Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca

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 Russian Hajj Empire And The Pilgrimage To Mecca
  • Book Author:
Eileen Kane
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Introduction Russia as a Crossroads of the Global Hajj

In the late nineteenth century Russia took on a new role in the world: patron of the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Citing its policy of religious toleration, the tsarist government subsidized transportation for Muslim pilgrims on Russia’s railroads and specially outfitted “Hejaz steamships,” and built a cross-border network of facilities along their routes between Russia and Arabia.

 It created special passports for hajj pilgrims and passed new laws to protect them during their long-distance travel. By the early 1900s the tsarist government had built a sprawling, transimperial hajj infrastructure that spanned Russian, Ottoman, Persian, and Indian lands.

 One of the architects of this infrastructure, foreign ministry official N. V. Charykov, described it as a system of “cut-rate steamship service through Constantinople,” organized with the “active participation” of Russian consuls abroad to ensure safety, comfort, and low costs for Muslim pilgrims.1

An Orthodox Christian state, Russia would at first glance seem an unlikely supporter of the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, and a sacred Muslim ritual. In imperial Russia the ruling Romanov dynasty embraced Eastern Orthodoxy as its official faith.

Orthodox tsars claimed divine right to rule, and the Russian Orthodox Church enjoyed prestige and legal privileges as the empire’s “preem-inent” church. From the late eighteenth century, Russian tsars claimed to be the “protectors” of global Orthodoxy—the mid-nineteenth-century Crimean War was fought largely on these grounds—as part of Russia’s self-fashioning as heir to the Byzantine imperial tradition, and its competition with Britain and France for influence over Christian populations in the disintegrating and increasingly weak Ottoman Empire.

But the tsar’s Orthodox imperial rhetoric concealed an important truth: nineteenth-century Russia was not uniformly Orthodox, but a multiethnic and multireligious empire. This was the result of centuries of aggressive Russian imperial expansion that began in the fifteenth century, much of it into former Mongol lands, and at Ottoman and Persian expense.

 The greatest land empire in world history, the Russian Empire circa 1900 held within its borders large and internally diverse Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish communities, and especially large Muslim populations. Much has been written about imperial Russia’s five-million-strong Jewish population (a result of the strong émigré presence in the field), but far less attention has been paid to its more numerous Muslims.

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An 1897 census revealed that Muslims were the empire’s second largest confessional group overall, after Orthodox Christians. No monolithic community, imperial Russia’s Muslims were internally divided by religious beliefs and culture, language and geography.

They included Sunnis and Shiʿis, sedentary and nomadic peoples, and dozens of ethnicities that spoke various Indo-European, Semitic, and Turkic languages. They lived in eighty-nine provinces and territories of the empire (in addition to the semi-autonomous protectorates of Bukhara and Khiva), above all in the Volga-Ural region and Siberia, Crimea and the Caucasus, the Kazakh steppe and Central Asia.

By the turn of the twentieth century, at its greatest territorial extent as an empire, “Orthodox” Russia ruled far more Muslims than the neighboring “Muslim” Ottoman Empire—twenty million, compared to fourteen million.2

Through its dramatic conquests of Muslim lands and peoples, Russia became integrated into global hajj networks. By the nineteenth century, long stretches of ancient Eurasian caravan routes that had been forged in earlier centuries under Muslim rulers, and had long served as hajj routes to Mecca, now lay within the Russian Empire’s borders. This made the hajj a diplomatic issue in Russia’s dealings with its Muslim neighbors to the south. In the early nineteenth century, Persian and Bukharan rulers routinely petitioned Russia’s tsars, as a matter of their own legitimacy and authority, to allow their subjects access to these routes in making the Meccan pilgrimage. Russia’s tsars, for their part, often honored these requests, and assumed ad hoc a role historically performed by Muslim rulers—that of patron and “protector” of the hajj—securing routes for hajj pilgrims through their realm, and subsidizing their travel to Mecca.

Tsars did this with an eye toward developing economic and diplomatic ties with their Muslim neighbors. It is impossible to know how many Muslims made the hajj through Russian-ruled lands before the nineteenth century; most would have gone undetected by tsarist authorities, whose presence was light in Russia’s vast expanses.

 But surely the hajj happened on a small scale. Long dis-tances, high costs, and the dangers and uncertainties of travel limited Muslims’ access to Mecca before the modern era.3

This situation changed with Russia’s construction of a modern transport net-work inside its empire. Russia built this network very quickly over the second half of the nineteenth century, following its humiliating defeat in the Crimean War (1853–1856), and as part of a rapid “modernization” campaign that aimed, among other things, to develop Russia’s domestic economy and foreign trade.

