Responding to the Dual Threat to Kazakhness: The Rise of Alash Orda and its Uniquely Kazakh Path

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In 1917, following the fall of the Russian empire, Alash Orda, a provisional Kazakh government formed by members of the Alash nationalist party, partially filled the power vacuum in present-day Kazakhstan. Alash Orda constituted an important achievement of the quickly developing Kazakh intelligentsia, but a mere twelve years earlier, at the time of the 1905 revolution, neither Alash nor any other organized Kazakh elite group existed. At that time, the Kazakh elite consisted of two loosely organized camps of intellectuals: those who saw the Kazakhs’ path to modernity as intimately connected to the secular European tradition through Russia, therefore called the secular intellectuals, and those who saw it linked to the Islamic world, the religious intellectuals. This dichotomy continued to characterize Kazakh intellectual discourse through the revolution of 1917, after which the religious intellectuals became increasingly estranged, especially following the fall of Alash Orda to the Soviets.

Alash, as an elite group, was aligned with the secular side of the Kazakh intelligentsia, and its rise to power saw the fall of the religiously-oriented portion of that intelligentsia.[1] While these groups held the same basic tenets—that Kazakh society had fallen into backwardness and required significant reforms, including sedentarization[2]—they put forth competing visions for the future. Considering its historical context, the secular vision’s relative success poses an interesting question about the formation of a Kazakh national intelligentsia and related nation-building attempts. Kazakhs had long lived under Russian rule and watched as Russians took their land and destroyed their traditional lifestyle. This paper will explain why, then, they ended up supporting the secular intellectuals, given the opportunity to support anti-Russian, Islamic-oriented groups. This paper will show that Alash’s recognition of both Russian and Tatar threats to Kazakhness explains its relative success.

There has been much work on the causes of Alash’s rise. For example, Gulnar Kendirbaeva, a historian of Kazakh nationalism, argues that Alash’s position favoring gradual sedentarization of the Kazakhs was key to their success.[3] While a valuable contribution, her study is also exemplary of two underlying problems with the existing literature. First, its exclusive focus on land overlooks the fact that the Kazakh intelligentsia was, in fact, concerned with other major issues at this time. These included education, language, customary law[4], and religion in addition to land. Second, and more importantly, because the primary land issue was Russian seizure of Kazakh lands to accommodate Russian peasant migrants (discussed in more detail below), this narrow scope suggests that Russians were the only significant outside force in Kazakh political life, which is simply not true. Certainly, Russia played a major role in Kazakh political developments, and the secular intelligentsia’s support of gradual sedentarization played an important role in its success. Yet, at the same time, a very significant Tatar legacy remained from the years of Tsarist state sponsored Tatarization.

Too often, scholars do not address the issue of Tatarization, or else mention it only in passing and fail to consider its implications.[5] While all issues can be tied to Russian influence, Tatar influence, thanks to the Russian decision to use Tatars as intermediaries to rule the Kazakhs, played a significant role in education and, especially, religion on the steppe. The Tatars were more settled, more Islamic, and more integrated into the Russian Empire—in a word, they were more controllable; they were everything the Russians wanted of the Kazakhs. However, the immense power of the Tatars began to frighten the Russians, who consequently pursued a policy of Russification of the Kazakhs. However, this Russification did not completely eradicate Tatar influence.[6]

Land-centered discussions unnecessarily focus exclusively on the Russian threat to Kazakhness, when there was an equally great Tatar threat. Most importantly, the Kazakh secular intelligentsia’s recognition of both these equally significant threats to Kazakh identity enabled its rise in popularity. In contrast, the religious intelligentsia recognized only the Russian model’s threat and failed to recognize the Islamic threat. This, I argue, explains their relative failure, while Alash’s recognition of both Russian and Islamic threats explains its relative success.

The central problem for the early 20th-century Kazakh intelligentsia was the “national and cultural survival of the Kazakh people, i.e. the preservation of Kazakh culture and mentality – ‘qazaqtyq’ (Kazakhness),” which was rooted in nomadism.[7] When the Russian and Islamic threats to Kazakhness became so strong as to endanger its very existence, the Kazakh intelligentsia was left with a choice between two futures for the Kazakh people: accept the established understanding of Kazakhness rooted in nomadism and see the destruction of Kazakh identity, or create a new conception of Kazakhness to allow for the survival of the Kazakhs as a distinct people through modernization. Thus, when confronted, for example, with Russian incursions onto Kazakh lands, threatening Kazakhs’ ability to lead a nomadic lifestyle, they redefined Kazakhness to reconcile Kazakh identity with the necessity of sedentarization.

