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NORMING THE STEPPE. Statistical Knowledge and Tsarist Resettlement, 1896-1917

As the tsarist state began, however hesitantly, to endorse a policy of peasant resettlement to the steppe, advocates and opponents of colonization alike sounded a note of caution. This was a caution rooted not only in fears of the unpredictable problems peasant mobility might bring about. Rather, there was real doubt about the suitability of large swaths of the steppe for agriculture, and questions also remained about how much land Kazak nomads might require for their own subsistence. In 1869, after the Steppe Commission had completed its work, Minister of Internal Affairs A. E. Timashev continued to rebuff local advocates of colonization on the grounds that “the steppe lands [have] not been made known . . . neither in terms of their quality nor of their quantity"1 Outside of official circles, more than a decade later, questions were raised about the possibility of colonization without substantively harming Kazaks; these turned on the point that there had never been a detailed study of Kazaks’ economy, no survey of lands suitable for colonization, and thus there could be no informed assessment of the impact resettlement would have on the Kazaks.2

When the Steppe Statute of 1891 introduced a provision allowing surplus Kazak lands (izlishki) to be seized for other state needs, questions about the quality and quantity of steppe land became a matter of critical state importance. When the tsarist state granted itself the right to seize surpluses, it created the legal basis on which colonization could proceed, insofar as it could be framed as a state need. But actually conducting such seizures depended on defining certain lands as surplus. This, in turn, would require attentive study of how much land

Kazaks actually needed, how much total land was available on the steppe, and of what quality. It was a daunting task, one ideally suited to what Willard Sunderland has referred to as the era of “correct colonization,” orderly, scientized, and systematic.3

Accordingly, during the roughly 20 years (1896-1917) that comprise the resettlement era on the Kazak steppe, the tsarist state dispatched a series of costly statistical expeditions to clarify the existence of land surpluses in the region. Their progenitor, the 1896-1903 study of F. A. Shcherbina, was followed by more detailed studies of individual provinces. Shcherbina’s expedition and its successors were tasked with completing an unprecedentedly thorough economic survey of the steppe provinces, supplemented by as much environmental research as possible. The end result of such studies, for each region in which they worked, was to be a norm for the amount of steppe land an average family of Kazak pastoralists required for its subsistence. This norm could then be multiplied by the total number of households in a region, and the resulting figure subtracted from the total amount of land in the region, to give the total amount of “surplus” land available for peasant resettlement without, according to the state’s rhetoric, unduly constraining pastoralists.

Land norms calculated on the basis of field research satisfied many of the parties whose interests were involved in the settlement of the steppe. What better way to address doubts about the viability of colonization than with rigorous empirical study? The system of norms, in this sense, was self-justifying; norms were contrasted against the condition of relative ignorance that had come before and, representing an improvement on that condition, excluded other ways of knowing the land. Statistical expeditions, moreover, satisfied many of Kazak intermediaries’ expectations. They were scientifically verified, regulated, and in principle made an effort to reckon with local particularities. Norms, moreover, were administratively easy to use. They were to act as Latourian “black boxes” in both senses of the term, bringing together diverse research elements and reducing them to one important and readily applicable piece of data.4 Once calculated, administrators could simply take them as a given until new ones were derived. The project of creating empirically verified, expert-calculated norms of Kazak land use provided the framework, in theory, for a highly informed, nonexploitative, and mathematically perfect agricultural colonization of the steppe.

Yet these shifting norms were more political than their proponents ever publicly acknowledged. As the Russian Empire moved, in the early twentieth century, from hesitant endorsement to enthusiastic promotion of resettlement on the steppe, later statistical studies inexorably lowered the norms, freeing up more land for settlers. The rhetoric of correct, managed colonization remained intact even as ever more aggressive calculations threatened the interests of the local nomadic population. The seeming precision of the norms was sufficient to ward off serious challenges to them, based on other epistemologies, other conceptions of what it would mean to know the steppe thoroughly. Neither arguments against the norms, nor attempts to revise them, could dispense with the idea that economic and environmental knowledge, of one sort or another, was the best and most appropriate tool to manage colonization. The norms had both the appearance of dispassionate, quantitative thoroughness and, particularly from 1906 on, substantial institutional backing.5 Thus they endured long after it became clear that statistical knowledge, converted into norms, served administrative convenience and resettlement far more than it protected local interests.

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