A revolutionary spirit, an opponent of imperial and Soviet power, and a supporter of the idea of an independent Ukraine, Fyodor Shcherbina was one of the first scientists sent by the Tsarist regime to study the colonized Kazakh steppe. Even though his study was well-grounded and thoroughly researched, it led to the wrong conclusions. As forced Russification continued, along with the gradual stripping of lands from local people in favor of the Russian peasant-settlers, the tensions in the Kazakh steppe grew until they erupted in 1916.
Dr. Pavel Shabley – Associate Professor of the Kostanay branch of the Chelyabinsk State University. He is specializing in the history of Muslim societies, he published articles on the regional and confessional policy of the Russian Empire in relation to internal Asian territories in such journals as Ab Imperio, Islamology, Acta Slavica Japonica. His joint book with Paolo Sartori “Эксперименты империи: адат, шариат и производство знаний в Казахской степи” [Experiments of the Empire: Adat, Sharia and the Production of Knowledge in the Kazakh Steppe] was awarded by Ab Imperio in 2019.
“The History of Russia Is the History of a Country that Is Being Colonized”
Vasily Klyuchevsky (1841–1911), Russian imperial historian
The advance of the Muscovite state, and then the Russian Empire, to Siberia, the Far East, and Central Asia was only natural. The cultivation of new agricultural lands, as well as the pacification of new subjects by turning them into settled residents and converts to Orthodox Christianity, was seen as a necessity for the state and part of Russia’s civilizing mission . The Kazakh steppe was no exception. After the accession of the Younger and Middle Zhuzes in 1730 and the Senior Zhuz in the mid-19th century, the authorities put significant effort into the administrative and legal integration of the new territories and their economic colonization. The resettlement of a significant number of Russian peasants from the inner provinces of the empire was supposed not only to solve the issue of land deficit, which had led to food shortages and hunger, but also to establish a new pro-government social base in the newly colonized regions.
Mass migrations of Russian peasants to the Kazakh steppe began in the 1880s, in parallel with mass confiscation of land from the Kazakhs. In its efforts to accelerate the process of peasant colonization, the government paid little attention to the social tensions between settlers and local nomads. This is not, however, to suggest that the Russian government behaved recklessly: before embarking on peasant colonization, the government undertook careful study of the characteristics of local land use to determine the scope of the so-called “free land.” This study was carried out by a special commission headed by the well-known zemstvo statistician Fyodor Shcherbina.
Fyodor Shcherbina and His Entourage: A Social Portrait against the Backdrop of a Difficult Era
Fedor Andreevich Shcherbina was born on February 13, 1849, in the Cossack village of Novoderevyankovskaya (formerly part of the Black Sea Cossack Host). After graduating from the Black Sea Theological School and the Caucasian Theological Seminary, he joined the Petrovsky Agricultural Academy. A supporter of socialist ideas, Shcherbina was once an activist opposing the imperial order: he participated in student protests and led revolutionary agitation among the common people (the so-called “going to the people”). As a result, he was arrested and sent into exile in the Vyatka and then in Vologda province (1877–1880).
While in exile, Shcherbina delved into science. He was interested in the life of the Russian peasants and the structure of their communes, and published his observations in such well-known publications as Otechestvennye Zapiski and Russkie Vedomosti. Following his release, he was accepted into the service of the Voronezh Zemstvo as a statistician . During his career, Shcherbina authored more than 100 works. The most significant among them include: “Peasant Budgets,” “Free Collection,” “Kyrgyz Nationality in Places of Peasant Resettlement,” and “Explanatory Note to the Data on Surplus Lands used by the Kyrgyz in the Northern Part of the Kustanai District” .
In 1886, Shcherbina became the head of a special commission sent to the Steppe Territory. Paradoxically, the government selected a person with an anti-imperial political reputation to perform a task of extreme importance. Indeed, his opinion was to play a decisive role in the colonization of the eastern regions of the empire. His expertise was considered extremely important: in the service in the Voronezh province, Shcherbina had developed a pioneering “budget” method for studying the peasant economy that made it possible to assess the financial consumption and costs of individual farms . Moreover, when the government hired political exiles, it did so not only because there was a shortage of qualified professionals; they also wanted to create a new language—not burdened with bureaucratic concepts—to describe social and economic processes. N.M. Yadrintsev described well this situation: “It was a time when the administration and bureaucracy willingly resorted to the help of writers, scientists, and researchers. The atmosphere of bureaucracy was thus ventilated by access to fresh air and an independent look” .
