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


Education, Environment, and Lifeways

Altynsarin shared his Russian interlocutors’ assumptions that sedentary life was superior to pastoral nomadism. The clearest evidence of this is in his plans for a set of showpiece two-class central district schools, the focal point of his educational agenda and the first things he and his superiors wished to see built. On the surface, these new institutions had the potential not only to prepare students for higher study but to train a new generation of useful, bilingual administrators from the Kazak population proper, combining moral education, language training, and rudimentary knowledge of a few scholastic subjects.102 The lessons they would learn there, however, would go beyond the moral and informational; the two-class schools were also to introduce selected youths to the material norms of sedentary life, Russian-style. In these model institutions, Altynsarin wrote to Il'minskii, students should “get accustomed to sedentarism, tidiness, and a healthy view of things.”103 This core idea, also reflected in later requests for funding, found its expression in several ways.104 The two-class school building was a permanent structure, usually built of wood or stone, and furnished according to the Russian taste.105 Kazak boarders, rather than sitting on the floor, on carpets or on trunks, would be seated in rows of desks, in large rooms with fixed walls and heated with iron stoves. If pupils were given food adapted to the “Asiatic taste,” they were expected to eat it with metal knives, forks, and spoons.106 Students also slept alone and wore uniform clothes provided by the school administration.107 All of this represented a radical change in the material world of the new schools’ pupils, who were asked now to see the benefits of a culture that was not only sedentary but specifically European. (Although other sedentary ethnic groups, notably the Tatars and Bashkirs, also populated Turgai province, official reports on the state of Kazak schools, to which Altynsarin undoubtedly contributed, evinced concern that the student body of the two-class schools not be dominated by an “Asiatic element.”) 1 08 The new order, also reflected in the curriculum of trade schools opened later, represented both a post-Enlightenment belief in the progressive nature of sedentary life and, seemingly, an acceptance of the superiority of the colonizer’s culture.

Yet even as Altynsarin agreed with other administrators on the benefits of sedentarism, he rejected their views of how Kazaks were to be made to settle on the land, and how they were to live once they settled. The 1870s were an era, in some quarters, of growing interest in experimental peasant colonization of the steppe, and in encouraging Kazaks to take up agriculture. The impetus, as during the compilation of the Provisional Statute, came from Western Siberia. Administrators here discussed colonization in 1874, hoping by expanded settlement within the steppe, rather than under district administrative centers, on one hand to develop agriculture, industry, and trade, and on the other to provide Kazaks “the best example . . . [of] sedentary life and diligent work [tru- doliubivaia deiatel'nost'] ”109 Subsequently, a new governor-general of Western Siberia, N. G. Kaznakov, developed an argument that, among other things, limited colonization would help Kazak nomads during difficult years, especially when livestock died in large numbers owing to pasturage failure (гкШ) during severe winters. Kazaks would learn how to sow grain from colonists and discover that settling on the land could save them from a cold and hungry death.110

Colonization, sedentarization, and moving to grain cultivation were now not just matters of profit and stability for the Russian Empire, but matters of the welfare of a huge nomadic population.

Altynsarin contested these assumptions at a critical juncture, in the aftermath of the severe winter of 1879-1880, when a zhM placed him, along with the rest of Turgai province, in a tense struggle for survival. This was a moment when the beliefs of the Western Siberian administration (which, Altynsarin acidly noted, “are not alien to our administration, either”) seemed to have proven justified.111 As Altynsarin put it, these administrators proposed to “replace the unstable method of the people’s welfare, animal husbandry, with a more stable one, agriculture, and in accordance with this to turn the nomadic way of life of the people as quickly as possible to sedentary, even if by forcible measures.”112 But, as a “steppe man” (stepniak) who had grown up in the region and was intimately familiar with its environment, Altynsarin thought differently. 1 13 His overall impression was that most of it was unfavorable for agriculture, and that stock raising represented a useful adaptation to its arid, barren landscape. Knowledge of the steppe environment, the economic practices of Kazaks, and the particular needs of the local population permitted Altynsarin to argue that the steppe’s future was not, and could not, be fully agricultural.

