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The Shcherbina Expedition: Paternalism or Technocracy?

Early in the planning process of the Expedition for Research of the Steppe Provinces, its planners focused on recruiting Fedor Andreevich Shcherbina, son of a Kuban Cossack priest, to conduct the research.25 It was, on the face of things, a logical choice. During his years working with the zemstvo of Voronezh province, in southwestern Russia, Shcherbina had pioneered the “budget” method of studying the peasant economy, focusing on the financial intakes and outlays of individual households in minute detail to understand their requirements in food and land and their position in the local economy.26 Such practical experience and demonstrated expertise had prepared him well to perform analogous tasks on the Kazak steppe. The research techniques his expedition employed involved the compilation of budgets for a few Kazak households, the juxtaposition of these budgets against less precise mass data, and the computation of norms that erred on the more cautious side after this comparison.27 The expedition was also of a piece with the fundamental idea of the budget method, that economic phenomena were best studied in correspondence with the specifics of local modes of production and social conditions.28

In another sense, though, Shcherbina was a highly unusual choice to manage an affair of significant state importance. In his youth, he was exiled for four years (1877-1880) to remote Vologda province for his involvement in Populist circles in Odessa.29 Even after the term of his exile, he had only regained permission to travel to Moscow in 1891.30 Later, as a member of the Kuban' Rada (assembly) during the Revolutions of 1917 and Russian Civil War, Shcherbina was involved with an institution that expressed views of Cossack and Ukrainian rights and privileges strikingly similar to those espoused for Kazaks by members of the Russophone Kazak intelligentsia. Two such Kazaks, Alikhan Bokeikhanov and Zhaqip-Mirza Aqbaev, participated in Shcherbina’s expedition.

Other participants in the expedition, though by no means all, were similarly (in the bureaucratic vernacular of the day) politically “unreliable.” Timofei Ivanovich Sedel'nikov, a statistician working under Shcherbina, would later be expelled from state service for his public opposition to resettlement on the steppe.31 Lev Karlovich Chermak, working as manager of research in Shcherbina’s absence, was under secret (neglasnyi) police observation while the expedition carried out its work. In 1903 he and several other several other members of the expedition were briefly arrested for possession of antigovernmental literature; this in turn led to the dispersal of the expedition’s Omsk bureau and its removal to St. Petersburg for further development of its statistics.32 All of this is to suggest that there were multiple ways of thinking about imperialism, land use, and group identity in the late Russian Empire, and among members of the Shcherbina Expedition in particular. Such difference and multiplicity lent ambivalence and uncertainty to its intended transformation of the steppe into settler colonial space.33

Shcherbina and his assistants were selected because they were experts on statistics, not on pastoralism or grasslands. Thus, before they set off to Omsk in May 1896, they conducted a thorough review of the available scholarship on the region.34 The understandings of steppe life that permeate Shcherbina’s later reports, further supported by personal observations, represent a view of the possibilities of resettlement every bit as mixed as that corpus of scholarship was.

On one hand, Peter Rottier is entirely correct to note that Shcherbina “saw a virtue in the sedentarization of the nomads,” and a pro-resettlement narrative emerges clearly from the 13 volumes his expedition published.3 5 The potted histories of each steppe district that Shcherbina wrote were evolutionary, even teleological, proceeding from a chaotic “epoch of raids and rough seizures by strong neighbors” before Russian suzerainty to the destruction of the old, feudal order of things under the Provisional Statute of 1868, representing a new period of life in the steppe provinces.36 Overwhelmingly, Shcherbina ascribed positive values to this change, the last phase of which included the presence of Russian settlers. Such evolution, in turn, was complexly interwoven with perceived civilizational hierarchies. The notion of sedentarism’s inevitable triumph went hand in hand with promoting it as a superior way of life; pastoral nomadism was doomed, Shcherbina and his co-editors agreed, because of a set of specific failings on its part with respect to sedentary agriculture. Drawing a stark picture of life among mobile and semisedentary pastoralists made the agricultural future seem more hopeful in comparison. The author of one appendix described the hygienic conditions of Kazak winter dwellings in terms lurid enough to justify classing their inhabitants as “half-wild men” (polu- dikari): “The linens are for the most part not washed and not changed; small children look like some kind of half-dressed ragamuffins; especially unpresentable is the clothing of the women: summer half-dresses or half-shirts, impossibly dirty.”37 Kazaks’ economy, mostly based on animal husbandry, was depicted as similarly disordered and in need of improvement, producing scrawny stock unsuited to the demands of the market because of the nomads’ near-axiomatic laziness and unwillingness to take anything more than their surroundings readily provided.38 In contrast to this, Russian settlers brought useful technology to an apparently benighted region, permitting agriculture without irrigation, deeply plowed furrows, and security against inclement weather, as well as an exemplary work ethic.39 In sum, as Shcherbina put it in his description of the settler heartland of Kustanai district, “[The settler] brings with him to the steppes culture, labor, knowledge, new forms of economy, and a wider stream of production.”40 Asked to find land for settlers, Shcherbina provided at the same time a strong argument for permitting them into the steppe provinces en masse.

