Some History

by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 3/12/2012

In an effort to clear my brain while I construct some kind of cogent argument about the depth and nature of the relations  between Kazakhs and Cossacks in the middle of the 19th century, I will share some choice citations from the works I’ve been reading. I understand that I’m dropping these into a blog and taking them out of the context in which they were written, but think of this as active propaganda for the study of Central Asian history. Even if English is your only language, there is still a lot of material one can use to add something to the discourse. To strengthen the argument that English is a viable entryway into the rabbit-hole of Central Asian history, I’ll share some English-language passages not taken taken from the standard (too problematic) pop-histories of Peter Hopkirk and company. There is plenty of ‘real’ stuff to read, whether on loan from a library or digitized on Google Books. So I would say, do not rely on Hopkirk to examine sources like these – Registan readers are certainly up to the task of challenging (and confirming or denying) the various motives attached to actions described in these books.

On the cooperation of Cossacks and Kazakhs:

“It is said that a Kirghiz chief once galloped with a Cossack escort (on two horses) 200 miles in twenty-four hours, the path extending for a considerable distance over a mountainous and rocky district. The animals, however, soon recovered.”

p.128 – Burnaby, Fred. A Ride to Khiva: Travels and Adventures in Central Asia, with maps and an appendix, containing, among other information, a series of march routes, compiled from a Russian Work. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877.

This passage comes from a chapter extolling the virtues of the horses of Central Asia and the steppe – though they are small, unattractive, and relatively poorly treated, they are perfect for long riding and very self-sufficient, even in winter.

On the perceived connection of Turks, Cossacks, and Russians:

“For arms [the Cossacks] carried short breech-loading rifles and swords, while they were shortly to be supplied with Berdan carbines, which is spoken of very highly by the Russian officers.”

p.293 – Burnaby, Fred. A Ride to Khiva: Travels and Adventures in Central Asia, with maps and an appendix, containing, among other information, a series of march routes, compiled from a Russian Work. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877.

Here I would point out that the chapter is discussing Cossacks, who are generally mentioned separately and by group from the Russian officers that oversee them.

“It will take the Russians a long time to shake off from themselves the habits and way of thought inherited from a barbarous ancestry; and the veneer of polish laid on by a two hundred years’ intercourse with Europe requires but little rubbing to disclose the Tartar blood so freely circulating through their veins.”

p.75 – Burnaby, Fred. A Ride to Khiva: Travels and Adventures in Central Asia, with maps and an appendix, containing, among other information, a series of march routes, compiled from a Russian Work. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877.

Ironically, this passage is in direct response to a chance meeting on the mail road, stopped at a station, with Nikolai Kryzhanovskii, the Governor-General of the Orenburg district (which included the north-western portion of modern-day Kazakhstan).

On the after-effects of the Revolts and Uprisings of 1916:

“Now Turkestan and Russian Central Asia are extremely loyal, peaceful and happy Russian colonies. Rebellion was put down with such severity by the Russians… that the Asiatic tribesmen learned that Russia was too powerful to be trifled with; they knew they had found their masters, and submitted absolutely.”

p. 74 – Graham, Stephen. Through Russian Central Asia. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1916

I think this passage does a fair job of showcasing some of the difficulties in utilizing travel diaries as representations of events “on the ground.” While the fresh perspective (and language used) makes them attractive, they are generally useful more as a guide to perceptions and underlying prejudices for and against powers and peoples.

On the modern scholarship of the existence of large Muslim populations among the Cossack Hosts:

“From 1798 until 1866 many Bashkir communities were enrolled in the Bashkir-Mishar Cossack Host. Bashkir Cossack units were organized territorially, and Bashkir settlements were organized into “cantons;” cf. Zakony Rossiiskoi imperii o bashkirakh, mishariakh, teptiarikh i bobyliakh, F. Kh. Gumerov, ed. (Ufa, 1999), 178-182.”

p.19 -Qurbān-ʿAlī Khālidī.  Frank, Allen & Usmanov, Mirkasym (eds.) An Islamic Biographical Dictionary of the Eastern Kazakh Steppe, 1770-1912. Inner Asian Library, Volume 12. Boston: Brill, 2005.

Allen Frank is one of a small number of American scholars at the forefront of the Islamic History of Central Asia. This little passage is hinting at a larger research project independent of my paper topic – the non-Russian, non-Christian elements of the Cossack Hosts across the Russian Empire, their provenance, utilization, and fate throughout the so-called “long 19th century,” stretching from the 1770s until the fall of the Russian Empire by 1920.

On the education and non-education of the native population:

“[The people of Tashkent] are not highly educated, but it is said that every man and woman can at least read and write. In this they are very different from the other tribes of Central Asia, which are usually illiterate.”
p.297

“There are good schools for the children of officials and military men and settlers, but the natives supply their own. The mullahs who teach them are illiterate; they can scarcely read anything except the Koran, and they have no knowledge whatever of modern learning or methods of education. They do not know the difference between New York and London, or between an American and an Englishman.”
p.333

Curtis, William Eleroy. Turkestan: “The Heart of Asia.” New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911.

There is a lot to unpack in this passage. Mr. Curtis traveled through Central Asia quickly by train and stated that in general he would not recommend it as a place for people to visit. When something in Central Asia impressed him, he compared it to similar good deeds he heard of in Japan. Tashkent in many ways reminded him of a model Japanese city.

It is important to examine the bases for his judgment of the quality of education. If someone cannot read and write a European language, they are illiterate. Knowledge of the Koran and, one can assume, languages written in an Arabic alphabet, is worthless. Similarly, understanding the importance of Curtis’ own world (the differences and similarities of London and New York) was to be far more important for the people of Tashkent than their own history and political reality, of which Curtis remains more or less ignorant. That being said, I believe Curtis makes some very interesting and prescient comments on Russian Colonial policy, see below.

On Perceived Russian Colonial Policy:

“The Russian government does not want strangers to visit Turkestan… It does not want the country advertised. It has nothing to exploit. It maintains a strict policy of closed doors, and prefers to pick the immigrants and the capitalists who shall develop the material wealth of its Asiatic provinces. The reasons for this policy of exclusiveness are sound, from the Russian point of view.

“In the first place, the Russians want Turkestan for themselves… In the second place, the Russian government does not want the natives interfered with. Its policy from the beginning of the conquest has been to protect and perpetuate the native customs, habits, and conditions, and to encourage the natives to go on as they are, illiterate, superstitious, antiquated in methods, and primitive in habits…”

p.333 Curtis, William Eleroy. Turkestan: “The Heart of Asia.” New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911.


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This post was written by...

– author of 20 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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