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


The Dilemmas of Leadership

For all the originality of his thought, though, and his projection of local expertise as a means of advancing his viewpoints, Altynsarin remained a mid-level functionary of an autocratic empire subject to frequent changes of leadership. The success or failure of his ideas—indeed his very effectiveness as an intermediary—depended on cultivating allies within and outside of Turgai province. One prolonged illness or leave of absence on the part of a sympathetic governor could delay or scuttle years of work. The presence of arbitrary state power in Altynsarin’s life represents a final layer of uncertainty in his position; local knowledge did not count for anything if Altynsarin’s superiors thought they knew better or wished to pursue a different policy.

In 1882 and 1883, during one of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ endless attempts to revise the Provisional Statute in light of experience, the authorities of Turgai province sought to use Altynsarin’s ethnographic expertise to their advantage. The provincial governor, Aleksandr Petrovich Konstantinovich, along with Vice-Governor Il'in, complained that neither the subdivision of the province into administrative cantons and villages nor the election of indigenous leaders for these units corresponded to Kazak lifeways. Rather, these artificial units drew together Kazaks with incompatible economic interests; under such circumstances, local elections were a life-or-death struggle.132 It was necessary, rather, to change both the way territory was divided and the order of local elections within sub-units. As evidence, Il'in presented a long poem circulating among the Kazaks of the province that Altynsarin had transcribed and translated, a lament characteristic of the zar zaman (troubled times) school of Kazak poetry. 1 33 Its anonymous author juxtaposed a pre-tsarist pastoral utopia against the miseries, especially the bloody internecine strife that accompanied elections, brought on by the Provisional Statute. 1 34 Il'in forwarded it to the ministry, arguing that it represented “the view of the people on the deficiencies of local administrative institutions,” a view he happened to share.135 All the pieces for a revision of a law meant to be revised ad hoc seemed to be in place.

Yet nothing came of it. When his opinion was solicited, Aleksandr Petrovich Protsenko, then military governor of neighboring Semipalatinsk province (located in a separate governor-generalship), flatly denied that any change in election procedures was necessary.136 Worse was to come from the governor of another steppe province, Ural'sk, Prince Grigorii Sergeevich Golitsyn. Golitsyn’s frame of reference was diametrically opposed to that of the poem’s author. To his mind, it was the vigorous implementation of the Provisional Statute that was responsible for progress on the steppe; the pre-tsarist era was a time where only the strong ruled, holding ordinary people “almost in slavery.”137 Nothing more came of the matter, and when the new Steppe Statute finally came down in 1891, it bore little resemblance to the changes that Il'in and Konstantinovich, with Altynsarin’s backing, proposed.138

Even in the field of education, where Altynsarin’s authority would seem likely to have been strongest, provincial politics delayed and transformed his proposals, which had only mixed and conditional success. His most successful intervention had to do with the introduction of Islamic education. If the administrative context in which Altynsarin worked tended to be hostile to Islam, this hostility was not uniform or unchanging. Tolstoi, during his time (1866-1880) as minister of education, was simultaneously ober-procurator of the Holy Synod, responsible for the civil administration of the Orthodox Church, and made his reputation in part by agitating against the multiplication of Muslim clergy and writing a nearslanderous account of the role of the Catholic Church in Russian history.139 At the same time, he seems neither to have been very religious himself nor to have taken his duties at the Synod very seriously. Il'minskii, in contrast, toward the end of his life composed screeds against the dangers allegedly represented by Jadidism, a Muslim educational movement based on new methods of teaching literacy, open to secular knowledge, and interested in modernizing the Russian Empire’s Muslim subjects.140 (He was evidently unaware that Altynsarin’s catechism, to which he had assented, however grudgingly, had broad similarities with this project.)141 The few Orthodox missionaries working on the steppe encountered harsh working conditions, a frequently hostile administration, and won few converts.142 And indeed, although there were dissenting voices (for example, Lavrovskii), Islamic education was introduced to Russo-Kazak schools early on, with the permission of the highest authority in the province, Governor Konstantinovich.143 The factors motivating Konstantinovich and his advisors differed somewhat from the explanations Altynsarin later provided in his catechism. Konstantinovich wanted both to bring the “fanaticism” preached in Islamic schools under state control and avoid alienating the Kazaks by giving the appearance of a missionary agenda.144

Islamophobia, preached with particular ferocity by Il'minskii’s colleagues in Kazan', and present to some degree in most parts of the imperial administration, was not connected directly to any strategy of governance.145 Instead, the range of potential responses such attitudes might generate was capable of incorporating the efforts of actors with much more positive views of Islam. Space for negotiation and compromise did not always form between intermediate figures from the inorodtsy and their governors. The publication and use of Altynsarin’s catechism, though, shows that it could.

