Ross, Danielle, Tatar Empire: Kazan’s Muslims and the making of imperial Russia, 2020

Ross, Danielle, Tatar Empire: Kazan’s Muslims and the making of imperial Russia, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2020, 267 p.

Danielle Ross’s book is part of the ongoing renewal of the history of Islam in the Russian Empire over the past thirty years. It is distinguished by two major features compared to previous studies of the ulama and their interaction with the Russian state. The first is the diversity of the primary sources used, written in several languages and including private correspondence, some manuscript. The second is the author’s choice of an unusual chronological depth: her study goes back to the uprisings in the Volga River basin and the Southern Urals between the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

These choices of method, both documentary and chronological, allow Danielle Ross to propose an innovative historical sociology of the religious personnel of Islam in the Russian Empire throughout the history of its territorial expansion towards, in particular, the Urals and Central Asia. They also allow for a new, often very detailed, periodisation of the interrelationship between Russian authorities on the one hand and Muslim clerics on the other — a periodisation centred on the latter from the viewpoint, especially, of the evolution of their relationship to space and their ‘geographical awareness’.

The subject of the study is, in fact, a territorial colonisation movement extended over the medium term, from the 1680s to the 1910s, of the southern part of the Ural Mountains by farming communities from the Middle Volga, from the Kazan region in particular (the kazanskie tatary of Russian sources). These populations are framed by multigenerational lineages of Islamic scholars, linked by the same madrasas and the same Sufi lodges, the patronage of the same great families of philanthropists and matrimonial alliances. What distinguishes these sacred lineages of religious scholars and tomb-keepers is their role as the ‘vanguard of Russian colonial expansion’ in the liminal space par excellence constituted by the Southern Urals, while seeking to transplant their particular vision of community identity to the often nomadic populations, Bashkir and Kazakh in particular, to whom they imposed their often conflicting neighbourhood.

By focusing on the activities of this specific status group on a particularly dynamic frontier of the Russian Empire, Danielle Ross had three aims: 1) to understand how a particular Muslim society responded to Russian rule, to socioeconomic change and then to the reforms and modernisations of the long nineteenth century; 2) to reconstruct a number of historical continuities over the medium term in the confessional leadership of Muslims in Russia and, more broadly, in the Russian Empire; 3) to untangle the web of personal and clientele interrelationships between a multitude of jurists, Sufi guides, merchants, manufacturers, bureaucrats, teachers, rebels and revolutionaries — with a particular interest in the projection of the internal conflicts of a professional network of Tatar ulama from Kazan onto a much wider space.

In the background of this approach: the consideration of the different ways in which the Kazan Tatar confessional establishment, and its ramifications in the Urals, could help construct Orientalist knowledge in the late Tsarist and early soviet eras. Firstly, as a colonised community, which was itself a protagonist of colonisation, but increasingly distrusted by imperial authorities. Secondly, because of the role that some Muslim scholars of the late nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth played in promoting the idea of an original modernisation, in a way predating the emergence of the Soviet order. Some proposed their own historical narrative, popularised from the 1920s onwards by the historical novel, in which the Tatar bourgeoisie and the reformist Jadid movement of the turn of the 20th century interface between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ — a narrative at the origin of the notion of Muslim ‘Aufklärung’ (Rus. prosvetitel’stvo), developed during the Cold War decades and taken up by Western historians.

An original feature of the counter-narrative proposed in this book is the suggestion that the reform process associated with access to modernity in the region can be traced back to a time well before the early-twentieth-century ‘Jadid’ movement. Danielle Ross dates it, instead, to the early eighteenth century, emphasising the importance in this revival of the mass production and distribution of religious texts, which was facilitated by the increasing reduction in the price of paper and the concomitant spread of printing in Arabic script. She shows how the spread of printing and cheap paper contributed to the development of education, while at the same time fostering various expressions, old and new at the same time, of Islamic religiosity.

