Soviet Repression in Central Asia and Siberia: Recent Works in English

Soviet Repression in Central Asia and Siberia: Recent Works in English

Reviewed by John Radzilowski

Michael K. Jerryson. Mongolian Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of the Sangha.   Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2007.

Robert Kindler. Stalin’s Nomads: Power and Famine in Kazakhstan. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018.

Igor Krupnik and Michael Chlenov. Yupik Transitions: Change and Survival at Bering Strait, 1900-1960. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2013.

Mukhamet Shayakhmetov. Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin. New York: Rookery Press, 2006.

Alun Thomas. Nomads and Soviet Rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin. London: I. B. Tauris, 2018.

Western historiography on Soviet communism developed in a complete form during the Cold War. Most Western scholars, along with most popular authors and journalists, ignored or downplayed Soviet genocide and repression. By the 1980s, scholars (even on the left) broadly conceded that Stalin had been a ruthless dictator, but his reign was viewed as an aberration excused by the notion that the regime of violence and murder he oversaw had been necessary for the Soviet Union to develop an industrial capacity capable of defeating Nazi Germany. The Soviet regime was portrayed a noble yet flawed effort to create a just and classless society corrupted by the “psychopathic” Stalin. Evidence to the contrary was dismissed as Cold War propaganda or relativized by descriptions of the backwardness and repression of the pre-Revolutionary Russia and with comparisons to the misdeeds—real or not—of Western Europe and the United States, including but not limited to the slave trade or colonialism.

A minority view, best known though the work of Robert Conquest, provided a counterpoint to this paradigm. Yet the default position remained that the Soviet Union and its post war satrapies in east-central Europe were certainly no worse than the West and at best they upheld values such as social and gender equality that Western liberals greatly admired. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, the New Left in the U.S. and Western Europe, driven in part by an increasingly racialized view of history, found Soviet communism far less fascinating than communist regimes in China, Cuba, or Southeast Asia whose anti-Western and non-white credentials seemed more admirable than those of the grey apparatchiks who ran the Soviet Union. Although the formal collapse of Soviet power was a shock to the left, the growing body of research documenting Soviet crimes sparked by the limited and temporary opening of Soviet archives was met with indifference. The crimes were acknowledged in passing by most scholars but were viewed as less significant than comparable crimes committed by Nazi Germany. The Soviets unlike the Nazis did not commit acts of genocide against specific cultural, ethnic, or racial groups. This at least is an argument proffered to explain why the Holocaust is an event of greater world-historical significance than the Holodomor or Mao’s Great Leap Forward. To sustain this argument requires that crimes of mass murder committed by the Soviets and other communist regimes be treated in a different category than genocide against an ethnic or racial group. A significant body of scholars in the West and in Russia, for example, view the Holodomor as merely one facet of a “tragedy” that befell many parts of the Soviet Union in 1930s and not as an attempt to kill off a significant portion of the Ukrainian nation.¹ This requires a certain degree of intellectual gymnastics since there is ample evidence that Soviet leaders wanted to “break” the Ukrainian nation and destroy its culture as well as kill off much of its rural population. Smaller genocidal actions, like the “Polish Operation” in 1937-39, are mostly ignored.²

The act of forgetting inconvenient elements of this history is aided by the facts of World War II and by Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazi German invaders. This helps to relativize the Holodomor. Moreover, since much scholarly and public discourse in the U.S. and Europe is driven by sentiment, feelings of sympathy for the victims of history shapes perceptions of that history more decisively than the factual record. The degree of perceived innocence of the victims helps to determine the degree to which it is deemed worthy of remembrance.³

Yet, the Holodomor is relatively well known beyond specialist circles in English-speaking world thanks to the older work of Robert Conquest, more recent work by Anne Applebaum, and the efforts of the Ukrainian diaspora in North America. The histories of other groups targeted by the Soviet regime in more remote and less Europeanized regions of the communist imperium remain more obscure. The peoples of Central Asia also suffered from Soviet cruelty and mass killing, a fact which has begun to generate a small body of research in English. Although Siberia and its Gulag system is well acknowledged as a site of communist genocide, little attention has been paid to the cruelties inflicted on the indigenous inhabitants of the remote territory. Even less attention has been paid to communist victims in Mongolia, a semi-independent satrapy of the Soviet Union until 1991.

