The title of Roberto Carmack’s book is a bit misleading, as is the book’s cover, which shows two helmeted and uniformed soldiers in battle. The book is part of the Modern War Studies series, but its focus is on the administrative, institutional and ideological aspects of war in the Kazakh Republic of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It is more sociology than military history.
In the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was one of 15 Soviet republics that formed that empire of nations. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and emerged victorious in the Russian Civil War, Carmack explains, “the Communist Party imposed a new state structure over the Kazakhs that combined the tenets of national liberation with the imperatives of class warfare and forced modernization.” The Kazakhs were forcibly integrated into the Soviet political system via “indigenization, mobilization, and violence.”
Under Stalin, more than 1.5 million Kazakhs starved to death in a state-created famine resulting from the forced collectivization of agriculture between 1930 and 1933. Thousands more died during Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937-38.
When the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany commenced in June 1941, the Soviet Commissariat of Defense mobilized more than one million people in the Kazakh Republic, including about 450,000 ethnic Kazakhs. Carmack notes that these soldiers fought at Stalingrad, Kursk, and other battles, and he estimates that at least 125,000 Kazakhs were casualties (dead, wounded, or missing) in the war.
Moscow governed Kazakhstan through local Kazakh communist officials, including officers of the NKVD (secret police). When the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR and swiftly overran western portions of the country, the survival of the Soviet regime was at stake so the whole empire was mobilized for war.
Administratively, Kazakhstan was divided into 14 provinces overseen by the Communist Party Central Committee in Almaty. “Each province, district, and city in Kazakhstan,” Carmack writes, “hosted its own party committee, and these bodies implemented the resolutions of the Party Central Committee.” During the war, all of these entities took direction from the Soviet State Defense Committee and Stalin.
The Soviet leadership used the war to disseminate Marxist-Leninist ideology and assimilate Kazakhs and other nationalities in Kazakhstan into the Russian-dominated USSR, but paradoxically, Soviet officials throughout the war distrusted the loyalty of all Central Asian peoples, including Kazakhs. Prior to 1943, when the regime’s survival was in doubt, Stalin appealed to the national and religious sentiments of Russians, Kazakhs, and others. That changed when the tide of the war shifted to the Soviets’ favor. Kazakhs and other nationalities were increasingly “mistreated at the front or brutally exploited in Siberian labor camps.” To the outside world, however, Stalin lauded the “Friendship of Peoples”, depicting the USSR as a voluntary association of national republics when in fact it was a prison-house of nations.
Kazakhstan during the war, Carmack notes, also served as a location for so-called “special settlements” where whole nations (more than two million people, including Soviet Germans and North Caucasians) were deported by Stalin. “These deportations,” he writes, “decisively altered Kazakhstan’s demographic and cultural composition.” The special settlements were similar to, though less lethal than, the “corrective labor” camps of the GULAG, with horrible work conditions, starvation diets, and a disease-spreading environment.
Those Kazakhs who were not conscripted into the Red Army served in the Labor Army where, Carmack notes, “[m]obilized labor soldiers lived in barracks and worked under a highly militarized regime.” The laborers
performed back-breaking work like felling trees, building factories, and mining coal under the watchful eye of NKVD guards and government authorities in various economic commissariats. Conditions in most of these camps were hellish…
As Nikolai Tolstoy pointed out in his book Stalin’s Secret War, the Soviet dictator waged war simultaneously against Nazi Germany and his own people. Carmack writes that the war effectively “Sovietized” Kazakhstan and its people. It “consolidated Soviet rule and solidified local Soviet identities.” He points out that in the war’s aftermath, Kazakhstan served as a site for “scientific and military experimentation”, including tests for rockets and nuclear weapons. The Soviets conducted their first successful atomic test in Kazakhstan in 1949, and Sputnik was launched from Kazakhstan in 1957.
Today, though independent, Kazakhstan maintains close political and military ties to Russia. That is due, in part, to geography, and is also a legacy of the Second World War.