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


The Present: People

Kazaks were by no means alone as nomadic subjects of the Russian Empire. Still, their curious habits provoked much commentary and speculation from observers unaccustomed to their seasonal movements and the social structures that supported them. Under imperial eyes, even at this early stage, nomadism was an idea with many valences: an environmental adaptation, a civilizational marker, a means of social organization, and a fact to be dealt with in matters of diplomacy and governance. It was held to be the determining factor in Kazak institutions and behavior, and the disputed question of whether their environment or character would permit them to live any other way thus bore strongly on perceptions of their future within the empire.

Nomads are notoriously tricky for modern states to deal with, to the point of cliche, slipping through the boundaries they draw and the institutions of surveillance they hope to establish.82 Of course, comprehensive censuses were not common anywhere in the world before the nineteenth century, but tsarist observers saw the production of knowledge as particularly difficult among “a half-wild people . . . ceaselessly mov[ing] from place to place with their homes, and whom the single word ‘census’ may bring to agitation.”83 Mobility, and not the overall weakness of the tsarist frontier state, was thus to blame for the paucity of data available about Kazaks’ numbers and wealth. Population estimates focused, as a practical matter, on the number of men of fighting age each horde could place on a battlefield, and even these varied widely: between 30,000 and 70,000 in the Middle Horde; roughly 30,000 in the Small, though only 20,000 had been observed; in the unlikely event that the two hordes fully unified, the total figure might make 100,000, or might make less.84 Still less reliable was information about nomads’ wealth, which outside observers could only estimate down to orders of magnitude, and in broad strokes. Kazaks seemed to be rather less wealthy than they claimed they had been in the past,85 but the upper strata of the population still held an enormous number of animals—1,000-3,000 sheep and “often” 1,000-2,000 horses.86 The vague picture that emerged from these statistics was of a thin population leading an extensive lifestyle—some tremendously wealthy, others so poor in livestock that they had lost the ability to nomadize.87

Because of seasonal changes and the rate at which livestock ate grass, Kazaks made several major migrations per year, a process that Khanykov summarized in purple prose:

When the sun with its spring rays frees the northern steppes from their snowy shroud and calls lush grasses forth from the renewed earth for a short life, the Kazaks and their herds hurry to build their strength, so as to bear the painful feelings of the other times of the year. But their ease does not continue for long. At the start of May, the most expansive [privol’nye] parts of the steppe’s surface almost always offer a yellow plain of sad appearance, covered with grass burnt by the sun; then the Kazaks every week must move their light dwellings from place to place and, wandering along the banks of streams and springs, only by constant motion save their herds and themselves from a hungry death.88

The fall was also a dry time, filled with preparations for winter, which was a time of limited mobility and the most difficult, dangerous time of year. The holdings of even the wealthiest nomads were not reliable, in this view—they were dependent on their unrestricted movement and acts of God.

Although it would have been easy, from a sedentary perspective, to dismiss seasonal migration as disordered wandering, some tsarist commentators had a fairly strong understanding of the ordering principles beneath the system. On one hand, they created stronger links between individual hordes and specific territories than had historically been the case: the Small Horde occupied the Orenburg steppe and lands bordering the Caspian Sea; the Middle the Siberian steppe; and the Great had its pastures in Semirech'e and what is today called Xinjiang.89 On the other, they believed that the clan (rod), a subdivision of the horde, provided the fundamental structuring principle of Kazak life, including during pastoral migration, and had a clear idea of these clans’ preferred summer and winter pastures (Kaz. zhailau and qistau, respectively).90 If tsarist administrators had little success in keeping nomads within state boundaries, they at least knew where to expect them to appear. They believed, further, that this was a stable situation and, more critically, that these divisions of pasture were analogous to territorial subdivisions with which they were more familiar:

I n each clan rules among them he who is richest and is considered among them the wisest [razumneishim], but as the titles of these clans derive from their very antiquity, and as they are very populous, and occupy good-sized areas [na nemalykh okruzhnostiakh], one can compare them with our districts or cantons [uezd, volost'], having their own special administrators, which they call elders. They unite toward a single goal only in such cases when there is an inevitable need for it or the good of the whole clan demands it. . . . Every Kazak knows to which clan he belongs, and from clan to clan they do not move.91

Such regularity did not prevent conflicts among clans, despite, Levshin argued, their best intentions.92 Rather, they clashed frequently over territory and resources, acting in the service of much narrower political and economic inter- ests.93 But there was, at least, a form and a logic to both seasonal movement and conflict, ratified by generations of tradition: clans and subclans moved seasonally along established routes, stopping at locations (urochishcha) to which they had defined rights of use.94