Outside of Ukraine and Russia proper, Western scholars have focused some attention on Soviet repression in Kazakhstan. Like Siberia, Kazakh land had been both the object of Russian colonization and a place of punishment and exile throughout the nineteenth century. Yet, while Russian colonists had created settled farms, most Kazakhs continued their nomadic way of life. Sheep, horses, and camels provided both sustenance and status, Herding was central to Kazakh life and culture. Tsarist efforts to control Kazakh herders met with frequent resistance and the mobility of clans allowed them to frustrate Russian policies. Clans that ran afoul of authorities could even move across the border into China until the repression eased. In 1916, under the pressure of the war, Russian officials attempted a mass confiscation of livestock along with large-scale conscription of Kazakh men, sparking a major revolt that was brutally suppressed only by diverting additional troops from the front lines.

As in the rest of the Soviet Union, the suffering under the rule of the tsars paled in comparison to the horrors of communist rule. In central Asia the Bolsheviks began by attacking local elites. Stripping them of resources and reducing their status was just the first step. For Kazakhs and other nomadic people, moving away from hostile officials was a time-honored strategy. In the first decade of communist rule, this provided some relief as it had during Tsarist times. The number of Soviet officials and the limited number of troops available in that vast land made it possible for some to avoid arrests or confiscation of livestock. It was still even possible to escape across the still fairly porous Chinese border. By 1929, however, authorities were increasingly able to control elites and create a cadre of local activists who could infiltrate and deconstruct communities from within. Border control tightened dramatically and NKVD started to create fake border checkpoints to trap unsuspecting migrants. In Kazakhstan, the campaign against the “kulaks” and collectivization was carried out against sedentary Russian farming communities as well as Kazakh nomads. For nomads, however, the communists also insisted that they cease the annual migrations that were essential to Kazakh culture and to successful livestock raising on the semi-arid steppe.

British scholar Alun Thomas and German historian Robert Kindler document the scale of disaster inflicted on the Kazakhs in two recent works on Soviet rule in the 1920s and 1930s. Between 1929 and 1934, Kazakhstan lost almost 90 percent of its livestock (Kindler, 101). For people who were entirely dependent on livestock for food, clothing, and shelter the results were catastrophic. Between 35 and 40 percent of all Kazakhs died of starvation or execution between 1929 and 1940, a reality which was suppressed by Soviet authorities as thoroughly as in Ukraine. The scale of the disaster was further hidden by the region’s remoteness and the fact the victims tended to live in highly dispersed nomadic communities. While settled Russian farming communities also suffered greatly, as both Thomas and Kindler point out, they were far more “enmeshed” within the Soviet state and thus more likely to survive. The closer one was to state authorities the more access one had to scarce food supplies. The famine thus fell mostly heavily on the most nomadic and traditional elements of Kazakh society. These elements were also the most likely to resist Soviet rule and most likely to suffer repression, arrest, and execution. (However, there were certainly cases where deportation to the Gulag saved individuals from starvation.) As Kindler notes “Whoever survived the famine thereby stabilized the Soviet regime. The crisis did not erode Soviet structures, it strengthened them by making individual survival almost completely dependent on Soviet mechanisms of order and distribution” (238).

Thomas’ Nomads and Soviet Rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin focuses most heavily on the 1920s and early 1930s. Unlike some other approaches to this topic, Thomas begins his work with a more detailed treatment of the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s. During this initial period of Soviet rule, central control was less certain, local officials had slightly more authority, and nomads had options for resistance. Kindler’s Stalin’s Nomads: Power and Famine in Kazakhstan provides a closer focus on the period of collectivization. Both works rely most heavily on local and regional archives and party records. Thomas’ broader approach contrasts well with Kindler’s more focused book. Both books provide important insights but also show the limitations in the research. For example, seeing collectivization and the terror famine from the local level tends to obscure the role of the central authorities and Stalin in particular.

