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


Perfecting Pastoralism

The argument in favor of maintaining pastoralism as the dominant lifeway on the steppe attempted to refute the key points of the pro-agriculture argument, both disparaging the potential agents of change (Russian settlers) and offering a radically different assessment of the possibilities and limitations of the steppe biome. Still, it would be stretching the case to present this as a genuinely anti-imperial argument. It is perhaps a product of the source frame, or a reflection of the Kazak intelligentsia’s quest for subjecthood and equal rights within the Russian Empire, that many arguments in favor of pastoralism emphasized that this use of the steppe would produce the greatest possible good for the empire as a whole.126 What is less easily explained away is that advocates of pastoralism, in a variety of publications, indulged in the same rhetoric of pastoralist primitivism as did advocates of agriculture. This, in turn, left room for the same cocktail of metropolitan science and local adaptation as characterized the potential transition to agriculture. What emerges here, as in discussions of agriculture, is neither a heroic preservation of traditional lifeways in the face of an all-powerful imperial state, nor slavish submission to some sort of monolithic discourse of European science, but a different combination of local and metropolitan knowledges, legitimized by the Russian Empire’s own self-representation as progressive and rational. “Russian science,” in this particular social and administrative conjunction, could be made to serve a variety of outcomes.

Much the easiest argument for advocates of pastoralism to make was that the steppe was simply unsuited to large-scale grain sowing. After all, even proponents of agriculture admitted that many areas of the region had never been touched by the plow. Surely there were logical reasons for this, and therefore the lifestyle that had so long sustained Kazaks, providing many of the principles by which they ordered their lives, should not be so casually thrown away.

The first Kazak contributor to the KSG to make a clear and sustained argument in this line was the folklorist Mashhur-Zhusip Kopeev (1857/1858 in some sources-1931). 1 27 Kopeev, described by one Soviet commentator as representative of the “moderate wing of clericalism,” a contradictory figure vacillating between “rational” and “conservative, reactionary” attitudes, engaged in a nearly year-long polemic with pro-agriculture Kazaks.128 In his opening salvo, he lamented the problems those around him had encountered as a result of abandoning stock-raising for agriculture. Listing a range of locations near his native Baian-aul (Pavlodar district, Semipalatinsk province) that he considered unsuitable for agriculture because of their stony soil and lack of water, he cautioned that moving unthinkingly to agriculture led only to “vain expenses and even threatened to cause disruptions to stock-raising.” 1 29 Despite, he claimed, significant criticism from Kazaks who claimed his articles rang false, he pressed further a few weeks later, this time in a poem:

The Kazak nomads have been stock herders Since ancient times

All the wealth of the steppe people [stepniakov] is in their pastures [v kocheviakh]

For the life of nomads, stock raising is more expedient It is understandable that grain cultivation is also useful But unfortunately, among us, no one has gotten rich from it When I was at the Chu [River] . . .

I more than once saw farmers

Who wished ardently

To live in our steppes (Sary-arka) . . .130

He was not, he concluded, an implacable opponent of agriculture—a potentially useful trade in the restricted areas where natural conditions permitted it. But stock raising, for nomadic Kazaks, remained more profitable and certain.

Many other Kazaks advanced such arguments in the KSG, with some rejecting the idea that agriculture was possible even more categorically than Kopeev had.131 As a rule, moreover, the regional-studies publications of Semipalatinsk province tended to support this line of argument. Konshin, far and away the most productive contributor to the PKSO, led its first issue with a meditation on Kazak sedentarization that framed such a change as a matter of the distant future, in part because “the soil and climactic conditions of the province compel one to think that a significant part of Semipalatinsk province will, for a long time yet, be outside the area of agriculture.”132 He would make similar claims while observing small-scale Kazak irrigation works during his travels around Ust-Kamenogorsk district, published two years later, stating flatly that “There is no river, however suitable, from which canals have not been drawn. Without these agriculture on the Zaisan loess plain is unthinkable.”133 Another, anonymous contributor (X.) the same year made an argument that strongly paralleled Kopeev’s—agriculture was developing, but only in very restricted areas, and could not immediately be pushed forward elsewhere. 1 34 Konshin, despite his radical politics, was something less than a cultural relativist. His travel notes drip with a sense of superiority to the nomads (or “wild men,” dikari, in his words) among whom he moved, feeling distinctly uncomfortable all the while.135 But to him and others, the steppe seemed objectively unpromising as a grain-growing region.

