Connections Across Time and Space: Alfrid Bustanov’s Documentary "The Legacy of Siberian Muslims"

The documentary embedded below (also viewable at this link) is the product of careful ethnographic research almost seven years in the making.  For Alfrid Bustanov, who received his doctorate from the University of Amsterdam just months ago, following these Siberian families is a labor of love. 

Bustanov was kind enough to take time out of his continuing research in Tatarstan to speak with me about the genesis of this video and his future research agenda.


Himself a Tatar from Omsk, Russia, Bustanov’s connection to this research is personal, dating back to an ethnographic research expedition in which he participated as an undergraduate at Omsk University in 2005.  While investigating Islamic sacred places in the village of Bol’shoi Karagai (Qaraghai awyl) in Tumen Oblast’, an elderly woman ushered him into her home to show Bustanov something he had never seen before: Islamic manuscripts scribed in the Arabic alphabet.  “I was already acquainted with the works of great orientalists like Barthold, but I had never seen a real Islamic manuscript.  I had no idea how to work with them, but these books impressed me so much that I brought them back to Omsk and learned to read them,” remarked Bustanov.

From that point Bustanov was hooked.  He joined an archaeological expedition to Turkistan in Kazakhstan, spent time in Kazan working with manuscripts, and studied under the Turkologists Sergei Kliashtorny and Tursun Sultanov in St. Petersburg.  After a brief stint in Germany, he was put in touch with Michael Kemper, who ultimately advised him through the dissertation process at the University of Amsterdam.

The documentary itself is a mix of recordings from different expeditions based on connections and friendships Bustanov has carefully cultivated for the past eight years and was supported by the Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA).  “I find that the combination of visual and textual information is very important.  By talking to people one creates oral history, which can be contextualized through the sorts of manuscript sources you can see in the video.”

Bustanov has shown this documentary at a handful of lectures and conferences, but this post constitutes its online debut.

Russian Islam

In this documentary a Tatar (Adnan Chengiz) remarks that his ancestors fled to the Ottoman Empire in 1907 to avoid the “oppression of the Russians.”  Recent scholarship has demonstrated that the Russian Empire was much more complicated than outdated notions depicting it as a “prison of nations” would suggest and Tatars in particular often found great opportunity within the imperial space.  Why, then, did a particular community of Siberian Tatars decide to flee their own homeland?

As the documentary notes, Chengiz was a Siberian Bukharan, which is an important point of distinction here.  The Siberian Bukharans enjoyed special privileges (tax exemptions, freedom from army service, etc.) that set them apart from other Tatars and which the Russian government began to take away around the turn of the nineteenth century.  On this topic, Bustanov refers readers to Allen Frank’s new book (you can read Bustanov’s review of Frank’s book – depending on how good your Tatar is [Chyn Miras (Kazan, Summer 2013)]), also adding that such migratory activity should also be viewed in the broader context of the “muhajirun” (Arabic for “emigrants”) who fled the Caucasus and Volga-Urals for Ottoman lands: “Abd al-Rashid Ibrahim played a critical role in pushing these people to migrate from Siberia to Turkey.  He believed that Islamic scholarship in the region was quite weak, which is part of the reason he moved out.  He also predicted that quite soon there would come a time when Muslims in Russia would be oppressed even more and it would be impossible to live there – and in a way he was right!”

Bustanov is impressed by the extent to which the Tatar immigrants to Turkey were successful in preserving their religion and culture, noting that they speak the same dialect of Tatar from their home village to the present day.

Soviet Islam

The majority of Tatars that chose to remain behind, however, soon faced a much more concerted assault on religion following the Bolshevik Revolution.  Early scholarship (such as Bennigsen) on Soviet Islam depicted religion as suppressed, separate from communism, and persisting underground in opposition to the state.  Yet at one point in the video a Tatar remarks: “My father was a communist, a chief of the kolkhoz [Russian: “collective farm”].  Though he was a Party member, my father respected Mullas.”  While there has been a great deal of scholarship on Soviet Islam since the Bennigsen thesis and our picture is now much more nuanced, seldom has new research focused on the post-World War II period (some notable exceptions: Dudoignon, Khalid, Ro’i, Tasar) and our understanding remains incomplete.

Bustanov commented: “This is a conceptual problem that we are still grappling with: How did people move from jama’a [Arabic: “religious congregation”] to kolkhoz and vice versa?  How did these identities merge – or not merge?  I don’t have any clear or simple answers so far.  In my research I try to show a very complex, mosaic picture of the development of Islamic culture in Soviet times.  We cannot conceptualize it in simple binaries.  We certainly cannot point to Soviets on the one hand and oppressed Muslims on the other.  The 1920s and 30s were initially seen by historians as an atom bomb for Tatar Islamic culture, but I am now skeptical of the extent to which it was eliminated.  Instead, I believe that it grew into another shape, but we have not yet figured out exactly how to get at these new forms of transmission and preservation of Islamic knowledge.”

Even if Bustanov has not arrived at a definitive paradigm for interpreting Soviet Islam, as he insists, he certainly has much to contribute to the picture.  Not only were Islam and communism sometimes viewed as compatible by Soviet Tatars, Bustanov has even documented instances in which families were able to translate their religious pedigree into positions of influence in the Soviet hierarchy – at least at the local level.  Dedicated communists kept private libraries of Islamic manuscripts and after the fall of the Soviet Union started to serve as local mullas.  “But there are also many examples of people with this kind of past trying to hide it, abandoning their past, or even being killed.  Nevertheless, it is surprising that – as communist leaders – some wanted to preserve [their Islamic heritage] – and oftentimes succeeded – even though they could not always understand it.”

3 thoughts on “Connections Across Time and Space: Alfrid Bustanov’s Documentary "The Legacy of Siberian Muslims"”

  1. Very intriguing video! I find the internalizing of the “Bukharan” and “Sart” identifying labels very interesting. Sayram seems to have launched many caravans and pioneering populations throughout Central Asia — the other example would be the “other” Sayram in Xinjiang, supposedly founded by refugees from Western Turkestan’s Sayram during the Junghar/Oirat oppression around the turn of the 18th century.

  2. Fascinating. Alfrid and I touched on the issue of Sarts during our conversation. S.N. Abashin, Natsionalizmy v srednei azii: v poiskakh identichnosti (St. Petersburg: Aleteiia, 2007) has a chapter specifically on this topic that you might find interesting.

    1. The Abashin book is on order through IU’s library — if it comes in soon enough, I’ll get it there. Otherwise, I’ll order it through WorldCat. Thanks for the note!

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