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

Things Fall Apart: War and Rebellion

Historians may disagree on the matter of when exactly humans began to fight total wars, but it is indisputable that World War I, with its mass mobilizations and fusion of war and politics, was a total conflict for all combatants.135 This presaged difficulty in the Russian Empire: how was it possible to evenly mobilize this patchwork of special rights, privileges, and obligations? Some of the empire’s inorodtsy had long been exempt from the duty to offer troops for long-term service or, after the military reforms of 1874, from universal conscription.136 This was both a privilege that came as a condition of submitting to the Russian Empire and, viewed through another lens, a barrier to full imperial citizenship—a point driven home by the exclusion of some of these same inorodtsy from the Duma.137 Mobilizing the steppe and Central Asia, when the moment came, laid bare the contradictions of tsarist rule there. On one hand, in a vacuum, it looked to some Kazaks, as well as other Muslims within the empire, like an opportunity: to acculturate to the other peoples of the empire, as well as to develop stronger claims on land and political rights.138 On the other, it was an unprecedented claim on the lives and work of imperial subjects who had developed a long list of grievances over the previous two decades of resettlement, to be implemented through a stereotypically weak state apparatus. When a rebellion ensued on the heels of a draft order of June 25, 1916, it was equally the product of a botched mobilization and the economic disruptions of 20 years of resettlement. Both of these, in turn, were rooted in the hegemonic ideas tsarist administrators had come to hold about the steppe, and the decisions they made on that basis.

In the early stages of the war, those regions of the Russian Empire that were exempt from conscription paid significantly increased taxes in kind and in cash as their contribution to the war effort.139 This arrangement suited tsarist administrators well, both because meat, wool, and cash were in high demand for an enormous army and because many inorodtsy, “especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus, were not considered ready for assimilation, at least with regards to military conscription and service.”140 However, as combatants’ initial hopes for a quick, victorious war were extinguished, and in particular in the wake of reverses that Russia suffered on the Eastern Front during 1915, the wisdom of a universal exemption became open to question. Already, during the fall of 1915, the Ministry of War solicited the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ opinion on a proposal to draft various inorodtsy, and the pages of Qazaq buzzed with newspaper reports about different ministries’ opinions on the matter. 1 41 The arguments against deployed the accustomed old stereotypes about Kazaks’ low cultural level, and specific concerns about their ability to understand Russianspeaking commanders. Some arguments in favor employed a different set of stereotypes—Kazaks as a warrior people—while GUZiZ and Muslim newspapers argued, respectively, that Kazaks were already somewhat Russianized, not the savages they had once been, and that military service would only further acculturate them. The editors of Qazaqi at this stage, were laconic: “Kazaks agreed [konip bergen] to be identical with other peoples with respect to Russia. Therefore, the Kazaks will not refuse military service.”142 They asked only for careful consideration of the mechanics of the draft, so as to avoid complications. But 1915 brought no firm decision among the ministries of St. Petersburg, nor any consensus among Kazaks who were left to imagine what form military service might take, if or when it came. As with respect to the land question some years earlier, while the state pursued its own course, the Kazak press attempted to solicit correspondence from a range of perspectives. These perspectives show that the draft, for the Kazak intelligentsia, was associated with both potential problems and high aspirations.

Support for providing troops was not universal even among the literate, educated people who wrote to Qazaq (not a representative sample under the best of circumstances). One correspondent turned the discourses of civilization by which Kazaks had been politically excluded on their heads. The lack of attention the tsarist state had paid to local schools meant that Kazaks were, indeed, unprepared for military service at present; with preparation offered by schools and the zemstvo, they might be able to serve at some future time, but at present “The Kazak people will not refuse the government’s order, but does not wish soldiers to be taken during this war.”143 The consensus, though, seems to have fallen on the desirability of mounted Cossack service. There were good reasons to expect this to align with state priorities. The first administrative discussions of Kazak military service, in the early 1880s, had turned entirely on cavalry service, as “incomparably easier for the natives than in the infantry.”144 Kazaks who advocated, or at least considered it unwise to resist, military service advanced similar arguments. Cossacks’ way of life was already familiar to Kazaks, because Cossack settlements had long existed on the steppe, and Kazaks themselves learned to ride horses at a very young age—if taken as Cossacks, they would be good soldiers, and the government would have successfully leveraged local skills to its own advantage.145 It also promised the most comfortable transition to military life for a population unaccustomed to such service: “An [infantry] soldier’s movement is on foot, and they live in a barrack. A cavalryman goes on horse and also lives in a barrack, a Cossack serves on horse and lives at home (only leaves home during a war). There is also the greater size of the Cossacks’ land share [sibagha]!’146 Getting hold of more of the ata meken than the 15 desiatinas offered to peasant infantry, indeed, was another persistent argument in favor of mounted Cossack service. Infantry service would place less land in Kazak hands, perhaps not even enough for stock raising.147 The few arguments in favor of infantry service, focusing on sedentary agriculture alone as a path to culture, paled in comparison to this


