Slight on Kane, 'Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca'

Eileen M. Kane
J.P. Slight

Eileen M. Kane. Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. 256 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5423-3.

Reviewed by J.P. Slight (University of Cambridge)
Published on H-Empire (September, 2017)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

Empire, Infrastructure, and Mobility

Eileen Kane’s book is the first monograph to set out the Russian empire’s engagement with the Hajj, building on earlier work by Daniel Brower, Robert Crews, and Alexander Morrison. It examines the trials and tribulations of tsarist officials as they struggled to organize the travels of Muslim pilgrims from across the Russian Empire to and from Mecca, in an attempt to capitalize on these mobile subjects and channel them for the benefit of the empire. Equally importantly, the book charts the experiences of pilgrims themselves and their interactions with what Kane usefully terms a Russian “Hajj infrastructure,” comprised of lodging houses, consulates, trains, and steamship services, established over the course of the nineteenth century.

This is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the Hajj during the “high noon” of European imperialism and the era of imperial globalization. Despite important comparative works such as Dominic Lieven’s Empire (2001), Russia is too often left at the margins of discussions around European imperialism, although this has improved in recent years. Kane’s book is also a substantial contribution to studies of Islam in Russia, and wider histories of globalization and migration in the long nineteenth century. With several studies on the Hajj and the British, French, and Dutch Empires published or forthcoming, it is a very good thing that we now have a detailed account of the Russian experience. This was no easy task to accomplish; Kane had to consult a variety of archives in Russia and Turkey to piece together the Russian official record of the Hajj. There are unavoidable limitations to this. Sadly, the records of the Russian consulate in Jidda, the port nearest to Mecca, are missing, and the official records have their own shortcomings in terms of what Russian officials ignored, missed, or simply repeated from their predecessors. Fortunately, Kane has also drawn on Turkic-language newspapers and Hajj accounts in Old Tatar, to give us a rich set of Muslim voices and perspectives, although these also have their weaknesses of omission and repetition, as Kane acknowledges. But by combining both sets of sources, Kane has constructed what is arguably the most complete account of the Russian Hajj.

Kane argues that Russia came to systematically support the pilgrimage to Mecca, not just to control pilgrims but to exploit them for imperial expansion, although this proved to be difficult to accomplish in practice. The Russian Hajj infrastructure that the book focuses on was not a systematic, top-down project, but something that grew organically, improvised through encounters between Russian officials and pilgrims. This chimes with parallel developments of the similarly haphazard Hajj administrations established across the British Empire. There are some comparisons made with other empires in the book, but even more would have been useful. The Hajj was a phenomenon that did not conform to officials’ tidy administrative imaginings. Kane goes beyond the model pioneered by William Roff, which posits that European empires engaged with the Hajj in response to the twin threat of disease and subversive political ideas, by arguing that Russian engagement was more complex, ambitious, and wide-ranging than this “twin threat.” Instead, Russia attempted to instrumentalize the Hajj for imperial purposes, in terms of capturing revenue from pilgrims and extending Russian influence in the Middle East. Kane also points out that Russia’s land empire, with Muslims residing within its borders rather than in overseas colonies, meant that the Hajj was integrated with domestic issues. The Hajj was an internal and an external issue for the Russian Empire. Studies of Russian imperialism have often focused within the fixed boundaries of the empire, but as Kane successfully demonstrates, these borders were porous, and Russian subjects ranged well beyond them, all the way to Mecca and beyond. Another key argument of the book is that Muslim responses to Russian involvement to the Hajj were diverse and not simply anti-Russian. Muslim elites often praised Russian involvement in the Hajj, such as the assistance given to pilgrims by consulates, as well as criticizing invasive policies such as disinfection of pilgrims.

The book is logically organized into five chronological chapters. Chapter 1 charts the beginning of Russian involvement with the Hajj in the Caucasus in the 1840s, showing how debates between Russian officials over the Hajj led to a shift from hostility to the ritual to supporting the Hajj. This was part of calculations around imperial governance in the restive Caucasus and growing Russian involvement in Ottoman Syria, as well as the role played by Russian consuls in Syria who supported pilgrims. Kane shows how Russian Hajj policies were created from below through a variety of actors, rather than from ministers in St. Petersburg.

