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


“True Islam” and Confessional Politics

If, among the questions the Steppe Commission was asked to deal with, the court of biys was far from the experience of its members, matters of religion were much less so. The early modern tsardom of Muscovy had been, in its trade and diplomatic relations, as much a part of the Islamic world as of Christendom, and the Russian Empire had governed Muslim subjects since the conquest of the khanate of Kazan' in 1552. Since that time, it had conquered and incorporated several other rump khanates of the Golden Horde, engaged in a century-long struggle for control of the Caucasus that had, in the person of Imam Shamil, strongly religious overtones, and fought a series of wars against the Ottoman Empire. When Russian scholars and administrators faced the Kazak steppe in the midnineteenth century, they were equipped with historical understandings of policy successes and failures with respect to Islamic institutions. Moreover, on the basis of centuries of experience of interaction with Muslim polities and peoples, they had a strong idea of what Islam looked like—and equally of what constituted heterodox or deviant practice.

This idea was based strongly in institutions, texts, and practices, very similarly to the way that educated urban observers delineated “correct” Russian Orthodoxy from deviant behaviors in rural areas.78 Orthodox Muslims prayed five times a day, abstained from eating pork and drinking alcohol, followed sharia, and had their own mosques, prayer houses, and schools. If such institutions and rituals made Muslims legible as such to the Russian Empire, they also, for a long time, provided this dynastic, pragmatic, and utterly undergoverned polity with a surrogate means of establishing order in newly incorporated or remote regions.79 Through the mid-nineteenth century, in the tsarist official mind, good religious order and good administrative order looked identical. Alternatively, in a more pessimistic view, an established and well-regulated religion was simply too dangerous to interfere with.

To such observers, whatever was happening among the Kazaks, it was not Islam. Contemporary scholars have a robust understanding of the roots Islam had established in the multiethnic steppe by the nineteenth century, furthered by commercial and intellectual exchanges among Kazan', Ufa, Orenburg, Petropav- lovsk, and other urban centers.80 Moreover, as Devin Deweese has convincingly demonstrated, Islamic conversion was central to the identity of Central Asian nomads from the fourteenth century on.8 1 However, this perspective, valuable as it is, is irrelevant to the views of a tsarist administrator. Responsible for maintaining external security and internal tranquility, often over vast areas and with little assistance, deluged with wide-ranging petitions relevant to the religious lives of those they governed, such men had to make snap decisions on the basis of whatever combination of scholarly information and personal prejudice was characteristic to them. Through the 1860s, all available sources continued to hold that Kazaks, irrespective of location and administrative system, were only barely Muslims. Meier neatly summarized this view and the panoply of factors held to have brought it about:

The Kazaks, as is known, are Muslims and are usually considered Sunnis, however this is based on exactly nothing, because generally speaking, this people at present is very undeveloped in regard to religion and itself does not know definitively which religious sect it keeps to. The majority of the Kazaks have only a very muddled [smutnoe] understanding about the existence of two sects of Islam—Sunni and Shia. Further the very essence of their religion is completely unknown to them. The reason for this, likely, is partially their nomadic way of life, and partially the fact that they lived, and continue to live, surrounded by people of different confessions: Christian, Muslim and pagan, who are all hostile to one another.82

Even in the more settled Siberian steppes, Krasovskii argued, “the Kazak should be considered a Muslim in appearance only, and only temporarily"83 (More pruriently, the traveler and orientalist P. I. Pashino suspected that Kazak men converted to Islam not out of any deep religious conviction, but because the lawfulness of polygyny helped to satisfy their libidos.)84 Kazaks did not know what tsarist observers expected them to know. Nor did they do, in rituals or in daily life, what tsarist observers expected them to do. As travelogues and more serious ethnographies repeated these ideas, their authors both framing one another’s expectations and citing one another, the superficiality and transitional character of Kazak religious beliefs became something close to an established fact.85

