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:
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. Continue reading