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Roberto Carmack

2015 Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History


Montgomery, Alabama
April 10, 2015
True Sons of the Soviet Motherland? The Kazakh Frontline Experience during World
War II
The mobilization of the Turkic speaking Kazakhs for service in the Soviet Unions Great
Patriotic War was a revolutionary development in this peoples history. From December 1941 to
May 1945, the Soviet Commissariat of Defense (NKO) inducted approximately one million
Kazakhs into the Red Army out of a total Kazakh population of no more than 2.3 million.1 For
the first time in history, a substantial number of Kazakhs left the villages [auls] and cities of the
Kazakh steppe and fought in a modern army on European battlefields. According to one
estimate, at least 125,000 of these Kazakh soldiers died fighting in the massive engagements of
World War IIs Eastern Front.2
Western historians have devoted scant attention to the integration of Kazakh and other
non-Slavic soldiers into the wartime Red Army.3 The military historian Roger Reese is one of the
only Western scholars who has explored this topic in significant detail, and he concludes that
1 Kazakhs were the fifth most represented ethnic group in the wartime Red Army after Russians,
Ukrainians, Belarusians and Uzbeks. David Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War, 1941-1943
(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 604. In 1939, Soviet statisticians reported that the total
population of the Kazakh SSR was about 6.1 million. For this census figure, see U. A. Poliakov,
Vsesoiuznaia perepis naseleniia 1939 goda: osnovnye itogi (Moscow: Nauka, 1992), 75.

2 Glantz, Colossus Reborn, 604.

3 Catherine Merridales Ivans War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 (New York: Picador,
2006) is one of the few treatments of the wartime Red Army soldier by a Western historian, and it devotes
almost no attention to the experiences of non-Slavic troops.

Communist Party and NKO authorities failed to recruit non-Slavs into frontline units in
significant numbers or prevent them from deserting.4 Post-Soviet historians in Kazakhstan, in
contrast, have uniformly claimed that there were no real obstacles to the integration of Kazakhs
into the Red Army.5 These authors unequivocally emphasize the heroism of Kazakh soldiers on
the frontlines and maintain that their experiences were essentially the same as those of Russian
soldiers.
This paper challenges these two historiographical extremes. Analyzing the tortuous
process of integrating the Kazakhs into the Red Army, I argue that the leaders of the NKO and
the Soviet Communist Party genuinely attempted to integrate Kazakhs and other non-Slavs into
the Red Army on a mass basis, but they did so in a way that placed the Kazakhs in an
intermediary position in the Soviet Unions ethnic hierarchy. NKO conscription policies towards
the Kazakhs frequently changed in response to secret orders from Moscow and the strategic
situation on the frontlines, and the NKO conscripted the Kazakhs in a fitful and inconstant
manner. As a result, the idea of national equality within the ranks that Communist Party
propagandists so often trumpeted was simply untrue in practice.
Perhaps the clearest indication of official distrust towards the Kazakhs and other nonSlavic people was the NKO policy barring them from frontline service during the first six
4 Roger Reese, Why Stalins Soldiers Fought: The Red Armys Military Effectiveness in World War II
(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011), 141-148.

5 See in particular P. S. Belan, Na vsekh frontakh: Kazakhstantsy v srazheniiakh Velikoi Otechestvennoi


voiny, 1941-1945 gg. (Almaty: Gylym, 1995); M. K. Kozybaev (ed.), Istoriia Kazakhstana: s
drevneishikh vremen do nashikh dnei v piati tomakh (Almaty: Atamra, 2010), vol. 4, 465-511; V. K.
Grigorev and L. S. Akhmetova, Iarostnyi 1941. Razmyshleniia istorikov (Almaty: Ministerstvo
obrazovaniia i nauki Respubliki Kazakhstan, 2011) 239-277; L. N. Nursultanova, Kazakhstan v gody
Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny (1941-1945 gg.) (Almaty: Nurai Print Servis, 2011), 105-127.

