A melancholy, disheartening look back at a stolen Kazakh childhood.
Shayakhmetov tells the lamentably familiar story of the triumph of the better-armed. In this case, the victor is the Stalin-run Soviet Union, and the loser and the spoils both are the unwillingly collectivized nomads of Kazakhstan. Shayakhmetov was just seven years old in 1929 when his father, a slightly wealthier peasant than most, was branded a class traitor and sent to a prison camp to die. But this story begins much earlier, with the first colonial overtures of Russia into Kazakhstan in the 1880s, when a Russian commander declared “our business here is a Russian one…all the land populated by the Kazakhs is not their own,” to the disastrous Soviet policies of resettlement of the Steppe-dwelling nomads in the 1920s. Shayakhmetov survived the seizure of his family’s property and the destruction of his people’s lifestyle to eventually become a teacher and then a regional head of education in Kazakhstan. But from the first chapter, entitled “The Life We Lost,” it is clear that being forced to relinquish the ways of his childhood burned those details deeper into his memory. The elegant, mournful translation suits Shayakhmetov’s potent, detailed descriptions, such that readers will smell the seasons change, feel the rough yurt walls in which his family lived and visualize contented young boys herding goats on the Steppes. But these relatively peaceful times were all too brief. Soon his family and his tribe became embroiled in show trials and forced relocations, and the author was thrown out of school. The book ends as World War II is drawing to a close, but the changes wrought in that 16-year period are astonishing and terrible to behold.
A judgment on those of us who had the temerity to laugh during Borat.