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Intermediaries, Agency, and Power

A signal part of the imperial turn in Russian history has been an interest in the ways in which minority groups shaped, participated in, and responded to imperial ideologies and practices of rule, fueled by the opening of local and republic- level archives and opportunities to study non-Russian Eurasian languages. The most important methodological contribution of these works is to, as Virginia Martin put it, view the subjects of their study (Kazaks, for Martin) as “historical agents, rather than . . . recipients of historical change.”36 Other scholars, such as Robert Crews and Austin Jersild, have, in different contexts, demonstrated that tsarist institutions served as sites of contestation of the meanings of identity and imperial rule, even as local elites shared the civilizing assumptions of their tsarist interlocutors.37 The present work broadly confirms these findings.

Insisting on the agency of Kazak intermediaries as historical actors, even though they shared many of the basic improving and “civilizing” assumption of their interlocutors, means they cannot be seen as engaged in mimicry, or as simply inevitably adopting the views of an all-powerful imperial state.38 This, in turn, flies in the face of a historiographical tradition that imputes tremendous power to the structures and discourses of colonial rule. David Scott, for one, positioning Tous- saint L’Ouverture as a “conscript of modernity,” his decisions constrained by the inexorable change modernity implied, leaves his subject precious little freedom of thought or action.39 Similarly, Partha Chatterjee has highlighted the contradictions in Indian nationalism, “because it reasons within a framework of knowledge whose representational structure corresponds to the very structure of power nationalist thought seeks to repudiate.”40 A later attempt to “claim for us, the once-colonized, our freedom of imagination” posited that anticolonial nationalism operated by bifurcating the world into material and spiritual domains, acknowledging Western superiority in the former while insisting on the distinctiveness of the latter.41

This does not seem to have been the case on the steppe, though. A timeless and ill-defined construct like “modernity” does not suffice to explain the range of choices (and their disappearance) available to Kazak intermediaries. Both the land and people of the steppe were unknowable, or at least imperfectly knowable, to the tsarist state. In that context, Kazak intermediaries could collaborate in a way that was in the main fruitful for the empire, and fully accept its modernizing materialist imperatives, while maintaining a degree of intellectual autonomy and agency.42 If tsarist observers, practically to a man, saw the steppe as backwards with respect to the Russian metropole, they neither did so in the same way nor agreed on how that backwardness was to be remediated. Civilization, after all, might take many forms, and many roads might lead to it. Mobilizing local expertise gave Kazak actors, for a time, a limited voice in such debates. These intermediaries sought influence, and through it subject- hood, through the currency of knowledge. Even in presenting it within a modern, or European, framework, they had opportunities to shape the practice of imperialism on the steppe. It was resettlement that changed this situation, and there was nothing inevitable about that policy developing when and as it did.

It might, perhaps, be argued that choosing the sort of imperialism to which one is subject is hardly a choice. Given the apparently irreversible fact of conquest, though, it was a choice that Kazak intermediaries were often prepared to make. Even putatively “European” ways of knowing, in the context of a weak state and an alien environment, provided sufficient space for this to be less than a complete surrender to the ideologies and practices of Russian imperialism.43

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