months of the war.6 From June to December 1941, the NKO assigned Caucasian and Central
Asian conscripts to construction battalions and other unarmed special detachments located far
from the frontlines. The available archival evidence does not clearly indicate why the NKO
instituted this discriminatory policy,7 but in approaching this question, it is important to keep in
mind that non-Slavs were not the only group excluded from frontline service during this period.
From the summer of 1938 to April 1942, the NKO also forbade kulaks, their family members,
and members of repressed diaspora ethnicities such as Koreans and Poles from serving in combat
units.8 Wartime discrimination against the diaspora nationalities was the continuation of prewar
repressive policies against nationalities who had a nominal homeland outside the Soviet Union.
During the late 1930s, the Soviet state heavily persecuted these national diasporas because of
their perceived connections to foreign states and their putative disloyalty to the Soviet Union.9 I
contend that from June to December 1941, NKO officials essentially conflated Caucasians and
Central Asians with members of diaspora nationalities by barring all of these groups from
frontline service.
6 Belan, Na vsekh frontakh, 59-61.

7 Post-Soviet Kazakhstani historians have not discussed this issue at significant length in their books and
articles, probably because the NKOs discriminatory polices contradict the dominant patriotic view that
Kazakhs fought bravely for the Soviet Union from the beginning of the war to its end.

8 Reese, Why Stalins Soldiers Fought, 126.

9 The historian Terry Martin estimates that a fifth of the total number of people arrested during the Great
Terror of 1937-1938 were members of diaspora nationalities. The NKVD was far more likely to execute
individuals arrested in these national operations compared to individuals who were not members of
diaspora nationalities. Martin, The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing, Journal of Modern History 70
(4): 813-861.

According to the memoir of the Kazakh veteran Mukhamet


Shayakhmetov, the policy of barring Central Asians from combat units
generated a tremendous amount of ill will among Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs
alike at local conscription points in Kazakhstan.10 When Shayakhmetov and
80 other conscripts reported as ordered to a military induction point in EastKazakhstan Province in October 1941, they learned that the officer in charge
was turning Kazakhs away from frontline units.11 Shayakhmetov observed
that many Kazakhs interpreted this rebuff as an implicit accusation that they
would surrender at the front or even defect to the enemy. According to him,
he and his fellow Kazakhs were surprised and offended by this policy. The
families of the Russians at this conscription point, in contrast, claimed that
they were shouldering a disproportionate share of the military burden and
demanded that the officer in charge accept Kazakhs for frontline service.
These discriminatory policies were not permanent, however. In December 1941, the NKO
suddenly reversed its policy of barring non-Slavs from combat units and ordered local military
commissars to begin conscripting Kazakhs and other Central Asians for frontline service.12 The
NKO likely changed its policies towards non-Slavs because the Red Army had suffered
10 According to the Soviet census of 1939, 40% of Kazakhstans population of 6,151,000 consisted of
Russians and 37.8% of Kazakhs. Poliakov, Vsesoiuznaia perepis naseleniia 1939 goda, 67.

11 Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, The Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin,
translated by Jan Butler (New York: Overlook/Rookery, 2006), 260-263.

12 Belan, Na vsekh frontakh, 59-61.

catastrophic losses in the summer and fall of 1941 and it required a massive infusion of
reinforcements to blunt the Nazi advance.13 Preparing for the ill-fated counteroffensives in order
to fulfill Stalins directive of completely destroying the German-fascist forces and liberating the
Soviet land from the Hitlerite swine, the leaders of the NKO expanded the conscription regime
to encompass previously excluded population groups.14
The integrationist policies of the NKO, however, did not translate into ethnic equality on
the frontlines. According to several Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) reports, some
officers demonstrated shocking cruelty towards non-Slavic recruits as well as a complete lack of
tactical sense by intentionally flinging them into engagements where they sustained heavy
casualties. A secret special investigatory report sent by the NKVD to the Main Political Section
of the Red Army (PURKKA) in the spring of 1942 indicated that these practices were quite
widespread.15 According to this report, many regimental commanders on the Southern Front were
manifesting scornful attitudes and criminal indifference towards newly arrived North Caucasian
13 For the casualty figure, see Glantz, Colossus Reborn, 624. See also Timofei Dmitriev, Ne vozmu
nikogo, krome russkikh, ukraintsev i belorusov: Natsionalnoe voennoe stroitelstvo v SSSR 1920-1930kh gg. i ego ispytanie ognem i mechom v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny, Agenstvo Politicheskikh
Novostei. August 8, 2013. http://www.apn.ru/publications/article29935.htm. Last accessed March 3, 2015.

