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


Land and People: Sedentarizing and Civilizing the Steppe

The question of administrative reform on the steppe turned foremost on the question of its suitability to be ruled, now or in the future, along lines similar to the rest of the empire—whether it should permanently remain a borderland apart or could ultimately progress to grazhdanstvennost' (loosely translatable as “civil order”).34 However, this question itself turned on a series of others: could Kazaks become civilized while remaining nomads? If they could not, did their environment permit them to settle on the land? And if they were to become sedentary, who or what would effect such a transition, and in what time frame? By the time the Steppe Commission entered the field, the scholarship it could draw on indicated that the steppe was a coherent unit, more broadly suited than not for sedentary life and the civic development that came with it. But the more finely grained questions continued to lack clear answers, and demanded the commission’s intervention.

Of the lands the Steppe Commission was to study, the most notoriously wild and uncivilized was the steppe of the Small Horde, governed from Orenburg and stretching to the banks of the Caspian Sea. This was the wild, anarchic steppe that Aleksei Levshin described in his widely read account. Levshin’s argument about the inherent wildness of the Orenburg steppe was not terribly complicated. It showed early flashes of the geographical determinism that came into vogue in radical intelligentsia circles much later, in the 1860s. Nomads presented a set of inherent problems for any state that wanted to govern them—an assumption that, by the 1860s, was widely shared.35 The sun-scorched sands and scrubby brush of the Orenburg region seemed unpromising for any lifeway but pastoral nomadism. Consequently, the Orenburg Kazaks were likely to remain at their present stage of development, and it only remained to the tsarist government to manage and pacify them as best it could. Later, the military statistician Ivan Fedorovich Blaramberg (18001878) expressed somewhat more optimism than Levshin about the influence of tsarist administration on nearby Kazaks. Still, his general conclusion was nearly the same:

The nomadic way of life is a necessary consequence of the main industry of the Kazaks, animal husbandry, and the character traits common to all Asiatics—laziness and carelessness. They cannot in any way get the hang of [srodnit'sia] the idea of settling for two very important reasons. First, condensed into a small space, by what would they satisfy their uncountable herds, which give them clothing, food, and everything needed for life? Second, this would deprive them of the mobility with which they are now able to evade their enemies and satisfy their deep- rooted passion for baranta [livestock theft].36

Both environment and a vaguely understood national or racial character militated against making the Orenburg Kazaks anything other than what they were.

For years, this image of the Orenburg steppe and its inhabitants fit comfortably with the priorities of the man who ruled both. The long-serving governor- general of Orenburg, Vasilii Alekseevich Perovskii (1794-1857), had been a frontier administrator of the old school. Improvement and “civilizing” did not enter into the list of Perovskii’s tasks. Defense of the frontier from raids did, and in this, he felt, it was possible to deal with nomads. Indeed, his concern with security led him to oppose, on principle, permitting Kazaks to take up agriculture even in regions where environmental conditions permitted it. Rather, he hoped to transform the Orenburg Kazaks into consumers of Russian grain and manufactures, “softening” their wild morals as raiding the Russian border ceased to be in their economic interests.37 Such priorities dovetailed nicely with a system of indirect rule that placed significant power in the hands of Kazak administrators and foresaw little direct intervention in Kazak lives by the tsarist administration. Into the 1850s, the way scholars viewed the Orenburg steppe and the limited aspirations that administrators had for it were utterly complementary.

