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SEEING LIKE A HALF-BLIND STATE. Getting to Know the Central Eurasian Steppe, 1731-1840s

Frequently, English-language academic books about Central Asia begin with an introductory sketch, a set piece that introduces readers to the particularities of local geography, history, and lifeways.1 This is an entirely reasonable approach. The unfamiliarity of the region even to well-educated English readers suggests the necessity of reviewing its particularities from the outset. An introductory sketch helps fine-grained monographs about the social and cultural history of Central Asia to reach a broader audience.

However, for the present work, which aims to historicize and contextualize the very sources such a sketch might be based on, such an approach is awkward at best and impermissible at worst, for two reasons. First, synthesizing the views of outside observers over a wide range of years, from drastically different genres (travelogues, ethnographic narratives, administrative reports), makes it difficult to understand how these views changed over time. Second, adopting such an omniscient perspective makes it difficult to enter into the subject position of tsarist administrators assigned to the steppe. Over bad roads, raids or disorders might take months to report; such basic data as the location of major landforms were disputed and subject to revision.2 Tsarist administrators, well into the nineteenth century, were situated in islands of certainty in the midst of a sea they barely knew.

Working through the sources an educated Russian might have been able to consult during the first century of tsarist rule on the steppe can help us to better understand the difficulties that administrators at the local level, or in the chanceries of St. Petersburg, might have faced in understanding the region. A comprehensive survey of the ephemera produced by various early expeditions is not my goal here. Rather, I have triangulated among three bibliographical sources to produce a synthetic view of the steppe on the basis of the knowledge contemporary observers actually had at hand. Two of these bibliographies give a sense of administrative perspectives, the views that were accessible to the civilian and military officialdom of tsarist Russia. The first of these is attached to a fundamentally military text, compiled by the General Staff officer Lev Feofanovich Kostenko, Sredniaia Aziia i vodvorenie v nei russkoi grazhdanstvennosti (Central Asia and the establishment in it of Russian civil order).3 The second is the Turkestanskii sbornik (Turkestan collection), a collection in 594 volumes of published works concerning Central Asia begun at the order of K. P. von Kaufman, governor-general of Turkestan from 1867 to 1882. For academic views I have referred to an index to work on the Kazaks compiled by the ethnographer Aleksei Nikolaevich Kharuzin, published in 1891.4 Combined, these references provide a guide to the sort of knowledge a curious, well-educated, and well-resourced administrator, scholar, or amateur could have obtained during the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries. The increased volume of works cited after roughly 1840 represents a new era in the tsarist state’s regime of knowledge production and will be treated in its place. Works not appearing in either of these bibliographies were, effectively, dead to Russian readers. Uncited, out of print, sometimes never even in print, the information and perspectives they contained were of questionable relevance to the practice of rule.5

Taken together, the writings of scholars and travelers to the steppe reveal a striking blend of similarities and inconsistencies. A consistent and self-justifying narrative of the history of the steppe’s entry to the Russian Empire clashed with shifting perceptions of the quality of its land and character of its inhabitants. That shift, in turn, was conditioned by the gradual acculturation of outside observers to steppe environments and lifeways, on one hand, and evolving perspectives on the state’s role in this remote borderland on the other.6 By the 1840s, the dominant view was that nomadism was primitive, and that Kazak nomads were difficult for the tsarist state to deal with. Yet it was unclear whether the steppe environment permitted any other lifeway, and thus whether changing the Kazaks was feasible or desirable. This complex of enduring and contradictory ideas, it seemed, could be remedied only by further study.

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