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Kazakh Steppes through the lenses of American media: Ethnography Notes in the 19th and 20th centuries

Kazakh Steppes through the lenses of American media: Ethnography Notes in the 19th and 20th centuries - e-history.kz

The 20th century could, in fact, be marked as an era of increased interest of Western countries towards the Central Asian region and the Kazakh steppes in particular. Therefore, the representatives of various state bodies and independent media outlets were sent under the guise of academics, missionaries, travellers, and naturalists to this region. Articles on the ethnography of Kazakhstan, describing the details of the yurt, the traditions of marriage, washing of linen from Kazakhs, falconry, flora and fauna of the Kazakh steppe, were published in leading American newspapers during the 19th century. A broad range of newspapers includes The Evening World, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, The Sunday Herald, The Sun, Western Kansas World, Evening Star, Burlington Weekly Free Press, The Lafayette Advertiser and many others. The fact of publications about the Kazakhs on the pages of American newspapers indicates that the Kazakh steppe was regarded as the heiress of the great steppe civilizations. Materials had been previously unknown to Kazakhstani researchers and were first introduced into the academic community after many years.

Many Kazakh media outlets have since reported that an American family from the state of Minnesota lived in a Kazakh yurt [1]. The news that at the beginning of the 20th century, the American farmer Jacob Crocker, who lived with his family in Central Asia among the Kirghiz for several years, returned to his permanent residence in northern Minnesota and many American newspapers also paid close attention [2]. Narrative genre on the pages of periodicals was the main source of knowledge of Americans about the Kazakh steppe. Materials were created in the context of theoretical schemes of evolutionists, who noted the conditionality of history, customs, customs, the material and spiritual culture of peoples with the natural environment in which they live. The main methodological approach in describing the ethnography of the Kazakh steppe in the American press was the theory of geographical determinism. Its provisions were reduced to the interrelation of the geographical factor and history in the process of ethnogenesis of people’s development, which was very clearly traced on the example of the nomadic Kazakh people whose way of life was the subject of the description of foreign researchers. Using comparative analysis, the researchers sought to give a complete and objective description of the appearance of Kazakhs, character traits, clothes, attitudes towards women, children, the elderly, the way of thinking and their characteristics, fixing on the pages of American newspapers, which simultaneously reflected the historical stages of Kazakhstan's development. In this article, materials on the ethnography of the Kazakh steppe, published on the pages of American newspapers, for the first time are introduced into academic circulation. American newspapers (for example, Daily Globe, The Charleston Daily News, Belmont Chronicle, New York Tribune, The Daily Astorian, etc.) represented almost all the states of America (Missouri, Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Oregon, etc.).

To American readers, Kazakh women were introduced not only as beautiful, fit, a dressed woman, but also as a strong, strong-willed, freedom-loving, able to lead their own household independently [3].

A wide array of American popular newspapers published articles about Kyrgyz horses that represented a strategic resource of Russia, which, in turn, had specific geopolitical and economic goals in Central Asia.

"It is believed that Austria-Hungary has 3,569,000 horses, Germany 3,352,000, France 3,000,000, Great Britain 2,790,000 and Italy 657,000; while Russia in the Kyrgyz steppe there were 4 million horses. The excellent qualities of the Kyrgyz horse led to the proposal to use it to replenish the decreasing number of horses in the cavalry," wrote the Washington-based Evening Star in 1883 in an article entitled "The Reserve Fund of Horses of Russia." "Kyrgyz horses are a precious and abundant supply. Most of those horses are small, reasonable, obedient, with great speed, tireless and very restrained, qualities that make them suitable for military service. The best horses are those belonging to the Orenburg and Turkestan steppes," the newspaper continued [4].

In American newspapers, one can find a description of the Kazakh yurt, which was presented as something exotic: "Aul (kibitka) consists of a wooden frame with a curved shape. Through the installation of a skeleton on the ground, it is then covered with a felt made of yak or camel wool.

''These auls (or tents) are very strong and will withstand almost any hurricane or dust storm. The total weight is 200-250 kg - this is the carrying capacity of just one camel. The Kirghiz are Muslims. It is noteworthy that they spend winters in the highlands, in warm weather looking for shelters in higher, but narrow valleys. There are fewer Kyrgyz women than men, and the population is almost stable" [5].

