The book ‘Silent Steppe’ puts a human face on 1930s repression of Kazakhs

03 апреля 2012, 14:10

One scene in the riveting memoir “The Silent Steppe” is so haunting that it could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie.

Twelve-year-old Mukhamet Shayakhmetov is lying in bed half-conscious with malaria when he hears faint footsteps.

It is 1934, a time when Josef Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture has killed an estimated 1.2 million Kazakhs over four years.

Mukhamet lifts his head from his pillow to see an intruder “walking off with that small bag that had been stowed away in the truck containing the last three kilograms or so of wheat grains we had managed to put by.”

The boy “shieked in alarm as loudly as I could, ‘Where are you taking that bag? Put it down right now.’”

The emaciated adult stranger lacked the strength to run. Mukhamet caught up with him in the yard and shoved him from behind. The man of about 19 fell to the ground. The next day Shayakhmetov’s family found him dead of starvation where he had fallen.

Although another victim had been added to the ranks of Stalinist repression, Mukhamet had saved his mother, younger brother Mukhametrakhim and himself from starvation.

When I read “The Silent Steppe,” I alternated between sadness for the victims of collectivization and anger toward the Soviet system and the leaders from top to bottom who carried it out.

It’s difficult not to feel emotion when you read this account of how collectivization not only killed so many people, but eroded the social fabric of Kazakh life and ended the country’s nomadic tradition.

A key lesson that surfaces between the lines in the book is that collectivization failed to achieve the Leninist goal of equality in the countryside. It simply redistributed wealth and power.

Before collectivization, the most influential nomad families were those with large herds of cattle, sheep, horses and camels.

Such accumulations created jealousy, and when the Communists took power, those with less than others saw their chance. They became what Mukhamet refers to as “activists,” and the most zealous rose to power as collective-farm council leaders.

Activists across the Soviet Union used such positions not just to repress those they had envied but also to accumulate their own power and wealth.

Mukhamet’s father Shayakhmet was imprisoned as an “enemy of the people” because of the size of his herds. Although the Soviets branded him a “kulak” – or wealthy farmer – Shayakhmet actually had only a mid-sized collection of livestock, Mukhamet wrote in his memoir

The boy waited two years in vain for the father he adored to return from prison. One day in 1933 he found his mother ashen-faced and neighbors coming to offer comfort.

Shayakhmet had escaped from prison, but a militia member spotted him when he was trying to make his way home and demanded his papers.

He had none. He became ill in the city where he was arrested, and died. “More than that, we simply do not know,” Mukhamet said poignantly.

Because Shayakhmet was a pariah, all family members also became pariahs, not allowed to work on the collective farms – the main source of income in the countryside once collectivization was carried out.

The survival of Mukhamet and his brother Mukhametrakhim fell on his heroic mother, who came up with ingenious ways to find food. The family combed harvested fields for corn the harvesters had missed, sold wild hops to families wanting to make yeast for bread and sold bulrushes to burn in stoves.

It must have been heart-breaking for Mukhamet’s mother to have assumed the hard-nosed role of rationer. Only by doling out food very carefully could she keep the family going from one day to the next. But when little Mukhametrakhim cried from hunger, she sometimes gave him more than she should have.

Against this backdrop of four years of hunger was a change in the liveliness of the steppe that weighed heavily on young Mukhamet and gave the memoir its name.

Before collectivization began in 1930, the boy remembered auls – or nomad villages – up and down the steppe and in meadows and mountains. He recalled how close – and content -- people were within a single aul and from one aul to the next. And how they helped each other.

When the Communists forced the nomads onto collective farms, the steppe became bereft of domesticated-animal and human life. It was eerie and melanchoy to travel across what had suddenly become “The Silent Steppe.”

As if Mukhamet’s life weren’t tough enough, he jumped from the brutality of collectivization to the front lines of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis.

Wounded during the savage Battle of Stalingrad, he suffered further hardship when he returned home to find food in scarce supply again because of the conflict.

“The Silent Steppe” has an uplifting end, however. Mukhamet obtained a university degree and became a teacher and regional university administrator, got married and had four children plus grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The memoir he wrote in 2007 when he was 85 puts a human face on the devastating toll that Kazakhstan suffered during the 1930s.

And it says a great deal about the human spirit, its desire to overcome evil and hardship -- and not only to survive but to thrive and serve your fellow man.

The publisher of the English-language version of "The Silent Steppe" is Rookery Press of New York.

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