Retreats, Losses, and Failed Resistances

The history of the Republic of Kazakhstan is one born of the history of the Soviet Union, itself one steeped in a military tradition of frontier adventurism and homeland defense. The military might of the Russian state, whether centered in Moscow or St. Petersburg, has failed on some occasions to protect property from invasion. Rather, strategic retreats and outmaneuvered sieges dot the landscape of military history. However, the stalwart defenders also receive their due, from the times of the so-called Golden Horde through the Napoleonic Wars of the Tsars and through the cataclysmic loss of life during WWII, or as Russian speakers continue to label it, the Great Patriotic War, or Великая Отечественная Война, the memory of which claims to be eternal.

Here in the former capital of Kazakhstan, in downtown Almaty, stands an enormous monument to the defenders of Moscow, the 28 Guardsmen, also known as Panfilov’s Men. According to officially rendered history, these 28 men accepted martyrdom on November 16th, in the process destroying eighteen German tanks. This episode of the war took place during the German army’s advance on Moscow. The citizens of the USSR memorialized the 28 Guardsmen, part of a battalion made up of recruits from the Kazakh and Kyrygz Soviet Socialist Republics. One particular phrase entered textbooks and monuments, “There is nowhere to retreat, for Moscow is behind!” 

The truth of the matter was known narrowly for many decades, but has since become more common knowledge [a summary is available on Wikipedia, even in English]. I do not think today’s population is more cynical than in the past, but it certainly does not surprise a person to learn that a particular story preserved and presented by a government has been lovingly presented, embellished, and improved.

This is the context in which I would bring up several similar situations in the history of Central Asia. That the defense of property and the ability to withstand an enemy siege are popularly conceived as the crucible of heroism perhaps is not surprising. However, the history of nomadism offers many examples to the contrary. I suppose it seems odd to bring in examples from the ancients, but Herodotus and other observers of the Scythians (a general term for nomadic populations living in the pastures of Asia and Europe) remarked that one of their greatest strengths was the freedom to retreat at will. Indeed, there is an air of a “clash of civilizations” in Herodotus’ tale of the Persian military wandering out into the steppe in fruitless search of nomads refusing to stand still. As if to remind us that Scythians, too, must eventually stop running, the reader is told that the only way to force them into a siege is to find the site where their fathers’ bones lie buried.

Herodotus and others writing about the Scythians admitted the limits of their knowledge and even suggested, at times, that the Scythians were in some ways more advanced than their sedentary enemies. Some anthropologists and archaeologists, though I don’t know if they are yet in the mainstream, have suggested and argued that pastoral nomadism is actually an economy learned by farmers and agriculturalists to take advantage of marginal land. This idea supplants the traditional notion of the Biblical patriarch nomad-model, a vestige of hunter-gatherers that lacks the civilization and sophistication of sedentary agriculturalists. Unfortunately, one of the greatest weaknesses of these models is its inability to represent the complexity of economy in either sedentary or nomadic lifestyles. The acquisition of food by farming or herding is only one small piece of a puzzle that also includes clothing production, the building of housing (fixed or moveable), production of tools, etc. The fact of the matter is that a nomad and a farmer both convince someone else to make their chain armor, to sharpen their axe, and to dress their children.

And yet, perhaps in the field of war we might see a more convincing difference between nomadic and sedentary ways-of-life. Whereas one assumes the Scythians did not judge themselves by Persian standards of war, it would seem that as nomadic lifestyles disappear, so, too, do nomadic conceptions of warfare, particularly regarding the defense of fixed structures. In a nomadic culture, mobility is not only a luxury but a necessity, as the herds consume grass much faster than it can grow. Movement is life and standing temporary.