To be sure, Moscow could hardly control outcomes in the many remote areas of the Soviet imperium. Nor did it always need to do so. Those who emphasize the role of local officials thus have a valid point. Local decisions did help shape local conditions and the victims of Stalinist terror did exercise agency to some degree. Yet, scope for any effective resistance was extremely limited and those furthest from the centers of power—and in theory best able to ignore or resist—were those who suffered the most. Moreover, it is all too easy to overemphasize the role of local or regional party officials. Their ability to alter Moscow’s directives (and most understood those directives would have lethal results) was small. The nature of Soviet rule meant that even in the remotest part of the steppe, local officials monitored each other and had as much to fear from rival officials as they did from the “vertical stroke” from higher authorities. If anything, when faced with the directives for sedentarization and collectivization, local leaders tended to exceed their mandates more often than not, though to be sure many exaggerated the results of their progress toward collectivization. Any discussion on the role of local party officials has to be understood within a very limited framework determined by Stalin and his inner circle.

Mukhamet Shayakhmetov’s Silent Steppe: The Memoirs of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin was first published in Russian in 1999 and is one of the few first-person accounts of life in Kazakhstan under Stalin. Shayakhmetov grew up in a well-off clan but later joined the Young Pioneers, served in the Red Army, joined the party, and held a regional administrative post. Although he is at pains to deny that the famines that killed 40 percent of the Kazakh population were planned, he provides a vivid account of survival that helps to supplement the other works under consideration. Shayakhmetov’s background as both a victim and a beneficiary of the communist regime is not atypical of his generation or this this genre of post-Soviet memoirs. Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time is probably the best example of work that purports to expose Soviet crimes, while serving as a kind of backhand excuse at the time. Silent Steppe does not go nearly that far but illustrates how survival and loyalty to the regime went hand in hand. Few who tried to resist Soviet rule lived to write memoirs.

Mongolia was the Soviet Union’s first “satellite” state, coming under Soviet domination in 1921. The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party killed, exiled, or imprisoned leaders of all other political parties and unleashed a campaign of terror, directed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, known as the Dotood Yaam or Green Hats. From 1921, the Soviets exercised almost complete control over Mongolia. The army was commanded by Soviet officers, all advanced education for Mongolians took place in the Soviet Union, and the country’s foreign affairs and trade were in Soviet hands. The country remained completely sealed off from the outside world for decades. The party and the Dotood Yaam, while ostensibly in Mongolian hands, received a constant stream of instructions from Moscow which they followed with little deviation.

The most important institution in Mongolian life prior to the communist takeover, was the Sangha, or the collective body (“church”) of the Buddhist faith. Buddhism in Mongolia dates to the mid 1200s and long enjoyed a close relationship with Tibetan Buddhism. The Sangha trained lamas and provided the main form of traditional education in Mongolia. It served an important social and cultural role but also had a political role in that lamas advised most clan and community leaders until 1921. The centrality of the Sangha to Mongolian life made it the primary target of communist repression, as detailed in Michael K. Jerryson’s important book Mongolian Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of the Sangha.

The attack on Buddhism began in 1921 and was intensified in 1929 by stripping the Sangha of property and economic assets, making it difficult to sustain institutional life. This was accompanied by a wave of propaganda portraying lamas as “exploiters” of the population. While many lamas were initially able to survive by donations from pious laity and their own resources, Buddhist property was seized, libraries were burned, and cultural and art objects destroyed. Following this, the Dotood Yaam began mass arrests, torture, and killing of lamas and their supporters. At the beginning of communist rule, there were an estimated 120,000 lamas in Mongolia. By the late 1930s, there were virtually none. Approximately 50,000 were executed outright and many others died of mistreatment (90). Remaining lamas, mostly low-level ones, were forced to give up any outward practice of their faith and remained under repression and surveillance for until the formal end of communist rule. Although knowledge of minor customs and rituals remained in some families, the Buddhist faith in Mongolia largely ceased to exist. A modest effort to revive Buddhism began in 1991.

