The Silent Steppe

The Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin”, by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, translated from the Russian by Jan Butler, The Rookery Press (2007), ISBN 978-1-58567-995-3.

Some background: back in the days when there were bookshops, I found myself in Houston TX one weekend and decided to check them out. Competition in the Houston book world was vicious, with Borders struggling against Half Price Books, which itself was in a life-or-death struggle with Quarter Price Books. Somewhere during that afternoon search, I noticed “The Silent Steppe” and was intrigued by the title – but something else caught my eye, and I moved on. However, that title stayed with me. When I ran across a copy recently, it became a must-read.

Mukhamet Shayakhmetov was born in 1922 in what is now Eastern Kazakhstan near the Altai mountains on the border with China. His memoir covers the years up to 1945, from his early days as a nomad boy to his return from the Great Patriotic War as a 23-year old wounded Soviet soldier. And what a tale!

Perhaps distance & youth gave his recollections of the nomad life a special glow, although the life of a largely self-sufficient pastoralist was clearly hard – seasonally driving the sheep, goats, and cows between winter refuges and summer grasslands on the slopes of the mountains. Nomads who were prudent, hard-working – and fortunate – could accumulate large flocks of animals, the only wealth they understood; others had a much harder life, but the complex social web of families, clans, and marriages provided some protection from life’s vicissitudes. This way of life started to break down in 1929 when the Communists began to impose agricultural collectivization.

Mr. Shayakhmetov divides his tale into three parts –Class Enemy, Famine, and War.

Class Enemy focuses on the years 1930/31. The more successful nomads, including Mukhamet’s father, were denigrated as kulaks. Their flocks and other simple possessions were taken away to be “redistributed”, although this did not seem to benefit poor nomads. The kulaks were banished to distant prisons or work camps, and their families became untouchables. As the son of a kulak, young Mukhamet was denied admission to school. Remaining Kazakhs were forced into collective farms – a settled way of life which was foreign to them, and which called for agricultural skills that were not understood by pastoral nomads.

While the author is rather restrained in his recounting, it is clear that much of the misery endured in those years was not due to distant Stalin’s foolish orders but to certain fellow Kazakhs, greedy & ignorant political activists who took advantage of the situation to plunder their neighbors.

Famine details the dreadful experiences during the famine years of 1932-34, when agricultural mis-practices collided with a prolonged wide-spread drought. The impacts of the famine – and the consequent epidemics of disease – were worst on the ordinary Kazakhs and Russian villagers. The political activists who had wormed themselves into official positions controlled the limited supplies of food and took good care of themselves. The intricate web of mutual responsibilities by which Kazakhs had traditionally helped each other crumbled as corpses lay unburied where people had dropped.

War details the author’s experiences in the Great Patriotic War which broke out as Kazakh society was slowly recovering from the famine years. Propaganda seems to have worked as well then as it does now. Kazakhs willingly enlisted to fight in the Red Army, although army bureaucracy & inefficiency got in the way.

Mr. Shayakhmetov eventually became a scout in the battle for Stalingrad, where one of his unit’s major responsibilities was capturing German soldiers for interrogation. During one of those dangerous operations, he was severely wounded. Then followed a series of triages and excruciatingly painful jostling train rides deep into Siberia for treatment. When he had recovered sufficiently, he was assigned to a unit guarding the border with Afghanistan. When his health deteriorated, he was finally dismissed from military service and able with great effort to return to his home area at the beginning of 1945.

Mr. Shayakhmetov’s target audience for this book clearly was young Kazakhs, to help them understand what their ancestors went through. However, his tale is equally fascinating for the rest of us. Human beings can survive an amazing amount of punishment.


WE are the kulaks now.
And famine looms, since we re no longer to be allowed fertilizer, nor fuel for farm equipment, and our farmland itself is being sold away.
So—we’ve had class emnity and famine. War’s up next. Pray that it come not upon you in the winter.


Right. As opposed to just outright confiscation of land by the state, we the “Free” have the property leveraged as collateral just to have the banksters/government inflate the market to burst and then black rock rolls in to buy all the land when the loans on the land foreclose. See “capitalism” and “freedom” is fun and lucrative.