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The Kazakh Khanate under Threat

Jungar campaigns pressed on the Kazakh Khanate with a vengeance in the last years ot the seventeenth century and the first decade of the eighteenth, the warriors flooding across from their heartland east of the Altai. The Jungars were aiming to occupy southern Kazakhstan and the trading towns on the banks of the Syrdarya as well as to assume control of the trading caravans' routes. In 1710, Tauke Khan summoned representatives of all three Juzes for a conference on how to organise resistance, meeting in the Kara Kum desert. For some six years the Kazakhs held back the enemy, repeatedly melting back into the Steppe: even there they were not safe.

The broad Kazakh political system rested upon the principle of the autonomy of each of the Juzes' territories. It was wonderfully suited to the management of internal problems. Ever since the reforms of the early seventeenth century, conflicts of clan and regional rights were invariably handled peacefully, using the judgement of the Biys. However, as the external threat sharpened at the start of the eighteenth century, the authority of the Kazakh Khanate was exposed as too decentralised to meet the challenge. Tauke Khan remedied that - but only briefly. After his death in 1715, certain Sultans began vying for the central Khanship. After long wrangling, Kaip was elected in 1715 and was at once obliged to confront the Jungars, who had resumed their assault.

Khan Kaip died in 1718. His successor Bolat proved weak-willed, unable to master the situation across the Khanate. Substantial parts of the Junior and Middle juzes gave their allegiance to an alternative figure, Abulkhair, who would hold sway until his death in 1748. It may be said that this division sowed the seed, of the eventual demise of the Kazakh Khanate.

In the spring of 1723, a large Jungar force encroached upon Kazakh land from the east along the Talas valley, skirting the Karatau mountains. The Kazakhs at that time were preparing to migrate to their highland summer pastures. They were caught off-guard. Almost the entire Kazakh population of the Talas region was eliminated; those who survived were obliged to flee, abandoning their cattle and possessions. Vast numbers of suddenly destitute and hungry refugees crowded the oases of Bukhara and Samarkand. In 1724-25 the Jungars overran the cities of Tashkent and Turkestan, laying waste to both of them. These dreadful events are known even among Khazakhs of today as Aktaban Shubyryndy - 'running (i.e. fleeing) to the bone' (of the foot).

The threat to national independence galvanised the Kazakhs into a united response. That next year, 1726, the combined armies of the Great and Junior Juzes at last inflicted a major defeat on the Jungars. Representatives of the three Juzes, each under the governorship of its Biys, gathered near Shymkent and elected a new commander for the Kazakh army in the person of Abulkhair, committed to the principle of strong central power.

A further victory by the Kazakh army in 1729 at a battle near Lake Balkhash should have cemented the union of the Juzes, yet once again rivalry among the Sultans frustrated it. Only the initiative of the three Biys - Tole, Kazybek and Aiteke, together with Sultan Abilmansur, known as Abylai - restored the essential unity. We shall come back to this remarkable Abylai below, after turning to the origins of the Russian protectorate.

Under sustained threat from the Jungars, Khan Tauke had already sent several embassies to Russia when, in 1694, Peter the Great proposed a treaty of protection and trade. 'This Horde/ he had noted, referring to the generality of Kazakhs of the time, 'is the key and the gate to all Asian lands. For that reason this Horde must be placed under Russian protection.'

By 1720 several Russian fortresses had been built - Omsk, Zhelezinka (north of Pavlodar), Semipalatinsk and Ust-Kamenogorsk. At the same time, Peter had devised and initiated the methodology of securing Kazakh compliance with Russian guardianship. His written instruction to his principal emissary demonstrated the significance of the protectorate for the Russian empire. 'If this Horde does not wish to become under the Russian shield, try everything, whatever the expense, be it a million roubles or more. For they must be under Russian protection.' He refers here to the cost not only of the protective role as such but of official bribery, in the form of gifts to the Sultans and others. A million roubles at that time was a very great sum indeed.

