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


Spaces of Convergence

In the hierarchical world of the Steppe Governor-Generalship (the successor, from 1882, to the Governor-Generalship of Western Siberia), it is hardly surprising that the institutions which brought Russian and Kazak civilizers together were based on statist calculations. Both the KSG and various regional-studies publications had their origins in what local governors and governors-general understood as the greater good of Russian imperialism on the steppe. However, various governors had drastically different goals in view, and attracting Kazak participation was not a given. The spaces of convergence that administrators, scholars, and a smattering of local Kazaks created on the steppe were thus fragile and dependent on mutual good will, specific configurations of authority, and intellectual common ground.

The KSG was the creation of Gerasim Alekseevich Kolpakovskii (1819-1896), first governor-general of the steppe, but it particularly flourished under the supervision of his successor, Baron Maksim Antonovich Taube (1826-1910). Originally a supplement to the oblastnye vedomosti (official provincial gazette) of Akmolinsk province, it was eventually attached to the official newspapers of Semipalatinsk and Semirech'e provinces as well. Published in dual texts (Russian and Arabic-script Kazak), and containing both an “official” section (new regulations and orders) and an “unofficial” one (social commentary and articles), it was available for the modest annual subscription of two or three rubles.22 In the first issue, released on New Year’s Day, 1888, the editors described its broad ambit:

The special ‘addition’ to Akmolinskie oblastnye vedomosti is published, by order of the Steppe governor-general, so that the native Kazak population may get acquainted with the measures and instructions concerning the Kazak steppe and Kazak public administration of local and higher authorities, and to spread useful information among the Kazaks about the nature of the country and the daily life [ byt] of its inhabitants—economic (stock raising, development of grain cultivation, exchange trade, etc.) and spiritual (customs, legends, tales, development of literacy, etc.).23

The same opening issue appealed for Kazaks themselves to act as contributors, to “talk about their real needs” via the newspaper.24 It was thus, from its inception, both a didactic and a dialogic institution. Kolpakovskii, Taube, and the editors working beneath them would set the tone and the terms of what cooperation looked like, and Kazaks who found the paper’s message compelling would further its mission by contributing their own writings. During the decade-plus it was published (1888-1902—microfilms for 1889 are missing), it occasionally drew the ire of central administrators and, more often, struggled for non-Russian contributors.25 Still, it succeeded in publishing a surprising range of materials ranging from local folklore to European history, summaries of recent scientific research to humble, homegrown methods of dealing with common problems.26

Publications also evolved around local statistical committees, especially the one based in Semipalatinsk province and subordinated to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. These were institutions common to all provinces of the Russian Empire, and responsible for gathering such diverse data as population statistics, harvest data, and information about the state of various business enterprises, and reporting it to provincial authorities and the Central Statistical Committee in St. Petersburg.27 This was the so-called “obligatory work” of Semipalatinsk’s statistical committee, and its desired relationship to a strong state at all levels is clear enough.

From 1898 on, though, the statistical committee also took upon itself the publication of the annual Pamiatnaia knizhka Semipalatinskoi oblasti (PKSO). Between 1898 and 1902, the PKSO combined the usual functions of such pami- atnye knizhki (directory-style information about local administrators and businessmen, as well as a calendar of important events) with lengthy articles about Kazak culture, the history of the Kazak and settler populations of the province, and its flora, fauna, agriculture, and animal husbandry, among other subjects.28 In 1901, moreover, Semipalatinsk also witnessed the opening of a subdivision (pod"otdel) of the Omsk-based Western Siberian division of IRGO. Many of the authors who published in this subdivision’s Zapiski were the same ones who had written in the PKSO , and an uptick in its publications coincides with a sharp fall in long-form contributions to the PKSO. Thus it seems likely that the subdivision effectively replaced the PKSO as a forum for publishing regional studies.

The study of flora, fauna, and populations at the local level came with multiple political valences.29 In Semipalatinsk, this was particularly the case, given its place within the political geography of the Russian Empire. This modest city on the Irtysh River, a center of colonial rule, was also a place of exile. Fyodor Dostoevsky, who met Chokan Valikhanov during a stay in Semipalatinsk following his release from the “house of the dead” in Omsk, is the most famous of these exiles, but there were dozens more throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, living in Semipalatinsk under the observation, secret or otherwise, of the tsarist gendarmerie. Among them were both followers of the famed radical Nikolai Chernyshevskii and participants in the failed Polish revolution of 1863. In a context where state organs lacked sufficiently educated bureaucrats, these educated but politically “unreliable” people often carried out state-sponsored research concerning Semipalatinsk oblast. Steeped in the rationalism and materialism of radical culture of the 1860s, and conscious of the small-deeds liberalism of the reform era, many were equally eager to carry out research independently.30 Kazakhstani historians have devoted highly empirical monographs to the scholarly activity of these exiles, including Nikolai Iakovlevich Konshin (the most frequent contributor to the PKSO), E. P. Mikhaelis, and I. I. Dolgopolov.31 It cannot be assumed a priori that the oppositional politics of such figures was manifested as opposition to imperial rule on the steppe. Liberalism, a highly fraught concept for the Russian Empire under the best of circumstances, has never consistently functioned as a barrier to imperial expansion.32 But regional study did mean that when political exiles or other oppositionally minded figures wished to criticize colonial rule as practiced around them, they had the opportunity to gloss strong criticism as factual scholarship, and useful to the state that had sponsored it.

