- Transimperial Muslims, the Modernizing State, and Local Politics in the Late Imperial Volga-Ural Region
The Volga-Ural region has been a focal point of the historiography on Russian imperial policies toward the multiconfessional borderlands. With its diverse Slavic, Turkic, and Finno-Ugric populations made up of Orthodox, Muslims, and animists, the region emerged as a critical battleground of sorts during the second half of the 19th century, when imperial traditions of tolerance seemed to jostle and compete with modernizing trends that were moving the [End Page 417] country toward ever greater homogeneity and administrative rationalization.1 The result was a complicated ambiguity. On the one hand, the region came to be seen as a would-be crucible of Russianness, a place where the Russian nation (supposedly) had to stand tall and defend itself against a raft of competing nation-building projects. Yet on the other, it was also very much a site of revealing cross-cultural, even cosmopolitan observation. Despite the increasing hostility of Orthodox missionary scholarship to Islam, the region remained one of the empire's most important provincial workshops for Oriental studies, a place where the country's scholars looked outward and produced "scholarship that implicitly valued the East as a source of wisdom and learning."2
Indeed, the Volga-Ural region constituted the northernmost edge of a vast expanse of Islamic civilization, interacting with the Ottoman Empire, South Asia, the North Caucasus, the Kazakh steppe, and Central Asia. Volga-Ural Muslim scholars ('ulamā') composed exegeses of classical literature related to law, theology, Sufism, and history, working through a range of educational centers with links to still other centers well beyond the region.3 Interplay with the Orthodox state invariably led Volga-Ural Muslims to modify their religious and communal practices over time as well as their view of "infidel" rule, which ultimately helped mold a distinct Muslim national identity by the beginning of the 20th century.4 Furthermore, the Volga-Ural region served as a significant point of reference during the late imperial era for Russian bureaucrats and Muslim intellectuals from other regions, and it plays a similar role today for scholars interested in questions about the [End Page 418] comparative history of Muslim societies under Russian power and the rule of other European empires.5
At this point a division of labor of sorts has evolved in the historiography, with historians falling into two rough groups. One set of scholars has emphasized work in Russian sources, including documents from central and regional archives, to elucidate the relationship between Muslim subjects and the imperial state. In the process, they have revealed a rich landscape of close Muslim engagement with and incorporation within imperial institutions. The scholarship of Robert Crews, with his effective use of Turkic sources, has been especially important and influential in this regard. Another scholarly cohort, meanwhile, has focused primarily on Turkic and Arabic materials and has suggested a different if not expressly opposite picture of substantial Muslim autonomy vis-à-vis the imperial order, in particular in the areas of intellectual and religious life. We have thus ended up with a somewhat indeterminate picture of the state's role in shaping Muslim life and Islamic orthodoxy during the imperial era. Is it possible to reach a more holistic picture of Muslim-state interactions (and generate new research questions as well) if we reassess what we know so far? Could these seemingly opposite methodologies be usefully combined or somehow wound together?
Marvelously supplementing one another, the four impressive books under review here indeed manage to do this...