“The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan” by Sarah Cameron


Unlike other forms of disaster—such as earthquake, flood or hurricane—famine is a distinctly political occurrence. Most often they are the product of political action that deprives people of food, either through neglect or targeted victimization. Such was the case for the nation-wide famine inflicted upon the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic—now the modern-day Central Asian state of Kazakhstan—from 1930-33.

The famine in Kazakhastan has received less attention from Western scholars than the Ukraine famine, despite their similarities in scale and devastation. This is partly a result of the active advocacy of the global Ukrainian diaspora, and the nature of each country’s ongoing relationship with Russia. However, in The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan author Sarah Cameron attempts to restore our memory of the Kazakh famine—while addressing its causes and its implications for our understanding of Soviet nation-building. While others have researched this topic before, Cameron’s work is one of the first to make use of both Kazakh and Russian language sources, including sources uncovered through her extensive field research in Kazakhstan and Russia.


The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan, Sarah Cameron (Cornell University Press, November 2018)
The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan, Sarah Cameron (Cornell University Press, November 2018)

Cameron focuses as much on the political decisions and events that led up to the famine as she does the famine itself. There was no one single cause of the Kazakh famine, she argues. Rather it was a combination of factors, including the rushed collectivization and forced settlement (“sedentification”) of the country’s nomadic population, demographic shifts caused by mass settlement of Slavic peasants, the mass confiscation of livestock and finally a massive drought.

Russian attempts to transform the Kazakh steppe—the vast grasslands of northern Kazakhstan—began in the nineteenth century with the encouragement of Russian grain farmers to settle in the region traditionally populated by nomadic pastoralist Kazakhs. It was a hope shared by Imperial and Soviet Russia alike that the migration of Europeans would encourage a shift in agricultural practice away from nomadism towards “modern”, “productive” agricultural practices.

Cameron follows the evolution of Soviet thinking on the question of dealing with the Kazakh nomads, including the attempts by various parties to argue that the traditional Kazakh way of life was in alignment with Communist principles. However, Soviet authorities ultimately declared pastoral nomadism economically inefficient and culturally backward, and one of the main obstacles impeding the development of the Kazakh nation. It was decided that only an aggressive policy of sedentarisation would achieve the necessary goal of undermining the petty bourgeois consciousness of Kazakh tribal leadership—while also freeing up additional lands for cultivating grain and settling new populations. The attempt to simultaneously settle and collectivize the Kazakh nomads was done at much greater speed than in other Soviet territories, owing to a perception that Kazakhstan’s nomads were so far much further behind other more advanced societies. Kazakhs were also forced to shift production from their traditional crop—livestock—to grain, in order to meet Soviet grain requirements.

By 1928, a program was initiated to confiscate livestock and property from those labelled “wealthy” Kazakh elites. Cameron notes, however, that the Soviets had some difficulty ascertaining exactly who were the oppressed and oppressors in traditional Kazakh society, given the absence of formal hierarchies and titles. A combination of factors such as descent, age and intellect were the traditional indicators of status in traditional Kazakh society rather than economic wealth. As such, it was difficult to generate class bonds across Kazakh society, when clan and other forms of identity were far more salient.

Soviet authorities also struggled to establish the basic units of Soviet social administration. Unlike when working with a sedentary population, it was almost impossible to establish local councils with a population that was mobile and widely dispersed. Indeed, even after decades of work by the Communist Party, local systems of tribal affiliation remained far more organized than any processes established by the state.

For many Kazakhs, the confiscation campaign represented the first major intrusion by the Soviet state into everyday life. Cameron however goes to some lengths to remind the reader that the tragedy of the Kazakh famine was not simply an imposition from outside. Local Kazakhs played key roles in implementing the Soviet policies that allowed the famine to occur, and were active instruments in the destruction of traditional pastoral nomadic culture.


When, in a short few years, the country was hit by a severe “zhut”—a period of extreme cold where livestock starve when unable to graze due to the ice cover—the Kazakhs traditional methods of coping had been destroyed and replaced by unattainable wheat quotas. While pastoral nomadism had provided Kazakhs with a dynamic way of responding not only to changes in the environment, but also to shifts in political winds, forced sedentarism and collectivization had removed this option. As livestock numbers plummeted and people began to starve, Soviet authorities increased efforts to push Kazakh nomads from their traditional lands in favor of imported settlers, prioritizing the feeding of Russian urban workers over the survival of the Kazakh people. This continued even after the senior leaders in Kazakhstan wrote to Stalin informing him of the impossibility of fulfilling grain quotas due to the famine.

