by Paolo Sartori, Vienna and Pavel Shabley, Kustanay

Mikhail Pervukhin was born in 1813 in the Vyatka governorate into a family of company officers. His father first worked as a postal officer in Sarapul, then changed his occupation and moved to Kazan to serve the Treasury Chamber as a secretary. In 1831, Mikhail graduated from the 1st Kazan Gymnasium and entered the University of Kazan where he pursued the study of Oriental languages. His curriculum studiorum was a mixed success: he did well in his favorite subjects (Arabic, Tatar and Persian), but rather poorly in French and Latin.

What was in wait for graduates of the Oriental Studies Department in Kazan? To become a translator in the colonies was a financially unattractive prospect, and therefore young graduates usually pursued a career at the service of the ministries in the metropole. This tendency complicated things in the Russian East: lacking staff members with Orientalist credentials, on 15 December 1845 the Governor of Orenburg turned to the University of Kazan with the request to supply candidates for a position of translator from Tatar. No one applied and the university resolved to dispatch to Orenburg a certain Chernyshev, a student of Armenian. Although he never studied Tatar, he had claimed some knowledge of it when he first enrolled at the gymnasium: Tant pis for translations!

With many leaving their field of specialization after graduation, the empire took measures to regulate the career and employment of would-be Orientalists. One such measure involved offering fellowships for students at the University of Kazan, but obliging them to serve at least for six years in governmental appointments after graduation.

As a student, Mikhail Pervukhin too was supported by the state and expected to go where he was told after finishing his studies. So, from 1835 to 1836 he taught Tatar at the gymnasium in Kazan and did so for free. But in 1836 he got lucky: attention to the teaching of Oriental languages increased at governmental level and this allowed Pervukhin to change his status and be appointed to the position of senior lecturer of Arabic with a salary of 1375 rubles a year. He now belonged to a distinguished Orientalist circle which counted Alexander Kazembek, né Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali, the doyen of Islamic Studies in Russia, and Alexander Popov, then professor of Mongolian, among others.

Pervukhin was held in great esteem by Kazembek. When the latter left Kazan for St. Petersburg during the spring semester in 1837, Kazembek requested that his position should be entrusted to our Pervukhin on account of his “excellent knowledge of the Tatar language,” a request that the gymnasium accepted. Pervukhin’s academic activities expanded beyond his teaching duties. In 1838 he prepared a textbook of Arabic grammar for publication. Though reviewed positively, the manual required major revisions to meet the needs of the students, claimed Kazembek. There is no information that Pervukhin managed to complete this work. One project that he was able to implement, however, was the publication in 1840 of a Turkish-Tatar-Russian dictionary.

By the age of 27, Pervukhin was fully integrated into the local academic environment, admired by his students, and respected by his peers. But things suddenly took an unexpected turn. In 1840, he left the gymnasium in disgrace. In fact, Pervukhin had amassed debts for a total of 1,500 rubles, i.e., a sum of money that topped one year of his salary. We do not know whether it was gambling and debauchery that took him down on a slippery slope. What we do know is that, unable to secure repayment from him directly, his creditors turned to the management of the gymnasium, which decided to deduct the money from his salary. Such a new burdensome position weighed heavily on Pervukhin, who decided to leave Kazan for a better future. The Kazakh Steppe was his ticket for salvation. He first decided to break with teaching and in June 1841 he found a job as a clerk with the district forester in Yelabuga (Vyatka province). But he did not last there long. Impatient to find something that would fit better his ambitions, he resigned in December of the same year. In 1842, he moved to Orenburg where he deployed his linguistic skills to his own advantage and became head of the Chamber of State Property. Two years later, in 1844, he was transferred to the military as a senior translator. Pervukhivn was also a shrewd political maneuver. Courting S. I. Matveev, an older acquaintance from the Kazan University who was now the Head of the Russian Chancellery of the Khan of the Inner Horde, Pervukhin easily gained the favors of imperial authorities in Orenburg. In 1845 he entered the Russian Chancellery of the Khan of the Inner Horde to replace Matveev.

His professional success was not destined to last, however, for his ideas diverged significantly from those of Vladmir Obruchev, the military governor of Orenburg. Indeed, Pervukhin had strong opinions about the future of the Inner Horde: he disliked the idea of Sultan Adil succeeding to his brother Dzhangir Khan, who had just passed away, and advocated instead the strengthening of the Russian presence among the Kazakhs of the Inner Horde. Obruchev, however, dismissed Pervukhin’s opinions as “exaggerated, unfounded, and biased,” opted for the preservation of the status quo (though the title of khan was abolished with the death of Dzhangir Khan). What happened between Pervukhin and Obruchev was not just an ordinary squabble among bureaucrats. It was a major fallout over matters of imperial policy regarding the Kazakhs of the Inner Horde. Obruchev requested that Pervukhin be removed from the Inner Horde and replaced by “a trustworthy official”. In 1850, he turned south towards the Kazakh steppe and began to serve as an assistant (popechitel’) at the fortification of Nikolaevskoe along the Orenburg frontier. Was such an appointment the result of a further deterioration in relations with Obruchev? It's difficult to offer a clear-cut answer, but sources suggest that such an appointment was equal to exile, basically.