Left at this point, this might have seemed a bleak and hopeless picture, something out of an early travelogue or captivity narrative. If the steppe could not be made productive by agriculture, and was currently an arena of poverty and stagnant backwardness, then what exactly was it good for? Proponents of pasto- ralism thus went further in presenting the steppe as a uniquely favorable environment for raising large numbers of valuable animals, if only a few changes were made. The very first edition of the Zapiski of the new Semipalatinsk subdivision of IRGO, published in 1903, held a lengthy article by a little-known figure, B. Benkevich, who took the arguments of Konshin and X. to their logical conclusion: “The reasons for [the predominance of nomadism] consist not in some sort of addictions and sympathies of the Kazakhs, in their severe laziness, etc.; it is only a direct adaptation to the characteristics of climate, soil, vegetation, and irrigation of the steppes, the nature of which was so formed that animal husbandry and nomadism . . . supply the population better or more reliably than anything else and give the possibility to successfully exploit the vast areas on which the development of agriculture would never be thinkable.”136 As so many other commentators had noted, surface water was scarce, and vegetation neither diverse nor abundant—expecting agriculture in all but extremely isolated areas was madness.137 These steppes were not useless wastes, nor their inhabitants lazy brutes. Kazaks had seen that their environment offered tremendous possibilities for a different sort of lifeway, and, Benkevich argued, they had acted accordingly. All that was needed to see this was to stop looking at the region through the lens of sedentary agriculture.

Such a change of perspective, he noted, would also have significant profits for the empire, both in internal consumption and exports: “In Argentina animal husbandry, owing to the abundance of good places, flourishes and enriches the population. Why could the Kazak steppes not remain an animal-rearing area par excellence? Not speaking of the export of meat, it is enough to say that Russia itself needs cheap meat more and more, which it is better to have at home than import from overseas.”138 Accomplishing this undoubtedly useful feat, though, would necessitate some significant changes. Both Konshin and Benke- vich believed that the roots of Kazak impoverishment lay in specific actions taken and not taken by local governors and the ministries of St. Petersburg. Benkevich, in particular, laid out a ten-step program for improving Kazak pastoralism, the vast majority of which (opening model farms, improving the availability of stud animals, etc.) demanded new investments of money, human resources, and time from the tsarist state.139 But his first point leaps off the page by asking for a halt to an existing policy: “Significant restriction of colonization, so as to preserve pastures for animal husbandry"140

Criticism of peasant resettlement struck at what was, increasingly, a ministerial priority (though one not always equally shared by local administrators), and destabilized a linchpin of the pro-agriculture argument. Those settlers who appeared on the steppe were in the minds of pastoralism’s advocates at best unhelpful, at worst actively harmful to Kazaks’ economic interests. Settlers farmed alleged surpluses of land that, in practice, did not exist, restricting the amount of pasture available and constraining animals’ freedom to graze, and Kazaks’ to migrate seasonally along traditional routes.141 Arriving to the steppe inexorably, settlers constrained nomads, pushing them off their best lands (the most productive for both agriculture and pastoralism) and into areas where life was genuinely difficult.142 Cossack families who had sometimes established themselves over several generations derived much of their income from an exploitative relationship with the surrounding Kazaks, renting necessary lands to them and trapping them in a cycle of chronic debt.143 And the new arrivals, rather than being prosperous and capable civilizers, were in a weak condition themselves, too busy struggling for survival to focus on any concerns other than their immediate material needs. 1 44 In short, settler colonization, even before its peak, in this reading both failed to deliver what it promised and militated against the coming of an equally useful, more promising future based on intensified stock raising.145

In the idea of intensifying and improving nomadic stock raising lay a degree of commonality with the pro-agriculture argument, a similar sense that Kazak “wandering” was seriously flawed. The KSG, despite its pro-agriculture line, also positioned itself as a space where Kazaks and Russians could discuss measures for the betterment of stock raising. In this, perhaps, can be seen the influence of the long-serving governor of Akmolinsk province, Nikolai Ivanovich San- nikov, strongly interested in the development of Kazak animal husbandry.146 The regional-studies publications, less dialogic in format (though their authors presented themselves as intimately familiar with Kazak life, and Russophone Kazaks contributed to them), simply declared what they felt to be most necessary. The ideas they developed had significant overlap with those appearing in the KSG.

