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


“Worthy . . . of the Title of Citizens of Great Russia”: Adapting to Resettlement and Disenfranchisement

If the nascent Kazak intelligentsia considered the presence of Russian settlers on the steppe and absence of political representation to be fundamental problems, their responses were largely grounded in the intellectual and political world that nearly two centuries of imperial rule had created. New claims on lands that Kazaks understood as ancestral prompted attempts to both modernize economically and make maximally successful counterclaims on the land.89 These same measures would raise Kazaks’ civilizational level, making them worthy participants in imperial institutions.90 In debating among themselves how best to respond to the shocks of resettlement, Kazak thinkers displayed a range of responses to metropolitan thought and diverse understandings of the potential of their environment. Such understandings proved as instrumentally useful in intra-Kazak polemics as they had when engaging with tsarist administrators. But there was still a basic willingness to work within imperial institutions and accept the “civilizing” arguments of their interlocutors, as long as Kazaks were permitted to make their own way there.91

The behavior of the Kazak intelligentsia in the wake of Central Asia’s disenfranchisement, and with ever more settlers flowing into the region, was in part pragmatic and political, devoted to realizing short-term goals. The two most important Kazak-language periodical organs of the 1910s, the Troitsk- based journal Ai-qap (1911-1915) and Orenburg-based newspaper Qazaq (1913-1918), agreed if nothing else that Kazaks’ absence from the Duma was both a symbolic and a practical blow.82 The members of the Muslim fraction who continued to sit in the Third Duma had little understanding of Kazaks’ life conditions and thus did not know which laws would favor or harm them.93 Thus it was necessary to struggle by all possible means to right the wrong. In 1912, a group of Kazaks including Akhmet Baitmsi'nov hatched a plan to sneak a deputy into the Duma via the position reserved for the

Muslims of the city of Orenburg, a city outside the steppe provinces proper but very much within their orbit.94 The boundaries of the steppe provinces were not the end of the world for traders and intellectuals, and this was a canny strategy of working around the late tsarist state’s territorialization of backwardness, although it ultimately failed. Subsequently, efforts focused on a time-honored tool of the weakest subjects of the Russian state, the petition.95 Later, a Kazak representative would be appointed to the Muslim fraction in St. Petersburg/Petrograd to develop draft laws and strategize.96 This choice first fell on Bokeikhanov. By the end of 1916, as the amount of pressing business increased, the law student Mustafa Shoqaev also began to serve.97 From a practical perspective, members of the Kazak intelligentsia were prepared to argue that they were no worse, and no less deserving of rights, than other subjects of the Russian Empire.98 When conventional paths to representation were closed, they, for the most part, attempted to forge new ones rather than dispensing with the system entirely.

The withdrawal of rights of representation in the Duma and the ever-growing number of settlers on the steppe also played well into the Kazak intelligentsia’s long-standing politics of admonition. This had been the fundamental point of Abai’s Qarasozder: Kazaks had allowed themselves to be left behind thanks to laziness and ignorance. In the resettlement era, so members of the intelligentsia scolded their imagined audience, evidence that this was the case was only mounting. In 1909, Mirzhaqip DMatov (1885-1935), a poet and publicist originally trained as a teacher, published a collection of poems titled Oian Qazaq! (Awake, Kazak!), explicitly hoping to rouse a dormant population from its slumber and oppose Russian colonization.99 Baqitzhan Qarataev, in a 1910 letter to Bokeikhanov, described the Kazakh people’s “ignorance and nomadic lack of culture” as a threat to its existence equal to that presented by resettlement bureaucrats.100 Bokeikhanov, for his part, glossed the electoral law of June 3, 1907, thus: “The Kazak people is ignorant, and unsuitable for the Duma, it was said.”101 Such statements came with an implicit question that members of the intelligentsia addressed head-on, though their responses differed wildly: how could the Kazak people become less ignorant, and more suitable? How could they become skillful (onerli) or, as one anonymous commentator put it, “worthy . . . of the title of citizens of Great Russia, our beloved Motherland [Otan]?”102

Ai-qap and Qazaq pursued, in the main, two lines in answering these questions, each mixing environmental determinism and social evolutionism in different measures. These may be distinguished even though there was some overlap between them, and neither publication completely rejected sedentarism.103 The time of nomadism had passed, owing to political circumstances and natural laws.

