Sometime during the Russian Civil war of 1918-21, Lenin, having established his control over Petrograd and Moscow, began to address what he termed “the problem of indigenous people” in the outer reaches of the crumbling Tsarist Empire. The Bolshevik leader had never visited those areas, knew nothing about the people who lived there, and had virtually no contacts in what was an entirely different world.
As always, Lenin looked for simple formulae to explain complex situations that he did not have enough patience to study in depth. Thus he devoted an hour to deciding what to do about the Turkic Muslim nations who lived in the southern and steppes of Russia and throughout Central Asia. At the end of the hour, he had decided that the nations in question were suffering under “feudalism” and had to be rescued by the Bolsheviks, and brought into the modern world, kicking and screaming.
Originally, that simplistic view had been peddled by a handful of Muslim intellectuals who had become acquainted with Marxism during their studies in Moscow or Petrograd, the present-day St. Petersburg. The Tajik Sadruddin Ayini, the Uzbek Ahmad Danesh, and the Karaklpaq Abdul-Rauf Fitrat had welcomed the October Revolution as the dawn of liberty and progress for Muslims throughout Central Asia and the Kazakh steppes.
On the ground, however, a different reality would not permit the Bolsheviks to play the role of saviours. The overwhelming majority of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and other Turkic nations plus the Persian-speaking Tajiks and Sarts were deeply attached their traditional faiths and cultures. They did not want to change, even if that meant a better material life for them. Now that the Tsarist yoke was lifted, they wanted to be free to organize their societies in accordance with their own values and aspirations.
Lenin, however, would have none of that. His Bolshevik Revolution carried a messianic message for the whole of mankind; the Red Dawn was to spread to every part of the globe, starting with the territories controlled by the fallen tsar. A bloody conflict was thus inevitable.
It is the story of that conflict that Mukhamet Shayakhmetov (Muhammad Sheikh Ahmadov) narrates in this strange book that, despite, or perhaps because of, its cold and detached tone, could easily break your heart.
Sheikh-Ahmadov is not offering another anti-Soviet tract. The time for such tracts is long gone. In fact, we know that he himself worked for years as a faithful defender of he Soviet Union, including a heroic stint on the war front after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Nor does he seek to condemn the Communists who presided over what must be the first major case of ethnic cleansing recorded in the 20th century. He recalls a tragic era that formed the background of his identity as a Kazakh and a Soviet citizen.
One the Kazakhs rose in revolt against the new Soviet regime, Lenin dispatched Mikhail Frunze, later promoted general, to Central Asia to calm things down. Once it had become clear that the Kazakhs would not submit to arguments based on dialectical materialism, Lenin decided that Chengiz Kan had been right after all. He sent a cable to Frunze that simply said: “Seize their animals, kill their men, drive their women and children across the border!”
Thus, the “silent steppe” became a massive graveyard stretching for thousands of kilometers from the Caspian Sea in the west to Lake Baikal in the east. Hundreds of thousands of Kazakh men in fighting age wee massacred by the modern weapons the Bolsheviks brought in. Over a third of the population, mostly women, children and old men, were driven into China, Afghanistan, and Iran. For a while, it seemed as if the Kazakh nation was on the way of complete annihilation.
Sheikh-Ahmadov’s narrative does more than tell the story of a long forgotten tragedy in one of the remotest parts of the world. It introduces the average reader to a culture, a way of life, and, indeed, a civilization that more than two centuries of European domination, including seven decades of Communist rule, could not destroy.
“The Silent Steppe” puts much of the Central Asian literature produced during the Communist era into perspective. Here, there is no sign of the fake folklore peddled by such novelists as the Kyrgyz Chengiz Aytmatov. Nor is there any sign of the starry-eyed optimism professed by the Tajik Soviet poet Abolqassem Lahuti.
Those who remember the Soviet films shot in Central Asia during Stalin’s era would be shocked by “The Silent Steppe”. There is no sign here of happy Kazakh peasants gathering at harvest time to dance, play the accordion and compose poems in praise of “The Father of the People”. Instead, there is a background sound, a hissing sound, as if someone was keening over a tragedy that would never fade into oblivion.
Sheikh-Ahmadov’s book, a mixture of fiction, history and reportage, is a good read at any level. Bit it could be of even greater interest to those who wish to understand the checkered experience of Kazakhstan and Central Asian republics since the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. In most cases, including Kazakhstan, the nations concerned tried to return to the period that preceded their annexation by Tsarist Russia. They tried to pretend that the past two centuries had simply not happened and that, with the Russian-Soviet detour now completed, history, as they knew it, could resume its course.
And, this may well be one of he principal causes of the crises that the newly independent republics have experienced in the past 15 years. They have found out, through bitter experience, that the past cannot be revived and that two centuries of direct contact with Russia, and through it with Europe and the modern world, cannot be wished away in the name of tribal traditions and ancestral values. It would be far netter for the Kazakhs, and other Muslim nations in Central Asia, to come to terms with their Russian and Soviet past in a realistic way so that they can decided what is worth perpetuating and what needs to be cast aside. “The Silent Steppe” is one of the few books in recent years that attempts such introspection.