The present monograph, the author’s first, provides a thorough examination of the formulation, implementation, and results of one of the most ambitious Soviet undertakings of the interwar period: the wholesale transfer to a sedentary way of life of roughly two and a half million Kazakh nomads and semi-nomads. Although several previous studies on the topic have been published in Kazakhstan, this is the first archivally based monograph on the subject to appear in a Western language. I. Ohayon frames her work as a broadly based social history: besides “the organisation of facts,” the author seeks to “confront the modernisation claims of the Soviet state with the reality of its policies in regards to the Kazakh population during collectivisation” (23). In particular, she aims to discover the “local logics” which accompanied and animated the process. By staying close to the grass-roots—the agents and affected communities —, the author aims to determine the effect on Kazakh society — its structures, functioning, and, eventually, values. The author therefore focuses not only on the actions of state agents but also on the resourcefulness of the population itself when faced with violence and drastic social and economic change. In doing so, she frames the history of sedentarisation as part of the social history of the USSR during Stalin’s leadership and, more generally, as part of the modernisation of rural societies in the twentieth century.
The work is divided thematically into nine chapters, grouped chronologically into three parts. The first part deals with the campaign to repress pre-Revolutionary rural élites in 1928 and 1929. The second looks at the coercive efforts led by party secretary F. I. Goloshchekin to collectivise and sedentarise Kazakh nomads between 1929 and 1931. The third examines the outcomes of the violent campaigns and appalling maladministration, namely the mass starvation, flight, and eventual return and sedentarisation of the nomadic population. The author draws on a rich archival base to examine the campaign in 1928-1929 to repress Kazakh rural élites, or “bays,” whom Bolshevik officials, both Russian and Kazakh, believed to stand in the way of the inevitable Sovietisation of the Kazakh aul. Eventually, the “debayisation” campaign resulted in the dispossession and forced relocation of about 700 families — a small portion of the approximately 800,000 Kazakh households in Kazakhstan, but nonetheless a substantial operation. I. Ohayon argues that this “social purge” had primarily political, not economic, motives. State and party officials aimed to undermine ties of kinship and encourage class-based solidarity by mobilising supporters in the countryside and involving entire auls in the confiscations. The campaign also had the more pragmatic motive of incorporating Kazakhs into the state’s cooperative system—effectively a first step towards collectivisation—and drawing up inventories of property for taxation purposes. To illustrate how the targeted “bays” (wealthy Kazakhs; in the Soviet parlance, the Kazakh equivalent of “kulaks”) experienced the campaign, I. Ohayon describes in fascinating detail the cases of several repressed individuals. The author also includes insightful discussions of the high rate of divorce among the deported families and the “folklorisation” of Kazakh material culture through its conversion into museum artefacts.
For the second and third parts of the work, the author relies much more heavily on previously printed sources in Russian and Western languages. The second part discusses the “Socialist Offensive” in Kazakhstan, and specifically the first waves of mass collectivisation and forced sedentarisation between 1929 and 1931. Anticipating the later “Virgin Lands” campaign of the Khrushchev era, Kazakh party secretary and Stalin-loyalist Goloshchekin and his allies envisioned a grain-producing future for the steppes of Kazakhstan in the 1920s. They aimed to achieve this through sedentarisation (the settling in a fixed location of the nomadic population) and the elimination of livestock farming in favour of the cultivation of grain or “technical crops” such as cotton, tobacco, and sugar beet. These policies received a boost from the internal political dynamics of the Kazakh party organisation: factional infighting within the party in the late 1920s resulted in the victory of a “hard core” of “sedentarisers” (127). In 1930 and 1931, the “hard core” coupled collectivisation and grain requisitions — Moscow’s chief priorities — with sedentarisation — the pet project of Goloshchekin and his allies. Early attempts to sedentarise about a quarter of the nomadic population fell flat, however. This was due generally “to a lack of coordination, of means, and of effectiveness” (171; e.g., the failure to construct adequate housing), resulting in deprivation and extreme hardship for the recently sedentarised groups in their new locations. In response to the government’s initiatives, many sedentarised nomads fled the areas of sedentarisation for Siberia or the other republics of Central Asia, and many others took up arms, notably the Aday groups in the areas of Western Kazakhstan between the Aral and Caspian Seas. I. Ohayon provides a detailed explication of the causes, development, and results of these complex processes, supplementing her own archival findings with a wide array of secondary sources and published documents.