The questions of whether or not Kazaks were truly Muslim, how they had become whatever they were, in what directions their beliefs were trending, and under what influences, were deeply connected to basic questions of governance. What role, for example, was religious education to play in government-sponsored schools? Were Orthodox missionaries to be presented the steppe as a field for conversion, as among the animist populations of the empire, or had Islam taken root deeply enough that doing so would be unproductive, or even dangerous? Most of the Muslims of the Volga-Ural river basin were subordinated to the authority of the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly (OMDS): were Kazaks to join them? All of these issues generated substantial bureaucratic correspondence in the years leading up to the comprehensive reforms of the Steppe Commission. Moreover, in administrative discussions of all of these issues, the idea that Kazaks were recently converted and deeply heterodox Muslims at best had the effect of removing Islam from Kazak identity. Any construction of mosques, hiring of imams, or support of medresses and mektebs (Islamic higher and primary schools) became, by definition, a sign of insalubrious influences from without— since Kazaks, as they had been understood, did not behave like that.

It was, in fact, just such views of Kazaks’ religious history that inspired proposals for a radical departure from the earlier tsarist norm—control and management of non-Christian confessions through institution building—in the mid-1860s. Their most vocal proponent was Kryzhanovskii, after his appointment as the new governor-general of the Orenburg region in 1865. Kryzhanovskii was an unapologetic propagandist of Orthodoxy who made little effort to veil his disdain for Islam and those who confessed it. In an initial report to Alexander II, summarizing his first year of activity in the region, he professed his horror, among other things, that the Orthodox faith had suffered so there as Islam grew stronger. This general trend was also notable among the region’s dominant population, the Kazaks, and the growing convergence (sblizhenie) of a people “who were for a long time indifferent to any faith with the Bashkir and Tatar clergy is very harmful, especially if one considers that in the newly obtained Turkestan province religious fanaticism is essentially developed in the people even more than among the Bashkirs and Tatars."86 Acting to stem this rising tide, he took a series of measures which boiled down to asserting greater state control over Muslim institutions in the region, rather than assuming that these institutions, left to police themselves, would produce sufficient control of their subject populations.87 Emboldened by Alexander II’s approval of his actions, early in 1867, Kryzhanovskii submitted to Valuev a still more developed anti-Islamic program.88 Alongside an 18-point proposal to weaken “fanaticism” among the sedentary Muslims of the region, he advocated an unprecedented level of state intervention in Kazaks’ religious life: permitting Orthodox clergymen to teach in schools with Russian and Kazak boys, and to teach from the Gospel to both at once; a zealously enforced ban on the residence of Tatar and Central Asian “immigrants” in the steppe; substantially reduced content in those Muslim religion classes that were to remain for Kazaks.89 All these measures taken together, he argued, would in time win the still waffling, not truly Muslim Kazaks back from “fanaticism” and permit grazh- danstvennost' to flourish among them.90

In light of the support he had received from the tsar, and the increasingly frosty attitudes toward Islam in administrative circles in the 1860s, Kryzhanovskii would probably have been surprised at the negative reception these proposals received from two successive ministers of internal affairs.91 Neither Valuev nor his successor, A. E. Timashev, had much to say against Kryzhanovskii’s premise, nor against the goal he sought to pursue. Rather, their concerns centered more on the extreme character of some of his measures, what seemed to be his sketchy understanding of Islam in Turkestan and the steppe, and consequently the resistance that such measures were likely to engender.92 Thus Kryzhanovskii’s views represented, in their way, one logical conclusion to the idea that Kazaks were Muslims in name only. They were also an important precedent, for in the 1860s, his power in Orenburg was only beginning to wax. But the outcome of this matter points to both the circulation of knowledge and administrative practices among multiple regions of the empire and to hints of a different, more aggressive way of thinking about the place of Islam in Kazak life and identity.93

Perhaps coincidentally, at mid-century it was two of the Russian Empire’s Kazak intermediaries—from elite families, and having received a first-class education in the imperial cadet colleges in Omsk and Orenburg—who expended the greatest effort in trying to convince their superiors that they had erred on the question of Kazaks and Islam. Valikhanov we have already met. His analogue, in the Inner Horde, was Khodzha Mukhammad-Salikh Babadzhanov (1832-1871). Both were mid-level functionaries of the tsarist state—Valikhanov in the Main Administration of Western Siberia, Babadzhanov sporadically in several lower- level administrative positions—and active participants in the learned societies of the metropole.94 As with Valikhanov’s self-representation in discussion of the court reform, in both scholarship and administration, a large part of their value lay in status as sources of “insider” information, difficult or impossible for Russians to access, and their ability to present that information in a form and style to which administrative and scholarly audiences were accustomed.

