Nomadic Lifestyle of the Kazakhs

By Will, Kellie Dom

Kremlin evades historical facts of devastating 1930s famine in Kazakhstan
The Great Famine of Kazakhstan. The Kazakh famine is known by variety… | by  Mikhail Bearkunin | Medium

Kazakhs during the famine of 1932-1934

The Soviets adopted a self-determination policy regarding the management of the eclectic ethnic groups, documented and undocumented, that existed across the vast Soviet controlled territories. This policy became known officially as “Korenizatsiia”. In Terry Martin’s, “An Affirmative Action Empire”, the text explains that following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet government promoted individuals to adopt and self-declare their nationalities (1). This policy allowed various ethnic groups such as the Kazakhs to develop their own language, express a national identity, and promote their chosen lifestyles. By granting the freedom to self-identify, the Soviet hoped to curb the dangerousness of nationalism and promote peace across all its territories (2). Furthermore, the Soviet government initiated a cultural revolution in all of its territories, promoting “the mass production of books, journals, newspapers, movies, operas, museums, folk music ensembles, and other cultural output in the non-Russian languages” (3). This allowed individual cultures to flourish, when they had previously been ignored or discriminated against.  

By allowing the various nationalities and ethnic groups the right to self-identify, the Soviet Union could keep a detailed list of who existed, what their culture was like, and who the majority and minority groups were. This information could be used to keep track of changing demographics, but also allowed the state to monitor majority groups and ensure they did not become too powerful. “Korenizatsiia” also reflected positively on the Soviets, meaning the new authorities were allowing their territories to maintain their identities and continue in their lifestyle rather than erasing their existence. By allowing for nationality and ethnicity to distinguish the people, the Soviets could prevent the development of social classes and an elitist society. All of this allowed the state to centralize power and tighten their grip on the various territories and nationalities. In the early years of the self-determination policy, it allowed for Kazakhs to maintain their nomadic lifestyle and culture. 

  1. Martin, Terry and Ronald Grigor Suny. “An Affirmative Action Empire: The Soviet Union as the Highest Form of Imperialism.” A State of Nations : Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 
  2. Martin, 67.
  3. Ibid., 67.
Kazakhs on the Steppe

The nomadic lifestyle was extremely important to the Kazakh people and their culture. At the beginning of the 20th century, four fifths of the population of Kazakhstan lived a nomadic or seminomadic lifestyle .  Nomadic people had a higher place in society than those who lived a sedentary life.  A person’s wealth was exclusively determined by a person’s livestock. Settled people were considered poor and looked down upon, and many wished to return to a nomadic life. One can see the importance of nomadic life through the good wishes and curses of the Kazakhs. To wish good upon someone, one would say “may your stock multiply so that you can nomadize.” On the contrary, a curse of the Kazakh people was “may you never have livestock and never be able to nomadize with your people” (4).  Mukhamet Shayakhme explains in his memoir, The Silent Steppe, the Kazakh reliance on their animals, and states how the mourning process for an important animal such as a horse or camel, was comparable to the mourning of a relative (5).  It is hard to understate the impact of nomadism on Kazakh culture. If taking this aspect of life away from these people would be an incredibly unpopular move, creating unrest and disloyalty to the Soviet Union in the region.  Many in the USSR view the future benefits of economic viability to outweigh this negative aspect, but those views overlook the devastating effects forced collectivization and sedentarisation have on the economy of Kazakhstan, as well as the economic viability of nomadism.  For these reasons we argue that the Kazakh people should be allowed to retain their nomadic lifestyle. 

However, the argument still exists that the nomadic way of life was not economically viable for the USSR, and the reward of sedentarisation outweighed the cost. But this argument can be challenged. The czarist regime believed nomadism to benefit the old empire, and considered the herdsman useful “for the production of wool, butter and cheap meat, and to provide horses for the Russian army” (6). This view was not only held by the old regime. First Secretary of the Kazakh SSR, Levon Mirzoian stated that “Comrade Stalin said that some comrades were quite wrong to think that nomadic animal breeding should be entirely liquidated. He said that on the contrary, Socialism, yes, even Communism does not necessarily exclude nomadic ways of animal husbandry. The most probable solution would be to let certain areas in Kazakhstan and Central Asia return to nomadic livestock traditions” (7). Mirzoian saw the economic viability of Nomadism, and saw the possibility of massive meat and livestock production in Kazakhstan through nomadic means.  

