Confessional Registers as a Tool for Writing the Social History of Russia’s Islamic Orient

     By decree of the Holy Synod in 1722, the Russian Empire began to require Russian Orthodox priests to compile annual records of births, marriages, and deaths—but not divorces, because they were not theologically recognized—for their parishes. Implementation, however, was slow and limited, requiring additional decrees in 1779, 1802, 1812, and 1824 to institutionalize the practice. Even then, carelessness and failure to comply remained widespread, prompting further decrees in 1886, 1889, 1890, and 1903.

     At various times during the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the same requirement was applied to Evangelical-Lutherans (1764), Roman Catholics (1826), Talmudic and Karaim Jews (1835), Russian Schismatics (1874, under the authority of local police, as were pagans), Baptists (1879), and Old Believers and Sectarians (1905). Muslims, the subject of this major research project, witnessed their imams adding this obligation to their duties between 1828 and 1832, and subsequently in 1872 in the Transcaucasus region. Initially, how records were kept was left to the respective confessional authoritiees, but in 1838 the process was regularized, and thenceforth the government produced printed and bound registers (метрические книги, often described in English as “metrical books”) on an annual basis appropriate to each confession. The annual "book" was divided into the three or four sections—divorce was added where recognized—for the categories of data that authorities desired collected. Over the length of its history, this practice produced a massive amount of social information not found elsewhere; much of it has survived in archives of the Russian Federation (national and regional) and those of now independent states once territorially part of the empire. Although remarkably significant, practically none of the data—save from an occasional Orthodox Church—have been examined or subjected to organization and analysis.

     History is filled with those who have lived and died; statistically, virtually all humans have disappeared without any trace, their names forever lost. Without names, so the Italian scholar and novelist, Umberto Eco, frequently reminds us, nothing can have meaning. At the simplest level, it helps to know, for example, whom the great republican orator and consul, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 b.c.), had in mind when he launched into the first of four stunning orations before the Roman Senate in 63 b.c. with the words “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catalina, patientia nostra?” (“How long, O Catalina, will you try our patience?”) So, also, it helps to know to whom the great Latin epic poem by Vergil was addressed, when it opens with “Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris Italiam” (“I sing of arms and of the man, who first from the shores of Troy came to Italy,”) Naming and knowing are such integral parts of memory and history that biography is one of the earliest genres of historical writing and remains the most popular form of recollection by amateur and professional alike. That historians are tempted to limit their horizons to the attractions of great men, and occasionally women, merely helps make the point that the temptations to treat history as the stories of “great men,” whether as monarchs or priests, warriors or inventors, saints or sinners, lovers or clowns are seductive and, dare I suggest, may be at least partially genetically coded in our species.

     On occasion, and certainly more so in the past half century, some historians have resisted these temptations by focusing on the less dramatic, even mundane patterns of human communal life to produce accounts that offer the usually nameless some recognition. The more than ample number of books examining colonial New England towns, the outpouring of French studies  following March Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, and the many other advocates of the Annales school, and even German attempts spearheaded by Reinhard Koselleck to apply the methods of Begriffsgeschichte to unravelling conceptual meanings at popular and elite levels, have all contributed to a paradigmatic challenge to “normal history” and to lifting, a bit, the veils that otherwise hide the faces of the past. So, too, have studies that draw upon various vital statistics and related evidence from confessional records and cadasters (a classic example being David Herlihy’s Tuscans and their Families that excavates the Florentine cadastre of 1427). 

     Of greater significance to the potential for illuminating long term trends among large populations are the number of team-driven projects that have been amassing huge data-sets for major parts of the Eurasian continent. Most are territorially limited (e.g., to eastern Belgium, northern Italy, southern Sweden, northeastern Japan, or northeast China). One, the so-titled “Eurasian Population and Family History Project,” however, involves the work of some twenty scholars from a variety of countries and disciplines seeking to analyze roughly two million longitudinal individual-level records largely from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to make explicit comparisons of rural populations at the extreme eastern and western ends of the vast land mass. [Notice that Central Eurasia is not included in this effort.] The comparisons are primarily of patterns of demographic responses to economic conditions in a variety of contexts, offering a challenge to the Malthusian paradigm’s application to regions outside as well as inside of Europe.

