16 May 2016

Book Review: The Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin

Title: The Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin
Author: Mukhamet Shayakhmetov
Translated by: Jan Butler
Year of publishing: 2007
Publisher: The Overlook Press
Source: Purchased
Genre: historical nonfiction

This is a first-hand account of the genocide of the Kazakh nomads in the 1920s and 30s. Nominally Muslim, the Kazakhs and their culture owed as much to shamanism and paganism as they did to Islam. Their ancient traditions and economy depended on the breeding and herding of stock across the vast steppes of central Asia, and their independent, nomadic way of life was anathema to the Soviets.

Seven-year-old Shayakhmetov and his mother and sisters were left to fend for themselves after his father was branded a "kulak" (well-off peasant and thus class enemy), stripped of his possessions, and sent to a prison camp where he died. In the following years the family travelled thousands of miles across Kazakhstan by foot, surviving on the charity of relatives. Told with dignity and detachment, this central Asian Wild Swans awakens the reader to the scale of suffering of millions of Kazakhs, and also astonishes and inspires as a most singular survivor's tale.



If you've followed my blog for a while, you may know that I am originally from Kazakhstan. And the older I get the more I get interested in the history of my people. And when it comes to history, I think most of us want to look beyond the facts and figures. It's the same with my people's history. What I want to learn is their culture, their philosophy, as well as the historical events that shaped the Kazakh people into what they are today.

In order to truly understand the Kazakh history, you have to know the history of the Soviet Union, and the role that Communism had played in everyday lives of the people.

There is a chapter in our people's history that is as unexplored as it is tragic. That is the years of the nationwide famine that hit Kazakhstan in the early 1930's and diminished our ethnic population by (approximately) thirty percent. This famine was an almost inevitable result of the forced collectivisation and mass confiscation of the Kazakhs' livestock by the Communists. This genocide by hunger still remains largely in the shadows of world history, with only a handful of enthusiastic scholars who examine its causes and consequences.

Paradoxically, this tragedy is both very close to me and at the same very distant. For instance, my grandfather was kicked out of college because his father was a "kulak", and my grandmother grew up in an orphanage, were the children had to fight each other for the last piece of bread. Their stories have always been a part of our family's conversations, and I grew up knowing about the struggles that my grandparents have endured in their youth. However, I never translated their personal stories into a larger historical narrative. I was too young to see the big picture, and to fully realise that my grandparents lived the history that is being discussed by historians today.

And now when I read about the forced collectivisation and famine, it's very interesting to finally put my grandparents' stories into this large historical context.

Still, my knowledge gaps about this part of the history is quite large, and by reading Shayakhmetov's memoir, I was hoping to fill some of these gaps.

Let's read some history!

As I had expected, The Silent Steppe was not an easy read. Shayakhmetov doesn't sugar coat reality. He tells about a time where persecution and illegal arrests where everyday occurrences. A time when the authorities confiscated people's livestock by the thousands, only to slaughter the animals and let them rot in the hot steppe sun. A time when bloated bodies of starved people were found on the sides on the roads, because their relatives were too weak to bury them.

"Out of the train's freight wagons came not people but walking skeletons. The skin on their faces looked as though it had been stretched and then stuck tightly to their bare skulls (...) Their arms looked unnaturally long and their eyes, sunken and terrifyingly lifeless, like sheep's. They could hardly stand, let alone walk, and kept stumbling and falling over (...) For the most part, they did not say anything, only exchanging a few short phrases in very hushed voices."  

Aside from the tragic and the heartbreaking parts, The Silent Steppe is a very rich book. That's the term I'm going with here - rich. You see, I was expecting a memoir. A personal account of a family tragedy from the day that Shayakhmetov's father was branded as a "class enemy" and sentenced to prison, to the time when his mother could finally stop rationing the microscopic food supplies between the surviving members of the family. And this book surprised me because it's so much more than a "just" a memoir.


Nomadic Culture

For someone who is interested in the ancient lifestyle that is almost extinct today (save for a small nomadic population in Mongolia), the author provides an invaluable insight into the history and everyday lives of the Kazakh nomads. Throughout the book, and especially in the beginning, Shayakhmetov generously shares with his audience everything from the smallest tidbits about the traditions and the customs of our people to their faith and philosophy. He often muses about our people's mentality and tries to explain why they dealt with the oppression and the famine the way they did.

And for someone who isn't at all acquainted with the customs and traditions of their people (that someone being yours truly) this book serves as a window into a bygone era, a key to better understand their people and their mentality.

A rare photo of a Kazakh woman, in the caravan. In the nomadic society, it wasn't unusual for a woman to be the head of an entire clan.


History

Shayakhmetov knows his history, and his book is filled with facts (and sometimes even figures) that put his own experiences in a wider historical context. I like how he is able to stop every once in a while and explain to his audience why certain events took place, and why our people reacted to them they way they did. And that he is able to be objective about something that is so personal to him. There's no patronising or even the slightest hint of nationalism in his arguments. On the contrary, he gladly talks about all the times when his family would receive help from people of different nationalities and walks of life.


"I am writing this memoir for the rising generation in order to give them some idea of what their grandparents' lives were like, and what they endured during a certain period of our country's history. It is important for them to realise, too, that people can get through any ordeal as long as they persevere, and have some notion of what they want to achieve in life."


Memoir

As a memoir this book is personal, honest and heartbreaking. Shayakhmetov bares his soul in this book, giving a detailed account of the trials and struggles him and his family faced during the years of collectivisation and famine. It's difficult for someone in our day and age to comprehend how a person could experience so much tragedy, hardships and - dare I say - so many adventures before even turning twenty. The Shayakhmetovs were one of the hundreds of thousands of Kazakh families who have suffered abuse, humiliation and deprivation at the hands of the Communist Party and its agents. That's why, by telling the story of his family, he speaks for the entire nation.


When the famine came to an end, and young Shayakhmetov could finally finish school, World War II happened, and he was drafted in the army. This is what the last part of the book covers - his life during the war. As fascinating and emotional this part is, it feels a little out of place in this book. I think it would have been better if he wrote a standalone book about his war experiences.

So, basically, what the author does, is he weaves all these different elements together into a rich and coherent narrative, that not only sheds the light on one of the most disturbing parts of our history, but helps us better understand the Kazakh people's culture and mentality.

Young Mukhamet Shayakhmetov (to the left on the pictures below)
 
I may be a total cynic for writing this, but this book often reads like historical fiction. It reads like an adventure. And I mean it as a compliment, because as douchey as it sounds, I think it's a testament to the author's storytelling talent.

I am very grateful for Shayakhmetov for writing this book. He has done the world a great favour by telling the story of a mostly forgotten tragedy. Moreover, he gave a unique glimpse into a mostly extinct lifestyle.

And I can't finish this review without praising Jan Butler for an excellent translation.

My rating: 5 stars



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