Trans-imperial lives: Central Asian mobility and contested subjecthood in the Russian and Ottoman Empires

In this paper, I propose to examine issues that accompanied trans-imperial lives that took shape between the Ottoman and Russian Empires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically, I examine a series of cases from the Ottoman archives that involve questions such as contested subjecthood, land acquisition, inheritance, and mobility for Central Asian Muslims who were sometimes Russian, sometimes Ottoman, and for all intents and purposes, sometimes effectively both Ottoman and Russian subjects. Although non-Ottoman Muslims, and particularly Russian subjects, were legally prohibited from acquiring property in Ottoman domains, especially the Hejaz, my research suggests that this happened with some regularity with the aid of Ottoman vekils, or proxies, or through the acquisition of Ottoman identity papers. Although not a problem during life, such property was often contested by both Ottoman and Russian authorities after death. While some scholars have proposed the idea that these prohibitions were in place because Central Asian subjects of Russia presented a potential fifth column, I contend that protracted diplomatic battles over inheritance were the real source of Ottoman concern. From the perspective of Russian subjects, I explore how subjecthood was pragmatically navigated as a flexible field that often was not informed religion or ethnicity, but by commercial and monetary interests. I also argue that even as empires increasingly became concerned with issues of subjecthood and imperial loyalty, transnational subject or migrant populations exploited their status in between empires and posed particular, relatively unexplored dilemmas for modernizing, centralizing states.