The Kazakh Khanates Between the Russian and Qing Empires

Steffen Rimner

Russian intervention into Khanate election processes began from the eighteenth century,’ Jin Noda tells us (p. 4). That alone should suffice to raise interest in 2017. To readers with less presentist inclinations, this book, published in April 2016, has even more to offer. Indeed, which candidate could exemplify the sources, conditions, dimensions, and fractures of nomadic resilience better than the Kazakh Khanates from the 18th to the mid-19th century, the most long-lived society of its kind in Central Eurasia?

This book prudently abstains from presentist inclinations. Based on a dissertation supervised by Hisao Komatsu, one of Japan’s doyens in Central Eurasian and Islamic history, it combines the astuteness of a pluri-imperial perspective with its necessary condition, the daunting labor of several years of archival research, amongst others in the Central State Archive in Almaty and the Historical Archive of Omsk Region. Russian, Qing, and Tatar sources establish a firm base for Noda’s subject, suffering as it does from the tragic lacuna of scarce Kazakh primary sources. The methodical rigor of multi-archival research here forces the challenge of and confrontation with incommensurable perspectives of three major protagonists: the Russian empire, the Qing empire and the Kazakh Khanates caught in between. The more capacious net cast over archives of former empires next door certainly compensates, just as the insights offer abundant reward.

In this three-folded account, the Kazakh Khanates are much more than a proxy of either empire, highlighting how their autonomous agency and independent perspective unfolded through interactions. This intermediate positionality becomes visible by reading external sources against the grain. Chapter 1 opens with an astute overview of the emerging biases of the historiographies that have obscured so far the history of the Kazakh Khanates, in a deliberately balanced context of criss-crossing imperial relationships. Subsequent chapters outline the particular conditions of relationships between the Khanates and the Russian and Qing empires and the reasons why those relationships formed long-lasting Russian and Qing perceptions of the Khanates. The focus on perceptions is illustrated by a particularly precious case study of the Qing ‘sections’ of Kazakh society as a practice of imperial influence, mirrored to an extent after 1822 by the Russian imperial practice of compartmentalizing the Middle Juz. The decline of Kazakh diplomacy is, however, not treated as a simple function of Russian or Qing imperial divide and rule. Instead, the book delineates the decline in its gradations by tracing the specific constraints of the Kazakh trading position and the changing landscape of Russian–Qing politics across the Eurasian region.

To explain a Kazakh perspective despite the dearth of Kazakh documentation stimulates a notable methodological innovation here. The book triangulates the relationships between the Khanates, the Russian empire, and the Qing empire as mutually informing each other. Whichever bilateral relationship is investigated, its character is explicitly related to the presence of the third party, augmenting linear into spectral analysis. Thanks to this archival and not merely methodological triangulation, Noda’s interpretation succeeds masterfully in integrating multiple forces of influence at the same time, a necessary device to treat neither Russian imperial superiority nor, in more recent scholarship, the Qing frontier superiority as exceptional in and of itself. The spectral framework of this interpretation enables an explanation not of frontier histories but of the local dynamics that interacted with Qing and Russian influences until the dissolution of the Kazakh Khanates, a prolonged historical process concluding with the Russian–Qing Treaty of Commerce in 1851, preceding the mapping through the Tarbagatai Treaty of 1864 that came to serve as precedent for modern Kazakh, Chinese, and Soviet borders.

The Kazakh Steppe emerges as much more than a geographic locus with its population in the east of the Qipchaq Steppe, a lamentable offshoot of the Mongol Empire. Rather, here it represents a power in between which, short of ever advancing to a primus inter pares, nonetheless avoided the dire predictability of a pawn for an astonishing period. The Qing–Russian context here becomes a subject in its own right – not only a bilateral relationship but a bipolar neighborhood of empires, in some ways prefiguring the dynamics within and across intermediate countries in the Cold War. When the Kazakh Khanates saw their own threat by Jungar nomads vanquished by its eastern neighbor, the Qing empire, Qing influence thereafter increased on the basis of a victory that had held the early promise of benefit. In Noda’s meticulous rendering, the more fatal development occurred with the series of Russian encroachments through annexation in the 19th century, leading to the irreversible and, we might add, strategic disassembling of the Khanates’ as a polity with its own institutional composition.

As a result, the Kazakh Khanates acquire a heuristic centrality, read from the outside in and from the inside out. The Khanates figure in this narrative as emancipated from their archival marginality, in an analytic move bereft of archival positivism, while at the same time potent with analogies. Would not a similar analysis of other world regions and their constituent domains help rephrase the fraught relationship between area studies and the best kind of global history? This potential certainly shines through the framework of this book. Its sophistication lies not in a synthetic summation into one formula that explains it all, but rather speaks to the value of imperial and non-imperial perspectives in combination. Some may take this book as an encouragement to transgress dogmas that take a source’s geopolitical origin as necessarily and solely reflecting its political identity and intentionality.

Readers interested or specializing in Central Eurasia, Qing foreign relations, Russian foreign relations, and the early history of modern Kazakhstan will find many lessons included here on why comparative analysis requires the connections between the parts compared. A disadvantage of the book is the publisher’s extraordinarily casual editing which does not do justice to the accomplishments of the author. Brill is to be commended, however, for the effort, still rare in an age of scholarly jet-setting, to help communicate to an international audience a book originally written for Japanese academia and previously published as Ro Shin teikoku to Kazafu hankoku (The Kazakh Khanate between the Russian and Qing empires) (Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 2011). Readers of English can count themselves fortunate to find this knowledge now within reach.