13 April 2019

The coöperative movement among the Bashkirs

Village in Bashkortostan
Cross-posted to Solidarity Hall

Among the ethnic-minority peoples of the Russian interior, the Bashkirs are one of the groups that hold the most interest for me. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that they are (like the Qazaqs) a Qypchaq people, warrior-poets, and – as residents of the Ural Mountains and straddling the geographical boundary between Asia and Europe – Eurasians par excellence. Another of them is genetic-genealogical: most Bashkirs belong to the ‘Western European’ R1b haplogroup. Not only, then, are they my distant paternal cousins, but they are also very likely the closest thing there is to an ‘indigenous’ people among those of us with R1b-derived Y-DNA. The third reason is that, politically and œconomically, the Hanafî Sunnî Bashkirs have historically tended toward a left-wing populism toward which I am deeply sympathetic.

Like the Evenkil of Siberia, it was traditional for the Bashkirs to hold land in common. Also, similarly to the Cossacks, the Bashkir people have long and honourable traditions – both of service to, and of resistance to, the Russian Tsarist government. Bashkirs took a prominent place, particularly their national hero the warrior-poet Salawat Yulai uly, in the rebellion of the Cossack Emelyan Pugachev against Empress Catherine in 1773 – the single largest peasant revolt in Russian history. Thereafter, however, Bashkirs also played a prominent rôle in the Russian resistance to Napoleon, and were among the Russian troops who defended the Netherlands from French troops and who entered the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in 1814. Their relationship to the Russian government, parallel to that of the Cossacks to the Russian government, is therefore a little… complicated.

The distinctions between the Bashkirs and their neighbours (sometimes friends, sometimes bitter rivals) the Kazan or Volga Tatars were not always that clear-cut. Both speak mutually-intelligible Northwestern Turkic languages derived from Qypchaq. Members of both groups thought of themselves instead as Bulghars. In some ways, the division between Bashkir and Tatar was more socioœconomic than cultural: according to Charles Steinwedel, in the early Tsarist period, mounted warfare and animal husbandry were more ‘Bashkir’ occupations, while mercantile trade was more ‘Tatar’. However, the connexion of both the Bashkirs and the Volga Tatars to the political formations of pre-modernity is something to be considered seriously. Chinese historiographers of the Sui Dynasty considered the Bashkirs (Beiru北褥) to be part of the Xiongnu 匈奴 descended Tölöš or Tiele 鐡勒 confederation; Arab historians thereafter accounted them either as an independent khanate or as a part of the Volga Bulghar polity. Both groups were part of the Qypchaq confederation which at one point menaced the Kievan Rus’, and thereafter were incorporated into the Altyn Orda.

The Russians under Dmitrii Donskoi defeated the Altyn Orda decisively at the Battle of Kulikovo Pole in 1380, and the power of the Orda would not recover. Gradually, the Russian Empire exerted suzerainty over several of the defeated remnants of the Altyn Orda – including the Bashkir people – under Tsar Ivan IV, and the latter swore loyalty to Tsar Ivan as аҡ бей ‘white Bei’ and батша ‘great Shah’. Though technically this fealty was willingly-sworn, there were few other options at that time for the Bashkirs – who found Russian rule preferable to Nogai domination.

Though the Kazan Khanate (one of the fragments of Altyn Orda to which the Bashkirs belonged) had already begun the process of sedentarisation and established permanent villages, aspects of the Bashkir’s former nomadic lifestyle remained: the Bashkirs primarily herded sheep and cattle, and continued to breed horses for the purpose. They also grew grain and tended beehives in the forested areas of their homeland (Bashkir honey is nowadays considered a major delicacy). In fact one of the proposed etymologies of the ethnonym Bashqort Башҡорт is that it derives from the Qypchaq word for ‘beekeeper’ (башлыҡ ‘head’, ‘boss’ + ҡорт ‘bee’). Their diet as described by Cossacks and Russian administrators consisted primarily of milk (including the fermented variety koumiss, ҡымыҙ), meat, rice and stuffed dumplings. The Bashkirs also concelebrated with their neighbouring Tatars the agrarian ‘festival of the plough’, Habantui Һабантуй.

