by Allen Frank, Independent Scholar, Takoma Park, Maryland

In 1892 a serious cholera outbreak affected the Russian Empire. This outbreak, today known as a part of the so-Called Fifth Cholera Epidemic, began in Bengal and eventually spread to Europe. Cholera epidemics, like many previous plagues, resulted in various degrees of social disruption and disorder, in addition to the death and suffering caused by the illness itself. The 1892 outbreak was no exception. Cholera riots were a recognized social phenomenon that first appeared in Russia in the 1820s and 1830s, when waves of cholera infections struck both rural settlements and major cities. Cholera riots (or kholernye bunty as they were known in Russian) erupted in St. Petersburg, Tambov and Novgorod Provinces, aimed against public health measures and local officials, and were usually repressed with violence. These riots drew the attention of historians both before and after the 1917 Revolution. However, for Soviet Marxist historians their study presented both an opportunity and a risk. On the one hand, especially in their urban manifestations, they could be examples of class struggle, pitting (ideally) the urban proletariat against tsarism. On the other hand, now that the Soviet government was responsible for controlling epidemics in the USSR, they represented opposition to state-implemented public health measures. Consequently, the only comprehensive study of the phenomenon dates from 1932, Sergei Gessen’s “Kholernye” Bunty with the “cholera” aspect helpfully place in quotation marks. It is perhaps even more telling that Gessen restricted his study to the 1820s and 30s and ignored the numerous and widespread cholera riots that took place in 1892. Unlike in the 1820s and 1830s when the cause of the epidemic was not understood and public health measures were as likely to exacerbate the illness and contain it, by 1892 scientists had isolated the cholera bacterium and were able to implement effective public health measures.

For Europeans, including Russians, cholera epidemics were typically associated with the Islamic world. Indeed, this is where the major outbreaks first appeared, typically believed to be in Bengal, and spread through caravan routes and through the hajj. Cholera commonly reached Russia through trade routes, with the cities of Astrakhan and Orenburg being the chief vectors in the 1820s and 30s. In Orenburg, outbreaks were preceded by rumors of terrible pestilence in Bukhara, Khiva, or Tashkent that had come there from India or Afghanistan.

By 1892 Russia controlled Central Asia, and now the epidemic entered Trans-Caspian Territory though a crossing on the Iranian border. This occurred on May 19th, and the illness then spread along the newly built Trans-Caspian railway east to Samarqand, Tashkent, and the Ferghana Valley, and west to the Caspian, where it was carried by steamer to Baku, the South Caucasus, and up the Volga River via Astrakhan. The scale of the epidemic was substantial. Official Russian sources estimate that 25,000 people died in Russian Turkestan. Several thousand died in the Trans-Caspian Territory, and only around 1,100 died on the Kazakh Steppe.

The 1892 outbreak set off its own wave of rioting. One occurrence was in Iuzovka, in the Donbass (today the city of Donetsk), where resistance to public health measures intersected with industrial class conflict among coal miners and other industrial workers. Whatever the original aims of the workers who protested against the anti-cholera measures of the authorities, the protests in Iuzovka ended as a pogrom against the local Jewish community, resulting in substantial destruction and death. Another occurrence was in Tashkent, where effective, but insensitive, public health measures set off a riot among Muslim inhabitants against local Russian administrators and their Muslim collaborators. The 1946 Istoriia narodov Uzbekistana andthe 1968 Istoriia Uzbekskoi SSR both depicted the Tashkent riot as part of the Uzbek national liberation movement.

The third major cholera riot that occurred in 1892 was in the port city of Astrakhan. As we have seen, Astrakhan was one of the usual entry points for cholera into Russia. This riot, for reasons that are not exactly clear, also gained the attention of the international wire services, and its occurrence was reported throughout the world, effectively becoming the window through which European and North American readers learned of, and imagined, the cholera outbreak in Russia.

Despite its international notoriety at the time, the 1892 Astrakhan cholera riot is not terribly well documented, at least in published sources. An import factor in the riot was the virulence of the outbreak in Astrakhan Province, where nearly 11,000 people died, making it proportionally the hardest hit province in the empire. The Astrakhan cholera riots are addressed in an ecclesiastical history of the city that highlights the role of the local Russian Orthodox Church in fighting the epidemic. In this account, the authorities established cholera hospitals, and in keeping with the new knowledge about the role of polluted water in spreading the disease, the municipal authorities, hoping to discourage the public from drinking unboiled river water, and set up stands in the city for free tea. The effectiveness of these public health measures was hindered by the long-standing distrust between the residents of Astrakhan and the local authorities, a universal feature of social and political life in Russia at that time. Rumors (somewhat familiar to us today) began circulating that affirmed there was no cholera, that people were being put in the hospitals for no reason, and that doctors were putting the living in graves and sprinkling them with lime. The rioters smashed the tea stands, attacked the doctors, beating one severely and killing a medic. The authorities summoned troops after the rioters surrounded the governor’s mansion, and ended the riot by firing volleys into the crowd. The accounts of the Astrakhan cholera riots were picked up by the Associated Press and in July 1892 were published in major American newspapers such as The New York Times,The Los Angeles Herald, and the Pittsburgh Dispatch, as well as in Britain in the London Daily News. These press articles, like Russian accounts, made no mention of Muslim involvement in the riots. If Muslims instigated or led the riots, it can be assumed that the Astrakhan ecclesiastical authorities would have commented on such a religious dimension to the events.

It is, however, in the conservative French illustrated publication Le Petit Journal, that we see the Astrakhan cholera riots depicted as a Muslim riot in a lurid color cover illustration. Le Petit Journal was a conservative and white-supremacist publication that was at the peak of its popularity in the later 19th century. It is worth pausing and contemplating this illustration, as it was typical of the racist covers depicting Africans, Muslims, African-Americans, and Native Americans savagely attacking outnumbered whites in settings across the world.  In this illustration Astrakhan’s Muslims are depicted as Central Asians, who appear to be primarily Sufis. These howling dervishes are brandishing knives and swords to kill well dressed, apparently middle-class Russians. Remarkably, they do so against a backdrop of a semi-ruined dome that strongly resembles the Gur-i Emir shrine in Samarqand. The edition contained no further discussion of the events in Astrakhan, leaving the illustration to explain the events.

Why the editors of Le Petit Journal depicted the cholera riots in Astrakhan as perpetrated by Muslims remains unclear. Its publication of numerous illustrations showing Native Americans attacking trains and railroad passengers shows that an event did not have to have taken place to make it onto one of their covers. As the same time, Europeans had long associated Astrakhan with Central Asian commerce. Notably, the Central Asian lamb hides known as “qaraqul” were called “astrakhan” in Europe and North America.

Regardless of the motives, Le Petit Journal’s coverillustration represents eloquently how many Europeans and North Americans of that time associated cholera, and violent reactions to public health measures with “Muslim fanaticism” and obscurantism. In the current pandemic, particularly in the United States, we see similar reactions: Distrust of the authorities, scapegoating of foreigners, skepticism of and resistance to public health measures. We also see scapegoating of those who question or resist public health measure, denouncing them as “fanatics.”

My own current research explores Muslims’ reactions to the 1892 cholera outbreak and how, perhaps more than in any other fields, Muslim modernist intellectuals (Jadids) were able to find new audiences for their evangelizing science and progress. The 1892 epidemic prompted a series of Tatar and Kazakh-language treatises, some original and some translated from Russian public health literature, explaining what cholera was and how it could be prevented. The relationship of imperial Russia’s Muslim communities to medicine remains little studied but offers a new vantage point to see how modernists found a middle ground to bring the advantages of modern medicine and public health to Muslims.