“The overall consensus seems to be that the assimilationist policies of the tsarist state in late imperial Russia lay at the foundation of the bitterness that characterized the tsarist central state establishment’s relations with the Volga-Ural Muslims, and especially their elites… Hasty attempts to forge a nation-state out of a multiconfessional, multilingual, and multiethnic empire cost Russia its existing and functional imperial model.” – Mustafa Tuna, speaking on the theme of his manuscript “Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Islam, Empire and European Modernity, 1788-1914” (Cambridge University Press, June 2015) at a Mellon-grant supported workshop on Muslim and Jewish diasporas, held at Duke University.


With the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I last year and the 100th anniversary of the hashing out and signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement beginning this Fall, historians have been getting a lot of attention. They are being asked to explain, for example, how the conditions of that period — including the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the re-drawing of borders, and the displacement of people — shaped the modern Middle East with all its current challenges and conflicts.

The treatment and “management” of minorities during that period is instructive and essential to understanding the geopolitics of a very wide region today.

In his new book “Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Empire, Islam, and European Modernity 1788-1914” (Cambridge University Press, June 2015), Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Russian and Central Eurasian History and Culture at Duke Mustafa Tuna explores how another empire, tsarist Russia, sought to “manage” its minorities — specifically the Muslim communities of the Volga-Ural region. Looking at the period from the late 18th century through to the outbreak of World War I — a slightly earlier period — he “reveals how the Russian state sought to manage Muslim communities, the ways in which the state and Muslim society were transformed by European modernity, and the extent to which the long nineteenth century either fused Russia’s Muslims and the tsarist state or drew them apart.”

His book “ raises questions about imperial governance, diversity, minorities, and Islamic reform and in doing so proposes a new theoretical model for the study of imperial situations.”

In this interview, Tuna carries his insights about the opportunity costs of Islamophobia for imperial Russia to a broader and contemporary context.

I posed these four questions to Tuna:

You mentioned, during a workshop held at Duke a year-and-a-half ago on Muslim and Jewish diasporas, that nation-states “mobilized their material and human resources more efficiently than the conventional empires,” and that achieving this efficiency seemed to call for building uniformity. How was Tsarist Russia influenced by this perception in its own assimilationist policies and did these policies backfire?

Mustafa Tuna

The emerging nation-states of the late-nineteenth century, such as Germany and Italy but also America and the metropoles of the French and British empires, mobilized their material and human resources more efficiently than the conventional empires. Russia was one of those conventional empires and especially in the wake of the Crimean War, Russian imperial agents painfully recognized the need to compete with the emerging nation-states — the harbingers of what came to be called the modern era.

Contemporary observers considered relative homogeneity as one of the features of nation-states that boosted their efficiency. Empires were not homogeneous, and they did not need to be homogeneous. They were built to accommodate diversity. Indirect governance was one of the measures that enabled empires to accommodate diversity: the state interacted with its subjects through the notables of various communities as opposed to contacting and interacting with each and every subject directly. At a very fundamental level, this was a form of power-sharing and it required the state to constantly balance its central interests with the demands and interests of local notables and communities. Equality was not an ideal. Rather, the state and notables constantly negotiated the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of each community with reference to the specific circumstances of that community.

A concrete example of this might be universal conscription. In a conventional empire universal conscription would not be an ideal and it could not be implemented either. Some groups would remain exempted in return for loyalty or something else that the imperial state sought. Other groups would carry the burden, because they were not powerful enough to avert service or because they already identified with the state to accept military service as a fair duty. Another aspect of this diversity was its ability to preserve local cultures. The state did not want or need to fit its subjects into a standard mold. Rather, it extracted from each subject group what seemed to be reasonably possible to extract from it at a given time. Nation-states, on the other hand, tended to standardize their subjects at various levels, turning them into citizens in the process. This standardization took place in both cultural and institutional levels. Citizens who spoke the same language and who identified with the nation-state through bonds of loyalty were easier to conscript and, once conscripted, to train and mobilize. Of course, I am referring to the ideal type of a nation-state here.

Even nation-states had issues of diversity as they continue to have, but relatively speaking, the nation-states operated under fundamentally different terms than the conventional empires. And in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they seemed to do better than the Russian empire, as it suffered three embarrassing defeats at the Crimean War in 1856, the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, and WWI.

Hence, the imperial agents who evaluated this situation in the wake of the Crimean War wanted to establish some level of uniformity and direct governance in the empire. For the empire’s Russian peasants, this came in the form of emancipation, which bypassed manorial lords in the governance of peasants, and in the form of popular education, which turned into a state ideal by the 1890s. For the non-Russians, assimilation or more precisely “Russification” seemed to be the choice, but this was easier said than done. “Backfiring” might be too strong a word here, but the tsarist state’s efforts to Russify its non-Russian subjects and among them its Muslim minorities certainly ran into serious roadblocks in the forms of evasion, objection, and open resistance. This was always a reflexive process. The more Muslims averted Russification, the more tsarist agents became suspicious of the empire’s Muslim population. The more suspicion these agents accumulated, the more oppressive and restrictive they became. And the more restrictive they became, the more they alienated the Muslims.

