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


Cracks in the Armor

Although Shcherbina asked for, and received, full control over statistical research on the steppe, he was not permitted to carry the work out without being accountable to the organizations that had sent him. Audits of his results by qualified experts called the truth claims of his research into question, but could not fully dispense with the idea of norming as an efficient and sufficiently accurate means of allotting steppe land.

A. A. Kaufman, the dean of tsarist statisticians in resettlement affairs and questions concerning the peasant commune, and a participant in the organizational meetings of 1895, was Shcherbina’s first professional critic. During an audit of Shcherbina’s work during the expedition’s second summer of operations, 1897, Kaufman found much to criticize. Where Shcherbina saw advantages in the extensive participation of local Kazaks in the expedition, Kaufman saw an additional danger: “As to the registrars, such were, as it seems, exclusively Kazaks still in school [uchashchiesia], and the household interviews were done, therefore, directly in Kazak. In general this was very advantageous for the success of the work, but this circumstance had too its unfavorable side, that it deprived—at least to a certain degree—managers of parties and subparties of the possibility of looking out for the regularity and precision of asking questions which have first-rate importance in the matter of household registration."59 The household surveys on which the expedition relied for its norms were thus subject to doubt, putting the entire enterprise on a shaky foundation, though Kaufman added the caveat that these data remained superior to any previously collected. He had graver doubts, however, about the methods the expedition had employed to divide the steppe into smaller and more coherent units of analysis. The borders among various communes (obshchinno-aul'nye gruppy, “commune-village groups," in the original) did not appear to be accurate when verified by lower-ranking officials of the Resettlement Administration; the “natural-historical groups" by which the expedition classified lands of different quality were, he argued, arbitrary and useless, since they did not correspond to the ways Kazak communities disposed of land.60 Thus, while they appeared to ensure a high degree of accuracy, Shcherbina’s figures in fact complicated the reallocation of land to the state colonizing fund in a way that benefitted neither Kazaks nor settlers.61 Moreover, because of the hurried nature of the expedition’s work, fundamental questions remained unanswered—where precisely were suitable sites for peasant settlement located, and which resources were they equipped with?62

None of these concerns, coming from such a prominent authority, could be brushed off lightly. At the same time, though, none of them destroyed the norm- and-surplus system of land allotment. Kaufman provided methodological critiques and hinted that Shcherbina’s norms were unduly generous to the Kazaks, but all of his recommendations took the form of modifications to an already established, fundamentally desirable procedure. Kaufman argued, in short, for a more accurate and practical set of land norms, more attuned to the needs of peasant colonization, not for their abolition. Deeply concerned with administrative arbitrariness, but also firmly convinced of the precedence of settler interests over Kazaks’ if the two came into conflict, Kaufman viewed the creation of revised norms as a means of securing both priorities.63 His claim that overly high norms would slow and impede the formation of settler sections, though, hinted that the calm consensus around the idea of norming the steppe would not last forever.64

Kaufman’s criticism prompted a further investigation of the Shcherbina Expedition’s methods on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture, which sent a second auditor, E. A. Smirnov, to the steppe provinces in 1899.65 Smirnov’s report combined acknowledgment of Kaufman’s fine-grained methodological critiques with a practical attitude toward the means and time that any statistical study realistically had at its disposal. He acknowledged certain of Kaufman’s technical criticisms to be as accurate as they were impossible to correct.66 Similarly, Smirnov dismissed as ultimately inconsequential Kaufman’s major concerns with the way the expedition had divided the steppe into communes and natural-historical regions. Communes, he became convinced during his visit, actually existed in many cases, and while the natural-historical regions were indeed unnatural and unfounded, it was unlikely that the expedition “would really have done better” to use another approach.67 At any rate, perfect precision was not necessary at this stage. The expedition’s data were still better than any that had previously been available, and its task was only to give approximate indications, to indicate those lands whose status as surplus to Kazaks’ use was beyond any doubt.68 While this left open the possibility that, in the future, such approximations would no longer serve the empire’s interests, it was in context an argument for moderation and caution in norming the steppe. The realities of undergovernance in the Russian borderlands necessitated a colonization that was mathematically good, rather than perfect, and awareness of this fact meant, for Smirnov, that some methodological imprecision was acceptable.69 Better some regulation, in the end, than none at all.

