This ambitious and richly illustrated volume is devoted to the Mishar Tatars, the second group by numerical significance in the Middle Volga region (in the present-day Riazan – Nizhny Novgorod – Simbirsk [Ulianovsk] – Penza square). On the basis of the materials of innumerable expeditions and a wide range of written and iconographical primary sources, the author deals with the techniques and culture of these populations in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth. A large introduction exposes the existing primary and secondary sources available on the Mishars, with particular attention for Russian travel accounts and chronicles, and for the ethnographical and local erudition works written in the nineteenth century. A short chapter of ethnic history of the Mishars reconstructs the history of the gradual settling of Turkic populations within the major elbow of the Volga River and on the courses of the Oka and Sura Rivers, after the Huns from the sixth century CE onwards. The author notably evokes the role of a crossroads played by the region between the Bulghar kingdom and Kievian Rus’ in the tenth to twelfth centuries, then the consequences of the Mongol invasion of the early thirteenth century, and the diffusion of Islam and Islamic culture under the domination of the Golden Horde (all these periods are dealt with exclusively by the author through later Russian chronicles). The ethnic processes of the time are briefly evoked through the denominations (mozhar, meshcheriak . . .) conveyed by these Russian chronicles. The establishment of Muscovy’s domination from the mid-fourteenth century onwards is described notably through the continuation of the region’s colonisation by Tatar settlers, through their recruitment as defenders of the Russian polity’s eastern boundary, and through the ensuing integration of Tatar aristocracy into the Russian service nobility. A special chapter on demography reconstructs the quantitative evolution of the Mishar populations within modern Russia since the sixteenth century, notably through the migrations of those ‘service Tatars’ and their installation in a number of pomest’ia located in the whole Volga region (during the eighteenth century in the governorates on Penza and Saratov).
The second part of the book deals with the development of economic activities among the Mishars since the sixteenth century. The author shows particular interest in the rapid transformations of agriculture in the aftermath of the abolition of serfdom, in demographic change and migration to big cities, and in the emergence of Muslim Tatar manufacture from the 1870s onwards (allusions to the development of clothing industry by the brothers Temir-Bulat and Suleyman Akchurin, Ish-Muhammad and Mustafa Deberdeev in different rural districts of the governorate of Saratov). A typical part on “material culture” successively explains the organisation of villages and market towns (numerous concrete examples) and the typology of housing and construction techniques (with comparisons to the practices of Kazan Tatars), with attention for the Turkic toponymic practice (often referring to a legendary founder). Special paragraphs have been reserved to the evolution of religious architecture, unfortunately limited to preserved buildings of a relatively recent past and to new constructions of the last two decades. A chapter on male and female costume, with paragraphs on headdress, tries to reconstruct the evolution of models through history, with elements of comparison to Kazan Tatars (through growing standardisation in the nineteenth century) and to other Turkic populations of the Volga Region (the Chuvash in particular). The study of female costume in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century gives way to the identification of several sub-regional complexes, often linked with the minority situation of Mishar Tatar populations, among Russians in the west or among Mordvs in the south. A short distinct chapter details some implements and receipts of Mishar cooking. Family and marriage are much more substantially dealt with through the evolution of the status of woman in Mishar society, notably through the prism of the bride’s restrictive relationship with her in-laws, deeply marked by a whole range of interdicts (qan totu). The impact of the rural world’s economic transformations in the nineteenth century is also evoked through the rapid evolution of the size of families among different regional populations, and the dominance of the small nuclear family ― attested by innumerable photographic group portraits ― from the early twentieth century onwards. Social differentiation within villages is also depicted through the rapid evolution of matrimonial strategies and through the growing role of social considerations. Traditional restrictions at the same time remained in force (for instance on the marriage within the father’s line), as well as the custom of the abduction of brides (more widely practiced in periods of shortage, in order to avoid the payment of the dowry and the organisation of costly celebrations). Birth and childhood are shortly tackled through the mention of the main rituals following delivery (of a boy, especially), and through the kids’ participation in the household’s everyday life.
A distinct part on “spiritual culture” ― a survival of Soviet ethnographic practice ― explains the “ancient creeds” of the Mishars, with paragraphs on the cult of heavenly and earthly spirits (jans ― Arabic jinns ―, kots, iyas) among Turkic peoples of Inner Eurasia, and on the Mishar bestiary (with data on the totemic status of a variety of animals, and on the special place devoted to the cock or to the bear in a variety of heeling and other magical rituals). Another legacy of Soviet ethnography and local lore (kraevedenie), a chapter on “popular creation” deals with the history of oral tradition among the Mishars, through great lyric cycles, legends of foundation of villages, and the peculiar local development of short poetical forms and songs (linked with the everyday life or with the main dates of the traditional agricultural calendar). A last chapter, curiously inserted in this part of the book, shortly describes the applied arts through the development of weaving and embroidery. As this distribution of parts and chapters shows, the book pays a heavy tribute to the customs of ethnography and local lore as they developed in the Volga Region through the Tsarist and Soviet periods. The contents themselves of the practices documented by the author are examined in a restrictive way: No word is said of the impact of Islamic culture, except for the most remote period of the Mishars’ past, and two pages only are devoted to the recent evolution of mosque architecture in the region. Religious or mystical poetry itself has been totally omitted, as well as the rapid development of schooling and learned culture among Mishars, through the expansion of a network of madrasas, from the early nineteenth century onwards. Besides this very selective and oriented representation, it is also extremely regrettable that, in the framework of such an ambitious panorama of Mishar history and culture, numbers of primary sources have been let aside by the author, from phenomenal quantities of easily available and well kept regional archive documents to a succession of more demanding narrative texts, either published or manuscript, in a variety of Turkic languages ― from mediaeval chronicles and genealogies to modern Tatar literature, via the resources of epigraphy and a wide range of Islamic religious genres. It is to be hoped that the gradual emergence of a new generation of scholars in human and social sciences in the Volga-Region, in a period of expansion of higher education and investment in research, will allow in the near future the complete renewal of approaches and of our global historical and anthropological knowledge of populations who have played a central role at the interface of the Russian and steppe worlds.