A close look at the daily experiences of Muslims living in Russia’s Volga-Ural region, which is one of the contributions of my book, and these Muslims’ interactions with less-invested and more businesslike local officials, shows that beyond this vicious circle of mutual irritation, there were opportunities for cooperation. This is where I see the opportunity cost for the empire. Anxieties derived from grand-scale geopolitical considerations and aspirations blinded the tsarist state to opportunities that its imperial structure hosted. A state of anxiety was not conducive to good governance.

What is the legacy of these policies today?

My book is not about the present. It is a historical study. I did start my research with what might be called “presentist” concerns. However, I learned early enough that good historical scholarship requires being able to engage one’s story for its own sake and in its own terms.

This does not mean that historical scholarship is not relevant to the present. To the contrary, we can learn from history at least in two ways.

First, by examining and thinking about human experiences of the past, we develop skills to understand the human experiences of our own times. This is universal. The way you learn math going through the drill of solving problems, again and again, and not only by memorizing the rules of algebra, you cannot efficiently and effectively study and understand a society only by studying abstract theories and findings of sociology and social psychology. You have to build analytic skills by studying specific cases of human experience. History is one of the places to look for such cases. In this regard, my research informs not only contemporary Russia but, to the extent that one can make the necessary connections, any society.

Take America. The questions of diversity, accommodation, and homogenization are inherently relevant to the social fabric of this nation of immigrants. Of course, today’s America is not identical either to the emerging nation-states or the conventional empires of the late-nineteenth century. It has many homogenizing procedures in place from obligatory education to a legal system that upholds the principle of equality. Politico-economic order, that is — capitalism, also induces homogenization through mechanisms of consumption. Yet historically, it has also maintained an ideal of diversity and cultural accommodation within the bounds of a larger paradigm of unity. Its social system incorporates and dissolves newcomer cultures quite efficiently at the same time as it promises to honor and preserve those cultures. When the state is accommodating — by promising to honor and preserve those cultures — minorities become less defensive of their native cultures, and especially the second and third generation citizens born to immigrant families adopt the country’s cultural and political norms more easily.

Think of it, Russians conquered Volga-Ural Muslims in the 1550s. As of the 1850s, that is three centuries later, the great majority of Volga-Ural Muslims continued to speak Turkic, barely spoke any Russian, and did not even imagine identifying themselves as Russian. They remained politically loyal to the tsarist state but they preserved their local culture and communal identity generation after generation. There were attempts to assimilate them but the ultimate goal of preserving the empire often mitigated those attempts. And regardless, the tsarist state was not capable of assimilating its Muslim subjects with the exception of a very small minority.

This is unimaginable in America. The American dream welcomes diversity and grows by incorporating newcomer cultures on the one hand and transforms them unrecognizably in a few generations on the other. The welcoming face of the immigrant nation has a lot to do with this.

Yet, from African-Americans to Catholics, from the Chinese to Hispanics, and now (very conspicuously) Muslims, America also has a xenophobic face that targets specific cultures — often based on fear and anxiety. The Russian empire’s opportunity cost of turning against its own Muslim communities as a result of grand-scale geopolitical concerns, which those communities did not create, has something to teach the xenophobes of America.

Today, many American Muslims find themselves marginalized while the American state cannot build mutually beneficial relationships with Muslim-majority countries worldwide. An ethos of containment and surveillance dominates the relations of the American state and the popular media with many Muslims living in this country — Muslims who are citizens, legal residents and neighbors. The opportunity cost is great. Many Americans converted to Islam in search of finding ways to come out of various forms of marginalization, be it racial injustice or socially predictable incarceration. While Islam, seen in this light, is an opportunity for normalization, the climate of fear and anxiety towards Muslims actually turns it into yet another route to marginalization. On the other hand, many other American Muslims came to this country as immigrants and many of those immigrants were the best of the societies that they left behind. They are engineers who have helped build America and the doctors who have helped heal it, yet they happen to be the ones who are most frequently pulled to the side for security check at airports, as a result, losing their hopes for contributing to the American dream as best as they otherwise could.

Now, going back to Russia, a second way that history can help us understand the present is by providing a background and deeper context to it. However, this needs to be done carefully. Historical context does not explain everything. Sometimes historical context is used to veil present problems. Sometimes it is used as ammunition to fight current disagreements that actually are grounded in contemporary interests. Both the Soviet and post-Soviet experiences brought today’s Russia a long way from the late-tsarist empire that I studied in my book.

Today, the Islamophobic culture of the late-tsarist empire’s elites provides a discursive frame for Russia’s officials and pundits to maximize economic interests, to galvanize Orthodox Russians’ identification with the Putin regime, and to justify geopolitical decisions with outstanding human cost for Muslims living in Russia. Problems related to the presence of Muslims in contemporary Russia would be understood better in relation to Russia’s underlining economic, political, and geopolitical problems. These problems are first a legacy of Soviet modernization and only at a distant level can they be traced to the empire. Moreover, the Soviet legacy also needs to be understood in the post-Cold War global context — where Russia’s economic well-being is embedded in the vicissitudes of energy markets and where global terrorism is largely associated with Islam.

