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Home arrow History arrow Kazak Intermediaries and Russian Rule on the Steppe, 1731-1917



Early in 1870, faced with a seemingly routine question about the salary and provisioning of Cossack troops on the Siberian steppe’s long border with China, the War Ministry of the Russian Empire sent out a confused request for data: “In order to decide the question raised in the War Ministry about allowances [dovol'stvie] for Cossack forces serving on the Chinese border, it is necessary to have information about whether or not the Ukek picket and the former picket Chandygapui, located in Biisk district of Tomsk province, are actually located on the Chinese border"1 If information is the lifeblood of the state, the Russian Empire always tottered on the edge of anemia. This was the case for isolated corners of the countryside of “European” Russia, the fate of which after the emancipation of the serfs was materially influenced by a lack of statistical data about its inhabitants.2 But it was even more true in parts of the empire that were far from major metropolitan centers and populated by people of different lifeways, customs, and languages than obtained in the Slavic core. This book is, at its core, the story of the Russian Empire’s attempts to remediate this fundamental problem in one strategically important but difficult- to-govern region. The story of conquest and rule on the Kazak steppe is inseparable from the production of knowledge about it by Russians and Kazaks alike.3

On one hand, in its borderlands, the Russian Empire continued to lack some of the basic desiderata of other European empires down to 1917 (Alexander Morrison, for example, notes the absence of a cadaster for Turkestan).4 On the other, the knowledge of which it could dispose—what the historian C. A. Bayly would call its “archival depth”—grew exponentially between the initial incorporation of the Kazak steppe in the early 1730s and the empire’s collapse two centuries later.5 Superficially, the achievements of the tsarist state on the steppe during this interval would seem to signify a familiar and straightforward correlation between knowledge and state power. Increased tactical and topographical knowledge, circulated in specialist journals, facilitated a rapid military movement south to the oases of Turkestan. By the end of the 1800s, specialized agronomic and statistical surveys proliferated in support of a rapidly growing movement of Slavic agriculturalists to the steppe. As “civilizing” voices within the empire promoted the Russian language and tsarist institutions as conduits for the skills and habits that raw, wild nomads needed in order to modernize themselves, a small but vocal group of local intermediaries accepted their arguments. By many of the indices according to which an empire can be judged, Russian imperialism in Central Asia and the Kazak steppe was a success, and the knowledge that Russian scholars and bureaucrats amassed about these regions, with the significant assistance of Kazak intermediaries, played an important role in it. Yet even as this empire succeeded, according to the terms it had set itself, its policies prepared the ground for a major revolt on the eve of the revolutions of 1917, while further isolating an autonomist movement whose participants had previously shown themselves willing to participate in its institutions. This seeming contradiction is best explained by exploring the knowledge that Russians and Kazaks produced about the steppe in its social and administrative context.

This is not meant to be another in a long line of deconstructionist studies of the representations and categories of imperial rule, or a simple statement of the power of discourse to oppress.6 Rather, I am inspired by the work of historians and philosophers of science who are interested not in the construction, per se, of categories and concepts but in the manner in which people form and revise beliefs on the basis of the information at their disposal.7 Ian Hacking, discussing the natural sciences, has identified three aspects of social-constructivist arguments and proposed that constructivists and their opponents exist on a continuum with respect to each: contingency (that is, ideas might have emerged differently than they did); nominalism (the world is structured through human representations); and explanations of stability (whether because of objectively existing reality or social consensus).8 By Hacking’s definition, much of this book’s own epistemological foundation is social-constructivist. But by no means does this exhaust the list of questions that can usefully be asked about the co-construction of the steppe and its population by the Russian Empire and its intermediaries on the Kazak steppe.

Tsarist bureaucrats were desperate to produce the sort of knowledge that would help them to formulate and apply policy on the steppe. At the same time, once the Russian Empire created the sparse institutions (newspapers and schools) that made its mission civilisatrice in the region anything more than rhetorical, it represented itself, and in particular the Russian language, as conduits to a world of useful knowledge outside the wild, benighted steppe. In both respects, tsarist attitudes about knowledge created discursive and institutional space for Kazak actors to represent themselves and advance their own interests. The Russian Empire’s encounter with the steppe, though certainly characterized by unequal power relations, was thus an exchange of knowledge, whereby Kazak and tsarist actors represented themselves and one another to one another. Many of these representations had long-lasting social and political repercussions. Tracing both is the fundamental task of the present work.

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