In order to fully understand this redefinition of Kazakhness, it is essential to consider the Kazakh intelligentsia’s beliefs concerning the development of nations. Historian Peter Rottier argues that a key aspect of the intelligentsia’s conceptualization of Kazakhness was their acceptance of the Russian intelligentsia’s belief in the linearity of the historical development of nations, which resulted in a view of history as “a way to explain both the roots of the Kazakh nation and its future development.”[8] This idea of linear development of nations implies that the central aspect of a nation’s identity may change as the nation becomes more developed. As such, the Kazakh intelligentsia reconciled the historical importance of nomadism in Kazakhness with sedentarization by “presenting settlement as the next stage in developing an advanced society,” even if it was being forced upon them.[9]

Thus, the survival of the Kazakh people depended upon a reconceptualization of Kazakhness. Such a reconceptualization required at least partial adoption of another civilization’s tradition, for it required a new understanding of modernity. In the Kazakh case, the reconceptualization relied mostly on Russian civilization. While this is not surprising given the Russian education of most Kazakh intellectuals, it meant that they were faced with the conundrum of promoting the same, or at least similar, policies as their colonial overlords, while opposing colonial rule.[10] To do so required them to incorporate aspects of traditional Kazakhness connected to, but not dependent on, nomadism and to limit appropriation of Russian ideas in their new conception of Kazakhness whenever possible. This would help accomplish the central goal of the reconceptualization of Kazakhness, which was to provide as much continuity as possible in Kazakh identity, while eliminating the role of nomadic lifestyle in that identity.

Saulesh Esenova offers great support for this view in a study of Shezhyre, a “genealogical register of all Kazakh tribes and lineages compiled…as a part of the Kazakh resistance to Russian colonization” in the early 20th century.[11] Shezhyre was “closely associated with pastoralism,” which allowed groups like Alash, which, not incidentally, took its name from the mythical founding ancestor of Kazakhs, to attack “the historic commitment of Kazakhs to pastoralism,” while forming a single Kazakh identity connected to their language and history.[12]

While Russification—particularly the seizure of Kazakh lands—was the most immediate threat to Kazakhness, and thus a favored topic of scholars of Kazakh nationalism, Tatarization presented an equally significant threat to Kazakh identity. The Tatar threat began with Russian subjugation of the Kazakhs in the 18th century. From then until the mid-19th century, Tatarization was just as, if not more, important to imperial policy on the steppe as Russification, and, as time went on, the Tatars’ influence only grew.[13]

Tatarization was accomplished through both administrative and religious formulations. Catherine the Great formalized the Tatars’ role in the area and stipulated the use of Kazan Tatars, who could be trusted due to their already high degree of integration in the Empire, for interactions with Kazakhs to push for Kazakh sedentarization, creating a “dynasty of Tatar scribes, interpreters and translators,” in the 18th-19th centuries.[14] This “dynasty” promoted the use of the Tatar language through the construction of Tatar schools and mosques, and the continued use of Tatars as interpreters and administrators made Tatar the effective administrative language of the steppe.[15] In doing so, Tatars attacked one of the most central aspects of Kazakh identity: the Kazakh language.

Catherine’s policies also drastically changed the Tatars’ religious power among Kazakhs. By her decree, the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly (or Muftiate) was created in 1789. That body was controlled by settled Kazan Tatars and held jurisdiction over Kazakh Muslims—though at the time they were very weakly Muslim—in addition to Volga and Caucasian Muslims.[16] Catherine, Alexander I, and even Nicolas I pursued Islamicization of the area, believing Tatar influence to be positive and “civilizing” and a potential solution to Kazakh raids on Russian parties. The Russian rulers, and their Tatar agents, used the Muftiate to threaten two more central aspects of Kazakhness: nomadism and customary law.[17]

Thus, Tatar influence attacked the core aspects of Kazakhness. Tatar-language education, dominance in the local economy and in the local state administration, if pursued fervently and long enough, showed the potential to destroy the Kazakh language’s significance. Furthermore, Tatar calls for sedentarization threatened the important role of nomadism in Kazakhness[18] and their attempts to strengthen Kazakhs’ religiosity at the expense customary law undermined Kazakhness on the most fundamental level by attacking long-standing traditions. Had the course of events continued, there may not have been a concept of Kazakhness to redefine in the early 20th century. Thus, the original significant threat to Kazakhness came from the Tatars.