     My intention to this point is not to dismiss some historical methodologies as valueless or less valuable than others, but to reflect a bit on the limitations of all methodologies and to appreciate, nevertheless, how these limitations may be accounted for by different approaches and may still add to the accumulated riches of discovery. If we juxtapose the contradictory approaches, say,  of the “great man” theory and the longue durée as they affect the possibility of knowing who lived in the past and how, then we have methodologies as much at odds to historians as Einstein’s theory of relativity  and Bohr’s Quantum Mechanics are at odds to physicists. In both cases, the two approaches are so antithetical as to require, it would seem, dismissal of the other in the set; in both cases, the antithesis is rooted in a desire to see all or to see little at all, to see the huge or numerically huge or to see the tiny or numerically miniscule. Like King Arthur’s knights in search of the Holy Grail, physicists lust after a unified theory of everything that will contain the extremes by filling in everything in between. Like Arthur’s knights, historians would feel vindicated if they could see more than just the faces of the few mighty, famous, or infamous, but not so many as to end up with a mob that emotionally as well as physically becomes faceless. Where, then, are the faces from the past?

     If we turn our attention to Turkic Central Eurasia, those parts, at least, that fell under the dominion of the Russian Empire between the mid-sixteenth and early twentieth centuries, we may have an answer. We certainly have a range of sources that separately can reveal some of the features of some of the faces we seek; most of them are Russian, but a smaller number, growing with time, are indigenous to Turkic peoples, who are also Islamic by confession, and include:

  • Grave stones and mausolea
  • stelae
  • tamgi (clan or tribal symbols)
  • şecereler (genealogies)
  • awqaf contracts (inalienable religious endowments)
  • tarihler (chronicles)
  • bio-bibliographical copmpendia

These serve to provide information about the once living, but typically from among the elite, even when they are locally produced for local consumption. 

     Increasingly from the early eighteenth century, administrators ruling the expanding multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Russian Empire sought ever more effective ways to manage their tasks. Cadastral records (писцовые книги), especially of the Middle Volga region, and genealogical books (родословные книги), primarily used to ensure social status from and in government service, were some of the earliest such vehicles for recording information about people, Russian and not, but they too inherently brought attention to those of means and status. The late imperial practice of publishing annual “memorial books” (памятные книжки, somewhat like the modern telephone book, but without the telephone numbers) in many provinces added one more source of such information. Revisions (rевизии) and ultimately real censuses (the first, though, not until 1897) accumulated individual-level data on a large scale, but used them to categorize people according to habitation, gender, ethnicity, confession, schooling, or livelihood. Unimaginable numbers of individual records (карточки) disappeared into boxes that slowly gathered dust in grand depositories, somewhat like the site in which the Ark was stored at the end of the film “Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark.” No one paid any attention to their preservation, with the result that almost all have disappeared. 

     Fortunately, one source of immense richness in both quantitative and qualitative information about real people—the confessional registers (метрические книги)—is extant and accessible.  It has remained virtually unexplored, save for a few small projects on rather restricted areas of the empire, and a major general study of the source by D. H. Antonov and I. A. Antonova. In the late 1820s, as part of its increasing interest in data gathering about every aspect of its diverse population and its activities, the Russian government began to require maintenance of annual metrical books by the Muslim clerisy. These books were to record the vital statistics relating to births, deaths, marriages, and divorces within the purview of the lowest institutional level of the faithful, the mosque and its mahalle (community), and to transfer these books to bureaucratic offices each year. While the extent of each record depended on many factors, including the dedication and diligence of the local imam, examination of Muslim metrical books reveals remarkably comprehensive data, particularly on the pages devoted to marriages, wherein wide information about the bride and groom, their respective families, the witnesses to their marriage, and dowries abound. with every year, In each of the books, we are introduced to “real” people, with names and relations.