Chapter 2 moves to the second half of the nineteenth century and analyzes how Russian officials tried to understand pilgrimage routes and itineraries. Support for pilgrims who ran out of funds, for example, was juxtaposed with officials such as Ignat’ev, Russian ambassador to Constantinople, who called for restricting the pilgrims from Russia because of the administrative complications they caused to diplomats and consuls. Kane details the crucial role played by Muslim agents in Russian information-gathering on the Hajj, such as Muslim staff in the Jidda consulate who wrote reports on pilgrim networks and guides. This is a further area that has parallels with the British and Dutch consulates in Jidda. This culminated in an important 1896 report on the Hajj, which argued for closer management of the ritual, set against a backdrop of growing pilgrim numbers causing administrative difficulties at ports and railway stations.

Chapter 3 analyzes how Russian officials in the later 1890s sought to organize the Hajj. Officials decided to try and get pilgrims to travel to Odessa and then take special steamships to Jidda. This story makes an important contribution to histories of Russian modernization efforts under Sergei Witte by showing the external dimensions of these efforts beyond Russia’s borders. Railways and steamships looked modern, but Kane rightfully points out that conditions were poor, such as a lack of fresh water and thieves on the railway journey. Officials remained divided over the utility of government involvement in the Hajj, but by 1904 there were subventions to railways and steamships to subsidize transport for pilgrims.

Chapter 4 marks the culmination of tsarist engagement with the Hajj. In 1908, a Hajj director for the empire was appointed, Said Gani Saidzimbaev, from an elite family in Turkestan. However, no one thought it prudent to check his credentials, which included a record of failed businesses and debts. Saidzimbaev’s plans to reform the Russian Hajj owed much to Thomas Cook’s package tours, a company which was briefly involved with the Hajj from British India in 1886-93. Saidzimbaev’s plans were castles built on sand, and his Hajj complex in Odessa was roundly criticized by pilgrims, likened to a prison. This crisis led to Saizimbaev’s removal, an emergency conference of officials, and then the adoption of some parts of his reform plans. This haphazard picture of an imperial state uncertainly grappling with the Hajj is one that has compelling parallels to the British case.

Chapter 5 is an extremely interesting account of how the Soviet Union facilitated the Hajj for foreign pilgrims traveling overland from China, Afghanistan, and Persia in the late 1920s. This is a significant contribution to literature on foreigners in the Soviet Union that has hitherto focused on Western visitors. Foreign pilgrims petitioned Soviet authorities to be allowed to cross the country; the government housed pilgrims in Odessa, and shipped them to Jidda. As numbers grew, so did complaints about the poor treatment of pilgrims at the hands of Soviet officials, and demands by Muslims in the Soviet Union to go on Hajj.

The conclusion usefully brings the story up to the present day with Vladimir Putin’s 2007 coup in increasing Russia’s pilgrim quota with Saudi Arabia and discounted flights for pilgrims on Aeroflot. State sponsorship of Hajj shows the complexity of questions around Russia’s identity, and the realities of governing its diverse population.

This is an impressively researched book, and many of the arguments are compelling. One picture that comes through most clearly is that of an empire which, although capable of conquering vast areas, was far from all-powerful when confronted with border-crossing mobile subjects. This makes an important contribution to debates around the reaches and limits of imperial rule in practice. One shortcoming of the book is that the idea that Russian engagement with the Hajj expanded the arena of Russian imperialism is unconvincing; from the evidence presented, it does not appear that Russia gained any greater influence or control over the Ottoman Empire.

Kane made the book’s high-quality maps herself, drawing on data from Hajj memoirs and state sources, using GIS (geographical information software). They are an excellent aid to the reader. The photographs and reproductions of visual and printed material are also excellent and really enrich the book.

Kane’s study raises several wider questions: If human mobility shaped imperial policies in the case of the Hajj, how far did it affect policies towards other migrations involving Russian subjects? How significant did officials think support for the Hajj would be in garnering support for Russian rule? How exceptional or unexceptional was the Russian Hajj case compared with other European empires? This book will appeal to a wide readership of scholars interested in the workings of empires and state engagement with mobile peoples.


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Citation: J.P. Slight. Review of Kane, Eileen M., Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017.

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