The Siberian steppe (populated by the Middle Horde) and Semirech'e (populated by the Great Horde) were generally viewed as much more promising areas for nomads to settle on the land, with all the attendant civilizational benefits. Despite an uninhabitable hole in the center of the region, the notorious “Hungry Steppe,” this was the area that seemed to offer the most promise for integration with and utility for the rest of the empire. Some of this was the result of a more direct system of rule introduced by Mikhail Speranskii in the 1820s, governing territory through okrug prikazy (district administrative centers that included Russian officials) instead of delegating matters to Kazak sultans. Whatever this system’s deficiencies—and reform-minded observers, by the 1860s, were convinced that they were numerous—it had proven preferable to simply abdicating the responsibility to govern.38 But environmental factors also played a role here. Unlike the harsh Orenburg steppe, the majority of this region seemed to offer resources sufficient for Kazaks to sedentarize, and Russians to take root, without significant effort. Krasovskii identified a variety of locations highly favorable for agriculture in the northern steppe, principally in the hills west of the Ishim River. Attempting to erase any doubts as to his objectivity, he noted, with unlikely precision, that “in these areas, chernozemic soil [i.e., black earth, with high humus content] occupies, out of each 100 desiatinas, about half (40.8%).”39 Semirech'e stood out still further, as the Russian presence there grew, its left flank tremendously fertile and offering the possibility “to develop grain cultivation there and firmly establish [uprochit'] the Kazaks’ sedentarism,” which they would surely be able to do with the appropriate governmental encouragement.40 The two halves of the steppe seemed like separate worlds—one ruled directly, developing gradually, and offering still further possibilities, the other seemingly condemned to remain an eternal backwater.

Already before the Steppe Commission went to work, there was significant criticism of this state of affairs in Orenburg. Perovskii’s successor in Orenburg— the handsome, charming, but sickly Aleksandr Andreevich Katenin—quickly attempted to undo much of the work his predecessor had done when he came to power in 1857.41 He was particularly galled by Perovskii’s principled opposition to agriculture and sedentarization of the Kazaks and, in a memorandum of early 1859, attempted to systematically destroy all of his arguments. The subtle dependency and submission, based on commerce with Russian grain merchants at the Orenburg Line, that Perovskii envisioned seemed to Katenin a pale facsimile of the guarantees of stability that sedentarized Kazaks would offer: “The dependence and obedience of a sedentary people are incomparably more strengthened by the fact of their attachment to their dwellings and crops, that they will not dare to abandon them and go off God knows where, like nomads, and by the fact that these dwellings and crops, as punishment for insubordination, can be wiped out [razoreny i istrebleny] .”42 But this principled viewpoint would have been for naught if the Orenburg steppe was as unpromising a landscape for agriculture as Levshin and his ilk argued. Thus, although it is not clear which sources he used, Katenin also argued that Perovskii’s assessment of the steppe environment was needlessly pessimistic. He embraced a different sort of environmental determinism than Blaramberg had. If there were sufficiently large areas with promising conditions for sedentary life after all, there was no reason the Orenburg Kazaks could not ultimately progress to agriculture, commerce, and grazhdanstvennost' as all societies should. Katenin noted that the small amount of land suitable for agriculture was only small relative to the vast total surface area of the Orenburg region. However, huge swaths of the Tobol', Turgai, and Ural/Yaik river valleys, in particular, were completely suitable for cultivation with minimal effort.43 Consequently, to fix the Kazaks in one place—in this instance, without any particular mention of further Russian colonization—was both desirable and, in many areas, feasible.

But this was a long-term goal, and in the immediate term, Katenin was clear that nomads and farmers alike could be improved. Later in 1859, he would make an even bolder proposal: moving the affairs of the Orenburg Kazaks from the management of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to that of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, like any other province of the empire. His reasoning stemmed equally from recent strategic shifts in Central Asia and a sanguine understanding of the influence of Russian rule on the Orenburg steppe: “The Trans-Ural Kazaks have turned from a half-wild people into real subjects, and Russia’s border with Central Asia already goes not along the Ural, but along the Syr-Darya River and Ust-

Urt [plateau]____In terms of the degree of their dependence on the State, of their

inner administrative structure, and of external security, the Trans-Ural steppe is now exactly the same province of the empire, as the steppe of the Kazaks of the Siberian department.”44 This was a slightly optimistic view of things at a time when the Russian Empire’s front military lines, in the Orenburg and Siberian steppes, were not yet united. There were still significant security threats from the south. But Katenin’s perspective stands out as important. It offered a new and drastically different conception of the environmental possibilities of the Orenburg steppe. At the same time, it established intellectual and administrative precedents for treating the Orenburg and Siberian steppes identically—and for treating them both as internal provinces of the empire—even before the steppe had been fully engulfed by Russia’s march to the south.

