Cornell University Press

The Hidden History of the Kazakh Famine

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During the Kazakh famine of 1930–1933, more than 1.5 million people perished- a quarter of Kazakhstan’s population. However, the story of this famine has remained mostly hidden from view. Drawing upon state and Communist party documents, as well as oral history and memoir accounts in Russian and in Kazakh, The Hungry Steppe reveals this brutal story and its devastating consequences for Kazakh society, depicting the Soviet regime in a new and unusual light.

Here’s a Q&A with author Sarah Cameron that offers more insights into her research into the history of the Kazakh famine.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

My favorite anecdote is a joke from the 1920s made by a prominent Kazakh cadre Sŭltanbek Qozhanov. He argued that Moscow’s ambitions to transform the Kazakh nomads verged on the absurd, joking that “You can’t get to socialism by camel.” In one of the chapters of my book, I analyze Qozhanov’s question, asking “Can you get to socialism by camel?” I show that in the 1920s there were many unresolved questions about what Moscow’s transformation of the Kazakh steppe would look like: Was nomadism compatible with socialist-style modernity? Or, by contrast, was the nomadic way of life incompatible with socialism?

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

I wrote this book largely for an American audience, but I have been taken aback by the extraordinary reaction to this book in Kazakhstan. The book has become wrapped up in a long overdue reckoning with the country’s Soviet past. It has prompted intense debate, inspired comment from Kazakhstan’s president and even featured in a demonstration by members of the Kazakh diaspora in Times Square. This response has been incredibly gratifying, and it has made me reflect on how my future research projects can reach out beyond the academy and break down barriers between Central Asia and the West.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of Russian and Eurasian Studies?

Usually we think of Soviet history as “European history,” a categorization that tends to privilege the Soviet Union’s west and minimalize the role of its eastern half. Most of the dominant paradigms in the Soviet field were developed using case studies from the Soviet Union’s west. But as I show in my book, this ultimately gives us a distorted view of what the Soviet Union was about.  I hope my book will encourage others to look east, and rethink some of the categorizations and scholarly paradigms that we use.

*Featured photo by Angélica Sabina.

Sarah Cameron is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland.

See all books by this author.

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