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


Formative Years: Language and Ethnic Particularism

Born in the northwestern Kazak steppe in 1841, near what would later become the city of Kustanai, Altynsarin was orphaned at a young age and adopted by his grandfather, a biy named Balgozha.11 He was biographically similar to other Kazaks engaging with the undermanned local imperial institutions of his era: born into a family that enjoyed high social status and was interested in maintaining it. Accordingly, in 1846, his grandfather presented a five-year-old Altynsarin as a candidate to enter a proposed school under the auspices of the Frontier Commission in Orenburg, intended to train Kazak boys as clerks, translators, and scribes for a range of administrative offices.12 After much debate between officers of the Frontier Commission and central authorities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the school finally opened in 1850, and Altynsarin and ten other Kazak boys composed its first class.13 Here, in a small stone building on Orenburg’s Bol'shaia Nikolaevskaia Street, across a courtyard from the buildings of the Frontier Commission, they studied a curriculum that included several

MAP 2. Territorial divisions of the Kazak steppe after the Turkestan and Provisional Statutes languages (most prominently Russian and Tatar), formal study of the Koran, and arithmetic.14

The nine-year-old Altynsarin’s adjustment to this new environment was not easy. He begged school authorities to let the older Kazak man who had accompanied him and his classmates on their journey to school remain with them, a request the authorities granted.15 His talents, however, soon showed themselves. When this first group of Kazak boys finished their course of study with a public examination in 1857, Altynsarin was ranked fourth out of 22 boys, with excellent marks in all subjects and a reputation as a voracious reader.16 Now qualified for state employment, he began his working life at the age of 16 at the bottom rung of the ladder, serving as a scribe for his grandfather, who by this time was the administrator of a group of Kazaks of the Qipshaq clan.17 He climbed quickly and was soon appointed a junior translator in the Frontier Commission at Orenburg, working directly under its head, the celebrated orientalist Vasilii Vasil'evich Grigor'ev (1816-1881).18

Altynsarin’s time at the Frontier Commission proved formative intellectually and interpersonally. Spending his workdays in Grigor'ev’s reception room, he spent much of his time reading books from Grigor'ev’s personal collection. Grigor'ev also provided his young subordinate with translations of unfamiliar Russian words. According to one account, the notoriously prickly Grigor'ev’s fatigue with this arrangement drove the young Kazak into the tutelage and friendship of another young scholar, Nikolai Ivanovich Il'minskii (1822-1891), a devoutly Orthodox alumnus of the Kazan' Ecclesiastical Academy recently commanded to Orenburg. 1 9 As with Grigor'ev, Altynsarin’s relationship with Il'minskii first focused above all on language acquisition, with Il'minskii later recalling: “Altynsarin appeared at my place every evening from seven to twelve. Our conversations mainly consisted in explanation of words.”20 From this small seed, a warm relationship grew. Il'minskii remarked that Altynsarin was “always a welcome guest” in his household, and their correspondence continued, with interruptions, until Altynsarin’s death in 1889.21 Soon, however, a new professional opportunity, facilitated both by the young Kazak’s excellent track record and his personal acquaintance with Grigor'ev, separated the two friends. In 1860, four schools for Kazaks were opened under Russian fortifications in the steppe; Altynsarin accepted the invitation to teach in the one at the Orenburg fortress, a location that later developed into the city and provincial center of Turgai.22

These four schools were a cherished project of Grigor'ev’s, and he fought hard with his superiors, especially the martinet Aleksandr Pavlovich Bezak (1800-1869), who began his service as governor-general of Orenburg in late 1860, to build them in the form he had envisioned. Critics of the existing school for Kazak boys in Orenburg had described it as overly influenced by Tatars, expensive, and not corresponding to the needs of steppe life as they understood it. What was needed for the next stage in educating the Kazaks was not a well- appointed, centrally located building with an extensive curriculum, they argued, but a set of schools lasting no more than four years, built with any materials locally available, deeper in the steppe, with teaching in Kazak rather than Russian. “The simpler the schools are,” Grigor'ev wrote in 1859, “the closer they are in appearance to the Asiatics’, the better.”23 The new schools were to inexpensively and unobtrusively satisfy a demand for literacy training in the new ruling language, providing an alternative to the dreaded Tatar mektebs.24 Altynsarin and his fellow alumni of the Orenburg school, proficient in Russian and Kazak, were the heralds of Grigor'ev’s wish to adapt imperial schools to local tastes.