By the 1860s, however, Russia’s policy changed. By that time, the idea of a “unified and indivisible” Russia had taken hold.[19] This held that Russia should be unified by a single culture and thus Orthodoxy was given preeminence among the various religions practiced within Russia’s imperial borders. Together with the perception of Tatar religious fanaticism, fueled by fear of growing Tatar religious and political power, and the Kazakhs’ limited religiosity, this resulted in the end of imperial use of Tatar agents.[20] To protect their increasing interests in Central Asia, Russians replaced Tatars in the bureaucracy responsible for ruling the Kazakhs, established their own commercial networks, and began to step up colonizing activities, focusing particularly on settling Russian peasants on Kazakh land.[21] The Russian threat to Kazakhness had begun mainly in response to Tatarization.

The Russian threat to the Kazakhs’ traditional use of land was a strong one. In 1867 and 1868, two statutes on the administration of the steppe declared, “The land occupied by the Kirghiz [Kazakh] nomads belongs to the state and is granted in common use to the Kirghiz,” the implementation of which an 1897 statute enabled.[22] In other words, the Russian state proclaimed its ownership of Kazakh land, when communal use of land was at the core of Kazakhness. Moreover, those lands were to be used for the settlement of Russian peasants.

Yet land policy was by no means the only mechanism of the Russian threat to Kazakhness. Perhaps the largest action Russians undertook to combat the Tatarization of the Kazakhs was a shift in language policy. As noted above, the Tatar language had become the language of schooling and administration on the steppe. As fear of the Tatars grew, Russians began to support the preservation of native languages, based on the belief that doing so “served as a bulwark against Tatar universalism.”[23] Despite such sentiment, the policy as implemented served more to replace Tatar with Russian as the language of education and administration than to preserve Kazakh.

Schools for Muslims throughout the empire adopted Nikolai Ilminsky’s method, fostering knowledge of Russian and loyalty to the tsar. In the steppe, this meant creating Russian-Kazakh schools, which taught students Kazakh using an adapted Cyrillic alphabet, as well as Russian, so that Kazakhs could retake control of administration of education from the Tatars.[24] Certainly this promotion of the Kazakh language helped diminish the immediate threats to Kazakhness, but it also played an essential role in the long-term threat to Kazakhness. Despite the lack of missionary content characteristic of Ilminsky’s method, which was originally designed to convert non-Russians to Orthodox Christianity[25], in Kazakh schools, the ultimate goal was still Russification. Knowledge of this goal, and shortages of state schools caused many Kazakhs to turn to religious schools.[26] Kazakhs were presented with a choice between attending primarily Tatar-run religious schools and maintaining the already important, albeit relatively new, religious aspect of their identity, or attending state schools and sacrificing religiosity for native-language instruction. The duration and strength of Tatar influence had altered Kazakhness such that Russian attempts to diminish Tatarization also threatened Kazakhness. This enabled Tatars to retain significant educational influence even after anti-Tatarization and anti-Islamicization policies were instituted.

In addition to their educational policies, Russians used missionary activity, which would not have been tolerated in schools, in non-educational contexts to assimilate Muslim Kazakhs. After the separation of Kazakh lands from the Orenburg Muftiate’s jurisdiction in 1868, the construction of mosques and schools was allowed only with special permission. Beginning in the 1880s, Kazakhs pushed for reentrance into the Orenburg Muftiate, or the creation of a Kazakh Muftiate in response to growing Russian missionary activity. This came to a head in 1905, with the Karkaralinsk Petition, drawn up and signed by 14,500 Kazakhs from the central steppe, which aimed at reversing anti-Islamicization policies, along with other Russifying policies.[27]

Such political activity of the masses was connected to the Revolution of 1905 and subsequent politicization of the steppe. Alikhan Bukeikhanov, the most prominent early 20th-century Kazakh intellectual, believed the experience of 1905 was instrumental in forming the intelligentsia. In a 1910 contribution to a Constitutional Democrat[28] (Kadet) publication, he wrote, “The entire steppe was engaged in the political sphere, and captured by the liberation movement’s flow. A lively conversation on the needs of the Kirgiz [Kazakh] people began,” in 1905, in which “religious and agrarian questions stood before questions of political freedom.”[29]  Within that conversation, there were two distinct positions, supported by two distinct groups of intellectuals: the “Westernizers,” with whom Bukeikhanov identified, supported greater adoption of European culture and put less focus on religious issues due to the 1905 promise of religious toleration from the Tsarist government, while the “Turkophiles” heavily emphasized questions of religion.[30]

In the years following 1905, Kazakh intellectuals gained venues through which to express their views on threats to Kazakhness. The first such venue, the new State Duma in St. Petersburg, and was short-lived. A total of nine Kazakhs were elected to represent the steppe in the first two Dumas, after which Kazakhs lost their right to participation in imperial politics with the second Duma’s dissolution in June, 1907. These Kazakhs aligned themselves with the Kadets, primarily due to that party’s support of all nationalities’ “right to free cultural self-determination,” and participated in the Muslim caucus of the Duma.[31] By doing so, they showed their devotion to the preservation of Kazakhness, in some form, and attempted to use their positions in the capital to forward those goals.

