EDITOR’S NOTE: In a previous piece, Mustafa Tuna, Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Russian and Central Eurasian History and Culture at Duke, discussed his new book “Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Empire, Islam, and European Modernity 1788-1914″ (Cambridge University Press, June 2015) with ISLAMiCommentary — carrying his insights about the opportunity costs of Islamophobia for imperial Russia to a broader and contemporary context. Below, Tuna shares an adaptation of a talk he gave in November 2013; based primarily on the themes of the last two chapters of his book. His presentation was part of a  workshop called “Life on the Peripheries: Muslims and Jews in Poland, Imperial Russia, and the Soviet Union.” The 2013 workshop was part of Duke University’s Center for European Studies’ initiative on “Jews & Muslims: Histories, Diasporas, and the Meaning of the European.” (Supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Duke University Office of the Provost, the workshop was sponsored by the Center for European Studies, the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Duke Center for Jewish Studies, and the Duke Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies.)

The version below has been updated to include additional passages from the book, with permission from the publisher. Re-prints of this particular article are not allowed without permission of the publisher, Cambridge University Press.


by MUSTAFA TUNA for ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on JUNE 26, 2015:

Mustafa Tuna
Mustafa Tuna

In his seminal work on empires, Dominic Lieven suggests that the great empires of the second half of the long nineteenth century (1789-1914) found themselves facing a dilemma. The emerging nation-states, or the empires that could function as nation-states at least at the metropole level, mobilized their material and human resources more efficiently than the conventional empires that governed their subjects through a variety of categories, such as estates, confessions, and increasingly, ethnicities.

Efficiency called for uniformity or at least it seemed so to the imperial statesmen of the late-nineteenth century. And uniformity called for merging long-established categories into some form of a homogenous whole. However, not only was the nature of that homogenous whole unclear, but also attempting such mergers carried the strong potential of agitating the empires’ subjects. Moreover, agitated subjects could in turn agitate imperial agents, therefore leading to a state of mutual hostility.

This situation has been documented quite well in the context of the late-Russian empire and especially with regard to its Muslim subjects in the Volga-Ural region. The works of Ayşe Azade-Rorlich, Robert Geraci, Paul Werth, and Elena Campbell, for instance, stand out in this regard. One can add several Russian and Tatar-language sources to the list too. Although these scholars approach the matter with many different and sometimes contradicting agendas, 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 with their elites.

In this presentation I would like to look at the same phenomenon using the microeconomic concept of “opportunity cost” and suggest that yes, hasty attempts to forge a nation-state out of a multiconfessional, multilingual, and multiethnic empire cost Russia its existing and functional imperial model. This model was founded by Catherine the Great in the late-eighteenth century, it seems to have worked well at least until the 1860s or so, and the late-nineteenth-century attempts for achieving uniformity destroyed it. But, what was also lost in the process were opportunities for actually improving that model further without attempting the impossible task of homogenizing the empire.

I have to warn in advance that this presentation may sound like a counterfactual heresy coming from the mouth of a historian, but since this is a workshop where we float ideas to see how far they go, I will take the risk and ask you to think experimentally with me. Meanwhile, I will also try to show that the opportunity costs that I will talk about do not refer only to what could have happened. Rather, they were about what was happening parallel to the more visible hostilities even though they were not given enough room to flourish.

. . .

First, for beginners, a few highlights from the history of Volga-Ural Muslims in late imperial Russia. Around the 1880s, a minority elite among Russia’s Muslims, and especially the Volga-Ural Muslims among them, joined the global Muslim movements of reform and Westernization. This brought about a Muslim intelligentsia that branched out into many factions in a broad ideological spectrum ranging from socialism to ethnic nationalism. Yet, regardless of their political inclinations that sometimes indicated cosmopolitan concerns, most of these intellectuals targeted Russian Muslim communities in their activities. They focused on creating a Turkic-Muslim press in Russia and on introducing Westernized and somewhat secular schooling opportunities for Muslim children mainly at the elementary level, and to a lesser extent at the secondary level.