Are the Muslims of Central Eurasia today casualties of the Russian people’s ever-increasing nationalism?

The Muslims of Central Eurasia are diverse and so are their problems. Economic backwardness compounded with dictatorship or political instability, for instance, is the cause of many a Muslim’s suffering especially in contemporary Central Asia and to some extent the Caucasus region. The Soviet Union’s planned industrialization schemes that allocated the production of raw materials to Central Asia and concentrated industry and know-how in European territories have an important role in this. Muslims from backward Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, go to Russia’s developed urban centers as temporary migrant workers, and that is where they feel the sting of increasing Russian nationalism. But the Volga-Ural Muslims actually benefited from Soviet industrialization. Their current problems can more easily be traced to the re-centralization of governance in the Russian Federation under Putin. The Volga-Ural Muslims produce relatively well and they benefited from this productivity significantly in the 1990s, but today, through taxation, Moscow appropriates a good deal of the wealth that they generate. Their freedom of cultural expression is also more limited today than it was in the 1990s, and this can be related to Russian nationalism, which seems to grow proportionally with Russia’s authoritarianism. These issues of backwardness, centralization, and authoritarianism are relevant to the problems of size-wise smaller Muslim populations, such as the Crimean Tatars and Chechens too, but their problems actually go much deeper and need to be addressed in more specific terms.

That said, we should also note that the projection of geopolitically informed fears and anxieties on specific religious, ethnic, or cultural communities, in this case the Muslims, is a significant global pretext for worsening those specific problems and impeding their successful resolution. In the late-nineteenth century, a paranoia about the global resurgence of Islam, which at the time came to be known as “pan-Islamism,” grew out of European colonial discourse and provided the pretext for the Russian public’s anxieties about the empire’s Muslims. The credibility of countries such as the Great Britain and France was so high that when British experts and French scholars said the global resurgence of Islam was a real threat (and of course we are speaking of a threat to British and French imperial interests here), it became easy for Russian officials and experts to believe and claim that Russia’s Muslims posed a threat to Russia’s interests.

Similarly, it is America’s credibility that is high today, and America’s Islamophobia informs and justifies many policies around the world that target Muslims who otherwise have nothing to do with global networks of terrorism. Russia used this global pretext to justify its decimation of Chechens in the 1990s. It continues to use it to maintain military-authoritarian regimes in small Caucasian republics. It also refers to the same Islamophobic discourse while suppressing the cultural vitality of Volga-Ural Muslims or keeping its Muslim migrant workers under subhuman conditions through containment and surveillance in urban ghettos. Similarly, the Chinese government uses the discourse of Islamophobia to suppress its Muslim Uyghur population.

Regardless of whether a global fear of Islam or its local manifestations are actually based on real threats , one needs to think about the opportunity cost of this ethos of fear and anxiety. One needs to think about to what extent Islamophobia is stoking or reifying those threats too.

How can Russia better accommodate its Muslim minority population?

Russia has more than one minority population. The Volga-Ural Muslims and their diaspora, the size-wise small Muslim populations of the Caucasus region, and the growing immigrant population come to mind first. These each have specific problems, and their specific problems call for specific solutions. I am a historian and I cannot claim the necessary expertise to offer solutions to each of those problems. However, what I have learned by studying Imperial Russia’s Muslims suggests that states are more creative and efficient when they search for opportunities and approach their minorities in a state of confidence as opposed to searching for threats and being in a state of fear-induced anxiety. It is unfortunate that most states around the world lack such confidence today. They are fearful of their Muslim minorities or, if we consider the Muslim-majority countries, the “Muslimness” of their citizens. Russia is a good example of this. Moscow could probably develop much better relations with its Muslim minorities if it moved out of this poisoned state of Islamophobia, but we cannot put the burden on Moscow alone in this. It is a global problem and what is going on in Russia is one among many of the manifestations of this global problem.


Tuna’s “Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Islam, Empire and European Modernity, 1788-1914” (Cambridge University Press, June 2015) is part of Cambridge’s “Critical Perspectives on Empire” series. It has already been released in the UK and will be available in the US in July. 


Mustafa Tuna (Ph.D. 2009, Princeton University) is Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Russian and Central Eurasian History and Culture in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University with secondary appointments in the Department of History and Duke Islamic Studies Center. His research focuses on social and cultural change among the Muslim communities of Central Eurasia, especially Russia’s Volga-Ural region and modern Turkey, since the early-nineteenth century. He is particularly interested in identifying the often intertwined roles of Islam, social networks, state or elite interventions, infrastructural changes, and the globalization of European modernity in transforming Muslim communities. “Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Islam, Empire, and European Modernity, 1788-1917” (Cambridge University Press, June 2015) is his first book. His second book project investigates the transmission and evolution of Islamic knowledge and practices comparatively in the Ottoman/Turkish and Tsarist/Soviet cases.  Tuna is married and has two sons.



ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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