Kazakh intellectuals also poured energy into publishing, writing, often in verse, and distributing books and pamphlets highlighting the Russian threat to Kazakhness, especially through seizure of land. Increasing government willingness to use repression to stop anti-colonial sentiment did not stop Mukhamedzhan Seralin from pushing for permission to begin publishing a Kazakh-language journal. In 1910, he received permission, and he began printing Ai qap [Oh, Alas!] in 1911.[32]

Following Seralin’s lead, Akhmet Bukeikhanov and other secular intellectuals began publishing Qazaq [Kazakh] in 1913. These periodicals became the venues of choice for the religious and secular intelligentsia. Ai qap provided a podium for Seralin and like-minded Islamic-oriented intellectuals concerned, first and foremost, with religion as a means of spreading their views, while Qazaq provided Bukeikhanov and other secular intellectuals their own venue.[33] Interestingly, as has already been noted, both publications shared an overarching goal. They strove to preserve Kazakhness and save Kazakh identity from destruction by outside forces. The immediacy of Russian threats, especially in terms of land, caused fierce anti-Russian sentiment in both groups. Nevertheless, both groups and periodicals discussed far more than the land issue. They also both devoted significant attention to questions of education and language.[34]

On these issues, Qazaq editor Akhmet Baitursynov formulated the secularized intelligentsia’s position, writing, “[i]n order to save our independence, we must attempt…to rise to a state of enlightenment,” a major part of which was promoting the Kazakh language.[35] Moreover, he believed this was the first priority in preserving Kazakhness because, “[t]he modern Kazakh intelligentsia, having received their education in Russian schools and Tatar medreses [religious schools], already begin to feel contempt for the Kazakh language, and begin to speak Russian or Tatar among themselves.”[36] Especially when compared with Seralin’s belief that greater connection with the Tatars was necessary to promote the advancement of Kazakh society,[37] Baitursynov’s writings, together with Karkaralinsk Petition, recognize that Tatars and Russians presented relatively equal threats to Kazakhness.

Recognition of the Tatar threat to Kazakhness in the 1905 Karkaralinsk Petition has often been overlooked. Indeed, Bukeikhanov claims that its focus on religious issues was the result of a “Turkophile victory,”[38] despite the fact that the remainder of the petition contained many ideas Bukeikhanov himself supported. The reason for such misinterpretations is that the Petition does not so much as mention Tatar influence in a negative light. This does not, however, imply lack of recognition of the Tatar threat. Rather, a careful reading and comparison with clearly pan-Turkist demands,[39] with special consideration of what the petitioners did not demand, reveals implicit recognition of negative Tatar influence.

Education provides an especially potent example of the recognition of Tatar threat. The petition’s point on education, which appears immediately after that on religion, and which is the longest point in the document, is extremely critical of the existing educational situation. The essential complaint is, “aul schools [i.e. state schools] do not pursue a goal of enlightenment, but rather something unknown.”[40] This “something unknown” shows, above all, distrust of Russian intentions. The petitioners may not have stated a clear idea of what exactly Russian intentions were, but, based on context, it seems quite clear that the unknown intention of educational policy was to further Russification of the Kazakhs in some way. Nevertheless, the petition indicated support for secular education, an essential value of Westernizer intellectuals, and an antithetical value to the Islamic-oriented intellectuals, calling for

[T]he allowance of instruction of Kirgiz [Kazakh] literacy in aul schools; instruction in these schools in the language of the children and mandatory instruction of the state language; reinstatement of the abolished boarding school at the Omsk Gymnasium, as well as the establishment of a boarding school at the Semipalatinsk Gymnasium; and an increase in the number of existing scholarships for enrollment in professional schools and institutions of higher education.[41]

Thus, though wary of Russian influence in education, the petitioners supported continued instruction of Russian in primarily Kazakh-language schools to enable further educational opportunities. Moreover, they wanted an increase in opportunities for Kazakhs to enroll in Russian secular education, provided it did not threaten their Kazakhness through exclusive Russian-language instruction.