Peter's death in 1721 delayed the project. Yet it was to resume a decade later when, in 1731, the Russian envoy crossed the Kazakh Steppes persuading the White Bone and Black Bone leadership alike to swear allegiance to the Tsar. He used all the devices short of force - gifts, bribery, unfulfillable promises. By 1731 the Lesser Juz under Abulkhair, in their eastern and northernmost territory, had became subject to the Russian empire, with Russia having the right to approve the appointment of the Juz Khan recognition of its role as the protector and defender of the territory from external threat. The truth is, the Lesser Juz had not been much threatened, and had not participated in campaigns against the Jungar. It was, instead, itself becoming something of a threat to the Muiddle and the Great Juzes.

Now, with renewed menace from the Jungars, elders of the more easterly (and senior) Juzes expressed a wish for Russian protection - albeit without any formal submission as vassals of Russia. The purpose of this ploy was at least in рал to dissociate the Great Juz and to some extent the Middle Juz from that effective submission that Abulkhair had chosen to accept, while at the same time being seen by the Jungars as a participant in the Russian sphere of influence. Abulkhair could not in such circumstances use Russian military power against his fellow Kazakhs.

The Middle and Great Juzes continued the struggle against the Jungars. The Russians, at least overtly, accepted the proposed formula; but it became the new template for an evolving Russian colonial policy. In 1741, the Jungars were again assaulting Kazakh lands, with no true leadership emerging among Kazakhs of the Great and Middle Juzes. Then, in 1748, Abulkhair was murdered by Sultan Barak, as a protest against his pro-Russian policy.

The restoration of Kazakh unity is indissolubly linked to the name of Abylai Khan, to whom we must now return. Born Abilmansur, he was a son of a Sultan, Korkem-Wali. In his youth, during one of the Jungars' invasions, he had fled to the Steppe and, concealing his parentage, worked as a simple shepherd. In the late 1720s he resolved to take part in the wars against the Jungars and quickly became one of the Middle Juz's most influential Batyrs, the Kazakh knights, taking the name of his grandfather Abylai, himself a famous warrior.

In 1739, the Jungars signed a peace treaty with the Ch'ing dynastic rulership of China. Two years later and taking advantage of divisions among the Kazakhs, they launched a fresh assault which ended in the total defeat of the Kazakhs and capture of Abylai Khan. Only at the price of the secession of the Middle Juz from Russian protection, and the acknowledgment by that Juz of vassalage to Jungaria, was Abylai released. The switch of the Juz's allegiance at once provoked dispute between the Russian and Jungarian governments, and nearly led to war.

Long years of contention for the Jungars' throne led to China's occupation of Jungaria and to Chinese penetration of Kazakh territory, where the armies of Abylai Khan gave battle, wearing down the Chinese forces. In 1758-59, Chinese armies finally destroyed the Jungar state system, although in doing so frequently intruded upon Kazakh land. Yet the Emperor was to make no territorial claim; what is more, he acknowledged the legitimacy of Аbylai Khan's title and repeatedly invoked his help against the Russians.

For Abylai Khan to accommodate both his powerful neighbours - or play off оne against the other - called for sustained skill and constant manoeuvering, which he conducted brilliantly. While preserving a formal allegiance to the Russian empire, Abylai Khan frequently sent his envoys to China to request their help against Russian colonial intrusion.

At the same time, Abylai Khan took steps to unify all territory occupied by Kazakh people. In 1740, the majority оf clans of the Great Juz had sworn on an oath of loyalty to their own Abilmambet Khan. On Abulkhair's acceptance оf Russian protection, many of the clans of Middle Juz came to seek union between Abilmambet Khan and Abylai, who in any case worked in close harmony. In 1759 the Tzarist administration proposed to Abylai that he replace Abilmambet and become the new, single Khan of all the Kazakhs, promising their support for him accordingly; the great man refused, while remaining the dominant figure. It was only on his death in 1781 that Abylai Khan achieved symbolic acknowledgement as the single leader and champion of the Kazakh people. This was when, at his burial in the mosque of Ahmed Yassavi, his body was ceremonially raised above great concourse of mourners on a felt sheet. The event captured the Kazakhs' collective imagination to become the sustaining symbol of their potential unity and independence.

In the late eighteenth century, Russian colonial policy towards Kazakhstan was to become much more assertive and overbearing. The days of any presumption of Kazakh autonomy were numbered.