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

I acquired The Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov (translated by Jan Butler) as an interloan from the Toronto Public Library. I came across the title in the bibliography in Sovietistan. The author appears on the cover (at left) at age seventeen in 1939.

At age 84 Shayakhmetov wrote about his life as part of a nomadic herding Kazakh clan and the devastating end to his family’s lifestyle as Kazakhstan was transformed from these generations-long traditions and forced into the new experiment of collective farming. Branded as kulaks for ostensibly possessing too many animals and being well off, the Shayakhmetov family was reduced to dire poverty as Communist officials demanded payments for unforeseen taxes. Repeated visits depleted them of all their animals and possessions; even the bed upon which an invalid family member was sleeping was taken from under her.

Shayakhmetov’s father was forced into exile as a kulak and his family was tainted by the same brush. Shayakhmetov himself was expelled from school and his family could not find work or accommodation. From the time of forced collectivization until the end of the memoir–when Shayakhmetov returns home near the end of World War II–his family is always on the move, living for brief times in drafty shacks, shared rooms, barns and finally into a sod house. The constant upheaval could not have rung more poignant, as recent biographies of Jack Kerouac and Mazo de la Roche told of similar multiple moves.

Famine ravaged Kazakhstan but the family always managed to pull through, rationing meagre portions or finding work to pay for the most minuscule food scraps. The same guardian angels looked after Shayakhmetov’s family so that they always found a roof over their heads.

The book is divided into three parts: Class Enemy, Famine, and War. With such chapter titles as The Last Autumn of the Nomadic Aul [1], The Kulak’s Son, Confiscation, Leaving Much-Loved Places, My Perilous Journey, Deportation, The Refugees, Hunger Comes to the Aul, Days of Mourning, The Last Days of Famine, In the Red Army, At the Front, Casualty and The Journey Home the reader can follow the author along his trail of hardships.

After decades of contemplation Shayakhmetov gained a perspective that could see the motivations behind his oppressors. It almost seemed as if he forgave them, as he certainly at least understood why they tormented him and his family. Others might have remained bitter all their lives.

This was a bulky book of tiny font printed on 345 thick pages. It looked daunting to my poor eyes but it read like a personal monologue, full of family stories and quotations. The author and I could have been sitting in the same room, with him reminiscing about the first twenty years of his life, while I took down every word.

[1] An aul is a nomadic community of people belonging to the same clan or related through marriage. The term denotes both the extended family and the collection of yurts or temporary dwellings in which it lives.

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