International

History of great famine in the Kazakh steppe

New Europe - Akdana Baubekova

The Kazakh feature film “The Crying Steppe” has been included in the long list as Kazakhstan’s entry for the Best International Feature Film in foreign language at the 93rd Academy Awards scheduled for April 25 this year.

The film is based on real events that happened in Kazakhstan in 1920-30, when about 1.5 million – 3 million people of the local nation died of famine, a result of forced collectivization for Kazakhs who were nomadic livestock farmers as part of their culture.

In Kazakhstan, it was dramatically aggravated by the decision to enforce in parallel a violent campaign of sedentarisation of nomadic cattle-breeders, which was the majority of Kazakh people before the 1930s. The Soviets confiscated cattle from the Kazakhs. By forcefully taking cattle from nomads, they doomed the Kazakh nation to extinction.

The story centers around a berkutchi (eagle hunter) Turar and his wife Nuriya who try to save their family and other village residents from hunger.

“The crackdown on free-thinking and the annihilation of ethnic culture and human values led to spiritual starvation and the killing of the soul,” Marina Kunarova, the director of the film, said, as quoted by goldenglobes.com.

“The film raises the question of ‘why?’ Why did our forefathers have had to pay such a terrible price? And why, up until now, have we been afraid to admit what really happened and, instead, conceal our tragic history from the rest of the world?” she said.

Kunarova is the first female director from Kazakhstan nominated for the prestigious award. The film was presented in November 2020 in Los-Angeles, the film also participated in the Golden Globe competition for Best Foreign Language Film Award.

“(It is) the history of our people, our ancestors who died innocently. It all took us five years and two years of preparations. We are now on the long list. Now, the shortlist of Oskar will be announced at the end of February,” said film producer Yernar Malikov, as quoted by Tengrinews.kz

The tragedy caused by the Great Famine in the Kazakh steppe has affected every modern Kazakh family, as well as myself. For example, my maternal grandmother Gaini told me that she lost her husband and small children during a time of famine.

“I cried a lot and missed my dead children. It was scary to be alone in those years,” my grandmother told me.

Left as a widow, she married my grandfather Bilyal, who at the same time stayed with two young sons, the youngest was two years old. My grandfather’s first wife died of hunger along with the newborn. Thus, my grandmother Gaini raised two sons from my grandfather’s first marriage. Then my mother was born. I – the author of these lines, belong to the second generation of Kazakhs, born from those who were able to survive the Great Famine in the Kazakh steppe.

For Kazakhstan, the historical topic has become especially relevant today in connection with the statements of some Russian politicians about the alleged lack of statehood among the Kazakhs. In addition, this year this Central Asian republic is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its independence following the collapse of the Soviet empire.

At the beginning of this year, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in his  article “Independence is the most precious thing”, where he outlined his program, said that today historical scenarios are in demand in the world film industry and that “Netflix, HBO and other large film companies are heading to Asia,” and Kazakhstan has a history of many important events that can form the basis of such films, for example, the history of the Golden Horde, one of the most powerful empires in the world.

Tokayev noted that in the future, Kazakh film critics should pay special attention to the history of the country. He stressed, “we need to keep strong roots, not to break away from our national identity, culture and traditions” and that the younger generation should know the value of the country’s independence”.

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