Turkish Area Studies review of James Meyer's Turks Across Empires

Bulletin of the British Association for Turkish Area Studies
Spring 2016 No.27, pp. 46-48.

James H Meyer, Turks Across Empires: marketing Muslim identity in the Russian-Ottoman borderlands, 1856-1914, 2014.

James H Meyer traces the lives of leading Russian born pan-Turkist and Muslim activists in the tumultuous era leading up to and during the dissolution of the Russian and Ottoman empires, focusing on Yusuf Akcura, Ismail Gasprinskii, and Ahmet Agaoglu. A major contribution of this work is its use of original source material in Turkish, Ottoman Turkish and Russian. Using personal correspondence and Ottoman and Russian tsarist era archives, Meyer traces four distinct periods to their trans-imperial existence moving back and forth between Istanbul, Kazan, Crimea, and Azerbaijan.

The first is in the late 19th century Russia where they lead a modernising mission amongst the far- flung Muslim population of Russia variously numbered as 20 million despite waves of expulsions and pogroms. They promote curriculum reform - known as usul-i cedid that Meyer calls jadidism, introducing sciences and maths in the Moslem schools in Russia. Ismail Gasprinskii, a Crimean Tartar based in Bahcesaray, is the key figure forging a common Turkic language called Lisan-i umumi that was a hybrid of Ottoman Turkish and Tartar, in his journal called Tercuman (Interpreter) established in 1883 that had a circulation of 5-6000 throughout Russia. This period corresponded to the policies of the tsarist authorities to increase the assimilation of Muslim communities, including compulsory Russian language teaching in schools. These policies were resisted by the traditional Muslim ulema, who saw the measures as an attack on their cultural and religious autonomy and a precursor to forced conversions. The ulema were not keen on the new jadidist schools either most of which had accepted the teaching of Russian as a practical necessity for Muslims.

The new schools, backed and funded by mostly wealthy Tatar benefactors, mushroomed after the Russian 1905 revolution. This marks the second phase of the story of the Russian born Muslim and pan-Turk leaders who transition from community activists to national politics. During 1905-06, they organised three All-Russian Muslim Congresses, formed a political union called Ittifak, and entered the Russian Duma winning 25 seats in an electoral alliance with the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets). Yet, when the tsarist crackdown began in 1906, Yusuf Akcura and many others were imprisoned for “terrorist” activities. Wholesale closure of the new schools followed.

The third phase sees many with the exception of Gaspriinski who remained in Crimea, fleeing Russia to seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire and settling in Istanbul. The attraction of Istanbul to the Russian Muslim emigres was enhanced by the Ottoman 1908 revolution and the ready audience amongst the Young Turks to their ideas. These years were the political highpoint of the Russian born pan-Turkic figures. Along with pan-Islamism, and pan- Ottomanism, pan-Turkism was considered as one of three options for the Ottoman Empire – as penned by Akcura.With the loss of the Balkans and growing resistance to Ottoman rule in the Middle Eastern provinces, pan-Turkism increasingly appeared as the only option to the Young Turks of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). As WWI broke out, the military trio of Enver-Talat-Cemal embraced pan-Turkism with an anti-Russian thrust and its catastrophic consequences for the Armenian population in Anatolia.

The influence of the Russian born pan-Turkists declined rapidly thereafter. By 1919, the victory of the Allies resulted in the carving up of what was left of the Ottoman Empire with the CUP leadership rooted out and sent to prison in Malta by the British who occupied Istanbul. This included Ahmet Agaoglu who had served as an MP in both the Ottoman and Azerbaijan parliaments. Pan-Turkic figures remaining in Turkey were also reined in and some imprisoned, by Mustafa Kemal who sought support of Bolshevik Russia against the occupying armies of the Allies. Following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 Yusuf Akcura and Ahmet Agaoglu, the latter after a brief period in parliament and an attempt to set up an opposition party, receded to the background with academic positions in Istanbul University. Others, such as Fatih Kerimi, returned to Russia where in the initial years of the revolution the Bolsheviks had adopted jadidist ideas in their approach to the nationalities question, but only to fall victim in 1937 to Stalin’s purges2.

This book is an important contribution in several ways. First, it completes a missing piece of the puzzle on pan-Turkism. Meyer’s interest is not so much the political currents and strategic developments in Europe that gave rise to pan-Turkist ideas, but in tracing the lives of its leading individuals in Russia. 19th century was the era of numerous “pan” ideas with pan-Turkism embraced by a wide swath of peoples including not just Russian born Moslems, Ottoman Turks, but also Hungarians. Pan-Turkism emerged in response to pan-Slavism in Russia which in turn was initially a reaction to pan-Germanism of the Bismarck era.Turks across Empires focuses on the practical, physical and economic motivations of the pan-Turkic figures in responding to the specific revolutionary conditions prevailing at the time of the decline of the Russian and Ottoman empires. Meyer shows that they were very much a product of their “trans-imperial” lives which included extensive studies in European capitals and travel between the two multi-ethnic empires.

Second, the book brings to light rarely examined actors in Russian history. The roles of Russian born Moslem and pan-Turkic figures in late 19th century Russia, their part in the 1905 or the 1917 revolutions have not hitherto received much attention by historians. For example Meyer reports that following the 1905 revolution, the “countercoup of June 3, 1907 targeted Muslims in particular” especially the proponents of the new schools. He also notes the tsarist authorities were assisted in their crack-down by the traditional conservative ulema who took the opportunity to eliminate their rivals. This pattern of repression of the modernising, secular Muslim leadership by authorities while forging an alliance with the traditional conservative Islamists was to become a pattern to be repeated in the 20th century. Finally, by tracing the evolution of the ideas and lives of these figures, Meyer also shows how ethnic and religious identity became increasingly politicised in the lead up to WWI. He suggests there are lessons from this period for today given the politicisation of culture and religion that we still face one-hundred years on.

Mina Toksoz 26 April 2015

“Three Types of Policy” by Yusuf Akcura had been published by Turk, a Cairene newspaper in 1904.
See Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, pp704-716, 1996.See for example, Jacob Landau, Pan Turkism in Turkey, 1981.