While the goal of this article—to offer a new interpretation of the causes and meaning of an event in Kazakh history subject to much mythologizing in contemporary Kazakhstan—is greatly welcomed, the author does not really advance scholarship (as weak as that is on the subject) and instead opens himself to harsh criticism because of his poor use of sources, sloppy presentation, lack of a viable historical framework for making his claims, and largely unsubstantiated conclusions. The article does have its strengths. It clearly argues against the conclusion that the events of 1837-47 can in any way be construed as a “national-liberation movement,” as present-day official Kazakhstani historiography will have us believe. It argues that there was, in fact, no mass support behind Kenesary’s leadership (while I agree with this claim, the author should provide more evidence to substantiate it fully). The article is also useful as a platform for refuting many claims about Kazakh history made in Martha Brill Olcott’s The Kazakhs (1986) and other overused and under-researched Western sources that have gone unchallenged for far too long.
While Malikov is quick to critique the conclusions of other historians, he is insufficiently rigorous in building his own alternative arguments. Curiously (in light of the binary offering in the title), Malikov insists that the rebellion was neither a piece of Kazakh nation-building nor an attempt to restore a glorified past. Instead, he asserts that Kenesary was a “moderniser” and through various reform efforts, his goal was “the creation of a new type of state without precedents in Kazakhstani history” (p. 570). This is a bold claim, made extremely difficult to accept for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that nowhere in the article does he provide a definition of what “modern” and “moderniser” might have meant in the mid-nineteenth century Kazakh steppe of the Russian Empire. Toward the very end of the article it finally becomes clear that “modern” has to do with forming a centralised state with an “omnipotent” khan, central collection of “taxes,” and the abandonment of various legal and other “traditions” in the name of central control under Kenesary’s lead. These efforts caused opposition from increasing numbers of Kazakhs, especially clan leaders who resented attacks on their traditional powers and customs, and the rebellion failed.
What is most problematic about this article is the absence of adequate analysis of the various relationships out of which Kazakhs in the nineteenth century were struggling to assume power over each other and maintain that power (but also losing it); there is no explication of nomadic society and nomadic empire building and how these foundations shaped Kazakh political culture. The author misses numerous opportunities to put Kenesary in the context of many other disgruntled Kazakh Chinggisids who sought to take advantage of the realities of Russian rule and/or of China as patron, even while they resisted both. Kenesary had to navigate an extremely complex political landscape, which included other Sultan/Chinggisids (who also proclaimed themselves Khan!), clans whose clientage he sought and needed, an expanding Russian Empire, other neighbouring states and polities, the possibility of personal enrichment through control of trade routes, among other factors. Malikov discusses these issues only as they demonstrated opposition to Kenesary personally, and not as part of a larger backdrop for interpreting how the Kazakh steppe was changing and struggling to adapt to Russian rule. Without this backdrop, the assertion that Kenesary was a “moderniser” remains meaningless, his place in history incomprehensible.