‘Turks across Empires: Marketing Muslim Identity in the RussianOttoman Borderlands, 1856-1914,’ By James H. Meyer
James Meyer’s “Turks across Empires” is a very valuable and intriguing reassessment of the origins of pan-Turkism through an in-depth examination of some of its leading figures, most importantly Yusuf Akçura, Ahmet Ağaoğlu and Ismail Gasprinskii. Since this reviewer works on Soviet, Russian and Turkish politics with a focus on the politics of ethnicity and nationalism, it was a great pleasure to read this book, which sparked many comments and suggestions for further research. Meyer’s book is “revisionist” in the sense that it successfully challenges many assumptions and arguments in the study of Russia’s Muslims and panTurkism. What clearly emerges is that key figures such as Akçura and Gasprinskii did not aspire to an independent Turkic state but rather for most of their lives strived for cultural autonomy and equal citizenship for Russian Muslims within a pluralistic, constitutional order in Russia.
What enabled the existence of the “trans-imperial people,” as Meyer describes the future panTurkist activists in the title of the first chapter, was the widespread existence of “double subjecthood” under conditions of porous borders, whereby thousands of Russian Muslims could and did spend many years in the Ottoman Empire while retaining their Russian passports, simultaneously becoming Ottoman subjects and returning to Russia whenever it served their interests (p. 30-31). Thus, Akçura arrived in İstanbul as a seven-year-old with his widowed mother and yet 20 years later, he was able to go back and settle in Russia, since he never lost his status as a Russian subject (p. 42-3). The most extensively discussed figure in the book, Akçura has a biography that is somewhat typical of most other “trans- imperial” Muslims who became future pan-Turkists. Born to a notable provincial family in Ulyanovsk -- which was then known as Simbirsk -- and maternally related to the prominent Yunusov family of Kazan, Akçura grew up in İstanbul and was educated to become an officer in the Ottoman army, but was exiled to Libya for sedition. He fled to Paris via Marseille, where he studied law and politics at the Sorbonne for four years, whereon he returned to his homeland, Russia. Once back in Russia, he had an extraordinary cultural capital that was highly unusual for a Russian Muslim, being literate in multiple languages including French in addition to possessing a world-class education and experience in many foreign countries (p. 84). At that time, most Russian Muslims were not even literate in their native language and few of them knew Russian, the official language of the country they were living in. Gasprinskii and Ağaoğlu also have similar life stories that drove them far away from their provincial birthplaces in Crimea and the Caucasus to political and intellectual centers such as St. Petersburg, İstanbul, Cairo and Paris.
Following such a “transimperial” grand opening, beginning in Chapter 2 (“Insider Muslims”), the book narrows its focus to what Meyer labels “central Russia,” corresponding to a series of towns with significant Muslim -- and in particular Volga Tatar --
FIGURES SUCH AS AKÇURA AND GASPRINSKII DID NOT ASPIRE TO AN INDEPENDENT TURKIC STATE BUT RATHER FOR CULTURAL AUTONOMY FOR RUSSIAN MUSLIMS