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Kazakh Famine Documentary Breaks New Ground

The mass starvation of the Stalinist 1930s doesn’t figure largely in official histories of the period.

5 February 2019

A Kazakh journalist’s documentary about the famine and terror of the 1930s is drawing appreciative audiences in Almaty.


Despite the interest, just one cinema in the country’s largest city is showing Zhanbolat Mamay’s film Zulmat, a sign of the sensitive nature of the topic, writes. It is available on Youtube where it logged more than 350,000 views as of today.



Historians believe about 1.5 million people died in the famine brought on by the collectivization campaign in the early 1930s, around a quarter of Kazakhstan’s entire population at the time.


In the film, Mamay calls the tragedy a genocide and urges that “we should speak about it openly and clearly.”


Mamay, who was jailed for seven months in 2017 on what press advocates said were trumped-up charges of money laundering, seems unconcerned about the official reaction to the film. He appears to have had access to government archives, Eurasianet says.


The government of President Nursultan Nazarbaev is leery of peering too closely at the tragedy, according to the author of a new book on the famine


“In part, this is due to Kazakhstan’s large Russian population and close relationship with Russia,” University of Maryland historian Sarah Cameron says in an interview with The Diplomat.


“Memorials to the famine’s victims were built belatedly and only after some public pressure. In Astana, the country’s capital, a memorial was dedicated in 2012, and in Almaty, the country’s major city, a memorial was not dedicated until 2017.”


The Kazakhs, as the largest nomadic group in the Soviet Union, were central to the debate over “how pastoral nomads might fit into a Marxist-Leninist understanding of the world. Some Soviet experts maintained that pastoral nomadism was the most efficient use of the republic’s arid landscape, and they warned that any attempt to settle the Kazakh nomads would result in catastrophe,” Cameron says.


The historian also touches on the reasons the man-made Ukrainian famine of the same period is much better known in the West. The presence of a large Ukrainian diaspora in is a partial explanation, but not sufficient: “In the West, we tend to categorize Soviet history as ‘European history.’ But that marginalizes the Soviet Union’s eastern half. In this sense, our neglect of the Kazakh story is just one illustration of the many ways we have yet to fully incorporate the Soviet east into our understandings of Soviet history,” she says.



  • Joanna Lillis, the author of last year’s book “Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan” contends that no other part of the Soviet Union underwent such “demographic and linguistic upheaval” as Kazakhstan. Among other radical changes, the arrival of millions of Russians transformed the country, Peter Frankopan, the Oxford historian and author of the admired revisionist world history “The Silk Roads,” writes in a review of Lillis’ book for The Spectator.


  • Ethnic Russians began streaming out of Kazakhstan after the country became independent in 1991. Their share of the population fell from 40 percent to just over 21 percent, RFE/RL reported in 2016. A reverse flow of almost a million ethnic Kazakhs from Russia, swelled by more from China and other countries, partly balanced the population loss.

Compiled by Ky Krauthamer

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