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


Agriculture and Adaptation

The difficulty of governing a nomadic population, able to cross administrative borders, avoid taxation, and break the law with little fear of punishment, had long troubled tsarist administrators on the steppe.99 Agriculture, moreover, stood unambiguously above pastoral nomadism on the hierarchy of stadial development, the prism through which many of them understood the world. Accordingly, for many administrators and Kazaks alike, the solution to Kazak backwardness lay in abandoning the pastoral nomadism that had been the dominant lifeway on the steppe for centuries. Kazaks could, it was argued, use Russian agronomy and the assistance of newly arrived settlers to ease their transition to agriculture. In so doing, they would live more secure and prosperous lives. In the abstract, this was an intrinsically satisfying argument. In practice, though, it depended on an idealized, and possibly untenable, conception of the steppe environment. Moving the agricultural transformation of the steppe from theory into practice required continual adaptation, and this, in turn, was a process in which knowledge moved from the bottom up every bit as much as from the top down.100

An obscure Russian commentator, M. Imshenetskii, devoted a long series of articles in the KSG early in 1891 to the material benefits that Kazaks could derive from agriculture. This was a means to social leveling, stability, and above all, personal wealth:

Under the scepter of the Russian tsar live in Russia various peoples; among them there are many Muslims and peoples of other religions. All these people live mostly by cultivating the land, sowing various grains, such as wheat, oats, rye, millet, barley, buckwheat, peas, beans, poppies and etc. . . . If a plowman in Russia, whether Russian [urus] or Tatar, has two or three horses, two or three dairy cows, and ten sheep, and geese or ducks, he is considered a rich man, and he lives much better than our Kazak. His house is spacious, warm, light, he has a stove in the house. . . . The farmer’s family lives warm, and full, and clean, and tidy. He is not only concerned about his existence and his family but also keeps livestock in the warmth, he is not afraid that his stock will die from ice or storms and stores up food for it for the whole winter.101

Here was a comprehensive solution to the various forms of backwardness that a variety of observers agreed plagued the Kazaks and their economy, if only they would learn to “use the natural wealth surrounding [them], given to [them] by God.”102 Spiritual uplift was also on the table: “agriculture refines [oblagorazhivaet] man and raises his intellect.”103 Imshenetskii’s was the most detailed and sustained argument in favor of agriculture that appeared in the KSG . I quote from it at length here, though, because it neatly boils down the broader editorial line of the paper, and the benefits that its contributors thought would accrue to Kazaks if only they ceased their troublesome wandering and began to sow.

Although some Kazak contributors to the KSG shared Imshenetskii’s perspective on the material advantages of moving to agriculture, or at least adding it to the existing pastoralism, they discerned other potential advantages as well. In particular, sowing grain recommended itself as a defense mechanism against the behavior of Russian settlers. Saudaqas Shormanov, whose observations of changes in the steppe’s demographic landscape we have already seen, drew one inevitable conclusion from it: “Oh, my brothers! Would it not be better, from this point forward, to live as city people do, on places suited for it, than to be deprived now of our good quality places and remain with poor ones? Think while there is time.”104 Another Kazak correspondent lamented the seemingly endless cycle of debt and dispute into which the pastoralists around him entered, selling their land to Russians for cheap prices when poverty drove them to it at the end of a long winter, then trampling those lands en route to summer pasture. “It would be desirable,” he concluded, “if these Kazaks, instead of selling their lands to the Russians, took up grain cultivation themselves.”105 Different visions of Russian settlers’ cultural role on the steppe could be applied equally well to arguments in favor of sedentarization and agriculture, arguments which in all cases assumed some degree of imperial tutelage. Common ground lay in the fixity and stability that tilling the soil and caring for crops were seen to provide.

As restrictions on peasant resettlement were eased, and the railroad brought more agriculturalists from European Russia to the steppe and the provinces that surrounded it, settlers loomed, from the perspective of the KSG’s editorial board, as promising civilizers and logical agents of the steppe’s agricultural transformation. The most programmatic statement of this argument appeared in 1896, when data about Kazak agriculturalists from nearby Turgai province was interpreted so as to attribute the lion’s share of the transition to imitation of newly arrived Russian settlers:

