Kurt (Kurut) is a hard salty cheese made from fermented milk. The cheese is usually shaped into small balls and is dried in the sun until it is as hard as stone. It can be eaten on its own or added to other dishes.
Kurt is rich in calcium and vitamin D. It possesses antibacterial and antiseptic properties and is good for digestion. The cheese is a proven remedy for exhaustion and is also valued for quenching thirst. As a concentrated product, it can be kept for months at ambient temperature without spoiling or losing its nutritional value.
Kurt-type cheeses have been part of the staple diet of nomadic Turkic tribes for centuries. The ecosystem of the vast and arid rangelands inhabited by these tribes favoured animal breeding and thus determined the pattern of nomadic nutrition reliant on meat and dairy products. Although the steppe pastures provided abundant fodder in the summer, these areas were uninhabitable during the harsh winters, with fierce winds and temperatures falling below minus 30˚C. For this reason, Turkic nomads migrated seasonally to areas with milder temperatures and pastures for their livestock to graze, including horses, sheep, goats, and sometimes camels. The distances between the winter and summer pastures were large, often exceeding 200 kilometres. Kurt cheese, which retained its nutritious properties for long periods and was also easy to store and transport, was thus not only a valuable travel provision but also essential for survival during the nomads’ long journeys through dry steppes, deserts, and rolling wooded foothills.
Kurt acquired a special symbolic meaning in the Soviet context, strongly associated with hardship and suffering but also with defiance and survival. Woven into the memoirs of the victims of Soviet totalitarian terror exiled to or incarcerated in the steppes of Kazakhstan, the story of ‘kurt - the precious stone’ has since become a national fable in the present-day Republic of Kazakhstan – home to ethnic Kazakhs, Russians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Tatars, Uyghurs, Germans, Koreans, Chechens, and numerous other peoples.
Whole nations were forcefully deported to Kazakhstan as part of Soviet political reprisals in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. The Akmola region, a large steppe territory of some 97,000 km2 in its present borders, was used as a site for some of the USSR’s most notorious Gulag prisons. (‘Gulag’ is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagereiand has become the label for a range of prisons, punishment and transit camps of the Soviet era.) Among these was the Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland (Russian acronym ALŽIR). This incarceration site held over 18,000 women of some 62 different nationalities and ethnic groups. The only ‘crime’ these women had committed was that of being wives and family members of men accused of not complying with the party line.
These prisoners’ memoirs, letters and other records describing life and labour conditions in the camps only became available to the public in the late 1980s, after a long period of silence. Of all the personal stories amassed since then, it is the episode recounted by a former ALŽIR inmate called Gertruda Platais that seems to have resonated most strongly with the multi-ethnic community of Kazakhstan. The memoirs of Gertruda Platais, who was imprisoned from 1938 to 1946, were brought to Kazakhstan in 2003 by two German historians, Wladislaw Hedeler and Meinhard Stark. The following extract from Gertruda’s memoirs has been included in the collection of ALŽIR museum.
One winter morning, we were returning from Zhalanashkol carrying bundles of reeds on our backs. We came across some poorly clad locals who had children with them. When they saw us, the adults said something to their children and the kids started throwing stones at us. The guards roared with laughter: “You must have noticed it’s not only in Moscow that they hate you. The entire human race hates you!” The female prisoners were indignant. “Is this the way to bring up children?” they asked. I keeled over and fell on one of stones. The stone had a somewhat milky smell. I took a bite and it was so incredibly tasty it would make your mouth water. I collected the stones and brought them back with me to the barrack. The Kazakh women who lived in the barrack explained to us that those were not just stones but a dried farmer’s cheese called ‘kurt’. (From ‘Memoirs of Gertruda Platais’, ALŽIR museum; English translation by O. Campbell-Thomson.)
This particular episode has since been further popularized through a poem called Курт – Драгоценный Камень [Kurt – the Precious Stone], written by Raisa Golubeva (1951–2013), a history teacher at an agrotechnical college in the village of Novoišimka in the region of Akmola. The exact date of the poem’s first publication is not established, but the poem, which initially appeared in the local newspaper Prizyv, has been in wide media circulation since 2010. Golubeva’s poem Kurt - the Precious Stone was later made into a song by Dmitrij Ostan’kovič. In 2017, the song won the first prize in the contest Менің елім – Қазақстан [My Motherland – Kazakhstan] (singer – Majra Dauletbak).