14 Stenograma: Zasedaniia 7-go plenuma TsK KP(b)Kazakhstana, July 5, 1942. APRK (State Archive
of the Republic of Kazakhstan) f. 708 (Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan), o. 6,
d. 14, l. 1.

15 RGASPI (Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History), f. 17 (Central Committee of the all-Union
Communist Party), op. 125, d. 85, l. 64-65. The Special Section of the Southern Front arrested OlShanskii for these
crimes, but this report does not indicate how he was punished. Olshanskiis crime was particularly ruthless, but
according to the Kazakh political officer Sarsen Amanzholov, these incidences were
common inside the wartime Red Army. See his Opyt politiko-vospitatelnoi raboty v deistvuushchei armii (UstKamenogorsk: Reklamnyi Daidzhest, 2010), 18.

and Central Asian soldiers. For example, during the period of investigation 300 Transcaucasian
and Central Asian troops arrived to reinforce the 188th Cavalry Regiment of the 60th Cavalry
Division. Upon seeing these soldiers, a Russian commander named Olshanskii allegedly stated
that Cossack and Russian lives were more valuable than the lives of these Easterners.
According to this report, OlShanskii hatched a cruel plan to allow the Wehrmacht to eviscerate
these non-Russian reinforcements so that his regiment could return to the rear and receive Slavic
reinforcements. Olshanskii subsequently rushed these unprepared Central Asian and North
Caucasian soldiers into combat and they sustained a large number of casualties.
Olshanskiis wanton abuses demonstrate that the prejudicial attitudes of mid-level Slavic
officers towards non-Slavic soldiers could have tragically lethal consequences. I argue, however,
that these incidences were not manifestations of an institutionalized racial prejudice against
Central Asians and other non-Slavs. NKVD and Red Army authorities treated abuses like those
committed by OlShanskii as serious crimes that weakened the effectiveness of the Red Army
and undermined the ideal of national equality within the ranks. However, top-secret
correspondence between high-level Party officials indicate that these authorities considered nonSlavs to be particularly likely to flee the battlefield or defect to the enemy. This attitude was
pervasive enough for the Nazis to capitalize on it. For example, during the Battle of Stalingrad
in 1942-1943, German troops taunted their Soviet enemies by superciliously offering to trade
Uzbek soldiers for disloyal Romanian personnel.16 According to a Soviet defector interviewed
for the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System who fought in the battles of Sevastopol and
Stalingrad, Red Army commanders frequently expressed frustration at the refusal of national

16 Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945 (New York,
2005), 62.

minorities [natsmeny] to fight. These officers were quick to punish Kazakh, Tajik, Uzbek, and
Armenian soldiers for cowardice by putting them before a firing squad.17 This interviewee
maintained that Red Army officers only rarely executed Russian soldiers in this manner. The
leaders of the NKO and Red Army officially proscribed discrimination against non-Russians
soldiers, but officers at the regimental level and below often did not trust these soldiers and
feared that they threatened operational security.
To provide another example of this fear, according to a report sent by Senior Battalion
Commissar Leonov to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in June 1942, nonRussians on the Southwestern Front with poor Russian-language skills were the soldiers most
likely to cause self-inflicted wounds in order avoid combat duty.18 Of the 150 soldiers arrested in
the 76th, 81st, and 226th Rifle Divisions, as well as the 13th Mountain Rifle Division, for causing
self-inflicted wounds, 110 were Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and other non-Russians.
Out of the 38 soldiers arrested for this crime in the 38th Rifle Division, 17 were Kazakhs.
Leonov noted that most of these acts of self-mutilation occurred during a period of particularly
intense combat in May 1942, but according to him, the main cause of self-inflicted wounds was
insufficient propaganda work among non-Russian soldiers, especially among those who did not
know the Russian languae and were unaware of the harsh penalty for self-mutilation.19

17 Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System. Schedule B, Vol. 9, Case 641, 1-3. This subject did not
specify his ethnicity.