This did not mean, however, that there was consensus about which kind of sed- entarism best suited the Kazaks and their land. The Ai-qap group tended to favor the near-abandonment of stock raising, with a very strong role for agriculture, while the Qazaq group argued instead for sedentary, intensified, and commercially oriented animal husbandry. If the final goal of self-strengthening through learning and settling on the land was similar, these authors’ understandings of local environments differed wildly.

The Ai-qap group, in general, showed itself to be less concerned with the quality of the land per se than with disassociating Kazakness from pastoral nomadism. All around the edges of the steppe, one contributor to the journal argued, Kazaks were discovering a range of trades outside of traditional stock raising, only possible through totally abandoning pastoral mobility: “If I look at the Kazaks of Kokand, I see Kazaks who have become owners of huge gardens, have begun to sow rice and cotton, who are living very well. In Astrakhan, they live by fishing on the coast, in Troitsk, Atbasar, Pet- ropavl, Omsk, Semei, Zarechnyi, and Qaraotkel the Kazaks live by trading [saudagershilik]; our youths who have studied, I see, work as clerks, translators, scribes, secretaries, teachers, medical assistants, doctors, lawyers, judges, and engineers.”104 Similarly, a later pseudonymous commentator (under the pen name Qazaqemes—“not a Kazak”) argued that Kazaks had always been characterized by economic diversity, with some sowing, some raising livestock, some migrating, some not.105 Thus becoming sedentary and cultivating grain would not necessarily be alien to Kazakhs’ historical experience. Rather, considering Kazaks as a part of universal history, they would have to seden- tarize. Everywhere, when population density increased, people settled on the land. Why would Kazaks be any different?106

The benefits to be gained from such an immediate transition, further, were described as vast. The first and most obvious was prosperity. Like the official Kir- gizskaia stepnaia gazeta before it, Ai-qap publicized cases of successful transitions to agriculture, as among Kazaks living on the Baraba steppe of western Siberia. Having taken good land, these Kazaks were able to market an agricultural surplus and sell copious amounts of hay during the zMt years that threatened their nomadic neighbors. They checked the other key box for intellectuals of the age, too, by reinvesting their profits in religious and educational institutions. It was, all in all, a “very pleasing thing to hear [qulaq suisinerlik is] .”107

Kazaks’ failure to extract maximum value from their surroundings, rather “surviving on the back of the land and water,” positioned them, for adherents of the Ai-qap line, as among the least cultured subjects of the Russian Empire.108 Sedentarizing, and using European science to arrive at the necessary methods of making agriculture work in the steppe environment, would both raise the overall level of culture and create opportunities for still further development. And this, in turn, would provide fabulous returns in the long run. A single desiatina of land, one anonymous author argued, could easily yield 50 to 100 rubles every year under properly managed agriculture. 1 09 Kazaks who found themselves with a less reliable or more meager income from their stock raising, despite the apparent vastness of their herds, ought to think carefully about their next steps. This, too, was an argument with little consideration of parts of the steppe that might be less propitious for agriculture; the same author ended his article with a confident statement that “our farmers will make it known that our land is indeed gold.”110

Finally, sedentarism with an emphasis on agriculture offered distinct political advantages, according to the Ai-qap line. Gaining the zemstvo (and, thus, gaining legal equality with the core provinces of the empire)—a local government institution offering a degree of local control over education, medical care, and other affairs—was a crucial goal for the Kazak intelligentsia by the 1910s.111 But, an unsigned piece noted, caricaturing their opponents’ views, an institution mostly designed for the rural administration of peasants could only function if Kazaks were sedentary: “The zemstvo is a good thing. But in order to use the zemstvo it is necessary for the people to be sedentary. Qazaq is saying to be nomadic.”112 Sedentarization thus offered both political advantages and a clear means of cultural uplift. Moreover, it offered a fixed claim to land that nomadism, with ever-decreasing land norms and the stipulation that nomads’ surpluses could be seized, did not. Zemleustroistvo as sedentary, guaranteeing 15 desiatinas of land per male soul, promised at least a limit to the seizures. 1 13 In a context where peasants were arriving on the steppe, driving Kazaks off to the worst parts of the steppe, and impoverishing them, closing ranks and sedentarizing guaranteed survival.114