The focus of all “improving” proposals for nomadic life were based on the idea of storing hay for winter, rather than putting animals to pasture year-round

(tebenevka). This would, it was hoped, mean stronger, healthier animals, far less susceptible to acts of God. After the severe zhM of 1891-92, in Turgai province (outside the Steppe Governor-Generalship), matters went as far as discussions of obligatory hay storage, at which both Kazaks and tsarist officials were presence; the KSG eagerly reported on the proceedings.147 As statistical data accumulated by the late 1890s, seemingly indisputable numerical data seemed to confirm what critics of traditional pastoralism had long argued on the basis of their impressions during moments of crisis: Kazaks simply did not store enough hay for the amount of livestock they maintained.148 Remedies emerged throughout the 1890s. Actively sowing fodder grasses, “as Russian farmers [sel'skie khoziaeva] do,” would render more hay meadows productive, making the scarcity of fodder grasses no longer an excuse not to mow.149 To mow the acres of hay needed to feed even a modest herd of livestock, by hand, would have demanded a massive expenditure of labor. Enter the senokosilka, a hay mowing machine which the KSG urged Kazaks to purchase, and which Benkevich urged local institutions to make available on easy, discounted terms. 1 50 With labor-saving technology becoming better available, and the land not inherently unsuited for it, the only possible remaining reason for Kazaks’ failure to store hay, in this view, was their inherent carelessness.151 That it was necessary to improve in this respect was a point on which proponents of pastoralism and agriculture alike could agree.152

The basic problem of keeping animals alive extended to questions of medicine and hygiene, as well. Correspondents to the KSG, alongside mass dyings from pasturage failure, were concerned that large numbers of animals were carried off by infectious diseases like rinderpest and hoof-and-mouth (ia- shchur).153 Potential solutions ranged from mass education about the causes and treatments of particularly harmful diseases (paradigmatic for the KSG), to the introduction of special veterinary inspectors, to restricting the movement of animals to market or killing sick ones.154 The KSG’s editors described the work of these veterinary inspectors as both a constant struggle against nomadic ignorance and surprisingly effective: “The nomadic population made peace with these demands [of veterinary inspectors] with difficulty. Striving to conceal the illness that appeared, so as to use the skin and meat of sick animals, they did not understand what great harm they brought themselves, their society and state. . . . We will think that the nomads and trading people are now conscious of the benefit of the measures established by the government and will not oppose, but just the opposite will help to terminate illnesses quickly, if such should appear again.”155 By introducing nomads unaware of the germ theory of disease to the harmful consequences of their behaviors, spreading fatal illnesses around the steppe, veterinary inspectors gave them a rough-and-ready understanding of the latest findings of European science.

To simply keep livestock alive was a modest, and perhaps not very exciting, goal, but tsarist observers who favored pastoralism also saw definite means to “improve” steppe livestock, in the sense of making it more saleable.156 Descriptions of how Russian stock keepers carefully selected animals to replenish their flocks featured as early as the first year of the KSG—the message being, sotto voce, that Kazaks ought to consider it as well, as they were considered careless in this regard.157 Other commentators groused that Kazaks continued to ruin the genetic weaklings in their herds once they were alive, “always liv[ing] in the moment” and taking too much milk from new mothers to fill their own bellies, harming the development of foals.158 A Kazak, Raqimzhan Duisembaev, calculated that it was impossible for Kazaks to make a profit from traditional stock raising, adding to the usual complaints criticism of methods of horse training that saw horses being ridden too young and too far.159 By changing long-standing practices that had been relevant in the open steppe, Kazaks could maintain the relevance of pastoral- ism in changed political circumstances.