The Kazakh poet Galym Žajlybay (born 1958) also related the story in a chapter of his 2013 poem-requiem, Қара Oрамал [The Black Shawl]. In this work, published in Kazakh and Russian in 2014 by Bolašak-baspa, Kazakhstan, Žajlybay mourns all those who suffered from Soviet political reprisals, and the victims and survivors of the labour camps scattered across the steppes of Kazakhstan.
From a staple food of nomadic tribes to a savoury delicacy in national cuisines across Central Asia, kurt evokes and conveys a wide range of historical experiences and meanings. Beyond its venerable nomadic heritage, the symbolism of this food has become strongly associated with the forced mass migration of peoples in the period of the Soviet Union. Indeed, it can fairly be said that the complex texture of people’s experiences in Central Asia under the Soviet Union can never be fully grasped without some understanding of the value attached to kurt, as expressed in Galym Žajlybay’s requiem:
...Ең қымбат тас осы шығар әлемде,
Ең асыл ас осы шығар әлемде.
... These are the most prized stones on earth
For they have the most heavenly taste.
ALŽIR museum www.museum-alzhir.kz/en/ [in Kazakh, Russian and English]
Galym Žajlybay. 2014. Kara oramal = Černyj platok. Poema-rekviem. [The Black Shawl. Poem-requiem] Russian translation N. Černova; Literal translation S. Bekseitova. Karaganda: Bolašak-baspa. [in Kazakh and Russian]
Hedeler, W. and Stark, M. (2008). Das Grab in der Steppe: Leben im Gulag: die Geschichte eines sowjetischen "Besserungslagers" 1930-1959. Paderborn: Schöningh Verlag. [in German]
Katalog kollekcij fonda muzeja “ALŽIR”. 2012. [Catalogue of the collections of the museum “ALŽIR”]. Astana: “ALŽIR”. [in Russian]
Kukuškina, A.R. (2002). Akmolinskij lager' žen “izmennikov rodiny”: istorija i sud'by [Akmola camp of the wives of “traitors to the motherland”: History and destinies]. Karaganda: Bolašak-baspa. [in Russian]
Olcott, M.B. (1995). The Kazakhs. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.
Solzhenitsyn, A. I. (1973). The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956. (Three Volumes). New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Stepanova-Kljuchnikova, G.E. (2003). Kazakhstanskij Alžir [Kazakhstan’s ALŽIR]. Astana: Associacija žertv nezakonnykh repressij. [in Russian]
Uznicy “ALŽIRa” [Prisoners of “ALŽIR]. (2003). Spisok ženščin – zaključonnykh Akmolinskogo i drugikh otdelenij Karlaga [List of women – prisoners of Akmola and other departments of Karlag]. Moscow: Zven'ja. [in Russian]
“ALŽIR”. Odin Narod. Odna Strana. Odna Sud’ba. Rolik 5. [ALŽIR”. One People. One Country. One Destiny. Part 5]. Sponsored by The Fund of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEf0VrWohTw
“Kurt – the precious stone”. Song. Lyrics R. Golubeva, Music D. Ostan’kovič, Performed by Majra Dauletpak. (Posted by D. Ostn’kovič, 30 May 2020). Available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UN1bblT7JA
Studio DALI (www.dali.kz). 2008. Videofilm “ALŽIR” Vozvraščonnaja pamjat’” [Videofilm “ALŽIR” Restored memory]. Available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHuU2rpV-xQ
Dr. Olga Campbell-Thomson is an academic and translator based in Scotland, the University of Glasgow. Her research interests include the cultural and social history of the Soviet period. Her scholarship is further related to her own lived experiences in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Northern Cyprus. She has published on various aspects of cross-ethnic and cross-cultural encounters among Turkic-speaking communities.
Raisa Žaksybaeva is the curator of a museum-memorial complex named ALŽIR, which is dedicated to the victims of political repression and totalitarianism in the Akmola region of Kazakhstan. Prior to the official inauguration of the complex in 2007, she managed a private museum collection of personal items donated by the survivors of ALŽIR and their families. In 1997–2006, she gathered an impressive collection of materials that are now displayed and also kept in the archives of the state museum-memorial complex.