Rather than accepting culpability for the famine, officials instead scapegoated the victims themselves, characterizing fleeing refugees as wealthy elites seeking to avoid the government’s confiscation and sedentification programs. In faraway Moscow, the stereotype of the Kazakh nomad hoarding his plentiful livestock persisted, even when confronted with the evidence of mass starvation and death. Up until the worst period of the famine, Moscow continued to send more foreign settlers to Kazakhstan—increasing the already savage competition for food and land.

In an attempt to flee the worst impacts of the famine, many Kazakhs fled across the border to Siberia or Xinjiang in Western China. As many as two hundred thousand people crossed fled the country during this time, despite the risk of arrest or execution by Soviet authorities. The book recounts the Kazakh steppe being haunted by the grim images of “living skeletons with tiny child skeletons in their hands”. Others attempted to seek refuge in the already struggling Kazakh urban centers. As the famine hit its peak in the winter of 1930-31, Cameron recounts confronting scenes, such as one government official’s account:


“These Kazakhs wander for entire days from house to house, asking for alms, but they are not given anything and they are driven away and they are not even allowed to warm themselves because they all are frozen, infested with lice, half-naked, and just barely alive.”


The famine finally ended in 1934 with the government replenishing farmers livestock herds and easing forced sedentification and collectivization. But it was too late. Millions had already died and the traditional way of life for those remaining was lost forever.  Not only had a quarter of the population of Kazakhstan perished, but the deaths had a clearly ethnic dimension. Ninety per cent of famine-related casualties were Kazakh, despite them only representing sixty per cent of the population at the time. So dramatic was the famine on the country’s ethnic makeup that Kazakhs would not reclaim the title of largest ethnic group until 1989—eventually becoming the majority group again by 1999, at which point the country had achieved full independence.

In the aftermath of the famine, there was little official recognition of the famine nor any acknowledgement of the disastrous results of misguided Soviet policies. Instead, the republic’s Party Secretary Filipp Goloshchekin was blamed for the famine and removed from his position in 1933.

The question of the intentions of Soviet authorities is interesting, and one to which Cameron dedicates some time towards the book’s conclusion. She sees the famine as the direct result of Soviet attempts to “modernize” the Kazakh people into a Soviet nation, able to be integrated into—and contribute to—the Soviet economic and political system. And yet, while Soviet policies had the destruction of traditional Kazakh society and culture as among its aims, she argues that the famine and the thousands of dead it caused were not. On the contrary, the settlement of Kazakh nomads was seen as evolutionarily “correct”, and seen as in the best long-term interests of its people. However, Cameron argues that Stalin did anticipate—and tolerate—some casualties in this process. And as the famine unfolded, it was the implications for the wider Soviet grain production that took precedence in the minds of Soviet authorities rather than the suffering and deaths of the Kazakh people.


It was not until the 1980s and early 1990s that the first public discussion of the famine occurred. Cameron argues, however, that much of the research conducted at this time largely followed the formal narrative laid down by Soviet government. The famine was attributed to the malevolent intentions of individuals (particularly Goloshchekin), rather than a failure of policy design or implementation. Later Kazakhstan governments too have shied away from a more nuanced appraisal of the famine and its causes.

It is precisely because of this lack of in-depth public discussion of the famine within modern Kazakhstan that Cameron’s book is such a valuable addition. The structure of the book is relatively orthodox, however, being largely a chronological account of the major events of the Kazakh famine complemented with an analysis of the various causal factors at play. While for most readers the level of granularity provided by Cameron is unnecessary, given the scarcity of good quality research on this topic it is worthwhile having this information on record.

The book is also enhanced by a number of direct quotes from famine survivors, now quite elderly, collected by Cameron during her fieldwork. I would have appreciated more of these personal perspectives. While the famine took place on a national scale its impact is perhaps most keenly expressed at the individual level. Indeed, it is the personal stories and recollections of the famine which allowed its memory to endure in the absence of official recognition.

Instead, Cameron has deliberately chosen to take a big picture perspective on the famine. In the absence of such perspective, this book cannot be considered the definitive account of the Kazakhstan famine—that remains to be written—yet it is an important first step in ensuring a proper, nuanced account of this neglected event in Soviet and Central Asian history.

Dr Joshua Bird is an international development professional working across the Asia-Pacific and the author of Economic Development in China's Northwest: Entrepreneurship and identity along China’s multi-ethnic borderlands (Routledge, July 2017).