For the Kazaks to improve their lives, Russian influence is necessary, and it already exists. The Kazaks living near Russian settlements are beginning to live in the Russian style. In this respect, Russian settlers have a strong influence among the Kazaks. Settlers taught the Kazaks to build huts of light brick [vozdushnogo kirpicha], rather than of turf. . . . Now it is not a rarity to see a Kazak at a Russian mill, milling one or two sacks of wheat. One Cossack of the Burannaia station set up a water mill among Kazak settlements about 200 versts from Russian settlements, and the Kazaks now have their own flour and millet [psheno ]. It is understandable that the Kazaks say a grateful “thank you” to this Cossack, because he saved them from difficult work at the mortar.106

Settlers offered superior tools and enjoyed a wealthier, more stable lifestyle than the average nomad, while their presence offered new economic opportunities. Small wonder, then, that the editors of the KSG claimed that the very sight of prosperous settler households was enough for enterprising nomads to “try to imitate them, and not without profit for themselves.”107 This was far from being a universally shared understanding of settlers, but for those commentators who could see the settlers of the 1890s as sources of cultural uplift, it was not just Russian science in the abstract sense, but science transformed into improved plows, seeds, and hay mowers (senokosilki) that would transform the steppe and its inhabitants economically.108

The very existence and success of settlers on the steppe, moreover, served as the best possible evidence that it was broadly suitable for agriculture. Though contributors to the KSG paid lip service, at times, to the idea that pastoral nomadism was a rational adaptation to life on dry grasslands, every successful attempt to farm created new evidence that the Siberian steppe did not consign its residents to eternal wandering: “The Kazaks populating the Steppe Governor-Generalship . . . occupied the best and most fertile steppes, which abundantly reward the farmer for his labor. Every year, from Russia there arrive thousands of settlers, who settle on the steppes, plow up the land, gather an abundant harvest, build log homes, and lead a full, fat [sytuiu] life.”109 The logical consistency of arguments in favor of agriculture depended on imagining the steppe environment to be more favorable for sowing grain than not. Steppes north of the city of Semipalatinsk were described as “very fertile in places,” “possessing several of the rudiments of colonization.”110 More generally, proponents of agriculture enthused that “there is no greater wealth in the world than rich earth, heated by the warm rays of the sun,” implying that the steppe did not lack for it.111 Pastoral nomadism, meanwhile, was as likely a result of the vast spaces (prostor) Kazaks had occupied in an era of lower population pressure, prior to the conquest, as of natural conditions.112 Kazaks had wandered the steppe aimlessly (so proponents of agriculture understood, or represented, the complexities of pastoral nobility) not because it made sense, but because no outside force had ever compelled them to do otherwise. Now, only laziness and ignorance prevented them from taking a step beneficial to the Russian Empire and themselves.

Even admissions that the steppe was not wholly promising for agriculture at present came to be laid at the nomads’ feet. Whereas once, as even Kazak elders admitted, the steppe had been lush, wealthy, and idyllic, the situation had changed much for the worse, with scanty vegetation and insufficient surface water. The reason and the culprit were not far to seek: “Now it is not like this [teper' ne to]. The Kazaks, as true stock herders, destroyed almost all arboreal vegetation, and cruelly destroy what remains of it even now.”113 If human activity had ruined the steppe, then human activity could enliven it once more; unsuitable environmental conditions were not a priori evidence that the steppe could not be cultivated.

In fact, proponents of maintaining or adapting existing pastoralist praxis regularly mobilized the argument that the steppe environment was not propitious for agriculture. The extremely continental climate of the steppe held numerous dangers for grain and sparse cash crops: rapid changes from hot to cold generated killing frosts, while sparse or absent atmospheric precipitation, in bad years, caused crops to wither. Soil that could nourish fodder grasses lacked sufficient nutrients to support repeated harvests. Thus, although some enterprising Kazaks volunteered that they had taken good harvests even from bad land, it was necessary to respond to such arguments and adapt in areas where conditions seemed less favorable.114

