The Silent Steppe by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov
Translated from the Russian by Jan Butler and edited by Anthony Gardner (Stacey International 2006)
The Silent Steppe is the story of Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, born into a family of nomadic Kazakh herdsmen in 1922, the year of the consolidation of Soviet rule across his people’s vast steppe-land in central Asia. Ten years later, collectivisation of agriculture was forcibly imposed, and well over a million Kazakhs died, more than a quarter of the indigenous population across a territory as great as western Europe. Of this, the outside world knew nothing.
Mukhamet Shayakhmetov is a Kazakh born and bred. He retired in 1981 as a headmaster and head of the local education department. He and his wife Nurkamal have a growing number of descendants, all offspring of
the original Kazakh nomads.
Jan Butler‘s translations from the Russian include major works of fiction by some of Russia’s most eminent writers, together with biographies, screenplays and operatic librettos.
Click here to buy the book.
The last autumn of the nomadic aul
[Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible]
At the end of 1930, and in the winter of 1931, the Kazakh people’s age-old nomadic way of life finally came to an end. The clans were all joined together into collective farms, and each aul settled in one place for good.
Many years have gone by since then, and we who experienced the joys and freedom of the wandering way of life tend to remember none of the hardships involved, but only the good things: the green carpet of meadows
stretching out before us as we arrived at our summer stopping place, the unforgettable scent of the wild flowers and the blaze of colour they created all around, and the cool, fresh breeze blowing from the snowy peaks.
In autumn, when most of the men were busy with harvesting and haymaking, it was rare for people to come visiting, but once in a while groups of elders would do so for old times’ sake, and sit around drinking
mare’s milk and discussing the issues of the day. Mare’s milk was kept chiefly as a drink for guests, and it was very popular: at less busy times men would ride round the aul in groups every morning until midday, visiting the yurts with foals tethered outside to quench their thirst. Fermented in a specially made leather flask called a saba, the milk contains much less fat than that of cows and goats, and if well prepared has a sourish-sweet taste.
In 1930, the main topic of conversation was the daily news brought to the steppe by word of mouth (the so-called uzyn kulak – ‘long ear’ – of the steppe telegraph), which was our only source of information. Because we did not have radios or telephones, or even a postal service, it could take up to a year for information about new laws or important events to reach the far-flung regions of the country. The grandiose propaganda campaigns aimed at the masses had yet to get underway, and any news was passed on from one person to the next in the form of stories with a great many embroidered details. But in any case, ordinary people were more interested in local matters, and simply did not have the time or inclination to pay attention to things on a grander scale: all the elders wanted to find out about the new laws and orders issued by the aul council, since this was, as far as they were concerned, the highest authority in the land.
‘What we used to call a ‘region’ is now going to be called a ‘district’.’
Someone in the know would start the conversation along these lines, having just discovered what had been enacted two years previously.
‘An official came to the aul council from this district centre and gathered together our activists and told them that all the people and their livestock and property, wives and servants, children and grandchildren were
going to be collectivised and everything would belong to everyone,’ another would announce to the alarm of everyone present.
‘I’ve heard that all the people are going to be housed under one roof,’ a third would say, ‘and everyone’s going to go to bed at the same time, and eat and drink together and get up at the same time. Everyone’s going to be taken to work in a formation and then brought back in one.’ And seeing that he had shocked his companions even more, he would beam with delight.
‘It’s not like that at all – I heard it with my own ears. They’re only going to take away the horses and other working animals to use as transport, and people are going to get together and plough the land and sow wheat all together so that there is more wheat in the country. Maybe, who knows, there’s some truth to it somewhere? When a lot of people get together to help someone hard up and work together at haymaking, say, or when a new crop is being harvested, everyone tries to work faster than the person next to them, and the work goes like a dream! You know, you’ve all done it yourselves. If you’ve got all sorts of machinery, and horses and oxen, and you get everyone to work together, the results are sure to be very good indeed.’
‘I don’t know about that: when a lot of people get together to do a job, the result is usually not much good. And when we went and helped out those people who were hard up, there were some slackers who didn’t even
bother to turn up.’
