by Mehmet Volkan Kaşıkçı, Moscow


While oral history has been a popular method in Central Asian studies for the last two decades, only recently have published memoirs begun to attract the attention of historians.[ii] Consequently, invaluable personal accounts of the Soviet past, which are usually published in Central Asian languages rather than in Russian, often remain beyond the reach of scholarly treatment.

One particularly neglected, indeed almost unknown, source are the memoirs of famine survivor and war veteran Baghdad Zhandosay who worked for the Kazakh-language Komsomol newspaper Leninshil Zhas for five decades. Zhandosay calls his book a shezhire-roman (“genealogy-novel”), but it is a memoir written with a distinct literary imagination. It is one of the few book-length personal accounts of the Stalinist repression in Kazakhstan. On the one hand, Zhandosay provides valuable insights into the sufferings of Kazakhs before, during and after the famine. On the other hand, his life story invites us to reconsider some aspects of the historiographical debate over the Sovietization of Central Asia.

Baghdad Zhandosay (1919-1999) in his old age[iii]

Baghdad was born in 1919 near the Kurti tributary of the Ili River. His father was known as Imanbek Biy and was an expert of Kazakh customary law. [iv]His family was repressed already in 1925-26. His elder sister, Sara, was killed by the Bolsheviks in these years due to her links to the nationalist Alash party.

Zhandosay’s attitude to the Bolshevik rule is most clear in his quotes from Sara’s allegedly lost diary (he claims that he recites what he remembers from the diary). In these quotes, Islam is defined as the real revolutionary force, and the Prophet Muhammad as a true revolutionary, whereas Bolshevism is presented as an ungodly calamity that was unheard of from time immemorial (älimsaqtan beri / “from the time of creation”) (61-65).[v] People in Zhandosay’s narrative understand Bolshevik policies primarily in terms of their anti-religious origin and anti-traditional essence. Kazakhs are therefore depicted as disapproving of generational conflicts, relationships outside of marriage, women’s right to divorce and so on (44; 75). Atheistic propaganda, he writes, was the core of the Bolshevik ethos; so much so that it was the real ideology of the genocidal policies from 1918 to 1954 (57; 68). Together with the League of Militant Atheists, Zhandosay also reviles the Komsomol (57).

In quotes from Sara’s diary, the Alash party is presented as the independence movement of all Kazakhs. Zhandosay obviously abhorred Bolsheviks’ persecution of religion. However, idealization of a completely traditional Islamic society and adherence to the secular-modernist Alash party is not seen as a contradiction. 

Coming as he does from a prominent Kazakh family, Zhandosay regards not only atheism but also the notion of class war as totally unacceptable. Throughout the book he emphasizes how dekulakization was the main reason for the famine. Poor Kazakhs did not know how to keep livestock and once the Bolsheviks confiscated livestock from the wealthy (bays), the poor only slaughtered and consumed them (70-71). Characters in his book frequently criticize the poor (13; 18; 91). This attitude is rare, but not exceptional. There are other famine survivors coming from wealthy families who blame the poor Kazakhs for the tragedy of famine.

Zhandosay’s “genealogy-novel” is a vivid expression of an unhappy childhood and an example of the “all my sorrows” genre.[vi] Throughout the book we read about how he suffered, from dekulakization to homelessness, from hunger to orphanage life. Having witnessed on one occasion how communist activists burned the books in their house during dekulakization in 1928, he recalls that he was lost in thought and anxiety that night: “Who are they? Where did they come from? Thinking about why they were so cruel I could not sleep till the morning due to grief; whenever I saw people who were laughing in my childhood (in that period, only one out of a hundred laughed), I would stretch my jaws with the fingers of my both my hands wondering how they could laugh” (7). He writes that one day he suddenly realized that the joy and comfort, the prosperity and wealth, all the good and the bad, that were written on his forehead by Allah had come to an end (61).