The opponents of the Ai-qap line, many of them affiliated with Qazaq after 1913, found such views to be laughably optimistic and ill founded, for several reasons. First, the pro-agriculture group’s simplistic equation of agriculture and higher culture fell apart on closer inspection. As an anonymous piece in Qazaq early in 1914 noted, “If you want to be cultured, raising livestock will not stop it [mal baghud'ing toqtaul'igh'i zhoq]”.115 The following year, in the same paper, Bokeikhanov cited the Arabic language as an example of the level of culture a stock-raising people could achieve, and Switzerland and Australia as countries combining animal husbandry and efficient economic organization; though the Bashkirs and Tatars had turned to agriculture before the Kazaks, he further argued, they had not achieved any more than the latter.116 This being the case, agriculture’s role in cultural uplift generally, and as a means of achieving equality within the Russian Empire in particular, was open to serious doubt.

This was just as well, supporters of the Qazaq line claimed, because there was very little evidence that much of the steppe could ever be made suitable for agriculture, and a great deal of scientific evidence that suggested the opposite. DMatov had already presented this side of the argument when attempting to stimulate discussion in Ai-qap in 1911: “The Kazak people has never said, I will nomadize, it nomadizes in dependence [qarap] on the climactic conditions of the land. Man is the slave of the climactic conditions of the land where he lives. The land where the Kazak lives is unsuited to agriculture"117 Qazaq ran in several directions with this fundamental principle. Just as Ai-qap trumpeted the achievements of successful farmers, Qazaq ran articles depicting the transition to farming in a gloomier light: without the promised aid from tsarist administrators, for example, the unfortunate Kazaks of Mengdiqara canton, in the settler- heavy northern steppe, quickly learned that “it is impossible to survive by sowing grain"118 Faced with an administration that would not let them return to nomadism, their future was uncertain. More generally, the prominent statistician and agronomist Konstantin Antonovich Verner, who served in the Steppe Governor- Generalship in the early 1890s, had declared the steppe only suitable for pastoral stock herders.119 Another professor, cited only as “Bogdanov," apparently argued that “the Kazak steppe cannot be grain-sowing land." 1 20 What had the proponents of sedentary agriculture to offer in response? Only good intentions and the unfounded claims of a few Tatars who “do not know the Kazak land question well."121 Both empirical and subjective evidence suggested that the Ai-qap camp could not deliver what it promised.

The showpiece of the Qazaq line was a massive article serialized in 1915 and 1916, “Sharualiq ozgerisi" (“Economic Change"). This, in its first stages, was a guided tour through the classics of European political economy (bearing a particularly strong influence from Friedrich List), theories of globalization, and social evolutionist thought. 1 22 By the time its author turned to conditions on the steppe proper, he had drawn the following conclusions: “natural conditions, population density, and the transition to trades and crafts [sheberlik]: these are the first-rank reasons why an economy changes"123 Although 1915 ended with more questions than answers, it was clear that the author had been strongly influenced by ideas of environmental determinism—if not in questions of national character, then at least in the sense that the environment placed firm limits on a people’s economic choices:

According to what we know, to be sedentary, various conditions must be favorable. After saying that these conditions are available on Kazak land, phrases like “culture will come to a sedentary people" and “if you sow, grain will grow [eksengegin shighadi]” are often heard. With sowing, will grain continue to grow? For grain to grow, is it only necessary to sow, are there no other conditions? First, for grain to grow it is necessary for the soil to be suitable. On sand and saline soil [solonchak], nothing will grow. Second, there must be moisture within the soil. If there is no moisture, grain will not come from the dry soil. Third, warm air is needed. In cold earth grain, again, will not grow.124