Unsurprisingly, the Shcherbina expedition included people from a wide intellectual, social, and ethnic circle. To collect materials about the traditions and customs of the Kazakhs, he engaged members of the Kazakh intelligentsia, led by A. Bukeikhanov, a prominent Kazakh politician and scientist who was the leader of the Alash party and a member of the First State Duma. Among the other members of the expedition were such talented scientists and politically unreliable personalities as L.K. Chermak and A.F. Gusev. A.N. Sedelnikov, a member of the Russian Geographical Society who was a great expert on the steppe region, also took part in the survey of the Kazakh steppe . Altogether, T.P. Petrova estimates that the expedition was made up of about 200 people, excluding translators .
Between 1896 and 1901, the Shcherbina expedition studied the twelve counties of the Steppe General Governorship: Omsk, Petropavlovsk, Akmola, Kokchetav, Atbasar, Semipalatinsk, Pavlodar, Karkaralinsky, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Zaisansky, Kustanai, and Aktobe. The study completed a comprehensive household census of the entire Kazakh population of these regions. It also managed to assess the area devoted to pasture for nomadic aul communities.
An extremely important task of the expedition was to produce a budget accounting of the food consumption of the average Kazakh family. This entailed studying not only economic needs, but also local resources: terrain, soil, vegetation, water sources. The area of each surveyed nomadic camp was assessed in accordance with the seasonality of camp movement: winter, autumn, spring, summer. These areas were grouped according to common qualitative characteristics. For each group, it was necessary to estimate the amount of land each Kazakh household needed to feed livestock and thus the total area needed for one Kazakh household. By comparing these data with the land areas used by the Kazakhs before the work of the expedition, conclusions were drawn as to whether there was a land surplus or shortage in each district.
The total area of the counties surveyed by the expedition amounted to 45,889,000 acres. Of these, the Kazakhs were offered 23,297,000 acres, while slightly less (22,592,000 acres) was allocated to Russian peasant-settlers .
In its studies, the expedition pursued two fundamental goals: a) to outline the future of the Kazakh steppe under Russian rule; and b) to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the effect of economic colonization. In this regard, the expedition members concluded that colonization could bring benefits not in the short term, but in the long term; forced rates of colonization could lead to the destruction of the Kazakh economy and a reduction in the population as a whole. Second, due to the peculiarities of local natural and climatic conditions, a settled agricultural culture could not be ubiquitously enforced. It was therefore proposed to preserve nomadic pastoral farms in a number of regions of the Kazakh steppe .
Shcherbina himself spoke about the importance of this work: “The most important results obtained by the expedition were expressed primarily in the fact that the expedition firmly established the forms of Kyrgyz land use.”
The findings of the expedition were published as “Materials from the Study of Kyrgyz Land Use and Economy Collected and Developed by the Expedition for the Study of the Steppe Regions.” The volume contained materials covering 8 of the 12 counties studied: historical and ethnographic information; demographic and socio-economic data; information on the development of animal husbandry; agricultural and agrotechnical information; land use data; and topographic, hydropathic, and geobotanical data.
Shcherbina himself spoke about the importance of this work: “The most important results obtained by the expedition were expressed primarily in the fact that the expedition firmly established the forms of Kyrgyz land use. Before the work of the expedition, neither in the Steppe Order [signed in 1868 – P.Sh.], nor in the practice of local institutions, there were indications of the existence of a land community among the Kyrgyz, with the corresponding areas of actual land use in living border tracts. Before the work of the expedition, there were also no materials on this subject” .
A few words should be said about the contribution of the Kazakh members of the expedition, who were critical of the colonization projects of the Kazakh steppe and expressed alternative points of view. Alihan Bukeikhanov conducted research work in Omsk, Pavlodar, Karkaralinsky, and Semipalatinsk counties. In particular, he studied the volosts of Kyzyltau and Altybai, as well as the Pavlodar district. Studying the tribal structure of Kazakh society, Bukeikhanov compiled a table of county clans, established when the Kazakh population began to settle in the region, and marked on the map the settlements of the existing clans . He also collected materials on the oral folk art of the Kazakh steppe. Bukeikhanov expressed disagreement with the conclusions of the research. He was against the policy of Russification, but still advocated the gradual transition of nomads to a settled way of life. He thought the simultaneous development of nomadic pastoralism and agriculture were unacceptable, as they could lead to a crisis among Kazakh households .
