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


The Present: Land

Beyond its status as a political term, “Kazak steppe” had both geographic and ethnographic connotations. “Steppe” in the sense of a landscape was familiar enough, in the abstract, even to tsarist observers more accustomed to city life or more heavily forested environments. After all, before Abulkhair had even considered becoming a subject of the tsar, the Russian Empire had held flat, treeless, semi-arid grasslands—the lower basins of the Don and Volga Rivers, as well as the Black Sea littoral of contemporary Ukraine.49 Some of the lands that entered into the “Kazak steppe” were comparable to them, a point which the physician Khristofor Bardanes, attached to Johann Peter Falck’s academic expedition, noted explicitly.50 Others, however, were far outside the ken of any unprepared observer. For the Kazak steppe was also something protean, a space defined by human behavior. As Bardanes put it, its real boundaries were “those limits . . . beyond which they do not nomadize, or cannot do so.”51 These vast lands encompassed desert wastes, grasslands, and oases seemingly propitious for sedentary life. It fell to tsarist observers to try to make sense of this diverse array of landscapes.

On the Russian side of the Kazak steppe, at least, it was fairly easy to define where it ended and Russian possessions began. These boundaries, beyond fortresses, were a pair of major waterways, the Ural/Yaik River (in the west, flowing south to the Caspian Sea) and the Irtysh River (in the east, flowing north to the Ob' River, and thence to the Arctic Ocean).52 It was also clear enough, in the tsarist geographical imaginary, that the Kazak steppe, lying largely east of the Ural Mountains, was a part of Asia rather than of Europe.53 What tsarist observers perceived as the indefiniteness of borders between “Asiatic” peoples, and the simple fact of distance from Russian possessions, made it trickier to establish a similar boundary to the south, where the Kazak hordes ran up against the khanates of Turkestan. Petr Rychkov proposed the Sary-Su (“yellow water”), a river originating in what is today central Kazakhstan, as a southern border of Orenburg province, while Levshin noted that Kazaks did not migrate south of the 42nd parallel.54 The Caspian Sea served as an approximate western limit, while a line of Qing fortifications in present-day Xinjiang province stretching north to Russian borders offered a firmer one in the east.55 Even Levshin, with the most complete data available at the time, refused to estimate what a huge surface area fell within these bounds.56 To provide an idea of the distances and scale involved, though, in 1841 the scholar and diplomat Nikolai Khanykov calculated the area occupied by the Small and Bukei Hordes alone at 900,000 square versts, significantly larger than the state of Texas.57 Coming up with some sort of scheme to make sense of a region so vast and diverse was a heuristic necessity, for both busy administrators and scholars who were beginning to think more systematically.

Efforts to do so resulted in the development of very elaborate schemes of classification. The diplomat Iakov Petrovich Gaverdovskii (approx. 1770-1812), in the only part of his extensive work published during the nineteenth century, identified four different zones (polosy) within the steppe, on the basis of their soil, elevation, vegetation, and climate.58 Not to be outdone, Levshin delineated no less than seven climactic zones.59 As a practical matter, though, most observers recognized two major divisions of the steppe (the oases of Semirech'e being outside of imperial control, and thus of the sight of the state, at this time). These were simple axial divisions, north-south and east-west. In terms of soil, vegetation, and hydrology, these lines divided regions familiar and comfortable to forest-dwelling agriculturalists from the world of the nomads.

A line that Levshin defined around the 51st parallel divided what he considered to be the most fertile, least sandy part of the Kazak steppe from the less promising regions to its south, with a second region of limited fertility stretching to roughly the 48th parallel.60 The vast majority of tsarist observers drew this distinction between a lush, productive northern zone and the “infertile” south, although with less precision.61 The soil above this line was the prized chernozem, black earth, the high humus content of which promised fertility and years of good harvests.62 Further to the south, the soil grew poorer, with rich humus replaced by sandy, rocky, or salty and alkaline soils (solonchak).63 These soil conditions had an obvious influence on the flora characteristic of the two regions. In the north, tsarist observers luxuriated in the possibility of introducing forms of agriculture similar to those of European Russia.64 The south, on the other hand, seemed a bunch of reeds and grasses at best, perhaps useful to Kazaks, but monotonous and scanty to outsiders.65 Less explicable was the seeming difference between the west and east, regions ultimately subordinated to the governor-generalships of Orenburg and Western Siberia, respectively, and which I will refer to throughout as the “Orenburg” and “Siberian” Kazak steppes. The eastern Kazak steppe, in areas where the soil had sufficient fertility, could boast a reasonable amount of forest cover, until it grew stony and naked on its far eastern edge.66 Farther to the west, in contrast, the available forests were “very insufficient.”67 I have found no attempts to explain this difference, but the lack of trees even on the best parts of the Orenburg steppe seemed a problem to be solved and a serious limiting factor on its present and future prospects.

