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


New Priorities, New Paths

By 1904, a broad consensus had developed in St. Petersburg about the desirability and necessity of peasant resettlement to the steppe provinces and Siberia. For Witte, this had long been part of a larger program of economic modernization. But fearing agrarian disorders within the empire’s core provinces, Witte’s nemesis, Minister of Internal Affairs V. K. Plehve, also came to endorse mass resettlement; his ministry compiled several proposals to this end, examined at a special conference under Kulomzin early in 1904.82 After the Revolution of 1905, the new prime minister, P. A. Stolypin, made mass peasant resettlement a state priority for reasons dear to Witte and the now-dead Plehve alike—as a means both of housing the surplus agrarian population of central Russia and of increasing the economic productivity of areas considered to be poorly used by the colonized population or simply vacant.83 Stolypin thus lavished attention on the reformed Resettlement Administration, moved under the auspices of the highly technocratic GUZiZ from the less interventionist Ministry of Internal Affairs in 1905.84 The Shcherbina norms were well-suited to a paternalist, limited program of resettlement, and the demands placed on them had been relatively limited. But by 1906, moving vastly more settlers to the steppe provinces than before had been presented as an economic (and, for the Stolypin government, political) necessity.

Clearly, the modernizing tsarist state needed a larger land fund, increasing the “colonizing capacity” (emkost') of regions targeted for resettlement. There was more than one way to do this, but all of them involved rethinking the informational and legal basis on which resettlement had taken place until this time.

Chief among these, on the basis of existing procedures, was lowering such norms as already existed, creating a larger surplus from which to form settler sections. The original target for such reductions was Akmolinsk province. Akmo- linsk was chosen for the same reason, when the Resettlement Administration organized repeat (povtornoe) research in 1907, as Shcherbina had started there in 1896—the rich humus, multiple rivers, and abundant forests of its northern half made it very attractive to Slavic settlers, who did not have to change their accustomed methods of farming to survive there. The man tapped to lead this research was V. K. Kuznetsov, an experienced zemstvo statistician and an established authority on questions of colonization inside and outside of Russia.85 His mandate, though, and the results the Resettlement Administration expected him to deliver, differed enormously from what Shcherbina had been asked to do. Kuznetsov’s paymasters billed the caution that had been a virtue a decade before as a fatal flaw:

When the Shcherbina Expedition derived [its] land norms, it did not take the conditions of the Kazak agricultural economy into the calculation, nor did it develop hay-mowing norms for the Kazak nomadic economy. Further, it took an inflated figure for the average quantity of livestock belonging to a tent-household, in comparison with the amount of livestock found by the mass count and the budget data. . . . An addition to these norms, which were already very exaggerated . . . still further distances their size as calculated from what is really necessary, and definitively ruins the final conclusion with respect to statistics.

Therefore, at present it is especially necessary to call for repeat research of Kokchetau district [in Akmolinsk province] with the goal of introducing greater precision to the question of land norms for the Kazak population, and bringing these norms into closer correspondence with the actual requirements of the Kazak population.86

Shcherbina’s caution, and the further safeguards that both local and central administrators instituted in their awareness of the flaws of his data, provided ample basis for downward revisions. Kuznetsov’s task, without carrying out any new environmental research, was to make those revisions. Since the Resettlement Administration assumed, with Shcherbina, that peasant resettlement drove the intensification of the Kazak economy, Kuznetsov could make corrections in that light as well—Kazak farmers needed less land than they had as nomads, and he would work accordingly.87 There was more surplus land to be invented on the steppe, and Kuznetsov was the first of several statisticians asked to deliver it.