Similarly gloomy rhetoric was characteristic of educated Russian observers hoping to modernize the peasantry of European Russia at the fin-de-siecle. The collected works of Witte’s Special Conference on the Needs of Agriculture (in which Shcherbina himself participated for Voronezh province) are a catalogue of complaints about peasant primitivism, filth, and immorality.41 However, it is important to draw a distinction between the dim views that modernizing administrators held of the Slavic peasantry and the stereotyped ideas concerning pastoralist life that characterized much of the Shcherbina Expedition’s materials and their successors.42 First, such descriptions were not identically negative. The same peasant who was drunk, shiftless, immoral, and hostile to change in Tambov province was still preferable, for advocates of resettlement, to the backwards nomads who populated the steppe. Shcherbina’s juxtaposition of purported Slavic peasant and Kazak work ethics draws this into sharp focus. Settlers may not have been ideal colonizers but, for many, they won the comparison with the indigenous population of the steppe. Second, while it is true that negative perceptions of both groups, grounded in ethnographic and statistical research, played significant roles in efforts to “modernize” their lives from without, the nature of this transformation was drastically different in the steppe provinces. The recommendations ensuing from the Special Conference involved education, technology transfer, and changing forms of land use, as well as resettlement from land-poor areas; while these were also a part of the proposed transformation of the Kazak steppe, in the latter region they were inseparable from peasant colonization and a legal regime that enabled the estrangement of land from pastoralists in its serviced3 Narratives positing the inefficiency, immorality, and ignorance of rural people are common to states pursuing transformative agendas in the countryside.44 Transformations come in all varieties, though. If peasant settlement on the steppe was part of the same impulse as empire-wide rural reform, its manifestation there was uniquely colonial.

At the same time, the Shcherbina Expedition’s collective uncertainty about resettlement extended well beyond the grudging endorsement of Kazak pasto- ralism expressed in the initial planning meetings. The introduction to volume seven of the expedition’s works neatly summarized its ambiguous relationship to settler colonization:

It is impossible to look at [the change in nomadic lifeways] either from the indifferent view of historical perspective, or from the narrowly economic viewpoint of the nomad. In the first case it would mean to sacrifice to a theoretical view the blood interests of the population, in the second to close our eyes to reality. . . . While the Kazak herder and his herd still exist, we must take all measures so as to not allow his age-old historically developed forms of economy to collapse at once, all of a sudden. This would be a true national tragedy.45

An alternative narrative emerged in the Shcherbina Expedition’s materials to justify a cautious approach to the construction of norms. This narrative was based on two fundamental points. First, despite optimistic projections of the steppe’s future under Russian colonization (views that the expedition’s personnel mostly shared), the observable effects of colonization on individual Kazaks in the short term were destructive. Shcherbina and his co-authors argued that as a result of Russian settlement, in some areas, Kazak landlessness was becoming a serious problem, “the same thing as the absence of one’s own field land for a farmer,” and the arrival of settlers drove rental prices for land higher than Kazaks could pay.46 In Pavlodar district, the expedition characterized settler colonization of the Irtysh River valley as a “still more unforgiving [ bezposhchadnyi] enemy” of the Kazaks than the earlier establishment of Cossack pickets in the region, since this new class would be less likely to rent out lands they needed; in Omsk district some Kazaks were “already completely crowded out.”47 Though authorship within the Shcherbina Expedition’s materials is frequently nebulous, it is difficult not to see the influence of the budding autonomist Bokeikhanov on such rhetoric, particularly because he is known to have contributed to the volume on Pavlodar district. Colonization might have had long-term benefits in the future, but only if pursued in a way that would not ruin the indigenous population of the steppe in the near term.

