Places of remembrance in Russia: Islamic heritage and landscapes of piety
It is not yet widely known that Islam is the second largest native religion in what is today the Russian Federation. The country’s indigenous Muslim population is divided into multiple ethnic groups, with the five million-strong Volga Tatars, predominantly settled in their titular Tatarstan Republic, being the most numerous one. Islam is the region’s oldest monotheistic faith: Turkic Muslim communities have inhabited the Volga region since at least the 10th century, well before Russia’s growth into a massive Eurasian empire.
Today, both the demographic significance and the civic dynamism of Russia’s Muslim populations are projected to grow, which poses intriguing questions for a country in turmoil. Many post-Soviet Tatars are engaged in a process of rediscovery of their cultural roots, while transnational Sunni revival movements increasingly appeal to the urban youth.
This project proposes to bring to the fore the experiences of a demographic that has long been neglected by Western scholarship – the millions of Volga Tatar Muslims who live as Russian citizens and subjects. This focus offers insight not only into the sociocultural and political transformations of an authoritarian, neo-imperial, yet crisis-torn Russian Federation, but also into a global Islamic community (the Ummah) connecting believers in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Mediterranean, and beyond. It does so by looking ethnographically at places and practices of lived Islamic piety in the multi-ethnic Tatarstan republic.
This project focuses on Volga Muslims’ moral landscapes and places of remembrance – in the double sense of heritage sites, in which Tatarstan’s Islamic past is rediscovered and actualised, and spaces of piety, where believers practice the remembrance of God – an essential part of Islamic spirituality.
- One part of the project is devoted to the study of heritage-making in the Republic of Tatarstan: a process that is fraught with political implications as a difficult history of conflict and colonisation is turned into a fragile narrative of inter-ethnic harmony and integration. This process, involving regional (Tatarstani), federal (the Kremlin), and international (Unesco) authorities, has yielded mixed-to-positive results, evidencing Russia’s efforts to reinvent itself as a traditionalist Eurasian civilisation. The project has focused in particular on the archaeological complex of Šäxri Bolğar, the Kazan Kremlin, and the “holy spring” at Iske Qazan.
- Another segment of the project deals with practices of piety among scripturalist Muslims, exploring in particular the spatial and infrastructural aspects of Tatarstan’s growing halal scene. God-remembering pietists must be mindful of Islamic norms of purity as they move in post-Soviet cities and marketplaces: this mindfulness has transformed Tatarstani urban landscapes generating an array of Muslim-friendly locales that defy established ideas of “sacred space” and testify to the vitality of Sunni revival movements. Specifically, MeMuRu has explored places, practices, and infrastructures of Muslim life ranging from consumption to production to leisure.
- Thirdly, the project aspires to experiment with fresh theoretical and methodological approaches for the study of the socio-political life of Islamic piety. In Russia’s increasingly authoritarian context, Islam is often seen contradictorily: as a co-optable “traditional religion” or as a threat to “stability.” Piety movements, in turn, ambivalently move between seeking spaces of autonomy and adapting to the norms of the dominant order. By drawing on anthropology, history, philosophy, critical theory, and theology, MeMuRu seeks to advance our collective understanding of religion and ethic, and their significance to contemporary society.
MeMuRu rests predominantly on the methods of anthropological investigation: ethnographic fieldwork, qualitative interviews, and participant observation. Thanks to the PI’s long-term engagement with the region, abundant data collected over several visits prior to the pandemic, and digital fieldwork possibilities, the project was not severely affected by Covid-19. MeMuRu builds on interdisciplinary engagements with heritage and Islamic studies, European, Slavic and Eurasian studies, historiography, philosophy, and critical theory
- Department of Humanities, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
- Anthropology Department, University of California, Berkeley
- Department of European Studies, University of Amsterdam
- MIASU, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge
- Frobenius Institute for Cultural Anthropology, Goethe University in Frankfurt
- Institute of History Sh. Mardzhani, Kazan
- 2022, ‘Emancipating Ethics: An Autonomist Reading of Islamic Piety in Russia’, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 28 (1): 30-51.
- 2021, ‘The golden cage: heritage, (ethnic) Muslimness, and the place of Islam in post-Soviet Tatarstan’, Religion State & Society 49 (4-5): 314-330.