On the other hand, the cantonal schools, so important to Altynsarin’s synthesis of mobility, civilization, and imperial loyalty, were a long time in coming. Administrative and material concerns both played a role in the delay. At first, there were not enough Kazak teachers to staff cantonal schools, but with a teachers’ seminar functioning, that was no longer a concern by 1886. At that point, with personnel and funds prepared, responsibility fell on Protsenko, who had moved over from Semipalatinsk at the end of 1883 to assume gubernatorial duties in Turgai province. For reasons Altynsarin professed not to know, Protsenko significantly reduced the annual tax collection and diverted the funds that remained, previously intended for the first canton schools, to the building of a new central school.146 This represented, Altynsarin claimed, an unnecessary and illegal action, since Kazaks who had donated money for canton schools expected them in their own cantons.147 He argued his case passionately, noting that locally based schools would provide a more tangible moral and economic benefit to the population, and protect it from unscrupulous go-betweens (imagined, unsurprisingly, to be Tatar). 1 48 But only during Protsenko’s last year in office, 1887, did cantonal schools receive the funding Altynsarin felt was their due, after a campaign that brought Il'minskii and, through him, Minister of Education I. D. Delianov onto their side. 1 49 By the start of 1888 he had succeeded in opening six of them, and planned to establish five more by the end of the year.150 These canton schools, it appears, were not actually built set up along the lines Altynsarin had proposed in 1883; the 1887 budget for canton schools in Turgai province makes no mention of the tents, dray animals, or moving equipment that would have been necessary for such an undertaking.151 But the change in leadership from Protsenko to the progressive Iakov Fedorovich Bara- bash augured well for Altynsarin’s program. The network of low-level schools he envisioned multiplied quickly, and the village schools that began to appear after 1889 were mobile.152

Altynsarin, however, did not live to see most of this. The exhausting regimen of travel (up to 500 miles each way from his home) and work to which he had devoted himself overwhelmed him, as it did so many tsarist bureaucrats at the edges of the empire. He died of a respiratory ailment on July 17, 1889, having inspired and trained a new generation of Russophone Kazaks, just a few years before the role of such figures would be newly and balefully circumscribed.

The repertoires of rhetoric and governance Ibrai Altynsarin encountered over the course of his career presented him, like any other administrator, with options. Altynsarin worked within these options and applied his own understanding of the present state and future direction of a population and environment he was familiar with to articulate and defend original views of the possible future of the steppe. If Altynsarin’s mind was not colonized, though, Turgai province certainly was, and this basic fact constrained both the range of choices available to him and the likelihood that his ideas would come to fruition. In the hierarchical administrative world of the Russian Empire, a project could succeed with the support of a patron like Barabash or Il'minskii, or founder on the opposition or indifference of a powerful figure like Protsenko. Any career-minded bureaucrat had to deal with this reality. Altynsarin, though, was not only consciously different by ethnicity and confession from most of his professional interlocutors, he was often selected because of his difference, granting his superiors access to local knowledges that they variously used or disregarded. The product of an early “civilizing” project on the steppe, he exerted, within bounds, a substantial influence on what that project ultimately became. The Ojibwe/Dakota author Scott Lyons has provocatively employed the “X-mark”—the signature placed on agreements with the US government by American Indians—as a symbol of both the coercive pressures exerted by imperial institutions and the agency of natives in casting their lot with them.153 Altynsarin’s life and career in service to the tsarist administration of the Kazak steppe represented just such a compromise.

That same administration, though always multiple and contested, was changing during Altynsarin’s lifetime and after his passing. The direction in which it was moving would gradually become less favorable to local knowledge of the sort Altynsarin deployed in his defense. On one hand, under A. E. Alektorov and A. V. Vasil'ev, educational institutions were built in Turgai province along the lines Altynsarin had proposed, with the addition of simple, cheap, and mobile village schools adapted to local lifeways. In the first years of the twentieth century, Turgai province would remain well ahead of the other steppe provinces with respect to the quality and sheer number of its schools. In these schools, Altynsarin’s textbooks found broad application. His promotion of an Islam both more doctrinally correct and compatible with Russian governance became less acceptable, although still within the realm of what many administrators would countenance. But Altynsarin’s opposition to peasant colonization of the steppe could not have survived long into the twentieth century, as a new set of laws and a new set of facts developed in support of it.

As tsarist policy became both more Islamophobic and more focused on peasant colonization in the 1890s, the next generation of Kazak intermediaries would be harder put than Altynsarin to argue for a different religious, economic, and cultural future for the steppe within the Russian Empire. While tsarist policies remained hesitant and multivalent, Kazaks and Russians with profoundly varied relations to the imperial center continued, at times, to find common ground. The mutual intransigence they would find in one another by the turn of the twentieth century, though, would ultimately prove decisive—and divisive.

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