Second, because of the unique properties of the steppe biome, sedentary agriculture was not everywhere unambiguously superior to mobile pastoral- ism as a form of economic organization. Rather, according to this counternarrative, mobile pastoralism offered distinct advantages in the steppe milieu, and therefore needed to be preserved. This was true, for example, in the notoriously inhospitable wastes of southern Atbasar district: “[In the Hungry Steppe], perhaps, is expressed most brightly the quality of the Kazak nomad, knowing how to use the scantiest and most modest vegetation of the steppe, as in Atbasar district. The Kazak is the best and most desirable manager [khoziain] in the steppe semidesert.”48 Similarly, in some parts of Karkaralinsk district, agriculture was weakly developed as a result of unreliable precipitation and frequent frosts, but the region was “in fortunate conditions” with respect to winter pasturage of livestock.49 Settler colonization, then, did not lead to change in economic lifeways as straightforwardly as Shcherbina and his co-authors argued elsewhere in their materials, nor was it necessarily desirable that the entirety of the steppe provinces be devoted to cultivation. Although environmental study played a secondary role in the statisticians’ activities, they grouped the land of individual districts roughly according to their soils, water supply, and vegetation. The inevitable conclusion of such study, as the initial planning meetings had suggested, was that pastoral- ism had a serious future even after peasant settlement.

The final product of such ambivalence about the steppe environment and the potential violation of Kazaks’ lives resettlement entailed was land norms that were knowingly, and significantly, elevated. Shcherbina’s caution manifested itself in erring on the more prosperous side in determining what constituted an “average” Kazak household (thus increasing the size of the average land allotment); classifying pasture land according to its quality (so that Kazaks would not be allotted an apparently sufficient, but factually useless, amount of land); and in raising norms of livestock and land above a figure Shcherbina already considered high. 50 Using average budget data from families considered to be well-off, Shcherbina calculated that although 16 units of livestock (in translation to a horse, based on fodder consumption) would satisfy such a family, the norm should be raised to 24, a figure then considered in accordance with the productivity of pastures to determine a local land norm.51 As a result of such caution, or even deliberate inflation, late in 1901, Shcherbina concluded a presentation to a group of statisticians skeptical of his methodology with a sense of “complete moral satisfaction.” As he explained, “owing to the work of the expedition, there once and for all was laid a boundary for the seizure of land from Kazaks with little land and there were given such land norms as would completely secure the economic life of the nomad. With observation in this form of the core interests of the local population the surpluses of land, suitable for colonizing goals, were real surpluses.”52 Shcherbina’s norms left, in some cases, on bad pasture, more than 500 desiatinas (1,350 acres) of pastureland to a single Kazak household. Furthermore, the Ministry of Agriculture and State Properties instituted, in the interest of caution, a 25 percent increase to any norm Shcherbina calculated, and Governor-General of the Steppe Baron Maksim Antonovich Taube instructed surveyors to seize from Kazaks not “the whole surplus of land counted, [but] part of it, about a third.”53 Both the results Shcherbina and his colleagues produced and the bureaucratic milieu in which they were put to use thus combined a technocratic emphasis on abstract quantification with a paternalistic, cautious attitude toward the use of their calculations.

It is impossible to come to a single conclusion about why Shcherbina’s norms were so—outlandishly, according to some later observers—high. The products of a diverse authorial collective, they satisfied multiple sets of interests. For advocates of minority rights like Bokeikhanov, they were likely superior to imagined alternatives. Hesitant local governors saw a useful gradualism that would protect the lives of the nomads under their care, or, more cynically, ensure order and steady tax revenues.54 Shcherbina himself, beyond his leftist and autonomist views, saw in them a temporary expedient that could win over local opposition to any sort of state interference in Kazak affairs—when the Kazak pastoral economy evolved as he expected it would, they could be reduced.55 The Shcherbina norms, in short, were the product of a moment in the history of tsarist resettlement when regulation was a greater priority than mass colonization.

At the same time, Shcherbina’s own materials made different, stronger truth claims. Previously, he claimed, the Steppe Governor-Generalship had belonged “to the ranks of borderlands little known and insufficiently studied with respect to economics. Printed sources about this area are very few in number; they contain information which is poor in mass and only somewhat systematized."56 His own research, in contrast, was distinguished by sheer number of personnel it boasted (totaling 40 men at various ranks, divided into independent subgroups); by its careful choice of “intelligent” translators from the local Kazak population; and by its rigorous definition of land use as practiced, rather than as imagined by artificial administrative divisions (the canton and village).57 Consequently, Shcherbina boasted, his expedition had managed to both definitively establish the actual forms of Kazak land use and derive a set of land norms that secured both the interests of the pastoralist population and “the possibility of properly established colonization in the region.”58

Such competing claims about the nature of Shcherbina’s research created, during and after its publication, a set of norms that was open to two contradictory interpretations. Shcherbina’s norms were simultaneously based on unprecedentedly thorough and precise research and self-consciously incorrect. As the issue of peasant resettlement to the steppe provinces became more heavily politicized after 1900, both the “true” and “false” norms had an afterlife in the public sphere and administrative circles alike, as they served the purposes of advocates and opponents of resettlement.

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