- 2021, ‘Ethical Infrastructures: Halal and the ecology of askesis in Muslim Russia’, Anthropological Theory, Online first 6/12/2021.
- 2021, ‘Pietaskscapes of Halal Living: Subjectivity, Striving, and Space-Making in Muslim Russia’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 44 (10): 1821-1843.
- 2021, ‘Halal Headaches: Post-Cultural Islam in Tatarstan’, in Laruelle M. and Schmoller J. (eds.) Cultures of Islam: Vernacular Traditions and Revisionist Interpretations across Russia (37-46). Washington DC: The George Washington University Central Asia Program.
Activities, workshops and talks
- 2021, Islam etnico e pietismo sunnita in Tatarstan: distanze e sovrapposizioni, presentation for the workshop “Le minoranze nello spazio post-sovietico a trent’anni dalla dissoluzione dell’URSS”, CERM, Università dell’Insubria, Como (IT), 1-3 December 2021.
- 2021, Memory and Subjectivity in Russia’s Islamic Pompeii, Miasu Research Seminar, the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit, Department of Anthropology, University of Cambridge (UK), 2 November 2021.
- 2021, Manuscript workshop: “Restless Quietists: Halal Living and Muslim Autonomy in Russia”, UC Berkeley, 14 September 2021.
- 2021, Halal in the City: Spaces of Piety and Belonging, keynote speech for international conference: “Poisk obraza goroda: Gumanitarnye nauki v gorodskom isskustve i dizayne sredy”, Institute of History Sh. Mardzhani, Kazan (Russia), 26 May 2021.
- 2020, Roundtable on: Scales of Authority: Framing the Law in the West’s Authoritarian ‘Other’, AAA/CASCA Annual Meeting, 5-14 November 2020.
- 2020, Halal Headaches: Post-Cultural (?) Islam in Tatarstan, international workshop: “Cultures of Islam: Variations of Muslim Belief and Practice from the Irtysh River to the Black Sea”, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University, Washington DC (USA), 19-20 ottobre 2020.
- 2020, Beyond Sacred Geography: Pietaskscapes of Islam in Tatarstan, international conference: “Sacred Geography: Multi-Disciplinary Approaches in Space and Time”, Nazarbaev University, Nursultan (Kazakhstan), 25-26 settembre 2020.
- 2020, Ethical Infrastructure in Muslim Russia: The Spatiality of Halal Living, international workshop: “Conceptualizing Religious Infrastructure”, organizzato da Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt-am-Mein (Germany) e British Academy (UK), 24 settembre 2020.
- 2019, Social Analysis and the Muslim Subject: Towards a Systematization, international workshop: “On Muslim Subjectivity in Russia: The Hybrid Language of Self-Description”, University of Amsterdam, (Netherlands), 6-7 dicembre 2019.
- 2019, Whither Conversion? Pathways to Islam in Pre-Revolutionary, Soviet, and Post-Soviet Russia, Lunchtime Staff Seminar, Amsterdam School for Local Translocal and European Studies, University of Amsterdam (Netherlands), 7 novembre 2019.
- 2019, Halal Infrastructure in Muslim Russia: The Materiality of Everyday Asceticism, lecture, Kolloquium zu laufenden Forschungsarbeiten, Frobenius Institute, Goethe University, Frankfurt-am-Mein (Germany), 21 ottobre 2019.
Matteo (Teo) Benussi is a sociocultural anthropologist specialising in religion and ethics in post-socialist Eurasia. Teo received his doctoral training at Cambridge (PhD 2018), where he also taught anthropology of religion as affiliated lecturer. He is currently the recipient of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellowship hosted by the Universities of California, Berkeley and Ca’ Foscari, Venice. His current MSCA research project deals with Islamic piety movements, halal practices, and the politics of virtue amongst Muslims in Tatarstan (Russian Federation), with a particular focus on moral topographies and infrastructures. Over the past decade he has also been investigating nostalgia, localism, and vernacular Orthodox Christianity in post-Chernobyl Ukraine. Teo is vice-president of UC Berkeley’s Humanities and Social Sciences Association.