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


The Mutual Construction of Backwardness

Ensconcing the steppe in a narrative of civilizational progress required, in contrast to the zar zaman bards, a more negative view of the distant (i.e., pre-conquest) past of the steppe than of its present condition. At the same time, the view of the present could not be so uniformly positive as to obviate the possibility of further progress under imperial tutelage. In the KSG and regional-studies publications, Kazak intermediaries and tsarist administrators co-constructed a steppe that was midway between primordial wildness and European civilization. Its further progress depended on targeted state interventions.

In the narrative the KSG presented, the pre-conquest steppe had been a remarkably dismal and dangerous place. Here, a single passage from an early issue of the KSG may stand in for many specific complaints that developed later on:

To the number of such [vast] borderlands belong Russia’s Central Asian possessions, extending from the coast of the Caspian Sea to Kul 'ja, and from Orenburg to the Pamirs. Populated by the remainders of khanates that were, at one time, mighty by their physical strength, the territory of Central Asia served as an arena for mutual hostility, attacks, and pillaging of peoples of various races [raznoplemennykh narodov], while they were not subordinated to Russian power by the force of necessity, a power which was called, in order to protect its borders, to impose order and tranquility in the heart of the Central Asian steppes.49

Things remained relatively grim, when the paper’s editors were in a mood to admonish, during the 1890s. Kazak correspondents and governors alike complained of the continuing problems that horse theft caused for farmers and nomads, and the apparent corruptibility of native administrators remained an ongoing concern for both groups as well.50 That this situation had improved at all over the course of the nineteenth century was entirely attributed to tsarist institutions. In this sense, a late piece on the achievements of Tsar Alexander II was a metonym for the entire experience of Russian rule on the steppe: the tsar-liberator had conferred (darovat') a wide range of careful administrative reforms on the steppe, setting the historical stage for their further progress.51 Thus, the “scenario of power” that the KSG and the civilizing governors who patronized it represented was one according to which Kazaks and the steppe had come as far as they had only by their halting acceptance of imperial tutelage; they would go further only by acquiescing in it more deeply.52

One particular manifestation of this administrative beneficence would be in overcoming the ignorant superstition that Kazaks were believed to exhibit in their daily lives. The pages of the KSG were filled with descriptions, by turns mocking and pitying, of ordinary Kazaks’ beliefs, from Russian and Kazak authors alike. An anonymous author, in 1895, laid the blame for low population growth and high mortality directly at Kazaks’ feet. Though the bracing steppe air promoted good health, he claimed, a witches’ brew of unhealthy practices, including keeping unsanitary winter dwellings, early marriage, and the dubious treatment offered by folk witch doctors (znakhari, baksy), had consigned Kazaks to a miserable existence and possible extinction.53 Not content with a general condemnation of folk medicine, the paper at times offered lurid descriptions of the particular fates suffered by Kazaks who had turned to folk healers instead of district doctors and medical assistants (fel'dshery).54 Still higher on the list of horrors, a Kazak correspondent contributed an anecdote from the late Ibrai Altynsarin, who had, during his time as a district judge in the 1870s, tried vainly to save a woman buried alive because of the superstition and blind adherence to ritual of her fellow villagers.55 In short, evidence was mounting from the KSG’s correspondents, regardless of ethnicity, that Kazaks’ ignorance had reached the point of becoming fatal. In 15 years of newspapers, not a single defender of folk healers emerges. If this undoubtedly reflects the editorial priorities of the newspaper, it also demonstrates that its editors had some success in recruiting Kazaks who found that editorial line reflective of their own experiences and needs.

There are strong similarities between these descriptions of Kazak squalor and ignorance and ethnographic descriptions of the Russian peasantry and urban lower classes at the same time. 56 In the village, in the slum, and on the steppe, such rhetoric was deployed in the service of a range of transformative agendas. The specificity of the imperial situation in the Kazak steppe lay in the institutions, practices, and sources put forth as the sources of that transformation.

Finally, the pastoral nomadism that continued to be Kazaks’ predominant lifeway, as practiced toward the end of the nineteenth century, appeared to have serious deficiencies. Undoubtedly, the most prominent of these was Kazaks’ “carelessness” (bespechnost') in taking care of their livestock. This carelessness, it seemed, was reflected above all in a failure to think about anything beyond their most immediate needs and pleasures:

The Kazaks completely forget that winter will return again: they do not trouble about preparation of fodder for livestock, even though they would completely have been able to do so in most cases, and pass the whole summer in idleness, delighting their sinful bellies [uslazhdaia svoiugreshnuiu utrobu] with koumiss [fermented mare’s milk] and mutton and spreading steppe news from village to village instead of doing business. But outside their expectations, once more winter arrives with storms, blizzards, and frosts; it, the villain, catches the Kazaks unawares, and completely unprepared to face it.57

In a regular year, perhaps, this would not constitute a death sentence, as hooved animals would still be able to dig sufficient food from beneath the snow. But when the fodder was inaccessible, whether because snow drifted too deeply on the open steppe or because, after a thaw, it was covered in a thick crust of ice, a frightful moment arrived. This was the dreaded zhut, most severe every 10-12 years, and paired with the appositive “the scourge of stock raising” (etot bich skotovodstva) in the KSG. Discussions of zhM had several dimensions. In Konshin’s hands, for example, a historic zhto of the 1840s provided an occasion to meditate on the failings of earlier tsarist administrations, less competent and less concerned with their population’s welfare.58 But it was, by and large, a rhetorical device used to criticize nomads perceived as lazy, backward, and unproductive.

