Much has been made of the economic and cultural development of Kazakhstan in recent years. Massive oil and mineral revenues have transformed a previously impoverished former republic of the Soviet Union into an emerging regional power. Astana, the capital, is bedecked with grand architectural designs and pristine new thoroughfares which have helped increase foreign investment in the country.
Whilst the Kazakhstan government would no doubt like Astana to be seen as the embodiment of the whole country, the reality remains that over a quarter of the population (26%) still makes its livelihood from agriculture.
That said, the news that the country’s farmers are drawing a yield of 1.18 tonnes of grain per hectare in comparison to last year’s 0.83 tonnes is significant. With 8.2 million tonnes of grain extracted from only half of this year’s harvest, Kazakhstan is set for a bumper year.
Whilst it is unknown whether these yields will be attained in the northern provinces yet to harvest, the quality of Kazakh wheat is adjudged to be better than its Russian equivalent. This means that not only is Kazakhstan likely to enjoy record exports of wheat and flour (based on quality as well as quantity) but its population should have no fears of malnourishment.
For a country such as Kazakhstan, where many people remain wedded to the land, this last point is poignant. Few states have suffered famine like Kazakhstan, which was at the forefront of Stalinist collectivization efforts that sacrificed the working poor for the good of the industrial dwellers.
In 1932-33, the Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic was subjected to one of the worst recorded famines in history. Soviet officials confiscated livestock from the largely nomadic Kazakh people as part of attempts to collectivize animals. The unsurprising result was loss of livelihood, mass starvation, population displacement and upward of 1.5 million deaths, approximately 38% of Kazakhstan’s population.
It was not as if there was no land to cultivate either. Over 1 million European settlers had been moved into Kazakh territory by the communist government of the Soviet Union to preside over a rape of the land for the benefit of their own ethnic groups. Whilst this has led to claims of genocide (in Ukraine as well as Kazakhstan) it was more the unintended and uncaring consequence of a short-sighted and self-serving policy which, coupled with climatic anomalies, created mass death.
Post-WWII Kazakhstan fared little better with periods of famine interspersed amongst years of borderline survival. Rudimentary agricultural techniques were retained as the Soviet bias towards heavy industry persisted.
For Kazakhstan today, reinvestment from the spoils of the oil and mineral industries has provided the country’s agricultural base with a potential far greater than mere self-sufficiency.
This fact alone is reason to celebrate Kazakhstan’s development. Few people working the land are now genuinely at risk from suffering the historic woe of famine. This, more than the fancy buildings and colonnades of Astana, is testament to change.