Altynsarin endured great personal difficulty after accepting this new appointment. Bureaucratic wrangling meant that the school was not opened until four years after he accepted the position, and in the intervening years he was forced to teach children informally, as they came to him.25 Moreover, the post took him far away from family members to whom he had economic responsibilities, and Altynsarin’s petitions to Grigor'ev for a transfer closer to home were variously denied or left unrealized owing to a lack of suitable replacements.26 The situation began to improve only in 1863, when Altynsarin took the step of moving his entire household to the Turgai River.27 The school under his supervision was finally opened the following year.

For the next five years Altynsarin taught Kazak and Russian students alike. Among other materials, he used his friend Il'minskii’s Samouchitel' russkoi gramoty dlia kirgizov (an 1861 textbook of the Russian language), compiled with the help of another local intermediary, Bakhtiarov, and printed in the Arabic script.28 Il'minskii’s choice of the Arabic script was controversial. Grigor'ev, who commissioned this “textbook of Russian language for Kazak schools, in Russian and Kazak,” favored the Cyrillic script for writing Kazak.29 This choice, he argued, was not only better suited to the complicated, vowel-rich sound system of the Kazak language; it would also gradually reduce the influence of Tatar language and culture (strongly associated with the Arabic script) among the Kazaks.30 Nor was Il'minskii himself yet firmly decided on the issue. His first attempt at a dictionary of Kazak, with an attached grammar, was printed in a modified Cyrillic script so elaborate that Grigor'ev took him to task for it.31 Vernacular-language education, in the steppe provinces, came with a range of administrative choices and no single clear answer.

Nor was vernacular-language education itself remotely uncontroversial. Still in its relative infancy in the early 1860s, it had multiple meanings for its proponents and detractors alike. Il'minskii is most widely associated with this approach, which was originally applied in schools for the Baptized Tatars (kriasheny) of the

Volga River basin. In this context, delivering the content of religious texts to the recently converted in a language they understood was intended to prevent their backsliding into apostasy.32 Such a perspective implied a moral and spiritual perspective on the Russianization (obrusenie) of nondominant nationality groups, according to which Orthodoxy, rather than the Russian language, bore the most important components of Russian identity.33 In this view, to educate the small nationalities of the empire in their own language was to facilitate their moral rapprochement with the numerically and politically dominant population of the empire.

The historian Tomohiko Uyama has described Russia as a “particularist empire,” in which the ways that bureaucrats perceived different ethnicities resulted in divergent policy outcomes.34 And indeed, outside of the Volga basin, the specifics of this spiritual Russianization were rather different. In the Turkestan Governor- Generalship, the local population was considered so staunchly Muslim that any attempt to convert it would engender serious resistance. Thus the highly influential first governor-general of the region, Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman (1818-1882), pursued a policy of ignorirovanie (ignoring), permitting a high degree of local autonomy in religious affairs and vernacular-language schools free of any missionary valence.i 5 Bilingual schools were meant to achieve cultural transformation, but still “incorporated Muslim religious instruction for non-Christian pupils.”36 Here the value of vernacular education, as the historian Daniel Brower notes, was strictly pragmatic. Russian-language instruction, and the secular cultural transformation that was to accompany it, could not occur in a largely illiterate society without teaching native-language literacy first.

In both the Volga basin and in Turkestan, further, there were those tsarist administrators who doubted the utility of vernacular education. Its opponents believed that the benefits of linguistic Russianization could not be sacrificed for the sake of a moral project of vague character and uncertain timeline. For the Volga, an 1867 article in the official Zhurnal Ministerstva narodnogo prosvesh- cheniia (Journal of the Ministry of Education) acknowledged the deficiencies of religious education conducted exclusively in Russian, while simultaneously articulating high-level fears relating to vernacular religious education.37 Critics expressed fears that the local vernacular could not accurately render the content of missionary teaching.38 Moreover, the creation of official languages from “scanty” dialects (narechiia) would necessarily involve borrowing from Tatar, and “such an artificial strengthening of the Tatar element on the eastern borderland of Russia and the merging [sliianie] of different foreign groups into one foreign mass, even under the condition of their serious Christian enlightenment, cannot in any way be desirable.”39 Others expressed a diametrically opposite fear—since “a language is a people” (iazyk—eto narod), providing “small peoples” with their own language would inspire feelings of national particularity and separateness from the ruling Russian nationality.40

Conversely, in Turkestan, the criticism was less of vernacular education per se than of the goal toward which it strove. In the work of the notoriously hysterical missionary Mikhail Miropiev, use of Russian alongside the vernacular was hopefully a waystation toward the outcome he desired most—education of Turkestan’s Muslims on the basis of the principles of Orthodoxy.41 Ignorirovanie was not a satisfying compromise, for Miropiev. If Russian-language education gradually softened native culture, perhaps, in the long run, administrators’ caution would no longer be needed, and the policy could be abandoned.

