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AN IMPERIAL BIOGRAPHY. Ibrai Altynsarin as Ethnographer and Educator, 1841-1889

After it was first promulgated in October 1868, the Provisional Statute remained as much a wish as a living, functional document. On the open, unsettled frontier near the shores of the Caspian Sea, the proverbially wild Kazaks of the Adai clan met the proclamation of the statute and new elections with armed resistance that took months to fully suppress.1 Some of its projected districts and district centers did not exist, and construction was at times impossible at the Steppe Commission’s designated locations.2 Most of all, the new administrative structure the statute envisioned, with expanded state involvement in canton- and village-level elections and judicial affairs, rendered the tsarist state dependent in new ways on the good will and expertise of Kazak intermediaries.

A proposed change to the instructions provided to canton and village administrators illustrates the scale of this dependence:

With a view to the best possible eradication of theft, robbery, and baranta among the Kazaks, the canton administrator is obligated to join to villages Kazaks notable for their bad behavior who nomadize mostly separately from villages, and establish over them appropriate observation by trustworthy Kazaks. The canton administrator and village elder are also obligated to know all the backwaters [glukhie mesta] in the canton and in the village, in which, predominantly, malefactors hide out, and to inspect them as often as possible.3

Whether hunting down criminals, translating documents, or teaching in schools, low-ranking Kazaks were the ball bearings that kept the ramshackle machine of tsarist rule on the steppe running. Local, insider knowledge was their stock in trade; it provided them with both limited routes to professional advancement and the means to advance their own political agendas.

The career of one such Kazak intermediary in the steppe remade by the Provisional Statute, Ibrai Altynsarin, is the subject of this chapter.4 Over the course of a prolific career, Altynsarin, a well-born but poor Kazak of the Middle Horde’s Qipshaq clan, rose to a position of some influence in local educational affairs. He wrote ethnographies of his fellow Kazaks, compiled pedagogical materials, and maintained correspondence with some of the most prominent orientalists of his day. Although the extent of his rise and the strength of his connections with tsarist administrators were exceptional at the time, he was a model for future generations of Kazaks in their interactions with the tsarist state. His administrative service and intellectual endeavors brought him into close contact with a diverse body of ideas and practices for governing the vast Turgai province (part of the Orenburg Governor-Generalship through 1881) and its increasingly ethnically diverse population. His biography is a chronicle of the thought and practice of Russian imperialism in the Kazak steppe during the mid-to-late 1800s.5

The indefinite nature of the Provisional Statute and the continuing weakness of the tsarist state on the steppe created space for the knowledge of an intermediary figure like Altynsarin to influence policy under certain conditions. It can be difficult, however, to tease out Altynsarin’s own historicity, relationship to imperial power, and agency in light of the sheer number of historical narratives his career has been made to serve. In various contexts, Altynsarin has been described as a class enemy advocating Russian missionary activity and colonialism; a great “democratic enlightener” of the Kazak steppe, bringing the benefits of Russian culture to a benighted region; and a proto-nationalist, “working for the development of national literature and culture in the area of forming a Kazak literary language.”6 Indeed, it is precisely the protean nature of Altynsarin’s life and work, moving within varied structures of power, and mediating between tsarist institutions and Kazak life, that has enabled historians to squeeze him into the Procrustean beds of Soviet “friendship of peoples” historiography, or of contemporary nationalism.7

As an author and as an administrator, Altynsarin confronted a tsarist state that could be frightfully arbitrary and was rarely unified in its visions of the steppe’s future, or its purpose within the Russian Empire. His professional milieu included both Orthodox missionaries and local administrators who were deeply opposed to preaching Orthodoxy to imperial subjects of other religions. It included old hands who had been on the steppe for years before the Provisional Statute and new men who made their careers precisely in the expanded administration after 1868. In short, he encountered what I would describe, playing on Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s framework for comparative imperial history, as repertoires of imperial governance.8 Within the loose framework the Provisional Statute provided, a set of interrelated problems confronted tsarist administrators: should Kazaks become sedentary, and if so, how? To what extent could their Muslim faith be accommodated, and for how long? Should the Turkic dialects they spoke be promoted or replaced by the ruling language of the empire, Russian? Such questions had a limited number of solutions, but the answer to one did not determine the answer to another. Rather, provincial governors and district chiefs combined them as seemed best according to their understanding of the land and people entrusted to them.

Altynsarin’s was one more voice in this polyphony. Like any other thinking subject of the empire, he navigated and combined a range of potential futures for the steppe and a range of measures to achieve them. Unlike many administrators, though, Altynsarin was able to insist on his own status as a Kazak—his deep familiarity with the land and people of Turgai province—to advance his views. At the same time, the reception of those views depended deeply on the particularities of Turgai province’s ever-changing administrative structure, a side effect of the way that the Provisional Statute granted Altynsarin’s superiors broad freedom of thought and action in their measures. Following his career through varied institutions and superiors provides an opportunity to “do history historically” in response to well-worn debates about the place and influence of metropolitan ideas and practices among colonial elites.9

Over the course of his career, Altynsarin compiled his own repertoire of ideas about the present and future of the steppe. The idea of “Kazak” as a separate category of identity had orientalist valences and distinctly imperialist ends. But in Altynsarin’s hands it served other purposes. The sense of Kazak groupness he articulated, in language and religion, was compatible with some ideas of Russian rule on the steppe but much opposed to other visions.10 His understanding and representation of the local environment enabled him to promote a program of Kazak economic modernization without moving to sedentary agriculture and without peasant colonization, even as the latter in particular began to appear on administrative agendas. Later in his life, as a school administrator, he had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice, proposing institutions and textbooks that promoted his understanding of Kazak culture while developing the forms of knowledge and vocational skills most appropriate to local conditions. Yet state power mattered tremendously to the success of all of Altynsarin’s enterprises. Even in a supervisory role, converting intellectual agency to practice depended not only on Altynsarin’s ability to project expertise, but also on the shifting priorities of tsarist administrative personnel.

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