Although he was quick to acknowledge the suffering that the winter of 18791880 had caused, Altynsarin argued strongly against the idea that this necessitated a shift to agriculture for the Kazaks. It was not only the mobile pastoralist economy, he noted, that could be ruined by an act of God, as evidenced by the fact that “our city of Turgai bears adversity just the same as do the Kazaks.”114 Indeed, Kazaks were in the habit of making stores of food and hay for themselves and their livestock in case of emergency, but had, like the residents of the city of Turgai, simply been overwhelmed by the immensity of the disaster that faced them.115 Further, it was unclear that a shift to agriculture was even possible. Since his first days as a clerk of the Turgai district administration, Altyn- sarin had noted that much of the region was, because of its soil, climate, and vegetation, unsuited to grain cultivation, and that even artificial irrigation of fields was of limited utility owing to the remoteness of reliable sources of fresh water.116 True, Kazaks had successfully tilled some, more propitious areas for years, as Altynsarin was well aware from his earlier administrative work.117 But in other dry and sandy regions, “the only possible occupation . . . [was] animal husbandry.”118 To the extent that agriculture was possible on the steppe, Kazaks had already begun experiments in the field on their own initiative; compulsion was unnecessary.119 And colonization by Russian muzhiks—“in terms of their mental development, no better than Kazaks”—was a particularly undesirable form of compulsion.120

It was possible, Altynsarin thought, to make use of imperial institutions and resources to develop the steppe in a way that made the best use of local conditions, but without colonization. Rather than a forced and unpromising transition to agriculture, encouraged by colonists of dubious merit, it would benefit both individual Kazaks and the empire as a whole if the steppe were made not a second breadbasket [zhitnitsa] for the empire, but rather its “stockyard” [skotnyi dvor]. Such an approach would make the best use of both local environmental conditions and knowledge already well established in the population.121 Under this regime, Kazaks would become partially sedentary, orient their production toward commercial markets rather than subsistence, and adapt their earlier practices in light of advances in agriculture and stock breeding made elsewhere. The school system of Turgai province, under Altynsarin’s supervision, developed to support just such an order of things.

Rather than transitioning to agriculture, Altynsarin believed, educated Kazaks would do best to leverage the expertise, the environment, and the products with which they were already familiar. Toward this end, vocational schools were a crucial part of the educational network he envisioned. (In practice, though, their expense rendered them a secondary priority, below language pedagogy.) This was, at first, in line with the Ministry of Education’s instructions of 1878 concerning the development of vocational education throughout the empire. Within the framework of these instructions, Altynsarin was also able to exert influence, based on his perception of Kazaks’ needs as part of the empire, on its practical articulation. Many local administrators in the steppe were fully in favor of such innovations as a means of facilitating its economic transformation.122 Altynsarin, for his part, argued in 1882 to V. N. Dal', Lavrovskii’s replacement, that such institutions would be beneficial in light of the Kazakhs’ ongoing transition to seden- tarism, but also took pains to provide for students’ training in Russian literacy.123 First planned in the city of Turgai, the vocational school was a special supplement to the two-class school, not a replacement, and had to recapitulate what Altynsa- rin considered the most important part of the latter’s curriculum. Later, discussing the introduction of vocational training to central schools, Altynsarin argued against the idea that there was anything unique about Kazaks’ developmental needs. Rather, “it goes without saying that if general professional education is acknowledged as beneficial among all the long already sedentary and more or less cultured peoples of the Russian empire, in the Kazak people, still in a transitional state from the nomadic way of life to sedentarism, it is still more necessary for the direction of this young people, just only beginning cultured life, toward proper [pravil'noe] economic and moral development.”124

At the same time, these vocational plans were firmly grounded in the specific conditions of the steppe environment (considered a constant) and market (changing rapidly in the context of Russian expansion). The Kazaks, he wrote, “are natural shepherds, their life and sympathies are closely joined with animal husbandry. But it is also known that they use this natural wealth only in its raw form, and as much as is required for their nomadic life.”125 Thus the program of the proposed vocational schools was focused principally on the small-scale manufacture of items that could be made from readily available materials: leather and felt from animal skin and hair, boots and clothing from that leather and felt, and soap from animal fat. 1 26 Carpenters and mechanics (slesary) would also be necessary, to manufacture the finished goods that Kazaks would demand as they became more sedentary; eventually, women and girls were to be admitted to introductory classes in sewing, knitting, and weaving.127 Altynsarin’s vision of a steppe populated by artisans rested on an unstated assumption about the problems of the mobile pastoralist domestic economy. The idea that household skills that already existed among the Kazaks needed to be taught as academic subjects indicates that Altynsarin was chiefly interested in correcting the perceived irregularity of cottage industries. If imperial Russian ethnographic accounts from the late nineteenth century can be trusted, it would have been difficult to find a Kazak woman unfamiliar with sewing or felt making.128 The idea that household tasks needed to be studied as academic subjects marked mobile pastoralist practices as needing improvement from external sources, while simultaneously valorizing the teachings of the new trade school as rational, efficient, and scientifically approved. 1 29 Altynsarin’s rejection of one common plan for the steppe’s economic development, then, still took place in a context that rejected mobile pastoralism as a viable plan for the future. The steppe would become sedentary, just not agricultural.

