Russia's Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800

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"... a tremendously important contribution to the field of Russian history and the comparative study of empires and frontiers. There is no comparable work in any language.... The book presents an intricate and gripping narrative of a vast sweep of histories, weaving them together into a comprehensive and comprehensible chronology." -Valerie Kivelson

From the time of the decline of the Mongol Golden Horde to the end of the 18th century, the Russian government expanded its influence and power throughout its southern borderlands. The process of incorporating these lands and peoples into the Russian Empire was not only a military and political struggle but also a contest between the conceptual worlds of the indigenous peoples and the Russians. Drawing on sources and archival materials in Russian and Turkic languages, Michael Khodarkovsky presents a complex picture of the encounter between the Russian authorities and native peoples.

Russia's Steppe Frontier is an original and invaluable resource for understanding Russia's imperial experience.

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1 The Sociology of the Frontier, or Why Peace Was Impossible

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A party of 120 Russians arrived at the Yaik River to trade their grain for salt and fish with the Yaik Cossacks. They were returning to their village in the central Volga region when they were surprised by a war party of 600 Kazakhs and Karakalpaks. All were seized and taken away to become slaves and laborers. One of them, Mikhail Andreev, was able to escape from his Kazakh captor with two horses. Five days later he reached the Ufa District. There, in the steppe near the Yaik River, he was captured again, this time by a group of twenty Bashkirs, who took him to their village. For two months he was a slave of one of the Bashkirs until a Russian official, who arrived to collect yasak (a tribute or tax from the non-Christian population) among the Bashkirs, ransomed him for a silver-trimmed bridle, a pair of boots, and a fur hat. Later Andreev reported to the Russian officials that the Bashkirs were preparing to raid the Russian towns and that many Russians and Chuvash were still lingering in captivity there.1 The year was 1720.

 

2 Frontier Concepts and Policies in Muscovy

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Ne khvalis’ v pole educhi, khvalis’—iz polia.

(Do not boast leaving for the steppe;

boast returning from the steppe.)

—RUSSIAN PROVERB

There were no borders south of Muscovy, for borders required that neighboring peoples define and agree upon common lines of partition. Demarcating a conventional border in the steppe was simply impossible given the absence of the notion of territorial sovereignty among the nomads and the difficulty of maintaining such a border against nomadic predations. Instead, Moscow’s southern frontier was an invisible divide in a seemingly endless steppe known as the dikoe pole, which implied both open, untamed expanses of land and a perilous frontier.

It is important to draw a distinction between the notions of a frontier and a border. A frontier is a region that forms the margin of a settled or developed territory, a politico-geographical area lying beyond the integrated region of the political unit. A border, by contrast, is a clearly demarcated boundary between sovereign states. To put it differently, to have a border requires at least two state-organized political entities. It is a state that, both physically and mentally, constructs, maintains, and enforces borders. In the west, where Russia confronted other sovereign states, the territorial limits of the states were demarcated by borders. In the south and east, where Russia’s colonization efforts encountered disparate peoples not organized into states and with no clearly marked boundaries between them, the zone of separation between Russia and its neighbors was a frontier.1

 

3 Taming the Wild Steppe, 1480–1600s

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Throughout more than two hundred years of its history, the Golden Horde, a powerful confederation of nomadic and seminomadic tribes dominating the vast territory from western Siberia to Moscow, withstood numerous challenges from constituents of its enormous empire as well as outsiders. But by the late 1470s the Golden Horde was in irreversible decline. It had become irreparably split between warring members of the Chinggisid ruling families. The rivals were based in the peripheral regions of the Golden Horde’s territory: in the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan on the Volga, the Crimea, and Tiumen in western Siberia. The core of the Golden Horde remained a nomadic confederation known as the Great Horde (Bol’shaia Orda), which roamed the steppe between the Don and Yaik rivers. The khans of the Great Horde considered themselves successors to the khans of the Golden Horde and attempted continually to reassert their authority over other entities of the former Golden Horde.