The book discusses, too, the multiple factions that made up the network of Kazan ulama in the eighteenth century. It shows how the constant quarrelling over the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly, inaugurated in 1789, long limited the ability of the imperial government to use the Assembly as the instrument of control it was intended to become. The core of the study is devoted to the so-called Machkara network, named after a village in the Malmyzh region on the Viatka River basin, whose key figures headed a significant number of the most influential mosques and madrasas in the Middle Volga and the Southern Urals in the nineteenth century. Following the work of historian Allen J. Frank, the author discusses the role of two of these figures, Shihab al-Din Marjani and his pupil Husayn Fayzkhan, in developing an innovative historical narrative that challenges an older local historiography focused on the Islamisation narrative.

A special chapter is devoted to the role of the counter-elite constituted, at the turn of the twentieth century, by the young scholars on the margins of the Machkara network in the instrumentation of jurisprudential reform, literalist theology and then ethnic nationalism to conquer the leadership of the community. Another, to the way in which the resounding trial of the Izh-Bubi Madrasa in 1911-12 highlighted the growing incompatibilities between the Tatar and Russian projects of cultural imperialism towards Central Asia. The book concludes with a presentation of the political and nation-building projects of the Tatar Muslim intelligentsia in Kazan after the February Revolution of 1917. These are presented as a continuation of the past experiences of this intelligentsia, an intermediary of empire on the Russian border of Central Asia and a self-proclaimed herald of Muslim modernity.

The book is a very attractive read, made up of short chapters clearly written. Despite the use of a scholarly transliteration (not always extremely coherent), it remains accessible to non-specialised audiences. Always focused on particular figures and their interactions over time (master/disciple, patron/client, Muslim cleric/Russian administrator. . .), the chronological narrative is carefully contextualised and offers the identification of a number of convincing historical hinges. The author succeeds in proposing, through the study of three centuries of history of a small number of interconnected ulama networks, a wide-ranging historical synthesis of the imperial phenomenon seen from a particular angle: that of a colonised community itself acting as an agent in the process of colonisation, through very different historical phases over a moyenne durée that shows productive in heuristic terms.

The author’s erudition and mobilisation of a wide range of sources, still rare among the historians of modern and contemporary Central Eurasian societies, are to be admired. Si are her identification and analysis of the ‘Machkara Network’, so interesting in terms of the historical sociology of the ulama in the Russian Empire and the early USSR. Our main reservations, in fact, stem from Danielle Ross’s reluctance to take up the Islamic reform as an object of study in its own right — indeed, a complex historical object if ever there was one, but one whose treatment would have made it possible to underline, too, certain historical continuities, with the Soviet period in particular.

Our second reservation is the apparent neglect by Danielle Ross of the local and international research carried out between the 1980s and the 2000s: it is suspected here of retro-projecting the Tatar progressivism of the 1920s and 30s onto the history of the long nineteenth century. This neglect of this body of works, however, leads the author to push a number of open doors. The complexity and regional diversity of the internal cleavages of Islam in Central Eurasia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had been dealt with by many an author of this period, as well as the decisive role of an interlocking of factional struggles in the emergence of the Jadid/Qadim conflict line so characteristic of the years that followed the 1905 revolution.

The historical research carried out at the end of the Soviet period could have provided the author with useful comparisons with other Muslim colonisations of the empire’s territories. Among them: that of the famous ‘Bukharans’ of Siberia (studied in the 1970s to 1990s by the Uzbek historian Hamid Ziyaev), privileged intermediaries of the Russian Empire in its relations with the Far East until the beginning of the 19th century. Some of these works could have shed light on international connections, such as the role of the Azharians returning from Cairo in the development of the generational cleavage so characteristic of the beginning of the twentieth century in Russian Islam, and in the rise of Salafist currents within the reformist movement of this period.

Stéphane A. Dudoignon


Cite this blog post
Red Gold (2022, January 11). Ross, Danielle, Tatar Empire: Kazan’s Muslims and the making of imperial Russia, 2020. RedGold. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from

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