A key issue, though often neglected, of the Soviet period, the history of villages and of the rural world is illustrated by the present essay ― a demonstration of the present dynamism and ambitions of regional schools of history in present-day Federation of Russia. In this pioneering study of the villages of the south-east of the Nizhny Novgorod region during the twentieth century, till the eve of Perestroika, young historian Iulia Guseva has made the most of more than eight hundred archive files (listed pp. 224-32) and of a number of secondary sources (see the substantial bibliography pp. 232-55) for reconstructing the complex adaptation process of the Muslim Turkic populations of these districts to the ever-changing realities of the late Tsarist and Soviet periods. The book is divided into three parts, dealing successively with the economic and social developments of the Tatar rural communities of the Nizhny Novgorod region in the twentieth century; with the impacts of the political realities of the Soviet period; and with the evolution of Muslim religious practice and organisation during the same period of time.
Unusually beginning with the bismillah, the book describes the overall situation in the Muslim population of the region at the end of the Tsarist period as immobile and poorly politicised, in absence of a strong civil society, if compared with other regions like the Crimea, the Kazan Governorate, or still Transcaucasia. Even the religious revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century ― through the construction of mosques, schools and madrasas ― did not reach, by far, what could be observed in these other regions. The relatively isolated campaigns of the Middle Volga River’s right bank continued to cultivate a conservative form of Islam, untouched by the reform and modernisation movements diffused from Bahçesaray, Kazan, and Baku. The first, brutal transformations of War Communism period, they are credited of unequal benefit for, respectively, Russian or Tatar peasantry, bringing about famine and a strong drift from the land. Local reactions to change were extremely diverse according to a range of parameters, notably to the mutual relations between the diverse classes of Tatar society. At the same time, the absence of a strong industrial proletariat did not prevent the rapid reinforcement of Bolshevik power in the region, thanks notably to the local populations’ traditional pietism. Paradoxically, the NEP period is even considered to have strengthened the social influence of Muslim entrepreneurship and rural wealthy. The major turning point of this period of time is of course made by collectivisation and its aftermaths, entailing the disappearance of a still weak intermediary class ― the bearer of learned culture and agricultural know how ― and the mass emigration from rural districts to the region’s main cities and to the capitals. Cultural Revolution and the ‘Red Terror’ of 1936-8 are globally introduced as phenomena that permitted regionally the elimination of activists (Jadids, progressives of varied affiliation . . .) who since the beginning of the century used to press on traditional Muslim confessional institutions ― allowing for the adhesion to new political institutions of the most conservative elements of Tatar Muslim society. Simultaneously, religious practice and ethics were getting the meanest share and, for the majority of the Tatar population, partially replaced by the moral norms of the Soviet state. During WWII, in the Gorki region more than in other Muslim-peopled regions of the USSR, geographic isolation from the main Muslim intellectual centres and minority situation are seen as factors of the reinforcement of the general adhesion to the Soviet fatherland, and of the identification with Russia and the Soviet state. The Second World War itself is perceived as having trigged off contradictory tendencies: a firmer adhesion to the Soviet political project, and simultaneously the revival of traditional religious and social practices ― with active role of women as in every period of restriction of religious practice among Muslim Tatars. On the first hand, rural exodus was continuing and expanding, whence at the same time the relative stability of the territory of Tatar kolkhozes was helping stabilise the growth of Tatar population and its ‘ethnic consolidation’. Among the change of the 1950s to 1980s period, the author rightly point out the episodic reinforcement of Islamic practice, interrupted by periods of stronger repression ― though in absence of relevant primary sources, the author’s vision, as in the bulk of existing literature, remains limited to the observation a renewal of ritual practice. As it is often the case in the historical literature produced from Nizhny Novgorod to Astrakhan, this renewal attested by official statistics of the Soviet period is essentially perceived as a factor of reinforcement of Tatar ethnic identity. Otherwise, the overall secularisation of Tatar society during the last decades of the Soviet period is largely depicted in the book’s last chapters.
Although relying naturally on a lot of postulates of Soviet historiography, this work elaborated in a spirit free from prejudices must be welcomed as an encouraging attempt at renewing the regional history of diverse areas of the Volga region in the Soviet era. Conversely, it also casts light on the significance of making regional history for the overall revamping of the historiography of this very specific period of time, and on the dynamic role played by regional research centres in the process. Of course, the continuity of Islamic religious practice and the permanence of Islamised ethics during the Soviet period have not been assessed by the author, despite the existence of a large amount of available sources and of the potential resources of oral history ― a discipline still totally ignored on the banks of the Volga River. Moreover, her narrative is not devoid of essentialist and nationalist considerations, notably when the author superficially compares the respective moral capability and willingness of Russian and Tatar populations to integrate well into the kolkhoz system. However, the historical panorama that she offers is documented enough and sufficiently emancipated from the prevailing interpretation systems for being taken as a captivating reading and a healthy basis for future developments of research.