One of the first volumes of the “Islam in Russia” collection directed by Prof. A. V. Malashenko (see infra No. 390, for an introduction to the global collection, my review of Islam v Dagestane by E. F. Kisriev) has been devoted to a city, Nizhny Novgorod and its region (Nizhegorodchina), usually considered peripheral on the map of Russia’s or Soviet Islam, to say nothing of the world of Islam in general. However, since the creation by V. Putin of the Volga Federal District with its centre in Nizhny Novgorod, in 2006, perceptions have changed, as well as the role played by the city’s religious personnel of Islam at the scale of the region and of the whole country. The memory of the Macarius Fair, in particular, and of the Fair of Nizhny Novgorod itself has been revived and cultivated, as well as the souvenir of these fairs’ respective role in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, then in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the seasonal concentrations of tenths of thousands of Muslim traders from the whole Russian Empire, and beyond from the Near and Middle East, first near the Macarius Monastery, then in the city’s centre. The present book, one of the first opuses devoted in Moscow to Islam in the Nizhny Novgorod region (on the research school in local history in Nizhny Novgorod itself, see notably Central Eurasian Reader 1 , review No. 59 p. 50), offers a complete historical panorama from the tenth century CE to our days.
The volume’s inner division corresponds to the norms adopted for the whole collection. A first chapter is devoted to the regional history of Islam, through some of its key periods: the initial colonisation of the region by Bulghars in the tenth-eleventh century; the formation of the Muslim Meshchera under the Golden Horde, on former Burtas lands south of present-day Nizhny Novgorod; the gradual transformation of the whole region into a buffer zone (and battlefield) between expanding Vladimir and Muscovy, on the first hand, and on the other hand a succession of Muslim polities east of the Volga River; he inclusion of the Mishars into the state service of the Russian Empire in the seventeenth century; the Islamic revival of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the role of Nizhny Novgorod in the venue of the All-Russian Muslim congresses of 1905-6. The second chapter, on the present situation of Islam in the Nizhegorodchina, begins with a short reminder of the Soviet period (through mention of the repressions of the 1930s, and allusions to the early revival of the Islamic religious practice from the early 1950s onwards). The past two decades are evoked through the creation in 1988 and through the evolution of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Nizhny Novgorod (DUM NO in Russian acronyms), under leadership of young and charismatic Imam Gömer Idrisov. The following paragraphs deal with the contribution of Tatar business to the spectacular renewal of Muslim religious architecture in the rural districts of the Nizhny Novgorod Region as elsewhere in the Volga River Basin ― with detailed analytic tables (pp. 33-7) on mosque construction in villages, with particular attention for the Krasnooktiabr’skii district and its 64% Tatar population. The paragraphs on the urban Muslim-background population of the region cast light on the role played by the Fair Mosque (Iarmarochnaia mechet’) in the emergence of a cosmopolitan culture among local merchants and religious personnel. A special subsection is also devoted to the mutual relations between the DUM NO and varied national organisations of the Tatars of Nizhny Novgorod Region (with evocation of Imam Idrisov’s hostility to a project of national autonomy led by Christian Tatars, and to the “Russian Islam” project of russification of Islamic practice throughout Russia).
Chapter three develops these data through a history of the DUM NO from its creation, at the end of the Soviet period, till our days, with a detailed intellectual portrait of Imam Idrisov, and an account of his action in favour of a reunification of the regional and sub-regional Spiritual Boards of the Federation of Russia under the authority of a single Mufti. Substantial part of this chapter deals with the development of historical research on the Muslims of the Nizhny Novgorod region in the 1990-2000s, with special reference to the works by historians S. B. and O. N. Seniutkin and Iu. N. Guseva. Captivating paragraphs (pp. 69-71) expose the activity of the DUM NO as an institutional supporter to historical and archaeological research. The last parts of this substantial chapter deal with the DUM NO’s intense public communication activity (its “informational jihad”), through a short analysis of confessional journals like Minaret or Medina al’-Islam, or the website “Islam v Nizhnem Novgorode,” through an evocation of the multiple events organised with academic institutions, especially with faculties and institutes of Oriental studies (like the famous “Fayzkhan Lectures” organised since 2004 on a yearly basis), and through the mention of the spiritual Board’s contribution to the current revival of Hanafi studies in Russia. This latter activity appears partly as a reaction against the emergence, since the late 1980s, of “radical” Islamic trends rapidly and elliptically introduced in chapter four, from the official viewpoint conveyed by the DUM NO. The book’s two last chapters are devoted to the inter-confessional dialogue in the Nizhny Novgorod Region ― through a sharp polemic of the mid-2000s between the DUM NO, on the first hand, and on the other hand the regional political power and the Orthodox eparchy of Nizhny Novgorod, on the place of Orthodox Christianity in the public life of the region, with notable participations of scholars of the Academy of Sciences. . . ― and to the international links of the regional Muslim community ― through those established by the DUM NO and Imam Idrisov. In all, if the history of Islam in the Soviet period continues to be almost entirely ignored, and if the description provided by the present book may seem excessively centred on the DUM NO (which is often the case as far as the volumes of the same collection are concerned), the author must be congratulated for having offered to the Russian-language audience a detailed and subtle explanation of the most varied issues (historical, confessional, public and political. . .) of Islam in a region located both at a periphery and at a centre of the Muslim community of Russia.