Yet, despite his firmly anti-communist stance, Zhandosay never turns to ethnic hatred; on the contrary, he writes in praise of Kazakh-Russian friendship (99-103). After losing his parents during the famine, he was adopted by a Russian Cossack family in Almaty, and he remembers them with utmost gratitude. They welcomed Baghdad with open arms (his adoptive father Aleksandr was fluent in Kazakh). Zhandosay remembers Tania, Aleksandr’s 10-year-old daughter, particularly emotionally. He mentions other Russians too who helped him survive during the famine (98). He does not forget to mention that Russians too suffered under the Bolsheviks (108). Zhandosay’s book is a great source to understand Kazakhs’ perceptions of others during the famine. Although the memory of famine is instrumentalized by some in contemporary Kazakhstan as a pawn in their exclusionary nationalist agendas, the testimonies of actual famine survivors rarely yield helpful material for such claims, which is perhaps why such materials are so often ignored. Survivors talk about Russians, Uzbeks and others who had brutally beaten starving Kazakhs in bazaars, but many also express their gratitude to non-Kazakhs as Zhandosay does.

Zhandosay also provides unique insights into life in post-famine Kazakhstan. For example, we learn that in the aftermath of the famine, it was difficult to walk through the contemporary Zhibek Zholy street in Almaty due to the density of Kazakhs who were looking for their lost children or other relatives (115). Reunion took years, sometimes decades, for Kazakhs who were separated from their families during the famine, and many died without ever tracking down their loved ones.

Baghdad was devastated when Aleksandr was arrested in 1934 and his Russian mother had to leave him to an orphanage.  “Oh, my readers, my sorrowful life started from this bed. I did not talk to anyone for two days and just cried” writes Zhandosay about his first day at the orphanage. He claims that he never smiled there and does not even clearly remember his orphanage life (117).

For years to come, Baghdad lived like a half besprizornik (homeless child) who sometimes lived in this orphanage, sometimes stayed with some relatives in Almaty, but frequently preferred to live on the street. Khlebnyi street behind Köktöbe in Almaty was where one could find the teenager Baghdad and his friends.[vii] It is not clear how many years of formal education he had (possibly only four or five), but he started the fine arts college in 1939. He then joined the war and fought in the Kalinin front. He was wounded many times, sustaining injuries to his ears, arms, and legs. He had gangrene and was about to lose one of his legs, but then was saved to the surprise of all the doctors. He returned from the war in 1943 and was officially disabled for the rest of his life. He continued his education after the war, married Bazarbala Aydarbayqyzy in 1947 and graduated from the college in 1948. After working at the Gur’ev oblast theater for one year, he started working as a retoucher at Leninshil Zhas (“Leninist Youth”).[viii] He later worked in the editorial team and was eventually known as the aqsaqal of the newspaper where he spent almost five decades.

Over the last two decades, historians have paid particular attention to the cultural revolution and Soviet cultural policies to explain how Central Asians were Sovietized in the 1930s. This approach prioritizes the elite’s experiences and often ignores the violence and destruction of the decade. Self-proclaimed Communists and enthusiastic supporters of the Soviet regime (be it women activists or national artists) are the main subjects of this literature. According to this logic, Central Asians were Sovietized, because they actively participated in Soviet projects, and they had the opportunity to create a national culture under a communist rule. On the other hand, Zhandosay’s case is an example of how limited the influence of Soviet cultural policies or institutions (including orphanages) was throughout the decade. More importantly, Zhandosay’s narrative serves to demonstrate how even a radical anti-communist was integrated into the very system that was supposed to educate young generations in a communist soul after the war. This was primarily thanks to the transformation brought by the war. For the first time, Central Asian masses were integrated into a pan-Soviet campaign, and they could claim equal citizenship. By the end of the war, they were no longer expected to embrace the radicalism of the 1930s. Contribution to the war effort shaped the definition of Soviet patriotism. It was at the intersection of wartime mobilization and the changing conception of being Soviet in Central Asia where the masses largely started to identify with the Soviet state. Mälik Ghabdullīn, famous war veteran and a hero of the Soviet Union, is a perfect example. He was a Soviet patriot and actively participated in the upbringing of the youth in the post-war period. Yet, the revolution of 1917 meant nothing for him. Instead, he spent all his energy for the creation of a primordialist Kazakh national discourse.  He remained a leading figure in Kazakhstan although he was accused of being nationalist by some.