ZhM, like the “superstitious” medical treatments offered by charlatans, had an underlying and miserable objective reality to it.59 Outside observers estimated that severe events could carry off anything from 10 to 70% of Kazakhs’ livestock.60 Pastoral nomads’ opportunities to adapt were always limited— under the best of circumstances, they could only hope to combine the backbreaking labor of physically removing deep snow and shattering ice, slaughtering as many animals as possible, and ultimately fleeing to warmer, drier areas.61 But it was also a phenomenon that had, apparently, recurred for centuries on the grasslands, and while suffering was undoubtedly great in the short term, the natural reproduction of livestock covered the losses quickly.62 Thus envisioning zhM itself as a disaster necessitating humanitarian intervention needed intellectual labor, a concept of the necessity of intervening in subjects’ lives that goes under the broad heading of governmentality.63 On the steppe, as elsewhere in the Russian empire, this developed gradually over the course of the nineteenth century, with state sponsorship of smallpox inoculations and the piecemeal introduction of microcredit institutions (ssudnye kassy) for the neediest nomads.64 It is in this sense that we can understand zhM as a constructed phenomenon, although the remedies proposed for it varied widely. Editorials in the KSG and correspondence sent in from steppe Kazaks drew the consequences of zhto in the most serious terms, preparing the ground for arguments in favor of sweeping economic change. One correspondent from Turgai province lamented that “the famous rich man D. B., who had more than 3,000 horses, now has only 80. Ch., who formerly had more than 5,000 horses, now has about 100. Many rich Kazaks, who owned small herds, do not now have a single horse. By the spring, merciless hunger raged. . . . With the dying of livestock disappeared the main means the Kazaks had for survival, since during the spring and summer the population consumes milk and dairy products.”65 The winter the KSG’s anonymous correspondent described, 1891-1892, was legendarily difficult around the Russian Empire, and played a role in the notorious famine at that time in the Volga River basin.66 Exceptional circumstances like these, though, seemed to require fundamental change, for the nomads’ own good. If they could not think to take precautionary measures on their own, they would need to learn new approaches from tsarist institutions and the more “enlightened” of their kinsmen.

Kazaks’ seeming carelessness was also expressed in their unwillingness to intervene in their animals’ reproduction, prizing quantity over quality in livestock and simply releasing the best animals into their herds and flocks with no attention to potential improvements in the breed. As a result, as one commentator put it, “stock raising in general and horse keeping in particular among the Kazaks are in decline.”67 Wolves were another source of losses due to insufficient watchfulness. If the problem here seemed less intimately connected with human survival than was zhM, there was nevertheless both a strong incentive for change and a set of solutions that, to outside commentators, seemed obvious.68 Cultural change and the appropriate support from state institutions (most notably state-run stables) could ensure not only survival but prosperity for willing nomads.69

Like many humanitarian interventions, remediating such concerns about pastoral nomadism promised a hefty payoff for the intervening Russian Empire. Animals bred for specific qualities had clear purposes within European Russia. In an internal report, Kolpakovskii argued that no finer light cavalry horse existed in Europe than the tough, nimble Kazak breed, which could be used in large numbers if Kazaks could be prevented from spoiling it.70 The building of the Siberian railroad promised a good market for the meat and fat of Kazak sheep— fat for manufacturing the tallow candles commonly used by most strata of the population, meat to feed workers at the factories of the Urals region.71 To secure these benefits to the empire (and, the editors of the KSG argued, to themselves), though, Kazaks would need to accept what Bruce Grant has described as the “gift of empire,” permitting themselves to be civilized on Russian terms: “So as to satisfy the European market, the nomadic population must meditate upon its economy—shake off apathy and laziness from itself and take up stock raising on more firm foundations. They should replace their careless relationship toward existence of their livestock with more attentive care [ukhod] and keeping of animals, selection of stud animals for copulation, striving to increase the quantity of livestock and more rationally use the steppe areas.”72 Underneath the humani- tarianism of all the various proposals for transforming the steppe lurked a sort of economic statism—a continuing concern with how this distinct environmental and economic region could be made useful to the Russian Empire, heedless of its political integration.

Decrying backwardness, though, also functioned as a call from Kazak intermediaries to adapt under circumstances that had, objectively, changed significantly over the previous few decades. One Kazak, Saudaqas Shormanov, made this point as early as 1890, long before the peak of peasant resettlement to the steppe provinces. Even small peasant and Cossack settlements, as well as trade with Russians, had drastically reduced the average distance and time of Kazak pastoral migration. Moreover, Kazaks were losing their land, a situation that could only grow worse in the legal and social environment of the 1890s: “A certain quantity of suitable Kazak lands, for example, in the surroundings of the Irtysh, of Kokchetau, Baian-aul, Karkarala, Ishim, and so on, have long already been occupied by villages, and, along with this, the best sections of the remaining lands are starting to go off to the use of settlers from Russia. Poor Kazaks, because of the scantiness of the land, more or less in the near future will cease their nomadizing, against their will, which fact is proven by the present state of our population.”73 Kazak actors who chose to engage with the KSG, like Shor- manov, believed that they were living through an era of demonstrably massive change, and that they had a responsibility to adapt. The multiple cultures in which Kazak intermediaries moved conditioned the meanings that they made of such changes. Understanding a decline or change in material conditions as a call to adapt, rather than rebel (of which the steppe had seen several instances during the 1800s) or mourn, needed subjective judgment, intellectual labor, and involvement in new cultural worlds. Nor did Kazaks agree on a single path of reform. Instead, there were polemics about how best to bring together local particularities, imperial resources, and the realities of conquest. Still, in the minds of both tsarist administrators and Kazak intermediaries, it was clear that the transfer of technologies and ideas from the metropole to the steppe would play a vital role in such adaptation. This assumption, along with the shared construction of Kazak backwardness, was the axiom from which further debates departed.

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