The ethnographic and orientological consensus was that religion on the steppe was closer to the situation among the converted peoples of the Volga basin than to Turkestan. Certainly the authors of the Provisional Statute, citing Levshin and Valikhanov, had believed Kazaks to be nominal Muslims at best, with significant traces of shamanist belief still present. The passage of time did not dispel this impression. Even in 1880, in a strikingly Islamophobic essay on Central Asian religion, the orientalist and pedagogue Nikolai Ostroumov had described Kazaks as “neophytes” in Islam.42 Il'minskii’s views on vernacular education among the Kazaks were very much of a piece with this consensus. Using the Kazak language in schools, for Il'minskii, would gradually win Kazaks away from Islam, exposing them “to the advantages of Russian civilization over Islamic culture and draw[ing] them into cultural alignment with Russians.”43

Grigor'ev’s views were less obviously missionary than Il'minskii’s, but he was also a notorious Tatarophobe and endorsed the use of vernacular Kazak as a means of reducing Tatar influence in administrative, commercial, and religious affairs.44 Early administrators had chosen to conduct correspondence in the language they called “Tatar” (actually the old Tatar or “Turki” language) for a number of reasons. It had the considerable advantages of an agreed-upon script and a written literary tradition, and was already known to literate intermediaries. Orenburg and its environs boasted a substantial Tatar minority.45 But Grigor'ev, Il'minskii, and others were prepared to argue that Tatar no longer suited the needs of Russian governance there. Many administrators associated Tatars particularly strongly with Kazaks’ “conversion” to Islam. Therefore, in the wake of the secret and seriously Islamophobic attachment to the Provisional Statute on Islam in the steppe, there was good reason to believe that Petersburg shared their views.46

From the first attempts to educate inorodtsy (aliens) until the last days of the empire, script and language alike had a politics in the steppe, and an inherent part of that conversation was the production and use of educational materials.47 However, it does not follow from this that Russian-educated Kazaks associated the same politics with these issues as their interlocutors. While Altynsarin’s later career as an educator would take place at the center of this controversy, he had begun to form his own impressions of the problems inherent in steppe education and their solutions at a young age. He was relatively pleased with the results provided by Il'minskii and Bakhtiarov’s textbook, and developed a preference for the use of the Arabic script for Kazak that was not always practicable as his career advanced. Writing to Il'minskii in 1871, he argued that while Cyrillic script rendered Kazak phonology with greater fidelity than Arabic, and that the introduction of the former would create less dissatisfaction than some believed, books printed in Cyrillic would not “be grafted [priv'iutsia] to the Kazaks as easily and quickly as could be supposed.”48 Script was less important than ensuring the widest possible dissemination of correct content. Thus the same logic that led Il'minskii to argue for vernacular education justified a defense of one specific variant of it, using the Arabic script, for Altynsarin.

At the same time, as we will see, both the content and the intent of Altynsarin’s vernacular education would move in directions that Il'minskii would hardly have predicted. Even as he was satisfied with Il'minskii's textbook, Altynsarin’s correspondence displays his frustration with other issues arising at the fortification’s school. Students, he complained, robotically learned the phrases they required to serve in the colonial administration, without gaining any useful moral or intellectual knowledge.49 Moreover, they were too mobile. Their parents could, and did, recall them from school at any time, whether or not they had learned anything, for any reason (including Altynsarin’s attempts to exert some sort of discipline and moral education on them). At this early stage of his career, the young teacher could think of no solution to the issues facing him beyond stricter discipline (a solution he claimed to abhor). Questions of moral education, of the content rather than simple fact of language pedagogy, and of student mobility (and its reasons) would concern him for the rest of his life. It was after pondering these questions that an older Altynsarin, more experienced in administrative and educational affairs, developed a vernacular curriculum that both grew out of his understanding of local conditions and gave Islam a different, more central place in Kazaks’ imperial subjecthood than many administrators wanted.

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