Jerryson’s book is one of the few works in any Western language on the topic of Soviet repression in Mongolia and the communist repression of Buddhism. The book contains a concise history of Buddhism in Mongolia with particular focus on the twentieth century as well as interviews with victims of repression. Mongolian Buddhism also demonstrates the close link between repression in Mongolia and in the Soviet Union proper. The timing, structure, and tempo of repression carried out by the Dotood Yaam matched that carried out by the NKVD. As many accounts make clear, Soviet officials and security functionaries closely supervised the Dotood Yaam and also participated directly in arrests and repression of lamas and other dissidents.

Siberia exists in the Western view mainly as a set of mental images and in spite of its use as a land of prison colonies since tsarist times, it exerted a certain ethnographic and touristic attraction on outsiders. Its remoteness and physical isolation—augmented by its political isolation under Soviet rule—only rendered it more fascinating. This allowed most Western writers to ignore or overlook the fate of its native inhabitants under Soviet rule. During the Cold War popular authors such as Canadian Farley Mowat, could occasionally visit Siberia and turned out predictably cheery accounts to bolster communist propaganda.⁴ Since 1993, Siberia has become more accessible to Westerners and popular authors have written more freely and realistically on Siberia, though their accounts of the Soviet period often remain anecdotal and superficial.⁵

Soviet repression in Siberia followed a familiar sequence. Initial moves against local elites began around 1923—only slightly later than areas further west. The limited missionary structure of the Orthodox Church in Siberia was eliminated immediately along with any political leaders. Groups like the nomadic Buryiat who had provided significant support for White armies during the Civil War were heavily repressed. As in Mongolia, Buddhist clergy were almost completely eliminated between 1925 and 1930. Since many Buryiats also practiced a form of shamanism, the region was also subject to the official anti-shaman campaign. As in Kazakhstan, collectivization and sedentarization began in 1929, sparking resistance among the Buryiat resulting in mass killing and dispersion of their clans. Before World War II, perhaps 15 to 20 percent of all Buryiats in the Soviet Union were murdered (a smaller number who fled to Mongolia were also killed). Culture and language suffered sustained attack and the written form of Buryiat was replaced with Russian.

Igor Krupnik and Michael Chlenov’s Yupik Transitions is an anthropological study of Siberian Yupik people who live in small communities of sea mammal hunters on both sides of the Bering Strait. Although more a work of anthropology than history the book provides some significant detail on the fate of this indigenous group under Soviet rule. Soviet leaders viewed such “small peoples” as backward and stuck in a primordial past, so Sovietization was to be accompanied by modernization and a wholesale re-ordering of Yupik life, including the elimination of clans, traditional language and culture, and the end of shamanism. Trading outside the control of Soviet officials was banned and contact with kin on the American side of the Bering Strait was forbidden. Unlike their Chukchi neighbors, the Yupik did not own major reindeer herds that could be subjected to collectivization and had remained distant from the events of the Civil War, unlike the Buryiat further south. Thus, the Soviets focused their attention on rooting out shamanism. Shamans were not, however, clergy in any modern sense and their role in Yupik society varied depending in part on the social standing of individual shamans. Prominent shamans were relatively easy targets for the Soviets to marginalize and destroy. Few appear to have been killed outright. Other shamans ceased practicing their craft, save on rare occasions and in secret.

