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Ilminsky, Nikolai Ivanovich


(18221891), professor of Turkic Languages at Kazan University and lay Russian Orthodox missionary, known as "Enlightener of Natives."

Nikolai Ilminsky gave up a brilliant academic career to devote himself to missionary work among the non-Russians. He was convinced that only through the mother tongue and native teachers and clergy could the nominally baptized and animists become true Russian Orthodox believers and thus resist conversion to Islam. This conviction was at the heart of what became known as the "Ilminsky System."

In 1863, while still holding the chair of Turkic languages at both Kazan University and Kazan Theological Academy, Ilminsky established the Kazan Central Baptized-Tatar School, which served as his showcase and model for non-Russian schools and whose thousands of graduates spawned numerous village schools. In 1867 Ilminsky founded the Gurri Brotherhood, which supported the growing network of native schools, and set up the Kazan Translating Commission. By 1891 the Commission had produced 177 titles in over a dozen languages; by 1904 the Commission had produced titles in twenty-three languages. For most of the languages, this required the creation of alphabets, grammars, primers, and dictionaries. Starting with the baptized Tatars of the Kazan region, Ilminsky's activities extended to the multinational Volga-Ural area, to Siberia, and to Central Asia. But disciples carried his system further: Ivan Kasatkin, for example, founded the Orthodox Church of Japan.

Ilminsky's system encountered strong opposition from Russian nationalists who saw in the Russian language the "cement of the Empire" and feared that his approach encouraged national self-esteem among the minorities. Yet by demonstrating the fervent piety of his students and above all stressing that the alternative was defection to Islam, he was able to obtain the backing of powerful figures in the government and the Church, including Konstantin Pobedonostev. Ilminsky even became a quasi-official advisor on nationality affairs and as such promoted strict censorship, unfavorable appointments, and restrictive laws for Muslims and Buddhists.

The impact of Ilminsky's system on preliterate nationalities was revolutionary, as these peoples, equipped with a written language and the beginnings of a national intelligentsia, experienced a national awakening. Such national leaders as the Chuvash Ivan Yakovlev and the Kazakh Ibrai Altynsarin were Ilminsky's disciples and protégés, while Lenin's father worked closely with Ilminsky in promoting non-Russian education in Simbirsk Province. This may explain why Lenin's nationality policy, summarized as "national in form, socialist in content" was remarkably similar to Ilminsky's system, which was defended by his supporters as "national in form, Orthodox in content."

See also: education; nationalities policies, tsarist; russian orthodox church; tatarstan and tatars


Dowler, Wayne. (2001). Classroom and Empire: The Politics of Schooling Russia's Eastern Nationalities, 18601917. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Kreindler, Isabelle. (1977). "A Neglected Source of Lenin's Nationality Policy." Slavic Review 36:86100.

Isabelle Kreindler

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