     From the metrical books we can gather absolutely unique data about the most basic level of society that, once compiled into a massive longitudinal dataset, will enable us to peer into several thousand Turkic communities within the Russian Empire (in the nineteenth century, between 10 and 12 million people) for a period of 75 years (nearly four generations). We will be able to identify all community members, begin to think about the lives of mostly ordinary people, and enjoy the possibility of contemplating otherwise unapproachable topics:

  • Life under and through multiple pressures;
  • Mortality and living standard;
  • Evidence of social mobility;
  • The influence of kinship on social and demographic behavior;
  • How kinship networks and household context influenced such social demographic outcomes as employment, marriage, reproduction, and survivorship;
  • Test the assumption that kinship becomes less influential with the trajectory of modernization, especially economic commercialization and state penetration;
  • Fate and fortune;
  • Reconstructing and analyzing life histories from longitudinal data;
  • Demography of resettlement;
  • Gender relations

Our project is designed to be long-term and to fall into a number of discrete phases identified primarily by the territory covered: 

  • Phase 1: Mosques & mahalle within the city of Kazan'
  • Phase 2: Mosques & mahalle within the remainder of Kazan' Province
  • Phase 3: Mosques & mahalle in Orenburg and Ufa Provinces
  • Phase 4: Mosques & mahalle in the remainder of the Volga-Kama region (Viatka, Perm, & Tobol’sk)
  • Phase 5: Mosques & mahalle in Nizhegorod and Tambov Oblasts
  • Phase 6: Mosques & mahalle in Samara, Saratov, and Astrakhan Provinces
  • Phase 7: Mosques & mahalle in the Caucasus and Tavrida Province
  • Phase 8: Mosques & mahalle in Siberia
  • Phase 9: Remaining identifiable mosques & mahalle

     With funding from the Digital Humanities Start-Up Program under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities, we began Phase 1 in April 2016 with a small team including several historians in the Russian Federation who are native speakers of both Russian and Tatar—the latter being the language of the records—and who are skilled in working with the Old Tatar (Iske Tatar) that prior to the 1920s was written in Arabic script. We gradually added  other team members, one to create the database that would house what the confessional registers provided, one to provide English versions of the data through application of machine translation, one to develop the project website and begin creation of data visualizations, and a fourth to assist with the identification of repositories of the extant confessional registers in various archives and libraries scattered across the Russian Federation and parts of the former Soviet Union. 

     During this first, proof-of-concept phase, we engaged in the following activities:

  • Arranged for access to the metrical books housed in the National Archives (NA RT) of the Republic of Tatarstan;
  • Created Excel files for collecting birth, marriage, divorce, and death data for each mosque in Kazan' City;
  • Identified data categories and established consistent lexicons in Tatar, Russian, and English;
  • Created the database for storing all information collected from the confessional registers;
  • Uploaded the data to the database for each of the categories on a yearly basis from the 1830s to 1918 for each mosque in Kazan' City as it arrives to team PI;
  • Explored the Russian archives for documentation on the history of the confessional registers and for information as to repositories in provinces beyond that of Kazan';
  • Ran initial analyses of data collected; 
  • Created visualizations of the data based upon queries 
  • Created and tested the usability of a computer interface for capturing the data directly from the metrical books without need for a human intermediary;
  • Prepared four semi-annual reports for NEH;
  • Prepared a White Paper on the project;
  • Prepared a draft model publication on the history of one of Kazan' City's mosques and mahalles, organized in two parts: a historical narrative followed by a social history based in the confessional registers;
  • Created an open-source website to make all data available from the confessional registers along with a variety of texts and charts to support the project.

With the completion of our work on the city of Kazan', we will proceed to the next and each subsequent phase.