But in the immediate term, Altynsarin believed, it was much more important to reach Kazaks literally where they lived. This meant adapting the only schools most Kazaks would ever see, at the cantonal level. Ostensibly, these lower-level schools, offering a simple curriculum focused on Russian literacy and Muslim catechistics, were to prepare students for the two-class school, from which they could then advance to gymnasia or Realschulen. The system that Altynsarin put forward when Il'in, temporarily serving as the provincial governor, solicited his opinion in 1883 went even further down the path of adaptation by reaching into a grab bag of plans suggested by earlier administrators:

In my opinion, the arrangement [ustroistvo] of [cantonal] schools, being exclusively among the Kazaks, should be adapted to the life conditions of this people, in view of which they should winter with the Kazaks, when they winter, and migrate, when they migrate. Thus, for example, having chosen a central place in the canton, generally convenient in economic respects, it is necessary in my opinion to build of local materials (light brick and etc.) as solid and warm a building as possible, with a class room, sleeping hall . . . and a kitchen with a vestibule and storeroom. Here the Kazak children may be taught for seven and a half months, that is, from September 15 to May 1, when the Kazaks usually migrate off for the summer. From the first of May the school should move, like the remaining Kazaks, to a tent and migrate together with one of the influential officials [dolzhnostnoe litso].130

The necessity of running schools for inorodtsy on a shoestring budget had plagued administrators since Grigor'ev, in whose more humbly built schools Altynsarin had occupied his first teaching post. The problem of student mobility, which militated against completion of the course of study, had vexed Altynsarin since his early days at the Turgai. A few months before his proposal to Il'in, Altynsarin was so concerned that the ignorance of truant students would reflect poorly on the schools that he proposed attendance simply be made compulsory.1 31 Balliuzek, in contrast, in his earlier consultations with Kryzhanovskii, had proposed that schools would be most successful when they moved together with the Kazaks. It is unclear if Altynsa- rin came to a similar conclusion on his own or was drawing on Balliuzek’s earlier proposal. What is important, though, is what this episode tells us about the position of sedentarism and mobility among the serving officials of Turgai province. Many students would not continue their education beyond the canton school. Although a sedentary lifestyle had its benefits in terms of hygiene, morality, order, and governability, mobile pastoralism did not create a primordial wildness, impossible to overcome, in pupils. Altyn- sarin certainly envisioned sedentarism as part of the eventual future of the steppe. But his emphasis on moral and linguistic education meant that the initial change—the only change, for many—could be accomplished without abandoning the pastoral mobility that made Kazaks economically and culturally distinct. Kazaks would be the agents of their own economic change and accomplish it, with the help of metropolitan resources, on their own timeline.

A summation of Altynsarin’s thought and its implementation within the school system of Turgai province reveals a range of surprising intermediate positions. Kazaks were Muslims, not missionary fodder, but needed to become better Muslims so they could better absorb secular lessons from elsewhere in the Russian Empire. They needed their own language, delivered to them in a script they were comfortable with, but so that they could be imperial subjects on an equal basis with others, not so they would form an independent nation. They ought to become sedentary but not farm, intensifying the stock raising they already knew well, and with a minimum of peasant colonization. In short, Altynsarin’s career shows how an intermediary figure bought into many of the civilizing assumptions of the imperial Russian state, but leveraged his expert knowledge of local languages and environments to transform the methods by which they were to be put into practice. Collaboration and autonomy went hand in hand as, citing expertise his interlocutors lacked, Altynsarin found his own space within the Russian Empire’s repertoires of governance.

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