As these discussions evolved during 1916, it became clear that, despite the rhetoric of good and obedient subjecthood, several Kazak thinkers had begun to think of contributing to the war effort in terms of a quid pro quo. That service as soldiers would permit claims on the land was obvious enough, according to the general laws of the Russian Empire. Breaking an arrangement more than a century old, however, in providing troops seemed an extraordinary circumstance, and a moment where political demands could be successfully pressed. One hesitant advocate of military service, Akhmet Zhantalin, thought it self-evident that “if soldiers are taken from the Kazaks, so that the condition of their daily life will not bear serious harm, measures must be taken, with more privileges than for peoples who have long been accustomed to having soldiers taken.”149 But the matter went beyond special accommodations. Zhan- talin also argued that Kazak representatives should “ask for representation in the Duma [deputattiq smau]" and for the “introduction of the zemstvo and general education [zhalp'i oqu].”150 Kazaks and other Central Asians had been held to be unfit for political representation or military service. Now, if suited for the latter, it stood to reason that they were also qualified to do the former. After the draft order, members of the Kazak intelligentsia extended this instrumental view of the war effort beyond those who were actually called, directing the public’s attention to a coming age of freedom and equality after the war’s victorious end. It was necessary for them to remain calm and return to the fields, since “this war too will end. At that time everyone will value service [arkim qizmetin baghalar]. At that time those who were not at the sowing or plowing will not be able to pretend to land. If we say we want to claim equality and justice, we must first think carefully. One good turn deserves another [almaqting da salmaghi bar].”151 In a total war, on the steppe as elsewhere, empire and subjects were making new claims on each other. Service would be an opportunity for Kazaks, but it was obligatory for them at least to carry out their end of the bargain.

In the Kazak-language press, the lack of a deputy to the Duma, a representative who could publicly present Kazaks’ wishes, conditions, and requirements, rankled deeply. In fact, the tsarist government worked on the mobilization, as it so often did, through informal channels, pressing a few well-known and vetted inorodtsy for their recommendations on the draft. These men, despite their suspect politics in the post-1905 era, were archetypical intermediaries of a multiethnic empire, Kazaks educated in bilingual schools with significant service experience. The Semirech'e-based engineer M^khametzhan Tinish- baev, according to his own testimony, was first asked to prepare a report on this topic in September 1915.152 Early the following year, Baitmsinov and Bokeikhanov were part of a three-man deputation to St. Petersburg with a similar purpose.153 The recommendations these men made were similar, and echoed the consensus on the pages of Qazaq: Kazaks could be drafted, preferably for cavalry service, in exchange for land and only after verification of the metrical books (records of births and deaths—this would ensure an orderly and accurate conscription).154 That this advocacy seemed to be going poorly was among the direct inspirations for the formation of a more sophisticated political organization, a bureau reporting to the Duma’s Muslim fraction.155 The bottom line, though was that conscription could work as long as the state reckoned with local conditions, of which these intermediaries presented themselves as the best interpreters.

In almost every way imaginable, this did not come off. The exigencies of total war, the contradictory nature of the dying autocracy, and long-held stereotypes about the proper way to rule “Asiatics” combined to produce a mobilization out of the Kazak intelligentsia’s nightmares. 1 56 The call, when it came on June 25, 1916, was for labor behind the front lines of the army. If this perhaps lacked the risks of active combat on the Eastern Front, it also lacked the potential rewards, and indeed, Nicholas Il’s order made no promises of any rights to be gained in the future, while subjecting recruits to strict martial discipline.157 The order came down during the middle of the summer, when crops were in the fields and nomads were on the move. The surprising order, requiring rapid fulfillment, allowed no time to bring the metrical books into order. This created broad space for abuse on the part of lower-level Kazak administrators (or accusations of abuse, which amounted to the same thing). In some areas, even awareness that the draft was going badly seemed no excuse to stop it; bowing to necessity in this way, administrators thought, would be an unforgivable display of weakness before the natives.158 The requisition of inorodtsy would continue, regardless of the consequences.

Some leading elders (aqsaqals) were quick to declare their readiness to serve, and despite administrative suspicions to the contrary, the editors of Qazaq supported the mobilization as much as the tsarist state could have wished.159 But the overall effects of the ill-taken draft order were frightful, culminating in the Central Asian revolt of 1916. As the draft order was implemented, riots seized cities and large towns during the month of July, and unrest quickly spread to the nomadic Kazaks, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen during August. Different scholars have estimated that between 2,000 and 10,000 Russians, mostly settlers, were killed during these revolts, and between 100,000 and 200,000 pastoralists perished during reprisals on the part of settlers and the colonial administration.160