It was at this time, in 1474, that a departing envoy of the grand prince of Moscow, Ivan III, was given detailed instructions about how to respond to various issues that the Crimean khan, Mengli Giray, might raise. In anticipation of Mengli Giray’s insistence on Moscow’s help against the khan of the Great Horde, Ahmad, the envoy was directed to reply that Moscow could not break relations with Ahmad because “the patrimonial lands [votchina] of the grand prince and Ahmad khan have a common steppe frontier, and every year Ahmad khan comes to his pastures near my sovereign’s lands.”1 When in the following year Mengli Giray suggested similar terms of alliance, an exasperated Russian envoy explained that if the grand prince were to declare war against Ahmad, then Moscow would have to face two enemies on two fronts—Kazimierz IV, the king of Poland and Lithuania, and Ahmad khan of the Great Horde.2 The grand prince had yet to overcome his fear of a direct challenge to Ahmad khan and was interested only in Mengli Giray’s help against Poland and Lithuania.

 

4 From Steppe Frontier to Imperial Borderlands, 1600–1800

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The beginning of the seventeenth century brought a temporary reversal in the traditional roles of Muscovy’s relations with its steppe neighbors. Throughout the sixteenth century, as the Muscovite state was becoming increasingly autocratic, the steppe nomadic societies were torn by incessant civil wars. But from 1598 to 1613 it was Muscovy that found itself amid the most severe crisis: the extinction of the royal Riurik dynasty, a disastrous famine, a bloody civil war, and foreign intervention. Still, during this civil war, also known as the Time of Troubles, the importance of the southern frontier did not diminish, and the threat of raids and military campaigns from the south remained ever-present.

Negotiations between the envoys of Tsar Boris Godunov and the Nogay beg, Ishterek, in 1604 registered Moscow’s broad concerns over the anti-Muscovite policies of its Islamic neighbors. An oath of allegiance prepared for Ishterek by government officials stipulated that he and his Nogays, known as the Greater Nogay Horde, were not in anyway to communicate or assist the Turkish sultan, the Crimean khan, the Persian shah, the Bukhara khan, Tashkent, Urgench, the Kazakh Horde, the shamkhal, or the Circassians. According to the government’s plans, the Nogays were to graze their herds near Astrakhan, between the Volga and Terek rivers, and were to be used specifically for campaigns against the hostile Kazy Nogays (the Lesser Nogay Horde), the renegade bands of the Volga and Don Cossacks, and particularly the Crimea. Ishterek made his commitment conditional on Moscow’s help. He explained that he could send a sizable force against the Crimea only if Astrakhan musketeers were sent to protect his uluses, which otherwise would become easy prey to the raids of the Kazy Nogays, Kazakhs, or Kalmyks.1

 

5 Concepts and Policies in the Imperial Borderlands, 1690s–1800

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For a century and a half after Moscow’s conquest of Kazan, Russia’s rapid and forceful expansion pushed its frontiers farther south and east, taking Russian settlers far afield: to the foothills of the Caucasus as well as the shores of the Pacific Ocean. By the early eighteenth century, the initial stage of expansion was largely over. Undergirded by the new and continuing construction of fortification lines, which effectively contained nomadic raids, the government’s security concerns of the past gave way to new priorities. Consolidation of the recently acquired territories and colonization of the new frontiers required a new ideology of expansion: Russia was now destined to bring Civilization and Christianity to the numerous non-Christian peoples who would become part of the “glorious and rising” empire.

The old practices did not immediately vanish, and the government persisted in demanding that the natives comply with its demands through the familiar rituals of taking an oath of allegiance, surrendering hostages, and paying yasak. Yet by the middle of the eighteenth century, the same frontier concepts were increasingly expressed through a new political vocabulary. The oath of allegiance was frequently referred to as a “protectorate” (protektsiia), hostages were assuming the ranks of Russian military officers and members of the Frontier Courts, and yasak was becoming a regular tax. The frontier was conceptualized in more precise terms, and the government was eager to appoint the Frontier Commission and to set up the Frontier Courts to deal with “frontier affairs.” The natives’ proximity to imperial borderlands and the government’s new goals required an additional set of policies and strategies, which proved in the end to be far more destructive to the indigenous societies.

 

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