Zhandosay’s case invites us to reconsider that the extent to which the war led to the Sovietization of Central Asia, an argument that I am sympathetic to. His choice of writing about the famine and completely excluding his war experience is telling (veterans primarily wrote about the war, although many also added their reminiscences of the famine). Zhandosay never liked war films and was not proud of his front life.[ix] Both his daughter and son confirmed that Zhandosay could never overcome his trauma and fear of the regime. Just like thousands of other famine survivors he kept silent and even his children knew nothing about what their father had endured. He was never a believer; nevertheless, after the war he was firmly integrated into the Soviet regime

Indeed, Zhandosay too became Sovietized in a variety of ways. He adapted to the frontline Soviet culture during the war. How frontline camaraderie shifted his attitude towards alcohol is a good example. In his memoirs, he remembers a tavern near Pugasov bridge in Almaty. He writes that it was not possible to see Kazakhs among the clients of this tavern before the famine. But after 1934, Kazakhs crowded this tavern. The sight of drunken Kazakhs lying on the road is treated as a symbol of the dissolution of the traditional Kazakh society in Zhandosay’s Islamically informed account (116). Yet, Zhandosay too started drinking during the war and he even had drinking contests with his veteran friends including Qassym-Zhomart Tokayev’s father Kemel Tokayev. Once, he drank 39 glasses of beer in such a contest, nevertheless ultimately being defeated. [x] His daughter Raykhan first joined the Pioneers and then the Komsomol. She then married a Russian (a non-Muslim) man. Raūshan Mombekova, Zhandosay’s second daughter, studied cinematography in Moscow and became a famous artist. Soviet animation director Ivan Ivanov-Vano wrote a letter to Zhandosay to thank him for raising such a talented daughter.[xi] His son Evfrat became a famous academic. Central Asian memoirists clearly show that family life and their professional careers, and not participation in Soviet projects or ideological obsessions, were the sources of happiness for them. Zhandosay was no different. He was primarily proud of his own children.

After the independence of Kazakhstan in 1991, Leninshil Zhas was retitled as Zhas Alash (“Young Alash”) and Zhandosay continued to work in the newspaper’s editorial office. It is remarkable how little ideological confusion was there when these communist publications suddenly became nationalist ones. Life stories such as Zhandosay’s provide us an answer about why it was so.

[i] This piece is primarily based on the following book: Baghdad Zhandosay, Shoshqanyñ Qumy (Almaty: Zhas Alash, 1999) (Page numbers for references from this book will be provided in parenthesis). I also interviewed Zhandosay’s daughter Raykhan Uzbekova in September 2017 and his son Evfrat Imambek in February 2022. In addition to them, I am grateful to Uzbekova’s daughter Anna Russakova who introduced me to her mother and recently to her uncle. Unfortunately, Uzbekova passed away in July 2020 at the age of 72.

[ii] See, Artemy M. Kalinovksy and Isaac Scarborough, “The Oil Lamp and the Electric Light: Progress, Time, and Nation in Central Asian Memoirs of the Soviet Era,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 22, 1 (2021).

[iii] Available in Kültöleū Muqash, “Baghdad Zhandosaydyn Izi,” November 10, 2016,

[iv] Judicial and administrative authority in nomadic Kazakh society, comparable to qadi in other Muslim societies. It is not clear whether his father really served as or had this title thanks to his genealogy and prestige.

[v] The discourse of Islam as the true revolutionary force was not alien to 1920s’ Central Asia, but it was embraced by intellectuals who were sympathetic to revolutionary ideas. It is not very likely that such an anti-communist person would use this discourse in the period.

[vi] Many autobiographical statements from European parts of the Soviet Union, especially from peasant women, are in the “all my sorrows” mode. Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Happiness and Toska: An Essay in the History of Emotions in Pre-war Soviet Russia,” Australian Journal of Politics and History 50, no. 3 (2004): 365.

[vii] Interview with Raykhan Uzbekova.

[viii] Interview with Evfrat Imambek.

[ix] Interview with Evfrat Imambek.

[x] Interview with Raykhan Uzbekova.

[xi] Muqash, “Baghdad Zhandosaydyn Izi”.