At the same time, Smirnov fully accepted Kaufman’s view that the lack of a set of locally specific norms for hay consumption by Kazak livestock constituted a serious deficiency in the expedition’s work, attempted to calculate one himself, and urged that such calculations play a role in later statistical research.70 This, like the critique advanced by Kaufman, was an argument against the specific activities of the Shcherbina Expedition that fell firmly within the disciplinary matrix of zemstvo statistics and “correct colonization.”71 It was, if anything, a call for greater attention to the particularities of the local, greater empirical rigor, and greater correspondence between statistical methods and observable human behavior. But recognition of the impossibility of realizing this vision with a single, hurried expedition led Smirnov to recommend larger margins of error in the implementation of norms by local resettlement parties/2 Correct colonization was at this stage an ideal, rather than an absolute fact, and awareness of the uncertainty behind even good numbers militated against their uncritical application. Leaving the details to be filled in at a later time by land-allotment bureaucrats, though, while it offered the possibility to reckon more precisely with local conditions, also removed the brake on land seizure that the Shcherbina norms were meant to represent.73

Ultimately, many of the gravest concerns raised by the early practices of the Expedition for Research of the Steppe Provinces were quickly addressed. Topographers were drafted to reduce the uncertainty about the precise extent and area of commune groups and natural-historical regions, while a meeting with officers of the “provisional parties” (vremennaia partiia) responsible for measuring off land for settlers seems to have smoothed over some of the difficulties of implementing the expedition’s recommendations.74 Moreover, both Smirnov and Kaufman were willing to write off the initial mistakes Shcherbina’s team made as results of their unfamiliarity with the local landscape—they were not likely to be repeated. The project thus moved forward without significant contestation, fine-tuned and better aligned with its seemingly contradictory goals of protecting Kazak interests and allotting land to settlers, but with the idea of norming the steppe as yet fundamentally unchallenged. But officially establishing that the Shcherbina norms were no more than a flawed estimate of actual patterns of land use would have unanticipated long-term consequences.

Only some years later would more fundamental criticism emerge. Its source was Sedel'nikov, a Cossack of the Orenburg Host trained as a surveyor (zemle- mer) at Ufa who participated both in Shcherbina’s expedition and in studies of the steppe province of Ural'sk (outside Shcherbina’s purview) in 1904-1905. He deployed this experience to establish his expertise at the outset of a vicious attack, in 1905, on state-sponsored colonization in Battle for Land on the Kazak Steppe.75

Sedel'nikov did not go so far as to reject the colonization of the steppe in principle. In his mind the Kazak steppe was indeed, as stipulated in the Steppe Statute, state property.76 Seizing land on the basis of this law was, though, a conditional proposition, and the appropriate conditions had not been observed. Specifically, he noted,

According to the first article of the surveying [mezhevykh] laws, surveying has two fundamental goals: (1) “to make known the quantity of lands and specific types of land [ugodii], all in general, and in particular those belonging to the Treasury,” and (2) “to support the tranquility of the owners by establishment of regular and undoubted borders of land ownership.” Have the lands of the Kazak steppe been made known? Do those institutions, in whose hands has been until now all observation of the land organization [zemleustroistvo] of the nomadic population know the quantity of land on the steppe?77

Sedel'nikov’s answer to both of these questions was firmly in the negative. His entire critique of resettlement as practiced was based on the purported inconsistency and inaccuracy of the informational apparatus that supported it, especially of the Shcherbina norms, and the illegality of any seizures of land prior to completely securing the needs of the Kazak population not in theory, but in fact. By working with a “normal” household instead of accounting for all the diversity and dynamism of the Kazak economy, and by making further calculations on the basis of a livestock norm (for Kokshetau district) that everyone admitted was flawed, Shcherbina, Sedel'nikov argued, had built all of his land norms on sand— they were little better than a guess.78 The imprecision of the norms combined with the inexperience, ignorance, and single-minded determination to set up settlers characteristic of provisional parties under the Resettlement Administration to systematically disadvantage Kazaks, depriving them of their best lands without recompense.79 The only solution was to do what the government should have been doing since 1891: carry out a truly extensive and precise survey of steppe lands, which would, over time, put the Russian Empire on the one possible path to a just fulfillment of its colonization program.80

Sedel'nikov thus went much further than earlier statisticians critical of Shcherbina had been willing to go. The impulse that motivated him, however, was much the same—Shcherbina’s norms did not even live up to the modest claims they made. The pace of colonization needed to be slowed; the hard and time-consuming work the law demanded prior to land redistribution actually needed to be done. This approach, rather than Shcherbina’s, could give Kazaks the secure and sufficient land allotment to which they were entitled, while maintaining the steppe’s status as state property, so that the “dark and ignorant mass of the steppe population” would remain protected from itself.8 1 But as Sedel'nikov spoke, the politics of resettlement were in the midst of a fundamental change—one that made speed, rather than caution, the top priority.

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