In the 19th century, it was believed that falconry was an aristocratic occupation and royal entertainment. And American readers were surprised to learn that falconry was a favourite activity for ordinary Kazakh hunters. The Kansas newspaper called Western Kansas World describes the Kazakh hunt: "... Kazakhs use an eagle to hunt wolves. A thick leather strap is attached to each leg of the bird, allowing to fly at a distance of 10 inches. Wolf then notices the flying eagle. As soon as the bird grabs the animal, it holds the loin tightly with one foot, and the other leg drags along the surface of the earth, grabbing for stones, weeds, or what gives it a little support. If the wolf suddenly turns, the eagle begins to peck its eyes with its beak. A heavy burden on the back of a wolf [eagle] makes him walk slowly, and the hunter soon overtakes him. After, he hits the wolf with a whip or a knife "[6]. Hunting with an eagle is described by Briton Francis Yanghasband, in the book entitled "The Heart of the Asian Continent" [7].

An American newspaper "The Lafayette Advertiser" covered the inhabitants of the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea: "The Kyrgyz are engaged exclusively in cattle breeding and are known for their scrupulous honesty. A long, rough-cut cloak (kilt) and pants of coarse camel hair are his clothes. Headgear reminiscent of an old woman in the form of a truncated cone, widened at the back of the neck about seven inches. Depending on the rank and wealth of the owner, clothing is embroidered with various furs, etc.

Women's dresses are slightly different from men. For example, instead of a cap, a woman covers her head with various fabrics, bandages, etc. In the production of warm and soft scarves, capes, etc. from the wool of camels and goats, they show more skill and ingenuity. In accordance with the custom, common among the Kyrgyz, the wife is treated as a slave, bought at a certain price and intended to run all domestic work. For Kyrgyz, as for all nomadic tribes, tents serve as housing. The first thing in a tent that attracts visitors is food hung from the ceiling, namely dried and smoked fish and horse meat. The latter is a great delicacy and a luxury food that only well-off people can afford "[8].

The description of the yurt, its decoration, the cooking process formed the idea of the inhabitants of the distant American continent about the Kazakh steppe: "Departing from Omsk in an easterly direction, the Siberian traveler for the first time sees a real steppe in the full sense of the word – as smooth as the sea, there is not a single undulating hillock that can destroy the straight line of the horizon, no tree, no bush, and not even a single stone that can change the monotony of space.

Everybody can notice the most pleasant of all the spectacles - a group of tents (yurts) in the form of a haystack and you hurry up there to take refuge in the graceful shadow of the Kirghiz tent and enjoy fresh koumiss.

The supper itself is as primitive as the method of its preparation. The table with the tablecloth stretched in the middle of the tent, and the chairs were cushions, on which we sat cross-legged. There was no cutlery. It was assumed that the guests would eat out of the common wooden utensils and use the instrument that nature gave him-hands. The food was plentiful, but not varied, consisting of a boiled lamb without bread or any of its substitutes, and a little-salted horse meat.

Tea drinking is not particularly popular in the steppe. Kyrgyz buy the cheapest so-called "brick tea", pressed in the form of a brick, they usually drink koumiss. Koumiss is a drink from mare's milk.

The Kyrgyz tent is a round felt tent stretched over wooden frames. These frames can be easily dismantled and assembled, and they are very light. On the one hand, the door, representing a flap of felt, the fire is located in the middle, the smoke of which leaves through a hole in the roof. The tent is decorated with pieces of various kinds of straps used for fixing felt, and on the sides of the tent are things that are valuable for Kirghiz: carpets, silk products and clothes, and in some rich tents, even silverware with attributes for horses and household utensils. The kibitka has the advantage of being cool in summer and warm in winter" [9].

The ethnographic view towards the Kazakh steppe is not the only topic on the pages of American newspapers. Successful advancement of Russia in the Kazakh steppes, natural resources of the Kazakh steppe, its favourable geographical location attracted the attention of foreign politicians and researchers. The events of 1869 in the Kazakh steppe (the uprising of the Kazakhs of the Younger Zhuz) were in the focus of attention of the American media:

"Export trade from Asia is also delayed. Several bags of Bukhara cotton were sold in Kazan at a price of $8 per pound in cash, but without continuing the trade. Raw silk was not visible at all. The termination of trade is not only due to the dangers that merchants may face while travelling with their goods through insurgent areas, but because they cannot travel without camels that depend on Kyrgyz." [10]

An American newspaper entitled Memphis Daily Appeal, as a continuation of the previous article, informs that in April 1870, Russia sent an expedition to the Kazakh steppes. "The sole purpose of this expedition was to develop trade with Central Asia and ensure the safety of caravans heading from the Caspian region and Oxus. This new route has indeed become irreplaceable since the uprising of the Kyrgyz tribes cut off the old line of communication across the steppes from Orenburg to Kokand, and from Mangyshlak to Khiva. The only vocation of this new territory was a security gate on the shores of the Caspian Sea, as well as the security for traders to conduct business under the guise of the army, by relying on its defence" [11]. Russian policy in the Central Asian region was reflected in the following lines: "Taxation of the local population will be reduced, in any case only the Kirghiz will be taxed at a rate of almost 3 rubles instead of 3.50, and they will pay to tithe from all the products produced from the soil" [12].

