Mere marginalia? Three episodes with ‘Muslim Russian Language’ in the Late Russian Empire

Olga Bessmertnaya


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The paper discusses three cases of the Russian Empire Muslims (Tatars) using the Russian language to speak about themselves and Islam. The cultural processes underlying ‘Muslim Russian’ turning into a discoursal practice, its aims and expanding functions are analyzed, as well as its links to ‘mass Orientalism’ in the Russian imperial space and the speakers’ quest of the ways to speak about Islam in Russian. The role of choosing Russian in forming the actors’ identity as expert representatives of the imagined Russian Muslim community, while they acted as colonial intermediaries and/or political oppositionists, is shown. One case is A. Baiazitov and his contemporaries’ polemics with E. Renan and the counter-Muslim (missionary, in particular) journalism in the 1890-s, which, being a response to the unifying (state-nationalist) trends in the imperial context, also shows the emergence of the space of Muslim voices in the Russian public discourse. The second case, i.e. Russian used by Muslim political activists in the times of mass politics, especially, in their private correspondence in the 1910-s, reveals its lingua franca functions in their aspirations to create a super-ethnic all-Russian Muslim community. Differently, the 3d case, which frames the paper, the handwritten notes made for himself by the Muslim reformist (jadid), journalist and oppositionist F. Karimov (Karimi) on the margins of the governmental “Journal of the Special Meeting for Elaboration of Measures to Counteract the Tatar-Muslim Influence in the Volga Region” (1910) presents the interiorization of Russian beyond its pragmatic and public functions, a situation of ‘straight’ individual multilingualism. As Russian, the language of the Russian power, served also to convey the modernist, mainly progressist discourse, the key question raised in the paper is the interaction of Islamic and modernist discourses in the Muslim Russian texts under discussion. In the polemics both with the trends of absolutizing and idealizing the modernity and of marginalizing the modernity questionnaire in the studies of Russian Islam, the notion of ‘cultural bilingualism’ is suggested, which allows depicting a coexistence of the two discourses even in the utterances that may seem purely modernist and lacking any Islamic subtext (e.g. Karimov’s marginalia). The difference in the character of cultural bilingualism between Baiazitov’s and Karimov’s texts is shown, as well as their common connection with the Islamic vision of history, which prevents their definition in pure terms of modernism vs. traditionalism. The paper is partly based on archival sources. The supplement provides fragments of Karimov’s notes, previously unpublished.


Late Russian Empire; Muslims in Russia, Russian language; mass Orientalism; Islamic discourse; cultural bilingualism; colonial intermediaries; Ataulla Baiazitov; Fatih Karimov (Karimi)


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