The Bashkirs also had a particular attachment, notable even among Turkic tribes, to their oral history. As mentioned before, they honoured a ‘Bulghar’ heritage; however, their elders (aqhaqaldar аҡһаҡалдар) and bards (šaǧirźar шағирҙар) were the faithful custodians of several poems and legends of unmatched antiquity. Among them: Ural-batyr «Урал батыр» and Alpamysha «Алпамыша». There were among the Bashkir people skilled musicians; one of the national symbols remains the Ural edgepistil, the long woody stem of which they craft into a flute, the hauntingly-beautiful qurai ҡурай. Although – as with the other Turkic peoples of the steppes – Bashkir ‘belonging’ was fairly fluid and negotiable, there was certainly a cultural ‘core’ that consisted of these tales, songs and other art forms.

From Ivan IV’s rule until Peter’s, Russian suzerainty did not overly disturb the Bashkir way of life. They were fairly fortunate in that (despite being quasi-sedentary agriculturalists) they were never subject to serfdom, and also in that Moscow’s tax burden early on fell lightly on their shoulders. In any event, the imperial ambitions of Moscow focussed primarily on their western frontiers. During the early imperial period, Bashkir communities were subject to a general policy of ‘benign neglect’ that amounted to a position of prestige within the Russian Empire comparable to the Don Cossacks. Becoming a ‘Bashkir’ under law was an attractive proposition to other inorodtsy, and the Bashkirs ‘let in’ a number of Chuvash, Tatars, Mari and Siberians – who were collectively considered pripushchenniki (‘peasant-tenants’) by the Russian authorities.

This privileged position changed with the Petrine reforms and the imposition of autocracy – along with a colonial rush to access trade routes to the East. Tsar Peter saw and envied the wealth of England, Spain and Portugal, and sought to rebuild the overland trade route to match their sea-based empire. The Bashkirs, whose land straddled the Urals, were suddenly of great active interest to the Tsar. The establishment of a fortified city at Orenburg under Tsarina Anna led to a brutal five years of open warfare between the Russians and the Bashkirs, who were losing the traditional freedoms and immunities they had enjoyed under the Tsars before the Petrine reforms.

Even after the Petrine autocracy, though, there was an active attempt by the Tsarist government to avoid policies that would subject the Bashkirs, Tatars, Chuvash, Mari and other minorities of the Russian ‘East’ to genocide. Even the later Russian (and especially Cossack) administrators of the ‘East’ were well-aware of the Black Legend and the (at least somewhat-deserved) reputation of the Spanish Empire among the Native Americans. One may speculate about their motives, but the Russian government did make a deliberate and conscious point of not being like Spain in its policies toward the non-white inorodtsy of the ‘East’. In ecclesiastical affairs, this attitude produced the gentle ‘Irkutsk model’ of evangelism. Orthodox Christianity promoted neither a ‘crusading ideology’ nor a ‘civilising mission’. The effects of exploitation had also been mitigated by the deliberate policy that ‘Muscovy sent tax collectors east, not settlers’.

On the other hand, this is not to say that post-Petrine rule wasn’t still detrimental to many of these communities, or that displacement did not occur at all. Indeed, the imposition of autocracy undermined both the traditional rights of the Bashkir warriors. The resulting discontent among ordinary Bashkirs proved a potent force, as they began to join the ranks of Cossack revolt. Though Pugachev’s revolt was brutally crushed and their noble prince Salawat sent to die in penal servitude in Estonia (thus making him a legend the rival of Robin Hood), the common cause they had made with the Cossacks allowed the skilled Bashkirs to again take up a parallel service in the armies of Tsar Paul I – who had a particular Romantic attachment to the Turkic peoples and their particular reputation for chivalry and honesty.

In the wake of Catherine’s ham-fisted (oh, sorry – ‘enlightened’) reign and the uprising that resulted, there was far less land theft from the Bashkirs, but the former still struggled under conditions of deprivation and pauperisation. In subsequent decades, Bashkirs would be drawn into the circles of radical peasant action and narodnichestvo. Again – Bashkirs were never made serfs; the presence of serfdom in Bashkortostan was always fairly marginal. However, in the early years of the Russian Empire, due to the nature of Russian territorial expansion and competition with the Ottomans war was never far away from Bashkir territory, and this resulted in low agricultural productivity. In addition to this, taxation and land policy both ensured that Bashkirs often disproportionately felt the ‘pain’ of hard years. Long story short: the social privileges and military honours that Bashkirs had enjoyed from the Russian Tsar in the 1600s and early 1700s did not at all translate to œconomic welfare in subsequent decades and centuries. Functionally, the socioœconomic status of the common Bashkirs differed very little from that of their impoverished Russian peasant neighbours.