The third section spans a decade and a half from the beginning of the famine to the end of World War II. In 1931-33, the failure to provide basic services for the nomadic and sedentarising population, coupled with a poor harvest, high grain and livestock requisitions targets, rebellion in several districts, and the general economic dislocation wrought by the collectivisation campaign, resulted in an unprecedented famine and the flight of two million Kazakhs, roughly half of the population. They fled to regions of settled agriculture, urban centres within Kazakhstan, or areas outside the republic — notably Siberia, China, or other Central Asian republics. I. Ohayon describes in detail the patterns and dynamics of the famine, which claimed the lives of between 1.15 and 1.4 million Kazakhs and resulted in the near collapse of the livestock sector. Sedentarisation, she argues, came about under duress: simply put, Soviet officials forced the return of Kazakh refugees from outside the republic, initially without coordinating with or even notifying the relevant authorities in Kazakhstan. Within the republic, Kazakhs only found refuge on collective farms or as workers in large industrial enterprises. As one might expect, local officials, overwhelmed by the demands of the First Five-Year Plan, failed to provide adequately for the refugees, and living conditions for many recently sedentarised Kazakhs continued to be abysmal until the middle of the 1930s.
The Kazakh party organization only began to redress the failure of its policies in 1932, after Goloshcheikin’s ouster, when Turar Ryskulov took over the direction of the repatriation and sedentarisation efforts. I. Ohayon credits his and new party secretary L. I. Mirzoian’s leadership, along with a lowering of requisitions targets, better bureaucratic coordination, and the prioritisation of livestock farming (instead of grain cultivation) in the steppes, with a gradual improvement in the lives of the former nomads. Although many steppe regions that were abandoned during the famine saw the return of migratory livestock herding, it was in the context of the collective farm system, meaning that trained stock-breeders and veterinarians now managed the herds, relegating Kazakh herdsmen to the role of shepherds who simply implemented the decisions of Soviet-educated experts (332). Migrations, when they occurred, involved small groups of collective farm employees, not whole families, who would migrate with the herds for months at a time. Drawing on post-war Soviet ethnographic studies and as well as some of her own interviews, I. Ohayon finds that certain aspects of nomadic society persisted in the new context of the collective farm well after sedentarisation. In particular, she identifies the persistent use and valorisation of yurts even after the construction of permanent European-style dwellings and the continued tradition of sending children to summer pastures (jailiau). I. Ohayon also argues that the kinship affinities of Kazakh nomads transformed into territory-based loyalty to their collective farm (352). While this is an interesting idea, the evidence cited does not support such a bold claim. The author’s broader argument, that the adaptation of traditional practices to the new way of life signalled the long-term success of sedentarisation, is far more developed and convincing.
Reminding the reader of the importance of the First Five-Year Plan as context, I. Ohayon concludes that sedentarisation, although planned, was poorly implemented and was moreover carried out in conjunction with other harmful and disruptive programmes, namely collectivisation and requisitions of grain and livestock. The republic administration’s failure to heed signs of famine and social disintegration exacerbated an already grave situation, resulting in starvation, mass flight, and the effective destruction of the largest sector of the economy. At the same time, I. Ohayon argues that the death of between a quarter and a third of the Kazakh population was not intentional. She finds neither evidence nor motive for the deliberate starvation of the Kazakh population, concluding that the Kazakh famine did not constitute genocide under international juridical standards (365). The managed sedentarisation after 1932 constituted a means of accommodation with the Soviet regime and produced profound social change among the affected population.
Overall, the study impresses with its comprehensive and original analysis. It includes a broad source base, relying heavily on relevant archival funds of the Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan and several collections of documents published in Russia and Kazakhstan. The author also successfully integrates perspectives from outside the party-state, including petitions from Kazakh communities and oral interviews. Other sources include ethnographies on Kazakh society conducted by Russian- and Soviet-trained ethnographers from the nineteenth century through the early 1960s, as well as recent Kazakh-, Russian-, and Western-language historical studies. With this array of different perspectives, I. Ohayon has produced a broadly based, thorough study of the transition of Kazakh nomads to a sedentary way of life. Throughout the book, the author painstakingly reconstructs complex processes while illustrating them with fascinating case-studies and individual experiences. The result is a highly readable work that will interest not only historians of the Soviet Union and Central Asia, but anyone wishing to know more about the modernization of rural societies in the twentieth century.
Benjamin H. Loring, Fitchburg State College, Fitchburg, MA