Muslims & Modernity in Imperial Russia


A review of Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Inroads of Modernity, by Mustafa Tuna.

Before 1917, Muslim intellectuals in Russia’s Volga-Ural region (today’s Tatarstan and Bashkortostan) sought to modernize their communities through cultural improvement, with the concrete goals of creating European-style schools, newspapers, and literature. But is cultural development enough to create a modern nation? Mustafa Tuna concludes in his dissertation, “Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Inroads of Modernity,” that the considerable efforts of a small group of people in the cultural sphere were negligible when compared to structural changes in trade and governance. Integrating economic, social, intellectual, and political history of Volga-Ural Muslims over the long nineteenth century, Tuna depicts the processes by which “modernization” transformed a small elite of Muslims into a Russian-style intelligentsia, but failed to reach the peasant majority of the population.

Tuna begins his dissertation with a description of what he calls “the Muslim domain” of the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. During this period, the institutionalization of the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly created practical autonomy for certified ulema, Muslim religious leaders, in cultural and religious affairs. This spiritual and political ruling class connected peasants with the larger Muslim world through pilgrimage, trade, and study in the centers of Islamic learning. Tuna thus depicts an intellectual and spiritual realm mostly independent from the European ideas influencing Russia’s ruling elites. Nonetheless, Tuna sees the codification of Muslim autonomy as “the beginning of modernization for Russia’s Muslims[,] since Catherine II’s policies regarding Muslims were related to her ideas about enlightened despotism, which, in turn, had developed out of her interest in the European Enlightenment” (p. 43).

The status quo of a loyal but largely autonomous Muslim sphere within the Russian Empire began to change with the imperial reforms of the 1860’s. Beginning in this period, bureaucrats and missionaries increasingly sought to encroach on Muslim self-administration, especially in education. Tuna’s second chapter analyzes attempts by the state to enforce a Russian-language requirement in Muslim schools, perceived by Muslim peasants as a covert attempt at Christian proselytization. Although the standardization of Russian-language education in Muslim classrooms largely failed (in 1895 there were only eight Russo-Muslim schools and six Russian-language classes in the Kazan Guberniia for a population of 621,000 Muslims), the Imperial state’s tepid reform efforts actually did lead to a recognition among Muslims of the utility of the Russian language in defending themselves with letters and petitions against state intrusion into their cultural and educational autonomy.

In addition to the state, the first reforms in Muslim education came from the top tier of Muslim merchants, who were profiting from growing trade between Central Asia and Europe. Tuna’s third chapter gives a brief history of the Tatar merchantry and summarizes literature on changes in Russian and global economic history during “the first globalization boom.” He then illustrates the impact of these transformations through a case study of the Hüseynov brothers, the most successful Tatar merchants of the nineteenth century and patrons of reformed Muslim education.

The handful of schools teaching Russian and Western science alongside more traditional subjects produced a new secular elite among Russian Muslims, whose career opportunities for the first time were not tied to becoming ulema. Tuna’s fourth chapter details the creation and content of these schools, while chapter five explores how the new elite attempted to interact with the predominantly rural Muslim community, especially through literature and education. Tuna concludes that the increasing secularism of the Muslim elite discredited them in the eyes of devout peasants.

The final chapter of Tuna’s dissertation is a study of how Russian imperial officials in the Orthodox Church and Ministries of Education and Interior interpreted intellectuals’ reform attempts, growing increasingly worried about the threat of a pan-Islamic or pan-Turkic rebellion against Russian Imperial hegemony. Selectively reading the Turkic-language press for evidence of separatism, Russian officialdom created a paranoid echo chamber in which cultural improvement was interpreted as an Ottoman/Islamic plot. While this might seem like a digression from Tuna’s focus on the Russian Muslim experience of modernization, it is important in showing how both later Soviet officials and historians continued to overestimate the influence of the Western-educated Muslim elite on their coreligionists. The concluding parts of this chapter provide essential nuance to a story of Imperial repression versus national awakening: Not all Tsarist officials were Islamophobes; Muslim reformers imagined the improvement of their communities within the framework of the Empire; a vocal proponent for restrictions on Muslim education – both reformed and traditional – was married to a Muslim woman.

Tuna’s dissertation builds on previous work, especially that of Robert Crews on the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly, Robert Geraci on the Russian imperial bureaucracy in the Volga-Ural region, and Allen Frank on Muslim institutions in Russia. In examining this history through the lens of “modernization” over the period of a century and a half, Tuna is able to parse which factors were most transformative within Russia’s Muslim community, such as increased mobility of goods and ideas, and which factors have been exaggerated beyond their actual influence, such as the rhetorical enjoinders of Muslim intellectuals for unification of the Turkic/Islamic world.

Tuna offers a wide perspective on the lessons to be drawn from the history of partial modernization among Muslims in the Russian Empire: “the alleged contradiction between Islam and modernity appears simply as the failure of the unfounded expectations of politicians and intellectuals who demand Muslim societies to modernize before the transformation of their environmental circumstances (the infrastructure in Marxist terms)” (p. 42). And yet, Tuna points out, forced industrialization is not the answer either, as the Soviet experience of this same region testifies. What might have happened if world events had not interfered and Russian Muslims had continued policies of cultural enlightenment without industrialization or military mobilization? Tuna offers as a potential counterfactual the history of Republican Turkey, whose founders had similar aspirations of cultural transformation through education. While considerable resources and efforts were spent on secularizing and modernizing Turkish citizens, only among the urban elite was this process actually successful. “Modernization” for the rest of the population did not come until the rapid urbanization of the 1980’s, and even then the results did not match reformers’ secularizing expectations.

Elizabeth Bospflug
Yale University
PhD Candidate
Department of History

Primary Sources

National Archive of the Republic of Tatarstan
Central Asian Serials from Late Imperial Russia (microfilm collection)
Biographical dictionaries, autobiographies, and other published material

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2009. 396 pp. Primary Advisor: Stephen Kotkin.

Image: Ufa Bashkir Mosque. Photograph by IlshatS, Wikimedia Commons.