The Benefits of Marginality: The Great Famine around the Aral Sea, 1930–1934


Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Based on research in Kazakhstani and Russian archives, this article is a regional study of the 1931–1933 Soviet famine. It compares Soviet policies in the southern and northern “halves” of the Aral Sea region. While the Kazaks in the northern part of the region suffered from the famine, the Karakalpaks in the south did not. The article explains this difference by underscoring the role of the main transportation infrastructure connecting Central Asia to Russia, the Orenburg-Tashkent railway. The railway crossed the northern, Kazak, part of the Aral Sea region and made massive livestock and grain procurements possible, while the absence of any reliable transportation route connecting Karakalpakstan to Soviet industrial centers contributed to shielding the Karakalpaks from the famine. The article also investigates the consequences of the famine for the Aral Sea fishing economy. The famine led to the inversion of the relative economic importance of the northern and southern parts of the sea: if before the famine fishing was concentrated in the former, after the famine it had shifted to the latter. Finally, the article situates the administrative detachment of Karakalpakstan from Kazakstan in 1930 within the context of Stalinist economic policies in Central Asia.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-529
Number of pages17
JournalNationalities Papers
Issue number3
Early online date7 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020

Bibliographical note

Acknowledgments. William Wheeler for insightful comments to earlier versions of the article; and Maureen Buja and Andrew Straw for editing assistance.

Financial Support. This work was supported by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council under the General Research Fund, project number 341612.


  • Stalinsim
  • Aral Sea
  • famine
  • Kazakhs
  • Karakalpaks
  • Stalinism


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