The Russian central state establishment, especially a faction in the Ministry of Public Enlightenment whose members often allied with Russian Orthodox missionaries in the Volga-Ural region, perceived these activities as a security threat. Beginning in the 1870s, Russia’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment had come up with its own version of schooling reform for Muslims and had aimed to familiarize Muslims with the Russian language as a step in the direction of further Russification. However, Muslims rejected these Russian schools and learning Russian in general for a long time, at least until the 1890s. Then, gradually, they started to feel more comfortable with learning Russian, but by then, the Muslim reformist schools already provided an alternative to the government schools. The resulting competition and the seemingly nationalist discourse of the Muslim reformists infuriated many imperial bureaucrats, especially in the central state establishment, and among their missionary allies. They were afraid of the reformist Muslim intelligentsia’s impact on Volga-Ural Muslims and the Volga-Ural Muslims’ impact on the empire’s more insular Muslim communities such as the Kazakhs.

The fears of the state-missionary alliance reached a level of paranoia after 1905. Consequently, security forces clamped down on Muslim reformists, and the central state establishment adopted a somewhat obscurantist policy toward Volga-Ural Muslims in general. Sadri Maqsûdî, a Muslim representative in the Third State Duma, would report to the duma in 1911 that only within the past year “better informed mullahs and Muslim teachers,” i.e. the reformist ones, had been subjected to criminal investigation in over 150 locations, and over seventy big Muslim schools, several newspapers and journals with large print counts, as well as several Muslim societies had been closed. There were two ways to explain this situation according to Maqsûdî:

Either the Russian government does not want us to progress and become civilized, and therefore, it wants to stop this [the Muslim reform movement] somehow, or it mistakenly assumes the presence of a movement and ideas among Muslims against the Russian state, and it wants to counter them with extraordinary measures. Both of these explanations are accurate in my opinion … The government does not want Muslims in Russia to advance and progress … In response to the question “Is there a harmful movement, a faction organized against the state among Muslims?” they [the authorities] say “Yes, there is.” and we say ‘No, there is not” (p. 204).

But of course, members of the state-missionary alliance did not believe Maqsûdî or other similar claims. Layers of official and secret reports that had accumulated over the years and that kept quoting each other repeatedly had convinced the state-missionary alliance that Russia’s Muslims were fanatically opposed to any and all Russian influences, that they had no loyalty or even allegiance to the tsar, and that they were yearning and preparing for separation. The inter-imperially circulating fears of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism in the early-twentieth century further intensified this paranoia.

In his revisionist historical snapshot of Russia in 1913, Wayne Dowler concludes that despite “severe stresses and tensions …. the clear trend before the war was toward cooperation and integration.” The state-missionary alliance’s hostility toward progressive Muslim intellectuals and the Volga-Ural Muslims in general contradicts this view. However, merely looking at the binary relations between Russia’s Muslim communities and the central state establishment cannot provide a complete account of the imperial situation that surrounded Volga-Ural Muslims by the early-twentieth century. That situation allowed for the interplay of a multitude of agents and attitudes in a multitude of encounters that incorporated, but were not necessarily dominated by the actions of the central state establishment. And in fact, the flexibility resulting from this interplay did create many opportunities for cooperation, if not so much for integration.

We have no way of knowing whether the aggregate of opportunities for cooperation or the hostility of the state-missionary alliance would have eventually defined the Volga-Ural Muslims’ long-term experience had it not been for the disruption of wars, revolutions, and Socialist restructuring after 1914. However, we still need to recognize that despite the bitterness characterizing the Russian state’s relations with Volga-Ural Muslims in the last decades of the tsarist regime, there existed opportunities for cooperation within the existing imperial model (p. 218).

Here, I will give examples of three of these opportunities, and they will be about local governance, Muslim expectations of equal treatment, and mundane encounters.