In fact, pastoral nomadism defined how Kazaks organized and governed themselves in several respects. Tsarist commentators, though, drew largely negative conclusions about the institutions that mobility conditioned. Lacking written laws because of their illiteracy and purported ignorance, they settled disputes through folk judges, in some versions according to “natural laws,” in others according to “established customs and the provisions [zakonopolozheniia] of the Koran.”95 Over time, through the publications of Levshin and Grigorii Spasskii, there emerged a rough understanding of the existence of a body of customary law created under Tauke-khan (1650-1715), the Zheti zharghi, establishing compensation for various crimes (including payment of a kun, blood money, for murder).96 In the future, this emergent understanding would send tsarist administrators on a chimerical quest to ascertain and codify customary law.97 Early on, though, commentators were more inclined to note practical problems: weak enforcement of rulings based in customary law forced dissatisfied litigants and their relations to run to the strategy of haranta (Kaz. barimta), the theft of livestock in order to obtain satisfaction again in court or to compensate one’s losses, a practice most common during the summer and fall migrations, and which inevitably favored the strong.98 Indeed, mobility generally lent itself to weak leadership and to frequent situations where the right of the strong prevailed; people dissatisfied with their leaders would simply abandon them for others who better suited their “wild” inclinations, a privilege that sedentary peoples lacked.99

Such a rough-and-ready system of justice and administration might, in the right context, have found some measure of approval, in a Rousseau-inspired way, praising the simple and pure morals of people living in a state of nature according to natural laws. 1 00 But early tsarist observers do not seem to have thought about Kazaks and the steppe in this way. The farthest they traveled down the path of cultural relativism was to note that weak leaders potentially offered administrators a divide-and-rule strategy and to pay lip service to understanding the role that baranta played in Kazak life—that it was a ritualized, regulated phenomenon, rather than an unending cycle of theft and murder. 1 01 Tsarist observers discerned the existence of a ruling “white bone” elite that had the hereditary right to ruling positions (as khans or sultans), and sought to ally with them to stabilize a leadership situation that Levshin described as “anarchy.”102

In short, by the time Levshin wrote in the early nineteenth century, these were not noble savages. They were simply savages, and, Levshin acidly noted, if Rousseau had gained any experience of what life was like among them, he might not have wasted so many words on the subject. 1 03 They caused themselves to suffer, impoverished themselves, and held their own development back.104 Pastoral nomadism was, at best, something the Russian Empire could succeed in spite of.

This negative view of pastoral nomadism became even more strongly established as scholars and administrators fell under the influence of an Enlightenment- inspired social evolutionist telos, according to which pastoral nomadism was only a slight step beyond hunting and gathering, and still far behind sedentary lifestyles supported by agriculture or commerce.105 Nomadism’s sins against order and civil development, it seemed, were numerous, and did not stop at supporting an atrophied justice system dominated by a few influential grandees. The medical doctor Al'fons Iagmin laid the case out clearly in a short book dedicated to the sometime governor of the Orenburg region, Vasilii Perovskii:

The history of the sciences and arts, and accordingly of medicine, among each people, begins with the history of its civil order. This is why, where civil order has not yet emerged, we would in vain seek out sciences and art, taking these words in their real meaning. The Kazaks support this truth in the most obvious way by their example. Until now they, constituting a separate people from educated nations, stood aloof from these latter, and, evading any collision with them, remained in a rough and almost wild condition. The reasons for this consisted: first, in the nomadic character of the Kazaks, the general attributes of Muslim peoples, to which they belong according to their faith; second, in the geographical position of their country, because the Syr, or Seikhun River, divided this tribe from sedentary tribes, and the lands that lay to the north and northeast of the land of the Kazaks, were always inhabited by nomadic peoples.106

Mobility thus militated against the very prerequisites of intellectual or cultural advancements.107 What remained were a variety of absurd superstitions and rituals that were at best accidentally useful and at worst dangerous.108 Nor did it permit the full development of a religious hierarchy that might have softened morals and sharpened minds, a quintessentially Catherinian idea that retained adherents into the first half of the nineteenth century. 1 09 Rather, they were at best ignorant Muslims, at worst not truly Muslims at all—recent pagans who lacked their own mullahs and mosques.110 The essence of their religion was not civil order but a few easily mimicked rituals (washing, circumcision, avoidance of pork) and deeply held, inconvenient prejudices against Russians and other “unbelievers.”111 For administrators who believed that force was the only possible way to deal with “Asiatics,” here was more evidence in favor of their views.

The vast majority of generalizations about Kazaks’ character were similarly grounded in their nomadic lifestyle and similarly pessimistic. Nikolai Rychkov accused Kazaks of ignorance (strongly associated with nomadism), slyness, and unbridled self-interest. 1 12 Shangin found them capable of inhuman cruelty and to possess a character “as inconstant as their way of life.”113 Both Bardanes and Pallas wrote that they displayed an unseemly suspicion of their Russian interlocutors.114 Levshin thought them simply cowardly and greedy. 1 15 Such views, by definition ethnocentric, were in no small part the result of imperial Russian observers seeing the usual practices of steppe politics and warfare through a sedentary European lens. Positive evaluations, where they existed, tended to focus on their traditions of hospitality and the good qualities of Kazak women, apparently kind and hard-working people tyrannized by their husbands.116 No particular efforts were made to reconcile these sometimes contradictory reports—for one high-ranking observer, S. B. Bronevskii, contradiction was the very essence of the Kazaks’ being—nor to problematize the idea that a group of people could be said to have a “character.”117 Heedless of the small contradictions in these ethnographic reports, the fundamental difference between observer and subject—steppe and sown, sedentary and nomadic— seemed to affirm that these new subjects of the empire had a wide range of qualities that made them difficult and dangerous.

