Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy

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Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy
By Agnes Nilufer Kefeli
Cornell University Press, 2014
312 pp. $52.50
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Even for people who live in a country as diverse as the United States, it is difficult to fathom the complexity of Russia’s multiethnic, multiconfessional society. The easiest solution—simply labeling all of the country’s 185 nationalities as “Russian”—falls short. Kefeli digs deep into the history of the Tatar people of the Middle Volga region, the descendants of the Golden Horde that Ivan the Terrible defeated in the mid-sixteenth century. During the two centuries that followed, many Muslim Russians converted from Islam to Russian Orthodoxy. But in the nineteenth century, some of their descendants braved obstacles to return to the Islamic faith of their forebears. This complex tale of assimilation and conversion involves a staggering array of peoples—the Mari, the Chuvash, the Bashkirs, the Votiaks, the Kalmyks—some Muslim, others Orthodox, and still others animist. The modern incarnation of this intricate mosaic survives in Tatarstan, a key region of modern Russia.