While the position stated in the Karkaralinsk Petition on education may be primarily directed at minimizing Russifying educational policies, comparison with an appeal of Muslims from southern Kazakh lands[42] to the Duma shows implicit concern for negative Islamic influence. There, the authors present an extreme pan-Turkist position:

Existing native (Russian-native) schools do not benefit us in any way, for simultaneous study of two subjects is not accessible to our young children, a result of which is that they do not achieve the results they should in either subject…Therefore, the above mentioned schools should be closed.[43]

Not only did they oppose an expansion of secular education; they explicitly condoned the elimination of such schools. The Kazakhs compiling the Karkaralinsk Petition were likely confronted with this option, but concluded secular Russian-sponsored education was more likely to benefit the Kazakhs than Tatar-sponsored religious education.[44] This should not come as a surprise, for the appeal for religious education also calls on the Duma to “completely abolish” the Kazakh Muslims’ customary law, and stipulates, “their affairs should be handled…on the basis of shari’a.”[45] Without a doubt, the Karkaralinsk petitioners did not desire a replacement of Kazakh customary law with Islamic law, for doing so would simply replace undue Russian influence with undue Tatar influence, threatening Kazakhness in a different way.

One might conclude that this is the extreme Islamic traditionalist position, and that petitioners would have agreed most with Jadid (Muslim reformist) perspectives. Indeed, Jadid intellectuals, who were primarily Kazan and Crimean Tatar, did support secularized education. They did not, however, support secular education in Russian schools. Rather, they called for a secularization of curriculum in Muslim schools, allowing them to provide education comparable to that of Russian schools, while still teaching some religious subjects.[46] The petitioners’ support for at least the continuation of Russian-Kazakh schools therefore contradicted not only the traditionalist, but also the reformist Islamic-oriented perspective.

Thus, while the 1905 petition clearly focused on limiting the Russian threat to Kazakhness, it cannot be considered a denial of the existence of a Tatar threat to Kazakhness. Rather, it represents a prioritization of threats to Kazakhness, concluding that limiting the Russian threat was more immediately necessary, while still recognizing that Tatars posed a significant threat. The prominence of Islam that so worried Bukeikhanov is not a sign of pan-Turkist sentiment, but of the use of Islam as a motivator. And for the Kazakhs, it was just that: Islam could be used to mobilize Kazakhs, and its preservation was one of their goals, but threats to the Islamic aspect of Kazakhness did not form the core of Kazakh demands. This was true in 1905, as well as in 1916, on the outbreak of a mass revolt in response to the Tsar’s conscription of Kazakh labor for the war with Germany, and in 1917, when they voted for Kazakh representatives to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly.

In the 1916 revolt, Islam seems to have played contradictory roles. Some religious leaders supported anti-Russian actions, framing them as holy war, while others opposed the revolt altogether. Even those who favored rebellion did not call for the creation of an Islamic Kazakh state, because a non-Islamic nomadic state structure was much more familiar. Most importantly, Islam provided motivation for revolt, a mobilizing call, but not an actual goal or model for further development.[47] As in 1905, Islam was simply a way to get Kazakhs to act, not formative of the core of their demands.

Thus, when given the chance to elect representatives to the Constituent Assembly and regional and all-Kazakh congresses, they overwhelmingly chose members of the secular intelligentsia, who became the Alash party.[48] The reason for this support was that these intellectuals showed consideration of the religious question, but did not focus too heavily on it, in the same fashion as the 1905 Petition. The best method to understand their positions is to look at the Alash Party Program and Kazakh congress minutes.[49]

Like earlier statements on the part of both the secularized intelligentsia and Karkaralinsk petitioners, Alash intellectuals’ positions presented at the Kazakh congresses and in the Alash Party Program were primarily focused on curbing Russification, but also showed recognition of a significant Tatar threat to Kazakhness. This understanding of a dual threat to Kazakhness was most evident in discussion of religion and education. While the program itself included little on either of these issues, they were discussed at much greater length in regional congresses and the All-Kazakh Congresses, convened in July and December of 1917.

This condensing of central Kazakh goals in the platform is likely due to the fact that autonomy depended on support from other autonomies following the fall of the Tsarist system in February. Religion and education were major issues for the Kazakhs, but not nearly as important to other autonomies as political and administrative reforms. For that reason, the Alash platform’s first sentence read, “Russia should become a democratic, federative republic,” the first section expanded on that demand, the second described the autonomy’s place within that system, and the third declared basic political freedoms.[50]

When the platform did reach the issue of religion, its position was:

Religion should be separated from the state. Every [religion] should be free and equal. The Kirgiz [Kazakhs] should have a separate muftiate. Marriage, birth, death and divorce records should be kept by Kirgiz mullahs.[51]

The first two sentences were likely included to further establish Alash’s credentials as a supporter of a democratic federative Russian republic, but also served to protect Kazakh Islam from Russian interference. Likewise, the final sentence was a non-crucial demand, designed mostly to provide protection from the Russian threat. The third was by far the most significant demand for the Kazakhs, and was meant not only to protect against Russian interference with Islam, but also to limit Tatar influence in Kazakh Islam.