It only remained for the established facts about the Orenburg steppe to catch up to Katenin’s views (carried on by his successor, Aleksandr Pavlovich Bezak). The future member of the Steppe Commission Meier provided the goods. In his military-statistical manual on the Orenburg steppe, Meier, son of a family of evangelical St. Petersburg merchants and an officer of the General Staff, summarized the arguments in favor of sedentarism, agriculture, and the mission civilisatrice there.45 Near the Orenburg line, there was much land suitable for grain cultivation, and sufficient precipitation to do without expensive irrigation canals.46 Moreover, grain could be grown farther south, at the Syr-Darya, and he was much less pessimistic than other commentators about Russians’ ability to adapt to the new agricultural methods needed to thrive there.47 All this would in no way interfere with Kazaks’ pastoral nomadism on unsuitable lands, for only through such mobility “[was] it possible to extract some use from many parts of [this] vast territory.”48 But still further, he argued, even superficially unpromising lands gave hope for future development, or at least utility, under the proper stewardship. He drew particular attention to the productive fruit and vegetable gardens at Fort Alexandrovsk, established by an enterprising officer of its garrison, “on the high plateau Ust-Urt, known for its infertility, and surrounded on all sides by naked, stony steppe and cliffs,” and noted that nearby Kazak gardens were still more numerous and productive.49 This was, effectively, the most logical conclusion to the shift of thinking about the Orenburg steppe among tsarist officials that had begun years earlier. In general, Meier presented evidence that human action could triumph not only over wild morals, regardless of the environment, but over the environment itself. Specifically, his data showed that the Russian Empire need not restrict itself to fortifications outside the steppe and resign itself to minimal control within it. Meier had already shown himself to favor the desirability of this idea; now he also vouched for its practicability.50 A public opponent of the indirect “frontier” system of government that had characterized the Orenburg steppe, Meier also envisioned its environment as propitious for sedentarism in a way that would allow all the civilizational benefits of direct rule to flower there.51

Meier presented a raft of quantitative and qualitative data to justify his positions. His military statistics of the Orenburg steppe, when released in 1865, undoubtedly represented the state of the art in terms of information about the region. In effect, on the backs of several previous administrators and scholars, he had created a new fact—the Orenburg steppe as a civilizable, habitable place, basically compatible with its Siberian neighbor.

Even as the developmental possibilities of Orenburg caught up to the Siberian steppe in the tsarist official mind, local officials in Western Siberia were expressing new ambitions and preparing for a new phase in the life of the region. Since there were obviously, it seemed, lands suitable for agriculture that Kazaks were not making use of, the governor-general of Western Siberia, Aleksandr Osipovich Duhamel (1801-1880), proposed that peasant colonization of the region entrusted to him “could bring great benefits both with respect to civilizing the Kazaks, as well as for the development among them of agriculture and other trades characteristic to sedentary people.” 52 Duhamel and his council favored caution; the precise quantity of land in the governor-generalship was unknown, as was its quality, but permitting settlers to rent from Kazaks would allow some to set themselves up in the region while protecting the nomads from any potential harm.53

When the Steppe Commission entered the field, then, scholarly and bureaucratic views of the steppe were in a state of dynamic tension. On one hand, by the mid-1860s, it was well established that, from the Caspian Sea to Lake Balkhash, from the Tobol' River to the Syr-Darya, the steppe was more civilizable and usable than not. This basic uniformity, in turn, permitted the entire region to be understood not as a set of distinct biomes, with their own histories, demanding unique treatment, but as something essentially coherent—the Kazak steppe. On the other hand, new ideas were emerging about the agents by whom, and the time scale according to which, the steppe might be sedentarized and, hence, civilized, questions that the commission would have to decide.

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