Home History Kazak Intermediaries and Russian Rule on the Steppe, 1731-1917
Failures to Converge
Among both Kazaks and imperial Russians, there were many who either did not see the tsarist conquest of the steppe as positive or were skeptical of the possibilities of a civilizing mission there. Attention to these alternative views of conquest and rule highlights the intellectual agency of both Kazaks who saw something useful in metropolitan epistemologies and of imperial Russians who viewed the steppe and its population as worthy objects of development. The action of the present chapter—the mixing of local knowledge and new scholarly findings, applied to debates about the future of the steppe—occurred to the exclusion of these other systems of thought and knowledge.
The most prominent critical perspective, for Kazaks, lay in the work of the so-called zar zaman (troubled times) poets, most famously Shortanbai Qanarnli (1818-1881), Murat MongkeMi (1843-1906), and Dulat Babatarnli (1802-1871). These bards (aqin) have not enjoyed a good press over the past century. When mentioned at all in histories of Russian imperialism on the steppe or of Kazak literature, they have been caricatured as “ideologues of the powerful people of the feudal order [feodal’noi verkhushki],” owing to which they “related negatively to everything new in the economy, politics, and culture of Kazakh society of the era.”5 This is a mistaken approach. Rather, these poets’ production, orally distributed widely around the steppe, represent an alternative view of the relationship between Kazakhs and the Russian Empire, one which, judging by its “broad popularity,” was likely shared by many.6 If many Russophone Kazak intermediaries viewed the conquest of the steppe as both a misfortune and an opportunity, the zar zaman bards saw it exclusively as a misfortune. The pre-conquest steppe, in their telling, was a fantastically wealthy pastoral idyll, where “herds were like clouds on the foothills/and hooves rang out like rain/you couldn’t count the herds of horses.”7 A moral and spiritual decline, though, had left Kazaks as easy prey for the Russians (literally, for Shortanbai: “The Russians . . . are the eagle [berkit], we the fox”), spoiling this idyll, with little hope for recovery.8 Shortanbai would go so far as to develop eschatological associations with the conquest and its aftereffects, invoking the approach of the end times (aqirzaman) .9 In short, the conquest was a misfortune of historical proportions for Kazaks, and lamenting it remained the only option.
Reading against the grain of official documents celebrating tsarist civili- zational and educational achievements makes it clear that such views were not exclusive to bardic lamentation. The intentions of regular exhortations against Kazak ignorance from Kazaks and Russians alike are obvious enough, but the fact of their repetition suggests that their targets were rarely receptive to the message.10 When the editors of the KSG groused, for example, that the Kazaks of Omsk, seat of the Steppe Governor-Generalship, opened a Muslim primary school without any plans to offer instruction in the Russian language, they positioned it as an unfortunate half-measure.11 It might, however, just as easily be interpreted as embodying an alternative view of the forms of education and knowledge that the founders of this school found valuable. In broad terms, the sheer numerical preponderance of Islamic schools in comparison with Russo-Kazak schools supports such a reading.12 This was neither active resistance nor the hopeless lamentation of the zar zaman, but clearly, many Kazaks remained unconvinced that the Russian Empire and its institutions offered them something useful.
For that matter, a significant group of tsarist administrators did not see the steppe and other borderlands as worth the effort of civilization and development, as it was unlikely to reward the effort and funds invested. For the Turkestan Governor-Generalship, Daniel Brower has described the tension between reformist, civilizing officials and others who saw in the region only perpetual danger, best managed by strict military rule.13 In the steppe, too, different provincial governors assigned drastically different priorities to “civilizing” projects. Ibrai Altynsarin’s Turgai province, for example, had an educational system that by all accounts was far ahead of Akmolinsk and Semipalatinsk (the provinces of the Siberian steppe), where in the 1890s schooling remained in the same condition “that it was in in the 1860s.”14
Partha Chatterjee has presented these strategies of rule as two sides of a single imperial coin, the “pedagogy of violence” and “pedagogy of culture,” both latent within the protean, durable practice of imperial power.15 At a fundamental level, this view is difficult to argue against, but it also tends to obfuscate the motivations of colonial administrators and their subjects in cooperating with one another. The big tent called “empire,” on the Kazak steppe (and in most other imperial settings), held a range of potential lived experiences and outcomes. To appreciate the role of local knowledge in debating the future of the steppe, it is necessary to disentangle civilizing and noncivilizing perspectives on imperialism from one another.
Viewing the steppe as a locus of danger, to be kept in check, rather than a venue for a civilizing mission, a way of thinking with a long history among Russian administrators, found new support in some academic quarters, particularly the growing discipline of physical anthropology. 1 6 Two separate anthropological observers, V. D. Tronov (a doctor in Zaisan district of Semipalatinsk province) and N. Zeland (observing the Great Horde Kazaks of Semirech'e) came to strikingly similar conclusions about their subjects. 1 7 Both expressed grudging admiration for the Kazaks they observed in a noble-savage sort of way, noting their keen powers of observation and, it was claimed, tremendous tolerance for physical hardship.18 But these animalistic traits were themselves no more than the scant positive manifestations of the squalor surrounding their Kazak subjects. Kazaks, according to Tronov, lived a “lower animal life” devoid of intellectual pursuits, organized industry, or any concerns beyond remaining satiated at all times while expending as little work as possible.19 The inevitable results of this primitive lifestyle were ignorance and shocking immorality, manifested above all in widespread rates of syphilis infection. Zeland, similarly, grouped Kazaks among the world’s primitive (pervobytnye) peoples, blamed the problems the Great Horde faced on laziness and ignorance, and took a particularly dim view of their squalid and disordered domestic life.20 For both, the cultural level of the nomads they observed was leagues behind the rest of the civilized world.
So far, there is nothing unexpected about this—as we will see, the views of both Kazak and Russian “civilizers” also depended on the construction of Kazak backwardness. Zeland’s conclusion, however, was as striking as it was inimical to any sort of civilizing project: since Kazaks “must take a place behind cultured peoples not only in their amount of factual knowledge, but in terms of suitability for its acquisition and cultivation,” all previous attempts to educate them had “not brought forth any significant fruit.”21 Unlike Japan, the classic fin-de-siecle case in favor of the developmental possibilities of “Asiatics,” the Kazak steppe was miserable and always had been. It was impossible to revive, according to this line of thinking, what had never been lively before. No kind of regulation or policy could change the fundamental backwardness of the steppe. It could only be managed.
Thus there was no inherent reason for the interests of Kazak intermediaries and tsarist administrators to converge on the Siberian steppe. For many, clearly, mutual intransigence and the maintenance of difference were closer to the norm. Choosing a different course of action required both institutional space and intellectual labor.
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