Outcomes: “Impeccably Done” and/or Significant Shortcomings
One of the most important achievements of the expedition was the development of a new methodology for economic research: the sampling survey method. With the help of this method, Shcherbina produced a formula to determine the needs of the family-household and the amount of land normally required to meet these needs. To describe the specifics of Kazakh life, the expedition produced a detailed monographic description of individual auls and entire community-aul groups.
The scientists comprehensively studied the history, socio-economic and economic structure of the land community; conducted a census of the population; looked at the structure of zhuzes and clans; explored the development of cattle breeding depending on climatic conditions; established the location of Kazakh clans and tribes and compiled a map of their traditional location on the boundless expanse of the steppe; described steppe culture; and discussed the features of land ownership and land use. Contemporaries spoke highly of the budget data obtained by the expedition. A.A. Kaufman, who inspected the activity of the expedition, wrote in his report that he considered this part of the work to be “impeccably done, with the skill that one would expect from such an expert on budget studies as F.A. Shcherbina, and I do not have the slightest remark about it” .
Yet the results of the Shcherbina expedition were revised over time and even subjected to critical evaluation. It all started in 1901, when the Ministry of Agriculture and State Property found the norms of land allotments proposed by the expedition to be inflated towards the Russian side. The government decided to give the Kazakhs not 23,297,000 acres, as suggested by F.A. Shcherbina, but a little more: 29,121,000 acres . All this indicated that the government thought it was necessary to re-study the features of land use in the Kazakh steppe.
Local Kazakhs, too, seem to have found the expedition’s estimates too low. On May 8, 1908, an article entitled “The Muslim Agrarian Project and Its Principles” was published in the journal Siberian Question. The author of the work (writing under a pseudonym) stated that the land norms proposed by F.A. Shcherbina were calculated not to propose the land allotment to the nomad, but to fix them and thus “protect the existing forms of nomadic economy” from the future land withdrawals. The government, in turn, did not follow the recommendations of the expedition and, following the Stolypin agrarian reform of 1906, launched a massive seizure of Kazakh lands .
Geniuses or Villains of the Preceding Era: The Fate of Fyodor Shcherbina
At the turn of the twentieth century, Fyodor Shcherbina resumed social and political activity. In March 1902, he became one of the members of the liberal opposition. This led to renewed arrest and exile. This time, he was exiled to his native lands in the Black Sea province. In 1907, Shcherbina was elected a deputy from the Kuban Cossack army. He headed the Cossack faction in the State Duma. But Shcherbina opposed the October Revolution of 1917 and the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power. He even took part in the armed resistance: on February 28, 1918, he joined an armed force under the command of Colonel V.L. Pokrovsky, known to history as the “ice campaign.” In 1920, Shcherbina emigrated as part of the Kuban delegation to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. From 1921 he lived in Prague. He worked as a professor at the Ukrainian Free University, serving as its rector from 1924 to 1925. Not only was Shcherbina interested in scientific activity, but he also became famous in the literary field. He wrote poems in Ukrainian, including “Chernomortsy” and “Bogdan Khmelnitsky.” He died in 1936 in Prague and was buried at the Olshansky cemetery .
Shcherbina’s life and the activities of his expedition marked an important period in the economic, political, and social history of the Russian Empire in general and of the Kazakh steppe in particular. A revolutionary, a scientist, a writer, an opponent of Soviet power, and a supporter of the idea of an independent Ukraine, Shcherbina was a product of his time—with all its contradictions and limitations. He followed the regime’s orders to study an unknown region out of a desire for knowledge and discoveries, to serve the interests of society and the people. Shcherbina’s revolutionary views did not, however, conflict with his approach to the analysis of the future of the Kazakhs under imperial rule. Here, he was a supporter of the policy of Russification and the gradual withdrawal of local lands in favor of the peasant settlers from the interior provinces.
His expedition had some other important points. As a result, the authorities became aware of the benefits to be found in developing the field of statistics and a number of applied sciences related to agriculture and economics. Significant funds were allocated from the state budget to finance other scientific projects closely related to the study of the natural-climatic, economic, and ethnographic features of the eastern regions of the Russian Empire. In this regard, one can even agree with Francine Hirsch that expert research (not necessarily only ethnographic research, as in her study) had a direct impact on the design of state policy in relation to different ethnic and social groups .
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