An evolutionary perspective on human societies implied that Kazaks might at some indefinite future time become other than what they were. After all, many of the worst traits of their “patriarchal” society were similar to laws and practices that had characterized now-advanced European societies during late antiquity and the Middle Ages.118 All that was needed to make such an argument was to prove that nomadism represented a choice, and that sufficient parts of the Kazak steppe were suitable for sedentary agriculture to make advancement possible. Many tsarist observers were prepared to do exactly that. Bronevskii, for example, argued that pastoral nomadism was rooted in Kazaks’ preference to remain wild and free: “[they] not only do not have sedentarism but, considering it as bondage to remain in a single place, hold fixed [postoiannuiu] life in contempt.”119 Moreover, both past and present offered numerous examples testifying that agriculture was possible on the Kazak steppe. Nikolai Rychkov, for example, noticed evidence at the Kara-Turgai River, within the Orenburg steppe, that the people who had inhabited it before the Kazaks had cultivated grain there.120 Other observers exulted that hard-working Kazaks, in both the Siberian and Orenburg steppes, had been able to extract good harvests from soil that did not seem to have much potential.121 A good enough environment made sedentary life possible, and that, by the logic of the time, meant that good government could make cultural advancement possible.122 In sum, multiple viewpoints existed on this question, and taken to their logical conclusions, these viewpoints would lead to contradictory policy implications.

If these assertions could be shown to be untrue, though, then there was no alternative but to see Kazaks as permanently troublesome subjects, unlikely to be civilized, and best turned to the Russian Empire’s advantage by force and coercion. Levshin, with a dominant position in scholarly and administrative discourse, laid out the logic of this viewpoint clearly: “It is impossible to presume that all Kazaks could be turned from shepherds into farmers, for, not speaking already of their aversion toward this way of life, they have too few places suitable for grain cultivation.” 1 23 This, however, was nothing to mourn over. Since the Kazak steppe was “created as if on purpose for nomadic life,” its inhabitants could serve the empire far better as wealthy herders than as poor farmers.124 This was unlikely to leave Kazaks any more civilized, cultured, or inherently tractable than they currently were, but it would render them manageable through established methods, and had the virtue of corresponding to what Levshin viewed as environmental realities. At the time when Levshin wrote, maintaining, rather than effacing, difference still seemed to have its advantages.

In the century or so that followed Abulkhair-khan’s original “submission” to Russian rule, tsarist administrators and scholars developed a firm set of understandings of nomadism and the problems it presented, although some aspects of this consensus seem unlikely or simply wrong in hindsight. Nomadism’s status in Kazak life, though—as immutable or potentially changeable—was already open to dispute. Soon, geopolitical change and a reordering of internal priorities would lend particular importance to the question.

From one perspective, during the first century of its suzerainty over the Kazak steppe, however nominal, the Russian Empire produced a limited but useful sort of knowledge about Kazaks and the land they inhabited. The history of Kazak subjecthood, written as it was happening, amply justified Russia’s presence in the region. Information about terrain, however rough and incomplete, sufficed as a guide to the most important travel routes and the locations where the most influential clans and leaders might be found.125 A complex web of facts and stereotypes about nomadic life was flexible enough to justify any approach to imperial rule that might have seemed desirable—civilizing, if one apprehended the Kazaks through the prism of evolutionism, or a forceful, borderlands strategy, if environmental determinism came to the fore. The tsarist state saw the Kazak steppe clearly enough to maintain nominal control over it, control that, despite occasional rebellions, seemed to be growing stronger.

At the same time, some serious gaps stand out. Population figures were never better than a guess, and data about the environment was poorly systematized. Trying to take as a single whole a massive land area comprising several distinctive environmental regions, and whose residents were subject to divergent influences from without, produced a mass of contradictions. By the 1840s there remained fundamental disagreements about which lifeways the steppe could support, as well as about the civilizational aptitudes of its residents. Such uncertainty was productive, or at least not fatal, at the early stages of imperial rule. But it would present serious problems when, in the 1860s, the conquest of Turkestan completed the encirclement of the steppe, making it an internal province of the empire.

The Russian Empire conquered the Kazak steppe without well-defined intentions for it; more than that, though, it conquered the steppe without knowing a great deal about what it actually was. The 1850s and 1860s were a time of feverish scholarly and legislative activity in the empire, with new institutions appearing to support the research that, it was hoped, could resolve its increasingly apparent difficulties.126 The administrative reforms that took place on the steppe in the 1860s were a test case for this new era of knowledge production: could scholars and administrators move beyond generalities and contradictions to develop positive and useful facts about the region?

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