The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government has made sure that its citizens see a clear connection between the Scythians (or Saka, if one prefers) and the modern inhabitants of Central Asia. Regal and sophisticated, the ancient Scythians provide many illustrative models of the grace and resourcefulness of nomadic lifestyles. However, the thousands of years of history between the Scythians and the current year also could provide an explanation of how the Scythians morphed into the Kazakhs.1

The Kazakhs of the so-called Kazakh Khanate of the 15th-19th centuries were nomads, if that general term is to have any meaning across disciplines. Mobile pastoralists moving camps with the seasons, the Kazakhs also engaged in ritualized raids on each others’ herds, a practice known as barïmta, or by a variant spelling. A word of Mongolian origin, barïmta referred to a custom governed by society and its rules. For example, if an adult man of one Kazakh nomadic grouping feels that he has been cheated in a previous trade of tools and food with a Kazakh of another nomadic grouping, the recourse most likely would have been barïmta, wherein this man and some companions would attempt to steal the amount of animals necessary to make up the difference.2 This would initiate a discussion involving both of the offended parties and a third-party officiator, who would then stand in judgment. Barïmta was a skill, of course, not practiced equally well by all. One may assume that for every average barïmtachi (barïmta doer), there were others inept and unable to make redress against their predators. Indeed, there were also heroes of barïmta, whose skill won them the title batïr (батыр), a title that many scholars continue to assume referred only to valor in battle. However, it seems that for the Kazakhs and other practitioners of barïmta (most of the inhabitants of nomadic Central Asia, including the frontier-dwelling Cossacks), there was no better training for military action than barïmta.

Barïmta seems to simulate very much what scholars can understand of Scythian military raids: incredibly quick attacks against lightly defended targets. The timing of these attacks was likely their single most important aspect.

One of the recurring topics of the Russian Conquest of the steppe is the idea that Kazakhs put up almost no fight, that no site was well-defended. This includes the “capital of the Khans,” the holy city of Turkestan. Knowledge of the Scythians would have informed the Russians to caution, since here was a place hallowed by the bones of the forefathers of the Kazakh Khans. Instead, after a short siege, Turkestan, like Aulie-Ata, Chimkent, Tashkent, Samarkand, Jizzakh, and so many others, fell to the Russians. However, overpowering military might was not the reason. The adobe walls of these cities absorbed Russian cannonballs. When a siege ended, it was often the result of negotiation, subterfuge, or military genius, as in the cases of the falls of Aulie,Ata, Chimkent and Tashkent. In fact, it seems to me that the nomads themselves saw little danger in the changing of leadership over cities they had already lost to the Khanate of Kokand. Retreat in these cases makes the most sense for the Kazakhs – and despite Russian conceptions of cowardice, the continued resistance of Kazakhs to direct rule throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrates something other than cowardice.

Another famous retreat, one very close to my heart, is the famed Bare Footed Flight of the Kazakhs in the early 1720s. Students in the Republic of Kazakhstan now learn of this event as one par with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, with much of the same terminology. Indeed, referring to the Great Patriotic War of the eighteenth century is increasingly common in monographs and textbooks about the subject. However, in this case one nomadic force overran the territory of another nomadic force. Why stand and defend grass that will be eaten and grow back on its own? Instead, however, the students of Kazakhstan learn of the myriad reasons for the failure to stand up to their enemies, of the cost of disunity and cowardice in the face of aggression. There is relatively little direct evidence for the course of events portrayed in official and unofficial renderings of the Bare Footed Flight, so that these narratives generally explain much more about the public imagination as informed by Soviet collectivization and the Great Patriotic War against the fascists than it does about Kazakh migrations and losses in the early eighteenth century.

1This is not to say that I subscribe to some theory of genetic connection between the citizens of Kazakhstan and the Scythians, though I certainly allow that the genes of some Scythians may be represented in a Kazakh today. Similarly, I suspect that anyone that lived 2200 years ago and also has living descendants will likely be related to people across a vast territory. Moreover, if that long-dead ancestor lived in the circle of area connecting Africa and Eurasia, I imagine their descendants may include a large majority of the current population of Afrasia.
2My assumption is that this is an animal easy to move at great speeds, so most likely horses. I haven’t looked at evidence of specifc barïmta, though it seems possible sheep or goats could also be taken.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.