18 Vypiska iz doneseniia ugo-zapadnogo fronta, June 21, 1942. RGASPI f. 17, o. 6, d. 85, l., 66-67.
Leonov was a senior officer in the Red Army Political Administration.

In Leonovs view, non-Russians were defecting and engaging in illicit practices such as
self-mutilation because they lacked a fully formed Soviet consciousness.20 From this
perspective, the traitorous activities of these non-Russian soldiers did not stem from any kind
of innate cultural or social proclivity they were the predictable result of illiteracy, a lack of
Russian-language knowledge, and insufficient exposure to Soviet propaganda. Leonovs
perspective conformed to the basic ideological position of the Communist Party towards nonRussian nationalities during the late 1920s and 1930s. During this decade, Party leaders were
quick to classify groups such as the Kazakhs as backward, but they treated backwardness as
a temporary developmental stage through which these peoples would pass as long as Party and
government authorities provided the necessary economic, cultural, and ideological conditions for
advancement.21 This ideological position also framed Soviet mobilizational strategies towards the
Kazakhs from December 1941 to October 1943.
During this period, NKO leaders treated Kazakh and other non-Slavic soldiers as having
the potential to reach the same level of battlefield effectiveness as Slavs, but as groups that had
yet to reach this level of development. This perspective almost certainly informed the NKOs
October 1943 decision to excuse [osvobodit] all local nationalities from the Caucasus and

19 On paper, the punishment for self-inflicted wounds was execution. In practice, sympathetic medical
inspectors often falsified the results of their examinations in order to spare Soviet soldiers. Reese, Why
Stalins Soldiers Fought, 238-239.

20 RGASPI f. 17, o. 6, d. 85, l., 66-67.

21 The historian Francine Hirsch refers to this process as state sponsored evolutionism. Hirsch, Empire
of Nations. See also Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1994), 187-299.

Central Asia from frontline service.22 During the remainder of the war, the NKO shunted all
Caucasian and Central Asian conscripts into unarmed labor units in a repeat of its policies from
June to December 1941. Kazakhs already fighting on the frontlines continued to serve in their
units until the end of the war, but the NKO had made its preference for Slavic soldiers clear.
Overall, the conscription of Kazakhs and other non-Slav was a contingent and desperate measure
designed to forestall a military collapse during the particularly bloody years of 1941 and 1942.
Once the military situation stabilized in 1943 and new Russian and Ukrainian conscripts became
available in regions liberated by the Red Army, the NKO blocked the flow of Kazakhs and other
non-Slavs into the military.23 During the war the NKO did not completely bar the Kazakhs from
military service as it did with the diaspora nationalities, but it systematically treated Kazakhs as
less trustworthy and battle-worthy than Slavic troops.
From 1941 to 1945, the NKO only opened a few windows for the integration of Kazakhs
into the Red Army, demonstrating that the conscription of Kazakhs and other non-Slavic groups
had more to do with the short-term personnel needs of the Red Army than with long-term
ideological objectives. This does not mean, however, that the NKOs conscription policies
towards the Kazakhs or the treatment of Kazakh soldiers by Red Army commanders were not
influenced by ideological factors. With their mobilizational policies, NKO and Red Army
officials made it clear that they did not consider the Kazakhs to be the equals of Slavs, but in line
22 This directive was issued by the Main Administration for the Formation and Manning of Red Army
Troops (Glavupraform). A. U. Bezugolnyi et al, Gortsy Severnogo Kavkaza v Velikoi Otechestvennoi
voine, 1941-1945 gg.: problemy istorii, istoriografii i istochnikovedeniia (Moscow: ZAO Izdatelstvo
Tsentrpoligraf, 2012), 155, 157. By the end of 1943, the NKO had excused 43 indigenous Soviet
nationalities from conscription. Ibid, 165.

23 Fedor Sinitsyn, Za russkii narod! Natsionalnyi vopros v Velikoi Otechestvennoi voine (Moscow:
Iauza, 2010), 90.
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with Soviet developmentalist ideology, these officials expected this equality to ensue at some
ambiguous point in the future.

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