Ruling the Russian Frontier: Ian Campbell's Knowledge and the Ends of Empire

By Rebecca Egli - In his first book, Assistant Professor of History Ian Campbell examines how imperial Russian bureaucrats and local Kazak intermediaries worked together to produce knowledge about the strategically important but isolated Kazak steppe in the nineteenth century. Campbell’s work highlights the fundamental weakness of the Russian Empire on its borderlands, and the limits of what it could know and do.

Over the two centuries preceding the February Revolution in 1917, the Russian Empire expanded to cover an area of approximately 8.5 million square miles, encompassing hundreds of groups with distinct languages, customs, and politics. Ruled by a series of autocratic tsars, the Russian government attempted to achieve total dominion over its territories—including the vast Eurasian grassland stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Xinjiang region in what is today northwestern China, otherwise known as the Kazak steppe.

Imperial knowledge

“If information is the lifeblood of the state, the Russian Empire always tottered on the edge of anemia,” Campbell explains in his introduction. In order to craft effective policies for ruling those who resided on the steppe, imperial officials initially relied on the knowledge and cooperation of Kazak intermediaries: well-educated individuals such as clerks, scribes, and translators. By providing distant officials and policy-makers with information about the culture and landscape, they helped shape the terms under which they were ruled while advancing their own interests. “Studies of pastoral nomadism, of religion, of customary law, of flora and fauna: all were meant to answer urgent questions of policy formation.”

Amassing knowledge about the people and environment of the Kazak steppe became part of an attempt to consolidate power over the region. While knowledge may have ostensibly contributed to Russian authority on the steppe, the weak, overextended tsarist state relied on imperial subjects to rule effectively. Their purpose was both tactical—ensuring control of the region for expanding and provisioning the Empire—and cultural, bringing a “civilizing” influence to the Kazak nomads living at the fringe of Russian civilization.

Mass resettlement

By the late nineteenth century, the relationship between Kazak intermediaries and tsarist officials had begun to deteriorate. Russia’s interest in knowledge-gathering and maintaining regional stability on the steppe gave way to a conservative, Russo-centric political culture increasingly unwilling to work with Kazaks. While the Russian Empire had originally incorporated the region with no clear plan for utilizing the territory, by the second half of the nineteenth century, tsarist calls for economic modernization prompted administrators to utilize the steppe for the forced mass resettlement of peasants from European parts of the Empire.

"If information is the lifeblood of the state, the Russian Empire always tottered on the edge of anemia." - Ian Campbell


The resettlement of the steppe by outsiders significantly affected the Kazak way of life, economically and otherwise. The primary conflict between Kazaks and tsarist officials rested upon conflicting visions of how the steppe should be utilized. As nomadic pastoralists, Kazaks required large areas of land and mobility to supply their livestock with sufficient forage throughout the year. Other forms of land use—sedentary agriculture, for instance—not only restricted the movement of livestock herds; it also converted valuable forage into cultivated cropland. As millions of new settlers from other parts of the Empire expropriated the steppe, officials claimed the move contributed to the “greater good.” Resettlement, they argued, would lead to more productive uses of the land, while also improving a region marked by the “backwardness” of nomadic pastoralism.

A result of this “parting of ways” was the Central Asian Revolt in 1916, an uprising against Russian imperial rule in which Kazaks responded violently to peasant resettlement and conscription into the imperial army. “Both of these were symptoms of the tsarist state’s failure to continue engaging with local intermediaries and local forms of knowledge,” Campbell argues.

Lost voices

While colonial relations between Russians and nomads on the steppe differed from other European colonial regimes in many important ways, Campbell’s study is insightful for anyone interested in imperial history and the relations between the colonizer and the colonized. Russia’s dependence on the knowledge of Kazak intermediaries provided a setting in which local actors, if only for a time, had a voice. Drawing on more than a decade of language training and archival research, Campbell painstakingly recovers those voices.

Much of the research for this project was conducted in the city of Almaty, at the Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan, as well as at the Russian State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg and the Russian State Military-Historical Archive in Moscow. Language training, Campbell explained, has been essential to his scholarship.

“I did Russian all the way through undergrad, and took FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies Program) for Russian in grad school as well. I also took intensive Kazak, two years' equivalent, and made use of that in reading the Kazak periodical press.” Campbell also taught himself German and French. “Getting the non-Russian perspective was incredibly important.”

Reconstructed experience 

It is all too tempting for researchers to choose subjects with abundant, easily accessible sources, or to write the history of an empire without critically examining those living under the weight of imperial authority. Yet Knowledge and the Ends of Empire offers a testament to the insights that can be gained from reconstructing the experiences and contributions of colonized people. 

“I was struck by how many basic questions about the steppe and Central Asia in the Russian Empire—matters of military, administrative, and economic history—are still unknown, or only known in vague and stereotyped terms,” Campbell explained. “It’s one thing to suspect that something’s missing, but quite another to have that suspicion confirmed every time you get into the archive.”

To learn more about Ian Campbell, visit his faculty webpage. Knowledge and the Ends of Empire: Kazak Intermediaries and Russian Rule on the Steppe, 1800-1917 will be published by Cornell University Press later this year.