In the specific case of the steppe, “the question of Kazaks sedentarizing or not is like this problem of sowing grain. Before sowing it is necessary to know whether or not the necessary conditions are present.”125 The author thus positioned himself as an honest broker sorting through all the data at hand—the steppe was environmentally diverse, and some Kazaks had already settled on the land, so it was vital to know how well they lived, and if sedentary Kazaks did better in some areas than others.126 The following year, he began to break down the data, with help from books published by the Resettlement Administration, particularly the work of Fedor Andreevich Shcherbina (much derided in the Resettlement Administration proper by that time). The conclusion he drew from these first, cautious studies was pessimistic: “In Turgai province, out of 43 million desiatinas, 28 million seem unsuitable for grain sowing. This is two-thirds of the province’s land.”127 Particularly with the more promising sowing land going over to peasant settlers, settling and doing agriculture represented only a limited solution at best.

In fact, the Qazaq line had never been, as opponents parodied it, an utter rejection of sedentarism, nor a continued validation of the dark and feudal past. Baitmsinov, a key early contributor to Ai-qap who later became “the soul of Qazaq,”128 and who evinced a cautious attitude towards sedentariza- tion, neatly summarized this intermediate position early on: “The advice to sedentarize [qala salu degen soz] was not said to all Kazaks, it was said to Kazaks who sow grain and have good land [khn korerlik zheri].”129 Already in the days of the KSG, there had been few Kazak thinkers willing to defend pastoralism as it had been in the distant past. It was too associated with risk, poverty, and internal misrule to have a serious future. Economic and demographic pressures on the Kazaks had only gotten worse since the KSG was shuttered early in 1902. An urgent question thus arose: if not farming, then what?

The answer here, too, lay in the way that authors who held the Qazaq line thought about their surrounding environment. The steppe, as they described it, was not merely bad agricultural land, but good stock-raising land. “Because the land is stock-raising land,” an article in Qazaq argued, “there is no way not to raise stock there.”130 The same piece noted that stock raising leveraged skills that Kazaks already had: “What the Kazaks know is how to raise stock, badly plow, do trade, other than this they have no trades or arts.”131 Rather, the models that Bokeikhanov, in particular, looked to were Switzerland and Australia. In the former, on small amounts of bad land, sedentary people raised small amounts of well-bred livestock, whose products sold for high prices abroad. In the latter, perhaps most similar to the steppe with its huge amounts of open grassland, sedentary people raised comparatively large amounts of sheep, whose high quality secured it a market as far away as St. Petersburg. 1 32 The trick, then, was to reduce the total amount of livestock kept, figure out what the market wanted, and improve its quality accordingly. Peoples in similar conditions to Kazaks had proven that it was possible to do so. Then, the longterm benefits of sedentarism could accrue without pursuing a course that was unlikely to succeed. Just as important, making claims on the larger amounts of land (double what was needed for agriculture) needed even for intensive stock raising would serve an important political goal, putting more of the precious ata meken (Fatherland) in Kazak hands and restricting its availability to settlers.133 That GUZiZ would never have considered a zemleustroistvo that saw Kazaks receive more land per soul than settlers was beside the point when an idea seemed both politically desirable and environmentally plausible. Kazaks could remain a valuable part of the Russian Empire, improve themselves, and keep more of their land.

The debate among adherents of the Ai-qap and Qazaq lines was not complete when a new issue, the outbreak of World War I and its creeping influence on the steppe, pushed it to the back burner. Neither course had gained serious traction at higher levels of administration, one because it ran contrary to what was considered the higher state goal of peasant resettlement, the other because local resettlement bureaus could barely get new Russian migrants settled on new lands, let alone nomads.134 Nor, with the rejection of further petitions for Duma representation, and the growing pan-Islamist threat that the outbreak of war with the Ottoman Empire seemed to augur, had Central Asians succeeded in regaining the political rights they coveted. The tensions of disenfranchisement and expropriation remained unresolved when the all-consuming claims of World War I reached the steppe provinces.

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