The Silent Steppe and the Silent Bureaucracy

A retired school teacher sits down to write a book about his childhood. It is a humor filled, bittersweet memoir of poverty, freedom, family and tragedy. The book becomes a minor hit across borders. Angela’s Ashes? No, the book I’m talking about is Silent Steppe, by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov. In this book he wrote about his youth, growing up in the decisive and dangerous 1930’s in eastern Kazakhstan. The book is exciting, enlightening and deserves to be read. Here I would like to highlight how it is also a case study on the social change brought about by the breakdown of traditional society and the influx of Soviet power.

The early year’s of Shayakhmetov’s childhood were spent like generations before him, with a stong emphasis on family, supported by the interdependence and mutual aid of extended kin ties. When the famine slowly creeps in, Shayakhmetov uses the breakdown of these kin networks to show how complete the destruction was. Faced with starvation, what was everything became nothing. On the other hand, what family ties he did maintain were what got him and his mother through the dark years. Likewise he gives a detailed account of the spread of Soviet state power. Red educators come in, collectivisation begins. In short the new power brokers displace the old order.

Of course, scholarly works have shown how kinship networks adapted to, and in many cases co-opted these developing state institutions, but that can’t be used to downplay the massive upheaval in the traditional order that occured. This was especially stark amongst nomadic Kazakhs when compared to settled Uzbeks or Tajiks. Shayakhmetov writes with sadness at the funeral of his father, ill-attended, as a symbol of this breakdown.The final riveting chapters, Shayakhmetov at war,  illustrate this. He proudly goes off to serve for his country. Even if you have just  apassing interest in Central Asia history or Kazakhstan I can recommend this book.

Intrigue, scandal, secret societies. These are the elements of Legenda Nomenclatura, a book by Erbol Zhumagulov and Dosym Satpaev published in 2009. Change can’t exist without continuity, and  political satire lampoons the bureaucratic culture that has continued from the USSR to independent Kazakhstan.  It uses the rise and rise of Baskaida Sumelekov — in true satire fashion, almost everyone’s name is a pun, Baskaida means ‘where’s the head?” in Kazakh — to critique the crony political class in Astana. It, however, doesn’t view this as a uniquely Kazakh phenomenon. Rather they present it as a natural and historic occurance, dating back 1,000’s of years to the Sumerian founding of the ‘Nomenclatura’, the caste of bureaucrats who rule the world.

Baskaida is born to the director of a Kolkhoz in southern Kazakhstan. He grows up never really having to work hard. In a way this mediocrity makes him less hatable, but still he is not really sympathetic. After graduating from KazGU in Almaty he lands a job with his uncle at the grimly named Ministry, ‘MORG’, and by accident finds some ‘kompromat’ on the Minister himself. He and his uncle use this blackmail their way to the top of the Ministry.

The other plot revolves around James and Richard, two British Freemasons sent to Kazakhstan to retrieve the Nomenclatura itself, a thousands-year old document used to achieve and hold on to ultimate power. Through the eyes of these two, who couldn’t place Kazakhstan on a map, the authors also poke fun at the naive foreigners who end up in the country so often on business trips.

The book loses some steam towards the end, but finishes with some poetic justice and in a way that also underscores the authors’ main points about the natural cycle of power and bureaucracy. The more things change…

Taken together these books, while seemingly different, help readers understand both the continuity and change of the past century in Kazakhstan.

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