Knowledge & Power on the Kazakh Steppe, 1845-1917

A review of Knowledge and Power on the Kazakh Steppe, 1845-1917, by Ian Wylie Campbell.

Historians love failure. It is barriers and breakdowns, mistranslations and misreadings, that create so many of the sources that allow us to write about nuanced processes rather than summary results. Examples of failure are hardly deficit goods in the history of Russian imperial management, and many recent studies have emphasized the Russian/Soviet state’s ineffectiveness in achieving its goals for control of the population, ethically dubious as many of these goals may have been in the first place. Since the 1990s in particular, postcolonialism has invited all historians to see unequal power relations and failed grand projects in terms of the practices and politics of knowledge. In Russian and Soviet history, insights from postcolonial thought about informational forms and technologies and Foucauldian analyses of power and discipline entered scholarly discourse at the same time that the end of the Cold War depolarized somewhat the politics of studying the Russian Empire, and opened more archives to foreign researchers. These collective developments produced much needed histories of imperial peripheries and non-Slavic ethnic groups, as well as what we might call a historiography of imperial ambivalence.

Ian W. Campbell utilizes the term “ambivalence” with singular frequency in his dissertation on “Knowledge and Power on the Kazakh Steppe” between 1845 and 1917. In Campbell’s usage, the term indexes the diversity of notions of Kazakhness in this period; the reluctance or inability of Kazakh intellectuals to reject the categories if not the content of Russian statism and ideals of modernization; and the invariable gap between intentions and results on all sides. Influenced by Tara Zahra’s argument for “national indifference” in the Czech lands and by Homi Bhabha on ambivalent colonial discourses, Campbell eschews linear narratives of Kazakh nationalism while still writing meaningfully about a complex Kazakh identity. Examining late imperial ideas about managing the peripheries in terms of ambivalence also allows Campbell to take organizations like the Imperial Russian Geographic Society or the Shcherbina Commission on their own terms, ascribing neither neutrality nor monolithic motives of imperial oppression to these organizations’ actors. In this he builds on existing work by numerous current scholars like Nathaniel Knight, Marina Mogil’ner, and especially Vera Tolz.

Campbell describes his dissertation as “an intellectual history of Russian imperialism in Central Asia” (p. 25). Knowledge and empire both depend on intermediaries: go-betweens who translate meanings across different cultures and informational forms, e.g. from the steppe to Saint Petersburg, or from objects or lived experience to bureaucratic research texts. Campbell’s reading skills in both Russian and Kazakh allow him to focus on educated Kazakhs who moved between the interstices of imperial Russian administration and various scenarios of Kazakh life in the late empire. As the dissertation’s primary supervisor Douglas Northrop did for the history of Uzbekistan under Russian/Soviet rule, Campbell explores the implications of classics of postcolonial thought on the question of subalterneity and agency in Russian Central Asia. While arguing forcefully against Russian exceptionalism, Campbell draws insight from works of postcolonial thought by Edward Said on orientalism; Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler on the contradictions of empire; Partha Chaterjee on colonial hierarchies of fact versus myth; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on subalterns; and Nicholas Dirks on colonial statistics, while thoughtfully interrogating the applicability of all of the above to specific subjects from his primary sources. Just as welcome is Campbell’s ability to shift back and forth between attention to human lives and words, and the effects of the physical environment on infrastructures and economies. Though not concentrated on environmental history, the dissertation effectively provokes the reader to think about the effects of infrastructures and economies on the physical environment, as well.

