The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin

READ THE WORLD – Kazakhstan: The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov

Translated by Jan Butler and edited by Anthony Gardner.

The story of Mukhamet Shayakhmetov from childhood to his early twenties as he grows up under Stalin’s rule and how the collectivisation of agriculture forever changed his peoples’ nomadic lifestyle and caused a famine that killed over a million Kazakhs.

The Silent Steppe is the kind of historical memoir that’s written in a way that’s pretty easy to read and easy to get engrossed in. It’s not necessarily a literary masterpiece but it manages to capture so many emotions so well and it’s a really interesting insight into a time and a culture I knew nothing about. The Silent Steppe is split into three parts: “Class Enemy” which focuses on what the nomadic life was like, how it was forced to change, and how Shayakhmetov’s father was branded a “kulak” (a well-off peasant and therefore an enemy of the people) and imprisoned, “Famine” which covers the 1932-34 famine, the build up to the disaster and how eventually things started getting a bit better, and “War” when Shayakhmetov was a young man and joined the Red Army to fight in World War Two.

Shayakhmetov was born in 1922 and for his first seven years or so his life was normal, helping his father to look after the animals, travelling hundreds of miles with the rest of the family and the village as the seasons turned. Obviously a life not without hardships but positively idyllic compared to what followed.

What The Silent Steppe does well is not shy away from the horrors of what Shayakhmetov experienced. From the age of eight he was having to travel for dozens or even hundreds miles on his own in search of news of his father, or to learn about other family member. He had to do so much at such a young age as his mother either had to stay at home to look after his siblings or to find work so they could eat. The famine and its effects on him, his family and the people is described in vivid detail and it’s often unsettling. Shayakhmetov combines the personal with the factual almost seamlessly as he gives facts and figures on how the collective farms worked (or more often didn’t) and the cruelty and short-sightedness of government officials who repossessed people’s livestock, belongings and even their homes. It’s hard not to get angry when you read how livestock was taken from people and when the newly set up farms couldn’t deal with them, they slaughtered them and then the meat was just left to rot – not given to or even sold to the people. How Shayakhmetov and his mother managed to survive so much, like the fact they were homeless for so long and unable to settle anywhere due to being the family of a kulak, is a testament to their resilience but also a lot of luck and kindness from others. There’s so many other people mentioned, family and acquaintances, who didn’t survive the famine and a lot of the time who managed to survive and who didn’t was down to where people happened to be living and who or what they knew. Just pure chance.

One think that sticks out in Shayakhmetov’s story is how hospitable the nomadic Kazakh are. Their whole culture was forced to change under Stalin’s rule but so many people would still help him and his family when they could, and his family would always help others. They whole country and millions of people were forced to change and for the most part they kept their core values. Or at least, it took the combination of famine, war, and economic struggles for people to start to change.

The Silent Steppe is a really interesting book that covers a place and time I knew little about and shows how far-reaching Stalin and his policies were. How a whole nomadic culture was forced to change and never returned to what it was in such a relative short space of time is amazing – and not in a good way. The Silent Steppe is sad, informative but also a little hopeful as it really demonstrates the power of community – something the Stalin-regime tried to enforce in a structured way when it was already there.

Asian Readathon TBR

In May in the United States it is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and in honour of that Cindy from WithCindy on YouTube created a readathon where the main aim is to read books by Asian authors. I think this is the second or third year of the readathon, but this is the first time I’m participating. Her announcement video explains it all really well and she also has a Google Doc with extra info and resources and there’s a Twitter account for the readathon too.

There are five challenges in this readathon and any amount of them can be combined to make things easier for yourself:
– Read any book written by an Asian author.
– Read any book featuring an Asian protagonist.
– Read any book written by an Asian author in your favourite genre.
– Read any nonfiction book written by an Asian author.
– Read any book written by an Asian author that’s not US-centric.

There is a twist to combining the prompts though. You can combine challenges and read in any order; however, each book you read should feature a character or author of a different Asian ethnicity. This is to encourage cultural diversity. Books by Chinese, Korean, and Japanese authors do tend to be more common or popular here in the UK, so I think this is a great way to encourage people to read more diversely. Because like any ethnicity, Asians aren’t one huge monolith.

Thanks to my Read the World Project I’ve already read books from authors from over thirty different Asian countries – in fact I think Asia is the continent I’ve read the most books from. You can check out my Read the World Project masterpost to see all the countries and books I’ve read so far and links to all the reviews.

Like any readathon, my TBR is going to be far too big but I wanted to use this moment to highlight books by authors of different nationalities and backgrounds. I also used this readathon to order some books from both the library and bookshops that I’d been thinking of for a while so some of these haven’t arrived yet and a couple are on my kindle. I’m going to be (hopefully) reading books in all formats for this readathon.

Shepherd of Solitude: Selected Poems by Amjad Nasser, translated by Khaled Mattawa (Jordan)
This is a poetry collection and is the first English collection of Amjad Nasser’s work. The poems are from various collections originally in Arabic published between 1979 – 2004.

Palestine +100 edited by Basma Ghalayini, translated by Raph Cormack, Mohamed Ghalaieny, Andrew Leber, Thoraya El-Rayyes, Yasmine Seale and Jonathan Wright (Palestine)
A collection of short soties from twelve Palestinian writers imagining what their country might be like in the year 2048. These stories are in a whole range of genres including sci-fi, dystopia and farce.

The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, translated by Jan Butler (Kazakhstan)
This is a memoir from Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, who was born into a family of nomadic herdsman in 1922, about life under Stalin’s rule.

QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed (Bahrain)
I’m not even sure what this book is about. It hasn’t arrived yet and all I’ve got from Waterstones and Goodreads is that it’s about two men whose lives take dramatic turns. It’s also the only book I could find in English by an author from Bahrain.

Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian, translated by Peter Balakian (Armenia)
A memoir about Grigoris Balakian’s eyewitness account of the Armenian Genocide which happened from 1915-1918.

Mama Hissa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi, translated by Sawad Hussain (Kuwait)
Three friends who share neither ethnic origin nor religious denomination, get involved in a protest group and one of their grandmothers, Mama Hissa, warns them against it.

Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos by Outhine Bounyavong (Laos)
This collection of short stories is the first collection of Lao short stories to be published in English. I think this collection has both the English translation and the short stories in the original language and I really like when books do this. This is one I’m waiting to pick up from Waterstones.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated by W.M. Coulson (Turkmenistan)
The story of a group of Turkmen fishermen who are trying to save their ancestral home from the ruling powers who are attempting to confiscate their land.

Looking at my books here and the challenges, the only one I’m unsure if I’ll complete is “book written by an Asian author in your favourite genre” mainly because I’m not even sure what my favourite genre is anymore, though I do like some hard-hitting non-fiction which is certainly here so those books could count for that.

Are you taking part in the Asian Readathon? Or do you have any books by Asian authors on your TBR in general? I would love to hear about them.