"National in Form, Orthodox in Content": An Examination of Russia’s Imperial Pursuits of Muslim Kazakh Populations at the End of the Tsarist Period

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The last 50 years of the Tsarist period in Russia were marked by an extensive absorption of steppe lands and their nomadic, Muslim populations. The acquisition of these lands allowed the Russian empire to expand its territory to the South and East greatly but also bringing the heart of the Russian empire – the Russian Orthodox Church -- into closer contact with the cultures and religions of its Eastern neighbors than ever before. Russia always had an uneasy relationship with the East, at times rejecting that part of its geography and culture in an attempt to be a Western empire in the mold of France and Britain. By the end of the nineteenth century, Russia’s emulation of its Western peers took the form of colonial-style conquest of the predominantly Muslim groups to the East. However, because of Russia's historic relationship with the East, its imperialism manifested very differently than that of the Western empires towards their colonies in Africa and Asia. This period was marked by a strong sentiment of Russian nationalism, which was extrinsically linked to the Orthodox church. Orthodoxy became a defining point of Russian identity. This Russification through religion was vital to the absorption attempts of the Kazakh population in the second half of the 19th century. Russians erroneously saw the Kazakhs as “superficial” Muslims who would relatively easily convert to the Orthodox religion and subsequently be receptive to Russian culture and citizenship. However, the Kazakhs had a centuries-long connection and commitment to Islam, and their Muslim conviction only grew and hardened after Russia's conquest of their lands. Russian elites failed to acknowledge and recognize the deep and faithful connection of the Kazakhs to Islam. Instead, they saw only a group of nomadic savages needing saving and civilizing. The writings of Ilya Merkur’ev, a student of the Kazan Theological Seminary in 1916, are an excellent example of the attitudes of Russian elites and their views of Islamic populations, particularly the Kazakhs. An examination of Merkur’ev’s work reveals the clouded view held by Russians at the time. In their drive to create a unified Russian empire, rooted in loyalty to and pride in Russia – and, by extension, the Orthodox church – Russian leaders stumbled in their attempts to assimilate and absorb their neighbors. Throughout this period, we see examples of opposing opinions and observations of the Kazakhs, which often led to a misguided policy of Russification and assimilation of these peoples.






Beaujeu-Dufour, Nancy (2023). "National in Form, Orthodox in Content": An Examination of Russia’s Imperial Pursuits of Muslim Kazakh Populations at the End of the Tsarist Period. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/27324.

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