To tell “the story of the Russian Empire’s informational encounter with the steppe” (p. 3), Campbell grapples with the historical contingencies of constructing criteria for the administration of space. He begins with imperial views of the Kazakh steppe and its inhabitants as formulated by scholars and state servitors in the mid-nineteenth century. These accounts were mutually and internally contradictory, and, Campbell argues, contributed to a confused Russian policy in the region. He then turns to two Kazakh intellectuals educated in the Russian system and analyzes their scholarly production on the region with attention to their respective biographical contexts and subjectivities. These men were informational intermediaries whose writings were “multivalent…representing an idealized version of metropolitan culture to Kazakhs and Kazakh…culture to Russian scholars” (p. 29). Yet, they functioned mostly within forms set in the metropole, particularly in how they conceptualized the methodologies and goals of regional studies and moral progress. The third chapter focuses on the writings of Ibrai Altynsarin, a counterpart and colleague of Nikolai Il’minskii in Russian imperial intercultural education. Campbell uses this case study to show how advocacy for Kazakh cultural distinctiveness could be combined with an acceptance of Russian imperial structures and benefits of state-sponsored modernization. In contrast, Kazakh bardic poets utilized a lament form of their art to reject Russian influence outright, even as anti-regime Russian liberals and revolutionaries increasingly populated the steppe as political exiles. These exiles combined a liberal or liberationist politics with an inclination to see Kazakh culture positively, and also evinced an active fascination with the physical environment of the steppe. They worked with locals to collect objects of knowledge of the region under the auspices of the Semipalatinsk Subsection of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society and other associations. Semipalatinsk oblast is, as Campbell points out, a “liminal” and fascinating region, and an under-studied one for the late imperial era, a neglect that Campbell’s dissertation begins to correct. The same can be said of the Resettlement Administration, a topic of recent research by Peter Holquist and others. Campbell documents the activities of the affiliated Shcherbina Expedition (1896-1903), showing in rich archival detail how norms of land use for Kazakhs and Slavic peasants were calculated, interpreted, and manipulated by diverse interest groups. The ambivalent results of resettlement suggest not only the vanity of the undertaking in a foreign landscape with a misunderstood economy (mobile pastoralism), but also underlying fallacies about the infallibility of European notions of scientific knowledge. In the final chapter, the Russian imperial failure to control the steppe through knowing it is consummated in the Central Asian Revolt of 1916. With many Kazakhs increasingly willing to assume the responsibilities of Russian citizenship, even if it meant converting to sedentary life, the restrictive electoral law of 1907 and the atmosphere of rising Russian nationalism only intensified the subordinate, colonial status of the Kazakh lands. Following recent work by Rustem Tsiunchuk, Faith Hillis and others, Campbell takes seriously the Duma politics of Russia’s brief constitutional period, adding to an important dimension of our understanding of the late imperial period and prelude to revolution in the non-Russian regions.

Campbell has integrated his own interpretation of primary sources in two languages into an unfailingly thoughtful engagement with a breathtaking array of secondary sources. He deserves particular praise for his consideration of scholarly work, not only primary sources, in Russian and Kazakh. Quite often, he explains why it is that the categories and assumptions of these scholars are incorrect, particularly about primordial nationalism. On the one hand, this reviewer is entirely convinced by Campbell’s evaluations of his Russian and Kazakh secondary sources. On the other hand, it is particularly interesting for a dissertation about the politics and categories of metropolitan and peripheral knowledge (see, for example, p. 321) to note this narrowing but still existing historiographical divide between scholarship generated in Anglophone and Western European settings and scholarship emerging from the former Soviet Union. Where are we, historians, in the geopolitics of knowledge? What are the political and epistemological stakes of our own archival and argumentative practices?

With Virginia Martin’s work on the legal history of imperialism on the steppe and that of Paula Michaels on the history of medicine and colonized bodies in Kazakhstan, Campbell’s future monograph will add a another key piece to historians’ interpretation of Russia’s imperial project in general, and of the history of the Kazakh steppe in particular. His work will also be an invaluable synthesis of the historiography on Muslim Russia, such as that by Austin Jersild, Robert Crews and Adeeb Khalid. Thanks to Campbell’s hard work in closely connecting the stories of his ambivalent Kazakh intermediaries to multiple thematic literatures, the dissertation and future manuscript also deal yet another blow to Russian exceptionalism. Campbell’s work does not suggest, but rather demands that imperial Russian historians become historians of global imperialism and of the knowledge-making processes inherent to imperial power.

Julia E. Fein
Mellon Postdoctoral Associate
Department of History and Center for Historical Analysis
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Primary Sources

Margulan, A. Kh., ed. Ch. Ch. Valikhanov: sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh. 5 vols. Alma-Ata: Glavnaia redaktsiia Kazakhskoi sovetskoi entsiklopedii, 1984
Suleimenov, B. S., ed. I. Altynsarin: izbrannye proizvedeniia. Alma-ata: izd-vo. Akademii nauk Kazakhskoi SSR, 1957 and idem., Ibragim Altynsarin: sobranie sochinenii v trekh tomakh. 3 vols. Alma-ata: izd-vo. “Nauka,” 1975-78
Maltusynov, S. N., sost. Agrarnaia istoriia Kazakhstana (konets XIX-nachalo XX v.): sbornik dokumentov. Almaty: “Daik-Press,” 2006
Shcherbina, F. A., et. al. Materialy po kirgizskomu zemlepolzovaniiu. 13 vols. Various publishers, 1898-1909
Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan (TsGA RK)

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 2010. 471 + x pp. Primary Advisor: Douglas Northrop.


Image: Nineteenth-century map of the Semipalatinskaya Oblast of the Russian Empire, roughly corresponding to present-day northeastern Kazakhstan. Wikimedia Commons.

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