The reforms of Alexander II were therefore of particular, and double-edged, importance to the Bashkirs. Even though the abolition of serfdom did not affect them personally (they were neither serfs nor serf-owners), the establishment of the zemstva very much did. For the first time since their period of independence under and alongside Volga Bulgharia, the Bashkirs found that they had a strong collective political voice in their own local affairs as well as a greater degree of œconomic freedom. The institution of the zemstvo did not limit participation only to Orthodox Christians, but opened it also to Muslims; as a result, Bashkir imams found themselves formally empowered through the new institution. On the other hand, the traditional communal land tenure of the Bashkirs was undermined by the extension to individual Bashkirs of a legal right to sell the land. The tension between a greater degree of formal freedom and a weakening of traditional institutions caused a grave crisis in these communities. As Steinwedel says of this era:
A combination of market forces, official corruption, and in-migration then undermined Bashkirs economically. Since semi-nomadic pastoralism had grown difficult on reduced landholdings, many Bashkirs sold their land at ridiculously low prices or were essentially swindled out of it by a combination of alcohol, trickery, and force. Local officials took advantage of efforts to survey Bashkir land to redistribute it to their friends and local allies.
As a result, by the time the 1900s rolled around, the Kazan Tatars and the Bashkirs of the Urals were some of the most enthusiastic adopters of coöperative œconomic strategies to ward against precisely this exploitation and alienation of the land, and the concomitant pauperisation of the people. (Ironically, they accomplished this primarily through the zemstva.) As Azade-Ayşe Rorlich writes regarding these institutions:
Aimed at providing cheaper goods for the community, while at the same time helping the participating members market their own products, cooperatives became increasingly popular in the communities beyond the Urals, which were inhabited by both Tatars and Bashkirs and had lower economic status.
Rorlich notes that among both Tatars and Bashkirs, the village coöperatives and credit unions were organised as a result of input from (Russian) village teachers, doctors and nurses of the zemstvo hospital system, that local élites and particularly religious leaders were often excluded, and that these socialistic zemstvo initiatives were intimately associated with Hanafî reformism. The particular enthusiasm of the Bashkirs for the coöperative movement is sharply highlighted by the figures cited by Tatyana Gennadevna Sirotina in her 2009 dissertation on coöps in the southern Urals, where she cites Orenburg Province’s 2,881 credit coöperatives in the year 1916, compared with Ufa Province’s (western Bashkortostan’s) 10,255 credit coöperatives with 166,112 members in 1908.

