When Nurziya Kazhibayeva was six years old, a famine swept across Kazakhstan.
“One day back then my mother told me: ‘We’re going to China. You can walk, can’t you? You’re a good girl. We’ll be going there on foot.’ I asked: ‘Is it far?’” recalled Kazhibayeva.
It was the early 1930s, and Kazakhstan was in the grip of a man-made catastrophe that would claim millions of lives across the Soviet Union.
To avoid the same fate, Kazhibayeva’s family of nomadic herders trudged from their home in east Kazakhstan across the border to China in March 1933, recalled 91-year old Kazhibayeva, her tone lucid and resonant despite her advanced years.
It was the sight of dead bodies piling up on the byways that made up her father’s mind. “One day, he came home asking: ‘Will we survive or not?’ Because there were so many dead bodies on the road… My father saw many of those. That’s what I know about the famine,” Kazhibayeva told EurasiaNet.org in a March interview sitting in the apartment of her daughter Nazira Nurtazina, a historian who has published her mother’s memoirs.
Kazhibayeva’s father had already made the arduous journey to Xinjiang in northwestern China. In 1916, to avoid a decree issued by Imperial Russia mobilizing Muslims for rearguard work in World War I that sparked a Central Asia-wide uprising, he escaped to China, returning only after the Russian Revolution.
Nearly two decades later, he set off again, with his family in tow. A guide agreed to show them a route to evade Soviet border patrols that might shoot them on sight. In exchange, the family would feed the guide and his son with the bulgur wheat they had prepared for their journey, and carry the boy, who was sick.
“We set off at night and I was among them,” said Kazhibayeva. “I was the youngest of all — I was six years old. My uncles, my father’s younger brothers, led me by the hand. We walked by night and slept by day.”
It took 15 days to march across the mountains to the town of Tacheng, where the family bartered jewelry for food. Later, they exchanged some possessions for cattle and joined a nomadic Kazakh auyl (village) in the countryside.
There, they survived the Asharshylyk, as Kazakhs call the famine, which is commemorated in Kazakhstan on May 31 – an annual day remembering victims of Stalinist repressions.
The famine was the consequence of collectivization policies instituted by Josef Stalin in the late 1920s. In Kazakhstan’s case, this meant corralling nomadic herders and their cattle into collective farms, where everything would be collectively managed for the good of the people. The accelerated pace of the effort, which involved massive requisitioning of grain and cattle, led to widespread starvation across Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
“The main reason [for the famine in Kazakhstan] was the liquidation of the Kazakhs’ traditional animal husbandry,” said Talas Omarbekov, a history professor at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty. “At the start of the 1930s, the Kazakhs had almost 40 million heads of cattle. Three years later, there were 4.5 million left.”
Kazakh nomads had previously roamed in small groups that fed themselves, but the mass requisitioning of their herds to feed other parts of the Soviet Union left them facing starvation.
“Meat requisitioning was particularly alarming and ruinous for the Kazakhs,” said Omarbekov, who has been researching the famine for a quarter of a century. “The Kazakh, who was a nomad and herder, had always been saved by his cattle, its meat, its milk, its kymyz [mare’s milk] — so he automatically perished.”
“Their only wealth was their cattle — their only wealth,” said Smagul Yelubay, a writer whose family survived the famine by fleeing western Kazakhstan and ended up living in Turkmenistan in a village on the border with Afghanistan. “When their cattle was taken away, they perished.”
Overall, an estimated one million Kazakhs ran for their lives. Of those, maybe 400,000 later returned.
Yelubay was the first writer to chronicle Kazakhstan’s famine in fiction, in his novel The Lonely Yurt.
The book brings to life the horrors of 1930s. The novel was written in secret in the 1980s, when there was a taboo on discussing the famine in the Soviet Union, and published after independence. “I wrote it from the heart,” said Yelubay, who recently turned 70. “I couldn’t not write it. It was burning my soul up too much.”
To this day, nobody knows how many people died due to the famine in Kazakhstan. Low estimates put the death toll at 1 million. Omarbekov’s research suggests up to 2.3 million people perished from hunger and disease — that is more than one-third of Kazakhstan’s pre-famine population of 6.2 million.
For the Kazakhs, it was a demographic disaster that reverberates to this day.
“If the famine hadn’t happened at that time, the size of the Kazakh population today would have reached several tens of millions,” said Boris Dzhaparov, the director of the Archive of the President, in an interview in his office in Almaty.
In the dusty archives, one researcher spends some of her time trying to document the names of the famine victims for a project launched last year, using mainly archival evidence, but also submissions from the public. “It is very difficult,” said Aynash Seysenbayeva, demonstrating on her screen the Asharsylyq.kz database, where the information is collated. “You see a name [in a document] but you have to read it and try and work out what that name is… and work out if the person died of hunger or not.”
It is a mammoth task. In just over one year, Asharsylyq.kz has managed to confirm just 415 names.
In Ukraine, the famine, which is known there as the Holodomor, is officially designated a genocide. Many historians there argue, in a reading of history that is violently disputed by many of their Russian colleagues, that the famine was engineered to wipe out the Ukrainians as a people.
The prevailing mainstream view in Kazakhstan, which prizes its alliance with Russia, is notably different. President Nursultan Nazarbayev depicts it as a collective tragedy for which the totalitarian system was responsible, although some people would like to see a historical reckoning.
Kazhibayeva counts herself lucky that her family managed to outlive the famine and was able to return to Kazakhstan after six months.
“We came to the border post — I remember it — and three or four horsemen came galloping up. They had red armbands on,” she recalled. When her father explained that they were coming home, “these Russians tapped my father on the shoulder and cried: ‘Well done! Good man!… So we came back to our country safe and sound.”