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  • The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan by Sarah Cameron
  • Aminat Chokobaeva (bio)
Sarah Cameron, The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2018). 277 pp., ills. Bibliography. Index. ISBN: 978-1-5017-3043-6.

Compared to the Ukrainian famine, or Holodomor as it has become colloquially and academically known, the famine of 1930–1933 in Soviet Kazakhstan has attracted only modest scholarly attention since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sarah Cameron's book is a significant and timely contribution to the historiography of Soviet Central Asia and the debates about the nature of Soviet modernization and nation-building in the national peripheries. Clearly structured and written in a highly accessible style, the book follows the unfolding of one of the worst famines in human history.

Cameron opens the book with an overview of the nomadic economy before and during the agricultural colonization of the Kazakh Steppe, focusing particularly on the environmental conditions of the steppe and the ways in which nomads adapted to its arid climate. Cameron observes that the rapid increase in the human and livestock population of the steppe caused by the mass resettlement of Russian peasants led to the exhaustion of soil and water sources, putting considerable pressure on the resources available to Kazakhs. As greater stretches of land were transferred to new colonists, nomads began migrating shorter distances and grew more dependent on grain grown by the peasants. At the same time, the number of animals that individual nomadic groups could pasture dwindled. By 1907, the average nutrition levels of nearly half of the Kazakh population of the steppe fell below the norm. The combined turmoil of civil conflict and drought that enveloped the region between 1916 and 1920 foreshadowed the collectivization famine; although forced grain requisitions were the primary reason for the famine of 1917–1920, its scale and lethality were magnified by the drought.

Chapter 2 details the first Soviet efforts to build socialism in the steppe by promoting the development of the modern Kazakh nation and implementing land reforms that transferred agricultural land from Cossacks and settlers to Kazakhs to encourage nomads to take up settled farming. The failure of these reforms, which resulted in a dramatic drop in grain production, exposed the tensions between the Soviet nationality policy and Soviet agricultural policy. Furthermore, it convinced Moscow that nomadism and the clan structure of Kazakh society were to blame for the reluctance of Kazakhs to abandon [End Page 299] their nomadic lifestyle. The closure of the New Economic Policy and the demand for grain to finance rapid industrialization in the second half of the 1920s spelled the end of expert thinking that saw nomadism as making the best possible use of the steppe resources.

The beginning of "Little October" in Kazakhstan, examined in chapter 3, signaled an assault on the traditional Kazakh society. The authorities confiscated the wealthy Kazakh elites, in the process impoverishing their poor kin who depended on kinship networks for survival and protection. To mobilize support for unpopular policies and to shake loose the established and customary loyalties, the authorities recruited local Kazakhs to implement the campaign. The drought that struck northern Kazakhstan in 1928 further compounded the effects of dekulakization in the republic.

The first signs of impending famine became apparent already in 1928 as Kazakhs were forced to give up their livestock or slaughter their animals to avoid confiscation, but as Cameron explains in chapter 4, Moscow prioritized grain production at the expense of pastoralism. Collectivization appeared to be the perfect solution to the issue of falling rates of grain collection as it would allow both settling the nomads and expanding the sown area by freeing up additional lands. The freed land would in turn be cultivated by agricultural settlers from European Russia. In practice, collectivization had disastrous implications for the nomadic economy; in addition to losing their livestock to collective farms, which were woefully underfunded and underprovided for–of the planned 318 million rubles only 12 million was allocated for collectivization–nomads were required to shoulder both meat and grain procurement quotas. As more Kazakhs slaughtered or sold their animals...


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pp. 299-302
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