During the last quarter of the 19th century, geographic and ethnographic interest began to develop into the geopolitical interest of foreign researchers and politicians, who were aware of Russia's real interests in Central Asia.

"Russia ... because of several cruel campaigns, 2 million nomads were subordinated, who, for over 20 years, without any murmur, paid the conquerors taxes for cattle at a rate of 3 rubles from the tents. Through the Kyrgyz steppes bordering Russia, two green belts stretched far to the east through the desert along which two great rivers flow – Oxus and Yaksart, now known as the Amudarya and the Syrdarya. One originates from the southern ones, and the other, on the northern slopes of the Pamirs, created for centuries their alluvium along their banks, inflicted by rapid tides, creating long and continuous oases in the middle of the most desolate desert of the world. There were routes to inner Asia, caravan roads that lead to China, roads along which for many years large camel caravans from Bukhara transported cargoes from cotton, silk, and leather to Orenburg and Astrakhan for exchange for Russian equipment, chintz and weapons. Here was the possibility of a huge expansion of Moscow's power and trade. Russia's motives have long been not self-defence, but the conquest of the khanates of Turkestan and the expansion of trade" [13].

The American newspaper described the true goals of Russia in Central Asia in the following way: "Since all the land at the foot of the mountains is suitable for cultivating crops, Russian colonies settled along the main mountain ranges. The government encourages this colonization by providing settlers with a certain amount of land without payment and ask for an immediate start of cultivation. After ten years of occupation, the settler becomes the owner of the land, but cannot leave it until it is returned to the authorities. Numerous colonies were founded not only in the steppes of nomadic Kyrgyz tribes but in that part of the region inhabited by Tajiks and Uzbeks who led a settled way of life and were civilized for many centuries. In Syrdarya region, there are a number of localities that help consolidate the forces of Russia, the most important of which is Tashkent, which has more than 12,000 Russian residents. In the province of the Seven Rivers (Semirechie), Russian colonization dates back to 1854, the number of Russian towns and villages is much larger, settlers make up over 30,000, among them several thousand Cossacks "[14].

At the beginning of the 20th century, American newspapers published notes on the natural wealth of the Kazakh steppe. With its natural resources, Kazakh steppe attracted the attention of American entrepreneurs. US Senator Clark of Montana offered the Russian government 36,000,000 rubles for renting a large plot of land in the Kyrgyz steppes for 50 years, which were rich for copper, coal and silver. [15]

And the New York newspaper The Evening World informed readers about an oil fountain with a capacity of 60,000 barrels a day in the Kyrgyz steppe [16].

The study of traditional Kazakh society and its basic life supporting mechanisms, the response of this society to the challenges of the time and the Russian colonization, presented a great academic interest in the historical and ethnographic paradigm, which gradually developed with the establishment of Soviet power in geopolitical interest.



  1. American Couple Living in Kazakhstan.  -   URL://tengrinews.kz  -  (accessed 12.05.2018).
  2. Minnesota’s Fame Attacks a Family From That Land // The Louis Republic. – 1904. March 27. – p. 12.
  3. A Kirghiz Matron // New-York Tribune. – 1841. May 13. – p. 4.
  4. Russia’s Horse Reserve // Evening – 1883. September 01. – p.3.
  5. Cobbold, Ralph Inner most Asia – Travels and Sport in the Pamirs. – London, 1900.
  6. Eagles and Their Prey. Western Kansas world. – 1888. -May 05. -p.1.
  7. Younghusband, Francis Edward. The Heart of a Continent Asian Educational Services: a narrative of travels in Manchuria, across the Gobi desert, through the Himalayas, the Pamirs and Hunza 1884-1894. New Delhi: Asian educational services, 1993. – 332 р.
  8. Kirghiz // The Lafayette – 1886. May 15. – p. 1.
  9. Natives of Siberia // The Princeton – 1897.- January 7. – p. 7.
  10.  English label // The Evening Telegraph. – 1869. – July 6. – p. 3.
  11.  Russian landing // Memphis Daily Appeal. – 1870. July 24. – p. 1.
  12.  The Russian Landing // Memphis Daily Appeal. – 1870. – July 24. p. 1.
  13.  Russia in Central Asia // Salt Lake Еvening Democrat. – 1885, May 7. – p. 3.
  14.  Journal «Des Débats» // The Sunday Herald. – 1885. – April 26. – p. 2.
  15.  Senator Clark’s // The Salt Lake Herald. – 1901. December 27. p. 2.
  16.  Huge Fountain of Fire // The Evening World. 1911. May 16. – p. 4.