Although it is clear that the botched draft order was the proximal cause of the revolt, and the course of the revolt varied significantly in different areas, the evidence suggests that for many Central Asians, it was peasant resettlement on the norm-and-surplus system that created long-standing grievances. Such is the conclusion of the most rigorous account of the revolt that we have for Semirech'e, the work of Jorn Happel.161 It squares well with contemporaries’ observations. Tinishbaev, for example, reported of one instance that he considered it significant that “the first two people killed were settlement bureaucrats, from the institution that laid the foundation of the Kazaks’ dissatisfaction.”162 One specific case of massive violence emerged from a district of Semirech'e where it had long been known that the presence of settlers put an untenable strain on scarce water resources. 1 63 Attacks on peasants also took place further north, in Akmolinsk province, although both here and in Semipalatinsk the scope of the revolt was far smaller than in Semirech'e.164 The majority of administrative opinion here blamed the clumsy implementation of the draft order for resistance, although at least one official considered the presence of settlers to be the root cause.165 In the case of Turgai province, where a revolt under the leadership of Amangeldi Imanov continued into 1917, the historian Tomohiko Uyama accords to the pressures of colonialism a role alongside the “hasty and careless way the ukase was issued and implemented,” while also noting the importance of Islam in stimulating resistance.166 Resettlement played a significant role, alongside other local factors, in provoking and shaping the Central Asian Revolt. GUZiZ and the Resettlement Administration might have known better, but chose not to.

As the repressive apparatus of the tsarist state made itself felt in putting down the revolt, the exhortations of DMatov, Baitmsinov, and Bokeikhanov began to take on a rather different tone. On one hand, they continued to invoke the idea that Kazaks were subjects of the empire, just like other nationalities who had fought, and needed to fulfill the responsibilities this entailed. But as reports of massacres piled up, their core message was that Kazaks should comply with the labor requisition as a means of self-protection.167 Their readiness to cooperate, if only to secure the well-being of Kazaks who had been called up, extended to recruiting bilingual Kazaks to assist worker brigades and obtaining provisions for recruits.168 The long-term effect of the revolt and its suppression, though, was to reveal with finality the impossibility of finding a rapprochement with Nicholas II’s government. Their input about the implementation of the conscription order had apparently been ignored, and their aspirations to earn equality before the law through service seemed remote.169

Worse still would probably have been to come. Gen. Aleksei Nikolaevich Kuropatkin, who had been sent to Turkestan to handle the implementation of the draft order, understood the stakes of the revolt clearly and proposed a draconian punishment:

It is necessary that the native population learns definitively that the spilling of Russian blood is punishable not only by the execution of those directly guilty but also taking of land from natives who turned out unworthy to own it, as was done with those guilty of the Andijan rebellion. This principle, decisively carried out with each flare-up from the native population, resulting in the shedding of Russian blood, should compel the sensible part of the population to refrain from attempts to struggle against Russian power by force of arms.170

The day after Kuropatkin filed his report, the population of St. Petersburg— Petrograd, during the war—flooded its streets demanding bread. One week after that, Nicholas II—now simply Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov—abdicated the throne. With the exception of Turgai province, the revolt had been put down, and the intelligentsia remained deeply willing to make common cause with a government that promised land and representation, as evidenced in a statement that many signed early in March: “The Kazaks now need to organize for the support of the new structure and new government. It is necessary to work in contact with all nationalities, supporting the new structure. The Kazaks should prepare for the Constituent Assembly and select worthy candidates. . . . Hurry to discuss the agrarian question. Our slogan is ‘democratic republic’ and land to whomever extracts income from it by animal husbandry and agriculture.”171 But there were few to mourn what they now understood as “the old government’s various sorts of evil, violence, and shame [zorliq]”172 As in the core provinces of the empire, space for cooperation between the public, at its various levels, and the monarchy had irreversibly disappeared.

Within a year of the February Revolution, in a move that had long been prefigured, the liberal faction of the Kazak intelligentsia had broken with the liberal Kadet party. Bokeikhanov attributed the split to Kadets’ prioritization of Russian issues and opposition to national autonomy.173 Subsequently, many among the Kazak intelligentsia were instrumental in forming an ephemeral anti-Bolshevik republic called the Alash Autonomy.174 By the end of the Russian Civil War, they had little choice but to negotiate with their former opponents; shortly after the final victory of Soviet arms, the Alash Autonomy was disbanded in August 1920, and replaced by the “Kirgiz” Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic. This decision was to prove personally unfortunate for Baitmsi'nov, Bokeikhanov, and other members of the Kazak intelligentsia whose death dates of 1937 and 1938 testify mutely to their fate under Soviet power, shot as “bourgeois nationalists” and “enemies of the people.” 1 75 The mass famine brought on by collectivization and sedentarization of Kazak pastoralists during the First Five-Year Plan indicates that, whatever long-term benefits urbanization, expanded education, and public health campaigns might have brought the average Kazak, there were serious costs to this decision for the bulk of the population as well.176 After the turbulent restoration of power during the 1920s, Soviet officials knew the land and population of the steppe more thoroughly, and had more coercive force at their disposal, than did their tsarist counterparts. Both of these factors helped them to realize their vision of governance. The incomplete knowledge according to which the Russian Empire ruled Central Asia and the voluminous data backing Soviet administration there came to lend themselves equally well to misrule. The common denominator was the certainty with which a pair of aggressively modernizing states chose to apply them. In both cases, ultimately, other ways of knowing were set aside, and with them, the roles that intermediaries could play were circumscribed.

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