Most of these were put forward, in the KSG and regional-studies publications, as scientifically (or scientistically) verified measures that were certain to make an economy that was a relic of another age prosperous and useful to the empire. (Seemingly useful Kazak home remedies also occasionally found their way into print.)160 Many, moreover, assumed significant losses of pastoral mobility, whether in returning to hay fields in time to mow or in riding young animals later, for shorter distances. Working against the spread of epizootic disease meant stricter control of migration over fairly arbitrary administrative borders. If more milk was to be given to young animals, rather than consumed by Kazaks in the form of koumiss, airan (a thin, yogurt-like beverage), or qirt (a hard, dried cheese), the calories those staple foods provided would need to be replaced somehow, either with crops grown by Kazaks themselves or purchased from nearby merchants and farmers.

Ultimately, despite the opportunities for dialogue and the relative weakness, at times, of metropolitan knowledge, this dominant lens would prove the most significant fact of the collaboration among administrators, exiles of dubious reliability, and Kazak intellectuals on the Siberian steppe. There was no voice in favor of simply leaving Kazaks as they had been before; the fact of conquest, the steppe’s incorporation into the Russian Empire, and that empire’s European and global aspirations meant that this was no longer a possibility. The common consensus that Kazaks needed improvement, and improvement from without, prepared the intellectual ground for still-greater intensification of resettlement policy in later years. It was this policy that would ultimately see Kazak intellectuals go their own way.

* * *

Spaces of interethnic dialogue and exchange close easily when confronted with the exigencies of ethnic nationalism (expressed above all, in the steppe provinces, by colonization) and new conceptions of the national, or imperial, interest. This was the case on the entire Kazak steppe, by 1917; in 1902, we can see the first hints of that process.

Reading the KSG in 1901 and 1902 gives the sense of a newspaper that was slowly dying for lack of patronage. Increasing amounts of space were filled with repetitive announcements, seemingly to stretch the paper to its already thin four pages, 1 61 and articles from correspondents on seemingly innocuous themes were regularly rejected, a rarity before 1900.162 The most likely cause of this shift was Taube’s removal as Steppe governor-general in July 1900, as the KSG had flourished under him. When he was replaced by Nikolai Nikolaevich Sukhotin (1847-1918) the following year, the writing may already have been on the wall. When the editors of the KSG announced early in 1902 that it was to be converted to a bilingual publication devoted exclusively to agricultural issues (and thus, of much greater interest to settlers), Sel'skokhoziaistvennyi listok (Agricultural leaflet), this confirmed what had already been happening.163

Abai would pass away two years after the closure of the KSG, in 1904, and was immediately read by his contemporaries in Semipalatinsk province as the human avatar of the possibilities of collaboration between Russians and Kazaks. Like Altynsarin and Valikhanov before him, the multiple narratives constructed about his life in the century that followed have acquired as much historical significance as the actions of the man himself.164

The period between the closure of the KSG and the Revolution of 1905 is, as Tomohiko Uyama notes, “a ‘missing link’ in the history of Kazakh intellectuals.”165 We can see only tempting hints at it through what is known of the biographies of certain prominent actors and the telegrams and petitions that Kazaks gave during that tumultuous year. These, in turn, reflect a developing sense of autonomism, asking for the restriction of peasant resettlement and further rights for the Kazak language. They also, however, reflect a desire for rights within the empire and a disruption of the sedentarism-agriculture-civilization triad that tsarist and Kazak “civilizers” had so insisted on: “True—we do animal husbandry and the interests of this economy compel us to migrate . . . [but] why does animal husbandry deprive the Kazaks of electoral rights?”166 The common ground between Kazak thinkers and the tsarist state had not yet completely disappeared, nor had Kazaks’ willingness to interact with their key interlocutors on the latter’s terms.

This would also prove to be the case with respect to the core issue Kazak intellectuals confronted during the last 20 years of tsarist rule, peasant resettlement.

This program was carried out in highly positivist, scientistic terms, and in this sense dovetailed nicely with the “scenario of power” presented in the KSG and other civilizing publications. In this sense, as in the application of objectively verified scientific findings to modernize the steppe, some Russophone Kazaks believed that this was another tsarist institution that they could work with. The next chapter shows that while at the outset they were not entirely wrong to do so, such collaboration ultimately became impossible. Within the first decade of the 1900s, the tsarist state developed a system of knowledge about the steppe that supported resettlement on an unprecedented scale and resisted any attempt to question it.

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