Creating a separate Kazakh muftiate accomplished two goals: first, it enabled greater connection to the Muslim world and protected the Islamic aspect of Kazakhness; second, it sheltered Kazakh Islam from Tatar control, and thereby protected non-Islamic aspects of Kazakhness from Tatar Islamic influence. This is a lot to infer from one seemingly minor demand in a party platform, but the congresses’ expansion on the religious issue helps allow for these conclusions.

The July All-Kazakh Congress in particular provides support. There, Kazakhs from nearly all regions[52] agreed to support the temporary inclusion of Kazakh lands in the Orenburg Muftiate’s jurisdiction, until the creation of a Kazakh department within the Muftiate.[53] A later All-Kazakh congress, meeting in December 1917, clarified the exact nature of this demand, stipulating that “all Kirgiz affairs should be examined by only the Kirgiz department together with the muftiate,” and that all action within the Kazakh department should be carried out in Kazakh.[54] By far the likeliest reason for such explicit demands for the treatment of Kazakh religious affairs is the desire to limit Tatar power.

Elsewhere, this desire is expressed even more explicitly. The April Turgai Regional Congress shows especially strong suspicion of Tatar control of Muslim institutions. One of its demands was the “proportional representation of Tatars and Kirgiz” in elections for religious officials, clearly aimed at setting limits on Tatar religious influence.[55] Based on these expanded positions, the rationale behind Alash’s support of a separate Kazakh muftiate is clear. The creation of such a muftiate would simultaneously shield Kazakhs from pervasive Tatar influence in religious institutions, and allow cultivation of the Islamic aspect of Kazakhness.

Alash’s position on education, like that on religion, reveals recognition of a Tatar threat to Kazakhness. Two points demonstrate this especially well. The platform declared that Kazakh schools must have Kazakh language instruction, and that the Kazakhs should have their own secondary and tertiary educational institutions.[56] The former primarily addresses Russifying educational policies, for Tatar had already been all but eliminated in Kazakh schools. The call for Kazakh secondary and post-secondary education, however, aimed to diminish both Russian and Tatar power through education. The lack of such institutions meant that Kazakhs, who were coming to value education more highly, could pursue studies past the primary level only in Russian or Tatar schools, both of which had their own motives, and presented a threat to their Kazakh students’ Kazakhness.[57]

Responding to the same dual threat, the December All-Kazakh Congress recommended the creation of “national schools” and a committee for the composition of Kazakh language textbooks for primary and secondary schools.[58] Use of the word “national” as a descriptor for the desirable type of schools is telling. Their purpose would be to support Kazakh national consciousness through promotion of Kazakhness, and the committee would ensure that the textbooks used in those schools would be devoid of all threats—Russian and Tatar alike—to Kazakhness. This would allow decreased dependence on Russian and Tatar schools, while also reinforcing the Kazakhness of those who would go on to higher education in non-Kazakh schools. Alash’s position on education was thus, as it was with religion, to create a uniquely Kazakh system, drawing from both Russian and Islamic models, but not completely adopting either.


Alash intellectuals gained wide support within the Kazakh population because they supported a uniquely Kazakh path, recognizing both the Russian and Tatar threats to Kazakhness. Although they supported a reconceptualization of Kazakhness to diminish the role of nomadism, allowing Kazakh society to progress, and looked to civilizations with which the Kazakhs had had contact for models, they did not propose complete adoption of any such model. For these generally secularized intellectuals, the history of Russians and Tatars among the Kazakhs had shown that complete adoption of either model would mean the destruction of Kazakhs as a unique people. Therefore, as both civilizations attempted to gain power, Alash intellectuals selectively chose aspects of each civilization model, while also maintaining aspects of traditional Kazakhness.

Persistent Tatar influence in Kazakh education and religion, after the shift in Russian policy to anti-Tatarization, make Alash’s positions on those issues most revealing of that group’s placement between the two models of civilization. On education, Alash accepted the Russian model of secular education, with the caveat that instruction should be conducted in Kazakh. Likewise, they accepted the liberal idea of a secular state, while also promoting the Islamic aspect of Kazakhness, and fostering connection with the greater Islamic world. In each of these positions, Alash intellectuals considered both the Russian and Tatar threats to Kazakhness, and attempted to construct a position that could limit both threats, while also furthering the progress of Kazakh society.

Kazakh society, for its part, after the politicization of the steppe in 1905, showed suspicion of both Russian and Tatar presence and power. In 1905, the Karkaralinsk Petition called for Islamic revival, but clearly lacked pan-Turkist sentiment. In 1916, Kazakhs participating in the anti-Tsarist revolt demonstrated that for them, Islam was primarily a motivator, and not cause in and of itself. Therefore, when presented with choices between Alash intellectuals recognizing both the Russian and Tatar threats, and more pan-Turkist movements, whose members saw no detriment to greater Kazakh-Tatar ties, they chose the former precisely because it had correctly recognized the dual threat to Kazakhness.



