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


Forming the Steppe Commission

The unification of the Russian Empire’s Orenburg and Siberian defensive lines in 1864 necessitated the reexamination of the separate administrative systems under which the Orenburg and Siberian steppes had previously been

MAP 1. Tsarist frontier line and settlements within the steppe to ca. 1850

ruled. The movement of tsarist troops to the south and east had made the former Governor-Generalship of Orenburg and Samara unmanageably big. Nor was it clear what cities as distant from one another as Samara and Shymkent could possibly have in common. Samara province was thus lopped off from the former governor-generalship on February 2, 1865. With the lines united, all regions with a majority-Kazak population were, to one degree or another, internal components of the empire, and the distance between them and the frontier would only grow during the Turkestan campaigns of 1865-1868. Moreover, the first domino of administrative reorganization had fallen. The opportunity to study and standardize, impulses so characteristic of the era of the Great Reforms, was now present on the steppe as well.15 Thus Alexander II ordered the ministers of internal affairs and war, Petr Valuev and Dmitrii Miliutin, to research which principles ought to constitute the basis of a fundamental administrative restructuring of the steppe.16 For Miliutin in particular, the pioneer of military statistics and an active patron of young, talented, well- informed officers, this was an opportunity to bring governance into line with the state of the epistemological art concerning the Central Asian borderlands. He proposed the organization of a study commission, to which Valuev readily agreed.

So as not to lose the opportunity that spring travel conditions presented, the two ministers moved quickly. The study commission, known as the Steppe Commission (1865-1868), was to consist of one representative apiece from the War Ministry, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Orenburg Governor-Generalship, and Western Siberian Governor-Generalship, thus ensuring that the interests of all the most relevant administrative instances were represented in its discus- sions.17 These roles were quickly filled by a blend of ambitious and experienced officials. The War Ministry appointed Aleksandr Konstantinovich Geins (1833-1893), a colonel of the General Staff and, until recently, a student at its prestigious academy.18 Another General Staff officer, Capt. Aleksandr Petrovich Protsenko, was the choice of the Western Siberian authorities, while the new governor-general of Orenburg, Nikolai Andreevich Kryzhanovskii, appointed Gen. Karl Kazimirovich Gutkovskii (1815-1867), an officer of Polish ancestry known for his expertise in steppe ethnography and geography. 19 Valuev entrusted his ministry’s role to Fedor Karlovich Girs (1824-1891), part of a long-serving and influential family of Swedish Lutheran administrators, a well- traveled troubleshooter within the ministry and a member of its council.20 It was Girs who would serve as the chairman of this multiethnic, multiconfessional group, bound together by a patriotic commitment to state service and intellectual devotion to the collection of practical, useful knowledge. A month later, all deputies available in St. Petersburg had developed a detailed program of no less than 17 questions concerning basic administrative principles, the effectiveness of Kazak and Russian courts, tax structures, land use, public health, education, and religious affairs.2 1 Even at the time, probably, it beggared belief that four men, at least two of whom knew no local languages, could travel more than 6,000 versts (about 4,000 miles) through difficult country and provide satisfactory answers to so many questions within a year—no matter how sincere their efforts and deep their expertise. Yet the tsarist state was making a serious wager that they could do exactly that, budgeting more than 17,000 rubles for the first year of the commission’s work alone.22 Despite the magnitude of the task, Girs and Geins set off from St. Petersburg late in June, arriving in Omsk, center of the Oblast of the Siberian Kazaks and the Western Siberian Governor-Generalship, on July 16.23

Tours like this were a quintessential tool, in the Russian Empire of the nineteenth century, for bringing about rapid administrative change, particularly in regions which were remote, lesser known, or distinct from the common structure of the European provinces.24 On one hand, they enabled rapid data gathering by picked men of the tsar or his relevant ministers, with some participation by local actors. On the other hand, they permitted the ministries of St. Petersburg to bypass years of correspondence with local governors and their own assorted departments and quickly introduce proposals to executive organs. To effect change in this highly bureaucratic empire was an Augean task—statutes contradicted one another, paperwork got lost, powerful local governors died or were replaced by men with radically different views and an equal amount of power. Study commissions, with the right patronage and equipped with sufficient authority, could get around this mass of paperwork and personalities. Indeed, in the case of the Steppe Commission, all correspondence on matters pertaining to Kazak administration, no matter how far discussions had advanced, was simply halted, and the relevant files were presented to Girs for consideration in the commission.25 Valuev and Mili- utin happily took the opportunity an extraordinary institution presented to achieve a greater level of coordination than was usually possible. In short, this was a blunt administrative instrument intended to resolve problems that had been quite literally piling up for decades in the chanceries of Orenburg, Omsk, and St. Petersburg.

Once in the field, the commission’s occupations were varied. They spent some time going native, living in Kazak auls (villages) chosen expressly for their “less spoiled” character, and conversing with influential members of the native administration.26 In the Siberian steppes, their circuit (ob"ezd) took approximately five months; with the approach of the bitter Siberian winter, they returned to Omsk to pull files from the provincial archive, interview members of the Russian administration, and write up, according to a division of labor agreed in advance, their observations.27 Some then returned to St. Petersburg for the winter. The following May, they departed for Orenburg, the steppes adjacent, and Turkestan.28 By the spring of 1867, when the legwork was complete, much had changed. The massively unsatisfactory nature of the temporary administration of “Turkestan province,” the administrative unit created to manage the newly conquered territories south of the Syr-Darya River, moved the problem of its reform to the front of the line.29 Moreover, the very personnel had changed. Gutkovskii passed away early in 1867, depriving the Orenburg steppe of its representative; Geins, having done the lion’s share of the work in compiling a governing statute for Turkestan, accepted a prestigious appointment as an aide to that region’s new governor-general, Konstantin von Kaufman, which would give him the opportunity to put his recommendations into practice. But their replacements came from the same small pool of General Staff experts and experienced frontier administrators as before. Orenburg’s new deputy was Major-General Viktor Dandevil', an experienced Central Asian hand as former commander of the Syr-Darya line of fortifications.30 The War Ministry, meanwhile, would now be represented by an acknowledged authority on steppe affairs, Col. Lev Lavrent'evich Meier, who had literally written the book on the Orenburg Kazaks.31 At the insistence of the governor-general of Orenburg, Nikolai Andreevich Kryzha- novskii, they were joined by another military man, Major-General of His Majesty’s Suite Lev Fedorovich Balliuzek, a provincial governor in the Orenburg region who had, independently of the commission, undertaken his own study tour of his province.32 It was this slightly changed group of officers that was responsible for pulling together a draft statute, explaining unclear points to local administrators, and, crucially, justifying the legislation they proposed in a special note. On New Year’s Day of 1868, Girs presented the fruits of two and a half years of tiring travel and intellectual labor to Miliutin.33 But before following the commission’s proposed statute through the work of legislation, it is first necessary to analyze in detail the assumptions and information on which it based its conclusions. The Steppe Commission was, explicitly, a study commission—so what did it study? And what was the relationship between the knowledge it had at its disposal and the legislation it proposed? Sizable scholarly and administrative traditions had developed, by 1865, concerning all the questions most pertinent to administrators: Kazak lifeways; the applicability of reformed metropolitan institutions; and religious affairs. In all cases, members of the Steppe Commission had to navigate between what seemed true to them and administrative expediency. The knowledge of Kazak intermediaries, whether published in Russian or obtained through conversation on the spot, was more grist for this mill, an important but not decisive factor in settling debates.

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