Lately I went to a publisher’s party given to launch a book with the title The Silent Steppe, by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov. Needless to say, I had never heard of him, but here was evidently the autobiography of a Muslim, and reading such books is a key to understanding the inner life of Islam, or so I believe.
Mr Shayakhmetov proved to be a striking figure, strongly built, sober in manner, with deep brown eyes in a face that gave nothing away. He is a Kazakh, and on this occasion he was surrounded by about a dozen young Kazakhs who treated him with the respect due to a tribal elder. I gathered from them that he is one of the most eminent of his people. Duly I asked him to sign my copy of his book, and he chose to do so in Russian, not Kazakh.
Now I have read this astonishing book. Such is the world today that this book will probably pass almost unnoticed, but it has lasting human and historic value. He describes what Soviet Communism did to the Kazakhs. At the end of the 1920s, they were forced to abandon their herding and nomadic way of life, and driven into agricultural collectives that completed the destruction of their identity. Shayakhmetov’s father, a poor man, was nonetheless considered a kulak, arrested and died in captivity. He himself was not allowed to attend school and as a boy experienced the great and unnecessary famine of 1932 to 1934 in which millions starved to death to satisfy Stalin’s whim. Yet when the time came, he gladly joined the Red Army, was at Stalingrad and badly wounded.
The book expresses regret for the passing of the traditional ways of Kazakh clans, with their sense of kinship and hospitality, yet in spite of the terrible things Shayakhmetov suffered, he has no trace of self-pity. The Kazakhs are making a go of their post-Soviet independence, and they certainly have a national spokesman of whom to be proud.