[1] Gulnar Kendirbaeva, “‘We are Children of Alash…’: The Kazakh Intelligentsia at the Beginning of the 20th Century in Search of National Identity and Prospects of the Cultural Survival of the Kazakh people,” Central Asian Survey 18 (1999): 33.

[2] Ibid., 7-8.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Kazakh customary law was the system of conflict arbitration and punishment, which emerged to address conflicts common among various societies as well as those particular to the Kazakhs’ nomadic lifestyle. Its central element was the role of biis (people’s judges), but it also incorporated the customs and norms of Kazakh society to create a system handling all kinds of conflict within Kazakh society (ibid., 13-14).

[5] For example, Kendirbayeva writes that the survival of Kazakhness took on special importance “due to pressures generated by Russian assimilation policy and the Islamic Tatar influence” (ibid., 6).

[6] Gulmira Sultangalieva, “The Russian Empire and the Intermediary Role of Tatars in Kazakhstan: The Politics of Cooperation and Rejection,” in Asiatic Russia: Imperial Power in Regional and International Contexts, ed. Uyama Tomohiko (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 64-6; Uyama Tomohiko, “The Alash Orda’s relations with Siberia, the Urals, and Turkestan: The Kazakh national movement and the Russian imperial legacy,” in Asiatic Russia: Imperial power in regional and international contexts, ed. Uyama Tomohiko (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 272.

[7] Kendirbayeva, “Children of Alash,” 6.

[8] Peter Rottier, “Legitimizing the Ata Meken: The Kazakh Intelligentsia Write a History of their Homeland,” Ab Imperio 1 (2004): 268.

[9] Peter Rottier, “The Kazakhness of sedentarization: promoting progress as tradition in response to the land problem,” Central Asian Survey 22 (2003): 75.

[10] Ibid, 75.

[11] Saulesh Esenova, “Soviet Nationality, Identity, and Ethnicity in Central Asia: Historic Narratives and Kazakh Ethnic Identity,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 22 (2002): 12-3.

[12] Ibid., 13; 15-6.

[13] Edward J. Lazzerini, “Volga Tatars in Central Asia: 18th-20th centuries,” in Central Asia in Historical Perspective, edited by Beatrice F. Manz (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 85-6; 91-2.

[14] Sultangalieva, “Tatars in Kazakhstan,” 54-8.

[15] Robert D. Crews, For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006), 199-200; Wayne Dowler, Classroom and Empire: The Politics of Schooling Russia’s Eastern Nationalities, 1860-1917(Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 137-8.

[16] Crews, Prophet and Tsar, 52-3

[17] Ibid., 199-200.

[18] Here, it is necessary to make a distinction between these Tatar threats to Kazakh nomadic identity and subsequent Russian threats, mentioned earlier. The difference lies in the fact that the Tatars were merely calling for sedentarization, using their rhetorical power as religious and administrative leaders, while Russians would later actually threaten the ability of Kazakhs to continue their nomadic lifestyle through seizure of land and migration.

[19] Sultangalieva, “Tatars in Kazakhstan,” 64.

[20]  Ibid., 64-5.

[21] Steven Sabol, Russian Colonization and the Genesis of Kazakh National Consciousness(Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2003), 38.

[22] Martha Brill Olcott, The Kazakhs (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1987), 77-8; 87.

[23] Wayne Dowler, “The Politics of Language in Non-Russian Elementary Schools in the Eastern Empire, 1865-1914,” Russian Review 54 (1995): 518.

[24] Dowler, Classroom and Empire, 121; 137-42.

[25] Dowler, “The Politics of Language,” 519.

[26] Dowler, Classroom and Empire, 124-5.

[27] Tomohiko, “Alash Orda’s relations with Siberia, the Urals, and Turkestan,” 272-3. The petition is reproduced in S. Brainin, Ocherki po istorii “Alash-Ordy” (Alma-Ata: Kazakhstanskoe Kraevoe Izd-vo, 1935), 94-6.

[28] The Constitutional Democratic Party was a liberal Russian political party formed in 1905, which called for gradual reform and comprised a very significant portion of the First and Second State Dumas.

[29] Alikhan Bukeikhanov, “Kirgizy,” in Kazakhi o Russkikh do 1917 goda (Oxford: The Society for Central Asian Studies, 1985), 53-4. Here and elsewhere, unless otherwise noted, translations are my own.

[30] Ibid, 53-4.