Yet another of the elders would interrupt, ‘This society uniting all peasants has already got a name: it’s going to be called a ‘commune’. Before he died, Lenin instructed his aides to get all the peasants to join together. But the people who took over running the country from him forgot all about his instructions. Lenin’s widow who, they say, is still alive, went to see Stalin – that’s his name, apparently – who was left in charge and said to him: ‘Why have you comrades-in-arms of Lenin forgotten all about his instructions? Why aren’t you joining the peasants together in collective farms and communes? If you don’t obey the Leader’s orders, you’ll anger his spirit!”
After hearing this story, one of the others would offer a logical conclusion of his own – ‘As always, a woman’s to blame for the trouble’ – before someone else had the last word:
‘Everything that’s been said here is complete rubbish. And the bit about the collective farms and communes – they’ve all been thought up by the aul activists. What good is Lenin’s wife to us lot here when all the power is in their hands? The power’s completely gone to their heads and made them barking mad because they have no idea what to do with it. People who have never managed to run their own affairs are now in charge of people’s lives. How can a society be run by people who never obeyed their grandfathers or listened to their wisdom? It reminds me of the old saying, ‘When there’s no lord, a slave will take his place, and when there’s no dog, a pig will guard the yard!”
Such was our community’s grasp of the innovations which were to change our lives in ways we could not even remotely imagine.
I still did not understand much about the events taking place in my aul, but I must have heard thousands of lengthy conversations like this one on all sorts of topics. We were always receiving visits from other people,
whether neighbours or relatives and guests from other regions. This was partly because all our kinsmen made their mare’s milk in our yurt, and partly because people came to pay their respects to my 85-year-old
grandmother, who was held in very high regard.
Since we were frequently on the move, our neighbours kept changing as well. The summer pastures and winter stopping places were often far apart, so summer neighbours did not see each other all winter. To make up for it, kinsmen would meet up in their regular spring stopping place, and distant relatives and people from other clans would congregate in camps in the summer months. People would pay each other visits, exchange gifts and eat together – the entire aul would put on a big feast for another aul. In addition, the custom was that any aul recently settled in a new place had to help and support the next aul to arrive by preparing a hot meal and carrying it over to them, since they would be too busy unpacking to cook for themselves.
Our winter stopping place as situated in the territory of a branch of the Karagerei clan named after the ‘six fair-haired Naiman’, and outside the lands of our Otei clan. My grandmother Aksha was an Aknaiman by birth,
from the eminent Konakbayev clan, so as soon as our aul arrived nearly all the most senior members of the Aknaiman family would visit our home to welcome her and wish us happiness and prosperity and rich grazing for our livestock. The village and regional centre of Kumashkino, now renamed Kurchum, was about twenty kilometres away, and members of the Aknaiman family would always stay with us on their way to and from the large market and fair held there every Sunday. And in the spring when our aul was going back to its clan’s territory, there would be a similar influx of people wishing to say goodbye. This would continue for nearly a month, until the end of the breeding season.
Similarly, when summer came and we moved up into the hills, relatives and friends who had not seen each other for a whole year would start meeting up again. Communities of different families would live side-by-side during the summer months: the Bur clan would come from the south, descendants of the Zharke and Andagul clans from the west, and the Saryzhomart clan from the east – and they all made special visits to pay their respects to my grandmother. The most important visitors were treated not only to mare’s milk, but to special portions of our winter stocks of meat which had been put by.
I remember two guests in particular. One was Mamyr Altybayev, who had governed the Kumashinko region in pre-Soviet days; the other was called Yestaulet Yesberdinov. They were descended from two of our great- grandfather Otei’s sons, and Mamyr was the same age as Toimbai-ata, while Yestaulet belonged to my grandfather’s generation.
Mamyr was a taciturn, stocky man with a grey-flecked, black beard and swarthy complexion. In his rare visits to different aul he was always accompanied by an entourage, just as he had been in the old days. His
countrymen continued to respect him and pay him homage, though as a governor in tsarist times he had apparently kept the province on a tight rein, occasionally losing his temper and cracking his whip, and had not been averse to receiving ‘gifts’. He was said to be particularly strict when it came to collecting taxes, and once, when the members of Administrative Aul Number Seven were late paying, he had begun confiscating livestock and extracting fines despite pleas for clemency from some extremely impoverished families. The local aul poet Meirembai Baspakov had written a poem in response, saying that the governor had amassed quite enough for himself by taking extra taxes from the Taz and Zharylgap clans, and extracting more from a small number of very poor members of the Bur clan would not make him any richer.
