Friday, June 13, 2008

Victims, Perpetrators and Bystanders in Soviet Central Asia

I have been reading Kristina Gray's entries on Kazakhstan at her very informative blog. She has put up a couple of posts regarding the memory of Soviet repression in this region of the world. I agree with her that the negative aspects of the 1930s and 1940s are far too much of a black hole in popular memory here. Dekulakization, the "Great Terror", the Gulag, the deportation of nationalities and other Stalin era crimes are not taught well in school here in Kyrgyzstan. What is in the official history textbooks I have seen focuses almost entirely on victims among the Kyrgyz communist leadership executed during 1937 and 1938. They have nothing on the deportation of Karachais, Chechens, Ingush and Balkars to Kyrgyzstan in 1943-1944. Even some of my brighter students have told me they were unaware or only vaguely aware of Soviet policies geared towards the persecution of nationalities such as the Crimean Tatars and Russian-Germans. Despite being an independent non-Communist state for over 16 years there has not been any real coming to terms with the darker aspects of the Soviet past here.

I think this situation persists because the role of the titular nationalities in Stalin's crimes is ambiguous here in Central Asia. Some were victims, but others were perpetrators, others benefited materially from the deportation or arrest of their neighbors, and most were bystanders who did nothing to oppose the regime. I do not morally condemn the bystanders or even many of the perpetrators. Stalin's dictatorship imposed very harsh penalties for even the smallest acts of opposition. Unswerving loyalty to the official Communist Party line was the only real way to ensure a good material life for yourself and your family during this time. I do not think most Americans would have been any more moral or courageous when faced with similar circumstances. But, this ambiguity regarding the role of the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen in the Soviet state during the Stalin era makes a full coming to terms with that past an uncomfortable proposition for many people here. It is not so simple to say that as nationalities they were victims of the regime. Nor is the more common tact of only looking at the positive legacies of Soviet rule such as education, economic development and improved health care an honest approach to the past. Rather a full and honest evaluation needs to admit that some were victims, some were perpetrators and most were bystanders. There are not a lot of heroes in this version of the past and there are some pretty horrible villains. But, the same can be said for the history of most countries.

1 comment:

Kristina said...

Otto, thanks for directing your readers to my blog and for your thorough research pursuits in an area that must be difficult to find concrete, archival facts. The "white spots" in the history of Central Asia and other former Soviet Union countries have me flummoxed as a writing teacher. I'm convinced the only way that people from the western world will know how devastating this period under communism was will happen only when stories are written about it, such as in "The Silent Steppe." Some of these stories are so emotionally laden that they have already become silent with the passage of time.

Not sure if Kyrgyzstan has an equivalent biography written but the Kazakh author Mukhamet Shayakhmetov tells how confusing a period it was during the starvation years in 1932-34 and yet in order to survive he and his family had to "buy into" the communist dogma and FIGHT for their Fatherland when WWII happened.

If we, as western educators, enter Central Asia with this knowledge of their recent tragic past and their distant glorious past, we would be better equipped to help them struggle out of the confusion that seems to exist for ALL of us.

Can there be anything wrong with laying out the facts, openly exposing who the TRUE villians are? No, but I suppose some are still alive who were the perpetrators and so sadely the "silent white spots" continue to exist.