Eileen Kane on the Russian Hajj
Date: February 7th, 2016

During the latter half of the 19th century, when industrialization led to the expansion of railroads and the increase in efficient steamships, travel to Mecca for the hajj became much more affordable for the sizable Muslim population living in Russian territory.  Prof. Eileen Kane — an associate professor of history at Connecticut College — discusses the attempts by tsarist and Soviet Russia to manage this pilgrimage for both geopolitical and economic advantage, and how Russian Muslims responded to these efforts.  While this is a little known aspect of Russian history, it has important ramifications for how migrations of religious individuals are viewed in our contemporary world.

We begin with Prof. Kane discussing how she came upon such a relatively esoteric topic.  She notes that she was in college during the breakup of the Soviet Union and this opened up a door to historians who had previously focused on the Slavic history of Russia to realize that there were substantial ethnic and religious minorities (often of sizable proportion) living within the borders of the USSR.  This then became fertile ground for historians seeking to discover new things about old countries, and Eileen reminds us that although we think Slavs are in Russia and Muslims are in the Middle East, there are actually a very large number of Muslims outside the Arab world, including in former Russian territories.  Of the 15 nation-states that resulted from the break up of the USSR, six of them have majority Muslim populations.

We then take a journey back to the middle of the 19th century and Prof. Kane explains why she chose to bookend her study from roughly 1840 to 1930.  It was during this era that industrialization was making it more cost effective to travel via railroad and steamship, thus making the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are asked to perform once in their life) a reality for religious individuals living in “far away” lands.  Her study concludes in 1930 when the Great Global Depression (followed soon by World War II) created significant hardships in travel.  She briefly reviews what the hajj is and how efforts to convert and pacify Muslims during the middle part of the 1800s met with resistance and wasn’t all that effective of a strategy for tsarist Russia.  We also note the importance that European imperial expansion played during this time period, as the Middle East was becoming an area ripe for foreign influence given the decay of the Ottoman Empire.  Russians certainly wanted to play an important role in the politics of this region given its strategic significance.

The next portion of our discussion examines how the tsarist regime attempted to control the seasonal migration of Muslims to the Holy Land.  Prof. Kane lists several things that the Russians tried to do to facilitate travel including subsidizing train and ship transit, issuing special passports, and opening consulates in Jeddah and other areas to help travelers who were experiencing difficulties.  It was reasoned that if this pilgrimage was going to be made, the Russians should have some say in directing it given that there was also a fear that travelers abroad would bring back diseases and radical ideas to Russia.  Eileen details the presence of “disinfection facilities” on the journey home in an attempt by Russians to weed out cholera and other diseases.  Prof. Kane notes that there was a great deal of “trial and error” learning in how to manage the pilgrimage routes based upon the experience of local officials in various villages along the way.

Prof. Kane then explains the two primary motivations for the Russians to manage the hajj routes.  First, since Russia had lost a lot of revenue as people moved to North America in the late 1800s, there was a strong incentive to use these pilgrims as a source of tsarist revenue, albeit it was much less than was hoped.  Second, with Europe expanding in the Middle East as the Ottoman Empire began to falter, the Russians also wanted to stake their presence in the region and facilitating migration routes was one way they believed they could do this.  We also discuss how Muslims reacted to the overtures of the Orthodox Russians.  While some in the elite saw it as a benevolent action on the part of the tsar, many intellectuals and non-elite Muslims viewed it as manipulative and often had problems with some of the tactics used such as the “disinfection facilities” there were sometimes staffed by women, an affront to some Muslim men.  Our conversation also includes a section on the Soviet strategy, which was relatively similar to what the previous tsars did with the exception being that the Bolsheviks were atheists and thought religion would inevitably fade away.  With the disruptions caused by the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions and the global depression causing problems in travel, concern over managing the hajj faded in policy importance.  We close with some of Eileen’s thoughts on what surprised her during the course of her research, and how what happened in the past can inform our policy towards immigrants today.  Recorded: January 22, 2106.


Prof. Eileen Kane’s bio at Connecticut College.

Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca, by Eileen Kane.


Matthew Derrick on the Geography of the Umma.

Catherine Wanner on Religion in Russia.

Bradley Murg on Russian Orthodoxy after the Soviet Union.

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