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Dr. Edward Lazzerini Interview

Last Spring, Dr. Edward Lazzerini was awarded a $71,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant. The award is allowing him, along with a team of domestic and international scholars, to create a massive relational database for Muslim subjects of the Russian Empire between 1828 and 1918. The data includes longitudinal vital statistics and social information gathered from the nominally-named metrical books found in mosques throughout Russia.  He said this is the first time that this data has been analyzed for Muslim communities in the former Soviet Union. Currently, Lazzerini and his team are focusing on Kazan City, Tatarstan. His team recently finished looking at six out of the 18 mosques there, and the researchers have already compiled some interesting statistics.

Sitting in his office one October afternoon, Lazzerini pulled up several graphs on his computer.  They showed information that was compiled from the first four mosques that Lazzerini’s team researched at the beginning of the project.  One of the line graphs showed the average birth per year by gender. The line representing boy births drops dramatically at some points, and doesn’t mirror the girls closely at all.  Lazzerini said this is a trend that is unusual and could lead researchers to a variety of conclusions. 

“We know typically that nature produces more females than males on average, but the differences here are pretty stark sometimes.” He said.  “Even though the birthrate of males drop when the females drop, the number of boys being born during some periods is outrageously small. When you continue to see these extreme dips, there’s a problem.”

Lazzerini said there could be many reasons for this, and – at this point – he and his researchers can only speculate.  “The parents could purposely not be recording them because of the potential for them to be conscripted into the army when they’re older; there could be something medically afflicting boys that wasn’t afflicting girls, but that’s not too likely,” he said.  “There’s also the possibility that boys weren’t surviving the first year well…it’s hard to know just looking at these numbers, but they do suggest that something is wrong.”

Another trend that interests Lazzerini is the divorce rate during this period.  He said that when the project begins there are virtually no divorces occurring, but finally there’s a divorce around the late 1870s.  This begins a trend that quickly escalates by the early 20th century, where the data shows a slew of divorces. Just like the peculiar birth rate data, Lazzerini said he and his team can only speculate at the reasoning behind the trend.  “I think we’ll find evidence that there are increasing numbers of women demanding divorces from their husbands when traditionally it was the husband who demanded a divorce from his wife and usually controlled the outcome,” he said. “I think there were more women asking for divorce for a variety of reasons.  Possibly they had husbands who had run off, they were being abused, or the husbands were not taking care of their families.”

Lazzerini said that the team has already analyzed approximately 5,000 records so far.  Once his team has finished working in Kazan City, he wants to move on to some of the other provinces.  He estimates that there are probably between three and four million records in Russia.  Even though the task is daunting, Lazzerini said he will continue to seek funding to keep the project ongoing.  He hopes to eventually hire even more historians on the Russian side to work in the field, and - ideally - he would like for IU to create a Center for the Social History of the Russian Empire sometime in the future.  “That’s the bigger goal: To create an ongoing, sustainable center that will involve not only people here, but people across the country and abroad who want to participate in this scheme,” he said.  “I think it will be extraordinary.”