This paper is a featured review of three recent monographs written by three American historians of Islam in imperial Russia. These books propose unusual approaches and topics that give readers a more accurate insight into what Muslimdom really meant in late tsarist Russia. Previously scholars focused chiefly on the topics of Muslim resistance to Russian expansion, and controversies between Islamic “reformism” (jadidism) and “traditionalism” (qadimism). These problems were of great importance for specific Muslim regions in limited historical periods, but they do not exhaust all the diversity of topics concerning Islam in the imperial context. Taking Islam and the Russian Empire for natural antagonists, such a vision relied on the Orientalist approach representing Islam as a homogeneous and timeless entity opposing all non-Muslim cultures. New studies of imperial Russia’s Muslims look more at the interaction of Muslims with the Russian state and society and their changing religious identities. What ties together these very different books? Their focus is on the Volga-Ural region and the period of the late imperial transformation between the Crimean military campaign and the World War I. Sometimes they share primary sources of Russian and native origin. The Campbell’s monograph concerns the question of what imperial polity did about imperial Russia’s large Muslim population. Tuna and Kefeli’s works concentrate on Muslim answers of imperial challenges of confessional governance and religious conversion.
This book’s claim to difference is its focus on “how people lived” and it clearly achieves this goal in a concise but holistic English-language account of Siberian history. It is not quite social history but rather a depiction of the pragmatic aspects of life. Janet M. Hartley covers housing, diets, and coping with long-distance travel in conjunction with key historical events from Yermak Timofoyevich’s expedition in the 1580s and Mikhail Speranski’s reforms of the 1820s to Soviet socialism. Equally important, the book does not aim to be comprehensive but to provide a sense of the diversity of ways of life in different locations (villages, towns, garrisons); among different population groups (Cossacks, exiles, explorers, missionaries, Soviet workers, and academics); and around projects such as railway construction, collectivization, and the making of the new Soviet citizen.
Review of the book