[31] Olcott, Kazakhs, 112-3; Sabol, Kazakh National Consciousness, 64-5.

[32] Ibid., 66-7.

[33] Kendirbayeva, “Children of Alash,” 7-8.

[34] Sabol, Kazakh National Consciousness, 68-70.

[35] Ibid., 108-9.

[36] Ibid., 108-9.

[37] Ibid., 128.

[38] Ibid., 54-6.

[39] Brainin also reproduces a document written by Muslims from Aulie-Ata (present-day Taraz), Chimkent (Shymkent) and Syr Daria districts to Duma members in 1907, which contains strong pan-Turkist sentiment.

[40] The petition claims that this is a direct consequence of use of the Cyrillic alphabet in Kazakh-language instruction. “Karkaralinskaia Petitsiia,” in S. Brainin, Ocherki po istorii “Alash-Ordy” (Alma-Ata: Kazakhstanskoe Kraevoe Izd-vo, 1935), 94.

[41] Ibid., 95.

[42] In these lands there was a significant non-Kazakh Muslim population: the “Sarts.” Sarts were the more heavily Islamicized settled peoples of Central Asia, who, though known more for their role on the territory of present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, also inhabited southern Kazakh lands. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that at least some, if not many, supporters of the 1907 pan-Turkist appeal were not Kazakhs, but Sarts.

[43] “Chlenam ot Musul’man Gosudarstvennoi Dumy v Peterburge,” in S. Brainin, Ocherki po istorii “Alash-Ordy” (Alma-Ata: Kazakhstanskoe Kraevoe Izd-vo, 1935), 97 (emphasis added).

[44] Note that some education at this time was also sponsored by Sarts.

[45] “Chlenam of Musul’man,” 97.

[46] Sabol, Kazakh National Consciousness, 194 n.23.

[47] Uyama Homohiko, “Two Attempts at building a Qazaq State: The Revolt of 1916 and the Alash Movement,” in Islam and Politics in Russia and Central Asia (Early Eighteenth to Late Twentieth Centuries), eds. Sephane A. Dudoignon and Komatsu Hisao (London: Kegan Paul, 2001), 86-7.

[48] In the Constituent Assembly elections, for example, Alash intellectuals won over 75% of the vote in the Turgai and Ural’sk regions, and Semipalatinsk district. Ibid., 94.

[49] Minutes from selected congresses and Alash’s platform are reprinted in N. Martynenko, Alash Orda: sbornik dokumentov (Alma-Ata: Aikap, 1992), 21-81; 88-93.

[50] “Programma Alash-Ordy,” in Martynenko, sbornik dokumentov, 88-9.

[51] Ibid., 89.

[52] With the notable exception of Syr Daria.

[53] “Postanovlenie vsekirgizckogo s’ezda v Orenburge 21-28 iiulia 1917 goda,” in Martynenko, sbornik dokumentov, 49.

[54] “Rezoliutsiia II-ogo turgaiskogo oblastnogo kirgizckogo s’ezda v gor. Aktiubinske 20-25 avgusta 1917 g.,” in Martynenko, sbornik dokumentov, 59.

[55] “Protokol turgaiskogo oblastnogo kirgizckogo c’ezda v gor. Orenburge 2-8 aprelia 1917 goda,” in Martynenko, sbornik dokumentov, 27.

[56] “Programma,” 90.

[57] Baitursynov expressed this threat most clearly, lamenting that the burgeoning Kazakh intelligentsia’s Russian and Tatar education had caused them to “feel contempt for the Kazakh language,” and therefore threatened the very core of their Kazakhness. Sabol, Kazakh National Consciousness, 109.

[58] “Protokol pasedaniia obshchkirgizskogo s’ezda v Orenburge, 5-13 dekabria 1917 goda,” in Martynenko, sbornik dokumentov, 67.



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—. “Two Attempts at Building a Qazaq State: The Revolt of 1916 and the Alash Movement.” In Islam in Politics in Russia and Central Asia: (Early Eighteenth to Late Twentieth Centureis), edited by Stephane A. Dudoignon and Komatsu Hisao, 77-98. London: Kegan Paul, 2001.

About the Author

David Galick

David Galick is senior majoring in Russian Language and Area Studies and Political Science at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. After graduation, he hopes to continue his studies of the former Soviet Union, and as such has applied for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Kazakhstan, as well as the Carnegie Junior Fellowship.

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Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov leads SRAS' Research Services, performing remote archive research and consultations for researchers around the globe. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He also studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and taught Russian at West Virginia University. As a journalist, he has reported in both Russian and English language outlets and has years of archival research experience. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the “real Russia” which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei also contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS Family of Sites.

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