Kazakhs by a yurt

The economic impact of forced rapid sedentarisation of the Kazakhs was detrimental to the region. The great famine resulting from the forced settlement ravaged the area. By 1934, the Republic of Kazakhstan had lost ¼ of its inhabitants (8).  The forced settlement was detrimental to livestock, which the Kazakhs relied upon for survival (9).  In addition, the famine and soviet repression led to large scale migration from the USSR to neighboring countries where Kazakhs could retain their traditional way of life (10). The devastation of the Kazakh livelihood and the drop in population greatly hampered the economy of the region. 

(4) Carole Feret. “The Ambiguities of The Kazakhs’ Nomadic Heritage.” 

Nomadic Peoples 20, no. 2 (2016): 178. 

(5) Mukhamet Shaiakhmetov, . The Silent Steppe: the Memoir of a Kazakh 

Nomad under Stalin. New York, NY: Rookery Press, 2007: 3.

(6) Feret, 181.

(7) Robert Kindler, and Cynthia Klohr. Stalin’s Nomads Power and Famine in 

 Kazakhstan. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2018:  218.

(8) Kindler, 218.

(9) Feret 179.

(10)Feret, 180-81.

As Soviet officials, we have the ability and Obligation to keep a strong relationship with the Kazakh people. It is Vital as well crucial, for the survival and continuation of the Soviet Union’s appearance within Kazakhstan. Not only does Kazakhstan need Stalin and the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union also relies on Kazakhstan too contribute to the Soviet dream. This dream is all cultures, ethnicities, nationalities and even religions coming together dropping our differences, and building our utopian regime like Father Lenin had pictured. Stripping away the Nomadic Life of Kazakhs is not in the best interest for our young nation for a plethora of reasons. The downfall of this action is that no one is going to benefit at all from this occurring. Our planned economy is ultimately will not see any growth from Kazakhstan. In addition, with us allowing the Kazakhs too keep, their sacred way of life, we will not have a fast process of collectivization. The new process will be thoroughly looked and stringently dissected to make sure all families have the necessary supplies and food for their families. Furthermore, Soviet officials will also monitor soviet activists to make sure that the collectors themselves are not abusing their power during the process of collectivization. “Since the breakup of the Soviet Union it has been argued that the terrible famine of 1932-1934, which engulfed the whole of Kazakhstan and killed a quarter of its ethnic population was deliberately orchestrated. Whatever the truth of this theory, the overzealous confiscation campaign certainly adds weight to it.” (11)    The Nomadic lifestyle needs to stay with the Kazakhs, and they need to continue their tradition of a Nomadic life. This resolution is not only a significant step for the Kazakhs, but a significant step for the motherland! 

(11) Shaiakhmetov, 51 The Silent Steppe: the Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin.

New York, NY: Rookery Press, 2007.


  1. Borisov, Sergei Ivanovich, Approximately, photographer. Gruppa Kazakhov U I︠u︡rty. Altay Respublika Russian Federation, 1911. [Stockholm: Akt︠s︡ionernoe Obshchestvo Granberg, to 1913] Photograph.
  2. Ferret, Carole. “The Ambiguities of The Kazakhs’ Nomadic Heritage.” 

Nomadic Peoples 20, no. 2 (2016): 176–199.

  1. Kindler, Robert, and Cynthia Klohr. Stalin’s Nomads Power and Famine in 

 Kazakhstan. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2018. 

  1. “Kochui u Shch e Kirgizy. Golodnai a Step.” The Library of Congress. 

 Accessed October 8, 2020.

  1. Martin, Terry and Ronald Grigor Suny. “An Affirmative Action Empire: The Soviet Union as the Highest Form of Imperialism.” A State of Nations : Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 
  2. Mcgrath, Charles. “0:00 / 12:17 The Great Famine of Kazakhstan,” 2017.

6. Payne, Matthew J. “Seeing like a Soviet State: Settlement of Nomadic 

Kazakhs, 1928–1934,” January 1, 1970.

7. Prokudin-Gorski, Serge Mikha Lovich, photographer. Kochui u Shch e Kirgizy. Golodnai 

Astep. Asia, Central Betpak Betpak-Dala Central Dala Kazakhstan, None. [Between 1905

and 1915] Photograph. 

8. Shaiakhmetov, Mukhamet. The Silent Steppe: the Memoir of a Kazakh 

Nomad under Stalin. New York, NY: Rookery Press, 2007. 

9. Thomas, Alun. “Kazakh Nomads and the New Soviet State, 1919-1934.”, July 2015.