Regarding this rural modernisation movement of the Russian zemstvo among the Bashkirs in the reign of Nicholas II, Dr Ilya Gerasimov of Rutgers University has this to say:
The mobilisation of Bashkir villagers by rural professionals was successful: Bashkirs cooperated with agronomists, attended agricultural courses, and eagerly established cooperatives. By joining zemstvo-sponsored initiatives Bashkir peasants became more rational farmers and members of a larger Russian society, yet they were doing so not as “new economic men” or “citizens” [after the Enlightenment pattern], but as “Bashkir/Turco-Muslims,” now more conscious than ever of their group distinctiveness. Absolutely unintentionally, rural modernizers contributed to creating the framework and channels of future ethnoconfessional mobilization in the Bashkir countryside.
The relationship of the Bashkir peasantry to their own élite class was far from trusting, and that shows primarily in the way that the peasantry adapted themselves to the zemstvo. At the same time, their experience among these Russian institutions inadvertently shaped their ‘communitarian’ consciousness as a separate ethnic and religious community. Even so, the overall political thrust of the Bashkir coöperative movement was leftward, directed toward class consciousness, as it was for populists in the rest of the Russian East. Sirotina, though she somewhat disagrees with the particulars of Gerasimov’s analysis, links this consciousness to the Soviet-era work of agrarian theorist Alexander Chayanov, who posited a non-capitalist logic for peasant families and coöperatives. It is, however, easy to see how this could have gone very differently by comparing the Bashkir experience with what happened to the Bashkirs’ southwestern counterparts, the Ukrainian Cossacks. Gerasimov goes on to explain the difference between this movement and that among the Ukrainians:
Furthermore, unlike Bashkirs, educated [middle-class] Ukrainians eagerly invested their “human capital” in the task of mobilizing and modernizing the village. While they did not need the patronizing initiative of the zemstvo and Russian-speaking rural gentry in order to begin a dialogue with the peasantry, the nature of this dialogue was problematic. The inevitable degree of populism shared by rural modernizers almost universally, had a different meaning in different national contexts. In the “Russian” Russia, that populism was socioeconomic in character, expressing itself in the preferential treatment of peasants over gentry landowners, and of midsize “labor peasant farms" over capitalist farms with hired workers. In the Ukrainian context, particularly in the parlance of Ukrainian social activists, the term “people” sounded different, and its meaning changed from a social category of “common folk” to a “folkish” connotation of the “people as a nation.” The tropes and slogans of the all-Russian public modernization campaign acquired a distinctive national(ist) dimension in the Ukrainian context… The very fact of a “translation” of this program into the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian sociocultural context altered its character significantly. Ukrainian “darkness” differed from all-Russian “darkness.” Economic rationality alone could not eliminate it; any remedy had to be in conjunction with interest “in the native language.”
The mid-Soviet caricature of ‘Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism’ as predominantly the refuge of fascists clerical and lay is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but there does seem to be a kernel of truth in its central conceit. The late-Tsarist coöperative movement in, for example, Bashkortostan had a very different political tenor than in the Ukraine, despite the similarities of the Bashkir and Cossack traditions of political rebellion, military service and tribal honour. In Bashkortostan the coöperative movement enhanced political mobilisation on behalf of the poor as well as a mild, moderate, even anti-fundamentalist form of Muslim communitarianism. In the Ukraine, however, the subtle turn from class-based action to language politics ensured that the coöperative movement would engender various forms of right-wing völkisch nationalism centred among the educated middle class in the cities.

The Bashkirs, along with the Evenkil and much of the rest of central and eastern Russia, understood the Tsarist-era coöperative movement primarily in œconomic terms associated with Great-Russian populism or the Slavophil obshchestvo. By the way, as a not-unrelated point of interest, the patriarch of the Slavophil Aksakov family, Sergei Aksakov, was born and raised on an estate outside Ufa, in what is now Bashkortostan, and his fond memories of the place and the coöperative lifestyle of its people – Slavs and Turks – undoubtedly coloured the his sons’ ideal of the peasant commune, the obshchina община.

As evidenced from Gerasimov’s writing, the Bashkirs did not merely passively receive from the zemstvo this movement or its associated mindset; they made it their own. It fused with the legacy of Salawat Yulai uly and the Bashkir rebels of Pugachev’s time, as well as with the contemporary Hanafî madhhab tendencies of Jadidism and Qadim – both of which ‘moderate’ tendencies effectively subdued the ‘rightward’ impulses to fundamentalism and ethnic separatism. The result was not, as one might imagine, entirely to the liking of the Russian authorities, either ecclesiastical or sæcular. One need only read about the career of Bishop Saint Andrei Ukhtomskiy of Ufa to determine this – but at the moment we must leave this most interesting radical ‘catacomb’ hieromartyr for a future piece.

The Bashkirs and their cousins the Tatars, who had this long history of negotiation with and rebellion against the Russian state, found in the coöperative movement of the early twentieth century a certain set of tools that they could use, both to assert and advance themselves as communities against competition and capitalist exploitation from the outside, and to preserve a certain sense of traditional cohesion underneath a rapidly-modernising legal régime. The New Œconomic Policy of Lenin’s USSR – in fact an extension of Stolypin’s reforms – did coöpt these tools and subordinate them to a policy of regularisation which under Stalin’s policy (disastrously for these minority ethnic groups) would become collectivisation. Even so, today the ethnic minorities of Russia – not only the Evenkil and the Bashkirs – are already looking to and learning from these institutions in order to creatively adapt to post-Soviet realities.

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