In the case of Islam, as we will see, the value that some administrators placed on these Kazak interlocutors did not guarantee the adoption of their ideas. This was still more the case because Valikhanov’s views of the matter, at least, were extraordinarily complicated. In one of his major works on steppe religion, he stated flatly that “Islam has not yet gotten all the way into [v"elos'] our [Kazaks’] flesh and blood.”95 As an ethnographer, moreover, he devoted substantial attention to what he believed were traces of older pagan belief and ritual in contemporary Kazaks’ religious praxis.96 Yet privately, he disdained claims that Kazaks were not true or incomplete Muslims. His personal notes on Levshin’s description of the Kazaks are, in this respect, as instructive as they are venomous. Dismissing the earlier scholar as “too captivated by the ignorance of the people he describes,” he continued:

The two Kirgiz-Kaisaks, whom A. I. Levshin asked what faith they belonged to [kakoi oni very?]—it is likely that they did not fully understand something in the sense of the question and, puzzled by its novelty, did not find a response beyond the easiest in such situations: ‘I don’t know.’ Any Kazak knows that he is a follower of Muhammad and that he is a Muslim; maybe he does not understand the meaning of the word, but all the same this constitutes his pride in front of non-believers. From childhood he hears constantly, that he is a Muslim, and that all others, apart from Muslims, are kafirs, judged by God for eternal punishment in the other world. After this is it possible to state, that a Kazak does not know his faith?97

Valikhanov was personally irreligious, and certainly did not see Islam as part of the desired long-term future of the steppe under imperial rule.98 But his private thoughts on Levshin appear to have influenced his policy recommendations. Caution was necessary, and missionary work, along with other “energetic measures” toward the introduction of Christianity, was undesirable.99 Loyal to the empire he served and desirous of advancement in its hierarchy, Valikhanov argued that actively promoting Christianity, rather than simply interfering with the further spread of Islam (for some of his anti-Islam recommendations were similar to Kryzhanovskii’s), could only harm the state and its subjects alike.

Babadzhanov, himself a member of a khoja lineage (a “sacred” clan claiming descent from Muslim saints), expressed much less hesitancy on the matter. Rather, in a set of “notes of a Kazak on the Kazaks” (1861), he positioned Islam as something important to Kazaks, and claimed that their ignorance of basic doctrine, and local variations on the same, were simply the product of a lack of formal education.100 He faulted the Tatar mullahs responsible for teaching religious law to Kazak boys, where they existed, not for imposing an alien religion from without, but for their extraordinary strictness, and because, he claimed, “together with the laws of Islam, they give the Kazakhs their folk superstitions.”101 In this version, then, Kazaks were both Muslim and being corrupted by the heterodox popular religious practices of another ethnic group—not the other way around. Indeed, Babadzhanov linked the “progress” that the Inner Horde had made during the nineteenth century precisely to the establishment, under Khan Dzhanger Bukeev (1803-1845), of schools in which the formal study of Islamic law and Russian literacy were combined.102 Islam was thus a part of Kazakness and potentially highly compatible with both cultural progress and imperial rule.

With respect to Islam, then, as in the cases of judicial institutions and the steppe environment, potential reformers had a diverse and often internally contradictory body of knowledge at their disposal, consisting of published scholarly accounts and bureaucratic archives. Kazaks were only superficially and insincerely Muslim—unless one chose to listen to the Kazaks who had weighed in on the matter, and argued that Kazaks were no less Muslim for not conforming to doctrinaire expectations. This superficial religiosity (unless it wasn’t) permitted, even demanded, that the tsarist state take all possible measures to bring Kazaks to Orthodoxy—unless some of these measures were too dangerous. The track record of what previous administrators had attempted to bring about on the steppe, and how they and their successors evaluated the results, was available in the archive for any potential reformer to recover as the history of the steppe. When preparing their statute for an often tortuous review process, members of the Steppe Commission navigated among imperial archives, scholarship, and their perceptions of administrative priorities and preferences. After nearly three years of work on the questions developed here, and others, it was time to see if they had developed a solution to problems of governance on the steppe that their superiors would find palatable.

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