Turks Across Empires: Excerpt

Wednesday, December 3

These have been exciting times up here at the Borderlands Lodge. As I mentioned in my post from the other day, I spent the days before Thanksgiving attending conferences in San Antonio and Washington, DC, and had the good fortune to finally hold my book in my hands! It was a lot of fun, and a day that I wasn't always sure I would manage to see. 

The book is on sale on the website of Oxford University Press and Amazon, and should begin to crop up in other places, too. It's quite expensive right now, as it's a hardcover, but hopefully the hardcovers will sell out and the book will go into paper production, which will end up being cheaper. So---be sure to recommend the book to your local library, for now. Later, you can buy the paperback yourself.
If you go to the Oxford website, you'll see that the book's introduction is available for people to look at for free. Below, I've excerpted the first section of the introduction, but if you want to find the rest of it you should look here. Due to formatting issues, the footnotes have been excised from this excerpt.


Introduction: Identity Freelancers

As the year 1912 began, Yusuf Akçura (“Akchura”) was living in Istanbul, at the center of a Turkic world of his own making. Four years earlier he had left behind the tense political environment of Russia to begin a life in the Ottoman capital. A key personality in the largest Muslim political movement to grow out of the wild days of the 1905 Revolution, Akçura had once been one of the best-known Muslim political leaders in Russia. Now, however, he was settling into the life of an intellectual in exile. Whereas political change had been Yusuf Akçura’s main concern in Russia, in Istanbul his focus would become the Turkic world. The community activist had become an identity freelancer.

For Akçura and other Muslim activists from Russia, the Young Turk takeover of July 1908 could not have come at a better time. Back in Russia, the political concessions offered by Tsar Nicholas II in 1905 had almost immediately begun to suffer reversals. Once the possibility of the monarchy’s immediate overthrow had been averted, the government lost its willingness to reform. Political activity for subjects of all faiths became increasingly restricted, while the “counter-coup” of June 3, 1907 had targeted Muslims in particular. The future of political reform in Russia seemed very dim. Across the imperial frontier, the Ottoman capital awaited.

Akçura’s early days in Istanbul had not been easy. He had arrived in late 1908, ostensibly to work as a correspondent for the Orenburg (Russia) newspaper Vakit (“Time”). The pay was irregular and sporadic, and life in Istanbul was expensive. Nevertheless, the decision to spend some time in the Ottoman Empire, if only temporarily, had seemed to be a wise one at the time. In Russia, many of Akçura’s erstwhile colleagues were now behind bars, and Akçura himself had been detained for six weeks in 1906. Rather than face imprisonment in Russia, Akçura had chosen to start over, once again, in the Ottoman capital. 

Indeed, since the Young Turk takeover Istanbul had developed into an important center for Russian Muslims in exile. Alongside Akçura in the Sublime Porte was an array of writers, activists, and others roaming the city’s streets. They had come to the Ottoman Empire for a variety of reasons, drawing upon networks that crossed the imperial frontier. The pan-Turkists—people like Akçura and his friends, who are today associated with late imperial pan-Turkism in the historical literature—were part of this broader population of Russian-born Muslims living and traveling between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. 

”TurksArriving in Istanbul several months after Akçura was Ahmet Ağaoğlu (“Ah-oh-loo”). Ağaoğlu was also a Muslim activist, from today’s Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus, whose experiences had been similar to those of Akçura in a number of ways.  Like Akçura, Ağaoğlu hailed from a rather prestigious, if somewhat provincial, family of better-than-average means. Ağaoğlu also resembled Akçura in that he had traveled and studied abroad, learning foreign languages and the skills associated with international living at a relatively young age. After 1905 Ağaoğlu had also, like Akçura, become involved in Muslim community leadership politics and a bourgeoning Turkic-language print media in Russia to become a newspaper editor and well-known public figure in Baku. Tsarist authorities, however, considered Ağaoğlu a troublemaker, and perhaps even a terrorist. At the time of Ağaoğlu’s departure for Istanbul in December 1908, an investigation into his activities had recently been launched by authorities in the southern Caucasus. 

İsmail Gasprinskii (also known as “Gaspıralı”), a comrade and fellow activist of Akçura and Ağaoğlu in Russia, was also in the process of coming to grips with the counterrevolution in Russia. Unlike his friends Akçura and Ağaoğlu, Gasprinskii had chosen to stay in Russia, in his hometown of Bahçesaray, Crimea. During the years immediately preceding the First World War, however, Gasprinskii traveled often, journeying to Egypt and India during the course of his efforts to organize a world Muslim congress. The Crimean-born activist also visited Istanbul on an annual basis during the Young Turk years, meeting up with Akçura, Ağaoğlu, and other Russian-born Muslims who were living in Istanbul at that time. As much as Gasprinskii was a man of the world, this twice would-be émigré had chosen to not join his friends in setting up a new life in the Ottoman capital. Instead he had made the decision to remain in the land of his birth.

Istanbul was not just a place of exile, but also opportunity. In Russia, where an estimated 20 million Muslim subjects outstripped the Muslim populations of both Iran and the Ottoman Empire, the Turkic-language media sector developed quickly after the Revolution of 1905. The Muslim periodical press in Russia had a Wild West quality to it, and had been particularly lively in comparison to the staid quality of Ottoman newspapers under Sultan Abdülhamid II. Since the sultan’s overthrow, however, the press laws in the Ottoman Empire had been greatly liberalized. Akçura and Ağaoğlu possessed the kinds of skills that were needed badly in Istanbul’s new media market. While they and other Muslim activists from Russia often suffered adversity during their early years in the Ottoman capital, they eventually got the break they needed.

In 1911 word reached Istanbul that Mahmut Bey Hüseyinov, a wealthy merchant and philanthropist from Orenburg, Russia, had willed the sum of 10,000 gold rubles to the Russian Muslim community of Istanbul for the creation of a Turkic-language journal to be published in Istanbul. The journal would be called Türk Yurdu (Turkic Homeland), with Yusuf Akçura serving as editor. Ahmet Ağaoğlu, meanwhile, became one of Türk Yurdu’s most frequent contributors, while numerous other Russian and Ottoman-born writers also wrote for the journal. Soon, the people running Türk Yurdu had also established a set of lodges, called the Turkic Hearths (Türk Ocakları), which provided meeting space for conferences, talks, and other activities relating to Turkism (Türklük) and the Turkic world. By 1914, the Hearths would boast sixteen branches and a roster of more than 3,000 members. 

Longtime outsiders in Russia, the Russian-born activists would find themselves the toast of Istanbul under the Young Turks. Akçura and his friends became personally acquainted with influential cultural and political figures in the city such as Halide Edip, Ziya Gökalp, and Enver Bey, the future Ottoman Minister of War. With Türk Yurdu, Akçura and his friends had stumbled across a winning formula—one that also attracted the attention of Orientalists from around the world. In the words of a 1913 article appearing in the French journal Revue du Monde Musulman, Akçura had achieved “a fame comparable to that of Seyyed Djemal ed-din [Afghani],” perhaps the best-known Muslim activist of the late imperial era. Yusuf Akçura’s moment had arrived, and so had that of pan-Turkism.

Like the Borderlands? You'll love the book! Order your copy now at the OUP website.   

More links, commentary and photographs available poolside at the Borderlands Lounge 

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