First, local governance… An apparently liberal-minded zemstvo (a type of local government) representative who chaired the educational commission of the Kazan County Zemstvo, named Baraninskii, would say this at a meeting in 1912: “In fact, there are people who claim that Muslims are seeking separation. This may be a possibility, but in my entire life, I have not seen a single Muslim involved in a separatist movement (p. 217).”

While bureaucrats and statesmen in St. Petersburg read reports about Muslims, people like Baraninskii in local bodies of governance talked to them, met them in the street. And these local bodies of governance flourished in most of the Russian empire after the Great Reforms of the 1860s and 70s. The confessional and ethnic prejudices of the Romanov regime that favored Orthodox Russians over other peoples restricted Muslim representation in such institutions.

Regions that had proportionally less Russian inhabitants did not receive zemstvo administrations or received them only in the 1910s, for instance. Even in places where Muslims constituted a substantial portion of the population and a zemstvo was established early on, such as in Kazan and in Ufa, governors — as agents of the central state establishment — often restricted Muslim participation in the deliberations of zemstvo boards. However, the zemstvo boards and other local bodies of governance, such as the city dumas (councils) or regional educational commissions, often assumed a practical and businesslike approach to the task of providing services to Muslims. As a result, Muslims engaged local bodies of governance relatively more easily.

In January 1911, for instance, three Muslim members of the Kazan city educational commission proposed opening a Russo-Muslim school for girls in Kazan’s fourth district. The Ministry of Public Enlightenment representative at the meeting was the inspector of public schools in the Kazan Gubernia, Aleksandr Sergeevich Rozhdestvin. He was sympathetic to initiatives that provided secular schooling in the Russian language to Muslims. He readily consented to the proposal, and the educational commission agreed to allocate money from its annual budget for the expenses of the new girls’ school. This allocation still needed to be sanctioned by the trustee of the Kazan Educational Circuit Aleksei Nikolaevich Derevenskii, who was the most senior Ministry of Public Enlightenment representative in the Volga-Kama region. However, when Derevenskii was informed of the project, his response was bitterly negative. He asked how a school for Muslim girls could be considered “indispensable” while Russian inhabitants in other parts of the city of Kazan lacked schooling facilities “even for boys.” However, there was some delay in correspondence and Rozhdestvin and the Kazan city educational commission opened the girls’ school before they learned about Derevenskii’s opposition. Normally, they should have waited for a final authorization, but when questioned on the matter, Rozhdestvin apologetically explained that he did not know the procedure. Meanwhile, Derevenskii left Kazan to become the trustee of the Kiev Educational Circuit, and the new school for Muslim girls remained open. Had Kazan’s Muslim notables approached the Ministry of Public Enlightenment directly to open this school, Derevenskii would have learned about their request earlier on and declined to allocate funds for it. However, the school opened and remained open thanks to the Kazan city educational commission’s involvement in the decision making process and, of course, its funds. (223-24).

Another opportunity for cooperation related to the Volga-Ural Muslims’ growing demand for equal treatment in the empire. The part that needs to be emphasized in this sentence is “in the empire.” Previously, Muslims usually preferred an insulated existence with minimum contact with the Russian state or with non-Muslims in general. In fact, the Catherinian imperial model’s allowance for leaving Muslims alone in most communal affairs helped them justify their subjection to a non-Muslim power. Now, however, they had started to demand equal rights and services from the imperial state. This does not mean that they wanted to give up their distinctions. To the contrary, they still wanted to be recognized as separate, but they also wanted to be treated as equals with the other peoples of the empire. This new approach permeated the discourse of the Volga-Ural Muslim elites—both the reformist intellectuals and others—during the Revolution of 1905 and persisted thereafter.