There was another, more permanent way of maximizing the productivity of steppe land that, under imperial eyes, lay useless under the unpredictable wanderings of feckless nomads. This was zemleustroistvo—the reorganization of land use, providing Kazaks with a fixed amount of land and freeing the rest up for settlers. The norm-and-surplus system left a standard amount of state land in nomads’ long-term use; over time, the norms would be revised and the state, as owner of the steppe, would take more of its own land back, reallocating it to settlers. Zemleustroistvo, on the other hand, offered to sedentary or sedentariz- ing Kazaks a smaller amount of land on conditions of permanent use, bringing their land use to its possible minimum at a single stroke. The initiative to investigate the possibilities of zemleustroistvo came from Stolypin and the main administrator of land management and agriculture, Prince B. A. Vasil'chikov, at the end of 1906, not out of any interest in Kazak rights, but out of a hope to promote further economic intensification and create new space for settler sections: “The government, by presentation of boundless land areas [to nomads], should not artificially support their nomadic way of life at the expense of the landless Russian peasantry.”88 Moreover, officials within the Resettlement Administration claimed, Shcherbina’s own data proved beyond doubt that Kazaks themselves profited from colonization; in this view (characteristic of the Stolypin era) the main problem Kazaks faced was insecurity of land use as a consequence of repeated seizures of “surpluses.”89 Thus, at the two ministers’ mutual request, an interdepartmental meeting packed with officers from GUZiZ formed under the chairmanship of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs A. I. Lykoshin during the spring of 1907 to discuss the terms under which such land reorganization might occur.90

Many positive signs pointed in the direction of transitioning to the zem- leustroistvo system. It was well aligned with high-level administrative priorities and supported by favorable economic data. Moreover, as Sedel'nikov had already pointed out, the norm-and-surplus system was on shaky legal ground at best; the Lykoshin conference found that “the law does not contain sufficiently definite provisions about the order in which lands should be acknowledged as surplus for the nomads. The consequence of this is that resettlement officers are accused of arbitrary behavior, which serves as the main subject of the Kazaks’ numerous complaints.”91 But as much as they might have wanted to, the members of this conference could not overcome significant practical obstacles to bringing zemleustroistvo about. The majority of Kazaks remained maddeningly nomadic, using a broad range of small patches of land over the course of the year on the basis of usufruct rights; how could surveyors attach all these scraps of land to them in a logical, permanent way?92 Still worse, even the results of the Shcherbina Expedition—now accepted as modest and flawed—had been obtained at great expense. Qualified surveyors and statisticians were in short supply. Thus it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that “to place the zemleustroistvo of the Kazaks first in line would mean to delay the Russian colonization of the steppe provinces for many years,” even as up to 60,000 settlers remained landless and more were arriving every month.93 Norms would have to remain in force, with the understanding that the dated, overly generous Shcherbina norms would be gradually phased out as the Resettlement Administration carried out new research (like Kuznetsov’s).94 Over the following decade, zemleustroistvo of the Kazak population would be more frequently invoked as desirable than actually practiced.

One final method of increasing the Russian Empire’s store of surplus, easily colonized lands remained: opening areas that had formerly been closed for resettlement. This particularly concerned Turkestan, where the governor-general, A. B. Vrevskii, had ordered a ban on peasant settlement in 1896, applied to Semirech'e on its return to the jurisdiction of the governor-generalship in 1898.95 From the perspective of the generally paternalist military administrators to whom Turkestan was entrusted, this made good sense. They held a low opinion of Slavic migrants, feared the disorders that a large influx of them might cause, and insisted that the economic interests of the local population (Kazaks, Kyrgyz, and sedentary “Sarts”) be recognized.96 But from a colonizing perspective, the exclusion of Semirech'e in particular was a grave error. Abundant in lush vegetation and fresh water, it was paradise in comparison to the arid steppes on which Russian settlers were forced to settle, and its huge expanses contained untold productive forces awaiting their proper exploitation.97 This belief in Semirech'e’s potential led to the lifting of the resettlement ban temporarily in 1905, and permanently in 1910, at the same time as thousands of irregular migrants flocked to a region rumored to be an “El Dorado [zolotoe dno]” for agriculture.98 If setting up settlers on new land was an administrator’s first priority, it was blindingly obvious that the use of Semirech'e had to be maximized.

Administrative politics, undergovernance, and the materiality of Semirech'e’s environment, very different from the dry grasslands to the north of it, made this much trickier than anticipated. Between 1905 and 1909, Semirech'e was the venue for a serious crisis within the norm-and-surplus system of colonization. Land norms ultimately survived the highest-level challenge they ever received, but the Resettlement Administration was not wholly allowed to get its own way. En route to a compromise, the squabbling institutions involved lobbed competing perceptions of past and present research, imbued with competing understandings of the land and economy of Semirech'e, at one another.

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