Be that as it may, we know that assistants were usually tasked with the resolution of conflicts among Kazakhs, Cossacks, and Russian settlers who lived closed to the line of fortifications. In addition, these officials were instructed to monitor trade and collect taxes. Also, such assistants gathered intelligence on the situation in the neighboring Central Asian khanates. But above all, they operated as cultural agents of the empire and safeguarded Kazakhs from exposures to other Muslim communities regarded as ostensibly more profoundly Islamised. And Pervukhin enjoyed all of this. He was dispatched several times deep into the steppe to settle disputes and report on skirmishes between Kazakhs and the settlers. His services were appreciated in Orenburg, especially in the wake of Obruchev’s replacement by Vasilii Perovskii, the next military governor of Orenburg and Samara. Clearly, Pervukhin gained the favor of the new man in power, for on 10 June 1853, Pervukhin was awarded 350 silver rubles “for diligence in service”. Two months later followed another award, this time “for 15 years of impeccable service.”

In 1854, Pervukhin climbed further the professional ladder and took up the post of advisor at the Orenburg Border Commission. Pervukhin’s career’s advancements represent in fact a typical feature of the colony, where the chronic lack of professional translators and connoisseurs of things local resulted in a need for men able to “patch holes”, i.e., individuals who mastered the art of improvisation. In addition, the boredom of a life as a clerk in the back of nowhere coupled together with a rigid bureaucracy intolerant of hot-headed individuals offered a major incentive to look for a better place.

After some time, a fortunate combination of circumstances again brought promotion. From November 1854 to December 1855, Pervukhin settled in Fort Perovskii on the Syr-Darya Line to oversee affairs among Kazakhs. What was life like in the area in the 1850s, and what power did such a position entail? Located at the frontier of the Russian Empire and the Khanates of Khoqand and Khiva, the Syr-Darya valley was a complex border area dotted with military garrisons and new Russian settlements. It was also a region busy with all kinds of traffic. Trade caravans shuttling from different regions of Central Asia, Iran, and Inner Russia traversed the territory of the middle and lower reaches of the Syr Darya. In addition, the commercial and educational infrastructure of the Khanates attracted Kazakhs to the south and the Syr-Darya region was a major station from everyone traveling north to south.

Although in the 1840s - 1850s the Russian military advanced significantly into the heart of Central Asia, the situation on the Syr Darya was very much fluid in terms of decision-making. It was on account of such political fluidity and cultural complexity that the head of the Syr-Darya Kazakhs was tasked with an impressive range of duties. In order to promote a soft transformation of the Kazakh society, men like Pervukhin were expected to promote legal diversity thereby allowing for disputes to be heard according to imperial, Islamic, and customary law. They were also to protect trade caravans and spy on the political developments at the courts of the khans and emirs.

How did Pervukhin cope with such tasks? Operating in full Orientalist mode, he opted for camouflage and did so flamboyantly. This is what we can make of the account of the Russian poet Alexey Pleshcheev who saw Pervukhin dressed “in a [Central Asian] robe, wearing leather baggy-trousers (chambar), sporting a large fur hat with flaps (malakhai), while galloping with his Kyrgyz [Kazakh] detachment.” To imitate is one thing. But to command authority among the Kazakhs is an entirely different enterprise, however, especially when one has to compete against the towering figure of Efim Osmolovskii, a specialist of Islamic and customary law working for the Orenburg Border Commission whom the Kazakhs held in great esteem. This is how the poet Pleshcheev explained the Pervukhin-Osmolovskii condominium at Fort Pervoskii to colonel Dandevil’ in June 1855:

... Pervukhin is an extremely suspicious person. The Kirghiz [Kazakhs] hate him. There are terrible rumors about him, and if at least a tenth of them is true, then he is simply worthy of the gallows. But to rely on rumors isn’t safe. One thing I know for sure is that the Kirghiz [Kazakhs] are waiting for Osmolovskii as they wait for God; and I myself have often heard the elders say that it would be very bad if he did not return soon. Everyone here says that Pervukhin is corrupt; but that he is the kind of person who can wriggle out of everything is also very possible. He works for a biggie.

Once again, it is difficult to say how reliable such an assessment is. It is possible that Pleshcheev exaggerated, for he was writing in a fit of anger at Pervukhin who clearly was larger than life. Perhaps, Pleshcheev was spying on Pervukhin at request of Perovskii. Or maybe there is another way of interpreting things. It was fairly common to search for scapegoats to explain the failures in the Russian administration of the Kazakh steppe and bribery and arbitrariness were known to be pervasive problems in the colony. But who knows.

Pervukhin did not stay long in office and in 1857 he left Fort Perovskii for Orenburg. The official reason for his resignation was his illness, for he long suffered from pneumonia, says a medical report. But others say a score-settling must have been behind this new turn of affairs. With Perovskii gone, Pervukhin must have fallen out of favor with the high echelons of the Orenburg administration. From then on his fate was a slow descent into a life in which nothing important happened. For someone who wanted to rule over the Kazakhs, it must have been a monument to insignificance. Less than a year has passed since the resignation, and we now find him in the Tver province as an official in charge of food distribution. Then, we hear of another round of professional changes between 1859 and 1863, after which he is reported to have taught Tatar at a gymnasium in Astrakhan between 1863-1865. His life path ended here in 1871.