The small size of Yupik communities and their traditional collective methods of hunting made them seem pliable and docile to Soviet officials. Small village communities were amalgamated with larger ones, tribal affiliations were largely eliminated, and traditional clan identities began to atrophy. Krupnik and Chlenov suggest that the relative lack of Yupik resistance to Sovietization was seen as a welcome contrast to the much stronger resistance put of by their more numerous and wealthier Chukchi neighbors and that communist officials recruited quite a few younger Yupik as cadres to help propagandize their former rivals (234-35). Of the northern Siberian peoples, the Chukchi and Yakut appear to have suffered the most severely under Stalinist rule, though scale of losses cannot be determined with any certainty. Given the vast and sparsely inhabited regions where they resided, family groups of reindeer herders were able to retreat into wilderness areas and protect at least some of their animals from confiscation and thus maintain a semblance of economic independence. Larger communities and those subject to more intensive collectivization fared worse and numerous cases of famine were reported especially among the Yakut. NKVD/KGB cadres continued to mount armed expeditions again Chukchi herders into the early 1950s.⁶

The literature on Soviet repression in Central Asia and Siberia remains limited. Language barriers, geographic isolation, and lack of access to large troves of archival material present significant barriers to research. Yet other structural problems are also apparent, as the scholars approach their subjects from different disciplines. Studies of Siberia and its people emerge from anthropology or perhaps environmental history. Jerryson’s study of Mongolian Buddhism is classified as religious studies, while Thomas’ and Kindler’s books are by historians. The historians rely on communist archives, primarily at the regional level and largely political and economic in nature (as opposed to records of the security services). The heart of Jerryson’s book is field research and interviews with victims or their family. Krupnik and Chlenov’s work is based mostly on published field studies in both English and Russian.

This presents a fractured and incomplete picture of the topic. Yet there is enough overlap to demonstrate that Soviet repression did damage in Kazakhstan and Siberia that was comparable to what happened in Ukraine. The sequence of repression and killing was also quite similar. Not all groups suffered equally, and the Soviets did pit different ethnic groups against one another when it suited the authorities to do so. City dwellers and those closer to the centers of Soviet authority fared better overall, strengthening the state’s grip on society.

The Soviets did not attempt to exterminate whole ethnic groups since unlike the Nazis they did not seek to create a racial utopia but rather a Marxist utopia. The effect, however, was much the same. Groups like Kazakhs had to broken culturally and politically and that required the killing of a large portion of that group, or, in other words, genocide. While it might not have been acknowledged in local archives, regional officials—whatever their degree of autonomy from Moscow might have been—oversaw the elimination of 90 percent of the food sources in an impoverished, semi-arid region that depended on subsistence stock raising. Seen in this light, debates about intent and local versus central authority seem pointless.

Throughout central Asia and Siberia destruction of local clan, community, and spiritual leaders was a necessary first step to complete communist subjugation and a prelude to collectivization and sedentarization. This was done only partly by external pressure, as Soviet authorities succeeded in dividing communities from within and pitting factions against one another. Discrediting and exterminating leaders disrupted potential resistance and traditional venues for exchange. Smaller groups like the Siberian Yupik had little choice but to substitute new party-approved leadership for old leaders (particularly shamans), but in so doing avoided the harsher fate of larger groups like Chukchi or Buryiat. Smaller groups thus appeared more compliant to Soviet rule and were even deemed useful in suppressing their neighbors.

Work on the Soviet period in this vast region remains limited. Yet the works under review here, though quite disparate in their approach and scope, represent a modest step toward understanding a very tragic and destructive history.

John Radzilowski Ph.D. is an associate professor of history at the University of Alaska Southeast.

1 For a discussion of this historiography, see Andrea Graziosi, “The Soviet Famines and the Ukrainian Holodomor,” in Halyna Hryn, ed. Hunger by Design: The Great Ukrainian Famine and Its Soviet Context (Cambridge: Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University, 2008); Michael Ellman, “Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 Revisited,” Europe-Asia Studies 59, no. 4 (2007): 663-93 (accessed online at
2 The work of Timothy Snyder is one exception.
3 On this subject, see Joseph A. Amato, Victims and Values: A History and Theory of Suffering (Westport, 1990).
4 See Farley Mowat, The Siberians (Boston: Little Brown & co., 1971). This book was translated into several other languages.
5 See Anna Reid, The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia (London: Orion Books, 2002).
6 See Bathsheba Demuth, “When the Soviet Union Freed the Arctic from Capitalist Slavery,” New Yorker, Aug. 15, 2019; Idem, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019).

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