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It comprised a dense web of railroads that linked disparate regions of the empire (and drastically shrank distances between them), and connected to brand-new steam-ship lines that operated out of Black Sea ports. In Russia, as elsewhere, the intro-duction of railroads and steamships reorganized and accelerated existing patterns of human movement.4

 Nowhere was this more apparent than in the case of the hajj. If previously the Meccan pilgrimage had occurred on a small scale within Russia, it was suddenly a mass phenomenon in the late nineteenth century. Tens of thousands of Muslims made the hajj through Russian lands every year—tsarist subjects as well as those from Persia, Afghanistan, and China—most by way of the Black Sea.

 Russia’s conquests of Muslim lands and peoples, and its mobility revolution, had, in effect, transformed the empire into a crossroads of the global hajj. To manage the mass hajj traffic moving through its empire and across its borders, Russia began to systematically support the pilgrimage to Mecca.

This book tells the story of how Russia assumed the role of hajj patron in the late nineteenth century, as part of its broader efforts to manage Islam and integrate Muslims into the empire. It explores Russian involvement in the Meccan pilgrimage in cross-border perspective, and reveals how, in the era of mass mobility, the imperial project of governing and integrating Muslims took on global dimensions.

Challenging stereotypes about entrenched Islamophobia in the tsarist regime, and Russian officials’ attempts to block Muslim movement abroad for fear of Pan-Islamism, it demonstrates that Russia, in fact, facilitated and even increased Muslim mobility abroad in the late imperial period by sponsoring the hajj.

I argue that it did this not only, or even primarily, to control its Muslims or keep them under surveillance while abroad, but ultimately in an attempt to co-opt the mass migratory phenomenon of the hajj, and exploit it as a mechanism of imperial integration and expansion.

The focus of my story is the hajj infrastructure that Russia built between the 1840s and the 1910s, and that the Soviets revived in the late 1920s. By using the term infrastructure I do not mean to suggest a static structure, but instead a flexible, evolving system that changed dramatically over time, in line with the tsarist regime’s growing understanding of the geography of hajj routes connecting Russia to Arabia, and hajj pilgrims’ ever-shifting itineraries and preferences for routes.

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Anchored by a constellation of Russian consulates located in hubs of hajj traffic, and along popular Russian routes to Mecca, at its greatest extent in the early 1900s it included outposts in Odessa and Jeddah, Bombay and Baghdad, Constantinople and Karbala.

It might be tempting to think that the idea for Russia’s hajj infrastructure came from high-level meetings of tsarist officials sitting around map-strewn tables in St. Petersburg, and was decreed by the tsar. But this was not the case.

 Instead, it grew out of improvised encounters between Russian officials and Muslim pilgrims, both inside the empire and in spots abroad, and from Muslim pilgrims requesting and in some cases demanding help from Russian officials in making the hajj.

 Hajj pilgrims ultimately determined the geographic shape the infrastructure took. As more than one Russian official conceded, pilgrims themselves decided which routes to take, and whether or not to avail them-selves of Russian services along these routes.

And so this infrastructure was very much in flux throughout this period, as railroad construction in Russian and Ottoman lands reorganized the traffic and lured pilgrims to new routes, and Russian officials studied the traffic to build new services around it.5

Until recently, scholars tended to gloss over Russia’s 500-year history of ruling Islam, and Muslims were often left out of standard accounts of Russian and Soviet history.6 This neglect stems in part from practical and ideological constraints on Cold War–era scholars, which made it nearly impossible to study the history of Islam in the Soviet Union or its predecessor, the Russian Empire, during the second half of the twentieth century.

The Soviet government discouraged work on the subject, and blocked foreign researchers’ access to archives as well as travel to Muslim regions. Many Western historians, for their part, accepted Soviet rhetoric about having eliminated religion, and pursued other topics.7

Neglected by scholars, Russia’s Muslims dropped out of sight: they went missing from narratives of Russian imperial history, and featured little in histories of Islam and European colonialism. Only since the 1990s, when the USSR unexpectedly broke apart into fifteen separate nation-states—six with Muslim majorities—have Russia’s Muslims “reemerged” as a subject of scholarly study.8

Taking advantage of newly opened archives and manuscript collections, scholars in recent years have written works that offer important insights into

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