents were men and women born between 1900 and 1925, who joined newly formed kolkhozes in the early 1930s or were children when [End Page 238] their parents joined. Interviews, conducted in Uzbek or Tajik, lasted one to three hours, with audio recording. Researchers asked about family farming or farm labor before collectivization, the process of collectivization, changing production, dekulakization, and famine, and they followed up on topics that respondents raised. The oldest respondents mentioned famine in 1917 and 1920; most remembered famine in the early 1930s; and some stressed that hunger was most severe during World War II. We asked them to talk about when they first saw or tried new foods such as potatoes and tomatoes.
These oral history accounts were recorded with members of the youngest generation that lived through and could recall Soviet collectivization, a generation that now has passed away. Coming from diverse economic conditions before collectivization, the people who shared their stories with us had survived all the slings and arrows of a Soviet fortune...