Muslims in the Russian/Soviet Empire

The historiography on the relationship between Muslims, the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union has become a cottage industry in Eurasian historical studies. A slew of books have come out in the last five years as researchers think about the reasons for the dissolution of the Russian/Soviet Empire and the state’s relationships with its Muslim subjects/citizens. Both the Chechen War and GWOT have made this interest even timelier.

There are too many books to list, and frankly my knowledge of this burgeoning topic is not as good as it should be. And that is more the reason to start putting my ear to the street and note new studies on the subject. First, for those who have access to academic journals, I point you to the Summer 2006 issue of the Slavic Review (vol. 65, no. 2). This issue features a forum called “The Multiethnic Soviet Union in Comparative Perspective.” Adeeb Khalid’s comparative essay on the Soviet and Turkish state’s relations with its ethnic groups and the applicability of postcolonial analysis is worth a read.

More accessible to readers is University of Michigan professor and specialist in Russian/Soviet nationalities, Ron Suny’s review in the Moscow Times of Stanford University professor Robert Crews’ For Prophet and Tsar. This potentially interesting new book examines the question of Russian-Muslim relations in the 18th and 19th century. Suny notes that Crews makes a novel contribution, if not a revision, of the standard story of Russian oppression of its Muslim subjects. Instead, Crews shows that while oppression did exist, the relationship between Tsar and Muslim religious elites were one of integration and collaboration. As Suny explains via Crews,

“Historians have usually depicted tsarist Russia’s treatment of its Islamic peoples as a story of repression, Russification and constant conflict between Christian rulers and their tens of millions of Muslim subordinates. That indelible image continued to color the analysis of Soviet rule of the Central Asian peoples, and conflicts like the war in Chechnya only confirm the idea of the eternal clash of Orthodox and Islamic civilizations. Stanford professor Robert D. Crews tells quite a different story in For Prophet and Tsar. He demonstrates how tsars used religion as a foundation for popular loyalty to the autocracy and as a means of disciplining and regulating the heterogeneous population of their vast realm. Religion, rather than language or nationality, was the principal identification of peoples in the empire. The law required every subject to be a member of a confessional community and to obey the clerical authorities of that community. The faiths of Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, as well as the non-Orthodox Christians — Protestants, Catholics and Armenian Apostolics — were officially recognized and integrated into the system of local governance. Over time, Muslims and others adapted to the tsarist religious regime “as a potential instrument of God’s will,” accepted (though not without contestation) the clerics sanctioned by the state and used official institutions to help regulate their own members and settle disputes among them.”

Sounds like a fascinating study and not just because it challenges our standard view of the relationship between empire and subject; it also gives us a better picture of the intersection of religion and modern practices of state efforts to regulate, subjugate, and discipline its populations. I hope to find time to read Crews’ study.