Subsequently, in 1926, as a rich landowner, Mamyr Altybayev had all his stock confiscated and was deported to the town of Rubtsovsk, 200 miles north of Ust-Kamenogorsk. After escaping a year later, he secretly gathered together a great many relatives, including his children and grandchildren, and emigrated with them to China. According to people who saw him there, he led a modest life as a poor stock-breeder. One day, on the way to a neighbouring aul on his only horse, which was harnessed to a cart carrying his two daughters- in-law, he accidentally drove over the edge of a local landowner’s crop while turning a fork in the road and got badly beaten up. The women burst into floods of tears and wailed, ‘How could that filthy Chinaman dare lay a finger on you and injure your noble body?’ To which, apparently, Mamyr replied, ‘Never mind! It’s made me think about the times I used a whip on the backs of my own countrymen.’
My family, and especially we children, always looked forward to seeing the other person we all held in great esteem, Yestaulet Yesberdinov. Every time he visited our yurt, he would bring grandmother a gift of a large lump of sugar shaped like a horse’s head. As we hardly ever had sugar or, for that matter, any sweet foods, this was a great treat for us. Tall and lean, Grandfather Yestaulet had a long beard and always wore silver-framed glasses. He used to visit us as soon as our aul settled in the mountain meadows for the summer. As he stepped through the doorway, he would greet my grandmother, whom he had known since childhood, with the words, ‘Hello, my ancient friend! Are you fit and well?’
Then they would greet each other in a traditional manner which is hardly remembered any more. My grandmother would silently advance towards her guest with her arms outstretched to the side and palms forward. As they drew near each other somewhere in the middle of the yurt, they would keep their arms outstretched like wings and press the palms of their hands together. Then, their chests touching, they would half-turn their bodies to the right and left before slowly bringing their arms together until they were outstretched between them. They would gently stroke each other’s arms with their palms, and finally both touch their own faces with their palms. This was known as a ‘greeting in embraces’.
A Kazakh greeting took a long time but few words were exchanged in the process. The greeting consisted of conventional questions and replies from all present. It began with the traditional ‘Assalai magaleikum!’ and the
reply ‘Aleikum assalaam!’, which mean, ‘Peace to your house!’ and ‘Peace to your house also!’ These were followed by enquiries after the health of mostly the eldest in the household: were the person’s body and stomach healthy, were the person’s arms and legs functioning well, were the people and animals, children, grandchildren and other family members and relatives in good health? Were the corrals and pens for the livestock in good order? Were all the aul in the area fit and well? Were they having trouble with any animals or birds of prey? The host would reply succinctly to these questions: ‘Thank God, everything is in order’ and then ask about his guest’s affairs after each subsequent question. Congratulations would be offered in respect of any joyful celebration that had taken place since they last met, such as the birth of a child, a wedding, or a son’s or daughter’s engagement party. If a son was getting married, the guest would say he hoped the son’s bride entered the household ‘light-footed’ (happily, in other words), and if a daughter was getting married, he would wish her happiness in her new home and family.
Yestaulet and my grandmother would sometimes spend a whole day sitting next to each other and talking. The rest of the family tried not to interrupt them, and I still recall how emotionally Yestaulet said goodbye at
the end of their last meeting. Taking my grandmother’s hands and squeezing them tightly, he said, ‘Dear Aksha, keep alive and well. I wonder if we’ll ever see each other again and have another chance to talk?’ Then he held onto her hands for a while.
‘That is up to God!’ she replied. But he answered slowly and tearfully, ‘It’s unlikely.. . ‘
At the age of 85, he had good grounds for this belief. Six months later, realising he might soon be prosecuted, imprisoned and stripped of his property, he set out with his family to escape to China. But his heart could not bear the pain of leaving his homeland, and he died on the journey to the border.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersintranslation/makingtheworldlegible/thesilentsteppe-mukhametshayakhmetov/