In their way, then, all of the KSG, PKSO, and Zapiski of Semipalatinsk’s branch of IRGO were marginal publications. The KSG assumed an interventionist perspective on governance and Kazak civilizational aptitudes, neither of which were universally shared, and both of which could vanish for no other reason than a change of governor-general. The regional-studies publications were not entirely produced by exiles, of course, but had their share of participants who had already attracted the ire of the state. The publications themselves would also turn out to be, at times, the objects of administrative displeasure.33 Yet they remained an important part of the practice of imperial rule in the Siberian steppe for more than a decade—one configuration of the relationship between colonizers and colonized, metropolitan and local knowledge, among several.

The KSG actively solicited Kazak participation in its endeavors, but the regional-studies organizations also were sites of interethnic exchange. Abai, for example, was a member of the Semipalatinsk Statistical Committee from 1886.34 A younger Kazak, an alumnus of the Omsk Technical School and Imperial Forestry Institute, Alikhan Bokeikhanov, contributed material to the PKSO.35 Involving Kazaks in such projects, in light of the few Russian-language schools in the governor-generalship and dim physical-anthropological views of their intellect, took some intellectual gymnastics. Here, social-evolutionist views and a longue duree view of history proved useful. Toward the end of the KSG’s print run, one V. Ivanov made a case for relativism and the tutelage that it implied: “European peoples, who now bear all the marks of higher culture, were not always so. They, during their improvement [sovershenstvovanie], passed through a certain series of steps, one of which is the very one at which the Kazaks stand at present, the nomadic way of life.”36 Kazaks could thus be improved within a relatively short timeframe, given the appropriate models and incentives. If this flew in the face of received anthropological wisdom about nomads, the jurist and ethnographer Ivan Ivanovich Kraft, serving in neighboring Turgai province, offered a justification for efforts to reform and uplift the Kazaks that fit well within the paradigm of fin-de-siecle racial thinking. In a report to the Imperial Archaeological Commission reprinted in the KSG, Kraft not only hypothesized that Kazaks’ former slaves (Russians and sedentary Central Asians) had assimilated with the nomads in centuries past, but that this had had measurable positive effects:

Should we not see, in this mixing of blood of a higher race with the blood of the natives, one of the reasons that the Kazak nationality is not undergoing the fate of many foreign tribes, some of which live in even better conditions—that is, extinction, but displays vitality [zhivuchest'], viability, and striving toward higher culture? Does not one of the reasons that the Kazaks are freely and skillfully moving to agricultural life, reaching the same level as, and sometimes outstripping, the original farmers, Russian colonizers, stem from this freshening of the blood [osvezhenie krovi]?37

In this view, Kazaks were neither ordinary nomads nor comparable to the various “small peoples” of Siberia who tottered on the edge of extinction under tsarist rule.38 They were intelligent and adaptable and, as we will see below, their adaptability promised advantages greater than a hands-off policy could offer.

Kazak cooperation, the other side of the equation, stemmed from several factors, some easier to evidence than others. If not all Russian-educated Kazaks came from elite-born families, it is clear enough that collaboration with tsarist institutions and values offered a new and potentially viable source of authority, one which could be deployed against what they viewed as the pernicious influence of native authority figures.39 The bare fact of the conquest of the steppe, and the apparent wealth and strength of the Russian Empire, suggested unflattering comparisons and the necessity of accepting whatever tuition tsarist officials might offer. Abai, overstating the case for dramatic effect, wrote that this material gap was so wide that “there can be no words about the Russians. We cannot even be compared with their servants.”40 These incentives dovetailed well. If existing authority figures stood in the way of material progress, new leadership and new alliances were needed.

Harder to document, but undoubtedly important, is the affective side of the matter. In the context of Soviet “friendship of peoples” historiography, desperate to identify “good” Russians within reactionary tsarist imperialism, such relationships between Kazaks and Russians as existed were widely celebrated.4 1 Abai’s relationship with Mikhaelis (and S. S. Gross), in particular, has been made to bear tremendous explanatory weight for his behavior later in life. The historian Abish Zhirenchin, for example, notes that Abai and Mikhaelis’s friendship began when

Abai requested a novel by L. N. Tolstoy from the Semipalatinsk city library that Mikhaelis was reading at the time.42 Regardless of the provenance of these stories, the “friendship” narrative emerged so quickly after Abai’s death—Bokeikhanov, in a 1907 obituary, attributed to Mikhaelis and Gross “a huge influence on Abai’s education and enlightenment”—that there is doubtless some fact beneath the layers of myth.43 In a context where few prominent Kazaks would not have felt the heavy consequences of arbitrary administrative rule, it does not seem far-fetched to think that social intercourse, even friendship, with people who approached them as potentially talented and interesting seemed preferable to approaching administrators who saw them as comically backward “children of nature,” or to simply failing to engage wholesale.44

Thus Kazaks and Russians alike had significant incentives to participate in a set of institutions that were vital to envisioning (and, under some conditions, enacting) imperial rule on the steppe, despite their precarious position relative to the administration and motley band of contributors. The space for discussion within these institutions, though, was more restricted than it had been during the era of the Provisional Statute, owing to policy changes both locally and in St. Petersburg.

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