The Volga-Ural Region as a Crossroads of Eurasia:
Empire, Islam, and Nationality

By Norihiro Naganawa  

During the last fifteen years the Volga-Ural region has provided students of the Russian Empire, political science and ethnic relations with ample illustrations to challenge and remodel the paradigms that were forged during the Cold War era. Our workshop was a collaboration of veteran and emerging historians from Russia (Moscow, Kazan, and Orenburg), France, Germany, Japan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and the US. We attempted to integrate a research agenda that had developed in recent years into a new one for further elaboration. The workshop took place at the conference hall of the Research Library at Kazan State University from September 19 to 20. The conference was conducted in Russian

Our workshop covered the period from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. As Prof. Mirkasym Usmanov mentioned in his opening remarks, this was a period of Russian dominance in the long and extensive history of the region as an intersection of civilizations. First, we addressed the relevance of the Volga-Ural region as an area of research in this particular era. Charles Steinwedel cautioned against viewing the area as a unified region, especially tracing the distinguished process of integration of the local elites between the Middle Volga region and the southern Ural. At the same time he contended that the region as a whole served as a counter-model to the violent pattern of mounting ethnic and inter-confessional tensions in the western and southern borderlands of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

We also paid special attention to the dimensions where the nexus of domestic and foreign policies had molded the properties of the region. Gul’mira Sultangalieva and Mami Hamamoto illustrated how the expansion of the Russian Empire contributed to the sustainment of the modern “Silk Road” as well as to the creation of a macro-economic zone that incorporated the western Kazakh steppe into the region. In particular, the role of Tatar merchants as mediators was vital to this process. Ismail Türkoğlu depicted the Ottoman attitudes toward the Russian Muslims with fascinating Ottoman documents. Still, as Hisao Komatsu rightly commented, the use of new sources and comparisons with other Muslim societies would foster the study of interactions between the Volga-Ural Muslim intellectuals and their Ottoman counterparts. Diliara Usmanova observed that no one has yet to write about the connection between Muslim mobility and finances: what made it possible for Abdurrashid Ibrahim to travel around Eurasia? Dmitrii Arapov’s illustration of the early Soviet government and their thoughts about security revealed the link between their domestic Islamic policy and their diplomacy toward the Middle East.

The relationship between war and religion was also an important topic that our participants tackled. Scrutinizing the service of Muslims in the tsar’s army, I addressed the tension between the state’s aspiration to the national state and the imperial principle of religious tolerance on the front and the rear. It is well-known that the Great Patriotic War was the turning point for Soviet religious policy. Stimulatingly, Iskander Giliazov contended that collaborationism among Turkic-Muslim soldiers with the Nazis as well as their resistance against both the Soviet and Nazi regimes had been an expression of nationalism. Katsunori Nishiyama argued that in the Interwar period the Japanese government manipulated Russian Muslim émigré leaders in order to make “unified Muslims” serve as a weapon against western colonial powers.

We had a very fruitful discussion over the continuity and gaps between the imperial and Soviet periods. Our discussion extended to the question of the post-Soviet peoples’ attempts to regain the seemingly imperial (or even ancient) past, but with Soviet traits. We found that the paradigm of the Russian Empire as a “prison of peoples” did not work anymore even among local historians: Marsil’ Farkhshatov (this excellent expert on the education of Muslims in the imperial period came all the way from Ufa to Kazan for our conference!!) claimed that life for Muslim subjects of Russian Empire had been “too comfortable (slishkom uiutno)” when compared with life under the Soviet regime. At the same time, he cautioned Ildus Zagidullin and Il’nur Minnullin about their inclination to idealize the imperial past by asking to what extent the tsarist state intentionally committed itself to the regulation of the everyday life of Muslims. I think that a similar question should be posed concerning Soviet religious policy: did the state’s repressive decrees and measures only account for the destruction of Muslim parishes and the secularization of Muslim society? We are liable to give heed to the firmness and revival of Islam in the Soviet/post-Soviet space. But is it possible to downplay any signs or initiatives among peoples toward the fulfillment of Soviet modernity by throwing away the “old” confessional life? It seems to me necessary to answer these questions in order to monitor accurately the vitality of Islam in the post-Soviet space in general.

Curiously enough, Ildus Zagidullin, an expert on Islamic institutions of the imperial period, often used the term “Russian umma.” Of course the original meaning of “umma” in Arabic refers to the whole worldwide Muslim community. The very use of the term “Russian umma” seems to suggest a particular type of Islamic revival largely defined by the political demands of contemporary Russia in general and Tatarstan in particular. On the whole, we agreed on the necessity of interdisciplinary and comparative studies of Islam that covers both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. It will also help us detect particularities of the autonomous republics of the Volga-Ural region in comparison with the union republics of the USSR 

Participants from the Institute of History and Kazan University kindly encouraged us to make our foreign scholars’ observations available to Russia’s Muslim population. Xavier Le Torrivellec added that initiatives taken by foreign scholars could facilitate dialogues between local historians of the Volga-Ural region, as they still followed the division of labor running along the borders of the national republics. We hope that our future volume as a result of the conference will contribute to these ends.

Last but not least, we would like to show our special gratitude to the Japan Foundation, the National Institutes for Humanities, and the Islamic Area Studies Center at Tokyo University for their generous financial support.


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