Another general limiting factor was the lack and uneven distribution of sources of fresh water. Here, too, the north came out far ahead. River valleys were the most promising areas for grain cultivation, providing moisture for crops and potable water for humans and dray animals. Unfortunately, as Levshin put it, beyond a few first-rank rivers (the Ural and Irtysh) and their major tributaries (the Ilek, flowing into the Ural; and the Tobol and Ishim, reaching the Irtysh), the vast majority “flow[ed] only in spring and at the start of summer” before drying up.68 Both the Orenburg and Siberian steppes thus could boast only one major river and several minor ones boosting the fertility of the land, ribbons of life in an otherwise dead landscape.69 Toward the south, the dryness of the climate reduced the flow of even fairly significant rivers, making valleys “uncomfortable” (neudobno) even for nomads during the summer.70 The largest bodies of standing water (the Aral and Caspian Seas in the west, Lake Balkhash in the southeast) stood in the middle of particularly inhospitable deserts; smaller ones were undrinkable and ephemeral, useful only as sources of salt.71 While some of these, especially the Syr-Darya River, Aral Sea, and Caspian Sea, offered hope for commercial navigation, the overwhelming message of scholarship and travel literature was that the southern Kazak steppe was a difficult place to survive as Russians were accustomed, much less thrive.72

The one thing that all of these subdivisions of the steppe had in common, in the eyes of tsarist observers, was their climate. In this the consensus was fundamentally correct: despite some small regional variations, this was one of the most continental climates on earth, with sharp transitions between hot and cold, little atmospheric precipitation, unbearable heat in the summer, and cold in the winter that could literally be deadly.73 Fearing diseases of the eyes and respiratory system that they believed were caused by moist, cold air in enclosed spaces, tsarist observers were unanimous in lauding the salutary influence this bracing climate had on the indigenous inhabitants of the steppe.74 All the same, the limits that it placed on human economic activity, without significant ameliorative work (irrigation, chiefly, where it was possible), appeared to be clear.75 Yet some basic points remained disputed. While Gaverdovskii considered changes in elevation the defining factor in the Kazak steppe’s climate, creating microclimates of varying suitability for habitation,76 Khanykov marshaled an impressive mass of quantitative data to argue that it was the openness of the region from the north (and hence to polar winds) that produced its basic continentality.77 Moreover, he asserted, glittering generalities about the climate were insufficient, though earlier researchers, for lack of equipment and time, were not to be faulted for relying on them; on the basis of new data for the 1820s and 1830s, he set it as his task to “establish plausible limits for the general expressions ‘very cold’ and ‘very hot.’”78 More precise quantitative data would enable both predictions for locations where measurements had not been taken and the establishment of isotherms, connecting locations within the Kazak steppe with locations elsewhere on the globe with comparable mean annual temperatures.79 Although Khanykov never completed the essay where he began these calculations, similar methods would be used, in later years, to support arguments about the possibility of cultivating various crops in Central Asia.80 For the time, though, all that could definitively be said about the climate of the region as it related to human activity was based on subjective experiences of the heat and cold, actual attempts at cultivating certain crops, and rank speculation.81

The image of the Kazak steppe environment that emerged in the work of early tsarist scholars and travelers was thus a blend of certainty and ambivalence. The rough natural divisions of this huge and diverse landscape seemed evident, but their sources and significance were altogether less clear. To the extent that much of it seemed unpromising for the lifeways tsarist observers were accustomed to, though, the steppe also seemed well suited to a different set of social and economic practices: pastoral nomadism. This, in turn, stood out as the key fact of Kazak life, the fundamental difference between them and the state to which they had sworn fealty, and a potentially serious obstacle to tsarist ambitions on the steppe.

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