For instance, the Third All-Russian Muslim Congress that convened in Nizhny Novgorod in August 1906 and was attended primarily by progressive Muslim notables from all over Russia resolved to work for earning the equality of Muslims “with Russians in all aspects of all political, social, and religious rights.” Given the central state establishment’s unconcealed hostility toward Volga-Ural Muslims, the Volga-Ural Muslims often channeled their expectations and appeals for government services to the zemstvos and other bodies of local governance. Hâdi Atlâsî, a Muslim pedagogue, for instance, reported in a Turkic Muslim journal called Mekteb (School) in 1913 that the zemstvos had received two rubles for each individual living in the area of their jurisdiction in 1911 and had spent 52 kopecks out of this amount on public education. Hence, the Kazan Zemstvo had diverted to public education approximately 364,000 rubles from the taxes of near 700,000 Muslims who lived in the Kazan Gubernia. Yet, zemstvo investment in the education of Muslims had remained negligible. While Muslims had paid their taxes under the same conditions as other peoples, Atlasî concluded, they had not benefited from zemstvo services equally. He acknowledged that the zemstvo schools admitted Muslim students but on condition that the students would study the Russian language with a program that the Ministry of Public Enlightenment officials had prepared with the needs of Orthodox Russians in mind. This was not what Atlasî asked for; he wanted the zemstvos to support Muslim maktabs (elementary schools) as they supported the Russian schools (p. 219-20).

Such demands from Muslims signaled separatism to members of the state-missionary alliance, but I would suggest that they were actually signs of accepting the legitimacy of the Russian empire and its institutions. Muslims did not expect the Russian state to disappear but rather to provide services to them.

Finally, a variety of mundane encounters that spread through a broad range of life situations moderated the Volga-Ural Muslims’ experience as subjects of a non-Muslim-ruled empire. The Volga-Ural Muslims usually remained within the comfort zone of a Muslim domain, where they could confine their interactions to familiar language and practices. Yet many inventions and modern amenities that became widely available in the late-nineteenth century offered them temporal comforts outside of that Muslim domain.

In 1879, for instance, an obscure madrasa student named Ğabdurreşîd İbrâhim Nizhny Novgorod i boarded a train that took him from Orenburg to Perm in less than a day. He was on his way to Hijaz to study and he had previously covered the distance from Petropavl to Orenburg on foot. He did not know that such a thing as a train existed to travel further. An imam he met in Petropavl informed him about the newly-launched railway service, purchased a ticket, and sent him off to Perm. As other obscure Volga-Ural Muslims boarded trains, admired the urban amenities of cities such as Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod, or gradually became involved in the market revolutions of the late-nineteenth century, say, by buying rubber boots or selling surplus grain, they pushed the boundaries of their comfort zones, one amenity at a time, beyond the confines of the Muslim domain. In an article written in 1915, a prolific reformist Muslim writer from the Volga-Ural region, Rızâeddin bin Fahreddin, narrates how a prominent Islamic scholar in Kazan had threatened his congregation of not conducting their funeral services if they continued to dress in short jackets (kazakin), a particular type of fur caps (bark), and boots, which the Volga-Ural Muslims traditionally did not wear. All the same, however, Kazan’s Muslims continued to wear these new and convenient outfits that made Russians, Muslims, and everyone else look more like each other, while also attending prayers at the mosque and therefore, marking their distinctiveness as Muslims (p. 231-32).

Finally, I would like to conclude by stating that these opportunities had their limits too. For most Volga-Ural Muslims, the comfort zone that expanded beyond insulated Muslim communities through the incorporation of temporal amenities in daily life did not reach far enough to include personal relations with non-Muslims. Here, a barrier of unfamiliarity marked the limits of their integration into the increasingly more cosmopolitan Russian society. Language was an important factor causing this unfamiliarity, but even when Muslims gradually started to learn Russian at the turn of the twentieth century, speaking it remained a survival tool in an unfamiliar, unpredictable, and precarious world. And the central state establishment’s paranoid hostility toward progressive Muslim intellectuals or the Volga-Ural Muslims in general did not help them overcome this sense of precarious uncertainty. To the extent that it prevented such opportunities from bringing Volga-Ural Muslims closer to the imperial state and society, the tsarist regime’s Islamophobia — if we may refer to it with this recently popularized term — came with some serious opportunity costs.


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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