Power on the Steppe

By Yasha Shatalov

          During the eighteenth century, power on the steppe was not held by a single entity or group. Taking primary sources into account, cases could be made for the Empires of China and Russia, or the Kazakh and Kirghiz tribes. The various sources tell markedly different tales, but they have one thing in common, they do not come close to attempting to explain the full geopolitical climate of the steppe. This is obviously not something that is to be expected of the time, as the 1700’s were nowhere near where we stand today in terms of the ease of spreading and sharing information. Only by viewing these sources as a whole, as chapters in a book, can we build ourselves a clear idea of the power struggle that was the steppe in the eighteenth century.

Sources from this time period generally focus on a native group (Kazakh or Kirghiz) and their interactions with an imperial power. Many of the interactions between the Chinese and steppe peoples that we analyzed focus on tribute and the diplomatic dialogues they engaged in. Through these texts, we can interpret the nature of this relationship, and what kind of power these groups, and the Chinese specifically, had in the region. The documents featured in Noda and Onuma’s piece highlight the lack of total control both the Qing Empire and the Kazakhs had. In Ablai’s letter to the emperor he writes, “Now, hearing your edict, I am glad to know you have regard for us… and all the Kazakhs have become your albatu [subjects]” (Noda & Onuma, 12). Ablai writes this after explaining that the message he received was the first his people had ever heard from the Qing Emperor.

This situation is interesting in relation to the question of who held power in the steppe because at first, it appears that the Kazakhs are immediately submissive to the Chinese, but reading into what Ablai says, as well as the circumstances in general, inferences can be made that would challenge this assumption. Addressing Ablai’s initial words in his letter gives us clues to the extent of Chinese influence in the region. Ablai states that “since the time of my grandfather and father… your edict has not reached me” (Noda & Onuma, 12). From this statement it is obvious that the Chinese have held little sway over the Kazakhs and the lands of the steppe. Ablai’s submissiveness in the letter can also be interpreted in a different tone than how it reads at face value.

In class we have spoken of how translation can cause discrepancies compared to the original version of a text, and that is likely true here. These messages had to be translated from Kazakh to Chinese before reaching the emperor, and along the way likely received alterations that would make them more “presentable”. As we discussed in class, the bureaucratic language in imperial China was both very formal in addition to including pleasantries that in the case of this letter, were likely added in by Chinese scribes.

While Ablai appears eager to serve the Qing, it is likely that this play was in the interest of advancing his own agenda rather than the Emperor’s. This strategy can also be seen in the nomads’ interactions with the Russian empire during this time. In Akiyama’s piece, he says, “it was not the case that they passively collaborated with the Russian Empire… the manaps plotted to secure and expand their pastureland by offering their mobility to the Russian Empire” (Akiyama, 158). Many nomads seemed to realize that the easiest route to take was not to attempt to fight the imperial powers, who had more men, resources, and technology, but rather to collaborate, or give the appearance of collaborating. Through this tactic, they were able to pursue their own interests while still giving the appearance of supporting the imperial powers.

The fact that the Russians and Chinese resorted to diplomatic tactics rather than simply moving in and taking the land by force also gives insight into the distribution of power across the steppe. They used tribute and trade “to maintain peaceful relations with the nomadic Kirghiz tribes” (Di Cosmo, 351) while the “Kirghiz chiefs gained access to markets and political protection” (Di Cosmo, 366). The act of tribute was as much of an exchange of services as it was an act of submissiveness. Neither empire felt confident enough to use military strength as their sole strategy for controlling the steppe; therefore, we can assume that neither empire had full control of the steppe. Both the Qing and the Russians had to contend with native traditions, like barimta or cattle appropriations, which challenged their concepts of peace, law, and justice. “[T]he practice of barimta did become suppressed on the basis that it would aggravate…and that it may threaten the stability of the region” (Akiyama, 153). Despite this, the nomads ignored the Russians and continued to engage in this practice. Shabdan describes his raid on the Qalmaqs, though in the end “[f]ollowing Kolpakovskii’s orders, we had to return the livestock to the Qalmaqs” (Akiyama, 153).  This mixture of compliance with the foreign powers enough to avert full conflict, and autonomy in the face of attempts by those powers to assert control, shows a clear disconnect between holding influence over a region and having control over a region.

Another telltale sign that the distribution of power on the steppe was not concentrated in one entity or group is the content featured in two maps of central Asia and their accompanying texts. Bregel notes that “after 1758, the political situation of all three hordes remained unstable, Russia took advantage of this to expand her influence” (Bregel, 114). This excerpt does not tell the tale of a single superpower controlling the region, as it can be inferred from this quote that Russia was only able to make gains in the region in times where its opponents were weak. A similar conclusion can be drawn from the writing included with the map “Kazakhstan in the Second Half of the 18th Century,” where it is said that “The Russian Empire, as it unfolded its military and Cossack colonization of Kazakhstan still had to take the position of prominent Kazakh leaders into account” (116). We can assume the Chinese were similarly restricted in their ability to gain influence and territory based on their attack on the Junghars “after a brief period of internal strife” (Bregel, 114) and the fact that “[t]he ruler of the Middle Horde, sultan Ablay took an oath of allegiance to both China and Russia.”

The map titled “Kazakhstan in the Second Half of the 18th Century” features a clearly defined breakdown of the territories controlled by each group on the steppe. This map features nearly ten different groups, and is in clear contrast to the map featured in the atlas by Bregel. This map shows the historical boundaries of these groups, but many of the borders do not align with what is shown on the aforementioned map. These differences show a lack of collective agreement by modern historians on the spheres of influence of actors on the Asian steppe, as well as a lack of a single entity clearly holding power over the region.

Today, for an actor to hold power in a territory, they should be able to exert their will, whether militarily, judicially, or culturally, to the point where it is apparent that they are first and foremost the most influential group in the area. It is evident by the sources we have examined that neither the imperial powers nor the nomads could claim to have this ability throughout Central Asia. Multiple sources show that all of these groups were willing to be both submissive as well as demanding to each other. No single group was able to realize full control of the region to the point where they could pursue their own objectives without being significantly disrupted by other factions.

This notion of no one truly holding power in the steppe is historically significant because it rules out the simplification of history in that region and era. This idea makes it impossible to focus on just one group as the winners, the dominant power. It provides reason for historians to consider more than the “winning” side’s perspective because there was no overall winner. With no king of the hill, all accounts from that time are that much more important, and to accurately depict an overview of the region as a whole during that time requires more than just sources from China, or sources from Russia, or from the nomads. Accepting that power was not held by one entity pushes historians to conduct their research differently than if the opposite were true.

Works Cited

Akiyama, Tetsu. Nomads Negotiating the Establishment of Russian Central Asia: Focusing on      the Activities of Kyrgyz Tribal Chiefs. Memoirs of the Research Dept of the Toyo Bunko    71,       2013.

Bregel, Yuri, An Historical Atlas of Central Asia. Leiden. Brill, 2003.

Di Cosmo, Nicola & Wyatt, Don (ed.) , Political Frontiers, Ethnic Boundaries, and Human         Geographies in Chinese History. London. RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Kazakhstan in the Second Half of the 18th Century. Historical Atlas of Kazakhstan. Almaty. Kitap, 2006.

Noda, Jin & Onuma, Takahiro, A Collection of Documents From the Kazakh Sultans to the Qing    Dynasty. Tokyo, 2010.


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