Adaptations for the benefit of agriculture centered primarily on the endemic lack of moisture within the steppe. The solutions advanced ranged from the Promethean to the humble, but all depended on local expertise and local cooperation with state directives. The long-standing fixation on the role of forests in regulating climate in Russian thought meant that schemes to conserve the few existing trees on the steppe, and cultivate new ones, played an early and leading role.115 In the very first year of the KSG, “preserving forests and cultivating them” led a lengthy list of measures that Kolpakovskii had taken for the agricultural development of the steppe region, a persistent concern in his more than two decades of service in Central Asia.116 The same year, the official section of the newspaper reprinted a circular from Kolpakovskii explaining his reasoning behind such measures, undoubtedly restrictive from the perspective of a settler or Kazak in search of fuel or building material: “The climatic conditions of a country . . . stand in direct dependence on the quantity of forests which remain whole and unharmed [utselivshikh]. There appear droughts, want of rain, and severe winters, and the consequence of this are complete harvest failures and the complete unsuitability of the land for agricultural cultivation.”117 Kolpakovskii’s good intentions proved no more practicable or successful than similar plans on the steppes of southern Russia. The other obvious method of increasing the amount of available moisture in areas receiving insufficient precipitation, artificial irrigation, had its proponents, but was also necessarily restricted in scope, for want of both the enormous capital resources needed for large-scale irrigation and, in many areas, rivers of sufficient volume and constancy.118 What remained was to make better use of such moisture as did exist, or find ways to render the aridity of the steppe unproblematic.

As in the southern steppes of European Russia, prospective farmers searched long for drought-resistant or -tolerant crops in an effort to beat the always risky game of dry-farming. Several Kazak commentators in the KSG, like its editors, invested much hope in a varietal of spring wheat called chul-bidai (desert wheat), reputed to give a good harvest even during drought years.119 In light of what it described as widespread Kazak interest, the editorial board offered to obtain seeds even as a comparable publication, Turkestanskie vedomosti (Turkestan gazette), suggested that this crop might not be a panacea for steppe agriculture.120 Here, adaptation took the form of local interest in a varietal developed not in the metropole but a few hundred versts south, in the similar climes of Turkestan, and the success of the initiative would depend on Kazak farmers’ willingness to sow it and skill in the fields. The KSG, in this instance, was no more than a mouthpiece and facilitator of what some Kazaks understood as local interests.

The other adaptation favored by the KSG’s editorial board was developed not in sophisticated metropolitan laboratories but by early agriculturalists on the steppe. These farmers were Cossacks living along the Irtysh line, long considered dubious farmers and “civilizers” at best, and the adaptation (attributed to a certain Ivan Iakovlevich Shestakov) was the snezhnik. Snezh- niki stored up snow as it accumulated, protecting it from the action of the sun and wind (especially important on the flat, treeless steppe) and thus providing a source of extra moisture during the spring. After an initial descriptive article, the newspaper began to promote snezhniki actively: “Publishing Mr. Nesterov’s article [about snezhniki], the editorial staff expresses hope that setting up snezhniki, known as yet almost exclusively in the Bel-agach steppe, will attract the attention of the Kazaks to this simple method of storing up water for summer. We hope that the invention of the Semipalatinsk Cossack, which made his native land the breadbasket of a vast region, will bring its share of good to other waterless areas, where the Kazaks would wish to apply their labor to a useful business [poleznoe delo]!’nl This support took on extraordinary measures for the time and place. Nesterov’s instructional article was accompanied by several illustrations, an extremely rare step for the KSG.122 Later in 1896, the editorial board offered to release a separate reprint of Nesterov’s article to interested Kazaks free of charge, an offer it repeated in 1899.123 The generally pro-agriculture newspaper thus staked much on the possibility of conjuring sufficient water on the steppe to make its dreams a reality. But despite the construction of Russian material superiority and the great store Russian and Kazak contributors alike set by metropolitan science, the adaptations on which it came to lean tended to derive from local experimentation and practice.124

Developing agricultural adaptations was both practically and rhetorically necessary. If simply sowing without taking local conditions into account failed, the material stakes were high, considering the instability many pro-agricultural observers saw in Kazak pastoralism and the very real dependence on agriculture felt by the poorest Kazaks (zhataqs, from the verb zhatu, to lie down), who lacked sufficient livestock to nomadize. More abstractly, on the success or failure of agriculture depended the authoritative claims of tsarist civilizers and pro-agriculture Kazak intellectuals, the notion that they had the right and duty to direct the economic future of the steppe, because they knew better.125 If agriculture failed, the position of leadership to which they had appointed themselves would become unstable. They did not lack for competitors. A separate sort of scientistic argument, grounded equally, its proponents claimed, in knowledge of local conditions, dismissed large-scale agriculture as a realistic part of the steppe’s future. As they imagined the steppe environment, a modified and perfected form of traditional pastoralism would better leverage the natural conditions around them. The economic future of the steppe depended on environmentally grounded arguments and adaptive practices.

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