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A DOUBLE FAILURE. Epistemology and the Crisis of a Settler Colonial Empire

Rushing to complete his appointed tasks for the backbreaking summer work period in August 1916, a Russian resettlement worker, Dolgushin, could hardly have imagined that his career and life were soon to come to a grisly end. When rumors of a violent rebellion of Kirgizy near his work site in Vernyi district of Semirech'e province began to spread, his two local assistants begged him to flee.1 But Dolgushin remained at work, reasoning “that he had offended none of the local Kirgizy, and thus they should not kill him.”2 He ought to have listened. By the time he agreed to go, it was too late. An armed crowd murdered him and took the topographers assisting him captive.3

The death of a relatively humble agent of the Russian Empire’s resettlement program in the violence that seized Central Asia at the end of 1916 signifies the failure of that policy from the perspective of Kazaks and other Central Asians whose lands were subject to estrangement and reallocation to Slavic settlers. Despite the system of norms and other legal safeguards, resettlement disrupted traditional lifeways; it was not pleasant to be the object of technocratic change. But to truly understand why this violence flared up, and why, in the main, local intellectuals sided against the rebels, we need to look at a series of political decisions taken by the tsarist state over the previous decade.

The reforms that followed the Revolution of 1905, on the steppe as elsewhere, saw anticipation and excitement give way to disappointment. The calling and rapid dispersal of two representative bodies, the first and second State Dumas, followed by Petr Arkad'evich Stolypin’s electoral coup of June 3, 1907, demonstrated that effective representative government was incommensurate with autocracy—at least as Nicholas II understood it. Stolypin’s agrarian reforms, building on the earlier work of Sergei Iul'evich Witte, promoted the individualization of land use and large-scale resettlement to the east side of the Urals, including the steppe provinces. These two points of the Stolypin reforms aimed to orient rural production toward the market and increase the productivity of lands wasted by thoughtless adherence to traditional economic forms. They generated a broad range of critical responses from politicians, intellectuals, and the humbler people they affected most. When Stolypin’s famous “20 years of internal and external peace” failed to ensue, so too did any hope of saving the Romanov dynasty.

Particularly on the Kazak steppe, the issues of land and representation were deeply connected. Though other issues (including the “woman question” and discussion of the status of Muslim institutions) had their place, it would not be an exaggeration to say that these were the two key issues of the Kazak-language periodical press for the majority of its prerevolutionary life. Of these, the land question raised by resettlement and its effects was undoubtedly at the forefront of most minds, but this proved inseparable from the issue of political representation. The new electoral law pronounced on June 3, 1907, created this connection. While transforming the Duma into a more reliably conservative, Russian-nationalist, and pliant representative body, it did not grant even token representation to the provinces of the steppe and Central Asia.4 That laws enabling expanded, accelerated peasant resettlement were discussed and issued outside of the hearing of natives of the steppe, unable even to present their case, grated. But it also provided a convenient rhetorical stick with which to beat an unpopular government, a variation on “no taxation without representation” more than a century later and half a world away. This was not simply the angry rhetoric of a disenfranchised population, publishing in a language few other subjects of the empire understood. It was also presented on the floor of the Duma by those remaining deputies who were sympathetic to the Kazak cause, as in this heated exchange during a discussion of the Resettlement Administration’s budget.

Khas-Mamedov: Thus, in the name of justice, humanitarianism, and the eternal rights of the Kazak population to land and its use, the settler movement to Kirgizia [i.e., the steppe provinces -I. C.] should be quickly ceased.

Berezovskii: That will never happen.

Khas-Mamedov: It is easy for you to say, deciding the fate of the Kazak population, which is even deprived of representation in the Duma.5

The connection between resettlement and representation, though, went beyond the rhetorical. The corpus of knowledge about the steppe and its inhabitants that

Russian scholars and administrators had accrued over the previous 70 years, and which around the turn of the twentieth century they augmented with particular alacrity, played a critical role in debates about resettlement and political representation alike. In many respects, though, the role this knowledge played was not straightforward. When making determinations about the steppe environment, and how much of the region was truly surplus to nomads’ requirements, resettlement statistics offered tsarist bureaucrats a range of competing solutions, despite the patina of empiricist rigor with which they were equipped. Rather, seemingly objective data about the soil and climate of the steppe could be used—or misused—to support a wide range of arguments about the proper course of settlement. Evolutionary understandings of pastoral nomadism as a lower stage of civilization, through which all peoples would necessarily pass, clashed with environmental determinism in discussions of Kazaks’ civilizational aptitudes. Competing schools of thought about Islam and its compatibility with an empire where dynastic and national principles were growing ever harder to separate only further complicated the picture.

From the perspective of both ordinary Kazaks and intellectuals, between 1905 and 1917, key decision makers in the Russian Empire made the wrong choices in every one of these debates. Their experience of direct Russian rule over the previous decades suggested a coping strategy, namely, demonstrating to their erstwhile interlocutors that they had it wrong—that Kazaks were, for example, both eminently civilizable and currently at a level deserving of political representation. This time, though, the expectations of these intermediate figures were disappointed. Resettlement was too crucial to the economic modernization of the Russian Empire and the resolution of European Russia’s “agrarian question” to be delayed or reined in. A small, reliable electorate was too dear to the political stability that Nicholas prized, after burning his hand on the first two Dumas, to be tinkered with in difficult times. Political participation would have to occur ad hoc, with no guarantee of a hearing—an unstable situation.

Throughout the Russian Empire, the cataclysm of World War I—a massive strain on human resources, administration, and material—functioned as a test of years of halting reforms and occasional parleys with a developing civil society. In hindsight, it is abundantly clear that the Romanov dynasty did not pass this test. The specific manifestation of its failure in the disenfranchised provinces of Central Asia, though, should be considered as fundamentally epistemological. On June 25, 1916, Nicholas II ordered thousands of adult male inorodtsy to appear for service as manual laborers in the tyl, the rear of the imperial army. He did so despite sound advice to the contrary from Kazak intermediaries, and without any mention of a quid pro quo, in terms of land rights or political representation.6 The tsar commanded, and his people were to follow. The violence that carried away Dolgushin, thousands of settlers, and tens of thousands of Kazaks and other Central Asians flared up as a result. Resettlement had created such grievances in Kazak society that conflict was likely to ensue at some point. In the conflagration of 1916, the draft was the spark, land politics the fuel, and the explosion that occurred depended on the presence of both factors. Members of the intelligentsia took the side of the tsarist state because of their own expectations and associations with military service, which they associated with their own visions for the future. They did not fundamentally disagree with the rebels’ basic grievances.

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